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Blood Sky

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Part I: Propositions

His tongue was an interesting mixture of soft and rough as it ran over his forehead, lingering for a moment on the gem in the center and then slipping over the crown of thorny red scales beyond. He grunted, eyes still tightly shut, and the other dragon chortled softly with warm, affectionate amusement. The tongue returned a heartbeat later, flicking now along the back of his large cheek, and he huffed and flexed his claws to regain his semblance of balance.

"You simply will not allow me rest, will you?" he grumbled, opening his left eye into a miniscule slit of glittering gold to rival the sun. The other male was seated extremely close, sharing what little body heat he retained during early morning hours, and he huffed again when the silence stretched between them. "Yugi."

The black dragon beside him tilted his head. He seemed almost to beam with absolute delight a moment later, as if he had doubted for a moment that the red dragon might have granted him his attention for that heartbeat. Perhaps Yugi had not assumed him to so much as remember his name.

The thought gave him pause, something which made him flex his claws again nervously. He was groggy, his mind racing despite this for a moment, and he shook the hesitancy from his sleepy trail of thoughts. Then he drew himself into a seated position to mirror him. An ache spread along his spine, however, something sharp and pulsing, and his bones threatened to crack beneath the pressure.

He paused, legs all but quaking beneath the force of it, and drew in a deep and ragged breath.

Yugi immediately leaned forward, confusion and alarm coloring his expression. His eyes were wide, a brilliant galaxy of bright blue and mesmerizing violet that put the night sky to shame. He began to sniff at his side, then his wings, and continued to shuffle closer still in order to get towards the center of the red dragon's spine.

Immediately, instinct making him fearful, the red dragon spun on him. His jaws opened slightly, both mouths parted only minutely. He snarled, bristling and glaring at him with darkened golden eyes.

The two of them stared at one another. Yugi looked visibly startled and unsure of himself. And so the red male snarled louder, furious as the other failed to heed his immediate warning. Slowly, eyes still wide with concern, Yugi finally backed up a step. He lowered himself to the ground, wings flattened as he put his chin to the dirt. He peeked up at him, somewhere between calm and anxious to check on him once more.

The submissive position was one that the Sky Dragon was incredibly familiar with. He had beaten various other dragons into such a stance often enough that he had come to ignore it upon being exposed to it. In fact, even now, his first instinct was that of a dismissive snort. He had the impulse to simply watch Yugi get to his paws and fly away before he himself might limp away to nurse his wounds.

But his wounds were internal now.

His ache, he knew, was wear upon his muscles and so, as he looked at Yugi, his companion's submissive state shook him.

The Sky Dragon looked away slowly. Then he drew himself into a seated position despite the pain. A scale twitched and rose into a harsh bristle. It jerked upwards and outwards in a nervous fashion. Then it slid back into place, a jutting scale of red the size of one of his own claw tips, among the two rows which trailed the entirety of his long body. He blinked in the darkness, tipped his head upwards, and considered the blankness of a sky painted almost entirely black.

"Did I summon a storm?" he questioned, voice thoughtful, and turned to Yugi with growing bewilderment. The other male had long since straightened—most likely when he had taken his eyes off him to begin with—and seemed more relieved than ever that he was not paying him full attention.

The wave of shame which came through him made the Sky Dragon almost quiver. He had not meant to strike such fear into him. He had not meant to make him feel so uncomfortable and unhappy like this. And it hurt to realize that he had done such a thing to him.

"I don't believe so?" Yugi glanced about them. His head tilted and turned upwards, a light wind making him shiver slightly. When the red male glanced up again, the clouds were so tightly drawn together that neither he nor Yugi could tell one from the next but for the stray discoloration amongst the shadows of them. Then he glanced to the red dragon again, eyes bright but somewhat hurt regardless of his former recovery from the slight. "But, even if you did, I don't mind it. I woke you because you were whimpering in your sleep, Atem."

Probably because of the sharp pain in my body.

He held his tongue, however, knowing better than to say this. He did not find it necessary—nor did he think he might be satisfied—to produce more pain in his mate than he already had. Yugi had never meant to hurt him in any way. And he'd witnessed the various displays of guilt the black dragon had shown him regardless.

There had been long, gentle baths. There were soft mumbles of "I love you" under his breath when he considered Atem to be asleep despite their shared restlessness. There had been snuggles into his side, the black dragon seeming to all but attempt to bury himself beneath the scales of his belly. There had been long moments of examination along his body, from the tip of his beak to the very crest of his lengthy tail. He had witnessed them in silence—far be it him to cause Yugi more guilt—and so had merely accepted such gestures.

He had tried his hardest to be graceful about doing so as well. He was not one to be touched, as most often such sensation brought about pain for him. And so he had struggled at first not to snap at him and bristle and bite at him when he drifted too close. But then he had calmed, repeating to himself that he had nothing to fear from Yugi.

He had forced himself to lay his chin upon his paws, giving Yugi more room to investigate and allowing him his necessary reassurances. He had let him sniff his wings, touch his shoulders, trap his tail between his paws and inspect it thoroughly. He had allowed him to lick at his face and scent at the glands along his neck. He had even let him press his muzzle into his flank and breathe in deeply as if he were trying to memorize what little smell he could gather from him there.

And he had allowed this to continue for the better part of the rather bleak night.

But now Atem supposed his whimpering explained much of Yugi's intense examination as well.

The Sky Dragon flexed his wings, pulling his tail to wrap around his paws for a brief moment. He looked at the closed design, almost a spade in the layering of the long extended scales of keratin and powerful bone. He considered it a moment longer, then rose slowly to his paws.

The muscles in his shoulders flared, jerking violently beneath his scales. And then he almost bellowed beneath the pressure of such immense pain. But, despite himself, even knowing Yugi's feelings for him, Atem could not allow himself to voice such discomfort in front of the other dragon.

Despite their union hours before.

Despite their conversation about compromise.

Despite knowing what Yugi had gone through in order to get the chance to even challenge him as it was.

Atem looked away swiftly, shame wracking his insides. "We can move into my den if you would like," he offered quietly. It was the smallest sense of middle ground, but it was the only thing that the Sky Dragon could think to offer. Then he glanced up, considering him with a tilt of his head and a twitch of his tail. "Or I suppose I might always move the storm along…"

Yugi blinked, getting up as well, but now he did not think to move any closer than a couple of steps. Atem's reaction mere heartbeats before, the way his eyes had flashed so dangerously and his mouths had been poised with parted teeth to strike out, was fresh in his mind. He fought away a shiver. "You don't have to. I promise, Atem. It's not why I woke you."

The Sky Dragon seemed to deflate at these words. If anything, the reassurance seemed to make him more miserable than ever. And it occurred to Yugi only then exactly why Atem might try to ignore his statement seconds before.

He nearly apologized.

The words were on the edge of his forked tongue.

And then he remembered himself, the guilt making his bones icy.

Atem would simply grow more upset…

Yugi's hearts hurt to consider such a thing. He lowered his head, looking down at his paws, then braced and forced himself to look up with brightened eyes. "Actually, your den sounds like the perfect place to take shelter," he announced. He did not allow Atem time to second guess the declaration, instead pouncing forward and jumping easily away from his side.

When he turned his head to look over his shoulder Atem was staring straight at him. He felt satisfaction as a keen blooming warmth inside of him. The action had caught the Sky Dragon's attention, just as he had known it would. And so he bounced again, springing as a bunny might, and looked at him with soft eyes.

"I've actually seen it," he revealed, voice low and soothing so that it would take the attention away from his former accidental slight, "but I've never gotten close enough to look inside or anything."

Atem blinked, then shook his head with a soft snort. "It would never have surprised me in the least should you have told me otherwise," he admitted. He smirked for a moment, his expression one of playful abandon. And then he glanced away again swiftly, as if the wind which whistled by them seemed to have called his name.

The Sky Dragon remained facing the sky for a long handful of minutes. How odd that the weather had changed from clear blue to so cloudy and dark as this. He specifically remembered sunlight against the bright blue of the sky overhead mere hours before. And he knew that he had not planned to give this area rain for another handful of days. He would not even give it a brief shower for the moment. The autumn storms would come passing through in a moon or two as it was, so stray showers were going to be scattered about in a few days…

Atem considered it a moment longer, then glanced over his shoulder to peer into the trees beyond the cliff face. Normally, in the last throes of heat the summer offered, should rain truly be imminent, the branches would mist faintly from the pressure and humidity.

However, now it was not so much that they shivered with such fine sweat…

And that would mean…

Atem turned back to Yugi, troubled. "Do you perhaps sense someone else here?" he asked in a soft voice, one which was underlined with caution. What little shame he'd felt moments before had grown tenfold as Yugi blinked wide eyes and peered at him in obvious surprise. A sense of humiliation raced through Atem rapidly now, a faint bristle overcoming him. Flustered by his own ability and displaying such vulnerability, the Sky Dragon continued in a much sharper tone, "I am often asked sanctuary when a dragon should enter my territory. And I know their signatures—"

Yugi had begun to bristle, his beak tipped upwards. He was scenting the air heavily enough that his sides were heaving with the very effort. And then he let out a hideous, deep bark of a noise. It was quiet against the air as it was loosed, but Atem could sense the strength within it as it traveled through the thin air.

The Sky Dragon bristled angrily now, a glare forming on his face as he considered the younger male beside him.

If he had so wished to challenge them, he would have done it himself.

It was not Yugi's place to do such a thing.

He was in his

Atem blinked slowly, flexing his claws.

It was no longer just his territory any longer, however, was it? They shared it now, did they not? Because Yugi had won against him, had become his mate…

He faltered, his head turning away immediately so that Yugi could not catch the expression on his face. The shame was tenfold now, a bitterness which came through his veins. A fresh blister of hatred passed through him now in a rush.

It heated his blood and coiled in his marrow.

He had forgotten himself already.

He had done it so easily.

And he had even been prepared to fight Yugi for overstepping.

"Yugi—"

The answering noise interrupted what little apology Atem had considered to give him. His head snapped around, pointing skyward now. His eyes stretched wide as he tilted his head. Yugi rose beside him, confused and startled as well. Then they slowly glanced at each other, bewildered and alarmed.

Were they nuts?

They had actually answered with a war cry of their own?

Yugi had clearly assumed like him that the newcomer would simply let out an answering bellow, not a challenging cry. If one was called and answered in such a way, it normally meant that they came with a battle in mind. If that were the case, surely they would have recognized that it was not Atem to have issued it, right? Surely they would understand that his own cry was nothing like that of a Sky Dragon's?

Then Atem blinked slowly. His head tipped up. The second cry which came was an echoing boom. And it sounded high-pitched at its core, billowing outwards in a harsh roar. He was clearly focused on this noise for a second.

And then Yugi watched him freeze in place.

His head tipped to the side, his eyes narrowing.

The noise came a third time.

A clarity swept through Atem's gaze.

A snarl came through his jaws.

The red male was bristling furiously and breathing roughly.

Then he opened both jaws.

The noise which came out of him made Yugi flinch away. The Gandora trembled, instinctively pressing himself to the dirt. Atem's war cry was so powerful it split the sky and made the air crackle. Yugi watched the clouds visibly distort overhead. A burst of lightning forked downward as if to strike the very noise. He swore the clouds seemed to crack, splitting like sheets of fresh ice, and Yugi's hearts began to race with desperation.

Atem was in no state whatsoever to take on a challenger of some kind.

He was exhausted from being mounted.

And he was exhausted from mounting Yugi in turn.

Yugi himself had recovered rather well. But the cooler night temperatures had done well to soothe the tired aches in the muscles beneath his scales. He was nocturnal by nature, after all, despite his lack of action during night in the moons of following the humans in order to learn the ability to utilize their nets. But Atem being a Sky Dragon had also done well to remove any sense of pain that had come with the mating ritual as it was. He himself had inflicted far more damage that Atem ever could have.

He'd watched Atem writhe for hours on the riverbank.

He'd watched him scream and try to flee.

Then he'd watched him succeed in doing so before hiding underwater.

And Yugi had feared that he had ruined everything already. Atem had not come out of the river for a moment or two, but when he had, he'd appeared stunned to see Yugi waiting there on the bank. And when he had crawled onto the sand, he had been in obvious agony, writhing and panting.

Yugi glanced at Atem and then back towards the dark sky. The answering call was no longer one of challenge, but by far one of distress. It was a question, one of fear and desperation, rather than anger. And it was higher in pitch now, crackling around the edges as if with a long and heavy wheeze. The high octave was a warning of Lightning Dragon genetics, though he did not believe them to be pure. But the edges and core of the noise where it crackled and boomed sounded much akin Water and Wind as well.

Yugi cast another glance at Atem, wondering at the sound. It had seemed almost alike Atem's own, but the God Dragon had sounded more powerful. He had sounded eternal and strong and beyond the knowledge of another mere mortal dragon. It had startled him to hear it, and now it still shook him to his core.

But now he had something else to worry about as well.

The red dragon was bristling.

His entire body was shuddering with hatred.

His golden eyes were glowing with vivid anger.

His claws had flexed, sinking deep into the earth.

His tail quivered and the ends opened, the blades snapping forth with a hiss of cold air as they exposed themselves from beneath the sheath of scales.

And then he snarled and flicked his bright blue tongue.

The sky blue gem in his forehead was flashing with black torrents, stormy in the way it danced with what almost appeared to be an immense tornado.

Yugi had never seen Atem so hateful before.

Even when he had come to realize that Yugi was a Gandora dragon, Atem had not shown him such disdain.

Was it an old suitor whose voice he recognized?

Were they truly so foolish as to return?

Or was it—?

Realization slammed through him. Yugi bristled. Hatred made his body grow hot. His tail lashed. His throat vibrated with a snarl. The base of his tail rose. His body bristled as he braced his muscles and lowered his chin. His snarling grew hideous. The noise became incredibly ferocious.

Atem blinked, startled from his own anger. His head turned, his curiosity peaked.

Yugi had taken an offensive position. His body was quivering. His tail thumped once. His paw rose slightly, his claws flexing. His jaws parted, saliva thick on his teeth. And then he crouched for a split second.

Atem did not get the chance to blink.

Yugi was airborne before he could think.

Atem tilted his head as he sought him against the dark clouds. But the shadows were too thick. He could not spot him against them. He had seemingly disappeared altogether. And Atem was bewildered, dismayed as well.

Yugi would leave him now…?

When he clearly understood his—?

The scream startled him. His eyes focused on a single brilliant flash of orange. A spot of white and blue shot forward, another immense orb of magic. There was a loud snarl. He recognized it to be Yugi. But when he blinked, a spitting noise entered his ears.

A blast of white and blue energy flickered through the sky, a bright orb which severed the clouds. The darkness was cleared for an instant. Yugi was hovering just out of range of the attack. And then he opened his mouth. A bright stream of orange came from his jaws. The scream came again now.

Atem tilted his head. That was Wind Magic that was being used against Yugi. And the Gandora was responding with Fire. Even when he closed his jaws and disappeared again, he was using Fire magic.

The noise was horrified, shocked and bewildered. It was a squawk of pure alarm and distress. Atem blinked again, peering up into the clouds. Neither of them loosed magic again. He wondered if perhaps the newcomer was too wounded, as they were crying out in pain and he would have known Yugi's voice…

Atem was stunned. Yugi had actually…

He shook the amazement away, then crouched and leaped into the air. His wings flapped only once as he pushed himself upwards. The wind currents were hot, pressing hard against his wings. The muscles in his body rebelled at the sensation. But the pain seemed to be alleviated from the pressure despite his discomfort. His muscles no longer throbbed, though his wings still pulsed with slight tremors. He flapped them twice, then stretched them out about himself to hover.

His eyes flickered about the clouds again. He didn't want to breach them yet. It would be a chill to greet him if he did so. And that would only make his wings ache. For the moment staying beneath the cold was his best bet. He did not do well with abrupt temperature changes. He needed to acclimate himself or he'd drop like a rock…

The black dragon was mere yards from him. He was watching something in the clouds ahead of him. And he was snarling, almost spitting. His scales were in a full bristle, his claws stretched and braced. His jaws were parted only minutely.

But Atem could hear it now.

He had grown far more alert to such a noise upon being challenged so often by his "potential mates". Many of his suitors had not realized he was so powerful and capable of adaptation. And so they had thought to overpower him by means of using their fire breaths. The faint, sizzling noise was such an obvious warning to him that he almost flinched upon hearing it.

"Yugi, enough."

The Gandora startled upon hearing his name. He blinked. His head turned. The crackling noise faded from existence. And then he faced him completely. The concern in his face was overwhelming. Atem blinked, startled, but moved quickly closer to him. The flash of cold air made him grimace and he flapped rapidly to regain heat in his limbs.

But he did not get to his side completely. It was an instinct to hover those few feet away. Instinct had taught him never to underestimate and always to regard another's temper with caution. Atem's hearts were racing in his chest and his muscles had grown tight with tension once more.

At least, with this distance between them, if Yugi were to attack, he could at least dive for land first. Aerial combat in this state would ruin him. He was not capable of it with his shoulders aching as they were. And his wings were still not warm enough to take such frigid temperature. The electricity was too hot beneath him, the currents of energy terrible to the touch.

He would have to make Yugi follow him to the ground again. At least with this distance that was assured. And then he could try to use the dirt and stones to shield himself.

"Atem…" The black dragon appeared more troubled than ever. The concern was still clear in his eyes. And he looked nervous as the Sky Dragon considered him. The vulnerability in his expression made Atem drift somewhat closer.

But his body was too tightly bunched. And his stomach ached with tension. He was too afraid to move. If something tipped just slightly towards his misfortune, Atem would break beneath the pressure of it all.

To his surprise, the blue-violet eyes—a striking blast akin starlight and embers against the darkness—shot away. They regarded something further in the clouds and Atem glanced at the newcomer disdainfully. Then he looked back to Yugi as the Gandora turned to him as well.

Atem did not care to acknowledge the interloper yet. It was exhausting even being in his presence. And that made him want nothing more than to lower himself to the ground again. Yet he forced himself to flex his toes and keep himself balanced. The heat was finally coming to his wings. The Sky Dragon hovered a bit more peacefully.

But the sensation was still a new one to him.

He was not used to doing such a thing.

Usually when he hovered it was to allow himself a plan to further endanger his challengers. And when he flew like this, jumping between altitudes so rapidly, it was in order to summon a rainstorm or correct an error within the weather patterns.

He used flight beneath the clouds to find suitable rivers for hunting and better caverns to rest within between suitors in order to recover and have his scent all but lost to them should he have been harmed. He would use flight above the clouds in order to travel large distances for the sake of cover. And most oftentimes he did not spend long hours on the lower ridges of the mountains as he had in his time with Yugi. Had it not been for this, the change of altitude would not have been existent to begin with.

Without the dire situation of life-or-death struggles with his potential suitors and the need to find the answers to winning a challenge, this was uncomfortable. And it was almost bewildering to him.

The seconds passed.

He could not think of anything to say.

And Yugi was staring at him.

But his eyes were on the interloper as well.

His lips were curled back further to show the ridges of his teeth.

His claws were braced and ready.

But there was something different there.

His body was angled in a new way.

And Atem was stunned to see it.

Yugi had moved subtly.

But he had placed himself as a barrier between the other two dragons.

He was truly trying to protect him…

"Come on, Yugi." He faltered, hesitating. He flapped his wings to stay airborne, staring at the Gandora pointedly. "We can go rest and—"

"You mated with a Serpent Night?" the newcomer spat in a somewhat shrill, shaken tone that was still somehow full of mockery. Atem blinked. Yugi tilted his head in open bewilderment. His eyes flickered to Atem and then to the interloper. And immediately he turned back to his mate. His peripheral was filled with the dragon before them.

Yugi had never considered that any dragon would mistake him for a Sky Dragon of all species. The Serpent Night was a stronger one, but also much smaller and sleeker and far more compact than even Atem was in his origin or battle form. They had shimmering deep black scales that looked rainbow for the smallest of moments when they were in direct sunlight. But they also had smaller muzzles and longer, narrower beaks. They specialized more in lightning-based attack patterns than most Sky Dragons.

They even had some dorsal cape scales which looked like lightning bolts. They had long, wicked claws that came in threes and they had sharper, smaller wings that made them nearly silent in flight.

Atem was similarly gifted with quiet when he flew. But one could hear him if they just so tried. It would require straining their hearing by all means. Were they not focused they would never assume to catch the smallest sound of his wings. Yugi knew this only because of how long he had been hiding beneath his nose, smeared in a mixture of berry juice and mud while amongst the humans in his quest to properly utilize their nets.

And he had used every sense he possessed in order to detect where Atem might be. He had strained his hearing, had struggled to watch him in the darkness. The Sky Dragon had been all but invisible and nonexistent much of the time he'd been there…

But Serpent Nights were gorgeous dragons, even if they too were not silent as they appeared. Yugi thought them beautiful and serpentine and powerful. Finding that their hideously unwelcome guest thought him to be one was no insult to him.

"He's not a Serpent Night." Atem left this statement at this and did not speak any further. He turned to Yugi pointedly now. And the Gandora could see the slight shakiness in his wings, the tiredness in his eyes. He shivered. Atem looked almost nervous, perhaps even slightly anxious. "Let's just go back and rest."

Yugi found himself hesitating for a long moment. "But he's…" His words trailed off when the other dragon looked towards him slowly. He chomped his teeth at the newcomer, furious and hateful. His blood was burning within his veins as he looked back at him now.

Atem was silent for a moment. Then he looked between the two of them, clearly uncertain and bewildered. Yugi looked furious and incredibly fierce. It was beautiful and surprising and exhilarating. The Sky Dragon smiled faintly, though a part of him was unsure what to say.

"I know, but I can deal with him on my own—"

Yugi spun on him violently. His tail lashed with anger. The action nearly knocked him off balance. He had to flap his wings quickly to regain his balance after such a violent movement, his eyes sharp and narrowed and furious when he looked at Atem. "No, Atem. I am not going to allow you to be alone with him. That is not happening."

Atem blinked, both surprised and annoyed. He wanted to sneer at him that it was not his decision should he do so. But then a sense of immense relief came over him. His forelimbs ached, nearly shaking with the weight of it.

Yugi wanted to protect him.

He truly wanted to protect him and shield him should the other dragon attempt to turn on him…

"Very well." Atem snorted and glanced at the newcomer. Then he flicked his second tongue where it lay within his smaller top mouth. The sneer was aimed lazily at the interloper. "We will at least land then. And we can see if I am feeling generous enough not to let Yugi take your head off afterwards, yes?"

"You clearly would have let him when he had first attacked had you—"

"I stopped him for the sake of putting my own mind at ease," Atem interrupted him in a dismissive tone, snarling softly and baring his teeth more pointedly. "It had nothing to do with you yourself. I simply did not wish to have him attack when I could not see him well enough to kill you if he were to get hurt."

Yugi chortled at the words. Then he moved closer to Atem. The action held as much possession as if he had personally scent marked him. The only thing stronger than this obvious declaration would have been if Yugi had claimed him right then and there. The thought made Atem snicker in amusement as he banked abruptly.

The Gandora came to his side almost immediately. They landed easily, though Atem felt exhausted. His wings almost drooped now as he began to pace forward a few more steps. Yugi did the same, turning immediately as their tagalong began to land. Atem turned back only when he heard the slight snarl that Yugi released. A tremor ran through his left forelimb as he faced their interloper.

Atem nearly cursed. He took a seat quickly in order to cover such a weakness. But this had not been the first time this had happened, after all. And so he wondered if he had perhaps somehow hurt it.

It was possible that he might have somehow sprained it.

There had been numerous occasions within the last two days alone that he could name to have been the source. He had landed pretty hard in the net and that could have potentially caused harm to his leg. Then when he had gotten up and brought Yugi to the cliff, the mating had scared him enough to attempt to flee while Yugi was still upon his back. He had leaped and tried his hardest to become airborne. The landings had been hard enough—and with such a heavy male draped upon his body—that he could have potentially broken his own limbs from the impact with the ground.

It had been amazing, in fact, that he had not suffered such a painful conclusion. He had known this in the back of his mind, however. But he had been so scared and he had been in such pain that he had tried regardless.

He glanced at Yugi and then quickly away again.

If he had hurt himself this way, it was his own fault.

Yugi was not to be blamed for his own sheer stupidity.

The Gandora had moved closer to him again. He was at his side, close enough that he shared his slight body heat with him as he had earlier. But he was also a couple of inches forward in front of him, acting as a shield. He was positioning himself to be able to leap forward should their newcomer attempt to harm him in any fashion.

"You're a Gandora…"

Yugi blinked. He had been watching Atem from the corner of his eye. But now he turned fully to the other dragon. He had seen him only once or twice now that he was older. But he recognized those flat, terrible icy blue eyes. And his tongue flicked dismissively, black and oily in the darkness, and spat, "And I have no idea what you might be."

Atem snickered behind him. The sound made Yugi feel warm.

"He is a Felgrand. They are not the most typical of Sky Dragons. But they are not rare either."

Yugi snorted and lashed his tail, flexing his claws. He nearly snapped his jaws, but held himself in place to prevent himself unnecessarily leaping at him. Those icy blue eyes were no longer focused on him. And he did not want him looking towards Atem at all. "He's not special enough to be considered a rarity," he declared spitefully, peeling his lips back further to show his brilliant teeth in the darkness.

The comment made the newcomer snarl softly. His blue eyes shot furiously to Yugi once more, his voice low and scornful and full of hate. "There's a reason your species is almost extinct."

The words made Yugi pause for a split second. And Atem considered his mate with a curious tilt of his head. When he blinked and looked towards the newcomer and back, he wondered at the statement. It was made out of pure spite, backlash towards his comment about his own insignificance.

But it made Atem wonder if there were others under such an impression.

That was not entirely true. Real Gandora dragons were truthfully all but nonexistent. Most often they were likely to appear to be another dragon entirely, however. They often did not appear to be the hybrid that he himself was. They usually had another species mixed within their bloodline, something beyond the genetics of a Fire or Wind Dragon. They usually took on one or the other's appearance and never truly a mix any longer.

The truest Gandora dragons were meant to seem a perfect blend of the two species, as Yugi himself appeared to be.

He had the smoother belly and softer ridges along his tails, a sign of Wind Dragon genetics, with the darker glossy sheen that most Fire Dragons possessed. His beak was larger and sharper, the sleek almost nonexistent indentation of his skull pure Fire Dragon. But the smooth muscle tone of his belly was entirely Wind Dragon. His smooth chest plates, where he could not see the proper parting of them to display the layering, was another of Wind Dragon. And he had the five front toes, another sign of Wind Dragon genetics, but his hooked claw tips were those of Fire Dragons, built for evisceration of any prey or species they might fight.

It was the tusks on the sides of his mouth, curved inward towards the tips of his beak, that Atem could not quite place. And it was the gems that littered his body from his toes to his tail that confused him. It was the various spikes of silver-tinted scales and spears of bone that made the base of his large leathery wings along the inner connective muscle that Atem found strange. By far Yugi was the truest definition of a Gandora dragon in every manner.

Just as he himself was the purest of the Slifer dragon archetype but for his second mouth.

But Yugi had the softest demeanor when it came to Atem, a characteristic unlike either of his two species' combinations. Wind Dragons mated with multiple partners and often acted as a protector only until the eggs hatched before leaving them once more. Fire Dragons were vicious and fled immediately upon copulation for their own sakes as the females were more likely to kill than let them leave alive.

Yugi, on the other hand, had fallen in love with Atem the moment that he had come to lay eyes on him upon being six moons old. He had waited until he himself was old enough and sexually mature. Then he had spent his time hunting down the rumors spread about the God Dragon that was killing their suitors and had come to find him.

He had not thought to fight Atem to the death as many Fire Dragons had. And he had not thought to use his magic against him to force him to the ground as many Wind Dragons then had. Instead Yugi had simply outsmarted him, something that Atem admittedly had not considered possible and found attractive despite himself.

He had used a human net to weigh him down and pin him just long enough for his declaration of Yugi as the victor of their little challenge. And then he had let him out from beneath it and asked him if he was okay when he'd seen Atem checking on his wings upon being released.

Yugi was twice as much a threat to any dragon to cross their paths because of his cunning now. Where no one could truly recognize his species at first glance, he had an advantage and his dual control of magic would surprise them if they did not know immediately.

Atem considered him for a moment, relishing in the way Yugi bristled angrily from his position so perfectly set to protect him. The thought made him wonder for a moment and his instincts were at war with impulse. He wanted to step forward, around him, and declare his own strength. But another part of him wished to simply reach out and nudge him to show him the gratitude which flooded him so powerfully now.

Instead he forced himself to sit there. He admired the way Yugi glared at this newcomer, watching him keenly with hateful blue-violet eyes. His black tail was lashed every few moments, claws flexing, as Atem studied him some more.

"Gandora dragons are not almost extinct." Yugi glanced at him in surprise at the declaration and Atem shook himself out, tucking his wings firmly along his sides. He suppressed a heavy yawn and shook himself out again to combat his slight grogginess. "They are simply rare—especially one to have patterns such as his. Normally there are the other Gandora dragon forms, the ones that have the thicker scales along their forelimbs and the different wing formation without the bone joint at the top. His parents weren't mixed so he came out as a Gandora should appear."

Yugi looked incredibly proud, chest puffed out and chin raised with satisfaction.

"And you're…mated to him."

"Your point?"

The other dragon flicked his tongue at him, long and slow and full of condescension. "You cannot even lay eggs with him. What point is there in allowing him to—?"

"And your eggs got eaten by your rival when he usurped you," Atem cut in dismissively. Yugi spun on him with a horrified look, clearly startled by his calm tone. But the Sky Dragon hardly cared to look towards him in any manner. "So perhaps your eggs did not do you much in the long run either."

The dragon lunged.

Yugi shot forward.

Atem did not have time to even blink.

His mate had knocked the other dragon from his paws. His head was forced down into the dirt. A paw lay on the back of his skull. And his jaw was lowered. His teeth were bared, snarling viciously. His blue-violet eyes were glowing furiously. He lashed his tail and thumped it once.

"Should you ever even consider coming closer to him, I will destroy you."

Atem blinked, stunned. The words sounded almost unnatural as they came from Yugi's mouth. Then he blinked again, shook himself out, and wrapped his tail around his paws. "Really, Seto? You saw how willing he was to attack you for even entering our territory. And now you are asking him to spill your blood." He chortled, delighted despite himself, and looked at Yugi with incredibly fond eyes. "He is very capable of killing you."

The younger dragon glanced at him from the corner of his eye. The smallest of smiles tugged at his jaw but he kept his snarl on his face. He looked quickly back to Seto and snarled loudly. And Atem realized rather abruptly that Yugi would have killed Seto had he not intervened.

Yugi truly did not think that Seto deserved to be anywhere near him.

He was truly willing to protect him from the bastard…

Yugi pressed his weight into Seto's leg and snarled louder. He was not going to get near Atem at any rate. He would never get closer to him if he had a say. If Seto so much as looked at him, he would make a snack out of his throat.

And he could not see Atem truly caring for his brother if he were to do so.

It was not as if Seto truly deserved to even look at his brother like this.

Atem was worth so much more than the bastard beneath him was. And when the golden dragon—he had only seen him twice and he had assumed he was golden, even if his colors were somewhat dull in shade—moved he almost snapped at him. The Sky Dragon stilled beneath him, eyes sharp and glittering in the dark. His tongue flicked at him and Yugi thumped his tail again. Seto snarled but there was a glint in his eye that seemed almost fearful and he smirked in amusement.

Yugi had no reason to fear Seto's tail as he would have Atem's.

Atem had a feather-like design in his origin form, of two scales on either side and the center one that was somewhat thicker. In his battle form, however, the formation was held closed, for when he spread them apart into an open formation, they were five long knives of keratin and bone which came through the red scales.

And they were used so quickly that one's head could be removed from the body within a single strike.

And a strike took but one heartbeat to perform.

Seto did not have this.

His tail was long but simply tapered off. The most he was capable of was hitting with it. He could knock an opponent off balance as he whipped them, but there was no further damage it could perform.

Yugi considered this a blessing to know. Neither Seto nor the other golden-colored dragon Malik had such a design. But the silver and gray one—Bakura—had a hook-like extension on the end of his own. The tail was long and spindly and the very end of his tail was much like his own claws. It was thin and narrow at the ends, hooked and curled inward so sharply that it was capable of breaking through armor and cutting through the belly if he found an angle to do so.

It was used like a scorpion's to strike at the eyes from what he understood of Hunter Dragons. It was one of the easiest hunting techniques for the lightweight dragons. They were incredibly small, unusually so compared to most. Although, from what he knew, Bakura was unusually large to be a Hunter Dragon—he was the same size as Seto and Seto was an inch or perhaps two smaller than Atem himself was at the moment…

"You have someone else fight your battles now?"

"I could fight you on my own. But I would much rather allow Yugi to beat you down a few times, brother." Atem smirked when Yugi cast him a sideways glance. He was flicking his tail and looked more amused than anything. When he looked at Yugi in turn, his eyes were bright and warm. "I think you would prefer it to be me to beat you, after all. Since I last told you I would kill you for venturing here again. And Yugi, being unknown to you, beating you senseless would make for a very humiliating experience for you, no?"

Yugi snorted loudly. "Not to mention that you did not even know what I was at first." He chomped his teeth when Seto shot him a disdainful look. He nearly laughed and bit at his face with the amusement which bubbled up in his lungs. "A Serpent Night, truly?"

"You are certainly as useless as one."

Yugi went to sneer at him. But there was a loud hiss of disturbed air. Yugi almost thought that perhaps something were slicing through it. He flinched, horrified. Seto froze, eyes wide and stunned. Atem's tail was open. The blades were directly in front of his sibling's face. Yugi shuddered, looking to Atem again.

His lips were peeled back more fully. His teeth were bared noticeably. His mouths were opened, his breathing heavier. His golden eyes glowed. His claws flexed into the dirt forcefully. The blades of his tail were a claw-tip's length from Seto's beak. And Yugi could see with horror the ease with which Atem could simply snap his tail forward. He would kill him…

He was truly willing to kill him…

"You do not talk to him in such a manner."

The smallest touch of pride came over Yugi. Atem was willing to fight his brother for him. But it also came to him that he should never have to even threaten to do such a thing. His brother should have been more understanding, more like family than an enemy.

But then Seto had always treated him as if he were nothing more than a pest. Seto had absolutely tormented Atem. He had attacked him relentlessly and gone so far as to have his siblings help him to carve a gaping wound into his side.

Atem had fled after that. He had only been a quarter into his growth and too young to truly know how to survive on his own. And Yugi had been desperate to find him since. But he had witnessed the way that the other three had bullied him so often. Malik would knock him from the sky or try to drown him by keeping his head underwater until he was no longer flailing. Bakura would rip his claws off for the fun of hearing Atem scream and squeal. He had once tackled him so hard from behind when they were flying that he had crippled Atem's wings for a full moon.

Now the smallest dragon was the largest.

He was the strongest where he had once been the weakest.

He had the best control of his magic.

He could fly faster and swim far better than his siblings could ever hope to.

And he was also the one who had killed other dragons in a singular sum somewhere in the hundreds.

"You forget yourself, Seto. You are within my territory for a second time upon once being told that I would kill you should I find you here again. You are a guest here, and you are not welcome. Do you wish to further incriminate yourself? Your life will become forfeit when you do."

Yugi shivered, but there was that small flash of pride in his bones again as he fought the urge to puff his chest out. But Seto had begun shaking beneath him. He was growling fearfully, staring up at his youngest sibling with a horrified expression. Yugi blinked and looked at Atem for a split second, tilting his head. The terror on Seto's face was brilliant.

"I thought not." Atem closed his tail again. He rolled his shoulders and Yugi noticed that his muscles appeared incredibly stiff. He wondered if it was from the humid air or his former sleep position. But Atem had gotten to his paws again, and turned away to wander off. "Yugi, release him and come with me. He can rest the night where he is and we will come back tomorrow to deal with him."

The younger dragon hesitated for a moment, blinking wide eyes at the statement. Then he looked to Seto and sneered angrily. "You are lucky he still seems to care. I would personally love to kill you for hurting him." He snarled softly when Seto blinked. Then he pounced away as he noticed Atem pause a few yards away. The Sky Dragon had turned to look at him over his shoulder and seemed more or less upset with his attention there. Yugi hurried to his side, jumping gracefully there as if he were merely playing with sand beetles from what would be considered his native lands.

"So…what do you plan to do with him?"

Atem blinked and looked at him sideways, then snorted and tucked his wings into his flanks. "I have not decided," he admitted in a calm tone. "You seem to enjoy knocking him around, so why not simply allow you to continue doing so?"

Yugi chortled and nudged his shoulder with his beak. "Because you are better than that," he said gently.

The words made Atem pause. He was watching him, golden eyes wide and puzzled. And then he turned away abruptly. Am I? he wondered, leading them towards a rocky outcrop just large enough to offer them shelter should there be any rain.

Seto must have summoned it in order to gather his attention. The air was still hotter than it should have been, muggy and far too weighted. He hated the sensation, disgusted by it, and it made him almost itch with frustration.

Yugi seemed to understand the unspoken declaration that Atem did not wish to go any further as it would leave Seto out of their sight. He moved past him, settling into the furthest part of the stone, pressing into it hard enough that he brushed some of the dirt from the rock overhead. Atem wondered if perhaps it would have reminded him of the desert terrain he had grown up in after they'd left the mountains, the caverns he must have rested inside of…

He waited for Yugi to settle comfortably, then moved to tuck into his side, his wing draped across his mate's flank as he laid his chin on Yugi's paws. Then Yugi put his own chin on the Sky Dragon's neck and settled comfortably there. He yawned softly, letting out a small noise that sounded almost like a bird cooing.

Atem snorted softly at the sound and shifted his chin just enough to lay his jaw more comfortably in the crook of Yugi's toes where the scales were warmest amongst them. He was still pondering this easy sound when he fell into a restless state of slumber. And it was not this gentle noise which woke him hours later.

When he blinked an eye open, Yugi had raised his head. He was shaking and snarling furiously. He sounded akin a snake that meant to spit venom at the nearest target. His claws flexed endlessly. His breathing was ragged and hideous. There was a small, gentle wheezing which accomplished each, a proclamation that he was close to using his fire breath.

Atem blinked and shook his head. He considered him for a moment, confused and groggy. Why was he so upset? It took him a long moment for his restlessness to leave his mind. And then he remembered that Seto had found his way back, something that he had warned him against formerly.

The red dragon huffed a breath, turning his head in the direction he knew him to be. But then his body stiffened and a snarl began to rumble within his throat. A bright, shining golden dragon had come forward and was seated beside Seto. Its eyes were purple like freshly bloomed lavender, and there lay a bright blue gemstone in his forehead. And a slimmer, dark gray barrel-chested dragon with a gleaming silver tail and muddy brown eyes stood nearby. The smaller wings were tucked into his sides and he seemed to be grooming what looked to be dried blood from his hooked tail tip.

"I do not recall permitting a family reunion in my territory," Atem spat, hurriedly untangling himself from Yugi and stepping forward. He charged at them, spitting only once as he gained speed and readied his claws.

Seto flinched away and hurriedly flattened himself into a submissive position. Malik glanced up with a bewildered expression and Bakura peered at him as if he did not recognize him. It took them both a moment to realize Atem was showing aggression. It was a technique he had learned when facing his suitors. If he did not appear outwardly aggressive when he leaped at them, they would not realize until it was too late. It was one of the best ways to eviscerate them when they refused to leave.

And now it proved successful again. Bakura climbed to his paws just before he reached them. And Malik snarled in shock, uncertain as to whether he should consider him a true threat.

Atem hit Bakura much like he would have a buffalo. The Hunter Dragon skidded but kept his weight balanced to prevent falling over. His tail lashed. The tip was pointed at Atem's face for a second. The red dragon snarled and paced a step. Then he feinted at him. Bakura did as he knew he would. He had not grown past the instinct to aim his tail for his eyes as he had during play. And so Atem simply reared up on his haunches and slammed his front paw down.

The tail was caught easily there, pinned. And Bakura snarled as he attempted to find a new sense of balance. Atem smirked, thumping and lashing his own tail once in amusement.

In the corner of his eye he spotted Malik. The golden-scaled male attempted to spring. And he was blocked immediately. Yugi lashed out with his claws. The Sky Dragon snarled, spitting, as blood dripped from his long muzzle. Malik turned on the Gandora with burning eyes. He lashed his tail and Yugi thumped his in turn. They glared at each other.

Atem kept his main focus on Bakura even as he watched them. And his brother used his wings almost akin a third pair of legs. It gave him a new, firmer sense of balance. And, when he sprang at him, it was almost a powerful enough launch to allow him to pull his tail from beneath his paw. Atem kept his grip, however, crouching. And then he sprang upward. His teeth caught his brother by the throat. The Hunter reacted instantly.

His claws sank into Atem's face, grabbing but not gaining full purchase. His back legs kicked and cut at his throat. But his armor was stronger than it had been when they were hatchlings. Atem did not even feel the pain he would have back then. Now all he felt was mild itching. And he shook his head violently as he raised his free paw to cut into his flank.

Bakura screeched, kicking harder. He clawed at the air sharply. And then he hit the ground and quickly scrambled for his paws again. He shook himself out again. Atem thumped his tail, furious for a moment. Bakura angled his head downward, opening his jaws. And a small sizzling noise hit his ears.

Atem boxed him upside the head. Bakura snarled and bit at him, missing. Atem kept his weight more concentrated on his right paw. His left forelimb stung hideously. He ignored the urge to simply allow the leg to crumple beneath his weight. He thought to collapse there, to lie down instead.

Bakura shook himself out again. Then he lunged at him, claws outstretched. He aimed for his throat and eyes. Atem turned slightly, angling his wings to shield his flanks. Then he reared up. He released his tail only when he nearly lost his balance. And then he slashed at his face in turn.

Bakura let out a pained noise. He scrambled for his paws and attempted to shake himself out. His tail lashed forward in an instant. Atem quivered, hateful, as the hook hit his head. He felt dizzy from the force of it. Bakura had gotten faster, had become more forceful. And, when he flipped the head of his tail and aimed for his eye, Atem snarled furiously.

He had gotten more lethal as well, hadn't he?

Pain struck him heavily even as he jerked away in time. The flesh of his jaws burned. And he thumped his tail as he opened the blades angrily. He lunged and Bakura snarled, aiming again.

Bakura was going to attempt to hinder him entirely. He did not care for familial loyalties. He did not care that Atem was the God Dragon.

He was looking at his favorite target, the red male realized.

And it simply infuriated him.

He leaped fast enough that Bakura clipped his injured shoulder, missing his face entirely. And his teeth opened and snapped shut on his throat again. He pulled him off his paws, tossing him into the ground hard. He shook him violently, threw him into the ground several times more, and then tossed him when Bakura clawed at his face again.

Blood was heavy in the air. Atem snarled and thumped his tail again. The pain lingered in his jaw and around his eye. And he flexed his claws for a moment. His shoulder burned. His wing stung faintly. He had scraped him there too, he supposed.

Bakura lay on his side for a long moment. Then he moved to scramble for his paws. He shook himself out, body caked in loose dirt clinging to his blood.

Atem snarled and moved to charge him again.

But it was not Atem to strike again.

The red dragon was startled and frozen at the sight.

There was nothing he could have done to prevent it.

And at first he could not understand what he was seeing.

His mind saw only shadows of gray and black.

And then he blinked again, realization slamming into him.

Yugi had sprung at Bakura. His claws were on the Hunter Dragon in a heartbeat. The Gandora was rabid in his snarl, vicious as a wolverine. And he lashed out as quickly as a mountain lion. His paws slammed into his sides continuously. Blood sprayed the air in rapid arches. And he let out snarls of pure hatred that made Atem tremble.

Bakura was in a panic, he realized. The gray dragon was screeching and flailing. He was kicking with all four limbs. His claws cut at soft flesh but Yugi did not slow in any manner. The blood sprayed the air faster. And Bakura spat and panicked and snarled and cried out.

In his terror Bakura attempted to bite at him. He instinctively rolled to form a ball. He tightened his muscles as if to save himself. He snarled and struggled. He kicked and flailed. His tail aimed for Yugi's face and missed, hitting his shoulder in turn. But he could not hook into any of his muscle. And Yugi opened his jaws wide and snapped them shut again.

Bakura screeched louder, kicking harder. Atem blinked. But Yugi's teeth cut through hardened scale and muscle. Bakura screamed now, seething and snarling. He clawed at his neck but Yugi hardly seemed to notice. The Gandora was still lashing out with his front limbs. He was cutting through scale and blood and his wings were flailing. Bakura was scrabbling at the air and screeching.

Atem was amazed, unsure of what more to do. He could no longer tell who was bleeding the most. Yugi moved too fast. He was far too limber. He was far too powerful. He had agility unmatched by any other dragon Atem had ever met. His rage had lent him speed and ferocity and hatred.

Bakura himself had often possessed all of these qualities as well. But they paled beneath Yugi's anger. The Hunter was not as agile. He could not prevent the Gandora from tearing into his face or clawing at his eyes. He could not stop him from inflicting as many wounds as possible.

And the dirt was so incredibly stained—

"Get off of him—"

Atem spun on his older brother, snarling. His weight was pressed heavily into his right forelimb. His left shot out to slash into Malik's side. The blow knocked the golden dragon off his paws entirely. Malik glared at him, furious, and scrambled to a stand. The red tail flashed forward. The tip rested a millimeter from his throat.

"Move and I take your head."

It was odd how easily the threat left his mouth. When he was younger he would have let them all do as they wished to when it came to him. He would have flinched away and fled but he had never truly fought back when it came to such a thing…

Bakura screamed. The tone was of agonized infuriation. And Atem glanced sideways just enough to see. Bakura had lashed out and missed. He had caught his balance sloppily and was standing a couple of inches from Yugi. The Gandora was snarling and spitting and his tail thumped twice. But then Bakura moved to raise his head. And the angle showed his throat. Yugi clenched upon it immediately, lunging forward. Bakura wheezed beneath the pressure. His eyes were huge with shock. And he flailed rapidly with his claws. He kicked and struggled. But the panic had made him sloppier than ever. And his claws kicked and pedaled without proper aim.

And the Gandora did not give him the chance to find his footing. He tossed his head violently. He shook Bakura as if he were part of a tree branch. He clenched down harder as if Bakura were but a chunk of meat.

It was much harder than he had shaken Atem the night before.

It was so much more volatile than Atem had ever seen.

He himself did not have the same amount of strength the Gandora possessed.

And Yugi was throwing his brother much like a cat would a mouse.

He was by far stronger than Atem could ever hope to be in his tossing Bakura about as he was. Fire Dragons shook their mates in order to make them fall limp if the poison they injected them with did not subdue them for long enough. And so the Gandora, being half Fire Dragon, was capable of grabbing Bakura by the throat and slamming him into the dirt and clawing at him in the meantime. He was incredibly violent in his actions, and he displayed the strength of a Fire Dragon in his erratic tossing.

Atem could barely have kept up with the actions had he tried.

But Yugi seemed to run on endless energy with this violent display.

Bakura was completely limp by the time that Yugi released him. The Hunter Dragon was thrown, rolling a good foot across the clearing. He landed hard on his belly. His wings twitched. Blood dribbled from his jaws. He blinked and shivered, eyes dark with hatred. His thin claws flexed once.

"You'd let him kill your brother?"

The question brought a smirk to Atem's face. His eyes flashed, his tongue flicking outward in a sneer. He turned to Malik with a snort. "I will kill you if you dare lay a claw on him," he replied calmly.

"Get up," Yugi spat. His tail lashed and thumped. His scales rippled in a bristle. "It's no fun if you don't get up."

The words made Atem falter. Malik blinked. His head snapped around. Atem saw Seto raise his head from the ground. His blue eyes were huge. And the three Sky Dragons remained frozen for a split second. Then Atem shook his shock away, hurrying forward. His recovery from the words was much faster than his siblings'. And he knew he would be able to get to Yugi and not worry about them for at least a few heartbeats.

But Yugi spun on him, a nightmare of black and red. His mouth was wide open. He was snarling and spitting. His forked black-blue tongue flicked. His right paw rose, aimed for his throat. The base of his thick tail rose. His spine arched and he bristled furiously. His wings rose slightly to shield his flanks.

And then he realized himself.

His offensive position melted away immediately.

His tail fell. The bristle relaxed. He lowered his paw. His wings fell to tuck along his sides again. He closed his mouth. His back lost its defensive arch. He blinked. Then he turned quickly back to Bakura.

Atem was able to see blood staining Yugi's teeth. His white fangs were covered in it. And he was amazed that it did not drip from them. But the ridges of them were soaked. And his breathing was harder, violent with anger.

"Yugi…" Atem hesitated for a moment. Then he stepped forward again slowly. He was close enough to almost reach out with a paw and tap him. But it was impossible to bring himself to. He stared at him, troubled for only a moment. And then he looked down at his sibling.

He, like Seto and Malik, remembered those words all too well.

Bakura had knocked Atem violently out of the sky that day. It had been harder than all of the other times. Bakura had not purposefully harmed his wings or actively drawn blood before then. But something had seemingly snapped within him that day. And so he had thrown Atem around as if he were nothing more than a pebble. He had pinned him that day. He had tossed him around a few more times. He had torn his claws out. He had cut into the soft flesh of his sides. He had torn at his wings. And all the while he had spat at him to get to his paws and—

"Get. Up." Yugi slammed his tail into the ground, patience lost. He had stepped closer, was spitting and glaring down at Bakura now. "You came here to see Atem, didn't you, you worthless piece of dung? If you want to do that, you have to go through me. Now get up, Bakura."

Atem hesitated a heartbeat longer. And he was aware of just how dangerous doing so was in the heat of the moment. He leaned forward slightly. The scales along his spine rose in a jutting bristle. And then he tapped Yugi's shoulder with his beak. The Gandora focused on him immediately. He was curious and questioning. But there was ferocity in his eyes as well. And Atem wondered at the sight for a moment.

Did he look similarly when he was in battle?

Yugi looked godly…

"It's okay, Yugi," he tried, forcing his voice to come out soft and soothing. He hated to think that Yugi would lose his ferocious edge. He was actually amazed and some part of him almost adored such a sight. "He's in no condition to—"

"No. And I don't plan to let him live to get back to that."

In an instant Yugi had sprung forward. Bakura was just on his paws again. And he was stumbling for his balance. His head snapped up, brown eyes wide. He spat, attempting to cover his sides. But his wings did not fold fast enough. And Yugi lashed out violently once more.

His claws cut through the harder scales along Bakura's exposed flank. The Hunter wheezed, spitting. Then he snarled and opened his jaws wide. He aimed for the paw nearest him. He looked as if he planned to bite hard enough to snap the bone in half.

Yugi did not allow this, however. He rose up onto his hind legs to hinder Bakura's balance. But his grip in his side did not last with the quick movement. Blood sprayed upwards. Bakura staggered, gasping for air.

His side had become a bloody, gouged mess of muscle and scale. Atem could only gape at him, stunned by the terrible upward strike. The wing along Bakura's flank had been caught as well, the ends of it frayed.

And all Atem could think of were those longer, darker nights in which his side was open in such a similar manner. The blood would not stop then. And the pain was always there. The air burned it. Breathing made it flare. He could not fly more often than not. The pain had been too excruciating. And he had almost starved…

There was so much blood

"Yugi."

The Gandora turned his head just enough to consider him. But it was clear his attention remained clearly caught upon the Hunter Dragon before him. His claws flexed. His tail lashed.

"Stop."

The blue-violet eyes blinked. "Why should I?" he demanded harshly. He lashed his tail violently once more. Then he thumped it forcefully. But he did not turn towards Atem in his anger. He kept his eyes on Bakura. And his bloodied paw rose an inch from the ground. "I haven't done nearly as much damage as he deserves."

"It doesn't… Please, just…just stop…"

Yugi turned to him now. He was clearly startled by his strained voice. A sense of confusion came over him as he turned to face him with a scrutinizing expression. Then he saw the stormy quality which encompassed Atem's gem. He saw the blank stare and dulled shade of his eyes. And his hearts began to break for the other dragon as he reluctantly forced his scales to lose their bristle. It took him only a moment longer for the tension to leave his body, but he did this as well.

"Anything for you," he finally mumbled. He looked away guiltily, feeling almost ashamed now. He stared at the ground and put his paw down again. Then he flexed his claws.

How had he failed to take into account that Atem might be uncomfortable after he saw his brother's side?

His eyes fell on his paw. The blood was still bright and fresh. And his stomach turned as he flexed his toes. The gems gleamed up at him for a split second.

Perhaps he should groom himself before he even considered coming back to lie down with…

But no.

That was not going to happen.

He would not do that with his brothers around.

Atem could defend himself—he knew that.

He was well aware of that.

And he knew even then that the three of them would be no problem for him to fend off.

It was the fact that Yugi could not help if he was not there that made him so reluctant.

No, he would not leave him alone with them.

Atem blinked. His eyes flickered to his brother's all but broken form. Bakura was snarling. His claws were caught in the dirt. His tail was lashing. The metal hook on the end glinted in the sunlight. His flank was a bright and hideous red. The muscle was swollen with disfigurement.

Malik and Seto were still behind him. They remained a safe distance a few feet away. Atem stared at his fallen sibling. The bubble of resentment had grown swollen. It pulsed beneath his skin like a throbbing pain. And it made him angry. For a moment he wished to lash out as Yugi had done.

But then he blinked, reconsidering, and turned to his mate again.

Yugi had truly done it.

He had gone up against his brothers.

He had turn one of them almost to shreds and had attempted to kill the other hours before.

Yugi had…

He was amazed and incredibly tired.

"Here, come with me."

Yugi blinked, turning his head in bewilderment. Then he frowned and tilted his head. Atem waited until he was sure he had Yugi's full attention. Then he launched himself into the air. Yugi seemed to hesitate, glancing back towards the other three Sky Dragons for a split second. Then he snarled low in his throat and joined him.

The flight was silent until they reached the river. The rushing water was roaring loudly enough to drown out Yugi's heartbeats. The younger dragon landed beside him, flinching. Atem refused to so much as glance at him now. He had probably brought back a ton of memories that the God Dragon had not wished to suffer through. He tucked his wings forcefully and flattened them against his sides, lowering his head.

He opened his mouth—

"Thank you."

The words were said so softly that Yugi almost missed them altogether. He faltered, dazed, unsure of whether he had said them or not. He had meant to apologize, and yet that was not what had been said. He blinked, turning to Atem in confusion, and then felt his eyes stretch wide with shock.

Atem had said it…

The red dragon was not looking at him directly. But Yugi could feel his stare all the same. He was focused on him regardless, expression full of something between wonder and laughter. No doubt he had seen the shock in Yugi's face and found it incredibly amusing. But he also seemed incredibly self-conscious as well. He was looking at Yugi as if he awaited his sneer about his weaknesses or to perhaps say that he was leaving for a new mate…

The thought made his wings droop for a split second before he looked quickly away again. "I'm sorry for scaring you," he mumbled. There was a weight in his chest, near his hearts which burned and ached in despair. Atem had so little idea how much he cared for him and he perhaps didn't even understand why he did. The thought made him want to pull him closer or maybe snuggle into his side…

Atem blinked. "I won't say that you didn't, but it was hardly you yourself directly. It was the words and the wound itself." The Sky Dragon turned to face him now, but Yugi was focused entirely on his bloodied paws. Atem did not look upset, however, though the Gandora was not willing to raise his head to see more clearly. "I had not considered you would have been there when that had happened."

"I… You were really close to my den that day, Atem. I was scared you would see me because I was so close to the opening, but they were picking on you instead. And Bakura was relentless that day and…" Yugi shook himself out, lashing his tail angrily, and forced the memory aside with a deep breath. "Are you all right? He…"

Atem had glanced down at his paws at the question. He peered at his right one a moment longer than his left. He flexed and wriggled his toes. His claws made soft clicking noises in the dirt. And then he looked back to Yugi, a slightly troubled gleam in his eyes. But when he did not offer an explanation for his behavior, Yugi did not push to ask.

"It is fine, little gem," he mumbled. The new nickname made Yugi stand a little taller, eyes widening as a thrill swept through him. He quivered faintly, wings twitching comfortably. And he almost bounced with pure happiness upon hearing this new endearment. "I just need to soak my cuts. But I thought you might want to clean up as well."

Yugi stayed quiet for a moment, curious more than anything. He remembered once hearing that Water Dragons had the ability to heal instantaneously when they used their own saliva or a pool of water.

He had never seen it before. Large bodies of water were not something he wished to be around. And Water Dragons themselves were interesting, but not so much as to desire watching them heal themselves. And Yugi was not sure he believed this lore as thoroughly as many claimed. He did not think it reversed internal wounds or healed broken bones or sprained muscles.

He nodded regardless. "Yeah, I think that might be a good idea," he agreed quietly.

The action of getting into the water was a bit harder than Yugi had initially assumed it might be, however. While Atem leaped into it as if he were part fish—and by the gods, weren't Water Dragons so much like them anyways?—he himself hesitated.

He had learned to fish while with the humans, but in doing so he had been in his human form as well. He had been within shallow pools of water to catch them late at night to all but be ensured that the Sky Dragon did not find him. And this river was clearly deeper than any of those. He had witnessed Atem hide beneath the surface and reappear upon their first mating.

Yugi hesitated, braced at the edge. But his genetics dictated he fear the water. Fire Dragons lived in such dry terrain and when the rains fell and the land might become muddy, most often they would migrate. Wind Dragons were prim in the fact that they hated to have their paws wet. They naturally drifted when rain fell. They hated to have much of anything to do with water in general.

Yugi glanced at Atem again. The Sky Dragon was studying him with a curious expression. And the Gandora felt slightly abashed, ashamed of the fact that he was showing such obvious weakness. He had told Atem formerly that he had been willing to compromise and adapt to be with him. And now he was showing his fear of something that was so keen to Atem.

He leaned forward, reaching out a paw. The water foam touched his toe and he nearly squeaked with dismay. It was so cold it was startling and he bristled faintly with shock. He jumped when a bit of spray hit his beak, turning tail and bolting a few feet back. His natural instinct was to find his way to higher ground, however, and he was amazed that he did not end up doing so. There were harsh gaping outcrops overhead that he could have hidden atop and looked down at Atem from there, playing the part of the lookout and protecting him from there.

But then he heard Atem snicker. The noise startled him away from his thoughts. He turned with wide eyes. And the Sky Dragon was smiling, pure amusement making his eyes brighter than Yugi had ever seen them. He swam to the bank, moving to his side. He was soaked, dripping water which was absorbed by the sand in gulps. Yugi shivered and shook his head, flustered to realize that he'd have to retrain himself to come near water. He would have to—he could not ask Atem not to enjoy water simply because he himself could not. And not being able to join him just seemed foolish.

Atem got to his side, paused as if he might say something. Yugi blinked up at him, tilting his head. And the Sky Dragon smirked at him. Yugi had expected him to tease him, ready to hang his head and sigh and admit to being a coward. But then the red male simply shook himself out much as a village dog might.

The water came at him in a torrential downpour. Yugi flinched but could not move to find cover in the slightest. He did not even have the chance to fold his wings overhead as a shield. And when he blinked, Yugi was soaked, but his paws and face were washed clean.

"Oh."

Atem chuckled, licked his forehead, and turned away. "You're clean now," he announced, teasing, as he smirked at him playfully. Yugi hesitated for a moment, watching him with wide eyes. He'd never quite seen him so playful before, though seeing as it had only been a day that they had been together, that should not have been surprising to him. Abruptly Atem licked him again, then nudged him gently in the shoulder with his beak, golden eyes bright and warm. "Not even a speck of blood to be found on you."

Yugi blinked, startled by the declaration. Then he purred, butting the bottom of Atem's jaw with his head. He got up after a moment, stretching himself out fully, and licking his bottom jaw with bright eyes. "And you're okay, Atem?"

"Perfectly." The Sky Dragon rolled his shoulders easily, as if shrugging away Yugi's concern entirely. Then he turned away, all but yawning as he blinked heavy eyelids. Then he looked away and flicked his tongue. "I do not wish to have to deal with them."

Yugi turned to him, tilting his head. His pupils had most likely flipped into a horizontal position, as he could feel the tension and discomfort coming through him in waves. It was a common sight for many species of dragon. It was only Atem he knew of so far who did not have pupils. And that worked in his favor, though it had alarmed Yugi upon his challenging him.

He had not seen his pupils flip or dilate. And he could not have told immediately if his challenge had been received as he'd wished. It made Atem perhaps lethal and fatal in this regard. One could not see his emotions. One could not measure how their words affected the Sky Dragon. It was only the gem in the center of his forehead and the way his eyes might darken or lighten that gave much indication. Atem had learned a long time ago to shield his body language, Yugi knew, because oftentimes he could not match his attitude with his actions.

Most likely it had saved him from many of his suitors.

"I can run them out…if you would like?"

Atem blinked and his eyes stretched wide with curiosity. The surprise was enough to make Yugi nearly tremble, though the red dragon soon smirked and shook his head. "No, let us find out what it is that they want from me first, shall we? It might do me well to listen and deny them all together rather than one at a time as Seto seemed to originally think to do." He blinked, watching Yugi with darkened eyes and the Gandora could see a stormy quality developing in the core of the gem. "But I would not suggest for even a moment that it will go peacefully. I suppose if they act out once more there is no reason we should not chase them out entirely."

The younger dragon tilted his head curiously. He considered him for a moment. Then he flicked his dark tongue and closed his eyes for a brief moment, voice hopeful. "Can I bait them?" he inquired.

Atem snorted a bright laugh, though he looked stunned by the question when Yugi opened his eyes again. Then the red dragon smirked and pressed his beak into the center of his forehead. Yugi trembled gently with something almost akin delight at the touch. "To your heart's content should you so desire."

The Gandora laughed softly, ducking and dipping his head in order to lick at his chin. His scales were cold from the water which still weighed them down. And, as he nuzzled Atem's jaw for a moment, he thought to shake himself dry as the Sky Dragon had before. But then he would soak Atem and that was not something that he wanted.


Atem was the first to be spotted when the two of them returned an hour or so later. Seto spotted the red dragon before his other siblings did. His head snapped around and something of relief seemed to color his eyes for only a second. Atem wondered if he had expected him to flee entirely with Yugi rather than return. The Felgrand certainly appeared relieved to see him, after all; but then Malik and Bakura looked up as well. They blinked dark eyes and tilted their heads.

Yugi, on the other hand, in the corner of his eye, snarled low in his throat. He was trotting at a pace just a few steps slower than a charge. And he kept himself positioned at Atem's side with darkened eyes.

"Are we going to fight again?" Malik asked, voice a sneer of near singsong tone. He flexed his claws and growled, and his purple eyes were singled in on Atem alone. "I don't think I ever got a proper attack in, after all."

Yugi snarled, leering at him. "And I'll be the one to kill you for laying a claw on him," he promised. He was bristling, moving a little faster, and Atem snorted as he shook his head. He came to a stop, not surprised that Yugi himself did not. He was trotting angrily, as if he might leap straight into that of another fray. Atem swung his tail to bar his way, the tip of his coiled appendage hovering mere inches from Yugi's chest. There was no malice in the action—he had no intention of hurting him after all—but it was a necessary physical manifestation of caution and the plea to stop.

Yugi in turn came to falter visibly. His eyes fell on the appendage in surprise. And then he turned his head towards his mate in obvious question. His gaze flickered back and forth between his face and the long tail. Then he relented finally, backing up several steps and plopping down on his haunches.

Atem dropped his tail and moved close enough to brush against his side. The action was reassuring enough that it allowed the larger portion of the tension in the Gandora's body to fade. They considered each other a moment longer, then Atem turned away again with a soft growl.

"If you would like to try your paw at winning against Yugi, feel free to do so, Malik. But I am not going to stop him should he decide to simply eviscerate any of you. I did not send invitation for the three of you to come here within my territory. And I will not allow you to remain here for a moment longer if you should so foolishly continue to pester my mate. I will kill you myself this time."

He lashed his tail violently, thumping it once, and noticed Yugi watching him. His pupils were wide, encompassing much of the blue-violet of his irises. He looked proud, affectionate and happy. And Atem ignored this, though a part of him felt warm at the adoration in his eyes.

"Now. I have already warned Seto that I would kill him myself should he ever return here. And now all three of you worthless bastards have found your way here to me. Should it have to do with allegiance for his mate, I will not offer such aid. This battle is not my own. Let that be clear now."

"You do realize that your escape was never foolproof, yes?" Bakura snarled abruptly, turning to him with darkened brown eyes that seemed almost black with rage. "We could have hunted you at any time we so much as chose. I knew exactly where you were hiding."

"And then you came to know that I was not alone"—beside him Yugi seemed to flinch as if he had been struck, clearly startled by the statement; Atem would have to explain that to him at a later time—"so tell me again how much such words mean."

Malik twitched his tail and watched his youngest sibling with sharp eyes. The simple jerk of muscle was a display of nerves, one of which Malik had clearly failed to outgrow upon reaching maturity. Atem considered this, smirking in amusement as he shook his head and sneered.

"Ah, so you were simply bluffing. That is rather good to know." Atem made a point of ignoring the way Yugi studied him so pointedly. He flicked his wings and lashed his tail for a moment. The movement was enough to make his brothers stiffen, hesitating to speak, and it bought Atem a heartbeat of time. He needed only this moment to simply steady himself again. "And now shall I assume that it was only Mother to have the common sense to look for me? Yes? Good."

Seto bristled, his tail lashing in response to Atem's sneer. "No one cared to find you," he spat, eyes flashing. Had Atem been younger, he might have flinched at the jab. Now he did not even blink. "And you could stay in these mountains to rot for all the care I have for you! If it were not for circumstance, you and I would never have come to cross paths again."

"Oh, and what a shame it would be to never see you again," Atem snorted dryly. He had the impulse to nudge Yugi and snicker when he saw the black dragon grin and duck his head in amusement. But to do so would have put Yugi in their line of sight again and he did not want that. As long as they focused on him instead, the God Dragon did not have to worry about Bakura perhaps plotting to turn on Yugi in retribution. He doubted that Yugi could not handle him—he had proven that already—and it was not that he would have let him get so close. He simply did not wish to have to kill him at the moment. There had been enough bloodshed for the day. "But you came to find me for things which have no bearing upon me whatsoever. You are the one who so chose to mate with the Lightning female. The fact that you did not find outside territory to lay your nest is no mistake of mine, Seto."

Yugi tilted his head towards his mate. The bewilderment on his face was clear as he whispered, "Atem, what is he asking of us?" under his breath just loud enough for the red male to catch.

The words failed to connect at first. Atem was still staring at his infuriated older sibling, seeing the way his muscles further coiled with tension. When Yugi spoke the words had seemed at first to filter through one ear and then out of the other. And Atem went to open his mouth to snap, ready to bait his older siblings further, when he understood the query better.

Then he blinked and turned to Yugi curiously.

"Us?" he asked before he could help himself. The Gandora blinked, though he did not seem offended. Atem flexed his claws and butted him gently in the shoulder with his muzzle to make up for his own forgetfulness. "Seto did not leave the female's territory as he should have. She nested there and another dragon has moved in and usurped them all. No doubt he is killing what little nests remain and has forced himself upon the females there."

The last few words brought a distant thought to him, of the many promises his suitors had given him upon challenging him. His golden eyes darkened and dulled for a split second. And he knew this only because of the way Yugi stiffened faintly and peered at him in concern. But the moment passed. The red dragon blinked, considering him, and a few heartbeats continued in silence.

"You mentioned that you had seen him that day when he originally came to ask my aid, yes? You caught sight of the wound on his face and side, you said. He had come to me then for assistance in the fight to potentially overtake this new dragon. He would like me to help him gain control of his territory again." Atem fell silent for a moment. He glanced towards his siblings for a single moment, then turned back to Yugi. He had felt far more scorn then than he did now, though he'd also been far more enraged formerly upon seeing his brother before him after so many years of estrangement. "He wishes to rescue Kiara."

"Kiara?" Yugi mumbled softly, tasting the name. So then that had to be the name of Seto's stolen mate. That would make the most sense. The Sky Dragon would never have had a big enough heart to want to save all of the eggs rather than simply his own. Seto knew no selflessness, after all.

The Gandora turned to Atem again, his eyes widening slowly as he searched his face. "You said no initially and threatened to kill him," he reminded himself and the other dragon.

"And I will gladly keep to such a promise."

Yugi nodded after a moment, though he looked somewhat excited and concerned as well. He continued to study him for a long handful of minutes, opening his mouth to speak again.

"It is not the eggs or the females he wants, Atem."

The statement made both dragons look up, golden eyes fathomless with puzzlement and blue-violet curious and bewildered. Yugi tilted his head. Atem bore his teeth a bit more pointedly, curling his lips back just enough to bare his white fangs.

Seto stared at his youngest sibling with cold, dead eyes. The God Dragon wondered at the haunting quality within his gaze but did not comment. And it was strange to see that the Felgrand refused to blink, not intimidated in the slightest, despite the way that he seemed somehow unnerved regardless. Perhaps his mate made him brave. Perhaps the thought of getting his favor in order to help her was what kept him from responding more visibly.

"He wishes to mate with them, yes, but he has another plan as well. He is picking only the strongest of them, within each of the Clans he has already decimated. He is working to create a breed stronger than even the God Dragons."

Atem blinked curiously, considering the statement. His head tilted and his eyes narrowed faintly. Yugi, however, bristled and leaped forward beside him. His tail was half-raised as if to perhaps thump it heavily in his anger. His teeth were glittering where he bore them angrily. The Sky Dragon beside him blinked and considered him now, curious.

"That's impossible!"

The outburst was enough to make both Seto and Atem startle. Their staring contest stopped and both faced Yugi with bewildered expressions. And Atem found himself unable to think straight. The pure, wild disgust and hatred which shown in his bright blue-violet eyes was amazing.

He had expected something more akin fear. The words, if they had been spoken before, had to have struck such emotion in many other dragons' hearts formerly. Such a statement had to have horrified many of the others. And, from what he knew, the others had been too shocked to so much as breathe properly. Something more powerful than the God Dragons themselves was not a welcome idea in the slightest.

But this young black dragon looked simply irate and furious. It was as if the words had done nothing more than prove his anger more truthful.

"The God Dragons are the most powerful forces in existence. If he truly wants to play with nature itself, he will have to go through a lot more than just us." Yugi lashed his tail, then forcefully thumped it against the earth again. Atem bristled faintly, the small ripple of air and heat crashing upon him for a moment. He flexed his claws, narrowing his eyes, and tilted his head. "How does he plan to take on Atem or Yusei, the God Dragon of the north? What of Jaden, the God Dragon of the south or the Leviathan in the west? He is a fool! He cannot defeat any of them."

"I suppose now I understand why it is that you chose to mate with him," Malik commented wryly. His expression was a sneering smirk of amusement. Atem blinked and tilted his head. "He is so full of worship, little brother. It must be a monumental rise to your pathetic ego."

"Kill yourself," Yugi snarled at him. But his head snapped immediately towards Atem as well. His eyes were troubled, his pupils flipped horizontal once more. But the God Dragon was still facing Seto and he could see the puzzlement in Yugi's eyes now. He seemed to be wondering if he had even noticed that Malik had spoken to begin as it was.

But Atem was fighting himself for the moment. He was trying his hardest not to simply launch himself at Malik as it was. He was tired of the taunts and his claws itched for blood. He pressed his tongues against the roofs of his mouths and then flexed his claws again.

Beside him Yugi had begun to bristle.

And the distress was clear on his face.

Atem considered him from the corner of his eye.

He wondered what might be going through his head, if he was worried that the words had made more of an impact than the artificial scratch it had gained.

"He has boasted of victory against Atem."

The words startled the Gandora, who spun around with a horrified expression. Atem, however, felt relief upon no longer having his attention. And he remained still for a long moment, calming himself, before he turned to face Bakura as well.

"He claims to have fought me? And won?" he echoed softly, tilting his head slowly and considering his cold dark eyes. "I have not been bested in a battle ever before."

And for a split second Atem wondered at this. It was a truth that he had never truly considered before. Not a single dragon to come to challenge him had been capable of besting him. They had been more violent, had hit harder than he had when they'd faced off, but none of them had won. None of them had ever managed to so much as knock him off his paws. He had taught himself to never lose his balance. And none of his challengers had ever come close to winning in battle against him.

So who was so foolish as to claim otherwise?

Yet Bakura was staring at him as if he were perhaps the stupidest creature on earth. "Then, how ever shall you explain what it is that that Gandora is doing beside you?" he sneered in a condescending tone, chuckling and turning to Yugi with a hateful expression. His yellow tongue flicked outwards and seemed to sample the air for a split second. "You have grown soft, Atem."

"He is powerful in battle, yes, but he did not win by brute strength," Atem said dismissively, snorting and tilting his head. "He managed to outwit me."

"Your mind must be weak then," Seto scoffed. His tail lashed, his eyes cold and mocking as he too came to focus upon Yugi entirely now. He sneered and flicked his tongue in turn, blue gaze sharp and hideous. "He is too young to know enough to have outwitted anyone else."

Yugi did not respond to him, instead looking to his mate with a more concerned expression. He was clearly trying to ignore the others that were staring at him, but Atem could not focus on him for the moment. His thoughts were racing for the moment. And the slight was nothing that he cared to acknowledge either. Whether his brothers thought him foolish was beyond him.

"If he's heading in this direction, Atem…"

The God Dragon ignored the leer on his brother's face. Then he flexed his claws and watched him with darkened golden eyes again. "He did not win against the whole of that Clan by himself," he stated simply. "So, then, Seto, how is it that he managed to defeat all of you?"

Seto bristled and lashed his dark tail, spitting in outrage. "He has control of five elements," he snarled. His tail thumped and he spat loudly. His tongue flicked out in a show of disdain, hatred making his eyes crystalline. "And it was not as if he were truly alone. There were a great many more than just him."

The God Dragon tilted his head slowly. "More?" he commented in a quiet voice. He tasted the word on his tongue and narrowed his eyes slowly into slits. "As in an army, Seto? You mean to say that he has built an army in order to face the four God Dragons?"

Yugi huffed out a breath, losing his bristle now. He seemed satisfied with this new information, as if he had not believed in the slightest that simply one dragon could pose a threat to the God Dragons as Seto claimed.

Atem considered this thought. Yugi was not wrong in his skepticism. One God Dragon alone was said to be great enough to possess immortality independent of human belief. He did not know what this immortality truly entailed, however, as he had never quite tried to test the odds of his own death. They had numerous abilities unique to only themselves. And none of them were fully known.

An army was truly the only way to even remotely pose a threat of any kind to a God Dragon, he supposed. He had to perhaps agree with Yugi in that manner.

"You did not truly think that I lost a fight with a single dragon in such a humiliating circumstance, surely."

Atem smirked at the indignation in his oldest sibling's tone. He turned, eyes glittering, to Yugi and smirked wider. "I have a very clear recollection of you knocking my brothers about, no?"

Yugi smiled at him slightly, but then shook his head and frowned. He was searching his face now, Atem realized, and the red male considered this in bewilderment. "Atem, this is serious," he urged softly, gently, in a tone that was affectionate but unnerved as well. "He could be a true threat."

The Sky Dragon lost his amusement altogether. Slowly, dismissively, almost spiteful of Yugi's words, he turned his head away. "You say he controls five different types of magic, yes?"

"From what I was able to witness, he controlled fire, wind, lightning, water and earth." Seto stayed silent for a moment upon concluding his list. Then he bristled, lashed his tail violently, and snarled softly in distress. "But I believe he has the most control over fire and lightning. Or that is the rumor I have heard, anyways."

Atem tilted his head, considering the statement. To have control of five elements was virtually unheard of. He could not remember hearing any such thing except but for perhaps within one myth. And that was a story meant to scare dragonets into doing as their parents bid them.

"What…did he look like?" he finally asked. If he had crossed paths with this dragon at some point, he would surely come to remember if they told him, right?

Bakura looked towards Yugi and narrowed his eyes. Then he opened his jaws wide, gaping them in a smile. "He seems much more like your mate than you would like," he commented dryly. Yugi turned to him with widened, curious and slightly horrified eyes. "But his wings are always covered in blue electricity and his muzzle is much longer. It opened so far that perhaps it would be wide enough to swallow your head, Atem. His jaws seem almost to dislocate. His eyes are narrow and silver and white in color."

Atem watched his brother twitch. The gray dragon was nervous at the simple mention of the beast. And Malik was flexing his claws in a show of distress. Seto was snarling softly, flicking his tongue. He glanced at Yugi but the Gandora was simply puzzled.

"He has reinforced scales and longer claws. He has jagged teeth that lay within rows and rows of one another." Bakura fell silent after a moment. Then he flicked his tongue and snarled, sneering at him with a smirk. "I heave never seen another creature like him before. You would not even truly assume him a dragon."

Yugi looked almost sickened. "Then…how does he look like me?" he inquired, turning his head towards Atem. He seemed scared that Atem might consider him to be a threat and the red male looked at him curiously.

It was clear he was trying to judge himself against the image that had formed in his head. He shivered upon seeing Atem's eyes on him. And Atem wanted for a moment to reassure him. He wanted to tell him that his jaws were not too wide and his eyes were not too narrow. He wanted to reassure him that reinforced scales were the trait of Fire Dragons.

It was necessary of them. They lived in the desert and their armor was made to maintain their body heat during the night. And they had to have such a strong state due to the various fights that came about due to their territorial natures.

Many of them were spiteful and hateful when another came into their space. And any fights were often hideous and deadly.

Even their mating habits were terrible…

"He's dark gray and black," Seto answered coldly. He was smirking, his tongue flicking, and his eyes had fallen upon Yugi again rather hatefully. "Perhaps you are even siblings."

Atem lashed his tail and the sound made his brothers flinch away, hissing and spitting with frustration and tension. They backed up a step in near unison as the God Dragon snarled low in his throat. "Do not accuse him of such unnecessary things," he spat. It was the closest he could do to reassure Yugi, because he could not find the words to tell him that he and the dragon Bakura had described seemed nothing alike. "He is the only of his nest to survive."

But when he glanced at Yugi, the God Dragon wondered. Was it possible, in any way possible, his parents might have been fleeing such a cause as this dragon in question? He had said that they had been fleeing. He had said that at one point, had he not? He had told him that the stress had killed his siblings and he had been the only to hatch, yes?

Was it possible that perhaps they had been fleeing from the dragon in question?

But then…

Who was it that Atem had fought and allowed to leave alive?

It was true that he had never killed without cause. Had they not threatened to force him to his belly and mount him repeatedly or attempted to force themselves upon him regardless of his own victory, they were allowed to leave. He had offered the same to Yugi. He had told him that if he accepted his loss when Atem won, he would allow him to leave with the agreement that Yugi never return to his territory.

He did not allow his more arrogant suitors to leave from their battle alive.

So how was it that such a thing was possible?

He could not think of a single dragon who had claimed to have won and then fled all the same…

"An army to face the four God Dragons."

Yugi blinked at him, shivering at the detached tone of his voice. The golden-eyed dragon turned away again to face his elder siblings.

"An army of dead bodies to add to my collection."

Chapter Text

Part II: Trust

Yugi shifted his weight once more, burrowing further into his side. Atem huffed at the constant movement, as he had mere moments before when Yugi had tried formerly to get comfortable. It was not the first time he had done this, nor even the second. The younger male had risen to his paws, paced a few steps, spun around, hovered for only a moment, and then plopped down forcefully.

Each time his sides hit Atem's, the Sky Dragon found his breath escaping his lungs and his eyes nearly bursting from his sockets. He would grunt with discomfort when he regained control of his lungs. He would shoot him an annoyed look and Yugi would ignore him gracefully.

"Do you wish to speak to me?"

He asked it quietly, softly, as he did not want to sound confrontational, as his unnerved state made Atem far more likely to simply snap at the younger male. But Yugi remained silent, as he had since the Sky Dragon's earlier proclamation that he would kill the army of dragons should they truly come for him.

Even his brothers had been rather stunned by his declaration, quieted by his calm and bored statement. Clearly the issue had been blown up further within their minds than within his own. He could not find it in himself to worry much about it at all.

"No."

Atem stayed silent for a moment. He flexed his claws. Then he looked at his mate and tried his hardest not to sound childish now as he spoke again.

"You seem awfully tense." He forced his voice to come out slightly innocent, full of coaxing. But he was sure his irritation was bleeding through, if only slightly. "And rather discontent, little Yugi."

The Gandora huffed. He got up once more to circle about. Then he plopped down just as forcefully as he had the other few times. Atem wheezed this time, startled by the force. It was enough that he was surprised his eyes did not burst from his skull altogether. He blinked and raised his head, startled.

But now Yugi was glaring at him, growling softly. "How can you be so damn calm about this, Atem?" he demanded. He bristled and his toes flexed as he sunk his claws into the dirt once more. "You don't even seem to care!"

"I have very little concern for an army of dragons that will soon find their end by my claws. And I have faith that, despite his rather blatant worthlessness, Seto has managed to pull forth just enough to put up a fight. And then I will kill the ones who so simply seem to be aiming for me."

"No! Not about that!" Yugi snapped. He got up again, flicking his tongue in obvious irritation. He snarled, pacing several steps and then spinning back around to come to his side. His movements were hurried and harsh, his breathing harsh and heavy. "I am not worried about that either! Between just the two of us, I am sure we could take them all down by ourselves."

The declaration made the older dragon feel almost stunned. That determination which had quelled Atem's hatred a mere two days before, shaking him almost to his very core, now colored Yugi's eyes once more. The blue specks seemed to glow for a split second against the dark violet of his strange eyes. And he was absolutely glaring at him. It was a look of pure willpower, of strength and sheer ferocity, that said his words would be brought to fruition no matter what it was that he had to put into it to bring such a thing about.

"I mean that I despise their being here!"

Atem blinked, startled by the statement, then slowly raised his head from where it had been lowered to his paws. He considered the words for a moment, the way his beautiful eyes bore into his so vividly. He was ready to fight tooth and claw to simply make his words true. And it was both beautiful and horrifying to the God Dragon all at once. He drew in a breath, steadying himself so that he would not show such emotion, and leaned forward.

His tongue ran over Yugi's cheek and he felt it when the darker dragon stiffened in response. His eyes were huge, staring at him as he settled unhappily into his side again. But, as the seconds passed, Yugi seemed to relax. He turned back to him again, eyes softening drastically as they peered into his in turn.

Atem took this to be a good sign. Yugi was no longer as worked up. He was no longer so angry. If he was not so upset, it was more likely that he would not attack them. Atem stretched himself out, sinking his claws into the dirt, and forced himself to relieve some of the tension in his shoulders. His leg throbbed but it was not uncomfortable enough to make him snarl or spit in anger in any way.

It was something that he could sleep with regardless.

"I am not concerned about them."

The Gandora snarled low in his throat. His wings twitched again and Atem realized abruptly that he had messed up. Yugi got up again, beginning to circle. Atem almost reached out to pin him down with his paw and stop this hideous cycle. He wanted rest. If he could not get sleep, he would be the one that Yugi would come to fear soon enough. His leg was throbbing too forcefully for him to be comfortable to lay there awake. If he should do that, he would not be a good dragon. He was becoming exhausted.

It would not do well for his anger. It would not do well for his growing temper. And it would make him violent.

But another part of him felt uncomfortable with the mere thought. It was not a happy one, he realized. He was not one to consider forcing another to do such a thing even for his own sake. He had never truly tried to force another to do something that they did not desire. And the other part of him worried.

His brothers could very well attempt to abuse such a simple display of dominance. He could see Bakura especially leaping at the opportunity to crawl beneath his scales. He could imagine him attempting to make Yugi feel weaker and more complacent or perhaps sneering at Atem to get better control of him.

And he did not want to deal with any of it.

So he simply settled his chin upon his paws again. Yugi came to his side, throwing himself sideways once more. Again Atem lost his breath, lungs strained from the force, huffing as he flicked his tongue. The younger dragon had all but rolled his body over his in an effort to get more of a reaction from him.

When Atem failed to respond, the Gandora was on his paws again. He was snarling and hissing low under his breath now, tongue flicking. "I do not know how you can feel such ease with their presence here," he snarled. He turned to glare at the Sky Dragon abruptly but Atem simply blinked up at him.

He did not want to argue with him. He did not want to have to snarl and snap at him. And so he blinked, long and slow, in a manner that spoke of predatory instinct more than anything. And, as he had expected, this reaction spoke volumes to Yugi. The Gandora hesitated for only a moment, then awkwardly returned to his side to lay back down.

He stretched himself out as far as he could, flexing his toes and tapping his claws upon the dirt lightly. Then he laid his chin on his own forelimbs. But, just as Atem had thought perhaps it was over, the Gandora was on his paws again.

He growled, then circled rapidly.

Atem huffed and looked up at him.

"My gods, Atem, how can you possibly be so relaxed?"

"Because they have no intentions of harming me for the time being."

"How can you be so sure?"

Atem watched him simply, then grunted when Yugi threw himself a little too roughly into his side. His eyes felt as if they might pop out of his head again and so he raised his head to glare at him. His blood was growing hot with anger now, though he managed to suppress his temper for the moment. "Because, had they come to plan to, they would have attempted such action by now."

The Sky Dragon yawned, then rolled over to lie upon his side. It eased some of the ache in his back to rest in such a position. He'd found this out when he was younger. Sprains in his forelimbs or aches in his shoulders or back or wings simply seemed to ease in this resting position.

But the movement had made Yugi still considerably. He had known it would, though he had not truly cared for this reaction. Yugi was going to go back to playing the role of the protective mate once more.

"And I trust that if they should ever be so foolish, you would help me."

Immediately Yugi had turned back to him. His eyes were huge, his breath caught. And Atem wondered at this sight from the corner of his eye. The hesitation made him bristle and he felt his insides roll and twist and coil painfully within him.

Would he aid him if it were necessary?

Atem suppressed a small shiver. He had the immediate thought to roll onto his belly again. He was shaken, terrified. But Yugi had told him that he loved him…right? He was willing to try to compromise with him, was he not? He had promised that. He had even told him that he had tested out multiple ways in which he might make it easier for Atem himself to be mated to him.

He had waited, even, until he was capable of such a thing before he had come to attempt to court him.

He had let him mount him—

This thought rattled him and, unable to shake his fear, the Sky Dragon rolled over to protect his weakest spot. A blind panic gripped at his insides for a moment. And then aggression made him spin to face Yugi in turn. He thought to lunge forward and snap his teeth, fearful of his silence and unsure of what more to do.

But the moment he turned his head, Yugi's tongue came out to run over his forehead. The action was comforting and soft. And it was of striking contrast to what Atem had thought to show him. He nearly shook, horrified, as Yugi moved to snuggle into his side comfortably.

His beak butted gently against his shoulder. His tongue came over his neck again. He reached the back of his crown, then flicked his tongue over his gem as well. He moved to run the muscle from the tip of his beak to the very crest of his crown once more.

"Thank you for trusting me."

Yugi peered at him with soft blue-violet eyes and the sight of them made Atem nearly tremble. It was somehow overwhelming to see him so comfortable and easy beside him. He trusted him as well, didn't he? He trusted him to lay there and not harm him. He was even exposing his throat in his attempts to groom him so lightly as he was. If the Sky Dragon simply leaned forward and opened his jaws, he could snap his teeth shut upon his throat at any moment…

Atem almost wished he could hate him for being so understanding of his fear and insecurity. He was not used to such genuine acceptance. He had known it only once before, excluding his parents…

The Sky Dragon moved to shift his weight only slightly away from the Gandora, twisting his spine just enough to turn his back on him. His chin was laid upon his paws again as he blinked tiredly towards the end of the cliff face. At the other side his brothers were still speaking to one another in low voices. Seto seemed irate. Malik appeared amused. Bakura, however, looked much as he had when they were growing up—distant and hateful.

If there were ever a dragon that Atem had feared might kill him, it would be the Hunter in front of him.

Bakura had hated things more than he ever had cared for them. While Bakura had not been the one to originally initiate the fights amongst their clutch, he had been quick to join them. And he had begun to grow more bloodthirsty soon after. He had launched himself at Atem more often than not, had ripped out his claws and watched him squirm. He had beaten him around more than Seto ever had. But he had not been the one to think for even a moment to harm him so terribly as to cut his side as Seto had. Seto had been ruthless that day, but Bakura had been the most adamant in holding him down, knocking him around when he'd screamed and attempting to smother him for making such a noise.

Atem considered them for a moment. But Seto was not paying him any mind. He, too, seemed oddly unnerved. His blue eyes were on Bakura and he looked ruffled by his despondent expression. Marik was sneering at Bakura about something, his lavender eyes full of scornful laughter.

Yet Bakura remained despondent to them. And Atem was aware that it was only because of the fight before that he did not lash out at them in turn. And, just as he watched them, the God Dragon knew damn well that his brother was studying them from the corner of his eye.

But their apparent closeness even now infuriated Atem.

He had been cast aside for something he had never been able to control…

He wondered at their words for a moment now. He wondered at the various stares they shot him. He wondered at their expressions. And, if he had truly been petty enough, Atem might have manipulated the air to a more frigid state. With the colder temperature the words would then carry to him.

But he could not find it in himself to care so much.

And so he closed his eyes again. Let Bakura do what he might.

If he came towards them, Atem would simply slaughter him.

"I think I will stay awake for a little while longer," Yugi announced quietly, suddenly, no doubt flustered by his cold shoulder. Atem faltered for a moment, startled by his voice. Then he raised his head to turn and face him. He felt sick and incredibly foolish now, more like a hatchling than he had in a long time. He should not have turned on him as he had. And he wished he could find the words to apologize, but nothing would come to him and so he hated himself more than ever for his lack of tact.

He wished that Yugi might simply get up and circle again. Perhaps then he could find it in himself to apologize. But now all he could do was stare, unblinking and tense.

And Yugi made no move whatsoever to rise again. He made no move to circle around and plop down again. He simply laid his chin upon his paws. But, unlike Atem himself moments before, his eyes were wide open and staring. They were focused entirely upon the three Sky Dragons at the other end of the cliff.

Atem tilted his head slightly away from him, then closed his eyes as he lowered his chin again. He was a terrible mate already. He was perhaps the worst in existence. And Yugi would soon grow tired of him. He would come to hate his cold demeanor and disdainful words. He would especially come to despise the way he failed to reciprocate in all of the emotion he showed him.

He could not even stomach to say the words.

He could not even think them without wishing to flinch.

Yugi would come to hate him soon.

He knew that.

And then he would leave.

Atem fell into an uneasy state of rest. His body twitched continuously, uncomfortable and uncertain, and his wings shivered. His tail lashed as the hours passed, as if in time with his heartbeats. His claws flexed again. His lips curled back and his breathing became slightly harder.

But Yugi did not wake him.

Instead he rested silently beside him. He was not sure what he was waiting for, in truth, whether it was the moment Atem would startle awake beside him or if he would simply blink his eyes open and stare vacantly. He had done that the night before. And he had done it more than once. And it was only when Yugi would go about grooming him that he would relax.

And, somewhere, in the back of his mind, Yugi had wondered if perhaps Atem had responded so well because the simple affection was what he had needed most. He had been quick to quell his tremors with soft licks, unsure of what more to do, and each time the God Dragon had seemed to relax slowly but surely.

But some small part of him was truly hopeful. He wanted nothing more than for Atem to think to attack his brothers again.

The silence beyond the red dragon's occasional twitch and the dirt parting beneath his claws made Yugi incredibly uneasy. The other three Sky Dragons had taken to settling for the night as well. Each of them had moved about ten paces away from one another. They laid curled up, protecting their flanks with their wings tightly tucked, almost as if they suspected Yugi of being despicable enough to attack them in their sleep.

A miniscule portion of him was proud to have put such immense fear in them, however. But another wondered if perhaps he had done the same to Atem now as well. Because he had seemed so cold after they had spoken. And he had to consider that perhaps he had somehow struck the same fear within his mate as well.

Perhaps he had somehow managed to unnerve him just as bitterly…

Yugi glanced at him sideways.

But another part of him recognized the significance of his earlier position beside him.

He had exposed his belly and the bottom of his chest plates.

And he had done it with ease.

Now, had he feared Yugi, he would never have had such courage to do so.

No dragon exposed such weak points of their body if they did not trust the one beside him.

But he did not know, either, how it was that he had gained such trust from him in the first place.

Had it been when he had allowed Atem to mount him in turn?

Or was it the moment Yugi had fought against his brothers?

Was it his protective streak which had secured such feelings in him?

Or was it his offer to meet him in the middle and attempt his best to compromise?

Yugi had the smallest impulse to both nudge him awake and perhaps simply ask him if he was okay. Perhaps he should simply lick his cheek, tell him that he loved him again, and hope that Atem might rest more easily then.

But he was not willing to wake him as such a thing would require. He might have felt hollowed by the idea of allowing him further rest, but he was not willing to disrupt this necessity. So the younger male simply lay there, watching the other three Sky Dragons as they began to slumber as well.

Yugi remained awake for hours. He stared at them blankly, all but mindless as the seconds passed.

The sun had already risen again by the time the Gandora even remotely considered sleep. He thanked his more nocturnal instincts, the fact that he was capable of remaining awake so easily and without issue. Yugi stared at them, watching their breathing patterns once more in order to discern that they were still truly asleep.

And then he glanced at Atem briefly to record his restless slumber.

And, finally, when Yugi noticed abruptly how much lighter it was overhead, the red dragon stirred awake again.

"I assume you remained keeping vigil."

Yugi blinked, startled by the voice. He had been sure that Atem had been asleep mere minutes before. And so he turned his head with wide eyes, a flustered feeling creeping through his blood for a moment. He hated how gentle Atem's voice was as he reprimanded him so softly now.

"I don't trust them."

The simple words made Atem's eyes widen slightly as he nodded slowly. "You need rest," he reprimanded him softly. He moved to stretch and sit up, flexing his claws and yawning loudly. Yugi watched the way his neck flexed with this action. And for a moment he swore he saw a wound there, though he doubted it was anything more than his own paranoia. He had gotten between his mate and Bakura quickly enough, he was sure. He was certain that he had prevented him hurting Atem anymore than that scratch to his mouth…

"I can watch them for myself, Yugi. You may rest now."

Yugi was bristling before he could think about it, shaking his head roughly. "Atem…"

Now the God Dragon turned to face him. His golden eyes were slightly frustrated, perhaps exasperated, as if Yugi were nothing more than a small hatchling he was not enthused to have to speak to. But then he must have seen the concern and fear in his eyes, because the Sky Dragon's expression abruptly softened and he leaned forward to lick at his cheek.

"I swear to you, Yugi, it will not be a problem. You may rest. I will wake you should anything come to change."

The words were spoken with sincerity, and yet somehow the Gandora had trouble believing such a statement. He shook his head slowly, and he could almost feel it as his pupils flipped to a horizontal position and he began to shiver. "But they could hurt you. I don't want to know that I had the chance to stop them and I didn't," he protested in a slightly cold tone.

Atem considered him for a long moment or so. Then he flexed his toes and narrowed his eyes, clawing at the ground anxiously for only a heartbeat. "If I remain by your side the entirety of this time, shall it make you more comfortable with such a suggestion?" he asked in a tone that belied the mild curiosity in his eyes, his voice soft and gentle and light. "I will wake you if I am challenged."

Yugi hesitated. "I don't even want them to look in your direction, Atem. I don't like them. I want them gone," he murmured. He snarled the last word and bristled a brief moment. Then he shivered, turning away, and the distress there made his eyes darker when he turned back. His pupils were vibrating again. "I don't want to give them the opportunity to…to harm you."

Atem was silent for a long moment. He could find no words to reassure him. And then his eyes flickered as he shifted closer. He leaned forward, lowering his head to lay his chin upon Yugi's paws. He stretched himself out as if he planned to fall asleep again. And perhaps the position might have comforted Yugi in another situation. But he remembered then just how easily it had been to slip out from beneath him formerly. And now he realized that Yugi had crossed the same thoughts. For the black dragon hesitated, then moved closer still.

He shifted his weight and stood on limbs which popped softly when he got up. Atem blinked and turned to watch him. The black male moved to fold himself along his side. And Atem could not fight away the bristle which overcame him. He did not object, nor peel his lips back. And it was not that he failed to have the urge to do so—for Yugi was climbing upon his back and stretching himself in a way that allowed his chest to lay upon his shoulders—but rather that he felt guilty for even considering it. It amazed him that Yugi had not asked him before he had done it either.

The Gandora was so incredibly gentle and thoughtful of anything that he did. So it occurred to him that Yugi had to be extremely fearful and unsure to do such a thing. Because he was forcing Atem's left wing down into a position that nearly pinned it, and he was all but mounting him. He had come from the side rather than the hindquarters, so he mostly lay draped across his shoulders and flank, head settled upon his neck.

He flicked his tongue nervously, eyes narrowing the smallest degree. Then he squeezed them shut tightly in order to calm himself, steadying his breathing forcefully. "Does this make you feel better?" he asked softly.

Yugi breathed out a little shakily. His belly quivered where it lay over his side and wing. And his claws flexed gently across his right shoulder. "I am not sure," he admitted in a quiet voice. "I honestly don't know."

Atem went to snap at him, furious at first. His eyes had snapped open and he was glowering towards the cliff face. Then he blinked again, letting out a soft breath, and growled low in his throat in order to produce a gentle purr. He concentrated on this noise, focusing on allowing it to lengthen and grow louder. And then he closed his eyes again after a moment.

The rasping quality of the sound was something that relaxed him as much as it did Yugi. And it allowed them both to sync their rhythm of breathing for a moment. From there the black male fell asleep, a dead weight upon his back and shoulders. Atem stirred then, the purr dying away in his throat as he turned his head the smallest degree to look towards his siblings where all three of them stared at him.

Atem refused to raise his head, forcing himself to remain still. He did not want to wake Yugi. The younger male needed to rest, no matter if he thought it was more important to watch out for him.

"And now we all know who is the more dominant of you both," Bakura sneered. His brown eyes were narrow and hateful, focused intently upon the Gandora in question. Atem thought for a brief moment that he might perhaps leap forward.

If he were to do so, the God Dragon would kill him in an instant.

There would be no remorse.

There would be no hesitation.

Atem would cut his head from his body.

The caution must have been clear in his golden eyes, for the Hunter seemed to read it and his hatred grew several degrees.

"Well, assuming that he is truly asleep, shall we speak like actual adults or must the hatchling interrupt us further?" Seto cut in before Bakura could speak again. He shot their gray brother a warning, one which said he would force him to back down if he did not have the common sense to do so beforehand. Atem found it funny to see the two most ruthless of his siblings glaring at one another. He flexed his claws and smirked. "I see no reason to leave my mate to suffer longer than necessary."

Atem sniffed, not in the least moved by his plea. "I did not pledge my allegiance to you," he said simply, disdainful as he looked at his oldest sibling. "I told you that I will kill whoever dares to so foolishly enter my territory."

"Should this army and its leader find its way here, it will be Yugi to pay the consequences. Do you understand that, Atem?"

The red male flicked his tongue, scowling at them. Malik flinched back a few steps with wide eyes. Bakura stepped to the side with his head lowered a small degree. He flicked his tongue and bristled further, his eyes narrowed. Seto curled his lips further back and snarled softly, angling his head away as well. And Atem listened to Yugi's breathing to calm himself.

He could hear the Gandora's primary heart closest to the front of his muscular chest. It beat regularly, softly, warmly. And Atem focused on this until he could not any longer. He forced himself to relax, if only slightly, and turned back to them again.

"Yugi will be fine. If I ensure nothing else, it shall be that," he snapped, though a part of him wondered fearfully at the words. He was astounded to see how much more he cared for Yugi than he had just the day before. It was alarming to him how quickly the instinct came to protect him over himself. He had known such a thing would come to happen, but he had assumed that it would take longer than this. He had thought it took years or moons at the very least. But it had taken all of a second day and night for him to begin thinking of Yugi ahead of himself…

It was somewhat overwhelming to him. He flexed his claws and glanced from the corner of his eye towards the blue-violet-eyed Gandora. The younger male was still fast asleep. Atem almost shivered, flexing his claws and narrowing his eyes faintly. He was not sure how he was meant to balance such instinct…

Was this truly how quickly such instincts came forward?

Did it only take a Sky Dragon one mounting to bond so fully?

He stared at Seto for a moment now, wondering if he had been the same way. He nearly shivered, flexing his claws once more. But, perhaps, instead, he and his mate had had a lot more exposure to each other, had spent more time with each other…

Atem shook it off, shifting his head slightly. It was a full body jerk with which he rid himself of the thought. And the action caused Yugi to startle awake. His head snapped up, a grunt of a breath leaving his mouth. His eyes were on Atem again immediately and the Sky Dragon blinked back at him. The concern was clear in Yugi's gaze, bewildered and confused but incredibly anxious and ready to lunge forward at any moment. The Gandora considered him for a minute or so longer, glanced at his brothers with a vicious snarl, and then tightened his muscles and settled back to rest again.

The action caused his forelegs to tuck more firmly into his own chest. And his hooked claws grazed Atem's shoulders, tapping gently against his scales. The Slifer watched him for a moment, studying him as Yugi settled comfortably. For a moment the younger male drew in a deep breath, then he yawned and grew still again, settling again.

He was breathing evenly once more within seconds.

"And what if you cannot protect him?"

Atem could not help the surge of rage which came through him. He thumped his tail before he could think it through. And the action made Yugi stir, if only slightly, and the Sky Dragon almost cursed. But the Gandora did not seem to be waking anytime soon. And so Atem turned back, snarling softly, all but spitting angrily, "I can protect him. And, if by some miracle, I truly am to be struck down, should he flee north he shall find allies."

Bakura bristled visibly in response. A sneer crossed his face and he snorted loudly. "North?" he sneered. "Into Wind Dragon territory? Is that truly where you propose to send him?"

"You seem to forget that he is half Wind Dragon. It would be easy for him to make allies of them. And it would not be hard for him to best the ranking male there should it come down to such a thing." Atem fell silent after a long moment, then snorted as he flicked his tongue. "But this is foolishness. I am capable of killing them all should it be necessary. Although, I assume much like within a human war, once their leader should be struck down, they will likely come to lose their determination to battle with a God Dragon."

"You say that as if you are not mortal," Seto hissed in turn, thumping his tail in turn. He seemed to be eyeing Yugi as if it might explain his attitude. He seemed disgusted more than anything, hateful as he studied Atem immediately after. He had looked at Yugi as if he thought the Gandora had promised him the stars and the sun, the moon and the sky altogether. And then he looked at Atem as if he could not believe that he might have been so foolish as to fall for such hatchling tales. "You realize that you are just as easily struck down as the rest of us."

"And you realize that I have fought a thousand more times than any of you worthless carcasses before me now. Perhaps even more, Seto. I am not a fool. I know my mortality," the red male snarled softly. "I am very aware of it. However, I also know that I can win. It is a very simple fact. I cannot afford to lose and so I will not."

"You are willing to stake lives on your ego?" the Felgrand spat, trembling with fury. Malik and Bakura glanced between them, clearly making escape routes in order to move apart should they come to blows. Seto ignored this just as Atem did. "You have no comprehension of who this dragon is beyond what we have already told you and our knowledge is limited. Yet you believe that if you do not consider death to be an option, you shall never die?"

Atem's breath came out in a heated plume of black smoke, his lungs whistling as he fought away the urge to spit a fireball at the other male. His temper was struck, causing his tail to lash violently. A fit of hatred made his entire body tremble for a moment. He breathed out another plume a moment later, snarling low in his throat. And the red male glanced sideways towards Yugi for a moment, alarmed that he might have woken but relieved that he clearly hadn't.

"I grow so tired of your condescension," the red dragon snapped, turning on him with sharp eyes. The lips of his top mouth curled back further, exposing more of the jagged line of his brilliant teeth. He flexed his claws and flicked his tongue in an effort to calm himself some more. "Do you not understand yet? Is your mind too feeble to comprehend, Seto? I am the God Dragon of the East, the God Dragon of Domino. I am the terror. I am the prayer. I am the fable. I am the lore. My name is often too feared to be spoken due to reputation alone. My challenger's army will most likely run the moment they should come to find me in true existence amongst them. You are a fool to think otherwise."

"You think that you are truly so great and powerful?" his brother spat, blue eyes flashing like ice as he stared back furiously. "You lost to a dragon years younger than you."

"That same dragon has struck such fear into each of you, has he not?"

"I fear no one!"

Atem snarled, moving to rise to his paws. Seto sprang. The red dragon readied himself. He bunched the muscles along his haunches. He prepared to slip out from beneath his mate. And he readied himself to launch himself. He flexed his claws and angled his wings towards the ground to lunge.

Claws hooked minutely into his scales.

And then they vanished abruptly.

The weight that had held him down formerly dissipated.

The Sky Dragon blinked, confused and startled. His body felt stiff and weighted for a moment.

Then he rose to his paws again, eyes wide.

Seto was held on his back harshly.

His wings were pinned expertly with a forepaw. His neck was held with the other. The Felgrand was twisted backwards. His large paws were pressed against Yugi's chest. And his throat was incredibly pale where it was exposed.

His eyes were wide and panicked. And they were boring into Yugi's.

And, for a moment, all Atem could think, staring at the pale flesh of his neck, was that Seto looked almost…

Truly serpentine…

"By the gods," Malik cursed, sputtering.

He, like his siblings, had barely even seen the Gandora move. One second he had been draped across his youngest brother almost like a second layer of armor. He'd been fast asleep and relaxed. And then the next he had hurtled himself across the clearing and pinned his eldest.

Malik glanced at Bakura. The Hunter was shivering, lashing his tail anxiously. He looked as if he might tremble at any moment. But he did not seem inclined to leap into the fight either. Malik thanked the gods for that small mercy, sure that the Hunter would have been the first to challenge him so foolishly.

And then he turned back.

Yugi had opened his mouth fully. He was breathing hard, flanks heaving. He was trembling with the force of his restraint. His eyes were unfocused. His pupils were splintered with jagged shards of bright blue-violet like forks of lightning.

"Little one," Atem muttered. He trotted those few yards between them and stopped at his side. He not blink, nor did he remove his eyes from his mate. He tilted his head, studying him for a moment. "It's okay."

Yugi panted. His wings quivered. His pupils began to flip and fold within themselves. They became mere pinpricks in his rage. He shook his head rather violently. His eyes flashed again. And then they bore into Atem's for a moment. He clearly was struggling to understand what he was saying. He was shaking furiously. His body was tightly wired. He seemed to try to talk, but his jaw clenched. Atem could see the power in it, the muscles flexing and bunching. His teeth trembled faintly, ground too tightly against each other.

But then it fell open. And he began to tremble harder. His eyes were vibrating in their sockets. His pupils were dancing, splintered and much alike cracked ice.

Atem could understand this. He had often had such moments when he'd battled a suitor.

But it had always been when he'd fought and his victory had been made a mockery of by his challenger. They would push and push.

And he only had so much patience within him.

He had only so much care to show.

He had only so much honor before his temper might flare.

He would grow enraged. He would tremble. And it would be their only warning. His tail would come then. And it would snap through muscle and sinew and bone. And their head would topple from their throat.

Yet Yugi held himself there in an effort not to hurt anyone else. He was struggling not to kill Seto simply for posing a threat to his mate. He was trying his hardest not to kill mindlessly.

And so the God Dragon found the situation far more daunting than he wished to admit at that moment.

He moved forward after a moment.

Yugi hesitated. Then he snarled a degree louder. His jaw quivered, threatening to snap shut again. The muscles in his throat tightened and rippled. He shook almost as a leaf might. Because it was clear that he could not move without lashing out. He would sink his teeth into flesh. And he would claw through hardened scales and strengthened muscles. He would do so blindly.

And Atem knew without thought that he would attack him if he were to drift too much closer.

And then Yugi would most likely never forgive himself.

But surely he himself would be to blame, yes? Atem was, after all, reading all of the warning signs. There was not another that Yugi could possibly project. And yet he was still coming closer.

Surely doing such a thing would put him at fault, right?

It would put Atem at fault for the attack Yugi might inflict.

He realized, looking at Yugi now, however, that he could not chance it.

Yugi had proclaimed his affection of him too easily to risk harming their tentative relationship by way of causing an accidental attack.

"Yugi, little gem," he tried again. He forced himself not to come closer, to simply stand there and speak and listen to him. "It's okay. I promise."

Bakura shifted his weight. His first instinct was, more or less, as it had always been. He wished to jump into this fight, as he always had formerly. He wished for nothing more at the moment. Whenever Seto had taken to beating on Atem, Bakura had been the first to launch himself into the fray as well.

Hierarchy in their nest had dictated that he go after Atem—the smallest, the runt.

The weakling.

And he had delighted in it.

Atem had squeaked back then. He'd whimpered and tried to hide. And when he'd gotten tossed between the three of them like a broken piece of prey, aching and surely bruised, he would lay in a tight ball for hours. When he would untangle himself—it was no fun when Atem's wings were the strongest part of him and could absorb any physical or magical blow—Bakura would begin it anew.

Until Atem would beg for mercy and even scream for mercy when they still persisted. It was not Atem himself that Bakura had wished to pick on—but his personality and his status as the God Dragon and that hideous godsforsaken second mouth had done well to piss him off. It was simply that Bakura liked to cause casual pain. He reveled in the obvious squeals of despair and distress and the way they writhed when he attacked and inflicted a wound.

He simply enjoyed the bloodshed.

His father had called it disgusting. He'd even beaten him until he couldn't breathe. His ribs had been broken, his body aching. And it had all been because of what he'd realized they'd done to Atem. Malik and Seto had gotten it in the same number of blows and painful reprimand.

But Bakura was rather sure that neither of them had their primary heart shut down from it.

Neither of them had died for a few hours and come back still wounded and exhausted but healing as well.

And it had all been because of a worthless little red dragon with two mouths and big golden eyes.

And, just like then, there was another to punish them for their previous misdeeds.

But this little Gandora was something else.

Bakura had never encountered one formerly. Had he, he was sure he could have handled the fight between them better. But he did know well how utterly destructive they were. In battle, they would catch themselves on fire. They would use those gems in their skin, focusing all of their body heat and energy to cause them to combust.

And then they would eviscerate their enemies with those terrible claws and strike heads from their bodies.

He had heard of one charging into a fight within a Clan of Fire Dragons and combusting so violently that the blast of flames had been enough to sear through many of their scales and stop their primary hearts…

And this was the beast that Atem had taken to be his mate.

How ironic.

His brother had been too soft.

He had been too gentle.

And now he was violent.

He killed as easily as he breathed.

He looked at battle and war as a game.

And he was right.

Many did whisper about him.

But none would name him.

All were too afraid of him to speak his name.

Hatchlings were told to fear him.

Mothers said they would invoke his name if their dragonets misbehaved.

Legend was that he would come in the dead of night and eat them alive.

He was spoken of in only a violent manner.

And yet, Bakura could see it now.

Atem was still just as weak and small and foolishly innocent and gentle as he had been before. The only difference now from then was that he had leaned to mask it behind the killing and his bitterness.

But, before him now, was that same little runt he'd knocked around and torn claws from.

Because Atem was staring at his mate with that same little pleading look. He was seconds from begging. Bakura recognized it from the time he had pinned the red dragon with Malik's help and Atem had screamed for Seto to stop clawing his side open.

Bakura could not help the laughter that spilled from his jaws now.

The noise made all four of them turn to him in unison.

Yugi's head turned just slightly. Demonic hideous little blue-violet eyes focused on him. Atem's head snapped up. His eyes bore into his, startled. And then he stiffened when he saw that Bakura was watching him. Malik stared at him with disbelief. He was clearly visibly horrified by the noise leaving his brother's lungs. And Seto stopped in his struggles. He was too stunned to move.

"You haven't changed a bit, have you?" the Hunter sneered, stalking forward a step.

Yugi snarled and bristled. The scales along his back and neck jutted upwards like thorns of dark black. Gleaming traces of silver lined each of them. And his claws flexed. Blood dripped from puncture wounds on Seto's throat. And the Felgrand panicked, kicking and struggling. But the Gandora didn't respond to him.

His shoulders rose. His wings folded more tightly into his sides. The spears of glistening silver keratin and bone lining them seemed to quiver. He flexed his claws again. And his breathing had become heavier than ever.

Bakura ignored him entirely. His laughter grew tenfold.

"You still have no idea how to stand up for yourself without another doing it first!"

Atem blinked. His eyes flickered a shade darker with disdain. His tail lashed, scraping across the dirt twice in a rapid movement. Then it slowed abruptly, dragging through the dirt with a hideous noise.

Bakura laughed harder, stepping forward again.

Yugi began to shake visibly, snarling louder. His muscles and limbs bunched together. And then he became statuesque in his stillness. His head lowered, eyes glaring at him hatefully.

"You're about to beg your own mate to release him. You should be beating him into submission like we did you, but you've always been far too weak to do that, haven't you, little brother? You would rather be beaten down than lay a claw on another, isn't that right? We trained you well, don't you think? Turned you into a submissive little runt too stupid to protect himself or anyone around him."

Atem stared at him blankly. Yugi bristled somehow further. Bakura smirked and lashed his tail. Then he stepped forward, baring his teeth gleefully. His youngest brother did not so much as blink. And he was incredibly still, much like Yugi himself.

"That's all you are ever going to be, isn't it, Atem? A sniveling little hatchling that constantly cries and begs. Compromise for you is letting him lie upon your back and pin you beneath him. How many others have you let do that before him? I bet a lot of your suitors have managed the same."

Atem stared at him silently.

Yugi snarled louder. His pupils flipped and danced. His irises flashed furiously. He flexed his hooked claws again.

Malik shifted his weight awkwardly. He seemed to be debating how to flee before the fight actually broke out.

Seto squirmed. Blood came out faster than ever when Yugi clenched his paw to still him. The Felgrand was statuesque beneath him after this.

And Bakura dared to step forward once more.

"I bet this dragon comes now to kill you because you could not win and did not give him any satisfaction when he mounted you."

Atem watched him. But there was nothing new in his eyes. There was only anger hiding beneath that glowing hatred. And Bakura saw it.

He noted it.

But he did not care to heed it.

"I don't doubt you don't bring any satisfaction. You're too weak—"

Yugi sprang backwards. His eyes were huge, his body trembling. He yelped and landed in a tumble. Malik was in the air in an instant. He hovered, gaping. Seto took the opportunity to get to his paws. Yugi quickly righted himself again. His eyes felt as if they might burst out of his skull.

Bakura gurgled and twitched.

No one had even seen the movement.

But Atem's tail was in his throat.

The blades were spread open wide amongst the sinew and muscle. The blood was spilling in a rain shower of dark red. Bakura was twitching and struggled for breath. Each inhale brought a hideous sputter and gurgle. His limbs jerked and went through a spasm.

Atem did not blink.

Yugi trembled pitifully. He stepped back from the sight. His eyes were wide, horrified. And his lungs felt as if they were collapsing within themselves. He gaped. His limbs shook hideously. He got several feet back, hurrying to do so. But then he made contact. It was a soft and familiar warmth of smooth scales. And he knew it was Atem without even looking.

But his horror made him panic.

He opened his jaws in a soundless scream. Then he sprang forward immediately and flattened himself to the ground. He cowered there, wings folding purposefully around his body as his tail tucked along his flank.

Malik remained airborne, gaping at the side. Bakura was still twitching. His mouth was slavering with foaming blood. His wings flicked, scraping against the ground. And Seto gaped, frozen in place.

Still Atem failed to blink.

The blood was falling so quickly…

Yugi thought it sounded almost like his own heartbeat. He swore each droplet echoed his four hearts. And panic set in anew. He bunched his muscles. He drew his limbs impossibly closer. Then he clenched his claws and breathed in shakily. He ducked his head so that he could no longer see. The bones of his joints, bathed in silver, came over his muzzle. And then he stiffened impossible further.

A crackling noise came through the clearing.

Malik glanced away immediately, confused.

Seto blinked huge eyes, then stopped short, gaping.

Atem turned towards it as well. His tail jerked away from his brother. The muscle split away to allow its passage. Bakura fell to the dirt, jerking and sputtering. He went through a spasm, blood dribbling from his jaws.

The God Dragon blinked as he tried to process the sight. His eyes were locked on Yugi. The Gandora had turned himself to stone in pure fear. He was silver, with black and blue speckles, a stone of striped granite. His entire body was encased. And he had ceased breathing altogether as well.

Atem was frozen in place, startled. He dropped his tail to the ground. And then he lowered his head. His eyes grew darkened with dismay. His wings drooped heavily. And he stared helplessly at the large stone before him.

The devastation on his face was tangible.

Malik almost felt sorry for him.

But another part of him respected him as well.

No one had even seen Atem move.

He had not even seemed inclined to attack.

And Atem had almost taken Bakura's head off in a single heartbeat. But for whatever reason, he had left him alive. Surely the retaliation would cost Bakura one of his six hearts to heal from the wound.

But it would still allow him to live…

Atem had not decapitated him, after all…

Malik couldn't take his eyes off his youngest sibling. He stared at him, finally lowering to the ground. And then he blinked and glanced sideways at Seto. The Felgrand was staring blankly. He was horrified and bewildered. And he seemed to slook at Atem almost as if he had somehow grown a second head.

For a long time silence and stillness claimed the clearing.

Then Bakura began to gasp and sputter again. His body shook, his legs jerked and splayed. His claws dug at the dirt. He gasped and his sides caved and rose rapidly. The blood came back in hideous waves. But the open wound in his neck began to heal.

Atem wrenched his eyes from Yugi's prone statue form only then. His eyes were harsh, glittering as they focused on his brother. But he could not shake the overwhelming disappointment in his gut. And he knew he wasn't scowling nearly as viciously as he should have.

He ignored his other two siblings. Malik had lowered himself to the ground in something of a submissive position. And Seto was simply staring at him. He was breathing heavily and the sound of his exhales made Atem almost bristle.

The Hunter Dragon began to thrash and sputter. Spittle sprayed from his jaws. His body jerked and thumped in its heavy spasms. And then he snarled, struggling onto his paws with shaky limbs. None of them spoke, the siblings all watching one another rather warily.

Atem finally looked towards Yugi again. The little Gandora had brought himself from his stone state. His blue-violet eyes were huge, curious more than anything. And he was staring at Bakura with a tilted head. But then he shivered, as shaky as a leaf on a branch. Then he looked over his shoulder slowly towards Atem.

At first Yugi bristled fearfully, quivering. But then, miraculously, he relaxed again.

"Hi," he croaked weakly. He offered him a shattered little smile that did not quite meet his unnerved eyes. And then he got to his paws. He approached the red Sky Dragon rather hesitantly. And Atem flinched away, eyes stretched wide as he shuffled back. Yugi did not recognize the flicker of fear in his gaze, nor the way his wings twitched as if to pull forward and shield his face.

But Atem's first instinct was one that he'd always felt. He was trying to shield himself from the punishment he was sure he would receive. His brothers were still there, after all. And he was so used to them coming immediately to attack him.

But perhaps this time it would be Yugi. After all, it would be far more devastating to have Yugi do it. If the Gandora were to attack, Atem was not even sure he would be able to stop him…

He held himself statue still now. Every instinct in his body said not to fight back. When he was younger, it had gotten him beaten ruthlessly. Now it was there to ensure he did not harm Yugi. Atem found himself struggling. He could hardly breathe now, his lungs too tight to think straight.

Yugi craned his neck forward.

Atem tensed, nearly trembling with fear.

A dark blue-black tongue flicked out to run over his forehead.

Atem blinked stupidly.

Yugi pulled back with warm, bright eyes colored with relief. And it occurred to Atem only then that Yugi had been fearful for another reason altogether. The Gandora took a seat a few inches away, looking Atem over for any signs of wounds. Then he glanced at his tail and sprang when it twitched.

He caught it between his paws as a smaller predator might. He looked as a cat would, but sniffed as a dog. And then he considered it with keen, determined eyes.

Atem was bewildered. Yugi kept the tip of his tail locked in place, inspecting the closed feather formation of it. Then he tapped at it with his paw. Atem blinked, confused by the sight. And then he narrowed his eyes. Yugi tapped at it again. And Atem did not want Yugi to press any harder on the center, to touch the bundle of nerves which would have caused it to open regardless. It was not something he wanted his brothers to be able to see, because it was a lethal mistake. If someone found out, all they had to do was pin his tail by that spot and he'd be unable to use it…

The younger dragon took to grooming it clean immediately.

Silence beyond the sound of Yugi's tongue running over his tail persisted for what felt like a lifetime. Atem sat still, letting him groom as much as he'd like. And then, finally, Malik moved over to help Bakura clean his wound and Seto awkwardly hovered, unsure of whether to flee or help.

Then, abruptly, Yugi sprang to his paws.

He shook himself out and turned to face the other three Sky Dragons. He tipped his head up, glaring at them, and snarled loudly in order to gather their attention. Seto jumped, startled, and snarled in turn. And Bakura and Malik both froze, turning to him slowly.

"I don't care for even a moment what any of you might have to say further about the situation. I want you gone. I want you out of my sight," he announced. He lashed his tail. And Atem blinked when it hit him in the side. The impact was enough to wind him briefly, eyes wide with bemused surprise. Yugi cast him a sideways glance and snickered softly all the same. The Sky Dragon realized immediately that it was meant to be only a soft reprimand rather than an attack of any kind. Yugi shook himself out a moment later, snarling at the three of them and snapping his jaws as he bristled and faced Seto solely. "If you do not leave my sight, you will find no aid in this fight to free Kiara."

Seto snarled in clear disdain. His eyes widened, flicking briefly to Atem who flicked his tail and then turned back to the Gandora. "Her name is Kisara," he grunted. He must have seen something in Yugi's eyes, for his anger was gone in an instant and he looked more startled and wary than anything.

"Does it look as if I care?" Yugi snapped. Atem snorted behind him, amusement nipping at his insides. Yugi lightly rapped him in the side once more. And the Sky Dragon snickered as he shook his head slightly and flexed his claws. But, to his surprise—and the smallest hint of delight, though he would admit such a thing to no one—Yugi trotted forward two more steps, snarling and raising his head to level with Seto. "Leave now. I am not telling you again."

"And when is this going to happen?" Seto demanded. His tail scraped in the dirt in irritation. But he was clearly wary, on his paws and refusing to remove his eyes from Yugi's face. "Before or after the dragon comes here?"

"You may return in a few nights," Atem answered in a quiet voice. He looked towards Yugi as if for confirmation and the Gandora glanced at him with a distressed expression. He looked as if he wished to argue, to tell him that they wouldn't help him at all. But then he nodded slightly and Atem turned back to his brother. "In seven nights, come back here and we will help you to fight him."


Yugi sighed and plopped down next to him. He let out a deep breath and closed his eyes briefly. "I am sorry for doing that. You just…really scared me, Atem." He was speaking as quietly as he could. And he was trying his hardest to sound soothing, though he knew his anxiety was clear in his tone. He tucked his wings closer to himself, but Atem refused to so much as raise his head from his paws. His golden eyes stared blankly forward. Yugi had the impulse to snuggle into his side, tucking himself there, but could not find it in himself to do so.

Atem looked so irate and miserable as it was…

"It wasn't truly you." He wondered if he sounded sincere. He was sincere, but he was still startled and somewhat scared. And it made him more anxious than anything and it was frustrating to see how upset Atem was. He didn't have the ability to comfort him and it was enough to make him nearly tremble. "It was the sound of the blood falling to the ground. It scared me. It was so loud and I…"

Atem tilted his head in a manner which indicated he was listening. But he did nothing else. He did not look towards him. He did not even so much as flex his claws or change his steady breathing.

The black dragon faltered, quieting drastically, and then moved forward to press into his side as he had decided against minutes before. He flicked his tongue to keep from hissing as the red dragon snarled quietly. But there was no further objection and so the Gandora ignored it.

"And I'm sorry for getting so angry earlier…when you were trying to make me release him." A small sense of shame came over him and he looked down at his paws. He narrowed his eyes slightly and shook his head. "I was just…really upset and he…he tried to hurt you and I…I just couldn't let him."

Atem did not blink, staring at him from the corner of his eye. "I have no qualms with that."

Yugi flexed his claws, anxious. He was not going to win this uphill battle, he realized. Atem did not believe him in the slightest. He did not seem happy with him at all, and that was enough to make Yugi try again, a different angle forming in his mind. "But you were upset that I…?"

The Sky Dragon lashed his tail. The sudden action caused Yugi to flinch. He spun around, eyes wide and confused. He was half-risen as he straightened the smallest degree, breathing a little harder. Atem's tail thumped, lashed again, and then fell still.

"You are afraid of me."

Yugi blinked and turned his head. The declaration made his hearts hurt as he faced him. "I am not afraid of you." He opened and closed his jaws, then flexed his toes again and breathed out uneasily. "I wouldn't have tried so hard to get here if I was afraid of you, Atem. Your tail makes me wary, as does your temper when you truly lose it. You yourself, I am not afraid of."

Atem scoffed, shaking his head. "You fear my very nature."

Yugi spun on him now, snarling softly as he bristled. A quiver raced through him and his anger made him bold as he spat, "Your temper is not your nature. Your temper is your breaking point, as it is for all others. Your nature is gentle and sweet. I do not care how you have adapted to your life now, or how much you may have changed to protect yourself. Your nature is still the same."

"You should perhaps tell that to the many decayed and rotting bodies which lay within this territory." Atem looked at him, eyes brilliant with mockery as he stared intently into his gaze once more. He flexed his claws and stared at him almost mockingly now. "I am sure they assumed me to be kind and caring even as they inhaled their last."

The younger dragon opened his mouth to spit at him. Then he fell silent again, swallowing his response. He lashed his tail. He flexed his claws. He bore his teeth and snarled low in his throat. Then he turned away, breathing harder than ever. He shivered, anger making him cold and spiteful for a brief moment. Then he drew in a deep breath and tried to calm himself.

Atem raised and turned his head, confused by the lack of verbal response. He stared blankly back at Yugi, tilting his head in bewilderment.

Normally arguments escalated.

Sometimes they became fights.

Other times they remained resentful words and angry glares.

Yugi being so silent, angry and glaring ahead as if the forest were the meaning behind his emotion, did not make sense to him.

He was used to someone turning on him and spitting at him. He was used to having them lash out when they were angry enough. His siblings had done it. His suitors had done it. So why was Yugi not doing it as well?

Atem remained silent. He hesitated and stared at him. But the answer came to him immediately—Yugi was not anything alike those dragons. As much as Atem almost wished he could be—if only to understand and predict his behaviors more easily—Yugi was nothing like them. And he never would be.

Finally, flexing his claws and tucking his wings in a rather nervous fidget, the Sky Dragon forced himself to focus more pointedly on Yugi. "Bakura angered me," he eventually mumbled. He looked away, feeling sick and weak for a moment. Shame bit at his insides and he tried his hardest not to simply fall quiet again. "The insinuations…made me upset."

The Gandora did not respond right away. And Atem wondered if he hated him now. He would not blame him had he found such emotion in his heart to be aimed at him.

"Clearly." The word was muttered in a clipped tone. And Atem nearly flinched away from it. He had messed up, he knew, and it caused his stomach to roll painfully to consider. But then Yugi turned to him after a moment, flexing his claws and peering at him with a frustrated expression. "I doubt you would have ever used your tail like that otherwise."

The red dragon kneaded at the dirt with his long claws. His eyes narrowed into slits. But they were somewhat unfocused as he breathed in roughly. He flicked his bottom tongue, then his top one. A shudder ran through his body. He growled softly. He was not quite sure what he was meant to do with the attention Yugi was paying him now…

"I…I just did not want you to…" He fought desperately to find the words. Then he dismissed the thought of conversation altogether. Abruptly he turned away. He lowered his chin to his paws and faced the opposing direction again, closing his eyes as tightly as he could. "It does not matter. It is over and done with."

Yugi blinked, wondering at his unspoken statement.

He could not help but want to fill in the blanks, to pester Atem to speak again and say it. But instead he lay his head down as well. "You're right. It's past. But I am still sorry that I have upset you. I was never afraid of you."

Atem scoffed loudly but did not speak again. His long red tail lashed once. His eyes closed tightly. And Yugi could feel his tightened breathing. His body was all but shaking with the force of his inhales.

Yugi hesitated for a longer moment. Then he flexed his claws. He watched him closely, then almost trembled. He doubted Atem would take him up on the offer crossing his mind now, but a sense of desperation made him wonder. He flicked his tongue, drawing in a deep breath for a moment. And then he tilted his head, his wings twitching. He wondered more pointedly at the thought. And then he shivered slightly at the idea of such a proposition.

"You know, you did technically win that fight." Yugi hesitated for a moment. His claws flexed and his tail flicked once as he struggled to think straight. He wondered, feeling sick as the seconds passed, if Atem truly understood. Each of his bright red scales began to rise and fall away, his wings twitching faintly. "As victor, you are entitled to a few perks now that you are mated."

The Sky Dragon twitched and raised his head.

His golden eyes flickered with something that Yugi could not read in the slightest. Then he blinked. His gaze sharpened drastically. He lashed his tail and narrowed his gaze. His head tilted to the side as he considered him closely. Then he shook his head and laid his chin back on his paws.

Yugi could not help the small splash of disappointment which blanketed his insides. But it lasted only a moment. Atem was still incredibly uncomfortable, he realized. And he was still trying to grow accustomed to him. He was still trying to understand what it meant to have Yugi at his side as he did. He was struggling with the idea that they had even mated in the first place…

No doubt much of Atem's instincts had changed. It might have only been a day or two that they had come into each other's presence, but his mindset had to have changed. He knew that. The Sky Dragon species mated for life. Everything in him must have rearranged itself in order to accommodate Yugi in some way or another. Their lives were so incredibly long, far surpassing many other species.

Atem's own lifespan would very easily outlast Yugi's.

Atem would survive for hundreds of thousands of years given he remained at his healthiest and kept his skills for battle. As long as he did that, he would be powerful and capable of taking on any threat to pass through his life. Yugi himself would survive only a quarter of that if he was not killed before then. And he was sure that he would have to fight more often than not due to mating with a God Dragon.

He had reached sexual maturity far before Atem himself had in length of years. He was only about a hundred summers at the most, and Atem he knew was almost two hundred if he had not peaked that age yet, though Yugi knew that he had reached his maturity only about fifty seasons before.

Yugi shivered and laid his head down on his paws as well.

Their mating had been so uncomfortable to begin with. He had hurt Atem. His genetics had been the perfect combination of Fire and Wind Dragon. He possessed barbs that had caught in Atem's flesh upon his organ reaching as deeply it could, swelling to stimulate the production of more sperm that burned like fresh lava. And the barbs themselves had been so excruciating that Atem had tried to flee when he'd become lodged. He'd begged him to let him go, to release him and withdraw entirely. And then he'd tried harder to throw him off in which Yugi had finally been forced to go against his former promise.

He'd had to shake Atem by the throat in order to stop him from hurting himself. He would have bled out had he managed to dislodge from him. The internal bleeding would have been too much for Atem to survive.

But his own experience beneath Atem had been incredibly comfortable and easy. The Sky Dragon did not have barbs. He had swelled and possessed the smallest extension of a hook to keep him in place should Yugi have attempted to flee. Had he been female, the hook would have been to ensure that his sperm would have gotten deep enough into the uterus to ensure fertilization and an eventual clutch. But Atem had been incredibly soft and gentle in his mating ritual, nuzzling him and licking at his face and purring.

But Atem had also been relentlessly pursued despite protests and fights.

He had been forced to put up with the stress of being told constantly that he would be mounted painfully. He had been told he would be shamefully forced to his belly. And he had been utterly amazed when Yugi had offered him the opportunity to mount him as well.

So, it was no doubt the fear that Yugi meant he would mount him that made Atem so reluctant now. But then, there was always another factor to this as well. The ritual of mounting a partner after victory was more of a solitary species' trait.

It was one that was most often used by dragons such as Wind or Lightning or Earth. Fire Dragons were too violent for such a thing, their rituals too harsh, and they mounted once, then fled. Water Dragons were solitary creatures which mated in a rather cruel way, the males wrapping themselves around the females and squeezing them like a vice until they produced an egg for them to fertilize. But the males would attempt to eat the eggs immediately after and the females would have to get to it before the father might or else they would be squeezed all over again. Ice Dragons, however, were peaceful unless driven to violence, though they often had to overpower the female by way of physical stature, as the males were several times larger and could weigh over a thousand tons heavier. They tended to mate for life, or in a semi-permanent manner at the very least as Yugi knew for a fact that he'd heard of them changing mates.

And then Sky Dragons mated absolutely.

That fact alone did well to dissuade their entire species to encourage such a physical connection in the sense of mating when they might win in a battle. It was not victory which spurred them on. Sky Dragons tended to like physical and emotional contact, but they were not boastful as other species were. They did not tend to fight over territory, nor did they like to combat other dragons unless absolutely unavoidable.

They had no reason to mount after battle.

And so Yugi felt the stunning urge come to him that he simply apologize.

But he also thought to perhaps nudge a little harder. He was half Wind Dragon, after all, and though he rarely saw the true weight of his genetics in more than appearance, it did happen at times. And now he wondered and his curiosity nipped at his insides. It would be so easy to reach out and prod at him again, until perhaps Atem gave in to his desires. It was a long shot, he knew, but a part of him was curious and the other selfishly drawn to the idea.

He almost hated himself for it.

He would not do that to Atem.

Not when Atem had suffered such ridicule and emotional turmoil as it was.

Not when Atem still suffered the attacks of his siblings.

Not when Atem still had flashbacks and memories and fearful thoughts concerning his siblings.

Not when Atem was still scarred by the promises of those suitors who had wished to simply abuse him.

So Yugi closed his eyes and flicked his tongue unhappily. The sun would be going down soon enough, he supposed. By then he would be wide awake once more, nocturnal by nature as he was. He would most likely spend the night moving about—or at least he would do so for a good amount of it.

He sighed softly and settled for an uneasy rest.


Atem stirred, blinking in the darkness, when he felt Yugi get to his paws hours later. The sun had long since gone down. The sky was pitch black but for a few stray ribbons of color hidden behind the clouds. The moon was smothered and the pine trees nearby looked like skeletons with arched wings and outstretched claws. He thought briefly of the lore that surrounded the God Dragons and his stomach began to clench, his hearts squeezing, as he looked towards his mate again.

Had Yugi come there expecting him to be more like them?

Was he disappointed with the dragon he'd actually found?

The black dragon did not move very far from him. Or, at least, he did not before he very slowly came to a stop a few yards away. Then, with all the speed of an egg hatching, he looked over his shoulder with a somewhat uncertain expression to face him. The glance was not one that said he had been expectant of his awareness of his leaving. It was, instead, one of uncertainty towards whether Atem would be and could remain okay when he left.

The sight of Atem's glowing eyes in the dark must have caused him to reconsider. Because the Gandora slowly put his right paw back to the ground where he'd raised it formerly to continue moving. He watched him for a long moment. And Atem found himself torn between the idea of getting up and following or simply remaining where he was. His indecision made him incapable of getting up so he simply lay there and watched him in turn.

Yugi wondered if it was possible for all four of his hearts to simultaneously break. Atem looked absolutely crestfallen with his absence at his side. It did not matter that he was merely a few feet away. It was the fact that he had even left in the first place. And the God Dragon seemed to be waiting for something from him.

Yugi could not tell what, however, but he had the sinking suspicion that it was meant to be a confirmation of the fear which made his large body so visibly tense.

The younger male turned around completely now. Against the sky, Yugi was one dark void of black with the softest traces of white where his gems were present and the smallest streaks of silver which made the outer layer of them. His wings were long, sharp, and folded precisely along his flanks.

They watched each other for a long moment.

Then, his eyes glimmering in the dark, Yugi sprang forward. He pounced much like a cat would, watching with brilliant blue-violet eyes. His wings twitched and his tail flicked as if he were wagging it as a dog would. He flexed his hooked claws, beaming at him with a wide smirk, and stretched out his paw to touch his forelimb.

Then he moved immediately away again, dashing out of his reach.

But Atem did not move, startled by this sudden action. Instead he watched him, tilting his head a fraction. And then Yugi spun around again, frowning faintly as he repeated the action. The attempt came thrice more.

Then the Gandora finally seemed to hesitation. The confusion was clear on his face and Atem blinked up at him, mystified by the way Yugi attempted to coax him.

The two of them stared at one another. The younger dragon blinked bright blue-violet eyes. Then he leaned forward, tapping him once more. He growled playfully, wiggling his rump. Then he leaped again.
This time Atem moved to intercept the movement. He rose to a seated position. Yugi was swatted gently to the side as the Sky Dragon mirrored him. He wiggled his rump, growling softly in turn.

They both flexed their claws, growled a little louder, and pounced. Yugi managed to weave to the side at the last moment. Then he leaped forward again. The move caused Atem to stumble, the speed surprising him. But it not cause him to collapse. The Sky Dragon swatted him again. Then he caught his shoulder and threw him into a roll.

Yugi rose to his paws again immediately. He twisted around and leaped up into the air. His paws tapped Atem on the forehead. And he used the slope of his skull as something of a branch or a stone. He tucked his wings and pushed off, propelling himself forward quickly. Then he landed elegantly a few feet away.

Atem barely had time to recover from his shock. He was so startled by the action that he could not immediately follow him again. And so Yugi came running towards him. He teasingly tapped the Sky Dragon on the hip with his muzzle. Then he nuzzled the joint of his wing where it connected to his shoulder. The affectionate touch startled him and so the older dragon studied him for a moment. Then he flicked his tongue and stretched his wing out. He licked at the joint there, nipping it again playfully seconds later.

The connective muscle was hard and sinewy, drastically strengthened by heavier membrane. The scales were slighter along the entirety of the appendage, but they were reinforced in several layers. And the layers were hardened, though nowhere near as tough as those of Yugi's own armored ones.

The black dragon moved on to his shoulder. He flexed his claws and licked there as well. Then he pounced again, playfully tapping his forehead with a paw.

The Sky Dragon gave chase and they played until Atem finally pinned him an hour or so later. He had to catch his front left leg—just the smallest bit slower than his right—and use the leverage of his stumble to flip him onto his back. Yugi lied there, startled and panting. Then he stretched a paw out to touch the center of Atem's primary chest plate between the blades of keratin and bone.

Atem considered him for a moment.

He blinked a few times. Then he leaned forward, licking his beak. Yugi had his eyes half-closed, pleased by the touch. And, rather reluctantly, Atem pulled away again to take a seat. He yawned, watching him, and finally closed his golden eyes.

"You could have won in a physical fight with me," he muttered. He turned, eyes the shade of sunbaked sand glowing as they met his. The Sky Dragon tilted his head, considering him curiously. "You are capable of it, Yugi."

Yugi shook his head and rolled onto his belly. He shook himself out after he got to his paws and came a little closer to him. "No, Atem, I couldn't have," he whispered with a small shake of his head. He took a seat now. He watched Atem with an expression that was almost shy. "I'm fast, yeah, but it only lasts for a few minutes. And I can never keep up with you in a fight. I can wrestle you like this because neither of us feels threatened. If I had truly challenged you to a physical altercation, you would have been able to kill me in a heartbeat."

Atem was silent for a long moment, so still and quiet in fact that Yugi glanced at him almost fearfully. He was oddly statuesque and it made the Gandora nervous for a moment. But then the Sky Dragon slowly wrapped his tail around his paws and stared down at him for a few moments longer.

"Then how could you have beaten Seto? And how is it that you plan to win if this army is truly to come, Yugi?" he asked in a quiet voice. His words were all but lost to the darkness for a moment and Yugi nearly shuddered. He sounded tired more than anything and the Gandora watched the thoughts surging behind his eyes, the gem in his forehead becoming shadowed and weighted like rain clouds.

"I'm quick, Atem. I just… I'm not able to maintain that speed for as long as you would be able to. You're a lot lighter in weight than I could ever hope to be. And your bones are so much more fragile than mine. I cannot keep up with you if you were to fight me outright. But if I have the chance, I can take advantage of that speed for a few minutes at the most." Yugi hesitated, blinking as he considered the other male. Atem seemed to be absorbing the information rather patiently. "That's why, when you were in the net, I couldn't catch my breath after flying like that. I followed you only when I heard the net catch. But traveling like that, even for a few minutes, is exhausting for me. I can't go too fast like that for more than a few short seconds without straining too much. And, if you had been able to turn that quickly, you would have gotten me right then and there, Atem."

Atem blinked, flicking the tip of his tail. A shiver passed through him and Yugi could see where his thoughts were without asking—he was wondering what Yugi himself had for days prior.

If Atem had come to deny him his victory, who was it that he might have wound up with?

Atem had been perfectly capable of denying him his win. He could have argued with him that the use of human means in order to pin him and gain his victory was a trick that he would not abide by.

And he would have pinned Yugi to the ground and…

If he had not been too enraged, he would have released him.

Had he been angry enough, he would have ripped his throat out.

If he had released him, Yugi would have left him there, crestfallen and discouraged.

He had told him that he had not expected to win. And it was the truth of the matter. He had not truly known whether he would be capable of it. Yugi had mapped Atem's territory only a select amount of times before he'd challenged him. He had not wanted to leave his scent—smothered as it was—too prominently for Atem to find him.

It was not that a dragon naturally harbored many scent glands or smelled heavily. It was that he was in a territory which was not his own and he had not known if such a thing would punctuate his natural scent or not. It had not helped that he had marked in Atem's territory in pure exuberance either. That would have left trace amounts of his scent for Atem to track and tie to him had he been so foolish as to remain within his territory to find.

But Yugi had to wonder beyond this what might have happened.

He was not sure he could have ever truly fallen in love with another dragon as he had Atem. The Sky Dragon clearly doubted him at times, he knew, if only because he was well aware of how little self-esteem the red male truly harbored. He knew he doubted himself far more than he did anything else. Yugi was well aware of that, almost more so than anything else about the other.

But Yugi knew for a fact that he would never have been able to fall in love completely with another, he realized. He knew that now that he considered it. Atem was his love from the moment he'd caught sight of him when he was six moons old. He was the one Yugi had come to adore before mating had even come to his mind. And he had thought the world of him long before he'd come to understand the concept.

Had Atem rejected his advances, Yugi was not sure what might have come about. He wondered if he could have ever even found it in himself to think to mate with another. He knew that it was almost impossible to breed with another pure-bred Gandora as himself. They were in limited supply and many times the second generation of them came out mentally and physically unstable, much of their body and minds rotted before they even came into the world. Often the eggs did not even hatch. Or the females could not produce them in the first place.

He did not know the full details of it, but from what he understood of it, their genetics were so unbalanced and unstable that it was all but impossible to breed a second generation. And, should they be perfect upon hatching, they would deteriorate as they grew older. They would lose their minds and their instincts within a fourth of their lifespan.

Yugi felt sick at the thought altogether.

"But my scales are also a lot denser and harder than yours. And my wings are built too strong to be harmed in a battle. And my body is weighted enough that it would be hard for an opponent to lift me or knock me over or tear my wings from my body. And I can always do like other Gandora dragons can."

Atem was watching him with a curious expression, studying and listening silently.

"I can use the gems on my body to light myself on fire and I can use that as a fighting technique if I have to, remember? But that also causes me to lose more energy than I ever would naturally in a fight." Whatever Atem seemed to see in his expression was enough to make the Sky Dragon come closer to him. His golden eyes were softer for a moment and he leaned forward as if he might lick at his face or nuzzle his cheek, but seemed to become more self-conscious than before. Yugi wished he could have told him he loved him for even trying, but instead shrugged it away. "It's the curse of being a Gandora. I'm strong but I'm easily overwhelmed when a battle lasts too long."

The God Dragon continued to consider him silently for a moment. The instinct to pull him closer and allow him to burrow into his belly or his flank or simply be near him was displayed clearly upon his face. But he did not look as if he could bring himself to do such a thing, nervous and flexing his claws unhappily.

"And your temper from earlier?"

Yugi hesitated for a moment, unsure of how else to answer him. Then he smiled and leaned forward, flicking his tongue so that the tip of it brushed against his beak. "My Fire Dragon half makes me extremely destructive. And when I'm really upset, I tend to hear my heartbeat in my ears," he explained softly. He shivered and shook his head the smallest degree. "And it drowns out my surroundings sometimes. So I tend to lash out even harder and I'll kill without meaning to because I'm too upset to stop myself and I…I just can't help myself."

Atem closed his eyes and tipped his head to the side. "You are very intriguing to me, little gem," he said softly, the admission tiring him for a brief moment. He flexed his claws and flicked his tongue a couple of times.

The truth of it was that he should have known. He should have realized that the Fire Dragon half of Yugi had been what had caused such a vicious display from the younger male. Yugi was a beautiful and soft dragon at his core, he felt, so he could not imagine that the blue-violet-eyed male was so angry without reason. And it was not as if he might turn and lash out at him at any moment for the sake of doing so.

But Atem also had not expected such an easy and simple admission. He had not expected the near apology that his last few words spoke without true askance of forgiveness. It had seemed something that another would have sneered over. Yugi could have simply snapped at him that it was not his business and, in truth, Atem would have backed away had he done so.

"I would ask to know more. But I would much rather know where it was that you were planning to go before you realized I was awake."

The words were met with silence for a moment. Yugi was too invigorated by the statement to simply answer him. He was trembling with delight, hearts racing within his chest. He flexed his claws and flicked his tongue, his excitement causing him to all but tremble. Atem truly thought him intriguing?

He raised his chin, proud and satisfied, and then rose to his paws once more as he looked at him with brightened eyes.

"I was going to go hunting, actually," he answered, beaming when Atem opened his eyes again to study him with a tilt of his head. "And then I was going to see about somehow setting a perimeter for battle if they truly do find their way here."

And then Atem blinked and stared at him, clearly startled by his explanation. He seemed to be stunned more than anything, as if the thought that Yugi might consider defensive maneuvers to protect them both was astounding to him. But then he tilted his head again and peered at him curiously.

And Yugi knew for a fact that it was not a common thought. Many dragons would never have considered it. It was often the idea that a threat could be handled simply when it was before them. Dragons did not often think ahead of time. They did not often accept nor promote the lengths of such strategic preparations.

Yugi had always tried to work against such an instinct. The only reason being had been the need to find his way to Atem. It had been something he'd had to harness and turn on, focusing more on how to hide from the God Dragon than anything else. Planning on such things had meant that he'd been forced to consider the things that he had not wanted to.

He'd had to consider failure.

He'd had to consider Atem's temper being lost.

He'd had to consider Atem simply killing him.

He'd had to accept that the humans were worthless in terms of voluntary help.

He'd had to accept that he'd be slinking about in the shadows until he could use the nets.

Yugi flexed his claws again and shook his head the smallest degree. "I thought that after I finished eating I would see about making some kind of traps or something of that nature," he continued. He tucked his wings tightly into his sides, narrowing his eyes slightly and flexing his claws more pointedly.

In truth he had not considered how Atem would react to such a declaration. And there was no telling how the God Dragon might come to accept or reject the idea in and of itself.

But he had said once or twice that he enjoyed his cunning. He had said that it had more or less found him attracted to the Gandora. But that did not mean that he would appreciate such measures in a battle.

"But then I saw that you were awake and I…I truly wanted to spend some time with you before I did anything else, Atem."

Atem nodded slightly, but he did not seem upset in the slightest as he listened to his words. For a moment he seemed more skeptical than anything, however. And then he leaned forward, licking his cheek. Yugi blinked huge eyes, startled by his beautiful gleaming golden gaze as he peered at him warmly. The red dragon settled back on his haunches mere seconds later, smiling at him gently.

"What were you thinking to hunt, Yugi?"

"I was thinking of catching one of the buffaloes—they're extremely filling and it will last me long enough to fight if they truly do come within the next seven sunrises or so." Yugi flexed his claws, watching him with bright eyes. Atem seemed comfortable and happy for the moment. And that seemed simply amazing to the Gandora. He had not truly expected to be able to provoke such an emotion from him so soon in their relationship…"And they've moved down towards the valleys along the slope of the mountain. So I thought that it would be easier for me to find than anything else."

The Sky Dragon was quiet and still for a few moments longer. Then he slowly nodded. "That is…a well-conceived plan. Let's do it."

Yugi was gorging himself on the male buffalo twenty minutes later, eating as if he had not done so in years. He had caught it expertly enough, using some of the mud from the riverbank to offer camouflage. He'd settled next to a single stone nearby and had rested atop it until the buffalo had passed nearby at the sound of Atem's snarling when he'd asked him to do so. The buffalo had passed by almost immediately after and Yugi had pounced on it in an instant.

The experience had been almost effortless in truth. But it had mostly been due to having two dragons to perform the ambush. Had it just been him, Yugi would have covered himself in mud and then used some wind magic to wake them. He would have launched himself from the bank and gone for the throat in the hopes of crushing their windpipe quickly enough.

But with Atem there and the Sky Dragon's offer to help, he'd been able to minimize the energy he'd spent and give himself more of a chance to aim properly. Clinging to an animal when they panicked was not an easy task, even if he weighed more than the animal in question.

He'd offered the Sky Dragon a bite when the buffalo lay still in his paws. But Atem had shaken his head and thanked him graciously with a small declination. And so Yugi had leaped into the task of filling his belly, tearing through the stomach of his catch with a rather wild abandon.

Yugi's entire face was shiny with blood and Atem could smell it each time he breathed in. The red meat was heavy and dense. It smelled terrible and heavy, like melted human gold or metal being welted, and Atem hated it. It caused him to bristle at times, unable to truly fight such nervous reactions. He barely suppressed a snarl half of the time, looking away with a lash of his incredibly long and capable tail.

Yugi would glance at him in surprise at those moments. He clearly did not understand Atem's frustration in even the slightest and he seemed bewildered whenever he turned his head to study him. Sometimes he flexed his claws anxiously, other times he failed to. The Gandora would turn back to his meal and eat and then become further confused.

But neither of them wished to speak and Atem did not think he had the words to offer him a proper explanation so he remained silent. He made sure to simply blink at him, trying his hardest to suppress his newest shiver, and then he would watch Yugi return to his meal. The young male would gulp down as much food as he could possibly fit into his large black jaws.

"And you are sure you don't want a bite?" the younger dragon offered softly. His blue-violet eyes flickered towards his and away again, then locked on his entirely. His claws flexed again and his eyes narrowed as he considered him. He was staring at him, watching closely now, as Atem looked once again rather disgusted. Yugi ran his tongue over his jaws, working to clean his muzzle and beak of the blood he knew covered it.

A new thought crossed his mind and he bristled faintly once more.

How long ago had it been since he had seen Atem go hunting?

When he had been an interloper in the wide expanse of his territory, Yugi had always been certain not to leave his hiding place where it'd existed alongside the human village. Atem could hunt in peace without worrying about his presence there. Yugi had made sure of that, if nothing else.

Yugi had never once wished to encroach to the point of challenging him for food. And he had never wanted to give him any idea that he was stealing his prey. He had been determined to cause as little problems for the Sky Dragon as he could. Hiding beneath his beak had been one of the most excruciating practices in the fact that he'd adored the Sky Dragon so much that each day he'd been able to spot Atem it had made him want to abandon the plan numerous times.

But he had also been a horrifying reality to him to even consider harming him in the slightest in that manner. Not only could relying on one of the prey animals that Atem had survived on have potentially caused harm, but failing to acknowledge him as the owner of the territory while stealing food from him was something that was hardly anything he had ever considered for even a moment.

It had been a disgusting thought. And it was something that was punishable by death more often than not.

And, had Atem so desired, had he found out, he could have seen it as an all-out war.

But Yugi had the idea that Atem would have simply confronted him. The Sky Dragon might have lashed out at him in order to knock him around once or twice. But if Yugi had not fought back and had asked forgiveness and pardon to stay within the territory, Atem would have most likely granted it.

Many dragons shared the territory as it was. They were scattered about the mountain range. And Yugi had been in hiding within the area for closer to a year. He had hidden amongst the darkness more often than not. And he had hunted only when he was sure Atem would not be doing the same. He'd followed the humans more often than not, learning to use their creations for the sake of hunting anything from fish to deer. It had taken running across a mountain lion and later a buffalo to realize that perhaps weighting the ends of the nets would be best to keep Atem from escaping…

He could not recall Atem hunting for over a moon now, however…

Yugi looked at him more closely now, narrowing his eyes. Then he stretched his neck out and tipped his beak towards the scent gland that existed behind Atem's jaw. The Sky Dragon reacted a second too late, however, and Yugi had already drawn in the deep breath he'd needed.

He held it within his lungs in an effort to sort through the various details which crossed his senses. He already knew the vast majority of it, however. He knew Atem's sex, his species, the various genetics that made up his body. He knew his age, his diet…

But there was not a single hint of weakness. And he noted that Atem did not appear any thinner than Yugi had ever seen him before. Atem was naturally thin by design, his frame slender and serpentine even in his battle form. But his muscles were more concentrated upon his body, raw power and strength along his shoulders and hindquarters. His tail was thin and long and made up the vast majority of his length. But the bases of his wings were tightly coiled muscle, his throat slender and his jaws powerful and immense where the bones flexed.

That had not changed in the slightest.

Atem had not even lost weight in the formation of the flesh hidden beneath his protective chest plates. The huge downward tusks of keratin which spread from the center like fangs were perfectly shaped and the gloss of his chest plates was still like that of water beneath the sun. His paws were not disproportionate to his legs, his wings huge and draping where they rested at his sides, and he was a beautiful shade of silver and glowing white beneath the full moon like this.

So Yugi could not detect a single hint of weakness in him in the least…

The Gandora turned away, tearing off a chunk of food. He placed it mere centimeters from Atem's paws, so close that the blood of it could have stained his claws had the Sky Dragon so much as leaned forward. And then the younger male leaned back and watched him stubbornly, settled on his haunches and eyeing him with an unspoken desire. The Sky Dragon blinked, staring down at it with wide eyes, and then glanced at him with something almost uncomfortable in his golden gaze.

Yugi tipped his head up, straightened his posture, and nodded at the mouthful of meat deliberately. "You haven't eaten in over a moon," he stated roughly, daring Atem to deny it. The red dragon huffed loudly, looking away quickly. But there was a flash within his gaze and Yugi realized he was ashamed that Yugi had noticed such a thing. "That was around the time that Seto first came to visit you. And now I'm here and you still fail to eat."

Atem flicked the tip of his tail, opening the spade formation slowly, and inspected it as if it were the most important thing in the world. He stared at the keratin and bone blades as if he was perhaps looking for a piece of dirt or a fleck of blood that he knew was not there.

Yugi blinked, huffing loudly, and got to his paws again to look at him with sheer determination in his eyes. The Sky Dragon turned immediately only due to the noise of discontentment. The Gandora pressed closer a step, glaring up at him as he narrowed his eyes and shook his head stubbornly.

"Are you nervous? Are you upset? Are you just not hungry?" he demanded softly, searching his face. Then he quickly looked him over, wondering at the strength Atem still exuded but fearful of the possibility of weakness that might come over him. He straightened again, concern making his hearts squeeze and tremble within his chest while he tucked his wings into his sides and tilted his head. "Are you hurt, Atem?"

The Sky Dragon turned back to his tail. He was tense, his wings tucking harder into his sides. He flexed his claws and narrowed his eyes, closing them after a moment. And then his voice came in an almost nonexistent mumble.

"It is your prey, Yugi. You eat it."

The Gandora lashed his tail. "And, as your mate, I am telling you to eat it as well." He steeled himself when Atem turned to him now. There was a cold and hideous frost which glazed his golden eyes and they stared at one another blankly, with something which almost potentially bordered hate. "You have to be hungry. It's been over a moon, Atem. It's not as if you have eggs to guard in favor of hunting. And I do not recall you being one to avoid eating before. Every fourteen days or so you would go hunting—it was almost always a given! Now what's changed? What's wrong? Why won't you eat?"

At first the words seemed to not properly process to the Sky Dragon. He remained glaring at him, more resentful than anything. But, slowly, as Yugi prepared himself to speak again, the God Dragon sat up straighter. His eyes grew wider than ever, and he bristled faintly as he stared back at him with a horrified and stunned expression.

"You…you knew when I would go hunting?"

"I had to avoid you seeing me until I was sure I could use the net. So I hid from you and marked each day I saw you go hunting," Yugi supplied after a moment of hesitancy. He faltered, shifting his weight on his paws. Then he blinked wide eyes, looked briefly away, and turned back just as quickly. "I knew your schedule very well. You were far more active in the early hours and would settle for sunbathing around the time that the sun would begin setting."

Atem was bristling now, staring at him with unblinking eyes and a tilted head.

Yugi turned away, shame biting at his insides. He drew in a deep breath to steady himself and continued quietly. "Many of your suitors came some time before that. And each time one of them didn't fly away, I knew that you had struck them down. But during the night you were almost always resting in your den." He began to shift his weight again, anxiously clawing at the ground for a moment. "And, if not that, you were moving about the territory to play in the rivers or occasionally just watching the humans' movements at the end of the mountains. I had always assumed that was because you were trying to conserve your strength…"

The Sky Dragon thumped his tail on the ground. His head tipped downward. His claws sank into the earth. He exhaled a deep breath. And then he shuddered. He could see Yugi stiffen in shock at the sight and he bristled faintly once more. He stared down at the ground more pointedly.

He could not understand it. He had never known of anyone to show such interest in him before. It was crazy. The amount of time and effort and study Yugi had put forth in his desire to court him was stunning to him.

"You…paid me such attention even then?" he asked softly. He tucked his wings into his sides tightly and shuffled his paws. A small sense of shame crashed through him violently now. Had he truly been so predictable?

And, if Yugi could do this out of pure innocence and desire of him, who might be capable of doing such out of pure malice?

It was just as possible that this dragon that claimed to have won the battle with him before fleeing had done the same. If that were the truth of it, they too would know that he was not at his best right now. They would know that the stress and frustration was eating away at him. They would know that he could not truly stomach food at the moment and they would think him weak.

But, by the gods, what if they were watching him even now?

Atem could not detect dragons within his territory as easily as another might have. He had given them the right to live and exist within it with little to no acknowledgment beyond first impressions. He was almost shaking as he considered it now. Perhaps his nature of allowing others to do as they felt necessary with little interference was not as wise as he'd initially thought it to be.

"Atem, please eat," Yugi said in a desperate tone, shaking his head and peering at him with wide eyes. "I don't know why you don't want to, but I would feel a lot better if you did, dear heart."

The plea made the Sky Dragon shiver.

Atem looked him over slowly now. Yugi had a simplistic and single-minded need within his darkened eyes. And his body quivered faintly once more. For the smallest of moments he had the brief instinct to lash out and claw at him. The instinct to hide away his weakness was enough to cripple him for a split second.

But yet another conflicted this. A steady current of reassurance came through him, reminding him in the easiest of ways that Yugi was there before him now because he cared for him.

He was there in front of him now because they were mated.

He was not there to harm him.

The realization was just enough to force away his anger and self-preservation.

Yet, somehow, Atem found himself hesitating a moment or so longer.

The Sky Dragon had been suffering a deep-rooted dismissal towards food for the better portion of a moon now. It had amazed him when it had first begun. It was a strange sensation and he had never once considered such a thing. He had never even thought himself capable of it. But his hunger was not enough to make him want to eat. It was dizzying and oftentimes it made him queasy.
But now his reluctance was simply there. And Atem did not truthfully understand what it was that caused him such dismissal even now.

But he leaned forward after a moment. He snatched the meat off the ground and tossed his head back. It was released into the air, a steady handful of feet overhead. And he opened his bottom jaw as wide as he possibly could. It landed on his tongue and slid down as Atem had known it would. The blood was thick and seemed to soak every inch of his tongue effortlessly, scraping against the muscle as he swallowed it dutifully.

Atem hoped to every God Dragon to have ever existed that this would calm some of Yugi's intense worry for him.

The black dragon grinned beautifully, eyes brightening drastically. He searched his face, trembling with abundant relief. Then he leaned forward. He butted his forehead against his primary chest plate. And then he rubbed gently against it there. He let out a single loose deep rumble akin a purr and Atem blinked, mystified by this reaction.

"Thank you."

Atem blinked again. Yugi looked up at him just long enough to nuzzle him, licking at his jaw happily for a moment. Then he dug back into his meal. The Sky Dragon watched him as he finished his meal, ignoring the queasiness which overcame him as Yugi stripped the bones clean with his rough tongue. And then, lazy and content for the moment, the Gandora stretched himself out. He rolled over onto his side, his glossy belly exposed to the older dragon.

Atem considered him for a long while. His eyes were sharp with curiosity and his head tilted as he watched him. He shuffled closer. But Yugi simply looked back at him, yawning after a moment. It was in the instant that Atem thought to get up and move away from him to allow him better rest that Yugi got to his paws instead. The younger dragon watched him for a moment, then got to his side, plopping down just as he had before.

And, to his amazement, Yugi rolled back over onto his side, throat and legs stretched out so that his weak points were exposed to him. Atem watched him uncomfortably, anxious for a few handfuls of seconds. Then he flicked his tongue and flexed his claws in a kneading motion to lose his tension.

Then, finally, trying to steady himself as he stretched out at his side, Atem lowered his chin to rest on Yugi's belly. It was more a test than anything, almost trembling as a heartbeat passed. He expected the Gandora to leap to his paws and snarl at him, to perhaps simply snap from his place lying beside him. Instead the black dragon whistled through his nose, eyes closed in contentment, and simply stretched his limbs.

The movement was enough to rattle Atem altogether. He thought to pull away entirely, panicked that he had disrupted him.

But then Yugi yawned and fell asleep within mere minutes. The Sky Dragon listened steadily to his breathing. It was soft and even and he whistled perhaps every ten heartbeats. The rhythm was calming and he could hear Yugi's hearts thumping softly behind the bones of his long ribcage. He closed his eyes, settling into listening to them comfortably, and found himself resting soon after.

He woke again only an hour later.

Yugi had rolled over onto his belly again, yawning. And the movement had been uncomfortable enough to make Atem regain his consciousness. He flicked his blue tongue, grumbling as he rose to his paws and stretched his limbs out. The black dragon sat up, throwing his head back and waiting for his neck to pop. Then he got up, shaking himself out, and smiled with bright eyes as he turned to him.

His eyes were soft and beautiful, glittering like shining stars.

"I didn't mean to doze off like that. But I still want to see about defensive measures." He smiled at him, eyes sharp and beautiful as they bore into his for the moment. "If either of us can avoid unnecessary wounds, then we should."

The absolute devotion in his voice broke Atem's hearts.

Chapter Text

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.

"Yeah…"

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…

"Then don't."

"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…

"Truly?"

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.

"Truly."

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 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—

"Well?"

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.

Chapter Text

Part IV: Blood

Yugi startled awake, his deep slumber cut short as if by the raking of claws. He jerked, body bristling, head snapping up in alarm, and his muscles tightened as he tried to survey the possible threat. But when he looked about himself, there was no mysterious face with jaws too wide or scales gleaming of dark gray and black like slate stones. It was not a dragon he had never seen before, with the power of five elements and what he was sure would be razor-like claws. There was nothing of alarm around him.

Before him, rather than Malik or Bakura or even Seto attempting to attack him in his sleep, it was simply Atem. And the God Dragon was standing in front of him with a paw raised to nudge him again. His claws were light where they touched his when he put his paw down again.

Yugi blinked and frowned up at him, confused. He scrambled to pull himself up on stiff limbs. He shook himself out a moment later, exhaustion and alarm at war within his racing mind. The adrenaline was still crashing through him at the moment, and anxiety met it head on, making him look around again to ensure that there truly was no threat lurking about. He spun around twice, looking and sniffing and even flexing his claws. And then he awkwardly turned back around, confused as he turned to face Atem entirely again.

The Sky Dragon was simply watching him now. He looked amused and concerned but Yugi ignored this. He tilted his head, yawning softly, and took a seat as he considered the older male. "Atem…?" he prompted softly, unnerved by the silence that greeted him.

The red male hesitated, then glanced over his shoulder and back with troubled golden eyes. "Come with me," he requested quietly, turning away and trotting without a second glance. Yugi shook himself out again, shivered, glanced at the other three Sky Dragons still fast asleep, and quickly took off after him.

"What's wrong?" he demanded, hurrying to get to his side. But Atem did not glance at him, instead turning away entirely and leading the way down a couple of small trails that tapered off into slender ledges just wide enough for them both to traverse in a single file formation. Yugi could feel the gentle slope of the ledge beneath their paws, how smooth the stone was under their touch.

But he bristled as they began to rise in a steeper formation. And he found himself looking towards an outcrop of stone that look much like a cliff formation, a sheer face that was rigid in its rising peak. Yugi bristled as they moved about, unable to stop himself from glancing downward. He felt queasy the instant he did so.

The forest below seemed almost like a mere speck of green. And the unfortunate part of it was that Yugi was well aware of just how vast they truly were. He had hidden within them, after all. He had moved about and hunted with the humans beneath their cover. So to see them as mere specks from here made him all too aware of just how high they truly were up the mountainside.

But the trees which spotted the other sloping inclines of stone and dirt were somehow comforting to see. They seemed to rise in the dirt despite the odds and it was a weird feeling to want to mirror such success. He wanted to be able to say that he'd done something seemingly impossible as well one day.

Atem led them to this sheer face. He paused, looking over his shoulder at Yugi with an expression that he could not read. But he had the feeling somehow Atem had stumbled upon the thought that Yugi would not come this high. Perhaps he had assumed Yugi would not have followed him to begin with.

But then the Sky Dragon seemed to relax, moving to stand on his hind legs. He was huge this way, rising up almost high enough to block away the slight moonlight overhead entirely. Yugi could just barely see the ring of its light past the Sky Dragon's crown of spikes. Then the Sky Dragon placed his forepaws atop the cusp of what looked to be a small ledge, and pulled himself expertly up and over Yugi's head. Yugi gaped at him for a moment, but then the Sky Dragon disappeared from his sight entirely and the Gandora trembled for a moment in bewilderment before stepping closer and craning his head.

When he got to the spot that Atem had formerly stood, he could just barely make it out. It was the smallest slip of stone in the shape of a waxing crescent moon. It looked as if the earth had been forcefully hollowed out and he had the suspicion that it opened far wider than he could see from this angle.

But then, he knew this to be true simply by the way Atem had disappeared from his sight. He had been swallowed away by the shadows. Yugi hesitated, straining his eyes for any hint of movement or differences in shades of black.

And then he jumped, bristling. Two beacons of bright gold glowed within the darkness.

The red dragon came to the cliff again, peering over the edge. His head dipped only enough for Yugi to see both large mouths. There was only the softest scraping of noises beyond the darkness, one which the Gandora knew to be his claws working to find better purchase against the stone.

"It is perfectly safe," Atem promised softly, and the shifting sound that came now had to be his long tail twitching, because Yugi could sense the nervous energy in the other male where he had been unable to before.

"I might be too heavy to pull myself up like that…"

But then, Yugi was not even entirely sure he was tall enough either. He was not as long as Atem was. And his weight was so much heavier than the Sky Dragon's ever could have hoped to be.

"I will do it for you then," Atem stated simply. Yugi blinked, hesitating, and then nodded slowly as he sat back on his haunches and stretched his limbs out. He caught the edge of the lip of stone, surprised by how solid and weighted it was. It would hold him, even with how much heavier it was than Atem's. He flexed his claws, hooking them forcefully to get a grip, and tried to push himself up with his back legs.

But his equilibrium was off. And he could not balance properly. He thought to use his back right leg to hook into the sheer stone in front of him, but he could not be sure he could get a grip. And to force the stone to cut he would have to risk damaging his claws. And he could not do that with the fight they were going to be in today…

Atem watched him for a moment. Yugi seemed to be studying the best way to try to climb upwards. And so he did not even notice it when the Sky Dragon leaned forward further. He lowered and turned his head sideways, clenching his claws into the dirt. He would need the extra anchorage for his mate's sheer weight. He shifted closer, tightly coiled his tail, shifted his wings to scrape the dirt, and opened his bottom jaw.

Yugi yelped when he grabbed him around the neck. But he did not struggle, nor argue beyond this. And Atem almost apologized for not warning him. But the spike which rested beside his teeth tickled his muzzle and made him nearly sneeze for a brief second. But then he shrugged it off and pulled him up and forward, tensing every muscle in his body to keep his grip and stop his own neck from being pulled painfully.

Yugi scrabbled for purchase when Atem got him over the side. But he could not pull him any further without risking sending them both toppling. So he waited, teeth still around his neck, as Yugi caught himself. There was a sharp scraping and scrabbling noise before the Gandora got his hindquarters over the ledge. When he was crouched before him, Yugi let out a deep breath that sent hot air towards the Sky Dragon.

Atem moved to mirror his position, crouching, as he waited for the Gandora to both catch his breath and adjust to the darkness. His younger mate lashed his tail the smallest bit, then offered him an uneasy smile. Atem nodded slightly, twisting uncomfortably around in the narrow space of the tunnel walls surrounding them.

"Follow," he murmured softly. He brushed against him and Yugi was like live flames against his wings. He twitched, uncertain at the sensation, and then hurried forward. The Gandora kept his pace, uncertain he was sure but still trailing faithfully much like a human's dog.

For a few minutes the earth stayed narrow and rather flat, with the smallest of declines that Yugi was capable of meeting head on without much adjustment. The Gandora kept close enough that he could have caught Atem's tail tip had he so desired. But he was comfortable with the way the stone and sand pressed so tightly against them. It was comforting to have it so compacted and pressed against the edges of his wings, reminding him of his first few nights away from the mountains. When they had lived underground he had remembered something as comfortable and all-encompassing as this…

And then the tunnel opened wide and seemed to deposit itself into an immense cavernous shape. Yugi could only imagine that this place had to be all but within the very heart of the mountain they were rested upon. It was not made entirely by claws or harsh digging. He could see the natural wear of which water from years before seemed to have somehow managed such a feat. He supposed it had to have been when the territory had once been covered in ice that had sheared the land and formed it in various shapes and terrains. But then, perhaps it had been an opposite recline formerly, and somewhere deeper into the cavern there would be another trail to announce the mouth of a river trailing through the stone beneath.

All around the walls were streaked pale and dark blue, with little glistening specks like silver and gray. Yugi looked at the low slope of the roof and the sheer drop of cliff beneath his paws. It was at least six feet tall, large enough that it blocked any stray air currents from above should they be nestled near it, but not too high to simply leap atop it and trot out again.

But, beyond this, he could picture six or seven dragons resting comfortably within this one space, the walls were so incredibly outstretched. He shivered and moved to drop off the edge of this cliff, surprised when the ground beneath was softer, like pebbles from beneath river water and bank sand.

Atem followed him now, landing a couple of inches from him and taking a seat. Yugi did not bother to glance back at him. Instead, amazed, he trotted forward and back, curious as he sniffed at the walls for a scent other than Atem's. But there was nothing. In truth there was almost no scent attached to the den at all, as if it were something natural that Atem had perhaps stumbled upon rather than made for himself. Yugi supposed that was possible as he trotted about and sniffed again.

But the stones beneath his paws—they truly were from a river!

He nearly gaped at the realization, then lowered his head and sniffed at them as well. He could catch only the faintest, lightest breeze of his mate's scent there. It was the scent glands in his paws that had covered their surfaces and left his personal smell. Had it not been for this, Yugi would have caught nothing. And, beneath them, as he shuffled and sniffed loudly and harder than before, he caught the sight of soft bank sand that smelled almost as if had been baked beneath the sun only hours before. He considered several of the small oddly-speckled stones that were scattered mildly about the walls and towards the center of the large den.

Then Yugi turned back to him with glowing eyes. "What is this?" he asked curiously. His eyes shot immediately to the drop of the cliff behind the Sky Dragon in front of him, where it rested at least a foot taller than the dragon's roosting frame before it. He could see the small stripes of color and the bands of silver, the mild touch of glistening crystals resting there as well…

The red dragon flexed his claws and got to his paws. For a split second he did not drift any closer, then he moved to the other side of the cavern. He patted these stones back in place where Yugi had raised them slightly during his investigation.

"After you said that you lived underground while you were in the desert"—Yugi felt his head snap around more than he realized he had come to do so; his mouth opened and closed twice, his eyes widening drastically—"I thought perhaps you would like to see this den. I made it a while back, and I hid in it more often than not during the time it took my side to heal, before I met Timaeus."

Yugi was trembling when he caught the somewhat sheepish look Atem cast him from the corner of his eye. He was still flattening some of the stones, pretending to be wholly preoccupied with the task. The Gandora took to leaping forward and landed a couple of inches way from him. When the God Dragon blinked and turned his head, Yugi butted him in the shoulder with his forehead, purring and trembling. "I love it!"

Atem watched him for a long handful of moments. Then he glanced at the cave walls beyond his mate's wings and away towards the ground again. He smoothed another stone down and ignored the way Yugi rubbed more persistently, much like an affectionate dog or cat rather than a dangerous Dragon of Destruction. He smiled wryly at the thought, but his stomach was lurching.

He didn't have the heart to admit that he had made the den when he had been under the illusion that he would one day have a nest. But he supposed that did not matter either, in all reality. He had outgrown that idea long before, prior meeting Timaeus even. And the reality of it was that he was grateful to have done so now that he considered it again. The stress of raising little hatchlings and providing them with enough nurture to sustain them and prevent an early fleeing as he himself had done would have been overwhelming.

Regardless of whether he was the one to lay them or simply to fertilize them with a female, it would have been a stress he was not sure he could have ever truly dealt with. He did not think he had the maternal instincts to safely secure his clutch's health to begin with, not after being self-isolated for the most part. It was hard enough admitting he had lost to Yugi, let alone that they were mates. It was a struggle for the Sky Dragon. He could not imagine it being any easier had Yugi been a female Sky Dragon. He could still picture himself turning on him at times, lashing out and snarling and spitting in his fear upon forgetting their presence there.

Atem was not sure that he would have ever been capable of showing them as much love as they needed or deserved. And what of those many nights he suffered flashbacks and dreams of his brothers sinking their claws into his flesh? What of those days when he was all but lost to the whim of simply resting all day in order to avoid even the slightest contact with another?

And what of the days when he would deal with suitors who would not acknowledge the existence of any mate in his life?

He was not infallible. Seto was right about that, if nothing else. He was not so foolish as to even consider himself to be. He knew his physical and magical limitations. He knew his metal limitations as well. And he knew the stress that he had seen on many nesting females would never have done him well in the slightest.

But, when he looked at Yugi, he wondered if the other male still wanted them. He wondered if he still considered at times and had come to merely settle for such an inability. What if he did not even truly love him as he claimed? What if it was simply, as many others had proven, that he was drawn to the allure of a God Dragon?

"It's gorgeous!" Yugi crowed, not the least bit disturbed by Atem's continued silence. He bounced as a small hatchling might when attempting to use their wings for the first time. And he sprang from one spot to the next with such exuberance that Atem could not help but stare. "I love it!"

The Sky Dragon blinked, looking about them slowly. This was his favorite den, out of the many he had initially carved out for himself. It did not matter than he'd hidden in it more often than not. It did not matter that he'd stayed there when his wound was at its worst before he'd finally tried to travel further west and found himself stuck in the middle of Wind and Fire Dragon territories. How he had survived had been something he had not figured out. The Clans should have found him, scented him, and gone to attack him. But none of them had. And he'd run across Timaeus instead, wounded and tired as he was. And he'd ignored him initially, bitter and upset and full of resentment towards his siblings…

It did not matter in the slightest that it was the place he had initially thought to make a nest in. He had been forced to dig and hollow out the entrance, but the inside of it had more or less full as it was. He wondered if perhaps it had volcano or wind erosion. But he did not think in the slightest that it had been another dragon to create it.

In truth, it did not even matter that it was riddled with a thousand more painful memories and thoughts.

None of it mattered.

Yugi adored it.

Atem was sure he could find some kind of love in his hearts for it again.

"It's the largest one," the God Dragon commented, glancing about himself. All of his dens were just large enough to allow him rest in his origin form, curled up comfortably. But this one was big enough for that and another should they have been his size. Seeing as he had a hundred more years to stretch further and fill himself out a little more, this den would do him well. And Yugi could grow more as well, he knew. He would be able to hit his peak in height and weight and never truly have to worry. "And it's the safest. You would never have realized it was there had I not shown it to you. No one would truly recognize its existence otherwise."

Yugi turned around with bright eyes, gaze glowing and much like a galaxy on a cloudless night. "Thank you." He was trembling with his exuberance, searching his face. "This is amazing, Atem!"

Atem blinked and watched him for a long moment. Then he turned back to the stones which lined the den's floor. He supposed he would be flattening them for much of the time they spent within the rather large cavern. Yugi was leaping about and moving around atop them, knocking them about awkwardly. He chortled and shook his head with a wide smile.

Yugi truly was a beautiful little surprise, wasn't he?

The red dragon turned away from his task after a moment. And, much to his lack of surprise, he found that Yugi had not taken his eyes from him at all during that time. No doubt he was studying him, working to figure out why he seemed as distant as he had been, why he was not talking to him at the moment. Atem flicked his tail and flattened another stone into place, then raised his head, studying him as he considered his words.

"I know you do not wish to imagine this, Yugi, but if something should happen, if this fight somehow goes wrong, this den is the best place for you to recover in."

For a moment Yugi simply stared at him. Then he blinked, narrowed his gaze, and bristled as he thumped his tail into the cliff wall behind him. He shook his head angrily but Atem ignored him as he faced the stones again.

"I don't know how this fight will turn out. I was not gifted future sight. So I cannot say for sure how things will progress. But I need you to promise me one thing."

He watched Yugi from the corner of his eye, bristling faintly. The Gandora thumped his tail again, a glare hideous upon his face. His teeth were bared more pointedly than before and he was shaking with something almost akin hatred.

Atem almost laughed at the thought. He thought, briefly, to turn to him and crow with laughter. Wouldn't it be something for this brave little Gandora to turn on him? Wouldn't it be something if Yugi snarled at him that he hated him and left right before this fight? Atem was not sure what he was meant to do if he did. He supposed it would simply prove him right, if nothing else…

"You are not to go back for revenge—and especially not on your own. If I am struck down, head north and ask for a dragon named Timaeus. He can help you. If you mention my name, he will be sure to aid you." Atem fell silent for a moment now, realizing deep in his gut that he was selling Yugi short in every way possible. If Yugi had wanted to use and abuse him before fleeing, he would have done so before now. He would not have gone through this charade of friendship for the sake of breaking him. No dragon was so cruel. "Beyond that, it is your choice what you do."

The Gandora was quiet for a moment. And then his tail slammed into the stone again and his snarl was bitter and furious. "That's great and all, Atem, but if I'm going to agree to something like that, then you will have to make an oath to me as well." When the Sky Dragon did not answer, Yugi began to bristle more than ever and Atem hardly had even a moment to breathe before the Gandora sprang at him. He spun on him, bristling almost fearfully, wings moving to tuck into his sides. But Yugi stopped inches from him, roaring with anger towards his initial dismissal. "You don't play a game with this dragon, understand? There will be no competition or chance for their escape. You kill him when you get the chance and you don't wait a heartbeat longer."

Atem blinked, turning to look at him more pointedly, and then shook his head slowly. "I had such plans already." He was mumbling, but he felt if he spoke any louder, he might laugh or shake with his growing frustration. He faltered after a moment before finally leaning forward, hesitating for only a second longer, and flicked his tongue outward.

It went from the tip of his beak to the bridge of his muzzle between his eyes. Yugi did not calm in the slightest, eyes narrowing and teeth bared all the same. And Atem found his lack of retaliation amusing enough to do it a second time. Now Yugi blinked, clearly puzzled, and frowned the smallest bit.

But then he scowled again, a realization crashing through him as he stared back at Atem. The Sky Dragon was showing him the den now because he was not sure that he could win. He was not sure that Yugi could help him to do so if it came down to such a thing. Because Atem was still new to the concept of a mate and he was too afraid to admit to his own faults and shortcomings towards such a thing.

"And you're going to fight as hard as you can, as long as you can, without so much as giving him even the smallest chance to hurt you. Do you understand me?" Yugi spat, unable to stop himself from quivering with his anger. "If I must promise you things for after this fight, then you must swear to me things during."

Atem watched him silently for a long moment, seemingly weighing his options. And then he nodded slowly. "As you so wish, little gem."

Yugi thrashed his tail. He hated the fact that he nearly trembled with pleasure at the sound of the endearment that left his mate's jaws. "What did I just ask of you?"

The red dragon chuckled, then moved to run his tongue over Yugi's forehead again. "You asked me to kill the first chance I get and not to show mercy. You requested that I should fight as hard as I can for as long as I can. That is your desire, yes?"

Yugi shivered, his blue-violet eyes narrowing. He could not shake the fear that plagued him now. What if Atem doubted himself so much that he failed to do as he had promised him? What if he was willing to let this fight turn tides and be harmed?

"Atem…"

The Sky Dragon watched him again, silent and considering. He blinked, then abruptly turned away from him. In an instant he showed him his hindquarters. His tail was raised slightly along the base. And he sank his claws nervously into the softer sand and pebble of the floor before him.

Yugi stared at him, tucking his wings into his side. The anger which came through him was violent and terrible. He stood there, ignoring the invitation that Atem was extending. And then he bristled more aggressively than he had before, leaning forward. He angled his head and opened his jaws, nipping at his hip and nudging at his leg.

Atem moved his paw and stretched himself out further in response to his touch. Yugi watched his bright blue tongue flick from in front of his beak. And then he saw a small tremor race through him. He was struggling, Yugi realized. He was trying his hardest to keep himself from fleeing. He had braced his muscles and was waiting.

The red dragon flexed his claws again. And Yugi struggled not to snarl in his anger. He leaned forward and opened his jaws wider. Then he snapped them shut upon his hindquarters once more. It was a softer nip rather than a violent one, and it made Atem flinch visibly. Had he been trying to, Yugi would have hamstrung him. But the Sky Dragon jumped, spinning around to face him with a snarl.

Yugi lifted a paw, then gently knocked it into his muzzle. When Atem blinked, startled but not upset, he repeated the gesture several more times. Then he growled and swatted him on the jaw once more. All of them barely graced him and he did not inflict any pain in the slightest, but still Yugi bristled in frustration.

And the Sky Dragon slowly backed up as the Gandora huffed angrily and glowered at him.

"I will not mount you because you are scared," Yugi snapped angrily, lashing his tail and tossing his head about. "You can not ask me to do that. And I refuse to even think about it. You are my mate. I will do everything in my power to protect you. And this? This is harmful, Atem!"

The Slifer blinked at him, then slowly lowered his head and shifted his balance. His wings drooped with clear despair and he stared at the steep step of the den leading to the exit. "I…" He flicked his tail, clearly struggling to speak. "I'm scared."

"And you don't suppose that I am as well?" Yugi demanded, though now his voice was soft and much of the anger had left him. He flexed his toes and closed his eyes for a moment before shaking his head. He wanted to draw him closer, but he did not want to scare him. Atem was still facing away from him and he looked visibly upset; he had begun shaking slightly as well now. "Of course I'm scared. I'm terrified for you, Atem. I don't want you to get hurt! I don't want to see you wounded. I don't want to think of what might happen to you. I love you and I'm terrified too. I just…I can't pretend that this is okay when it's clearly not."

Atem turned to him now, watching silently for a long moment. Then he tilted his head and studied him, then looked quickly away. His chin was lowered towards the dirt and he looked as if he might vomit at any moment. "But there is no use in thinking to pretend to predict the future," he commented in a soft and broken tone. "It will not change things for us to pretend that we know of events to come. We shall see how this fight goes, yes?"

Yugi scowled, shaking his head fiercely. Atem was withdrawing from him; he could sense it. He could sense it as much as he could the fact that the red dragon was dismayed and despondent at the moment.

"I—"

"It does us no good to predict what we cannot know, Yugi." Atem turned to face him now, golden eyes narrowed into slits for a moment. He shook his head slowly and the Gandora wished he could bare his teeth and fight away his self-doubt. "The most we can do is keep to the promises we have sworn to and then I will ask you one more thing and pledge to you the same. When we do this, we give this everything we have. I will not be the only to battle with all I am…"

Yugi blinked, then moved forward to gently butt him in the shoulder with his muzzle. "Of course, dear heart. I would never ask that of you and then fail to do the same," he said simply, though Atem could feel and see the small shiver which crawled down the Gandora's back. And, abruptly, the black male turned away from him entirely. "And then…w-when we come back, we can truly make this our den!"

The Sky Dragon closed his eyes, amazed to see how curiously enthusiastic the younger dragon truly was. Even with his obvious stutter, Yugi was sure that they would make it, that the two of them would survive and be able to make the den theirs.


"We will split into groups. We can go in waves. Malik, then Bakura and I, and finally Yugi and Atem," Seto said slowly, nodding. He looked between them with an expression that Yugi almost thought seemed slightly uncertain. "Most of our allies are already at the edges of the territory towards the west. It should be easy enough to join them there. The fight should be brought from that direction if our scout was right. The Lightning Dragon territory is that way, anyways, so it would make the most sense."

Atem tilted his head away. His eyes darkened for a brief moment, flickering to Yugi as he considered. "A divided attack is meant to be in order to keep one wave from being overexerted and exhausted, yes? How many miles between are we meant to travel?"

Yugi looked towards him with a determined expression. It was the same which he had formerly faced him with upon their first meeting, his ferocity cowed by such inner courage.

"At least a hundred, right?" the Gandora answered, eyes brightening as he focused entirely on his mate with brilliant eyes. He flicked his tail and his gaze softened the smallest degree. "Two hundred at the very most. That gives enough time for the first few handfuls of attacks. But if you go past two hundred miles, it becomes too much to be able to use our senses to keep in time for a synchronized attack."

Atem blinked, nodding, and got to his paws. "In that order, yes?"

"Malik is the healthiest of the three of us and his first attacks are always the strongest," Seto murmured, looking at his younger brother as if he did not understand why he might ask such a question in the first place. He curled his lips back slightly to show his teeth and then shook his head the smallest degree of a fraction. Yugi eyed him speculatively and Atem snorted softly after a moment. "He wears out extremely quickly, however. So Bakura and I will come after the first hundred miles. And you and Yugi will come after two hundred."

The God Dragon narrowed his eyes and looked away for a moment. Then his tail lashed and he curled it around his frame loosely before nodding once. "Very well." The words were said in all but a grunt. And he turned away from them altogether, getting to his paws and pacing several feet away before taking a seat on his haunches and twitching his wings in an anxious, battle-ready manner. "How many allies?"

"There are a couple hundred at the very least."

Yugi shivered. That was a lot of dragons to watch out for. Did any of them know that the two of them would be there? He supposed Seto and the others had had those couple of days to tell them. And then that should have been enough. A Slifer with two mouths and a first generation Gandora were hard to come by.

He looked towards Atem with a tilt of his head, wondering how many of them were mated and worried that they might not come home. He wondered if they wished as badly as he did that they could simply turn and flee…

Seto turned to Malik. "We'll hear the war cry as long as the air stays as dense as it is right now," he said quietly, watching Yugi with a sideways glance. The Gandora blinked and ignored him, facing Atem more pointedly than ever now. "That's your signal to go."

Atem glanced at Yugi with narrowed eyes, wondering briefly at why it was that he had bothered to take part in this. He could simply hide away, could just mount Yugi and stay beneath the ground in their den and not come up again. Maybe the dragon would never even come to know that he was there if he did such a thing. And Yugi would no longer be so worried and they'd be okay beneath the dirt and stone…

The war cry came a few minutes later.

It was a harsh, shrill noise, almost akin a death scream of some kind. Atem could not tell what species it was, but the edges of the noise seemed even louder than its core. And it seemed only to hit a crescendo when it was answered with another more powerful, booming roar. The God Dragon tilted his head, flexing his claws and considering.

And then Malik waited a moment. He looked between his brothers, eyes lingering briefly on his youngest sibling, then took off without a second glance. He was gone in a matter of minutes and Yugi glanced at Atem sideways upon seeing him disappear.

The red dragon would have been faster, he knew. But Atem had trained himself to be so swift. He had not known how to simply due to physical capabilities. Sky Dragons were a faster species, but it took more magical manipulation to make themselves move as fast as Atem could. Atem, however, Yugi knew did not waste the time to do so. He was capable of up and flying off on his own with enough speed to all but disappear when one blinked.

He was almost as fast as lightning, moving in an instant. Yugi had seen him when he'd flown at his quickest, a harsh and deadly shadow of black and white stripes and blood red scales. He shivered, remembering the way he had seemed to almost teleport in that single moment. The sky had lit just enough with the lightning strike to see him, then the second had given him almost two hundred miles of space between distances.

"Well, then I suppose it's our turn now," Bakura growled. He launched himself into the air without a glance at his youngest sibling or Yugi. Seto, however, looked almost uncertainly at the God Dragon, a sense of doubt written upon his face, and then finally turned to follow the Hunter.

Yugi was bristling when they took off. He flexed his toes and tucked his wings into his sides, narrowing his eyes the smallest degree. Then he looked back to Atem, troubled as he glanced back and saw them both as mere silhouettes in the distance.

"What was that look he gave you?"

Atem blinked and looked up from where he'd been staring off into the distance. He turned to Yugi for a moment or two, then looked away again. "I think he believes I will not come."

"What?"

"I told him formerly that I would not aid him and I believe he still feels that to be true." Atem looked towards him after a moment, eyes distant in expression. "He has a reason to fear, after all. He has left us alone to ourselves. We are free to leave without helping him in the slightest and he would never have the chance to convince us otherwise."

Yugi blinked, bristling the smallest degree more. A small wave of shame came through him. He had considered doing so not even minutes before they'd decided to go in groups. He had thought to get Atem alone for a moment, convince him to flee with him instead. He did not want him to get hurt simply because of a war his brother was incapability of fighting on his own. He would rather have been knocked around and his eyes plucked from his skull than have such a thing happen.

The Gandora opened and closed his jaws, then shuffled his paws and clenched his claws. "Tell me we're doing the right thing," he whispered weakly, eyes caught on the Sky Dragon's. "Please, Atem, tell me this is the right thing."

The God Dragon turned his head with startled eyes, considering him before leaning forward. His beak nuzzled along his cheek and Yugi could feel it when he breathed in deeply there, as if he were attempting to memorize his scent. And then he tipped his head lower and pressed gently against the underside of his neck for a moment, licking there once and pulling away. "We're helping an entire Clan of dragons. That impacts more than just my brother and his mate."

Yugi shook his head. "No! Tell me I'm doing right in letting us do this! Tell me I'm not sending you to your death because I'm weak and don't want to have someone hurt when I could have stopped it!" His voice grew a small octave louder and he was all but shaking now. "Gods, please, Atem, tell me I'm not just sending you to your grave!"

The red dragon startled visibly. His golden eyes grew huge, his bottom mouth parting the smallest degree with shock. His body was frozen, a small bristle coming over him. He blinked a few times, staring at Yugi, and then slowly he sat up the smallest degree. For a moment he did not move anymore than that. And he seemed to be considering the Gandora.

Then he lifted a paw and reached out to grasp him around the shoulders, carefully avoiding his wings. He tugged him slightly closer. And then his chest was laid upon his head and a soft rumble rolled through his throat. Yugi was shaking when he began purring, but the noise was beautiful and soft and helped to settle his dismay.

"It's not a mistake, little one. If we let this go on any longer he would find his way here eventually, no matter if we attempt to meet him early or leave him to his own means of finding us."

Yugi began trembling harder than before, voice ragged with distress as he spoke again. "I don't want you to get hurt. I don't want to see you wounded again, Atem. I'm scared that it's—"

"I will be okay."

It was said with such simplistic certainty that the Gandora froze for a moment, wondering for a moment if Atem somehow could see into the future. It seemed amazing to consider that he could not. But another part of him knew better. The thought was incredibly comforting, however, but Yugi knew it was also extremely foolish as well. He knew better than to believe in such a thing.

When Atem pulled back to look at him, his golden eyes were calm and sincere. "I will come back to you, okay? And you will be fine as well. Neither of us will greet death today, my beautiful little chaotic Gandora. We shall make it out alive and, when we do, the den will be waiting there for us and you can put a little bit of yourself in it."

Yugi shivered pitifully, then tucked his wings further into his flanks. It did nothing to comfort him in the slightest, but he wished more than ever that it would. "I love you, Atem," he pleaded, feeling desperate and small. "I love you so much…"

Atem blinked once, long and slow, and wished for a moment that he might return such sentiment. But Yugi had known of him for so much longer than he himself had ever come to acknowledge Yugi's very existence. And he could not say those words. His tongues felt too harsh, too laden and heavy, and the words seemed to make them swell and weigh them down entirely. He was too new to the very concept of having a mate…

As much as the God Dragon hated the admission, he could not even so much as consider the uttering of such words.

"I care more about you than I do anything else. If you have to flee, I want you to do it. I don't care who else gets hurt because of it. If you're hurt too much to keep fighting and you get the chance to turn tail, I want you to do it—"

The Sky Dragon shook his head slowly, clearly stunned by the words. "Yugi, I made a promise to you earlier. I have no plans to turn my back on this fight. Listen to me, little gem," he commanded when the Gandora began to shake and toss his head forcefully. "I will be victorious and we will return to the den. We will be fine and it will turn out just as well."

The black dragon trembled. "Please—"

"I will not turn my back on him unless it is utterly necessary to do so. This dragon will die by my claws if I am able to bring such destruction. I will not allow him to survive should I have the chance to prevent it. But I will try to flee if I am rendered unable to fight any longer."

But turning his back on another in battle…

It was almost like asking his former opponent to take the opportunity to forcefully pin him down and mount him. He had never turned his back on a challenger. It went against every instinct he possessed. It would be the end of him, regardless of whether they attempted to mount him or simply attack. Atem could equate it to nothing else. He had never been one to run, despite being exhausted. The very idea of it all made him more fearful than ever.

One could take advantage of his turned back at any moment. They could try to strip him of his wings. They could try to bite upon his throat or rip it open. They could try to claw him open or hamstring him in some manner.

How many times had he tried to outrun his brothers and wound up hurt further than ever?

If his beatings had taught him nothing else…

He suppressed a shudder, seeing the relief which came over Yugi's face then. His stomach churned, his hearts shivering within his chest. But he kept himself more or less still in front of him.

"We should begin to—"

He halted, blinking, and turned his head with a bewildered expression. His eyes were wide, darkened with confusion, as he looking about the shadows spread within his line of sight.

Had that been his name? Atem found that he could not remember such a voice, nor recall it even slightly. He did not think that he could recognize even the smallest touch of the small squeaking tone. And he did not feel a signature of any dragon he knew…

Beside him Yugi had stiffened, clearly alarmed as well. Then the Gandora slowly raised his head and tipped it to the side for a better listen. His eyes closed after a moment and Atem could see him straining to catch whatever it was that had caused his mate to bristle. The God Dragon watched him flex his claws, kneading them for a moment.

It was a long and quiet ordeal, both of them struggling to catch the sound of a voice that was no longer speaking. Atem was about to leave it alone entirely and tell himself that perhaps he had imagined it when he heard it again.

It was a soft cry, squeaking from its exhaustion.

But now Yugi heard it as well, for his eyes snapped open and he shivered. Atem stiffened and tilted his head again, frowning. They blinked at each other, uncertain and confused.

"What's…?"

Atem shook his head again, puzzled as he looked around. He finally rose to his paws once more, then stepped forward and away from Yugi. The scales along his spine twitched with his growing tension. He listened, then tried to scent the air. But all he could catch was the smallest hint of blood and so he stopped short, growling softly under his breath.

He opened his mouth, allowing his top tongue to slide out of his jaw. His top mouth had better olfactory senses than his bottom. And, when he could not catch the smell of something with his bottom, his top almost always proved effective.

Then he felt it.

It was instinct rather than intuition. But it was this rather than curiosity or confusion which made him turn his head. It was an abrupt and startling pinprick to his thoughts and he realized something he had not considered before. The source of his name could not speak any longer, he realized.

His tail twitched and a small shiver came through him. His head snapped to the side, tongues flicking with slight worry. And then he noticed it, his eyes growing wide and his bottom mouth opening with shock. He blinked, shaking his head slowly, and stepped forward cautiously.

The hatchling was incredibly small, barely the size he had been when he had initially fled his nest so prematurely. It was exhausted, a pale silver and white with flanks that heaved shakily. The wings could barely keep them above ground any longer. But those silver eyes were dull, flat and exhausted and shaking where the pupils were bare pinpricks.

When it caught sight of Atem, it fell from the sky like a rock dropped from a great height. The Sky Dragon moved as swiftly as he could, launching himself forward. The movement brought him just beneath the hatchling. It tumbled upon his shoulders. The blow was cushioned just decently enough that it would not cause harm. The hatchling rolled off his back and down to the ground. It landed in a heap, shaking. And Atem turned his head, bewildered, as he considered the hatchling with a confused expression.

Had the egg hatched prematurely? Had the parents triggered its hatching before it was truly ready? How old was it? How long had it been alive? How long had it been flying? It had been so awkward and sideways in its attempt to stay in the air…

Atem was rather sure he had looked similar upon his escape from the nest.

But he knew of some dragons which could fly the moment they were born. It was a trait most common in Wind Dragon hatchlings, he knew. But he also remembered a few rare Fire and Lightning Dragons capable of such.

But it was almost impossible to truly tell the species of a dragonet so young.

Atem flicked his tail. The hatchling was so incredibly small, so terribly exhausted. And it trembled as if it were its own personal storm cloud.

"Who…?" Yugi questioned, visibly stunned. He had trotted forward to Atem's side, but his shock made his movements slightly unsteady. The silver and white hatchling was trembling too fiercely to catch its breath. It lay across its pale belly and gulped in air. The Gandora considered it for a long moment, wondering at its age. Then he took in its small frame and his hearts threatened to burst as he crept closer still. "Are you all right?"

The Sky Dragon considered him, then this newborn before him. His head tilted, his eyes widening faintly. The dragonet panted, looking at Yugi now as well. Its shaking grew more immense than ever. And Yugi tipped his head down as if hiding his teeth might somehow calm it. But, even as he did so, the dragonet turned to Atem with a terrified expression.

Those brilliant silver eyes looked faintly familiar…

But the Sky Dragon could not place why or how…

"A-Atem," it managed to rasp. It was a squeak around the edges, and his name was almost lost due to its lack of voice. Yugi was staring with huge eyes before looking to his mate as well. But Atem could not turn away from the dragonet. "H-help."

He did not blink.

His mind was racing, trying its hardest to fill in the blanks of a memory he was not sure he truly possessed. His thoughts were mostly of wind and mountain peaks in a distance. There were the faintest specks of red, blood that smelled as sweet as newly-budding flowers. And he did not quite know if it was his own or another's or perhaps that of prey. His side ached for a moment and he thought he smelled rot, sweet and dense and suffocating. He thought of blood dripping from his tail and how the blades were often stained brown from fights with suitors…

He stared down at the dragon, still unsure of himself. The body was so terribly pale, so underdeveloped in color and shape and stature of any kind. The wings were a size too big, as if they had grown long before the rest of the body. And then Atem leaned his face down so far he could almost tap the dragonet with his beak.

He opened his top mouth, breathing in deeply. Dragonets did not truly have a scent all their own when they first hatched and for moons after it remained this way. They were given this defense mechanism in order to avoid rivaling dragons that might kill for the right to usurp. It was good for a fleeing mother in order to allow them to avoid males or predators of any kind that might attempt to hunt them. And so Atem knew that he would not gain much from his ventures.

But it was better to try rather than ignore the possibility of catching at least something.

All he smelled was blood, however. And he could see the smallest speck of red across his pale scales.

"Help with what?" he inquired softly instead. Atem could not think of anything that might have required his aid. Nor could he think of why this small creature might need his help to begin with. Yet, as his eyes flickered to Yugi in question, he wondered. Was there something that his little Gandora knew that he himself did not? But Yugi was already shaking his head at him in response, just as bewildered and stunned as he was. So Atem forced himself to turn back to the dragonet. "Do you need water? I can get you water…"

What about the air? He could make it softer, lighter rather than how crisp it was. It would be easier for the hatchling to breathe if he did so…

Atem tilted his head and looked the small dragon over again.

It was lying stretched out on its belly. Its head was just raised enough to look up at him. It was shaking. Its claws were blunt. Its spine was perfectly smooth. It had a thick tail that tapered in a long stretch half of its body length, and from about three inches from its tip was a single pair of sharp spikes. Its beak was long and smooth, each paw had only three toes. On its back legs, at the knees, were the smallest of nubs that Atem thought might be the formation of keratin spikes. The eyes were pale silver, mostly from the lenses which covered the corneas when the dragonet flew. And Atem could see no definitive features whatsoever upon this pale hatchling…

But there was a long, thin line of a scratch which stretched from his right shoulder to his leg. It almost would have looked like an identification scar used at times in Clans during war had it not been for its freshness. Had the small dragon not appeared so young as well…

But the blood was still fresh. And Atem could see where it was beginning to leak once more. It was only slightly windswept and so it speckled the pale form lightly. He looked, despite everything, extremely familiar. His scales were smooth and shiny, almost like a fish beneath the sun.

He had the definitive traits of a Wind Dragon, even if it was only half—

"Where is your father?" Atem spat, lashing his tail. His wings folded to shield his flanks and he snarled low in his throat. He rose to his paws and lowered his jaws towards the dragonet. When he breathed out loudly, the air which gusted forward was enough to make the hatchling quiver the faintest degree. He flexed his claws and lashed his tail again. "Where. Is. Timaeus?"

Yugi froze in place in front of him. His eyes were huge, stunned and horrified. And he stared at Atem with a bewildered expression. The hatchling before him was still gasping for breath. And the Sky Dragon was struck with the realization that his anger had no doubt done far more damage than it had any good.

"Atem…"

The God Dragon forced himself to ignore him. His body was quivering. His tongue flicked from his bottom mouth. His lips curled back further to show the soft ridges of blood red gums that gleamed beneath his immense beak. His tail twitched again, then dragged about in the dirt. His claws flexed and dug into the ground and his voice curled into a snarl again. After a moment he thumped his tail, bristled further, and crouched to brace his haunches.

Abruptly he spun on the Gandora again, breathing harder. "Yugi, I…" It was difficult to think straight. He was panting now, bordering hysterics with his ragged intakes. He thumped his tail again, unsure of what more he could say. Words made his throat tight and his lungs were heavily constricted.

But Yugi simply nodded at him, moving to bump his shoulder with his muzzle. "Go. I'll meet the others at the cliffs, okay? Come back to us when you're done," he murmured. Then he hesitated for a moment, studying Atem a heartbeat longer and wishing for a moment that he was capable of putting to words the many thoughts in his head. But he could find nothing as the seconds passed. So he turned to rub his head gently against the Sky Dragon's neck and closed his eyes tightly. For a moment he remained like that, then exhaled and turned to the hatchling. "I know you're scared, but I need you to do something for me right now, okay?"

Yugi ignored it as Atem blinked wide eyes and tilted his head in puzzlement. His blue-violet eyes remained focused on the hatchling, focusing intently upon the dragonet.

"I need you to be as brave and as quiet as you can. Can you do that for me?" he requested in a gentle voice. The hatchling was clearly still terrified and exhausted, unable to do more than pant, and speaking at a regular volume made Yugi nervous. He thought the dragonet might attempt to flee at any moment should he be able to. But then the hatchling raised his head and nodded slightly, gulping in air. "Good. Now I'm just going to need you to stand for me."

When the dragonet did so, Yugi leaned forward. His mouth opened to grab it, plucking it as gently as he could within his immense jaws. The hatchling was still and limp when he did so, and he thanked the gods that the baby would not squirm and pull away from him entirely. He did not try to drop from his mouth in the slightest, instead allowing Yugi to hold him loosely in his jaws, his tongue against his belly where it seemed almost that the hatchling's hearts were racing beneath his touch. He slowly turned to Atem after a moment, searching his eyes for only a second, and then turned and trotted as quickly as he could towards the rocky outcrop they had used nights before.

Atem stared at him in turn, a horrified expression coming to cross his face. It struck him rather abruptly, hearts clenching, a deep and jolting pain racing through him, that Yugi had maternal instincts. He had the right instincts to rear any hatchlings he had at one point had the chance to birth. And the realization struck his hearts as he watched him.

Yugi would have made a good father…

He would have been a great father, in fact.

And Atem had ruined such a chance for him…

He watched Yugi lower his head, whispering to the dragon in a soft commanding tone to stay there. Then he turned and trotted away without a second glance. He disappeared from Atem's sight and the Sky Dragon turned abruptly to the dragonet with a confused expression. A harsh crackling noise startled him, one which was enough to cause him to bristle in confusion. His head snapped up as he turned back in the direction Yugi had gone.

The red dragon raised his head a small fraction more, eyes widening drastically in his bewilderment. But, before his eyes, Yugi returned now. He was carrying a large and battered tree branch between his teeth. The dirt was being scraped with it, as it was lopsided in its weight and he seemed to tilt his head in the same direction. The limb was clearly heavy on that side, the pine needles vast and cutting into the dirt as he trotted forward at a quick and easy pace.

Yugi placed it before the hatchling, told him to scrunch up as tightly as he could, and lay the branch there for him to hide behind. The branches were just wide enough to allow the small dragonet room to crouch. But they were also so bunched together in such a tight manner that on the other side they shielded the hatchling entirely from sight. The newborn would stick out if it was to sit up, but in its current position the needles blocked him and the sand was just pale enough to look discolored should he somehow come to be noticed.

Yugi came back to his side after reminding the hatchling of his task to remain quiet and brave while he hid there. The Gandora hesitated in front of him, then looked to Atem pointedly. His eyes were sharp and glittering and his voice was softer than the God Dragon had expected it to be when Yugi rubbed his forehead against his shoulder and whispered, "I love you. Stay safe, Atem."

Then, with a single nuzzle of their beaks, Yugi turned and trotted off. His head turned just enough to check on the branch's placement and then he jumped into the air. He flew off without a second glance towards him, as doing so would only break him further. He might cow beneath his fear more than anything else. He might simply turn back and run to Atem's side, try to tell him otherwise so that they could just flee and disappear together without a single chance of fighting.

The battle seemed to come upon him the moment he got within two hundred miles of the end of Atem's territory, where the sea stretched in an immense and churning shade of dark blue. The land beneath him was covered in blood, the once golden dirt soaked red. The cliff face was more or less blocked with dragons. Some of them were fighting, others were struggling with the attempt to recover their breath. Others, however, lay scattered about, broken and battered and some gutted and clearly dead; the center of the cliff was littered with them, the edges overlooking the water overcrowded.

Smoke billowed from a few stray pine trees to the side. The trunks were a bright and burning red and orange. Swirling masses of dark black and gray ash came upwards into the air, as if beckoning him forward. A strike of wind magic, sharp and furious, slammed through the air with enough force to crack one in half even as the dirt stirred in an immense wave of bright gold and orange. The next magic he saw was that of lightning, a hideous and furious rush of noise which screeched through the air as white and yellow and brilliant neon blue seemed to split the clearing in half.

Yugi spotted the smallest of openings in the fight. And then he dove for it, landing with a single glance about the clearing. He arched his wings protectively along his flanks in case he'd somehow missed an oncoming attack. He was not omnipotent, after all, and he had never fought in such a huge group…

The realization was daunting. How many of their allies had already become ruined? How many of them had been harmed?

Seto was nearest him, he realized. His head snapped around as the Felgrand let out an ear-splitting cry. It was a roar of pure hatred. And the body of an Earth Dragon was tossed violently through the air near him. Yugi stepped aside it, bristling in surprise. The Sky Dragon snarled and lashed his tail violently, blood dripping from a long and deep wound on his forelimb.

He snarled, lowering his head, and flicked his tongue. A Water Dragon drifted closer, aiming for the Felgrand. In turn the golden male lashed out, claws flashing in brilliant splinters of light. The serpent-like dragon cried out in horror, spitting at him in alarm. The wound that graced its shoulder was bright red, hideous to the eye, against it pale scales.

"Where is Atem?"

Yugi blinked, instinctively turning to look at the mention of his mate's name. He almost did not recognize that the question had been directed towards him at any rate. But then he focused on Malik and his hearts raced with horror.

His face was marred with scratches, deep and shallow, and his jaw was slightly strained. Clearly he'd wounded it either from a slash to his mouth or keeping his grip on another dragon for too long. He was panting and staring at him. And the blood splashed across his countenance was even more noticeable than his lavender eyes. His wings were clipped. His right forepaw was lifted from the ground. Yugi could see the skin and muscle split there, fractured bone visible.

"He'll come." Yugi nearly flinched as Seto turned to him as well, eyes wild. "He'll come later."

"He was supposed to come now," the Felgrand spat. He was panting as well. But he was in better shape than his exhausted sibling. Where Malik was struggling, the duller male seemed simply infuriated.

He was snarling when he leaped effortlessly forth as another dragon drifted too close. A fireball shot through the air and the dirt gave way to currents of heat and distortion where it passed. The magic slammed into a tree nearby, which immediately caught aflame and seemed to explode with an immense roar. The noise was brilliant and crackling.

Yugi had not even truly realized the attack was aimed for Seto until the Sky Dragon had dodged away. He could hear snarling behind him. And so the Gandora turned his head with a snarl, teeth bared more violently, and sprang forth—


—sprang forth with a roar.

The sound was so violent it made the air quake as if it were splintering or the clouds collapsing beneath a barrage of lightning. The noise startled the dragon directly before him. The Fire Dragon spun on him. Their eyes were wide, confused. And the Sky Dragon snarled again furiously. His right paw came up and lashed out. The blow caught it upon the jaw violently. The Red-Eyes screamed.

The force alone was enough to throw it sideways. And there it rolled across the ground for a long handful of moments. The sound of snapping and breaking bone was loud in the air.

The scream had caused the fighting to cease for the moment.

Atem turned to them slowly. He leveled his weight out. His tail lashed. His claws flexed. His eyes narrowed into slits. He snarled softly. The Red-Eyes was still screaming. And the intruders had all spun around with horrified expressions.

But Atem did not look towards the Red-Eyes. And the screaming continued.

When the God Dragon tilted his head, he could see it. The jaw had collapsed inward. Blood was spouting violently from the wound. And the bone was horribly concaved where his claws had stuck outward.

The Red-Eyes was in a much windier place than their usual habitat. The earth was not hot enough to allow them to heal faster. It could not use the heat currents to soothe the terrible pain in its jaw. It could not ease the ache this way. It was out of its natural environment. And it was unable to use the surrounding area to regain strength. It was stranded, without the smallest of advantages.

Atem lashed his tail. Then he thumped it into the earth, turning his attention entirely to those in front of him. "What is the meaning of this?" he demanded. He came forward a step closer. The brigade before him seemed to quiver. Clear distress marred their faces and they ducked as if in a flinch. The Fire and Wind Dragons stepped back. Their movements were almost like ripples of water. The Sky Dragon flexed his claws. He waited a moment for an answer, but none came. And so he snarled softly, baring his teeth furiously. "He has nothing to do anything. Nor his mate. Nor his offspring."

The statement was met with silence.

The audacity made hatred swell within him. They did not care? They did not care that they had unjustly harmed them? They did not care that they had broken the lore? One was never meant to lay a paw on a defenseless hatchling!

And then Atem saw movement. Immediately his peripheral vision sharpened. He focused. His head tipped the smallest degree to the side. He bristled, his wings folding. Then he narrowed his gaze. His wings arched and the weight of them fell to shield his flanks.

The impact was soft and muddled. The leathery membrane absorbed the force flawlessly. He had known it would. And so he did not stop for a second to check. Instead he lashed out violently. The other dragon yelped.

The slash hit them in the jaw as well. And the other male staggered. But the hit was not as hard as it had been to the Red-Eyes.

It did not break the jaw.

Atem snarled, lowering his head. He shifted his weight, flexing his claws. His tail dragged across the dirt. It coiled in tight ringlets. And then he snarled louder. As long as his head was lowered, they couldn't hit the underside of his throat. They couldn't hit his jaw where his softer flesh lay. And, in shielding this, it drew away attention from his tail. If he could not keep it tightly coiled, he could not wield it as a weapon. It would take too much time to ready it in the heat of a battle. In the moments it took to prepare and aim, it might have allowed his opponent their recovery.

He had barely rectified this situation during his earlier fights with suitors.

Often he had struggled to utilize it properly when he had been younger.

But he had learned quickly.

And he had killed violently in the span of a blink.

Now would be no different.

"You're much faster than he said you would be," the dragon commented. He was chuckling as he shook himself out. A dark red tongue flicked from behind large, sharp jaws. And the smirk upon his jaws was enough to make Atem bristle faintly. The Sky Dragon peeled his lips back further. He tilted his head. Then he flicked his top tongue in turn.

But there was nothing to detect but for the pheromones pronouncing its gender.

All he could taste was the startling heat which came with electrified air.

"Seems you gained better balance as you grew older, hmm?"

The red dragon failed to blink, peering at him silently.

"It is a shame that you needed so much time to fix that problem."

The dragon straightened in front of him. He was a body of gleaming gray scales and an immense jaw that seemed almost as wide as the trunk of a tree. He looked liked the embodiment of metal, cold and gray with deep shadows. But Atem could see the clear classic characteristics of a Red-Eyes beyond this coloring.

But its eyes…

Atem bristled furiously and flexed his claws. He steeled himself.

The dragon before him had electric blue eyes.

Something in the back of Atem's mind flashed with memory.

A voice whispered of ripping his wings from his body.

Then it hissed that he would scream for mercy when he killed him.

And finally it whispered sinfully that it would give him their heart.

"I was born fast."

The Sky Dragon snorted and readied himself.

The other male leaped—


—leaped, snarling and spitting at Yugi. The two collided in a shuddering mass of glossy black scales. Their legs became tangled. Claws braced at flanks and shoulders. They rolled a few feet. Dust billowed up from their combined weight. Yugi spat and snarled. Red eyes flashed hideously. Blue-violet eyes glinted furiously. Claws split through scale and slashed at skin. Underbelly flesh was cut but not severed.

The Gandora rolled sideways.

The action made the other black male lose his grip. The impact with the ground winded it, if only briefly. Yugi scrambled away, slithering almost like a snake. He got a few feet of distance between them. Then he straightened and shook himself out.

The Fire Dragon snarled and spat. Then it rolled over again immediately. Back legs twisted first, front claws slashing at the air for a moment. Then it was on its paws again. The maneuver would have clawed any dragon near it hoping to take advantage of the position. But now it simply snarled softly at him, tongue flicking angrily.

Yugi braced his weight on his left foreleg. His claws flexed. And he lashed out quickly. His long, hooked claws did well to tear through the thick scales around its eyes. The Red-Eyes yelped loudly and backed up. And Yugi lowered himself further to the ground. He angled his jaws, aiming. Normally, if he lunged forward, he could rip the flesh of an opponent's throat out and leave it to bleed to death.

But the Red-Eyes species was heavily protected. The scales on their bodies were too thick to bite through. He would be unable to crush his way through them. And he would have to bite down more than twice. The truth of it was that the male in front of him might have juvenile, but he was still incredibly armored. Yugi would have to try a third or fourth time to get through the armor.

The fact of the matter was that his jaws were not the most powerful among dragons.

They were strong.

But a Slifer with a singular jaw, a Barrel with a wider and thicker-muscled mouth, and a Ra with their larger pouches and sharper beak, by far possessed greater strength than he could ever hope to wield. A Slifer could crush an opponent's head with a snap of their teeth if they were fully matured. A Barrel could cripple an opponent with bites to the legs and spine. A Ra could grab hold of a larger area of the body and hold down until they tore muscle completely open and broke bone when their opponent struggled.

Yugi had none of those abilities. He could open his wider and grab at another dragon's throat. And he could keep his grip until they went limp. But he could not effortlessly sever heads in that fashion as a Slifer could when they aimed for it. He could not sink his teeth through layers of armor. And he could not sever muscle as effortlessly.

But he could still crack through this dragon's skull. He would only need to strike in quick succession. He would need to lash out as violently as possible. And he'd have to put all of his weight behind it. He'd need to aim impeccably. He'd have to hook his claws into the gashes he'd made initially.

And then he could draw more blood. Then he could shear through muscles there.

Then he could cut through to the bone. Then he could destroy it with a fourth hit.

He could catch upon its jaw. He could break it with the force of the second hit. If he aimed properly, he could get his claws into the soft flesh behind the jaws and in the eyes—

He narrowed his eyes, crouching there.

It would not take much to do so…

He had done it before.

He could do it again.

But then he startled violently.

Something had flashed in those red eyes.

And then Yugi saw a glint he had not recognized before.

The color was not pure red.

It was more orange, deep and shadowed, much alike a pool of water with autumn leaves upon the bottom amongst the debris beneath.

They were glittering.

And Yugi froze.

The Gandora halted altogether. Brief splashes of memory cut through his determination for accuracy. He blinked slowly. They were deeper down. They were buried. They were…so far beneath the shadows that formed with his determination to find Atem. And for a moment he could find nothing.

Then he blinked. And the memories came again. They clawed their way up from the darkest crevices of his thoughts. And he bristled as the Red-Eyes came at him.

He rose to his back paws, slashing downward to knock the other across the head.

The Fire Dragon stumbled and nearly dropped from sheer force along.

It flinched, backing up a step, and Yugi huffed as he thumped his tail and glowered. The Red-Eyes snarled and spat at him, but glared at him warily now. And Yugi huffed a breath at it, baring his teeth in frustration.

"Jonouchi," he spat, flicking his tongue, "what are you doing here?"

The Fire Dragon blinked, then bristled. It took the male another moment to recognize the Gandora. He was staring at him as if he'd never seen him before. Then he stood up, head raised drastically in his surprise. His eyes grew wide and horrified, confused by the use of his name. Then he slowly tilted his head a fraction and frowned. "Yugi…?" he whispered softly. His eyes grew wider than ever before. His mouth opened twice and then clicked shut. And then he scrambled a few steps away and stared at him in surprise.

Yugi ignored the urge to laugh at him. Jonouchi had always been so flighty when he was in trouble. It was almost like he forgot that he was a Red-Eyes altogether at times. But the way he stared at him alarmed him more than ever.

"What are you doing here, Jonouchi?"

The Fire Dragon faltered, visibly shaken, and then flicked his tail—


—tail across the dirt. Dust billowed up. Atem kept his wings braced over his head. The dragon's claws connected. And he pushed the appendages forward again. The dragon was tossed back forcefully.

Immediately the Sky Dragon straightened and stepped forward. His claws flexed. He lashed his tail slowly again. More dust billowed up. He snarled and dipped his head. His jaws were aching. His gums had begun to tingle. He recognized the sensation.

But it was far more painful now than it had ever been before.

"Who. Are. You?"

The question was punctuated with a series of swift blows. Each hit made the Red-Eyes stagger. And so Atem curved his paw and aimed. His claws cut at softened flesh. And the main body of his paw hit the dragon's skull. The impact sent it flying sideways, across the dirt. It landed in a heap, limp. Atem thumped his tail, watching coldly. The gray male staggered to his paws. Then he shook himself out again.

There was not the smallest fleck of blood to be found on the dirt beneath it.

Atem was salivating hideously now.

He could feel it more than ever. His tongues were caked in it.

If he did not stop, his teeth would be all but glued together at this rate.

He snarled and backed up a few paces.

It did not help him in the slightest. But Atem felt the smallest bit better.

"My father told me to distract you," the Red-Eyes purred in a dismissive tone. He shook himself out. Then he blinked as he turned to face Atem lazily. "Besides, I am the strongest. So why should I not be the one to all but beat you into submission?"

"Beat me into submission?" Atem chuckled softly. The surface of his bottom tongue was covered in a bitter and sour paste, one caked upon the roofs of both moths. He nearly trembled when he felt his gums itch more persistently. "Brave words for a fool."

"I would think that you are tiring." The dragon snarled softly, chuckling and lowering his head. He peeled his lips back further. "You've slowed down, little God Dragon."

"Is that so? I have not even begun to pant," he snorted softly. Then he shook his head slowly and flexed his claws. "Is your father too weak to face me himself, boy?"

"He didn't want you to interfere when he kills your parents and siblings."

Atem failed to blink. Instead he tilted his head slowly to the side and considered him curiously. He would have to get closer. If he wanted to use this long-forgotten ability that he'd unconsciously brought forth from his gums, he would have to be able to sink his teeth in. He hummed, then considered his balance for a moment.

His right leg was not burning as it had before.

He could easily leap forward, could cut him into pieces when he got the chance…

"My parents are not even within this region."

"Did you truly believe for even a moment that you are the only one your brother asked to aid him?" The dragon paused, then laughed loudly. He stepped closer. And Atem's gums burned viciously. His teeth felt as if they might fall from the irritated flesh at any moment. "Are all Sky Dragons so incredibly stupid and weak? Even the God Dragon pales in comparison to so many species."

Atem flicked his tongue. The nerves along it burned for a moment. They tingled and ached and throbbed. And then they began to relax. He chuckled softly and opened his bottom jaw wide. The saliva was thick but not as binding as he'd thought. But the action had made his opponent stiffen. And he realized abruptly that the Red-Eyes expected him to try to bite him.

He flexed his claws and narrowed his eyes. "Perhaps." He flicked his tongue again. Then he lashed his tail, thinking to aim it for only a moment. "But you are a fool to think that you might slay me."

The Sky Dragon slammed into him. His claws slashed through the air. The younger male scrambled away. His wings were caught, slashed through. Blood sprayed the air. And several droplets landed, heated and thick, across the Sky Dragon's snout.

The God Dragon tilted his head as the Red-Eyes hissed and backed up.

"I think I might have just found your weak spot, hmm?"

He chuckled again, then lashed out—


—out of his mouth.

He had been struggling for a few moments now. He was gaping at Yugi, shivering terribly. The fight—as short-lived as it had been—had seemingly drained him of much of his energy. And so now Jonouchi simply stared at him as if he were a ghost come to haunt him. He appeared too stunned to process much of anything else for the moment. And then, finally, the Red-Eyes raised his head slowly and looked at him pointedly, seemingly searching for some kind of trick.

But the seconds passed and finally he seemed to believe his own senses. The Red-Eyes blinked and looked down.

"I… He was going to kill Shizuka if I didn't join him," Jonouchi finally breathed out. He sounded ashamed and desperate. He shook his head slowly, eyes wide and breathing coming quick and shallow. "But I'm not—I won't fight you, Yugi!"

"Shizuka?" Yugi repeated quietly, unsure. He struggled to recall for a moment, wondering at the name. The he blinked, bristling as realization came to him. He remembered her. She was the younger of the two dark-scaled siblings. And she had oddly pale gray-pink eyes. Confusion cut through him for a moment. She was harmless. She would never even hurt a fly. "Why would he want to kill her?"

"He… He calls himself the New God, Yugi. But I've heard a couple of rumors from some of his elite fighters that his real name is Keith. But he's since dropped it for his title…"

"Clearly."

"He's been going around trying to either gather warriors by seeing how well they fight before picking a male out of every family. And then he's been forcefully mounting every female he's come across. He says that he has the most powerful genes in any bloodline and so he plans to create a more powerful species of dragon. He claims that it's going to be unlike anything that has ever existed before." Jonouchi was staring at him with wild eyes even as he faltered and shivered fiercely, tucking his wings into his sides forcefully. He lowered his head, red eyes wide, and peered at him with something akin growing shame. "He says they'll be pure-blooded and stronger than any of the God Dragons in existence. He's been preaching about his plans to create a race of all-powerful dragons using the strongest females of the species."

Yugi startled, understanding now the expression that his friend wore. The shame was not towards anything he himself had done. It was the fact that he had been unable to hide his sister from the threat that Keith posed to her. His hearts squeezed painfully within his chest and he wished for a moment that he might be able to help him more. It had to have been terrifying waiting to see if Keith would even hold his end of a bargain like that.

Yugi was truly amazed that he had.

"And Shizuka has unnaturally strong scales, even for a Red-Eyes," Yugi stated quietly, nodding slightly as he recalled the information. No doubt Keith was simply waiting for her to go into a heat cycle. And then he would destroy her entirely. He shook his head sharply and narrowed his eyes into a glare. "So you agreed to fight for him in order to keep him from mounting her."

Shizuka, from what Yugi had remembered, should not have been sexually mature yet. She had not once gone into heat in the year and a half that they had been living near each other in the Badlands. And it was not as if Shizuka was even of the same clutch as Jonouchi. She had been born about two clutches afterwards, so her age was younger than Jonouchi's by far; he was sure of that…

If Keith bred with her prematurely, he would most likely kill her. She would not have the natural defenses that a mature female dragon did. She was most likely not even a full third the weight she was meant to be.

But then a new thought occurred to him.

The monster was attempting to breed with what he deemed worthy of the dragons within the various species. Should that be the truth of it, then he truly did mean to attempt to breed the God Dragons from existence and create a lineage more powerful than them.

Hatred swelled through him, red hot and burning within his veins. The Gandora snarled and flexed his claws. His wings rose slightly into a hideous arch. He quivered. Then he lashed his tail—


—tail all but useless. The dragon moved too quickly. It was not that Atem doubted his ability to try. It was not that he was unsure he could hit. It was that should he somehow miss, he would leave himself open. He would lose time. And he would be harmed in turn. Not only that, they would come to know of his best and most powerful weapon. And that was something he had never allowed his opponents to know until he'd utilized it to gravely injure them.

But Atem did not have to use his tail, he realized.

It was not the only lethal weapon he possessed within his arsenal.

The thought made his gums tingle more harshly than ever. His saliva bubbled up. It was bitter, sticky and harsh. His teeth were coated, his lips covered in it. His top tongue was almost glued to the back of his teeth now. Atem snarled and backed up. His spine arched. His scales stretched and bristled upwards. They rose viciously into the air. And his wings tucked along his flanks for a moment.

He flexed his claws.

Then he lunged forward.

The Red-Eyes moved aside. His eyes swelled with amusement, bright blue and burning. His laughter sizzled, dancing within the harsh gray of its scales. Atem shifted his weight and slunk a little further to the ground. His belly shivered where it touched the dirt. And then he flexed his tail minutely.

He waited only a moment, then launched himself.

The two of them connected in a body of claws and teeth. They rolled a few yards. And then Atem kicked violently. His back paws slammed into the Red-Eyes' heavily armored belly. The impact winded the gray male. But his mouth opened regardless.

There was a low, hideous whine of noise—

Atem slammed his paw into his throat. His claws hooked and caught there.

The Sky Dragon tugged, snarling. Blood splashed across his face and the surrounding dirt.

Atem tucked his paws against his belly. Then he pushed inward with his wings. The movement shifted him forward and out from beneath the screaming Red-Eyes. The gray male was shaking and trembling, rolling on the ground when he collapsed finally.

The dirt coated the wound rather easily.

It was a fine dusting, but it still remained.

Atem shook himself out as he got to his paws. His wings felt slightly heavy from the burdensome maneuver. He was not used to utilizing them in such a manner. He had not done so in so long that it was enough to wind him for a moment.

He lashed his tail and tilted his head. His wings flicked to drop away the dirt upon the scales there. And then he found himself smirking. The dragon was not as strong as he had initially claimed to be. Not unless he meant he had more power over elemental magic.

The Sky Dragon snorted and lashed out again.

The impact sent the Red-Eyes to the ground for a split second—


—second to breathe.

Yugi watched him with something of a cold expression. If this dragon had the idea that he would destroy his mate for the sake of proving a name for himself, the Gandora would kill him first. There was no threat to Atem that he was afraid to face should something happen in any manner.

"But he's ruthless, Yugi. He's a monster. He kills and…and harvests. And I—He has guards watching her constantly, Yugi… He sometimes sleeps close by just to see if she'll try to flee. And if I try to talk to her…"

The Gandora shook his head slowly, frowning and flustered. Jonouchi was so fearful that he had begun to ramble. Yugi had witnessed this on several occasions when they had been living together. He had watched him panic when Shizuka had gotten wounded hurting a hunting trip, and he'd rambled when he had lost sight of her when they were supposed to be playing.

He knew how much Jonouchi cared for her. He knew it and he understood it. But the truth of it was, should it come down to it, Yugi would do anything to save Atem. He would sacrifice Shizuka if it meant Atem survived. He would do anything and everything to ensure he lived beyond this battle.

Yugi shook his head again, snapping bitterly, "You understand that he has her under guard like that so that he can mount her the moment that she goes into heat, right? You realize that he's not going to pass up the opportunity to force her to her belly the moment it happens, correct?"

"Well, y-yeah, but I… Yugi, I bought her time—r-right? That's all I could have hoped for! He's brutalized all of them but the hatchlings. And he's forced so many females—S-she's the only one he hasn't'…" Jonouchi froze, horrified as he looked at something past Yugi's shoulder.

The Gandora spun around, snarling and ready to lash out. But the sight that greeted him now was hardly one which alarmed him.

Seto had come closer. His eyes were boring into Yugi's face, cold and angry. The Gandora hesitated, then slowly shook his head as he looked back at the Felgrand. The Sky Dragon peered at him coldly for a moment. Then he glanced into the air as if in search of his youngest sibling, and then finally his eyes lowered back to him.

For a moment he looked as if he might speak. And Yugi swore to every god to exist before them that should he say something derogatory about Atem he would launch himself at him.

But then the golden male snarled and threw himself at another dragon near them. The two of them locked in combat. Yugi watched them snarl and spit and bite at each other furiously. They rolled several yards away from them, blood spraying the air as they fought.

Jonouchi turned to Yugi with a horrified expression. "You—you run with Sky Dragons now?" he sputtered. His eyes were more orange than red now, the shock making them lighter than usual.

Yugi bristled. He remembered how fearful and stunned the Red-Eyes had been when he'd said he planned to mate with one. He'd said it was a God Dragon, but he'd reluctantly answered that it was the one killing off suitors. And he had watched as Jonouchi had gaped at him, then listened as he'd told him repeatedly to just find a Fire or Wind Dragon to mate with and run. He'd told him he was crazy to go against a monster like that.

monster, Jonouchi had called him. And Yugi had been infuriated. He'd wished more than ever to simply lash out and violently bite at him. But he'd calmed himself and forced himself to relax. And then, a moon or so later, he'd taken off to find Atem.

Yugi shook his head and snarled, lashing his tail violently. "I run with one, Jonouchi," he snapped in a harsh tone. He narrowed his eyes into something of near ferocity. "But that was his oldest brother. The other two Sky Dragons here are his other brothers. And you're lucky I run with Atem, because Seto could have killed you if you were not careful."

Jonouchi hesitated after a moment. Then his eyes snapped back to the Felgrand a moment or so later. He was covered in blood. But the Wind Dragon he'd been quarreling with lay eviscerated. The body was thrown forward, lying in the dust. The entrails lay spread about, the stomach and gut pummeled from sheer force. The throat had been severed, all but hanging together by a mere handful of scales tied together. The blood was bright against the pale and glowing dirt.

Yugi shook his head slowly. Seto turned his head to look at him stiffly. And Jonouchi bristled almost fearfully before them. The two of them stared at one another. Seto eyed the Red-Eyes with hideous hatred. And then he blinked slowly and peeled his lips back further to show his teeth. He eyed Yugi for a moment, then stiffened.

And then he looked towards the source of new movement.

A female Wind Dragon was coming forward. Yugi faced her with a snarl, bristling and baring his teeth. She charged recklessly towards Yugi now. Her claws were braced, prepared to cut into his flesh. Her teeth were bared, readied to tear into his flesh.

Yugi squared his shoulders. Then he slammed his tail into the dirt.

With a snarl he spat and launched himself forward.

Jonouchi barely had time to see—


—see Atem move. The Sky Dragon had driven the Red-Eyes further back. The rest of the ambush stood steps away. They kept the Wind Dragons in place, though seemingly without force now. They seemed more surprised and confused than anything.

And Timaeus did not have to look at their faces to know that they did not truly care in the slightest. The blood that sprayed the air was dismissed altogether. Curt glances were occasionally cast upon himself and his mate. But none of them spoke.

None of them attempted to attack again.

None of them even bothered to blink at him most often.

Even when the Red-Eyes was thrown violently towards them, they failed to react.

One blinked lazily.

Another sniffed disdainfully.

And the other snorted.

Atem crashed into the dragon full force.

The blow launched it into the air again. And the Sky Dragon took aim.

The battered body plummeted like a rock. The Red-Eyes was far too heavy to save itself. And Atem launched himself forward and up into the air as well.

But the attack was sloppy in delivery.

Timaeus could see that the God Dragon had not aimed properly enough.

Or perhaps it was that he had been wounded prior and had forgotten the pain.

Timaeus had known Atem to do that several times. Atem had been rather clumsy when he was younger. He had often ignored pain in order to save himself. And he had done this during various fights and hunts. Timaeus had watched him get kicked in the jaw by a buffalo and fall face first, then stumble to his paws and take off after it regardless. He had watched him wounded in battle, thrown to the ground and bleeding, yet push himself to kill or overpower them despite the odds.

And he knew that Atem would never come to simply outgrow such a thing.

Atem opened his eyes wide. And then he clamped his jaws shut. Timaeus watched the Red-Eyes as it was caught by the throat. And the heavy descent threw them both to the ground harshly.

A cloud of dirt rose from the force. And, as it cleared enough to see, he found Atem on his back. His claws were braced in the Red-Eyes' flanks. The wings were cut and slit in several places, blood dripping from the torn scales. The Red-Eyes was easily heavy enough to pin Atem there.

But the blood was spilling across the ground in rivers.

And then Timaeus gaped. His eyes grew wide as realization struck him. The air left his lungs. He stiffened in absolute horror.

The Red-Eyes was screaming


—screaming in his ears.

Yugi shook himself out. The impact had knocked the air from his lungs. And his ears were still ringing. The pain was enough to make him stagger. But he snarled and spat, bristling as he stepped aside. He had managed to throw the female a few feet back with the attack he'd delivered.

But she had knocked him aside with a blow to the flank. And she had caught on his scales rather expertly with claws much unlike an average Wind Dragon's. And then she had swatted him hard in the head. And he swore he still saw stars behind his eyes, burning and glistening like flames.

Yugi shook his head again. His claws and teeth had left only little cuts in her throat and flanks. But he did not understand the minimal damage there. It made no sense whatsoever. His head was reeling from the very thought.

How had she managed to survive such a thing? Normally such an attack would have left her gutted upon the ground. Normally she would have been eviscerated, laid about the clearing as a carcass.

Now, however, she simply seemed winded.

The Gandora blinked, snarling, and breathed harder.

A slash to his chest made Yugi falter. He snapped his teeth, stumbled, and caught her paw in his mouth. She stumbled in turn. And he tugged violently, shaking his head. She staggered, but her balance did not collapse entirely. His grip was too loose, he realized. And he was pushed back with a second hit. The black dragon scrambled for his balance again.

Then Yugi shook himself out. The snarl came out angrily, vicious and hateful.

He backed up several steps again.

The female launched herself at him.

Yugi crouched low to the ground, lashing his tail.

He prepared himself, readying his muscles. He tucked his wings into his sides. He flexed his claws. He drew his lips back further. His gums tickled where his teeth were exposed to the cold air.

But as she came close, Jonouchi eagerly intercepted the attack.

They tangled together in a ball of limbs, rolling a couple of feet away. They snarled and snapped at each other fiercely. And then they clawed and spat. She roared at him and he clawed her head. They bit at each other. Claws tugged at scale.

Yugi panted, shaking his head a small fraction. He tried to make his lungs fail to ache any longer. But his head was swimming violently. He blinked, shook his head out again. Then he looked at the two slowly.

She was a simple, common Harpy Dragon.

She was a faded mottled pink and gray, with a longer neck and huge paws. Her back legs were far more powerful than her front. And her wings were far stronger than her forelimbs. Her wings were large and sloping, almost like the crescent of a half-waned moon.

Yugi did not understand it in the slightest. They were not heavily armored. They were fast. They were deadly. And they could cut through flesh with those hideous claws.

But they were incredibly weak in terms of natural defense. They had gained more strength in magic than in physical attack. It made no sense that she had survived…

Yugi shook his head violently to get rid of the ringing. Then he turned back to see—


—see that the Red-Eyes had stopped thrashing. It was breathing heavily. Its tail twitched. Its claws tried desperately to hook into the Sky Dragon's flesh. But Atem had backed up several steps. And his teeth were still caught in the other's outstretched throat where it was forced back into the ground. Its underbelly was pale and silver, shiny and glittering. Its jaw was twitching where it was clearly exposed.

And the blood which dripped from his large fangs seemed to sizzle and dissipate upon touching the air. It bubbled and, as it hit the ground, seemed to explode upwards.

Timaeus trembled. He had seen that happen before. He had only witnessed it once or twice, however. And he had only truly been exposed to it twice at the most, he realized. But Atem had seemingly lost this ability when he had become sexually mature, however. In his adolescence, he had used it a few times in front of the Wind Dragon. But he had used it more for hunting, the turquoise male knew.

He had only seen the poison in the blood which had dripped from the meals he'd brought back to their cavern with him. It had made the food smell sour and even rotted the edges of the meat. Atem had been proud of himself upon catching his prey first, but then he'd become openly ashamed of the fact that he had poisoned their food without meaning to. And Timaeus, shocked by the hurt that Atem had displayed when he'd initially recoiled, had rushed immediately to assure him there was nothing wrong.

He'd taken small bites of the food while Atem watched him with that same ashamed expression. He'd apologized quietly and said he did not mean to ruin their meal. But he had been so proud that he'd healed, that he had hunted almost the entire time that they'd been together after…

The poison had become more portent when exposed to blood. But it also tended to all but die away when exposed to air for long amounts of time. So Timaeus had learned to wait a few minutes before he would eat anything Atem would bring back. And Atem would do the same in order to avoid potentially harming himself.

But Timaeus had seen him attack another dragon using the poison in his gums as well. The saliva had thickened along his teeth, bubbling and becoming so dense it had thumped upon hitting the ground. It had been a pile of green-brown ooze flecked with dirt upon making impact. And he had seen him do so a second time when he had been fighting with an alligator that had wandered too close to his catch but those had been the only two times he'd actively seen it in action.

The Red-Eyes in front of him was shaking, struggling to roll over to its paws. He was breathing so heavily, his inhales so incredibly labored, that he could not stand in the slightest. He collapsed even as Atem released him and settled back on his haunches a couple of steps away. The gray male writhed once, hit the ground heavily, rolled onto his paws, and tried again. He was gasping, wheezing, and collapsed once more.

His eyes were huge, glittering with confusion. They peered back at Atem blankly. But the Sky Dragon hardly seemed to care. He shook himself out lazily and tucked his wings into his sides.

"I do not believe you ever did me the honor of answering my question."

Timaeus could hear the barely concealed contempt within his tone. The red dragon lowered his head towards the other male. The electric blue eyes seemed to be dulling rapidly as they stared at one another. It was almost as if, as Atem leaned forward and studied him, sniffing and drawing in his scent, that the God Dragon were sucking the life from him entirely.

But the silence that the clearing had taken pushed the words forcefully into their ears.

"Who. Is. Your. Father?"

The Red-Eyes hissed, then spat at him. The saliva landed on Atem's beak and the Sky Dragon simply stared. He seemed to be waiting for an answer. But the Fire Dragon failed to speak. After a moment Atem rose to his paws, shaking himself out to scatter the saliva away. And then he turned to the other dragons that surrounded Timaeus and his mate.

His tail flicked lazily. His eyes grew cool and calm, burning into theirs. His wings flexed slightly, the tips twitching. And then he stalked forward.

"Well? Shall you all fight me as well?" he hissed in a soft and cruel voice. "Shall I kill you all?"

Timaeus shivered—


—shivered as he saw the Wind Dragon thrash.

It was a futile effort. Jonouchi had her pinned by the throat. He was several tons heavier than her. And he had shaken her rather aggressively. Her neck had popped and almost snapped several times. She looked dizzy, all but limp from the force.

Yugi shivered harder. His mind spiraled with thoughts of Atem. He remembered doing the same to him. He'd shaken him until his legs had no longer had the strength to hold him. And his sheer weight had dropped the Sky Dragon to the ground, pinning him.

But this Wind Dragon's weight was at least a ton heavier than Atem's ever could have been and so, unlike him, she remained on her huge paws.

Yugi had noticed it formerly. In the heat of the battle, he had not even stopped to consider it. But now he realized that she was almost twice his own size.

She should not have been so large. She should never have been that size. And Yugi knew for a fact that she was much younger than him. He could smell the age in her scent glands where he'd bitten at her leg. And he detected it in how awkwardly she moved in her fighting.

He trembled again, snarling and lashing his tail.

Immediately Yugi lunged for her thin, leather wing.

The membrane of it folded beneath his powerful teeth. The bone splintered with a resounding and hideous pop. Yugi startled, stunned by how soft and underdeveloped it truly was. It should have been harder to damage than this.

It should have been easier for her to knock him aside and away. Her wing should not have been shaking and quivering as it was against his tongue. And yet she was so much larger and her scales reinforced along her body.

But her wings were incredibly weak and terrible…

Was she…?

Was she one of Keith's offspring?

She appeared more or less to be a simple Harpy Dragon. But now Yugi wondered, confused, as his belly knotted forcefully. Harpy Dragons had reinforced wings, enlarged drastically to allow them more room to help defend their weak flanks and underbelly. And this female seemed to lack all of those things. Her flanks were not weak and neither was her underbelly, and both were reinforced with armor. But her wings were fragile and thin.

Yugi tugged her sideways. The action gave Jonouchi more room to catch his balance. The Red-Eyes pulled away as the Harpy screeched and clawed fruitlessly. She was thrashing, panting and crying out. And Jonouchi was leering down at her. His mouth opened wide, aiming for her face with a snarl. The sizzling was loud and harsh. It was underlined with a sharp and slick whining. And then the Red-Eyes sprang up, loosing it.

The fireball slammed straight into her face. The impact was enough to make Yugi flinch and back up. He almost wanted to hide away entirely. The Wind Dragon screamed again, gargling. The paw on her throat made her flail pathetically. And she writhed for a few moments longer. Claws scrabbled at dead air. A paw lightly hit Jonouchi's muzzle before dropping away. The female went entirely slack.

Yugi looked around cautiously. His stomach dropped, hearts skipping beats. He shivered and shook his head. Then he turned back to Jonouchi with a slightly fearful expression. "She shouldn't have been that strong. Why was she that strong?" he snapped, lashing his tail.

She should not have been powerful enough to withstand his hooked claws. She should not have been able to survive his jaws as it was. And she should not have been alive after Jonouchi tossed her back and forth as violently as he had. Yugi himself had been shaken rather furiously by the Red-Eyes in a mock fight and he'd hit the ground so hard he'd been stunned. The only thing to save him had been Jonouchi's adolescence.

The Harpy Dragon should have died the moment Jonouchi used his fire lungs. She was so close to him. They were practically breathing the same air. Mere exposure should have caused her face to melt the moment he loosed it. The close proximity should have caused her bones to break and splinter and become all but ash beneath the force of the blast.

She should not have been writhing those few moments.

She should not have been crying out.

She should have been so charred that it had spread through her skull completely.

Her scales should have ruptured.

Her bones should have become ash.

Her flesh should have been incinerated.

Her brain should have been rot.

Yet…somehow…she had remained alive those few heartbeats.

Somehow she had survived long enough to die from the impact rather than the devastating force that was the Red-Eyes' fireball attack.

Yugi lashed his tail again, though now he felt rather ill. "Is…is this what he meant by creating a stronger breed?" he spat, horror making his eyes wide and his blood feel cold in his veins. He turned to Jonouchi immediately, a pit of ice forming within his gut as anxiety crashed through him.

No wonder none of them seemed capable of making headway in this fight. When he looked around, Atem's siblings were confined in a circle. They were so tightly forced together that they were almost pressed against each other. The three of them had their wings just mere inches from one another. And Bakura was using his tail as the deadly weapon it was, lashing out to stab through the eye with lethal accuracy.

But, even as one dragon dropped dead, more seemed to come to replace them. It was as if they were somehow spawning there, as if the enemy were endless but their own numbers few…

Yugi shivered.

Malik looked utterly exhausted.

Bakura appeared livid.

And Seto…

Seto looked absolutely exhausted and devastated.

Yugi wondered now, hearts racing and stomach twisting.

Had he lost hope in the idea of Atem coming to help him?

But all three of them were bloodied, soaked and exhausted, and yet none of them were beaten…

For once Yugi almost prayed that Atem might come upon this terrible scene and put an end to it. He wished, for the briefest of moments, that he might come to this and fight now. And win.

But another part of him wished that Atem never come to see this. He wished more than ever that somehow he would be stuck helping Timaeus for longer than this battle lasted. And, maybe, should this happen, he would be okay.

Because Yugi was suddenly aware that perhaps he couldn't—


—couldn't do more than stare. The dragons had backed away as if Atem had lashed out. They watched him much as a mouse did a snake, as if he might leap forth and rip their heads from their bodies. They had all moved away from Timaeus and Kris. And they stood there bristling, holding firm a defensive formation between the three of them.

Atem hardly cared to pay them more than a mere second of attention. His eyes were immediately on Timaeus again. "Are you all right?" he demanded curtly, peering at him in a manner that was suspicious of a wound of some kind.

Timaeus faltered, blinking in confusion for only a moment. Then he nodded slowly, glancing sideways as the others moved. The dragons had parted to allow him a clear pass between them. And Kris was pressed tightly into his side, hissing in frustration. She was bleeding on her shoulder but the cut was shallow and easily cleaned.

He ignored the stinging sensation that came with his wing pressed so forcefully into his side as it was. The wound was not terrible. But he had definitely been cut rather deeply, however. But it was not life threatening in the slightest, he knew. That much he was sure of, if nothing else. He had looked it over before now, and he would clean it when there was less tension to be considered.

"Yes, thank you." Timaeus hesitated for a moment. He was caught between the instinct to nuzzle the God Dragon and to simply go to his side. He looked at him for a moment, considering. It would not be a good idea to distract Atem from his aggressive stance, he realized. It would have been foolish of him to take his attention from his potential threats.

So he nudged Kris gently in the side instead. She looked up at him, yellow eyes huge and pupils flipped into a horizontal formation from sheer fear. He nudged her gently again, gesturing with his beak for her to go ahead of him.

She limped, hesitating and eyeing Atem for a moment, before making her way to his side with a foot or so distance between them. Timaeus paused in front of him, close enough that he could have butted him affectionately in the shoulder should he have simply tried. Instead he flicked his tail. "I didn't know if Critias would truly make it or not," he explained softly.

The God Dragon blinked, watching him closely as if he did not recognize the words that had left his mouth. Then he stood and shook himself out. "Yes, right as we were about to leave to aid the others," he stated quietly, calmly. He hesitated for a moment, then leaned forward to sniff at his flank. Timaeus would have flinched and lashed out at any other, but the God Dragon was clearly inspecting the depth. His golden eyes focused on Kris after a moment but her stance so far away limited his access and so he turned back to Timaeus again. The Wind Dragon hoped for a moment that he would say something else, maybe that he would ensure him that he was okay and had come out of the fight unscathed. But then the Sky Dragon focused on the group behind him.

"Who is it that gave you the order to come here?"

The sole female of the brigade sniffed disdainfully. Her right paw was bleeding in a small patch just beyond the wrist of her forelimb. And, slowly, she came forward in a cautious gait. Atem snarled, bristling, and moved past Timaeus to meet her halfway, a defensive stance taken in order to protect his friend. She stopped a handful of feet away, peering at him.

A single golden eye glinted back at him, her mirroring one a color of sea green which glimmered like a gem. Atem bristled faintly, confused by the sight. He had never seen such a strange female dragon before. She was slender but barrel-chested and her wings were far too large for her frame. But her paws were huge and her tail long and tapering. Her head was an odd, sharp formation and her eyes were dark and shadowy beneath the slope of her sockets.

"His name is Keith." The words came out on a sharp tongue, the female snarling softly as they stared at one another. "He comes form the south, the region which Jaden resides over."

Atem tilted his head and Timaeus shivered as he considered the curiosity in those golden eyes. He seemed more surprised than anything, but he swore he saw a shadow there, one of memories that he had suppressed formerly. "And he found his way to me?" the God Dragon murmured in a soft voice. "He found his way to me and now wishes to wage war against me?"

"He is convinced he's stronger than you." She seemed to eye him for a moment. Then she slowly raised a paw for their inspection. Atem stiffened in turn and Timaeus froze in place as they both looked down. Horror swept through the Wind Dragon and he bristled fearfully—


—fearfully trembled as his mouth grew dry and his hearts hammered.

"He has amazingly strong scales. It's almost like human armor is melded into it. And he has—By the gods, Yugi, he harvests claws and teeth from the various dragons he kills." Yugi was frozen in place, his hearts skipping beats, eyes growing wide with horror at the very idea. The thought of having another harvest claws and teeth was nothing short of terrifying to him. "The dragons he kills, he strips of them. He gives them to his strongest, most elite fighters. And then he reinforces himself with them in order to make himself stronger. He stripped some dragons of their scales once and forced them into some of his elite fighters' just for the sake of doing it. And then he enslaved the rest of us through battle and killing family members."

Yugi nodded slowly, feeling his stomach swell with tension and his hearts race faster than ever. He narrowed his eyes the smallest degree. And he swore he felt his blood turn to ice within his veins.

He turned his head after a moment.

But he could not see the dragon in question through this immense multitude of bodies.

There was far too much movement.

There was far too much blood splashing about in the air.

There was far too much magic being shot across the cliffs and into other elements.

But Yugi could not hear it either.

There were too many cries, both of victory and absolute agony.

"He's a thousand times—"


"—stronger—"

Atem stared down at those claws, disgusted and horrified. Her paws were swollen around the edges, but along the tops of each toe, longer claws and large fangs had been pressed forcefully into her flesh. They gleamed and glittered in the light and the God Dragon found himself fascinated despite it all.

How did one find such discipline in themselves to allow such a thing to happen? She had let it happen. Unless Keith had been so foolish as to pin each of these dragons down and force those teeth and claws into their flesh…

He snarled when she inched the smallest degree closer. Beside him Timaeus was bristling and looking at her paws with something of amazement on his face. But Atem did not think that it was truly the malformation that captured his attention so fully. It was something else entirely…

"—than any—"


"—of us—"

There was so much blood.

"—put—"

There were too many broken bodies spread about.

"—together."

He was silent as he shook his head and continued to look about.

But he could not see for a long moment.

And then there was a slight and small shift of movement.

The earth seemed to tilt beneath his paws.

The air seemed to become denser than ever.

He bristled, turning to look at this creature.

Yugi could see him clearly amongst them.

He was dark, a hideous gray of warped shadows.

And he stood oddly tall amongst them all.

His eyes were a pale, luminescent electric blue.

His body was thicker than he'd ever seen, heavily armored.

His wings were a jarring electric of sparking blue energy.

His claws were incredibly long and hooked.

His toes were shorter, stubbier, laden with white teeth almost longer than them.

His skull was wide and narrow in its indentation.

His tail was long, smooth rather than ridged.

His teeth were immense, with rows much akin those of a shark's.

His jaws were wide and almost barrel in their large formation.

When he opened them, they seemed almost to dangle from loosened muscle and fragile sinew.

His entire body was lined with scales of dark black, of splashes of gray.

Yugi could not stop himself from staring, amazed and horrified.

His hearts sank within his chest as he gaped.

The beast was barrel in the chest, with well-defined muscle with which it carried itself. The power it displayed was one Yugi was not sure even Atem could match. And the way he slashed out, with layers of teeth atop his claws and another smaller beneath his natural arsenal, made the Gandora quake.

The dragon this beast slashed at was ripped to pieces.

The blow was punctuated by the multiple weapons, forceful enough to eviscerate.

The effort was minimal.

He hardly seemed to move in the slightest.

And this dragon…

He did not have to count on his accuracy in the slightest.

Those second and third sets of claws and teeth on his toes would see to his desires.

And then Yugi saw his head turn slowly—


—slowly towards the other two dragons.

They were watching him and Atem was staring at them in turn. Timaeus was closer to his shoulder now, hovering as if he expected to have to leap into battle at any moment. He wondered briefly if he meant to defend him or if it was simply a territorial instinct. Regardless, the God Dragon was grateful.

"Then how do I kill him?"

Timaeus smelled incredibly of blood. The wound on his shoulder was a deep and jagged one, his forelimb covered bright red. But his side was just as twisted and cut up. Blood dribbled from every inch of his skin and soaked much of the ground beneath him, Atem saw now. But he was no longer breathing as hard as he had been before. Now he seemed to have either grown used to the pain or was forcing it aside in order to keep alert enough to spring into action should it be required of him. He looked somewhere between exhaustion and ferocity.

Atem wanted more than ever to ask him if he was all right. But he did not want the attention turned onto Timaeus. He did not want to have to fight them immediately again. He did not want to have to fight again so soon. He needed to recover before he took flight to get to the cliffs as it was. He would have to get to Yugi sooner rather than later. And he was not willing to waste even a second…

"He's fast but he's not the fastest," Yubel grumbled, and her eyes glinted. Atem narrowed his gaze, abruptly sure of the fact that he could not rely on such a thing for even a moment. He remembered Keith, if only a little. The dragon had worn him down for the most part. He'd let him lash out as violently and swiftly as possible. He'd weathered the blows and simply sat back until Atem had paused to catch his breath, confused and stunned by his ineffective assault.

Back then he hadn't known how to kill a well-armored Fire Dragon.

He lashed his tail. He could not rely on speed alone, regardless. His wounded leg would hardly allow such a thing within this fight. And it would only get worse the longer he remained on it. The flight would do him no good…

"He cannot use his magic in swift succession," another offered, brown eyes cold and sharp. Atem blinked, snarling softly, and turned to look at this male in turn. The broad-shouldered Wind Dragon was much harsher in his hatred than even Yubel had seemed moments before. "When he uses it, you have a small window of opportunity."

"Atem," Timaeus said in a somewhat anxious tone, startling him enough to look over—


—over as electric blue eyes caught upon his.

The Gandora could do no more than quiver. He was frozen but for his trembles, stunned and horrified as he found himself unable to look away. The dragon's very appearance seemed unnatural and estranged altogether.

He—he—he looked almost as if he were a monster wearing the flesh of a dragon.

"Yugi," Jonouchi begging in a hoarse tone, horrified as he turned to the Gandora with huge eyes, "run."

The black hybrid dragon could not move but to swallow hard. He thought his tongue might fall down his throat and choke the air from his lungs with the panic which began to settle in his limbs. He felt as if he might vomit at any moment. He forced himself to take a single step back. But the beast had already set its eyes upon him. And Yugi could not so much as breathe as he stared back.

The panic came threefold in waves, stunning him for a moment. He almost pressed himself to the ground, but somehow he found himself remaining upright. It was a miracle of some kind which kept him from simply collapsing.

Bodies were slashed and thrown about.

Allies and opponents alike were tossed aside by ragged claws.

The beast was coming towards him.

Bodies before it were thrown and scattered.

Yugi snarled low in his throat.

He backed up frantically, hearts shaking in his chest.

He scrambled to put some kind of distance between them.

"Yugi, by the gods, you have to run!" Jonouchi cried out desperately beside him. He was pushing on his shoulders with his paw, trying his hardest to make him move. But Yugi was frozen in place now, quivering.

Soon Keith would break into a sprint and Yugi would have no chance but to—


—to focus on the Wind Dragon. The words seemed to flutter within his head, then to disappear as if they had never existed to begin with. Atem shook his head in confusion for a long minute. Then he blinked. And slowly he raised his head in open bewilderment.

"The way he gained…? Timaeus…"

The turquoise dragon was staring back at him with an intense, almost burning expression. Atem wondered if he was somehow trying to drill the words into his brain. His golden-specked amber eye narrowed after a moment and his friend leaned closer, hissing softly again, "You need to remember that more than anything, Atem." It was said urgently, his eye boring more intently into his own. He was seemingly ignoring the other dragons that were studying him in bewilderment. The Sky Dragon blinked, considering his friend and those words for a long moment. And then he nodded slowly, though he had no idea what it was that he was meant to say, bristling faintly with unease. "Remember the lore, Atem. You're a God Dragon."

Atem blinked, confused as he tilted his head in growing bewilderment. And then he tipped his head up slowly and narrowed his eyes. He realized, abruptly, stunned, the meaning of the words as they crashed through him. The significance was one that he had never once considered before now.

But the thought made him bristle as he sat up a little taller, realization slamming through him with enough force to eviscerate him.

If Keith had been gaining the strength of the species outside of his own…

The manner of which Keith had gained such power as to wield more than simply Fire and Lightning magic—

Yugi!

"But the lore is…" Atem trailed off after a long moment, mind reeling with the thoughts.

He thought again of Yugi. He thought of how he had grown so visibly upset. And he remembered the way the Gandora had grown so infuriated with him upon telling him his doubts. He recalled the look of pure strength in his eyes, the way he had desperately refuted his fear of not being a true God Dragon. He remembered his affection, the way he had trembled and pled with him, begging that he tell him he was not sending him to his death…

And, looking at Timaeus now, something inside of him began to shatter. Fear crept through him more violently than ever. And he remembered again the truth of Keith's actions, how he had come to find the ability to wield more magic than he should have. And, looking at him again, he felt his lungs beginning to collapse and burn for a brief moment.

Keith had gone against the truth of it all. It had gone against everything a dragon was meant to live by and what they should have held as absolute law amongst themselves. The things he had done were disgusting and hideous and violent—


—violent and vicious had entered his friend's eyes.

Abruptly the Gandora stopped backpedaling. His muscles steeled. His lips curled to show more of his razor-sharp teeth. His snarl rose hatefully. His tail thumped viciously. He looked at Jonouchi from the corner of his eye. There was blind panic and rage in the Red-Eyes' gaze, begging him to run but also ready to face Keith if he kept coming.

And so Yugi took off in the direction of this oncoming threat.

The Red-Eyes let out a horrified screech, one of confusion and terror.

The Gandora slammed into Keith. They rolled with the impact. But the Barrel Dragon merely shifted his weight. And so he landed on top of him. Yugi spat and snarled. He kicked hard enough to throw any other dragon aside. But Keith did not even blink.

His blue eyes leered down at Yugi now. They looked like glowing bolts of lightning, with a single slit of a pupil that glimmered against the blue like the gloss of a raven's feather his sharp features made the Gandora almost panic. He truly did look like some kind of terrible monster, with hate and power in his countenance. His sharp jaws were great and terrible, stretched out almost to twice the length and width of Yugi's own.

He scrabbled to kick Keith away. His movements were frantic. And he panicked more than ever before. But all it did was seemingly irritate him even more.

And so Keith peered down at him for a moment, then lashed out.

Yugi felt the scratches more than he recognized the droplets of his blood. They resounded like waterfalls in his ears. It arched through the air and came in a bright layer of red against the light dust.

But it still was not enough to make him pause. The Gandora opened his jaws wide. Then he snapped them shut. His teeth clamped into Keith's throat. The Barrel Dragon snorted, laughing, and shook his head violently. The movement did not jar him for the most part. Yugi held tight, though his head spun from the force of being shaken as he was. He had never experienced such a thing before.

He curved his claws inward. They caught on Keith's shoulders just beneath the wings, cutting into firm flesh. He tucked his hind legs towards his belly. And then he forced them outwards. His claws caught firmly on the Barrel Dragon's underside.

But, even with as much force and aim he put behind it, Yugi could not disembowel him.

From his spot several feet back, Jonouchi recognized the position Yugi had taken. But it did nothing to calm him. The Gandora had used it several times on him during play. He would hook his claws in. He would position his back legs to disembowel his opponent. And he would remain still and latched onto the other. He would wait for them to wear themselves out trying to dislodge him.

And often it took only minutes for such a thing to happen. Often times his heavier weight alone was overpowering enough. Jonouchi had been able to withstand this easily. He was heavier than Yugi as it was. And he had not been hurt in the slightest when they had played like this. But it was not the same for other dragon species.

Most that were not Fire Dragons were instantly quelled beneath the pressure. His weight was enough to pin them rather violently. And, were Yugi more mature, he would have been able to hold even a Red-Eyes in place with his weight and heavy muscles.

But Keith was not a normal dragon, regardless.

Jonouchi had been lined up with the other males to watch. And he had forced himself onto fifty females before their eyes, doing all in the short span of hours rather than days as it should have required. It should have been an impossible feat by all means. Yet somehow Keith had seemed merely tired afterwards. He had simply shaken himself out and snarled for one of his elite fighters to get him food.

The females, however, had taken hours to recover. The pain had been clear on their expressions and Jonouchi had realized only then that Keith was a Fire Dragon as well. The bellows of pain from the females and the way they'd writhed and whimpered on the ground when it was all over had been enough to tell him.

The Barrel Dragon was shaking himself out again. He looked more amused than anything. But Yugi was clearly trying to keep his grip on him. He was struggling, the sheer force of his tosses enough to make Yugi nearly drop his hold entirely. His eyes were clenched shut. His claws were tightly buried into the muscle of the Barrel Dragon.

But Yugi could feel an ache, terrible and distressing, coming through his jaws. Had he been able to draw air into his lungs, he would have tried his hardest to prepare his own fireball. He would have tried to singe him at the very least.

But Keith simply shook him again. And Yugi was dizzy with the jerking of his jaw back and forth. The pain was excruciating. And his mouth was throbbing as he tried to keep his grip. His neck was beginning to ache as well now.

And abruptly Yugi thought of how he had shaken Atem that night.

He thought of the way he'd screamed and pled with him.

He thought of how he had writhed beneath him in that intense panic he'd suffered.

His hearts began to ache, the pain strangling him.

Fresh waves of guilt and despair crashed through his insides.

If he got to see Atem again after this monster finished beating him into the earth, Yugi would beg his forgiveness. He would sob and slither on his belly. He would beg forgiveness. He would let him mount him instead of ever taking the other position. And he would tell him he loved him and—

The air rushed from his lungs in a yelp. He could not scream, but it sounded akin the start of one. His jaws ached and burned. He struggled to hold himself there. And he dug his teeth in deeper, furious.

A harsh, startlingly high-pitched buzzing noise came to his ears. The pain was like fire. And he felt his muscles throb and writhe. He felt as if his hearts had skipped beats. His wings trembled beneath his weight. And his head spun. He snarled and shut his eyes tightly. He clenched his paws, sinking his claws further into his flesh.

Keith tossed his head again. Yugi's muscles locked in place. The pain throbbed through him. He felt as if fire were racing through him. He snarled louder, determined. He could wait it out. He could. He knew he could. It would be hard, but—

The impact hit him harder the second time. Yugi felt his eyes pop open again. A tremor raced through him. Blood soaked his paws. He clutched tighter. He felt his hearts clench again. His lungs burned. He could feel the weariness in his body. It gripped him fiercely, tearing through him.

Yugi sank his teeth in harder, further.

And the retaliation made him want to scream.

Had he been able to, he was sure he would have.

The surge of energy which whipped through him was absolutely devastating. It was not healing in the slightest. Nor was it simple magic. If Yugi were truthful, it felt raw, like a sense of emotion that had turned into power. It speared forward like hatred. And it penetrated every part of him.

Yugi could not feel his body for a moment. Sensation left him in a heartbeat. His belly burned. His throat ached. His jaw clamped. His wings hit the ground and dragged across the dirt.

Yet he retained his grip. And he hoped to the gods that somehow he might—

Yugi felt a spasm rip through him. His claws unhooked themselves. He collapsed. His lungs folded in on themselves. He could not breathe. Spots danced before his eyes. He could not move.

Keith laughed from where he towered over him.

And then he reared back, paw raised and aimed for his face.

Yugi could only yelp as he was hit.

The blow tossed him violently through the air. He hit the ground, rolling a few long yards. Blood splattered upon the dirt around him. And he blinked his eyes open as he skid to a stop. The blood was in a large streak before him now.

He sputtered, trying to draw in air. He landed, finally, in a heap. His eyes burned. His lungs refused to cooperate. His limbs were heavy and laden and frozen.

His body trembled.

He could not breathe.

Then he gulped in a lung full of air.

His body screamed.

His vision swam.

He struggled for his paws.

He dragged himself painfully to his paws. He staggered, dropping the first time. And then he tried to straighten, panting. His sides flexed desperately. His eyes were blurred, stars flashing about his vision. His wings trembled against the ground. Realization struck him slowly, his dizzied mind feverish.

The fighting had ceased.

All around him, the dragons had stopped and were staring.

And, as Yugi struggled to focus, he spotted Atem's brothers.

They stood a few feet away. And all three of them were gaping at him, frozen in place. Dragons on both sides were statuesque. Pity stared back from some faces. Others turned away the moment they realized he was looking at them. Another mouthed something akin "I'm so sorry" and yet beside them a female whispered a soft "May the gods guide you" in parting.

Yugi struggled to fully straighten. His bones popped loudly. He stumbled. Then he shook himself out. His lungs no longer burned as furiously. A new touch of reality had come to him now as well.

These dragons…

They had not come to fight them for the sake of achieving Keith's goal.

They had come to battle due to pure fear.

Because they had truly believed in the terror he had struck in their hearts.

Jonouchi scrambled forward. He got to his side and pressed his beak lightly into his shoulder. His breathing was erratic and quivering. And his touch was shaky. But he stilled him to gain his equilibrium more pointedly.

Yugi felt a shudder pass through him again. He breathed in roughly and trembled once. His wings twitched and scraped against the ground. But the pain was enough to cause Yugi to snarl. His body shook harder than before.

"Jonouchi," the voice behind him snarled. "You spineless brat, move out of my way."

Yugi slowly raised his head. The pressure in his neck was enough to almost cause him to scream. He drew in a deep breath, holding it. His lungs felt swollen and he released it again immediately. Then he turned just enough to look over his shoulder. His wings ached and throbbed, twitching as he attempted to raise them minutely.

Keith was approaching at a leisurely pace. There was no sense of urgency in his approach.

Yugi nearly shivered, hearts squeezing tightly.

This was the war beast that held them all captive.

He was the reason the battle had simply stopped now.

Because he had chosen his victim.

Because he planned to kill Yugi.

Because, Yugi realized as well, in that split second, that Keith saw something in him.

Yugi had never considered it before.

Because he'd only been told in passing about it.

Because he could not see himself.

And now he understood it.

He understood why, out of all of them, Keith had come for him.

It was because he saw that spark that had always existed within Atem himself.

Because it was something that Yugi had always emulated upon seeing him so many times during his play with his siblings.

Because he loved Atem enough that he was desperate to mirror the emotion in order to allow Atem to never lose such a thing.

And he knew—oh gods, did he know—that Keith saw the connection between them.

He saw it where the others had not.

Because he had terrorized Atem years before, attempting to win against him.

And his loss had not been something he could have ever lived with.

"He's not the God Dragon," Jonouchi sputtered, pleading pathetically. He snarled furiously a second later, thrashing his tail in his growing panic. He flexed his claws and trembled, but remained at Yugi's side regardless. "He's not even a threat! You just proved that. Leave him—"

"You dare to speak against your king?" Keith sneered. He came to a stop mere inches from the two of them. His electric blue eyes were locked entirely on Jonouchi. But Yugi knew he was watching him. And so he steeled his muscles, turning to face him. "Shall I kill you now or would you like to see him go first?"

The Red-Eyes trembled, then snarled and spat. "I would rather see you dead first."

Yugi could see him preparing to attack. But Keith snorted. And his paw lashed out. The air seemed to ripple with the force. And Jonouchi was catapulted in an instant. He landed with a yelp, rolling a few feet. And then he struggled for his paws. Yugi could hear the blood dripping but he did not look.

Instead, the Gandora pressed his weight into his limbs. He drew in a deep, shaky breath. He tried to think straight. He could feel every inch of his body. Every part of him throbbed and burned. And he focused on the heat in his muscles. He focused on it as much as he could, picturing it as a small flame and drawing it further within his chest.

Then Keith lowered his head. He angled his face to watch the other male. He drew in a deep, steadying breath. Then he exhaled, the breath smelling of ash and death and bone.

"It is interesting. I would never have suspected the three of them to know a Gandora, of all the possible species."

Yugi ignored these words. He focused on the warmth in his chest. He pressed upon it, forming and molding it beneath his ribs. The pain in his muscles grew to the point of making him almost tremble. But he held it there, shoving and touching and coaxing it to grow. And it seemed to fold in upon itself, tripling. It pressed outwards, adding upon itself and pulsing with more heat.

"Tell me, little Gandora, where is it that the God Dragon of the East is hiding?" Keith purred. His blue eyes sparkled as they met Yugi's, full of laughter and hate. He leaned even closer. And his tongue was dark gray when it flicked outwards towards his face. It was a mocking gesture, one hideous enough it made Yugi nearly tremble once more. His jaws opened wide, then snapped shut a mere millimeter from his cheek. But Yugi did not so much as flinch. He glared back at him, defiance making his entire body hot. "Hmm…you truly are a brave little bastard, aren't you, child? First you're so reckless as to charge the most powerful and dangerous dragon to grace this earth. And now you glare at me with such…defiance."

Yugi watched him closely for a moment. The wear in his muscles was fading. His blood was humming and swelling. The heat was becoming harsher. His tongue felt almost blistered and heavy. And his body was incredibly weighted.

His eyes grew a little darker. His wings quivered, the strength in his frame begging release. The heat burned through every part of him. His claws flexed. His jaws remained clamped shut.

"Do you know what I've done to your species?" Keith snarled, opening his jaws. "Would you like to experience it yourself?"

Yugi stared into the gaping maw in front of him. He counted and there were ten rows of teeth. None of them were of the same size. None of them were all the same shape entirely. None of them were as sharp as the next but for the first, the original row. But all had the ability to cut through scale and flesh alike.

And then he felt them. They pressed upon his neck. The Gandora breathed in deeply. His paws left the ground and he was shaken. The world spun around him. And the air seemed to heat with indiscernible power. Then he forced himself to focus on that ball of heat in his chest.

When he could not think to make it spread any further, he forced it to fold in on itself. And then he pushed it outwards.

There was a sharp, hideous scream.

Yugi hit the ground immediately. But his body was burning. And he could not sense much beyond this. His hearts were thundering. His mouth was dried out. He swore his scales had broken apart. He swore they had shattered beneath the pressure. And he felt the heat had scorched through him so violently as to tear him apart.

But still it felt somehow comfortable opposed to the terrible shock Keith had loosed upon him. Yugi could not move his body. It was too heavy. He was limp. He was incapable of movement altogether. His lungs felt as if they were broken. He drew air in shakily. And his claws scraped the earth uncomfortably. Everything burned and ached. His muscles throbbed. His hearts thundered again. And he felt as if his entire body were knotting tightly together.

The Gandora drew in a heaving breath. He tried to focus on the fire in his chest. He tried to focus on the flames in his skin. He tried to picture it. He tried to draw it away entirely. But he could not keep his mind on it for long enough to do anything. And it took a few minutes to finally lessen if only slightly. It settled into a low, blistering touch which coaxed his hearts to race faster than ever.

There were several alarmed cries.

Some of them drowned his own heartbeat in his ears.

"Yugi?"

Jonouchi was croaking, clearly horrified. He could see Seto, Bakura and Malik moving in his peripheral. They stepped forward once. And then they stayed still, staring at him with wide eyes. His friend, however, stared at him with wide red eyes. And he looked sick, panicked.

Yugi did not respond to his name. Nor did he do more than blink once. The heat was gone within a few more long heartbeats, within his veins. The ache that came through him now was one of healing. The warmth crashed through every ounce of his muscles. And the pain began to fade slowly but surely.

His energy was drained. And his body felt slack with exhaustion. And, when he tried for his paws, he collapsed again. He lay there, immobile and gasping for air. And he thought briefly to simply curl up.

But instead he opened his eyes and turned his head slightly. It was just enough to see the direction Keith had gone. But it also gave him a clear indication of the damage he'd done.

Several yards of earth lay in scorched black scars.

It was a large circular formation, his body within the core of it. The air quivered with sparks, dancing with billowing black waves of smoke. The smell was of burned flesh and heavy hides swelled. There was blood being destroyed with heat and dragons' saliva spilled about.

Yugi slowly blinked, raising his head.

"Yugi?"

He did not recognize the voice. But he did not turn to it either. Curiosity towards their identity did nothing to deter him. He could not possibly think to look away when his eyes had finally found their target.

Keith was lying on his side. He was within the circle of ashen earth, his scales scorched rather terribly. He was breathing harder than even Yugi was. And his wings seemed to have all but disappeared beyond a thin line of bone encased in scale. He was not too harmed, however; Yugi could tell that much. His scales had taken a harsh blow, but they had cushioned it as well.

But the extra claws and teeth that Yugi had seen…

They were no longer attached.

He could see them, like random pebbles scattered about the scorch mark.

They alone told the truest direction of the path he had been thrown. Yugi felt his muscles straining beneath the pressure of his weight. He tried to raise himself to his paws, but it simply made him shake. So he flexed his paws, sinking them into the dirt before him. He gulped for air. Then he quivered.

Finally he forced himself to his full height.

Yugi panted, standing and unsure. He would not move towards Keith's body until he was sure that he was truly unconscious. He felt dizzy as he shook and quivered painfully. His legs throbbed and threatened to buckle.

And, unfortunately, Yugi could not tell. He could not lower his guard and approach or wait until the other came to him. But he was too weak to protect himself from an ambush. Should Keith be awake, waiting there to attack, he would not be able to prevent it.

So Yugi simply remained there.

He strained his hearing and struggled.

Because he knew Keith was not dead.

Even if he had been unable to see his flanks heaving, Yugi would have known.

There was no way he could have killed him with that attack. Not when that Harpy Dragon female had survived so effortlessly for those few heartbeats. And Yugi did not know what element he truly possessed at his core.

So he could not tell whether he might heal himself quickly or not.

Yugi glanced back when he heard a scraping noise. Seto was flexing his claws, amazement and horror coloring his face. Bakura was dragging his tail across the dirt, clearly stunned. And Malik appeared to be more startled than anything else. But, behind the three Sky Dragons was a Blue-Eyes with a shiny, glittering body of scales so bright that they were almost blinding. The shadows beneath each scale was colored light blue, softer than most of the others he had seen of the species.

But he did not pay her much attention as he heard another noise to the side. His head turned now, blinking, and he relaxed as he saw Jonouchi. The Red-Eyes had taken to pacing a few steps, then rapidly retracing and anxiously lashing his tail. But he seemed all but unharmed barring the obvious tear to his wing and the way the limb drooped so heavily. The Gandora could have trembled with relief, but the sensation was incredibly short-lived.

As if summoned by Yugi's relief, Keith began to stir. He rose slowly but fluidly to his large paws. He shook himself out as if he had never been wounded to begin with. The dust was caked along his throat and sides where Yugi's claws had formerly clung. It was bright red and darker along the cores, but he seemed unharmed otherwise.

And, as Keith turned to face him again, his movements were slow and predatory.

Yugi felt his hearts clench.

Those blue eyes were blazing.

And he felt dizzy as they locked with his.

His last resort…

It had done nothing but stall him.

He'd set himself on fire for that small amount of time for nothing.

Icy claws gripped his organs. Yugi drew in a deep, rattled breath. Then he struggled to keep himself from stepping back in growing terror. He shook and lowered his head, snarling hatefully.

"You dare fight against me?" Keith snarled, nearly roaring with absolute hate. He came forward again, spitting. For a moment he was slow and predatory. Then he launched himself as if the wind itself were guiding his paws.

Yugi braced himself, snarling. His tail thumped and lashed. And he lowered his head further, spitting fiercely. If he were going to die, he supposed it wouldn't be without helping Atem further. He'd wound him as much as he could before Atem got there. And maybe it would help.

Even if it was only the slightest bit…

He opened his jaws wide, summoning some of the heat within his chest.

But the other dragon never made it to him.

There was a great noise, one which whined at a high pitch and seemed to sear through each of the dragon's senses. It whipped up in heavy currents of sound, powerful and dangerous. The strength within it was immense and almost overpowering. And, as it came to a crescendo, the air whipped forth. The dirt came upwards in a billowing cloud almost akin a tornado. And, even as he tried to crouch to the ground, Keith was hurtled backward.

Yugi cried out in a panic. He sank his claws into the dirt. Then he hardened his muscles and lowered himself to the ground. He crouched there, tense and struggling against the onslaught of wind. The air beat upon him furiously. The dirt was a heavy wave of sharp stone and currents of sand. Teeth and claws came to the ground in a sharp and hideous thudding much akin collapsing stones. They landed upon the dirt, scattered away towards the edge of the cliffs rather than the spectators.

The Gandora pressed himself lower to the ground. And the wind beat against him so hard it knocked the air from his lungs. He pressed his chin into the dirt, sinking his claws in further. And only his tension and claws kept him from being thrown back.

Yugi trembled when the air began to dissipate. Exhilaration crept through him before he could stop himself. A warm, steady affection began to form deep within his chest. He opened his eyes and nearly wailed in relief.

A part of him swelled with happiness.

The other shattered with fear.

But the red dragon merely stood before him. His tail lay upon the ground steps away. His wings were tucked loosely along his flanks. His claws scraped the dirt lightly. And his head was lowered and turned just enough to watch him from the corner of his eye. He seemed relieved, incredibly so, as if he were only able to breathe now that he was assured Yugi was okay.

"Atem," Yugi whispered, taking a single step forward. His eyes widened, brightening, and he tipped his head up a miniscule fraction. He faltered, then hesitated as he lashed his tail. But all he could think to do was tremble, then to say his name again, a single weak repetition that made him tremble harder. "Atem…"

Yugi tried to straighten a little more. He wanted to cease his shaking but it seemed impossible. He nearly collapsed, overwhelmed. Atem was not hurt in the slightest. He looked unscathed altogether but for a splattering of blood across his face. His eyes were glued to the red dragon just as that gold gaze bore back into his.

"You are bleeding."

"It's shallow," Yugi said simply. He shook his head and suppressed his newest wave of trembles. He quickly looked past him, alarm painting his features. Atem swore he saw it the moment that Yugi's four hearts began to stutter. His eyes darkened, his mouth opened faintly, and a terrible quiver ran through him once more as he stared. "Atem…"

The God Dragon looked away from him, though only enough that Yugi lingered in the corner of his eye. Keith was on his paws again, standing a few yards away. His eyes were full of triumphant hatred, blue gaze glittering coldly. His tail twitched in the dirt as his eyes narrowed.

"You?" he questioned softly, the calm in his tone deadly and calculated. "Truly?"

Atem saw the realization flash through Yugi's eyes. The Gandora shook once, then bristled, a deep shuddering breath leaving him. But Atem wondered if he had the wrong idea in mind, if he was afraid that Keith truly had almost won as he boasted.

"I should have killed you when I had the chance."

"Maybe when I pin you this time, I will have far more fun than I did the last," Keith sneered. He stepped forward and bore glittering white teeth. His eyes flashed and his tail twitched. It was a long, thick and winding thing which sent a large current of dirt through the air. His eyes flashed and his tail twitched. He chuckled after a moment, eyes glowing brightly.

"Over my dead body, you disgusting bastard," Yugi snarled, bristling. He had jumped forward and was right at Atem's side now. He was lower to the ground, snarling and snapping his teeth hideously. When he lashed his tail, it thumped heavily atop the dirt and his eyes grew more hateful than ever.

The God Dragon silenced him with a single glance. But Keith slowly lowered his eyes. And his attention was clearly beyond Atem now. His stare became violent and intense, interested beyond what the Sky Dragon could measure. "You have never managed to pin me, Keith. And an attempt to blind an opponent is a pathetic little tactic, especially in light of trying to force oneself upon a God Dragon."

Yugi began to shudder beside him. And Atem knew this only because he could feel his trembles in the way the air stroked upon his wings. The leather membrane was sensitive to each and every disturbance via air currents. So he recognized it immediately when Yugi started to tremble.

But he also knew that those electric blue eyes were still upon the Gandora beside him. The passion in that gaze was clearly geared towards the idea of ripping him to pieces. He would tear him apart slowly and revel in each of his screams…

He must have realized how much younger Yugi truly was. He must have known that he was not physically mature, that he was still weak when it came to certain parts of his body.

The Barrel Dragon tilted his head only slightly and the Gandora bristled furiously. It was hateful and disgusted. Atem moved his wing, arching it downward and stretching it only slightly outward.

The action caused him to lose sight of Yugi. But the Barrel Dragon almost seemed not to notice. His eyes grew narrow a full minute later, slowly flickering and raising themselves to Atem's. They locked there, cold and hideous.

"If you are in the presence of a God Dragon as dangerous as I, you should pay mind to me rather than an outspoken hatchling. Do you understand?"

Keith bristled, flicking his tongue. "Or you will do what?"

Yugi almost wanted to butt into Atem's side. He wanted to whisper to him to flee. He could see the small knot of tension in the Sky Dragon's front leg. The forelimb threatened to collapse beneath his weight. He could see the slight strain there.

And only now, as he stood close to him, could he see the smallest cut on his back leg. It was shallow, almost completely invisible. It was cleared of all bloodshed. He did not have to worry about it in the slightest…

"Then perhaps it shall be I who kills you and binds you using my heart," Atem spat. His voice was calm and hideous and harsh. His tone was dripping with undertones of amusement. His tail was lashing as he drew his lips back furiously. "Is that not what you had originally planned, Keith? To attempt such a feat? And when you found my armor too hard and scales too slippery you tried to blind me and flee instead."

Yugi blinked after a moment and looked towards Atem sideways, a hideously uncertain glance. He tilted his head the smallest degree and shivered as he looked around his wing to see the anger in Keith's glittering eyes.

"Rest assured, however, after killing your precious son and his brigade minutes ago, I will not have the same trouble I had the day we last crossed paths."

"You stupid despicable bastard!" Yugi snarled, unable to stop himself. He thumped his tail and snapped his teeth. He wished he could have charged past Atem's wing or dodged beneath it, but the Sky Dragon had moved his tail as well. And now the tip was pressed against his beak in a warning for silence.

"You were far more dangerous than I originally gave you credit for that day. I thought you a raving loon, perhaps with moon madness or sun blindness or some kind of perverse hatred that could not be cured." Keith chuckled in amusement, eyes glinting. His jaws opened an inch or so, just so slightly as to mirror the smiling face of a human's dog. "But I know why you sent your son and those four other dragons to deal with Timaeus. He knew what you were doing to gain that magic you have now."

Yugi blinked, tilting his head with widening eyes.

Atem had said before that the dragon to threaten to kill him and give him his heart was a Fire Dragon. If that were true, Keith had truly managed to go beyond the limitations of a simple elemental type and forced himself to learn four others as well…

If that was a possibility…

"I do not suppose I ever took you seriously enough back then, Keith. Or else I might have been far more concerned regarding your declaration formerly. I suppose I might have even underestimated how powerfully you desired to conquer a God Dragon. I had overlooked your desires to rewrite the lineages of dragons altogether." Atem tilted his head and bore his teeth into a hideous snarl. "You have become a rather persistent ache within my side ever since that moment."

Keith's laughter only grew louder. He stepped forward once more and his head tilted to the side as he flicked his tongue. His tail lashed and he snarled softly, amused rather than angered. "I told you that I would change it all. Now, feast your eyes upon it, you foolish hatchling. Soon enough, God Dragon, you will be nothing more than a thing of the past and I shall become the most powerful God to rule upon this earth. There will be a superior race, one a thousand times stronger than those few randomly selected to carry the genes of the God Dragon. No random egg shall be gifted two mouths or four wings or six legs."

"A species more powerful than the God Dragons, born of bloodshed and death and decay?" Atem said softly. He sounded more mystified than angry, however, though Yugi was reeling with the words Keith had spoken moments before. "Born of chaos and hatred and a lust for power that caused you to transcend the very laws of our survival? You wish to give birth to a lineage of that history, Keith? Are you truly so foolish?"

"Random?" Yugi found himself spitting before he could think straight. He was snarling low in his throat as he bristled and bore his teeth. "You think that the God Dragon is chosen at random?"

The Gandora charged before he had even thought it through. The silence had become a dull roar within his ears. And Atem's lack of anger towards this accusation infuriated him. But the action was met with a horrifying response.

The Sky Dragon turned on him violently. He swiped at him hard and fast. He knocked him backwards with a snarl. The red dragon was facing him, snarling furiously as he lowered his head and peeled his lips back further to expose the ridges of his teeth. "Hold your tongue," the God Dragon snapped, thumping his tail. "Before I come to beat the insolence out of you."

Yugi moved to a more submissive stance immediately. He lay upon his belly. But he stared up at him rather than lowering his eyes. His glare was furious as his paws flexed and his claws sank into the dirt. "But—but it's not true!" he spat out, shaking his head. He thumped his tail and narrowed his eyes a degree. But the Sky Dragon hardly seemed to care for his anger.

Atem watched him with cold eyes instead, turning away after a moment. And his voice was calm and distant. "I care not whether my genetics are assumed to be so randomly gained. I want to hear his words."

Yugi would have objected once more—and the words lay on his tongue, ready to be spoken—but he could feel the tension. It crackled within the air. It sparked and danced and burned through him.

Atem had threatened him. Should Yugi try once more to oppose him, the Sky Dragon would be forced to hold true to his word. If he were to step out of line again, Atem would be the one to deal with him.

He could not afford to show weakness.

He could not afford to let them see that he was bonded to Yugi as it was.

And Atem had been the one to make the declaration. He had hit him hard enough to knock him back as well. His words were his oath, his actions his promise. If Yugi was not careful, he would end up further angering Atem.

And Keith would find delight in seeing such a thing, he knew.

"Now, Keith, why do you not explain yourself more to me?"

"What more is there to explain, God Dragon? Random selection for the God Dragon shall be a thing of a distant past. My offspring will bring ruin to your inferior class. Mine will be greater, faster, stronger and far more powerful than anything you could ever hope to breed. They will know the truth of strength from the moment of their birth. None of them will be selected by the random addition of a second mouth as you were. All of these God Dragons which exist now will come to know the true meaning of power and the reality of being hunted to extinction for the dawning of a new era."

Atem blinked and raised his wing from where it had once shielded Yugi from Keith's gaze, tucking it firmly into his thin flank. "How curious." The Sky Dragon raised his head and bore his teeth, laughing softly. "You assume to know what a God Dragon is, yet I do not ever recall showing you such a thing."

The Sky Dragon stepped closer, demanding his attention now. His tail lashed, his lips pulled somehow further back. And his gums were a hideous stained red, blood dried upon them.

"Allow me to rectify that. For I surely made a mistake in failing to kill you that very day."

"I saw enough what you foolish gods consider 'strength', you stupid beast. There are only four of you, an army of weakness which possess no true strengths. You expect to rule the rest of us with only four of you? And none of you are strong enough to hold your own in a fight." He burst into laughter, eyes sharp and hideous as they bore into his. "You laid upon the ground for hours after our fight. Is that not the truth of it?"

"I have never required hours to recover from superficial wounds and my vision was clear when I watched you flee." Atem paced a step forward. He moved to circle him, and Keith began to mirror him immediately. "I had not come to expect such backwards attacks to be your only means towards victory. Had I known such a thing, I would never have accepted and simply torn your head from your body where you stood. I was unaware back then but I have grown past that."

"You still talk just as much."

Atem chuckled, then flashed him a smile that unnerved even the Barrel Dragon. A chill visibly traveled along his spine in the form of a shudder. "I like to hear myself speak," he sneered.

In an instant Keith shot forward. Atem waited for him to almost collide with him. Then he reared up on his back legs and pounced. They landed in a ball of sharp claws and gleaming scales. Teeth snapped loudly. Snarls grew more prominent. They rolled a few feet, spitting and snarling.

Yugi could hardly see them moving. His hearts were in his throat. And the speed they boasted was too much for him to keep track of.

And then, abruptly, Keith was thrown sideways. The Barrel Dragon rolled through the tree line. Atem stood feet away, where he'd struck him. His eyes were scornful, his two mouths glinting. The Sky Dragon remained there, watching in a statuesque manner, as Keith finally rose to his paws. Yugi flexed his claws anxiously. And Atem charged at the Barrel Dragon seconds later.

Keith turned on him, snarling. His jaws opened wide. A violently bright blue bolt of lightning came forward. Yugi quivered, horrified. It was aimed straight towards Atem. And he recognized the intensity by the roar of noise it left behind. He knew that it would not kill should it collide with him. But it would still stall the God Dragon long enough for Keith to prepare for a more violent attack.

Yet, the Sky Dragon failed to slow.

His two mouths opened wide in turn. And the lightning breath which left him was a glowing golden color. The roar was a harsh and hideous one.

The collision of bright blue and gold made the air quake hideously.

The cliff seemed to almost quiver as if struck by a heat wave. The energy was abrupt and powerful. The core of the two lightning blasts had turned bright white due to the influx of strength. The air whipped like claws.

It lashed out at them, the dirt swirling and rising in clouds. The bystanders were forced to their bellies. Yugi had to cover his eyes to avoid damaging them. His Fire Dragon genetics had gifted him with lenses to protect his eyes from dirt and debris during sandstorms. But even the desert's worst paled in comparison. The air was more akin a hideous tornado than anything else. The wind's force was enough to press him back despite his claws being hooked in the ground. He would have been thrown had it not been for his body weight.

The roar which it released was enough to make Yugi's head spin. It howled and danced. And his ears were ringing as it began to slowly die away.

Yugi snapped his eyes open again. Dust still rolled about the cliff. And he was almost blinded by it. But only his closer proximity allowed him to see their silhouettes against the cloud of debris.

Neither of them had changed their position, he realized. Neither had even slightly faltered. But both of them were tensed. And Atem was bristling. Yugi could not tell if he was preparing to use the scales on his back as quills or not. But they rose and shuddered and danced upon his spine for a moment.

And Keith seemed to be crouching, waiting out the wind but also studying. His blue eyes were vibrant, like the light of fireflies within the summer shadows. Yugi had experienced them only a few times—deserts did not harbor the bugs—but he had seen it and knew it. And Keith's hideous eyes reminded him much of them. And he knew if he could see them, then so could Atem.

The Barrel Dragon crouched lower for a moment. For a single second Atem shook himself out. And then he let out a small rush of air from his lungs. The cloud of dirt seemed to freeze in the air, no longer rolling about. The sand became crystalline like ice shards. And then they fell in a heavy thud, the air clear and perfect before their eyes once more.

Keith charged him. Atem watched for a moment. Then he raced for him as well.

They moved past each other.

There was a hideous scraping noise. And there was a single thump of a noise.

Yugi almost feared Atem had lost his balance.

Then he noticed the blood on the ground. It was dark and hideous and it seemed to tremble in the air. But Atem did not seem harmed and it took Yugi a moment to realize that he had cut into Keith's side.

It was shallow, but it had not been as if Atem had been trying for more. Yugi realized immediately, due to direction and the ease of the attack, that it had been nothing more than a test. Atem was seeing how hard his scales were, if he could cut through them with a single slash…

The two dragons circled each other. Keith was snarling, eyes flashing. He was angry when he trembled, infuriated rather than harmed. He paced about. And Atem met him step for step, lazy and easy in his movements. He did not seem to be harmed in the slightest, his leg holding up easily. The wound on his hindquarters was not slowing him in the slightest…

And then, abruptly, Atem seemed to fall over onto himself.

He collapsed under his own weight.

Yugi nearly screeched, almost rushing forward. The Sky Dragon landed heavily, a dust of dirt flowing upwards from the impact. And then Keith launched himself forward. He came for his flank and Yugi moved to intercept him. But the Sky Dragon let out a deep and startling noise.

Yugi stumbled over himself in surprise.

And Keith screeched as a wing collided with him in the gut. The force threw him backwards and Atem immediately got to his paws. He lashed out hard enough to cut Keith more deeply, in the exact same spot he'd initially hit him. But it did nothing more than stun the Barrel Dragon. And it was not until Atem lashed at him with his tail that Yugi realized why he'd done it.

The scales dislodged in a sharp current of blood and snapping bones. And Keith was thrown from the force of it. The blood came in a heavy rivulet. And the quills his scales had turned into were lodged forcefully into his chest and shoulder.

Keith had to struggle for his paws, blood gushing outwards. He snarled and spat, saliva painted red. Then he shook himself out and snarled, turning on Atem with furious eyes. "You think this will kill me?" he sneered. Atem simply tilted his head. And Yugi almost trembled with horror. He was hardly affected…

And he simply reached his paws up, grasped at the quills, and pulled them out like a sword lodged in flesh. Yugi trembled harder, crouching low to the ground again. And Atem did not blink as he got up slowly, flicking his tail tip lazily back and forth.

"I don't underestimate my opponents. I've always known better, you stupid beast." Atem flicked his tail again. He moved to stand again, lifting his chin the smallest degree and narrowing his eyes. And Yugi was relieved when he saw that his leg was not harmed in the slightest. He must have forced himself to fall over in order to make Keith falter. He had done it on purpose and without a second thought in order to test at his physical weaknesses once more.

Keith ran towards him, leaping straight for him. But Atem did as Yugi himself had once before. In the instant that Keith was in the air, he aimed lower to the ground and dashed beneath him. But, unlike Yugi, Atem turned back immediately. And his paw smacked into Keith's stomach, cutting him and flipping him hard onto his back.

The dirt came in another cloud and the Barrel Dragon flailed for a moment as he tried for his paws. Atem loomed over him, watching with dark golden eyes. And Yugi nearly cursed him for not using his tail.

But it only lasted a second. Keith was on his paws, snarling and spitting at him in an instant. He shook himself out and glared furiously at the red dragon. Then he growled and lowered his head, snapping his jaws. Atem stared at him lazily. And then Keith lunged into the air.

Yugi stiffened. There was a long and low screeching and crackling noise. And Yugi blinked as he tipped his head up and noticed it. The Barrel Dragon was airborne, with wings made of magic. It was electricity, as blue as his hideous eyes. And they seemed to dance and waiver in the air, loud and sharp in the stillness.

But they were much smaller than Yugi had seen them before. They were thin, far more concentrated than they had been formerly. And they did not seem to possess the formation of a true wing. It was more that they were concentrated in a long and thin ribbon of crackling electric blue that made the air vibrate just enough to keep him airborne.

"You cannot take me in the air," Atem snarled, thumping his tail. He tipped his head to the side, a true predator in the way he eyed him. "Come back to land and face me here. Die with some dignity rather than fleeing as a coward."

Keith snorted with laughter. "Are you still so afraid of aerial combat, little God Dragon? You were not too great at it when I first faced you either."

The Sky Dragon flicked his tail and Yugi felt sick. Why was he not aiming the blades for the Barrel Dragon's throat? Why had he not decapitated him already? Why was it not over yet? His tail had remained sheathed the entire time, his eyes simply raised to take in Keith's form where he hovered in the air.

For a moment he remained this way.

And then Atem slowly stretched his wings. For a moment Yugi almost did not expect him to follow him but rather to use them as a shield of some kind. Then he lowered his head a fraction. Yugi saw the tightening of his muscles before he recognized what was happening. And Keith had begun laughing…

The fireball Atem let loose was so fast that it streaked through the air. And Yugi feared it was so powerful it might reach the clouds overhead. But he hardly saw it. Keith had moved to dodge it, narrowly weaving past it.

But then Atem came forward. He shot through the air even faster than his fireball had. He flexed a paw, hooked his toes upwards, and slashed as he came to Keith's side. The impact was just enough to toss Keith sideways. He was clearly winded, mouth open and eyes huge. He looked stunned, physically and mentally, as if he could never have imagined such a thing.

And Yugi could hear the fresh cut of scales being flaked away. Atem had slashed through several of the small layers. The blood that fell was almost like drops of rainwater. They were hard pellets of red which splashed in angry groves against the earth. Atem barely looked at the other male.

The most attention he was granted was the second attack he inflicted. His claws slashed upon his shoulder and then along his belly once more.

Yugi could not truly see the wound from where he was. And he feared moving any closer. Atem would react badly, he knew, if he saw that he had come so much closer. He did not get the chance to see the wound until Keith was tossed violently to the ground.

The red dragon hovered lazily in the air. And Keith struggled for his paws, shaking himself out. It was clear he was growing exhausted now. He looked as if he might collapse at any moment. The blood across his side was caked in dirt, turned dark brown and red and orange.

And, when he looked towards Atem, Yugi finally got a clear view of what Atem had done to him.

Across the ground, hanging from a tear within his immense scales, was a trail of insides. His stomach and intestines were colored a strange black-purple and gray shade.

Yugi quivered, too horrified to think straight.

But Keith hardly seemed to care. He looked at it as if it were nothing more than a minor scratch on his side.

When he shook himself a second time, the wound began to mend itself slowly but surely. It was an easy action and Keith did nothing more than snort a breath through his immense jaws. Little crackles of lightning were visible there upon his sides. And the wound was sealed in a matter of minutes.

Keith was capable of healing himself as a Lightning Dragon could, Yugi realized. Did that mean he could also set himself on fire as he himself could? Or that he could turn to stone when he was threatened? Or could he use the cold air to soothe a wound as a Wind Dragon could? Was he capable of swimming in water and absorbing it into his flesh to heal the wounds? Could he use the dirt on his sides to heal as an Earth Dragon could?

Atem slowly moved to follow him a few seconds later. There was a mere few feet of distance between each other. But the Sky Dragon did not move towards him. Atem sneered at him soundlessly, watching with cold eyes.

Keith charged him a second later, snarling and chomping his teeth.

And Atem allowed him to hit him.

His shoulder took the brunt of it. And his wounded leg nearly buckled. Atem snarled softly. His tail swung hard, striking the other male in the side. But the blades remained sheathed. And Keith might have been winded but he was not pushed aside.

The Barrel Dragon spun on him.

His teeth were aimed for his face. And Atem could see that he meant to go for his eyes. And so the Sky Dragon opened his top jaws. He moved to balance his weight on his haunches. And then he shifted to sit up slightly. His straining leg slashed upwards, claws splayed.

The attack was enough to momentarily stun Keith. It sent him teetering sideways, but the force was stunted. He did not have enough balance. He was too precarious in his weight distribution. And his leg was throbbing with pain.

Keith turned on him.

His teeth latched onto Atem's throat. In the corner of his eye he saw Yugi spring to his paws again. He was horrified and shaking. And he was about to charge into the melee. But Atem himself hardly blinked. He narrowed his gaze into slits. And then he brought his other paw down.

The sheer force alone caused Keith to lose his grip. He fell so heavily that it made Atem almost stumble. The Sky Dragon blinked blood from his eyes and shook himself out dismissively. Blood oozed from the wound that he'd inflicted, lapping the ground and slowly spreading towards his paw.

For a moment Keith struggled for his paws. He lowered his head as he got up and Atem snarled softly. The Barrel Dragon sneered, spitting at him. His jaws were stained red, a darker shade than Atem's own. But his eyes were focused on the wound he'd managed to give him. And Atem could see the thoughts in his head without needing a Claim to do so.

Keith was aiming for it. He was overestimating the damage. And he was planning to grab him there again, to force him to his belly and pin him that way.

What he would do after that was something Atem could not quite guess, however…

"Do you wish to simply remain there?" The God Dragon tipped his chin up, raising his head to show off the wound. He was not shy about such a thing. "Or do you plan to get to your paws and try again?"

The words were easy and calm, not the least bit hateful as Yugi wished them to be. And the Gandora shook his head sharply, infuriated by it. Atem had promised him he would kill him when he saw the opportunity. Why had he not done so yet? Why had he not killed him and boasted of destroying the one who had claimed to be capable of doing so to him?

Yugi found himself seething, almost lunging forward.

But then Keith moved.

At first he seemed to aim for the throat. And Atem opened his jaws to snatch at his shoulder as he did. But the Barrel Dragon zigzagged at the last second. He got just enough space between them. Then he pressed his weight into his back legs and shot forward with his head lowered. His skull was aimed forcefully, bearing the attack.

And he hit the back half of Atem's left flank, right before his hind limb.

Atem let out a strangled noise. His entire body seized in place for a split second. His eyes grew wide and his mouths opened. And electrical current surged through the air. The entire clearing around them was ionized with energy. His legs quaked once. His body twitched. The scales along his back rose and fell in a shudder. His claws flexed. And then he shook.

Keith hit him again. The impact sent Atem spinning, rolling on the ground when he collapsed. He stopped in a heap, much alike a broken body of red scales and long claws. His wings shuddered. His body trembled hideously. He gasped for air and lay limp for a moment. Then he snarled softly, hateful and tired. Both sets of lips peeled back further to show the enamel of his teeth.

Keith stood before him, laughing around panting. He had raised his head and his teeth were specked with bright red like his own scales. Atem snarled softly again.

But he could see other forms behind the Barrel Dragon.

Seto was staring at him with a somewhat desperate and confused expression. It was not completely concern, but more the crushing helplessness of his potential savior losing. Bakura had a spiteful expression, something of disgust and hate showing in his eyes as he continued to watch. The Hunter eyed them both, then locked gazes with him, a question of Are you going to simply lie there, Atem? showing within them. Malik, however, looked genuinely concerned and perhaps even fearful. His lavender eyes were huge and, had he been stronger physically, Atem was sure he might have run into the fight to help him.

And then he blinked and looked away from them.

He froze, blinking again.

Keith's son had not lied.

His father was a size or two larger than his siblings, with gleaming bright blue scales and dark red eyes. And beside him his mother was only inches smaller, glittering scales of gold and eyes of bright blue. Both dragons were watching him with immense concern, but neither moved to intervene. And Atem could not tell if they truly understood that he was watching them in turn. Rather, he thought that they were focused on his siblings, that he had not noticed them at all.

But they did not move.

Because they understood that this fight was his own.

They might have separated his siblings from him when they got too rough during mock fights, but they would not intervene now…

Atem blinked, then wiggled his toes. Then he rose to his paws without a second thought. He shook himself out, the pain long gone. The air was no longer as warm and it seemed crisper and perhaps even cold for the moment.

He thought of the morning he'd woken to Timaeus at his side, the two of them fast asleep in the Wind Dragon's temporary den in the lower mountain regions. He had healed finally from that gaping mess of a wound in his side. And the turquoise dragon had helped him clean it the final time the night before.

He'd been so overwhelmed by the lack of pain, the hideous sting he'd been so used to, that he'd wailed and sobbed and sputtered pathetically for hours. Timaeus had been shocked and horrified at first, and then he'd talked to him until he'd grown calm again. He'd gotten him to settle down and he'd groomed his side until Atem was no longer crying with joy or begging him to tell him he wasn't going insane and that it truly had healed.

But his expression of shock upon hearing his terrible cries had been much akin the one of horror that warped Keith's face now. Atem snorted, then chuckled. He shook himself out a second time, chuckled louder until he almost could not breathe, and thumped his tail with a hideous sneer.

"I must have forgotten to warn you that I learned a few tricks upon having fought you," the Sky Dragon stated simply, purring. He lashed his tail and came forward a step closer to him. He stopped a few feet away, watching and narrowing his eyes. He flexed his claws and laughed again. "I recently learned control of that liver too. But thank you for trying to trigger it regardless."

The Barrel Dragon snarled and shook himself out, glaring. "You couldn't take me then. You still cannot beat me now."

"I am the one who originally knocked a great many of your teeth out," Atem corrected him rather dismissively. He lashed his tail but the blades remained tightly—infuriatingly—shut. "If I recall correctly, you were toothless for moons afterwards. And then you killed someone else. And you put their teeth in your own gums."

Yugi faltered, remembering those hideous rows of teeth he'd grabbed him with.

"You were lucky I was blinded for those few minutes." Atem lashed his tail again, flexing his claws. "I would have killed you otherwise."

When he leaped, Keith moved aside. Then he turned to snap his teeth upon his neck. This time Atem dodged it. And, as he did so, his wings braced themselves at his sides. Yugi could not see beyond this, as Atem moved in a way which blocked Keith entirely from his sight. The black dragon almost cursed, panicked that he might miss something. If Atem got hurt when he was just a few feet away from him—

But he needn't wonder for long.

The Barrel Dragon was catapulted into the air. Keith was spinning. His entire body was feet in the air. And he could not regain his balance. The wind was knocked from his lungs. Atem had clearly made sure of that. And now, the Sky Dragon coiled his tail more tightly. He watched for only a few heartbeats.

Yugi nearly screamed with frustration.

He needed to use his tail.

He needed to—

Keith had begun to regain his balance.

Yugi sprang forward, readying himself.

And then the red dragon reacted.

Yugi felt the air leave his lungs. His legs gave out from beneath him with gratitude and relief. He quivered and shook, breathing coming in tight pants.

Atem's tail came straight through the air. The blades were poised and aimed. And, as Keith tried to summon enough magic to form wings again, it cut through him. The angle was the direction which he'd formerly cut. Yugi blinked wide eyes, shocked by the sight. He was still shaking with relief as he saw it.

Atem had cut exactly. He'd reopened the wound. But his tail was embedded further inside of him. And, as the blades opened, Yugi felt dizzy. Keith's chest cavity was torn in half, opened completely beneath his protective plates. His hearts were not visible but he could hear them.

And, as Atem slammed his tail downward, Keith's ribcage split in half. Blood fell in rivers. Yugi trembled. Keith fell with a hideous spasm. Atem smeared his tail across the dirt as if to clean it. The blades snapped shut with a harsh crunching noise. And then he rose to his paws.

Yugi thought he looked graceful, a bright red flame against the setting sun where splashes of gold ribbed the sky. The God Dragon approached Keith just long enough to roll the body over. Then he turned away, looking towards the other dragons gathered about. Many of their faces, like those of Yubel and the others', looked extremely relieved now.

But he could not allow himself to show any weakness and so faced them.

"Is there anyone who should wish to oppose me now in light of the death of their king?" he demanded in a deadly tone. His tail thumped and his blades opened in clear threat. "Feel honored to meet your end at the claws of a God Dragon."

All of them swapped glances. Then they all began to dip their heads in respect. Atem watched them do so, waiting long enough until each of them touched their chin to the ground in honor. Then he turned away and looked towards the large turquoise Wind Dragon that was quietly asking Yugi if he was okay.

"Timaeus," he murmured, tilting his head and tucking his wings more tightly into his sides. The Wind Dragon cast him a small smile, though he turned immediately to Yugi again, saying something that he could not hear. Atem looked at Yugi, saw those bright eyes on him before they fell on Timaeus and he answered whatever he'd asked, and turned away after a moment. A loud exhale escaped him as he spotted the beautiful Blue-Eyes approaching his brother. "Kisara."

She blinked, blue eyes stretching wide, then moved past Seto altogether. She hesitated a step away from him, then leaned forward to briefly rub beaks with him. But then she came a little closer, breathing in, and Atem snarled loudly in warning. He was tired, but he'd still toss her aside with a hit if she did not back away.

Yugi looked up immediately at the noise. His head snapped around, bristling and a silent snarl on his face. Timaeus stiffened and blinked, turning with a tilt of his head and a confused expression. Both males considered the pair, judging the threat. Yugi slowly lost his aggression and Timaeus snorted as he looked at his friend. Kisara dropped her head, peering up at him.

"I'm sorry. I was just so excited to meet you. I—Seto has spoken about you quite a few times."

Atem cast a curious glance at his brother, though he sneered, "Good things, I suppose?" Seto snorted loudly and turned his head away. And, just like that, hatred filled the God Dragon's guts. He snarled in a loud, booming tone, "I am to assume your eggs were thus disposed of, yes?"

Timaeus cringed and pawed at his beak uncomfortably. Yugi blinked, horrified by the statement, and then sighed softly and shook his head. He didn't blame Atem for his response. In his place, he would have most likely done the same in all reality. He probably wouldn't have even waited that long to say such a thing. The moment Kisara had said Seto had spoken about him, he would have snapped had he been in his place.

But now the Blue-Eyes lowered her head and looked at the ground, her tail wrapped tightly around her paws as she sat back on her haunches. Seto snarled in annoyance, bristling, but his brother paid him no attention. Yugi had the brief urge to rush forward when he saw the way the Felgrand eyed Atem with such loathing.

But then he remembered himself.

He remembered the threat that Atem had delivered upon his disruption earlier. It was the same one he'd nearly disobeyed minutes before when he'd nearly sprung forward to end Keith for him. He trembled for a moment, then seated himself more pointedly. He flexed his claws and lowered his eyes.

To even put into words how much pain the thought brought him was enough to make him feel sick. He felt as if the world were tilting beneath his paws. And he wondered if the air would be strangled from his lungs.

He peaked up towards his mate again. But the Sky Dragon had still not turned to him. Instead he had taken a moment to greet another couple of Sky Dragons that Yugi had never seen before. The male was a stunning sky blue and the female was a golden, glittering golden. But he understood them to be his parents.

He saw the blue gem in his mother's forehead, the red one in his father's. And he recognized the color of his scales to match the gem resting upon the center of Atem's crown of thorny red scales. He recognized his mother's scales as the same hue as the God Dragon's brilliant eyes.

And, as he watched them, he felt his hearts breaking a second time in a matter of seconds. Not only did his mate look incredibly happy, he seemed even more joyful that Yugi was not there at his side. The thought made him tremble and the movement caused Timaeus to turn his head in surprise. His amber eye grew wide with confusion, startled by the sight. But Yugi ignored him.

His mind was racing.

Was Atem still angry with him?

Did he think he was unworthy of his attention any longer?

What if he decided now that it was no longer worth it to be mates with him?

It had only been days!

Surely Atem couldn't think—

"Yugi."

The Gandora's head snapped up, startled. His blue-violet eyes grew immense with confusion, bewildered. At first he did not know who might have spoken. In fact, he glanced at Timaeus first, who seemed to snicker in amusement at his confusion. Then he looked towards Jonouchi who had wandered closer to him but hesitated because of the proximity so close to Atem. And then he realized, startled, that it was the red dragon who had spoken, his golden eyes curious and confused as he looked at him.

Yugi hesitated for a moment, wishing that the ground might swallow him. Had Atem noticed he'd gotten closer to the fight? Had he noticed that he'd nearly disobeyed him? Was he going to punish him now?

He shivered, slinking forward with his head down and eyes wide. He wondered if it was clear on his face that he expected to be struck down at any moment.

"You shouldn't have yelled at him like that," a deep rumbling voice commented in playful reprimand. Atem couldn't stop staring, shocked by the submissive display his mate was putting on for him. But he did hear the words, then snort loudly and look at his friend with a sneer before turning back. Yugi paused in his slinking, hesitating as he glanced between the two of them twice. "He didn't deserve that."

The Sky Dragon went to open his mouth and snap at him. His response would have been along the lines of telling the Wind Dragon to take his beak out of his business. But then he paused. And he saw the way Yugi seemed almost to cringe when he looked back at him. His hearts broke at the sight and guilt lanced through him.

Decision made, Atem hurried towards his mate with a rather easy gait. When the Gandora blinked, tilting his head and stiffening, the Sky Dragon launched himself to land a few feet away. He wiggled his rump, growling softly as he swatted him aside with a swift paw to the shoulder.

"I told you!" he crowed playfully, bounding away as Yugi scrambled for his paws and pounced at him. The Gandora landed on his tail, halting him, and then pounced onto his back. The Sky Dragon was thrown off his paws with a huff, landing flat on his belly. Atem snorted and grumbled under his breath with a lash of his tail.

But he did not move to throw him off.

And Yugi felt a small shiver of pleasure ripple through him.

"Was I correct or not?"

Yugi hesitated now, the question throwing him off. At first he almost thought to ask what he meant. And then he felt Atem's tail lash again and he almost sprang away. But the older dragon was watching him from the corner of his eye with a rather playful expression. And so he forced himself to relax, shifting his weight slightly to face him more comfortably.

"You weren't so sure earlier."

Atem did not bother to shrug him off, closing his eyes and laying his chin on his paws. "I had forgotten who Keith was before then." He paused, a shudder running through him. He remembered briefly his own shame and fear, telling the Gandora on his back that he did not believe he was truly a God Dragon. And he remembered the lore, the one which Yugi had formerly tried to speak to him. And he remembered the one that Timaeus had tried to remind him of. The shudder was almost painful as he shifted his chin to lie upon his claws. "And then I remembered."

Now the Gandora lost much of his amiable spirit. He looked at his mate, confused by the faraway note within his tone. And he wondered, feeling sick, if perhaps Atem were uneasy to speak about it all. So he slowly moved to get to his paws, leaping away from him and taking a seat a few paces away from him. The Sky Dragon's bright eyes were on him, he knew, but he could not find it in himself to turn around and consider him in turn.

Something about the way Atem had spoken those last four words worried him. And he could not think to look at him without that concern so clear in his eyes.

Timaeus watched him, his burning amber eye considering him. Then he glanced at Atem. "You didn't tell me he was such a precious little Gandora," he commented, chuckling with a shake of his head.

The red dragon snarled softly. "He's deadly. He'll rip you to pieces," he commented, flexing his paws and slashing at the air. Timaeus snorted loudly, eyes sparkling with laughter. Atem chuckled and Yugi smiled faintly from where he'd been watching from the corner of his eye. The Sky Dragon moved to get to his paws.

But the movement wrenched his muscles. He collapsed once more, winded as his eyes grew wide with shock.

Yugi was at his side immediately, panicked as he surveyed the wounds his mate sported. But instinct had awoken in Atem and the red dragon had begun to snarl. His teeth were bared, his head lowered to show his mouths to Yugi more directly. The blades had opened in his tail, a sharp clicking noise pronouncing them. The Gandora stiffened in shock, staring at him with wide eyes. The Slifer was shaking, head still lowered, but his tongues were flicking in warning and his wings quivered as he snarled loudly.

"Atem, that's no way to treat your mate," a soft, soothing voice chided. Atem recognized them distantly as his mother, but the words only further upset him. The Sky Dragon flexed his claws, tried to steel his muscles and failed, and began to snarl and tremble harder.

"Yugi, you're going to have to back up several feet. Do it slowly."

The Gandora did not take his eyes off Atem, steadily moving back. He and Timaeus watched the shaking quell slowly in the God Dragon. Those golden eyes flashed brilliantly, though the gem in his forehead remained cloudy. Yugi wanted to sob, seeing his obvious wounded state but not able to help him to mend it.

But the immediate threat had left his presence.

And so Atem had managed some slight relaxation.

"I do not recall ever asking you to critique the way I—"

Yugi blinked as Atem tried for his paws again. Immediately his leg buckled and he nearly collapsed once more. But somehow he caught himself. Yugi struggled not to rush forward. Atem blinked, then forced himself to sit up with darkened eyes. He looked exhausted, breathing harder, visibly shaken. When he turned to Yugi, his expression was indiscernible. He could not tell if he wished for support, to apologize for snarling, or because he thought that Yugi might be approaching him prematurely once more.

"Atem…" He wanted to move forward but the Sky Dragon wore such a blank stare, peering at him with such listlessness, that he did not wish to risk the off chance that he might lash out. Yugi lowered his head, eyes wide and almost panicked. He felt sick as he saw his limb shake beneath his weight, murmuring, "Your legs, Atem…"

He lashed his tail, but it was not with anger. He was simply twitching now. Yugi could see it. Atem was trying to dispel the pain from his limbs. The shaking had quelled for the most part in his leg and he seemed to be gaining his strength back.

"He's okay." The Gandora jumped several feet when Timaeus came closer. The Wind Dragon was so near that he almost bumped his muzzle into his shoulder upon turning. The Wind Dragon laughed loudly and Yugi glared at him for a moment. But Atem snorted in amusement, even as he seemed too exhausted to bother to do much more. "He just needs a few minutes."

"But he's hurt—"

"And he'll be okay."

The black dragon thumped his tail. Then he looked towards Atem again. The Sky Dragon ignored him a moment longer beyond watching him closely. Then, limping, the God Dragon moved to his side. He plopped down on his belly and curled his tail tightly around his body. Atem nearly burrowed into his side, breathing harder but not quite trembling as fiercely as he once had.

Yugi did not hesitate for even a moment. He sprang upon the task of inspecting him, sniffing rapidly at wounds he knew already existed. Nothing seemed to be too deep and, when he ran his tongue over each of them and cleaned them as much as he could, they seemed incredibly small and shallow. All but the wound on his neck were scratches. His throat was lined with tears, however, where Keith had managed to cut through scale and muscle.

"You're going to need to stay in the den for a while."

Atem grunted as Yugi licked more persistently. He closed his eyes and allowed him to continue his affections. "You worry too much," he said lazily, shaking his head and ignoring his nudging at his paw.

The Gandora huffed loudly, then nudged his paw again. Atem growled softly, pulling it away and burying it beneath his chin. Yugi hesitated, then licked his cheek and his neck once more. When the wounds were no longer bleeding, he pulled his tail towards him. It was placed between his paws, and Atem lazily complied in opening the blades for him to investigate.

"I am hopeful that your territory will be left alone now."

Timeaus had been so busy watching Yugi inspect every inch of his Sky Dragon mate that he almost did not hear him. Then he turned his head and found Atem watching him with narrowed, exhausted eyes. He had moved his tail away, the Wind Dragon realized, as Yugi let out a loud disgruntled noise. The blades had folded away, he saw, as the tip of the appendage flitted across Yugi's beak. He burst out laughing at Yugi's shocked expression.

"I do not envision myself flying there again for such a long battle as today's."

"I should hope not," the Wind Dragon agreed, chuckling. He watched Yugi sniffing at his tail again. But the Sky Dragon stubbornly refused to open the blades again, instead flicking him between the eyes this time. The Gandora finally settled to pull his tail closer and lay his chin upon it. "You might become too comfortable and start slaying every dragon to come into my region."

Atem thumped his tail heavily now, glaring. Yugi pouted and shook his head in frustration. "You are so funny my lungs could not restrain my laughter," he sneered dismissively.

"Yugi?"

The Gandora turned his head in confusion, eyes wide. He shifted to sit up, startled, and found himself blinking in shock. Atem's parents had come closer. He had not expected to meet them, startled by the sight. And, as he blinked eyes thrice their usual size, Atem considered them curiously.

"Oh, uh…h-hi?" he stammered, unable to stop himself. He wondered briefly if his mate had told them anything about him. But then he remembered that they had not seen each other for a rather long while. Atem had not been anywhere near his siblings or parents for a long time but for his mother finding him after what had to have been a rather relentless search…

"You're an honest-to-the-gods Gandora dragon, aren't you?" his dad commented, a deep rumbling statement of surprise and near warmth. "I've never seen one before. Normally they are watered down."

Atem snorted in amusement when Yugi cast him a slightly horrified look. He could see the panic clear in his eyes, as if he were fearful that he still had blood on his teeth or something of a similar manner. He shook his head, smiling at him, and moved to nudge him in his hind leg nearest him.

Yugi turned back after a moment, offering an awkward smile that Atem thought looked far too forced but still adorable on his face. He hesitated for a brief second or two, then tilted his head and fidgeted his paws as he tried to regain a sense of composure. "My mom is a Red-Eyes and my dad is a Luster," he explained, falling quiet almost immediately after. Atem almost laughed with delight; it was clear Yugi was hoping that they knew the species and he would not have to explain any further than that. "So I'm a hundred percent what a Gandora is meant to look like."

Timaeus snorted at the declaration. Atem laughed softly, then nudged his paw. Yugi squirmed again, anxiously fidgeting his front paws. He tipped his head up as even his mate's parents began to snicker.

"I'm impressed by your courage," the blue Sky Dragon commented abruptly, cutting through the small talk and looking at his son over Yugi's shoulder for a split second. "I was amazed you went to fight that Barrel Dragon as you did. Others were cowed by the idea and yet you charged straight for him when the time came."

Yugi seemed to barely resist the urge to cringe. Atem was stiff behind him, nearly bristling at the thought. He had seen the remnants of the fight that had occurred between them. But it was another thing entirely to be actively reminded. He narrowed his eyes, flexing his claws, and twitched his tail. He should have been here sooner. Yugi would not have gotten hurt or done something so stupid as to charge Keith if he had come sooner.

"Thank you," Yugi answered after a moment. And Atem narrowed his eyes further, resisting the urge to snarl, and hit him lightly in the side with his tail. He should have run before he'd gotten hurt. "I, um…I just didn't want him to hurt Atem."

Timaeus smirked and cast Atem a knowing glance. The Sky Dragon shot him an annoyed look, scowling in turn. His remaining eye twinkled with laughter and Atem almost shivered with dismay. He had never truly considered the strength it must have taken for Timaeus to even adapt to such a disfigurement, let alone to still remain his friend after all was said and done.

"I'm very glad that someone as sweet and brave as you came to be his mate," his mom commented, cutting off her mate's response. When he shot her a look, she mirrored her son in swatting him with her tail. Atem snorted in surprise and Timaeus snickered where he was watching. Yugi cast his mate a surprised glance and the Sky Dragon grinned lazily. "He needs someone like you in his life. After all of his…misadventures during childhood, he needs someone to be patient and loving with him."

Atem coughed loudly. "Brothers are assholes," he said between the noise, flicking his tongue and ignoring the way his dad snickered and his mom shot him a look for his language.

"Misadventures?" Yugi scoffed loudly, voice slightly cold with disbelief. He bristled faintly and his tail lashed once. He was glaring at where Atem could make out his brothers conversing a few yards away. Kisara seemed to be sitting close to Seto, but she was watching him and Yugi with clear interest. "More like the three of them were absolute bastards."

"Atem told you about…?" His mom looked amazed. Timaeus was silent, stiff. Atem blinked and looked towards his mate for a moment. "I did not think he would ever have…"

"I told him, yes," the red dragon stated, cutting off Yugi's potential backtracking and awkward correction of the misinformation. "I figured when we mated, I would explain why he had to go through a trial like that."

The younger dragon turned his head to look at him. "I know the bare minimum, I guess," he stated after a moment. Then he glanced at Timaeus and back to them. When he shifted his weight to sit up a little taller, Atem knew Yugi was smiling. "But I know enough."

"So, do I have more siblings?" the Sky Dragon asked curiously. He kept his chin on his paws, watching his parents. "How many this clutch?"

"You have a sister named Mana and a brother named Valon." She looked proud that her son had asked about them. The mere idea seemed to make her eyes brighter than ever. Atem wondered at the thought. Had they all thought he would not care? Or was it his own estrangement to them that brought the idea about? He had not spoken to them in a long while and he'd told his mom he would be fine after slaughtering another dragon. He doubted that had done well to remind her he was once her little dragonet… "They just recently hatched, only a couple of moons ago. Which means, of course, that we should be leaving very soon."

Yugi blinked. If she had only laid two eggs this time around, it was very likely that she would not be having many more clutches. Dragons tended to produce less offspring as the older they got, the less fertile they became. The stress of laying eggs tended to wear on the body to the point of lessening their potential of offspring in later years. But, from what Yugi had understood, they seemed younger than the average Sky Dragon pair bond. And he wondered at the idea that perhaps the stress of their first clutch being Atem, Seto, Malik and Bakura had been damaging to her.

Or perhaps it was simply that they had birthed the God Dragon.

There was a myth he'd heard when he was incredibly young and his parents had warned him away from ever thinking to leave the den to befriend Atem. And he remembered that it had been said the God Dragon was sometimes as destructive as it was beautiful.

Because, at times, some clutches that produced them meant that the surrounding eggs would die if the God Dragon should be born in a nest of more than one. Rumor had it that the God Dragon to be born last in a clutch meant good luck, a prosperous life, that the being in question had taken the time to allow the siblings to be born first. Because, somehow, it was rumored that the magic within them allowed them to know and choose whether the siblings should live.

They could potentially siphon away the life force from them.

Or they could allow them to be born by allowing their own birth to come last.

Yugi wondered abruptly if perhaps that was what had caused Atem to come out so small. Perhaps it was because of allowing his siblings to be born that he had been born smaller than usual. And he shivered at the thought.

He missed the rest of the conversation, however. Atem's parents were rubbing beaks with their son. And they glanced at him, nudging upon his shoulders gently as they swapped farewells. Timaeus watched them as they left, as Atem did the same. And Yugi slowly turned back to them as Timaeus groomed Atem's crown of scales.

Yugi narrowed his eyes, then looked at his mate. Atem did not seem disturbed by this attention in the slightest and he grew curious as he watched them. The Sky Dragon had his eyes half-closed and his head tilted and the Wind Dragon was persistent in his grooming of the younger male…

"Can I ask a question?" he inquired softly, ignoring the way that many of the other dragons still remained watching them. Some expressions were cold, startled. Others were simply shocked and relieved. He realized easily that none of them had truly expected their union, let alone that two species incapable of breeding had come together like this.

But he wondered if any of them were looking to see if his mate was wounded enough to take advantage. So he turned his back on them and faced Timaeus pointedly.

"Should I take a guess at what it is?" the Wind Dragon asked, teasing more than anything.

"I do not imagine it will be hard to." Yugi blinked, frowning at the exhaustion and self-deprecation which came upon Atem's ragged voice. The Sky Dragon would not meet his eyes now, however. He stared at his paws pointedly, flexing his claws. And he refused to look up at him now.

"How do you know Atem?"

Now the Slifer's head snapped up, stunned. Yugi ignored his, though he was somewhat surprised by his bewilderment.

"Believe it or not, Atem was not always murderous when he left the nest." He bore his teeth, snarling, when his eye fell upon the other three Sky Dragons. Yugi turned as well, glancing at them.

Seto snorted and raised his chin, but Kisara beside him ignored the way the Felgrand attempted to press closer to her. She even got up and moved a couple of steps away from him in turn, ignoring him when he narrowed his eyes and shot her a flustered look. Bakura growled and flicked his tongue and Malik turned away to stare towards a nearby tree in pointed dismissal.

The Wind Dragon lowered his voice, facing Yugi more completely now in order to avoid any eavesdropping. "We crossed paths when his side was still hurt. I offered to help him with it. I had been grounded for moons before then due to a broken wing when I fought during the mating season. Atem was so afraid of being alone like he was that he fought me for days before he ran out of steam."

Yugi turned to look at his mate. The reality made his guts twist. He had never considered before that the red dragon might have truly grown up with another. Nor that he might have been so terrified he'd fought a close friend—perhaps his dearest, in fact—like that. He had never considered he'd had a long time companion before him. Nor had he even thought that perhaps Atem might have suffered so much fear being on his own as he was.

Leaving the nest prematurely, despite the necessity of it, had probably done a great deal of damage to him. Many dragonets never survived due to a lack of necessary skills. Or they became too scared to properly interact with other dragons when they grew older. There was always a reason behind their departure.

And he had never thought of the fact that the same would affect a God Dragon.

Yugi closed his eyes, feeling a sense of sympathy rush through him. His poor sweet mate… He'd been so scared of being alone, yet so adamant to stay away from others at the same time. And so he'd lashed out at the one dragon who would show him kindness in that timeframe.

"So I helped him to heal it. And in return he let me stay with him for a little while until my broken wing healed completely." Timaeus fell silent for a long moment. Then he glanced towards Atem thoughtfully, tilting his head. The look on Yugi's face was a mixture of miserable and incredibly hurt. He shot Atem another look, confused, and the Sky Dragon turned to look at Yugi as well. It took the Gandora another moment to open his eyes again, but when he did, Timaeus nearly flinched.

He looked incredibly distressed. He seemed to be waiting now, for some kind of terrible ending that would devastate him to hear. And Timaeus found himself looking away towards the sky for a moment as he forced himself to continue. Maybe if he got it out fast enough, Yugi would not look at them like that any longer.

"It became habit for me to visit him once a season after that, just in order to ensure that he was okay and healthy. Beyond that, he's always been very solitary and has never cared much for my venturing into his territory."

Yugi blinked. Timaeus could see Atem moving to clasp his own tail tip between his claws, pinning it there and staring. He seemed more eager than ever to simply avoid his mate's eyes.

"I am very glad to see him settling with a mate, however," the Wind Dragon continued. He ignored the way Atem stiffened at the statement and Yugi turned back to him with wide eyes, startled by the declaration. Timaeus blinked, then considered him a moment longer. Yugi had been expecting a very different statement, he realized… He almost wished he could have said something more to reassure him in some way. But it was exhausting to face him when he wore such an unsure and nearly broken expression. "And you clearly care for him a lot."

Yugi looked at him almost as if he wished to knock him upside the head. His eyes flashed and he glared for a moment. Then his jaw opened and Timaeus thought for sure that he was going to snap at him. He imagined that the Gandora would say something along the lines of how of course he cared for Atem.

In truth, the younger male was about to snarl that he would never have tried so hard to find him if he had not cared for him. He almost snapped at him that he had waited so long just to find him because he cared that much. But then every response seemed to die in his throat. And he could not find a word to speak as he stared at the other dragon.

Timaeus was being incredibly patient with him. He had not reacted to his glaring or the way he was all but shaking with his anger. He was showing him no bit of aggression in turn despite his clear display of such a thing to him in turn.

In truth, Yugi knew what it was that kept Timaeus so calm now. He was relieved for Atem. He was so incredibly relieved for him that it was heartbreaking.

And so Yugi could do nothing more than look away after a moment.

Atem moved to sit up in the corner of his eye. Yugi turned to him immediately, wondering at the way he nearly wobbled. His leg looked as if it might buckle but the Sky Dragon did not seem worried about it. Instead he was eyeing Yugi as well, with something clearly confused and perhaps concerned as well.

Then he leaned forward, bumping him gently in the shoulder with his muzzle. He lingered there long enough to breathe against him. "Let's go back, little one. I'm exhausted," he mumbled.

The declaration was the only thing that helped Yugi pause from his current train of thought. The self-deprecation came to a stop, halted by the peaceful thought of curling up with his mate again. But, as he looked at Atem, his stomach knotted and his hearts pounded. His golden gaze was strained, soft with affection but growing visibly distressed as the seconds passed as well.

He leaned forward to butt him on the shoulder. "Okay."

Chapter Text

Part V: Rest

Atem did not pay full attention to the small hatchling which came racing from its hiding spot upon hearing its father voice. Timaeus rubbed muzzles with him and Atem vaguely remembered the Wind Dragon mentioning to him that the dragonet's name was Critias. But the thought was second to the pain in his limbs. Almost everything was second to the pain his body possessed at the moment. He did not care to even listen for more than a second to the squeals of delight the dragonet released. Yugi was thanking the gods that none of them had found the hatchling in the time that they had been fighting. Timaeus had eventually taken the hatchling into his mouth, giving them both a deep nod of gratitude, and then took off.

The red dragon did not watch him go. He was far too exhausted to care. His pain was enough to make his lungs tight. He closed his eyes tightly and for a moment he considered simply lying down and ignoring it all. But he knew that he was far too vulnerable should anyone drift close and so he reconciled his need for rest with the reminder that it would again be safe should he be inside the den.

"Yugi…"

The Gandora blinked, appearing almost startled to hear his own name. He turned to Atem with widened eyes, blinking again in bewilderment. He was standing in the center of the little clearing. He had been checking on Critias moments ago with Timaeus and so had been telling the little dragonet that he had done incredibly well. Now he took one look at his mate, bristled fearfully, and came running to his side with a horrified expression.

"Are you okay?" he demanded in a slightly sharp tone. He was trembling when he saw the way Atem's wings drooped so heavily. The Sky Dragon felt they weighed too much for him, scraping agianst the dirt as he peered back at Yugi.

The red dragon blinked at him again. Immediately Yugi leaned forward, sniffing urgently at his flanks and throat. It was easy to see the panic in his blue-violet eyes, the way his pupils had flipped and now rested in a horizontal position. He was staring at Atem with clear worry in his gaze, his blue-black tongue flicking out to run over some of the scratches.

But none of them were bleedign any longer.

And Atem could tell that this realization was only making Yugi feel worse.

"I need rest," the God Dragon muttered, unsure of what more he could possibly say. He was exhausted. And he had the feeling Yugi might become further upset if he were to explain why he needed this. But he was tired and weak when Yugi blinked and looked him over with a small nod and huge eyes.

"Right!" The younger dragon bore his teeth after a moment, shivering, and huffed out a breath. His tail lashed after a moment and he shook his head slowly. "Are you okay to walk?"

Atem was somehow amazed to see that Yugi was still trying his hardest to make him comfortable even at a moment such as this. It was stressful enough that he wanted to simply snarla nd back away from him. But now he was overwhelmed that his mate was willing to phrase the question in a manner that would not make him want to bury himself in his shame.

A dragon unable to move on its own was basically good only when left for dead. There was no time that one so weak would not be considered a hindrance.

And for a God Dragon to be in such a state…

"Not if I wait much longer."

Yugi hurried to press lightly against his shoulder. In truth, Atem could not tell if he was attempting to brace himself or testing him for the weakness he was sure the younger dragon sensed. But when he nearly stumbled from the light touch, the darker male moved to steady him by way of his head slipping beneath his forelimbs. It was awkward positioning and he nearly tottered over from it. It reminded him far too much of hatchlings too tired to play clinging to their parents so that they could carry them back to the den.

He himself had never truly done so.

By the time his mother or father would allow him to cling to them, he'd have caught a second wind. And he'd leap off their back and run ahead while they laughed. His sibling would cling there, staring with anger at the fact that he was capable of rejuvenating himself when they could not.

Yugi remained there only long enough for Atem to regain his footing entirely. When he was balanced equally on both front and back paws, Yugi moved away. He brushed up against his side gently and looked him over. And it occurred to Atem only thin that Yugi himself was probably still hurt as well. He was not the only to have fought Keith, after all. And the Gandora might not have been showing outward signs of it, but he had gotten himself hurt in that battle.

They were both well aware of that.

The shuffle to the den's entrance was an incredibly awkward one. Whenever he stumbled, Yugi caught him. And to catch him he had to lower his head to move it between his legs again. He would brace himself until the God Dragon was comfortable again. And, when he nearly collapsed, Atem had been amazed to find Yugi capable of catching his full weight. There had only been a small huff of air from the unexpected addition of weight but Yugi had hardly seemed troubled by it. He had braced his shoulder beneath his elbow, using his wing nearest his flank to gently press into the flesh in front of his back leg and lift slightly.

The God Dragon had only regained his balance then, shivering as he tried not to fall over again. Yugi watched him constantly after that, studying and readying himself. Atem knew then that he was looking at his forelimbs, trying to figure out when one might possibly give out beneath him again.

Now, however, Atem was braced on his haunches. His front paws were on the lip of the entrance of the den and his head was turned towards the darkness of the long tunnel. For the first time he truly questioned the intelligence of his choice to create it in the first place. But, as he had thought to brace himself and struggle with the task of pulling himself up and over the lip, he found himself nearly panicking. A small cry of alarm left him and tried to sink his claws into the dirt.

Yugi had moved from his side and come behind him. He had crouched, pressed his head into the soft flesh between his bottom legs and thrust. He sent Atem straight over it, the red dragon landing heavily from the toss. His lungs strained and his belly ached. He was winded, eyes shut tightly as he tried his hardest not to let out any pained noises.

But Yugi was at his side immediately. And it was clear that he had seen his agony. Because, when Atem finally opened his eyes again and drew in a deep breath with terribly aching lungs, the younger male was watching him with a horrified expression.

"What…what happened?" Yugi demanded in a quiet, horrified tone. His eyes searched the God Dragon's frantically. His pupils were mere slits, flipped on their sides, lost amongst the blue-violet shade of his irises. "Keith did not manage to hurt you so much…"

Atem hesitated for a long moment, somewhere between denial and frustration. He could not stop himself staring at him for a few long heartbeats. And he could not think of words to speak to him. He found himself squirming, dragging himself forward quickly and towards the decline that would allow him more room to lie down and relax. He crawled for as long as he could before the cliff opened into the wide cavernous den he'd created. Then he threw himself over the ledge. He landed on the soft sand and stone, the smoothness comforting even as he winded himself once more.

Yugi came behind him after a long minute or two. Atem had raised his head and was looking for him by the time the younger dragon managed to gather enough courage to go forward again. When those large golden eyes blinked up at him, he flinched and looked at his paws. He hovered atop the ledge for a long moment. And then he leaped to land a few feet away from the wounded God Dragon.

There was a moment in which he wondered if he was welcome at Atem's side. The God Dragon was clearly hurt and tired. And he doubted he wished for him to crowd into his space. But he was scared as well, that the Sky Dragon might be so upset as to lash out. And so he hesitated, studying him a moment longer, and finally circled around and moved to the opposite side of the den.

Atem stared at him as if he were some kind of foreign species when he curled up and took to lying there. Yugi was horrified, wondering if he had harmed him in choosing to lay elsewhere. But he could not bring himself to get up yet and his hearts were aching as he peered back at him in the darkness.

He stared down at his paws.

"Did hurt you?" he blurted out, looking up again. It didn't take him long to realize he was shaking. And Yugi truly hated himself for it. Atem was watching him with wide eyes now. He was clearly concerned, his gem foggy where it rested in the center of his forehead. And Yugi was struck with something he had not considered before.

Atem did want him at his side. He was trying now to get up and go over to him. But for all his braced muscles and the way his wings quivered, he could not get to his paws. Yugi shook harder at the thought.

"No, no," Atem snarled. He was bristling now. His tail thumped and then flicked, the exhaustion so harsh that it kept him in place. Yugi could see the tip of his tail twitching pathetically. He was breathing hard again, all but quivering from the force.

Yugi wanted to go to him and sure he was okay. But fear kept him glued to the spot. And he felt sick. He did not want to hurt him somehow by being too close or something of that nature.

"No, it was not you."

The Gandora stayed silent for a long time. His head tilted to the side. Atem was shaking his head in avid denial, all but glaring at his paws. "Atem…"

"I hurt myself. I did it. I…" He seemed to be struggling for the words to explain. But as he breathed harder and tried to think straight, Yugi could see his sides heaving painfully. And abruptly the other turned away from him with a grunt as he tried to curl up and failed miserably. "I will tell you more…tomorrow."

Yugi hesitated, hearts pounding. His chest felt swollen with pain and he shivered as he slowly slunk forward. He kept his head down, chin nearly skimming the floor. He almost expected Atem to snarl at him for doing so, as one of his eyes was still open and he was clearly watching him approach.

Yugi got to his side, hesitating, unsure of what else he should do. He took a seat a couple of inches away, watching him. Atem made no move to speak or invite him closer. He made no move to crawl any nearer to him. But when Yugi shifted his weight and slowly lowered himself to lie upon his belly, the golden eye he could see seemed to flash with something akin gratitude.


"Yugi."

The Gandora twitched. His claws flexed and his body shook the smallest degree. The red dragon remained quiet for a long moment. He did not want to startle him awake. It was likely that Yugi would lash out if his dreams were troubled enough. That was likely for any dragon species. But Yugi was jerking frantically. He was clawing up dirt and pebbles and gasping for air. He looked as if he were going through a spasm of kind or suffering the throes of a terrible nightmare.

And so Atem relented. He lowered his muzzle and pressed the tip of his beak gently into his shoulder. "Little one, little gem," he pleaded softly, nuzzling him gently once more, "come back to me."

At first his plea seemed only to fall upon deaf ears. Atem was disappointed, hoping formerly that Yugi would simply wake at the sound of his name. He moved to nudge him in the shoulder with his beak. But then Yugi blinked slowly, groggily. Then his head snapped up and his eyes grew thrice as large as usual. He spun on the God Dragon, clearly alarmed and terrified.

"Atem? Are you okay? Are you all right?" He sprang for his paws, bristling and snarling as he looked quickly about the den. He lashed his tail, spitting briefly and arching his back. His spine was bristling with long upward turned scales. His claws were braced for a violent attack. He flexed them and looked about rapidly once more, as if he might find some kind of threat that Atem himself did not see. "What's wrong?"

The Sky Dragon remained silent for a long moment. Then he frowned, leaning forward to bump his muzzle into Yugi's back leg. "was always fine, Yugi," he finally answered softly.

The Gandora turned to him with a confused expression. Atem had the smallest sense of childishness crash through him, as if he were small and weak and stupid again. The God Dragon forced himself to get to his paws as well now. He stretched until his neck popped and pain coursed through his shoulder and back, aching, as the muscles pulled. But he was too tired to grow defensive of it. Instead he lowered himself to his haunches again and looked away.

"It is you I am worried about."

The snarl Yugi had been released ceased immediately at the admission. His wings twitched, then drooped. His eyes closed and his head tilted away as if he with shame. After a moment or so he began to rub his face against the stones as if they might somehow comfort him. "I, um…" There was a long moment in which Yugi simply fell silent. Atem was struck with the idea that he did not know how to speak to him. Then he flexed his claws when the Sky Dragon shifted slightly closer. He was not irate but he was still visibly shaken. "It was only a nightmare."

"About?"

The quiet prompting caused Yugi to go still for a long moment. He seemed to struggle with the idea of explanation. He was shaking before long, then tossing his head frantically back and forth as if he might somehow dispel the fear radiating from him.

Atem stared at him for a few long handfuls of minutes. His leg began to quake beneath his weight and he hesitantly lowered himself to the floor again. He laid his chin on his paws and closed his eyes. "Lay with me," he invited instead, settling once more for the rest of the night.

Yugi hesitated for what felt a lifetime. Then, slowly, cautiously, he turned towards his mate's side and crept closer. He lightly touched at his wing with a paw, the gossamer movement soft and anxious. Atem welcomed it with a small but deep exhale of something almost akin warm affection.

Without an objection now, the Gandora moved to stretch a paw over the other side of Atem's flank. He moved his wing to keep them from pressing against the red dragon's. He slowly shifted his weight, moved his hindquarters to mirror the Sky Dragon's, and lowered himself.

He truly expected Atem to snarl at him due to the position. He had expected him to be against it for the sole purpose that it was in fact the position he'd have mounted him had he forced him to his belly first. But the God Dragon did not even seem to stiffen. Yugi could not tell if he trusted him so much or if it was sheer exhaustion which kept him docile for the moment.

He was amazed, as he settled against his scales and braced himself to leap up again, that Atem did not simply slither away from beneath him. He did not snarl or snap his jaws. He could have even thrust him away using his powerful wings. Yet none of this happened. Instead Atem slowly raised his head.

Yugi was incredibly conscious then of the fact that Atem could open his bottom jaw and still deliver some serious damage if he so saw fit. Instead the Sky Dragon simply watched him for a moment, rubbing muzzles with him before he lowered his head again.

Yugi was shaking, more than slightly overwhelmed, as he laid his head on Atem's neck and firmly tucked his wings into his sides. He could only hope it was trust that made Atem so open to him now. Because the other meant he was simply too exhausted to deal with him and he would rather lay there and allow him to do with him as he wished. He would rather lay there than fight him off.

Yugi felt as if he might be sick at any moment. He closed his eyes tightly, the thought of Atem so exhausted making his hearts hurt. But he was also comfortable with the new position. Regardless, it did nothing to scatter away the horrors which remained behind his closed eyes.

It was peaceful for hours.

Atem rested in a state of a few scattered memories. He was catching and releasing fish. He held them up by their tails and then put his head in the water when he let them go again. He screamed when a frog croaked, racing off with a horrified expression when he realized he lost his carcass as well. He was listening to Timaeus tell him that he had gotten into a fight with a much more experienced, much larger Wind Dragon years old than him. He was listening when he told him the fight had grounded him as his wings had been damaged and he would have to wait for them to heal properly. He was allowing the Wind Dragon to apply a balm of spit and leafy paste to his aching side, the burning relieved by the soothing touch. The agony had been put aside just long enough to let Atem remember what it felt like to not have to suffer at its existence.

But then, abruptly, the pleasurable moments of his past dissipated in a violent flash of heat.

Atem yelped. Then the burning intensified and he bellowed in pain, scrambling for his paws again. The movement jostled Yugi who immediately scrambled away. Atem did not have to look twice to see that he wore a horrified expression on his face. The pain reminded him of the ache in his side. He was blinded by the sheer ferocity of it, winded as, for a split second, he felt overwhelmed with panic.

His head was spinning with fear.

What if it had not ever truly healed? What if he had only dreamed it?

He writhed on the ground, frantic to get the pain to leave him in some way. The sand and stone buffered much of the heat for a few brief moments. But it came back in waves, as if antagonized by the very air itself.

Atem cursed, flexing his claws and slashing at the cold air as he squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to scream again.

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry!" Yugi pled desperately. The horror was clear in his tone. Atem cracked an eye open to look over at him. Yugi was shaking his head, covering his face with his paws and crying out with pure anguish. "I'm so, so sorry, Atem! I didn't mean to!"

The Sky Dragon found himself hesitating. He stared at his mate for a long moment, the words dancing about harshly in his head. And then he blinked, stopping his motions completely. His eyes stretched wide, first with bemusement and then with a startling sense of clarity. He blinked, rolling onto his belly once more. Then he twisted around to nurse at a wound he was sure he would find there.

But all he found was white splashed across his hindquarters, at the base of his tail, sticking to his scale almost like thick liquid cobwebs. And, when he sniffed it, it smelled simply of heat and desert winds and sunlight too intense for him to bear. When his tongue flicked over it, it was sticky, burning, and tasted rather sour but with a sweeter touch that came only as it cooled.

He hissed, confusion and disbelief at war in his head. He stiffened, turning his head to look at Yugi slowly. The Gandora was opening sobbing, tone broken as he pleaded with him again that he was terribly sorry.

"What…?" Atem could feel the heat fading slowly now. It was nothing like what he had experienced the first time coming across it. He shivered, his shocked expression shooting back to Yugi. The younger male was shaking like a leaf, tossing his head about from beneath his paws in a desperate fashion. Atem blinked again, tilting his head and looking back again.

He truly expected he might find that there was some kind of wound there they had both overlooked. But he did not feel the ache of pulled or torn muscle. There was no open sore to be found. He opened and closed his bottom mouth, clicking his teeth in an almost breathless and desperate fashion. Then he drew in a deep breath.

"It…must have been the position."

He could not imagine that Yugi had tried to take advantage of the position. Despite himself, he knew the Gandora to be far too sweet to do so. And Yugi had had multiple chances to do o formerly and had failed to. Had he chosen to do so now, he would have been foolish with his timing. And it made no sense as to why he might do so now.

The Gandora looked up at him from where he was crouched on the ground. He was peering at him with his large paws over his muzzle and beak, clearly more horrified than Atem thought truly necessary. The younger male shook his head again, then closed his eyes tightly as if he were terrified. "I can't believe I did that, Atem! I…oh, oh, Atem! I'm so, so sorry!"

The God Dragon blinked in open bewilderment. He slowly shook and tilted his head, studying him for a moment. He was exhausted but laughter still managed to bubble up in his lungs. He smiled, turning away and licking at the spot. "I'm not upset, little one."

"But…" Yugi was shaking harder than ever now. "But you're hurt and I—!"

Atem turned back to him slowly now, curious. "Yugi, you have already proven yourself to be rather excitable. You said yourself that you were so excited and territorial when you came here that you marked all over my favorite river. And I doubt that you meant to release on me in your sleep." Yugi groaned and whimpered, shaking his head unhappily. But Atem hardly found it troublesome in the slightest any longer. "Little one, it is okay. I am fine. And it was an accident. It was the position we were resting in. and I am aware that I move in my sleep at times. I am not going to lay blame solely upon you. "

Yugi shook his head the smallest degree. "I can't believe I did that, Atem. I…I just can't…" He pulled his paws away after a moment, staring at him. He stayed crouched there, frustrated as he tossed his head a second time. "You're hurt and I did this—"

The Sky Dragon blinked. He got to his feet, moving towards him, and paused only a step or two away. He wanted to pull him closer for a moment. But another part of him was tired and reminded him once more that he needed rest. He would not sacrifice his own recovery in order to comfort Yugi. So he settled for nudging him gently on the shoulder and nuzzling his cheeks before licking his forehead.

"And I am fine. I am tired but I am fine. And you're scared for no other reason than because you have exaggerated the damage in your grief. Little one, I am fine. I am not even upset." He moved to his neck now, running his tongue over the side of it now. Then he shivered as his leg pulsed with pain, moving to take a seat and slowly stretch himself out on his belly once more. "I know you did not mean anything from it. I trust you enough to forgive so simple a mistake. I do not suspect you of anything malicious, Yugi."

The Gandora could not help the slight quivers he was wracked with. And Atem ignored these with as much grace as he could possibly muster in his exhausted state. And, when he lowered his chin to his paws and closed his eyes again, he heard Yugi getting up. He felt the smallest wave of despair at the thought that he might leave him there alone. But he was too tired to open his eyes and watch him.

But then he felt Yugi's wing touching one of his and he relaxed somehow more. The Gandora was likely too afraid to repeat his former actions and so refused to come any closer to him. It was a shame, but it would have to do.

"I love you…"

Atem was already fast asleep when the words were whispered in his ear.


Atem shook the water from his body as he stepped out of the river. Yugi sat up further along the bank, anxious as he watched him and pacing when he could no longer find it in himself to remain still. The fear was prominent in his belly and horror touched at his senses each time he witnessed Atem dive beneath the water and resurface. More than once Yugi had found himself suspecting that he wouldn't.

After the hideous mistakes he'd made the night before…

And so, when Atem stepped away from the river altogether and took a spot sunbathe on an upraised stone near the bank, Yugi was more relieved than he could have ever put into words. But he also remembered the fact that Atem was still hurt, regardless of how well his recovery seemed to be coming along, and his hearts ached. He had hoped that he would be able to protect him if something like the fight from the day before were to happen. Instead he had made a complete fool of himself and stupidly gotten in the way to the point that Atem had been forced to turn his anger on him as well.

Yugi shook the thought off, however. He did not need to think about that when he had to get to his side in the first place. He hurriedly paced forward, then began to leap from each of the small ledges he knew would eventually bring him to Atem's side. He was only halfway there when the God Dragon spoke quietly.

"You were wrong in your assumptions about Timaeus and I."

The words caused Yugi to stumble. He nearly fell chin-first over his own paws. Then he caught himself and shook himself out. The action wrenched a muscle in his forelimb, however, and he struggled not to limp when he padded forward. He did not know if Atem had opened his eyes and was watching him or not. His head was turned in a manner that made it impossible to properly tell.

"Huh?" he muttered, moving to his side. He was relieved to see his eyes shut and he seemed to simply be enjoying the cooler air. Thank the gods Atem had not seen his reaction. He was grateful that he did not have to walk any longer either, as he was tired of doing that as well.

But they were both short-lived.

Atem had raised his head and opened his eyes, watching him with a keen expression. "You were very tense and I could feel the way you grew so envious when he mentioned that he had been my companion for a while," the Sky Dragon explained gently. But Yugi saw his claws flexing almost anxiously for a moment. And Yugi was struck with the fear that perhaps he had offended him by thinking such a thing of him. "He was very patient with me, Yugi. Even when I lashed out at him and tried my hardest to scare him off. It was a matter of companionship and his teaching me to heal the wound on my side."

The younger male was incredibly ashamed to feel that same wave of jealousy come through him yet again. It was foolish and stupid. He knew that. And Sky Dragons were perhaps the only species to truly mate for life.

He knew that, had they done anything that might have gone beyond mere friendship, Atem would never have had to worry about those various suitors. Because Atem would have been so caught upon Timaeus that he would have killed and all to enter his territory with the intention of breeding. He would not have allowed any to encroach on their relationship.

They would likely have a little nest by now as well. The guilt came back in a flood and Yugi dug his claws into the dirt to keep from snarling at himself.

But, by the gods, was it truly so terrible that he wished it had been him to teach Atem those things? Was it such a terrible thing to want to be the one who had helped him with that terrible wound on his side? And he felt bitter again, despite himself, that he had been proven unable to help Atem before.

He'd been physically close to the four of them on so many occasions. He'd had every opportunity to intervene when the three bastards had attacked and abused him so relentlessly.

But Atem was right.

He'd be dead if he had ever thought for even a second to step in. He was amazed that he'd been able to stay quiet as it was. He'd been so incredibly excited just to see Atem everyday that he'd gone past the den that he sometimes wondered how it was he'd failed to try to get his attention. Other times he reminded himself of his mother's warnings, of the fact that a Sky Dragon nest was a dangerous one. The parents would kill without hesitation had they found them, especially so close to their den. They would have likely slaughtered his parents in front of him and either left him to starve or let their hatchlings pick him to pieces.

He could almost not imagine Atem's parents doing such a thing.

But he remembered all too well Atem's temper. And he remembered the way Sky Dragons were considered the most protective species when it came to their offspring. They would kill anything and everything that moved if they considered it a threat. There was no stopping them at all should that come to pass.

But he had always wondered what might have happened.

Would Atem have tried to stop his siblings if they'd brought him back to the nest to practice hunting? Would he have simply watched? Would he have pled with his parents not to do it? Or would he have joined in when his brothers tortured him in retaliation for trying not to do so?

It hurt to consider that he'd been so scared back then. He had watched Atem get bullied so viciously purely for fear of being struck down.

"Then he taught me to look for human tracks in the forest and how to tell from which direction they might come or go." Atem leaned forward and Yugi was surprised when he nuzzled his beak and ran his tongue over his forehead. It was odd that the Sky Dragon was so affectionate at the moment, when he had not been the last few days. But then, he reminded himself, Keith was already dead. Atem did not have a reason to be as scared and closed off any longer. "In return, I taught him to fish and fly higher. It was a simple trade. I believe he taught me more, however, in reminding me that not all other dragons would come to treat me as a plaything as my siblings had."

Yugi nodded slightly. He would be eternally grateful for that. Timaeus was beautiful for showing Atem that. Because he knew that Atem could have become the most disgusting, vicious dragon to exist had it been otherwise. He nearly trembled at the thought.

Atem stretched himself out completely on the stone beneath him. He scratched his left cheek against it, blinking groggy eyes up at him, and looked back at him with a content expression. Yugi almost thought it was almost as if Atem were a hatchling being coaxed to sleep by his mother.

"He never cared to attempt to court me. And I was far too afraid to even consider such a thing. We became close friends only because the two of us were so wounded and needed so much help to heal."

The words were comforting in their own way. But it did not completely quell his jealousy. Yugi hated to admit it, but some small and foolish part of him had been hoping that he would one day be the one to teach him what companionship and friendship truly meant. It was pathetic of him and he knew that. But he'd wanted to be his sole partner, even beyond being his mate.

But he'd been so young when he'd desired it. And he had forgotten it until now, when the sourness of embitterment made his hearts heavy.

Now Atem grew abruptly quiet. His eyes were full of shame when he lowered them. His wings dropped at his side and fell along the length of the stone he rested on. "I am sorry, Yugi." The words startled the Gandora out of his own thoughts, head snapping up. His wide eyes flickered as he blinked in confusion. "I never meant to treat you so terribly—"

"Terribly?" Yugi sputtered, echoing him with a horrified look. The word threw him off as he shook his head rapidly and stared in shock. "Atem, you've never—"

"But I have," the God Draogn interrupted, voice soft with his own bitterness. He still would not raise his eyes to meet Yugi's. "You were concerned about me after I collapsed and I snarled and snapped at you. I would have likely gone as far as to attack had you not listened and backed away when Timaeus instructed you to."

Yugi blinked, stunned. Then he turned away again and struggled to find the words to explain. It had not been smart of him to overlook that Atem could have been fearful of his approach. And that could not be blamed solely on either of them, in truth.

"I would not have done so if I had thought I could trust myself not to lash out."

The Gandora spun on him now, teeth bared and eyes sharp with indignation on his mate's behalf. He tossed his head sharply. "I trusted you not to! I know you wouldn't have—"

Atem raised his head, turning to him with darkened eyes. "I did that to Timaeus, Yugi."

Yugi faltered, unable to move as the words echoed painfully in his skull. He…? Atem had…? But he…? Atem had just said…

But he'd…

"His eye… I did that to him. That hideous scar on his face and his eye missing… I did that to him." Atem looked away again, eyes darkening further. His tail flicked and Yugi could see a cloudy fog seeming to come over the gem on his forehead. He shivered but Atem did not seem to notice and Yugi thanked the gods for such a small mercy. "He came to check in on me a few summers ago and, when he did, I had just finished fighting with another dragon that had hoped to mount me forcefully. I was still covered in blood and Timaeus must have thought it was mine. He had come to check on me and see if I was okay. I had overexerted myself due to how young I was and I lacked the ability to catch my breath. He got too close to me. And I was terrified. I thought it was another dragon come to challenge me. So I…I used my tail without looking properly."

Yugi could only imagine the terror Atem must have experienced when the adrenaline had faded. And when he had looked at Timaeus and seen the wound he'd sported and all the blood and realized what he had done to his friend…

"I took his eye out and caved in part of his skull with my tail that time. He lay there screaming and bleeding for a few minutes before I could even register what it was that I had done to him."

Atem had turned his face away from him entirely. His eyes were closed tightly and his wings drooped pitifully at his sides. He lowered his head shamefully and refused to look towards him at all. He began shaking his head rapidly after a moment, a keen whimper bubbling out as he clenched his claws on the stone beneath him.

"When I aided him in recovery, I… I could not live with myself if I were to ever do the same to you, Yugi. And I always become so scared and upset when I have to fight, especially when I am forced to kill. And if I am wounded when you are to approach, I am so much worse."

Yugi blinked, startled by the comment. But the words made sense and he was abruptly struck by a new thought entirely. Atem had not threatened him in order to make him back away from his fight with Keith simply for the sake of showing his power. He had done it in order to remove Yugi from the potential backlash that Atem had been uncertain he could prevent.

Had Yugi gotten too close and he was scared…

"And I… It does not matter if am the victor…I simply cannot…differentiate between friend and foe."

He could have very easily killed him.

Atem could have every easily turned on him in the midst of the fight, scared and disoriented with his adrenaline, and torn him to shreds before he'd thought it through.

And yet…

Yugi began to recognize the tone of the words leaving his mate's mouth now. It infuriated him more than he could think to put into words. And he was unable to stop himself from flexing his claws and bristling. The scales on his back rose furiously in the air.

He launched himself forward. He would not listen to Atem say things in such a tone. The Sky Dragon spun on him, startled. But he did not retaliate when Yugi hit him. The impact sent them both over the edge of the stone and down into the bank again. Atem grunted and Yugi bore down on him.

Atem had instinctively braced his back paws against his belly as if to eviscerate him. His front rested on his chest. None of his claws were braced for a true attack. But he appeared incredibly shaken. His golden eyes were wide with shock. And the faintest touch of panic made them a shade darker.

The Gandora snarled loudly. He leaned over him more pointedly. His tail lashed. He bore his teeth furiously. "I will not stand here and listen to you belittle yourself so foolishly! I know the way you're speaking too well to think anything else will come of it."

His words were met with an astounded expression. Then Atem blinked up at him in surprise. His eyes darkened further, though now he was clearly more suspicious than he ever could be panicked. And there was no anger to be found in him. He did not push the younger male back even as Yugi snarled and bit at the air angrily several times. Instead he eyed him, somewhere between mystified and perhaps curious now as well.

"You have no idea how many times I would think back on that day Seto attacked you and I would berate myself endlessly for my inability to help you then. If you think for even a moment that I want to hear something similar escape your jaws…"

Atem blinked. The Sky Dragon remained frozen beneath him for a few moments longer. Yugi was shaking viciously now, his blue-violet eyes raw with desperation.

"It happened! It was an accident… But it still happened."

Yugi hesitated a moment longer. Then he slowly pulled away and stepped back several paces. He took a seat, growling, and shook his head angrily. And, as Atem rolled over and straightened to his full height again, he was astonished by the way Yugi continued to shake and snarl. The younger dragon was glaring at him furiously. And Atem could not help but feel somehow trapped, stunned and oddly invigorated.

Normally a verbal spat became so much more. In his experience it had always become a physical brawl. Even Timaeus would sometimes become irritable enough to pounce on him and playfully bat at him. They would play until Atem was too tired to, but now was different. Now he felt something far from the twitch of strength that came with the thought of a fight.

"I'm sorry it happened to Timaeus. And I'm sorry you get so upset and feel so much fear even now, Atem. I…I'll admit I didn't even think about it when you first snarled at me. And your tail scared me so much that I completely forgot what I was doing to begin with."

He was breathing harder than ever.

Atem sniffed lightly at the air. There was a taste of something sweet and yet oddly sour. It was delicious all the same when he parted his teeth just enough to draw in a small mouthful to settle on his tongue. And it surprised him when he looked at the other male again.

His wings nearly quivered as he tried to identify it more pointedly. But then he remembered himself, that his curiosity was perhaps the last thing Yugi might wish to see from him at the moment. He frowned, struggling not to say a word about it, and instead moved to take a seat as well, wrapping his tail slowly around his paws.

"But I… I love you, Atem."

The statement made the air feel somewhat thicker. His tongues seemed to be laden with the taste which pressed upon the muscle with each small breath. He blinked and pulled his tail further around himself, coiling it multiple times around his body. He wrapped it until he could no longer do so, Yugi unable to fully count the coils for they trembled far too often and shifted too frequently to fail to count one twice.

"And it's okay if you mess up sometimes. I am bound to do the same, as I proved earlier today. I didn't… I never considered how you would feel if I rushed towards you like that. I didn't even consider that it might distress you and for that I'm so sorry. I apologize with everything I am and have to offer. I was simply worried and it clouded my judgment."

Yugi blinked and then considered him with much brighter eyes. Determination colored them a brilliant gorgeous color to match gemstones. Atem stared at him almost blankly, his claws twitching as he breathed lightly through his nose once more.

"But it'll be okay! We're still learning, after all! And I am sure there's so much you have to teach me about yourself still! Just like I have more to teach you about myself, too."

When Yugi looked at him expectantly, Atem simply lowered his eyes to his paws and focused pointedly on the coils of his tail wrapped around them. His wings remained drooping at his flanks and he did nothing more than stare blankly down at his long claws.

But it only took him a moment to realize that Yugi had moved.

His head snapped up immediately. The younger male was in front of him in an instant. His paw rose and tapped his shoulder lightly. Then he wiggled his rump, flexed his claws, and pounced away again.

"I have no doubt that you're far more interesting than me, though."

The Sky Dragon blinked at him, surprised, and considered him curiously. The Gandora was dashing away. Atem watched him as he got several yards away from him. It was only then that Yugi seemed to notice he was not following. The younger male turned to him with a frown, tilting his head. His wings twitched with clear disappointment.

But Atem did not know how it was that he was meant to explain to him that he refused to play tag. His brothers had ganged up on him too often and he'd gotten hurt far too many times to feel comfortable doing so. If Yugi were to play with him, it would have to be a battle game. He would not turn his back on what could potentially turn into an opponent, regardless of whether it was his mate or not. He might have known that Yugi would not turn on him, but it was a fear he could not control in the slightest.

But the Gandora pulled away again immediately after saying the words. Yugi went about shaking himself out. Atem could not stop staring at him in bewilderment. It was odd and estranged to him. The scent was still in the air, heavier than ever. He recognized it now, far more than he'd ever considered it before.

It was a release of pheromones, something akin the scent of which had plagued the den just earlier that night. Yugi was heavily aroused by their play—or perhaps from their former argument.

Atem had heard of such a thing before. It was not uncommon by any stretch.

But he could sense something else lingering in the air as well. It was not brought on by play or argument, however. And he knew that it was not something that Sky Dragons usually partook in either. But he knew well enough that it was common for Fire or Wind or even Lightning.

They all practiced physical affection after a battle was won. It was a ritual that they all seemed to enjoy for the most part. And who was he to deny Yugi something like that if he so desired it? He was Fire and Wind Dragon after all…

"You…?"

Yugi looked up, confused as he turned his head and blinked at him in surprise. Atem watched him with something of an uncomfortable expression. His golden eyes narrowed briefly. And he seemed to be struggling with a way to truly give the words a voice. And Yugi puzzled over what it was that he should do to explain his puzzlement to the Sky Dragon. He did not know in the slightest if pointing out that he couldn't read his mind would be condescending to him or not. And it was not as if he wanted to offend him in any way.

But Atem looked miserable for a moment. He seemed to be struggling harder than ever, and for a moment Yugi almost thought he looked as if he wished he'd never spoken to begin with.

"Yes?" he prompted gently, tilting his head further and smiling at him.

Atem stared at him as if he wished Yugi could read his mind. He faltered in his movement to take a seat. His tail flicked. His wings twitched. "I…" He seemed to struggle harder than ever now. He twitched, claws flexing. A sense of anxiety made his eyes grow wide and bore into his. He opened and closed his bottom jaw twice more. And then he simply struggled. He looked so anxious that Yugi nearly flinched.

"Atem?"

The Sky Dragon shook his head mutely. The gem on his forehead seemed to cloud over with anxiety. He seemed to be confused and disoriented. He looked down, clawed at the dirt, and narrowed his eyes into slits. He shifted his weight and wiggled slightly. And then he slowly looked up at Yugi again with a desperate, almost ashamed expression. He looked at him as if he hoped his stare was strong enough to portray what he could not say to him.

It was only when Yugi considered his position, the anxious shuffling he was doing. He noticed the way his eyes glittered. And the way his wings were tucked firmly into his sides. He noticed his tail twitch and his claws flex. He smiled at him, shaking his head the smallest degree.

Of course Atem did not know how to propose it.

His species didn't usually do that.

It was something all but unheard of for Sky Dragons. He supposed Atem could not be the first to be willing to do it, but he did not remember many dragons being as gentle as to suggest it, however. The problem was that some species simply took the ritual for granted. If the dragon in question was to argue, they could get seriously hurt. And Yugi was all too aware of just how sweet it was that Atem was even offering.

But surely he had to realize that compromise was a two-way thing. He could not simply offer something like this and expect nothing else in turn?

Regardless, however, it did not matter at the moment.

He leaned forward, running his tongue from Atem's beak to the tip of the crown of thorn-like scales which crested the indentation of his skull. He tipped his head down to rub their cheeks together, hoping to soothe him somewhat. His anxiety was upsetting, in all truth. Yugi pulled away after a moment, looking him over.

And Atem hated the look in his eyes.

It reminded him too much of the way his parents had once looked at him growing up. He hated that warm and steady affection, the way he wished he could melt into such a warm embrace he had not thought about such a thing in years and it made him ache to realize that it was there before him now.

"You're wounded, dear heart. I'm not mounting you when you're wounded."

Atem was not sure whether he should be relieved or dejected. The statement was simplistic and clearly meant to reassure him in some way. He knew Yugi meant to tell him he loved him too much to risk hurting him further.

He understood that.

But he could not stop himself from feeling a small wave of disappointment and pain which came crashing through him.

They had not mounted in days.

And that seemed utterly incredible to him at the moment. Normally new mates mated as often as was physically possible. He'd known that from his parents mentioning it to him. His mom had teased him about it and Timaeus had even made jokes about how once a pair of Sky Dragons bonded, it was almost impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. He had laughed that Atem would one day be like that as well and it had unnerved him more than he'd cared to admit.

To not be able to partake in that was something almost horrifying to him.

But to offer to allow Yugi to mount him after the fight and have him say otherwise was devastating to consider as well.

But then…

Perhaps Yugi did not want to have to deal with the panic which he exuded when the topic was brought to light…

"But, unlike you," Yugi murmured, butting him playfully in the shoulder with his muzzle, "didn't get hurt too badly. So, if you'd like to…"

Atem remained frozen for a long handful of moments. The unfinished statement was shocking to him. And then it bewildered and horrified him as well. Yugi was the one that was part Fire Dragon—not him! He was the one who was meant to be naturally more dominant between the two of them.

The younger male may have just sexually matured but he was sure even he realized this.

Fire Dragons and Wind Dragons and Water Dragons especially were known for being incredibly vicious when it came to single-sex mates. Fire Dragons were sometimes forced to mate with another male when they were too new to win against a female. The cycles were often vicious and they would wound each other rather terribly in order to declare dominance over the other. Wind Dragons were sometimes simply aggressive enough to wish to pin their mates and force themselves on them when they felt they were being dismissed. And dismissal came in many forms for them. Water Dragons tended to simply constrict their mates as many times as possible in order to declare dominance over each other. Some of them never fully recovered and lived with internal bleeding and wounds that did not always heal….

Yugi was a genetic merging between two of the fiercest when it came to dominance displays between males. He could have easily taken after either of his parents in that manner…

And yet…

He flicked his tail and tucked his wings firmly into his sides, pressing the tips painfully into his softer scales. Had seeing him being tortured by his brothers like that done so much to change his nature? Or was it that of his parents' various compromises? The former thought horrified him, making him bristle faintly.

Did he pity him so much?

"You would let me…?"

The absolute disbelief in his voice caused Yugi to falter slightly. The younger dragon blinked, considering him with a bewildered and uncertain look. "Of course I would, Atem. Why would you even ask that?"

The God Dragons struggled once more, feeling out of breath and unsure of himself. He flexed his claws in the dirt, narrowed his eyes into slits with growing discomfort. He flicked his tongue furiously for a moment, curling his lips back further to show his immense fangs. "I…I simply… I had assumed that you rather mount me than the other way around," he finally mumbled. But the resentment in his tone was hard to overlook. And he felt shameful when he looked at Yugi again. He bore his teeth more pointedly once more, then snarled low in his throat.

"Even if I were to prefer that," Yugi said slowly and quietly, eyes narrowing with a startling glimmer of rage, "you were the one to fight the most. And you were the one to kill Keith. So why should I assume that to be my victory?"

And now Atem snarled before he could stop himself. His tail thumped heavily and spat furiously at the younger male. "I am simply used to my many other suitors saying otherwise! My apologies for thinking that perhaps you might wish to do something more akin your own species," he snapped out. The chill in his voice threatened to freeze the marrow in their bones. "I should never have even thought to mention this…"

Yugi was quiet for a long moment. He slowly shook his head, expression becoming tired enough he almost thought it exhausted. "Oh, Atem… Your right leg is shaky even now. Your breathing is still somewhat erratic from being shocked when he hit you in the side yesterday… Your wings are still drooping. Your eyes are unfocused and glassy at times. And the gem on your forehead is darker than usual." Yugi shook his head again and licked his forehead happily. He lay his chin on the crown of his scales for a moment, a low rumble much akin a purr leaving him for a brief minute. "I'm never going to take advantage of an opportunity to mount you should you be hurt like this."

"You…?" Atem narrowed his eyes into slits. He bore his teeth and a sense of frustrated pride and disbelief came through him. It was misplaced and hateful and he recognized it from the last time he had come across Seto before with the request for aid. And, just as then, it was impossible to suppress now. "Why do you pay such attention to me?"

"Huh?" Yugi sputtered, blinking at him in open bewilderment. "What do you…?"

"You noticed my eyes and my gem?" he spat, nearly lunging at him. It was instinctive need to shield himself from such scrutiny. It was possible a need that he nearly thought to lash out at him and knock him away. He was almost shaking as they looked at each other. Because, as he stared at him, another instinct demanded his attention far more, by far louder and more aggressive. He could not hurt Yugi, as Yugi was his mate. It was not okay to strike out at him when they were mated… "No one else does that! No one else would ever pay me such attention! So why do you?!"

Yugi startled, blinking in surprise. The black dragon frowned after a moment, tilting his head in open bewilderment. "Because, I think they're beautiful, just like the rest of you. And I think you deserve to have attention paid you. And I believe in giving as much as I am capable of taking." His voice was so soft and gentle that he was almost whispering and Atem hated him for it. "And you pay me attention. Why wouldn't I do the same for you?"

"Because, I am the God Dragon," he spat fiercely, stepping closer with his shoulders squared and both sets of teeth bared rather pointedly. It was terrifying to think that Yugi was watching him with such keen intensity, taking such intense note of him. It was horrifying. His siblings had not paid him such attention before unless it was to make him scream and try to flee. And his parents had often only shown him such diligence when Atem claimed he'd hurt himself, because they had three other hatchlings. And, oftentimes, Atem was forced continuously to ignore the draw of parental comfort for the sake of avoiding his brothers' wrath.

Timaeus had been much more discreet in showing him attention because of the way Atem had so often snapped at him. He'd learned to pretend to look the other way when he got hurt and then groom him when Atem was too sleepy to argue. He'd learned to ignore him when he initially yelped but to come to him later when he had forgotten the wound or his surprise and ask then.

"I'm the one with the random genetics and a second mouth! I'm the one who is meant to be able to procure nests and bring opposing armies to their knees—"

"You're also a fool, Atem."

The words managed to startle him more than even the sight of Yugi's mounting anger. The younger male was shaking. His eyes were narrowed into a furious glare. His teeth were bared. His tail lashed. His claws flexed in the dirt.

"Calm yourself. You're acting a hatchling," he spat coldly. He huffed out a breath seconds later. He was shaking as he tossed his head back and forth. "And you're repeating absolute lies!"

The Sky Dragon blinked in bewilderment. "Lies?" he repeated curiously. The idea of such a thing was rather startling to him. It was bewildering as he looked over at the other male. He had never been told outright that he was acting a fool. It was always with sneers and angry remarks, all geared to make him lash out angrily.

Yugi's tail thumped heavily once more. He was shaking, hateful and full of disdain. "The God Dragon is not chosen at random, damn you! It is never with random genetics! Have you never noticed that all God Dragons have something in common?" Yugi snapped his jaws loudly at him. He flicked his tongue from between his sharp fangs and growled more loudly than ever, nearly roaring with his frustration. He tossed his head back and forth again furiously, thumping his tail. "They're the most innocent, kind, gentle and worthy of the gift! They're given the gift of divinity because their souls are the purest! They are as they are meant to be—the good left in a world that often has so much bad within it. They're powerful enough to change the world as they need, because their strength and ability is untouched by all the hatred and bitterness and overall darkness. Each of you is capable of changing the world if you so wanted!"

Abruptly Atem remembered Malik sneering at him. He recalled the words that Yugi had to be a boost to his ego, because of how he so clearly worshipped him. The words echoed brilliantly within his skull, making him dizzy and anxious. He had thought nothing of it then but a jab meant to anger him.

Now he felt exhausted with the weight of this memory.

Atem shook his head, forcing himself to take a seat and look away from Yugi entirely. There was a great sense of shame inside of him now and he wondered if perhaps his brother's sneer was truly too far removed. "You believe in that little fable?" he murmured, overwhelmed by the very idea.

Because, now, Atem had to wonder.

Was Yugi possibly too young?

Was it a possibility?

Perhaps Seto had not been wrong in calling him a hatchling…

Yugi sprang for him. His claws were aimed at his face. And Atem looked up just in time. The anger was reigned in enough to make Yugi land short of the blow. His blue-violet eyes narrowed into slits. He began to pace rapidly, lashing his tail, and snarled furiously. His wings tucked firmly into his sides. The scales along his back twitched with anger.

"It is not a fable." He spat the word almost as if it were toxic. Atem wondered how it was that Yugi could believe in such things so adamantly. It did not make sense to him in the slightest. "It's not! You are still the most beautiful and sweetest Sky Dragon I know of. And you're fair and just and kindhearted despite all of the hurt! I know it. You know it. You're just afraid to admit it to anyone—let alone yourself!"

The declaration startled him.

Atem flinched and bristled. Yugi was incredibly flustered, eyes wide as he looked over. His pupils had flipped again but his head was angled slightly towards the ground. It was easy to see the shame in his posture now.

"I…I'm sorry for snapping at you. I…I don't like to hear you berate yourself. I love you so much and—"

"If that were the truth, Yugi"—The words had an astounding effect on Yugi, one which Atem took note of as his entire face collapsed into a crestfallen expression—"then why is it that you are not a God Dragon rather than me?"

Yugi blinked, his expression turning from miserable to confused. He blinked, tilting his head after a moment. And then he blinked again as Atem watched him closely. His blue-violet eyes grew wide with realization. Then he slowly relaxed in front of the Sky Dragon, body trembling for a brief moment. Atem leaned forward slightly, sniffing at his forehead with curious alarm.

"I…I got scared that you… I just misinterpreted…"

Atem stared at him for a moment, wondering at such an explanation. And then he realized what it was that Yugi meant. His eyes stretched wide with surprise and bewilderment and he shook his head slightly. He leaned forward to run his tongue over his forehead. "I did not doubt that, little gem." But now he tilted his head, watching him for a long moment. "But you have not answered my question."

Yugi hesitated. His expression became miserable for only a moment. Then he slowly shook his head. His unnerved expression grew as he flexed his claws and studied his face. "I… I know I'm not a God Dragon because I… When I saw your brothers, my first thought was to kill them as violently as I could. I was… I made a promise to myself when I left my nest. I told myself that if I were ever to see them again and you were there…" Yugi shook his head as if he were covered in cobwebs, bristling and snarling once more. "It's nothing I would have ever considered were I not an ordinary dragon…"

The Sky Dragon fell silent. He rose to his paws and flexed his wings, then tucked them back into his sides. "I often desired revenge on them when I was truly upset. I would scheme so elaborately that Timaeus would laugh at me for hours around pointing out the faults in my logic. He would usually leave for a hunt still laughing and come back laughing some more."

Yugi was faintly jealous of that expression of laughter on Atem's face. His eyes were glowing faintly, golden gaze bright with amusement and warm affection.

"I don't know that I meant to kill them, truly. I think I more simply wanted to make them experience the same pain they'd once inflicted upon me." The God Dragon shook his head slightly, smirking. He considered the idea, the way he'd announced his plans to Timaeus and the Wind Dragon had teased him relentlessly about it all. "But, truthfully, Yugi, had it not been so dark that night, I do not suppose I would have attempted to stop you had you decided to kill Seto upon laying eyes on him. I do not believe I would have stopped you had you attacked the other two as well."

"But you would never have thought about it for so many years like I did, Atem. And I know you wouldn't have wanted to…" Yugi fell silent. The shame was visible in his eyes again when he turned away and stared at the ground. "It doesn't matter. I just wanted to say that you were not chosen as a God Dragon by random genetics. And I hate that anyone put it in your head that you were. It's disgusted and…and wrong! You're gifted and…and…worth so much! And I…I hate them for ever saying that to you!"

"I am the one who told that to myself."
Yugi stiffened, head snapping up and eyes widening drastically. He gaped at him, eyes thrice their usual size. "You…you told that to y-yourself?" he whispered, stunned.

"My mother used to tell us stories, about how each of us would eventually find the perfect mate. There were some about how the God Dragons have the strength to change the world. There were some about faraway lands of ice and fire and desert and immense mountain tops." The Sky Dragon had a distant look in his eyes, as if he remembered these stories so vividly he capable of listening to his mother's voice as she spoke them even now. He looked abruptly to the trees for a moment, flicking the tips of his wings. "And when I left the nest, I was too afraid to go farther but I was too afraid to return. I became upset with myself and so I convinced myself, for a while, that I was not a God Dragon of any magnitude and that it was simply random genetics which caused me to be born with two hideous mouths."

Yugi shook his head sharply. His mouth opened and then closed again immediately. Atem's tail had risen from the dirt, the tip feathering over his mate's mouth slowly. The gentle touch silenced him swiftly. His eyes were caught on the Sky Dragon's when he turned to him.

"And then Timaeus convinced me otherwise. And the suitors would come in waves, Yugi. And I would become more and more angry and hateful. I was bitter and incredibly resentful. Eventually I simply came to the decisions to announce myself the God Dragon but that my mother was wrong and it was not a gift but rather a terrible burden."
There was a long minute of silence.

Atem kept his tail to Yugi's beak until the moment he could draw enough air into his lungs to continue talking. He just needed a few seconds to think straight and phrase the question that was begging he ask.

Slowly, he allowed his tail to fall away. Atem moved to wrap the long appendage around his paws and clicked his claws against the dirt for a few moments. He narrowed his eyes and looked down. Then he turned back to Yugi with wider, curious eyes, searching his face rapidly as his courage seemed to fade.

"Are you upset with me?"

Yugi faltered, startled. His eyes stretched wide, his pupils flipped on their sides. He blinked, shaking his head slowly. His eyes closed again seconds later, shielding the vast majority of the despair Atem managed to glimpse just before.

"No. I'm not upset with you. I just wish… I wish that I could have done something to help you." A heartbeat passed. Then a sigh escaped him. "You're so wounded…"

Atem tilted his head, considering him a long moment. He watched him for a heartbeat, curious again. Then he lowered his beak and nuzzled Yugi's cheek. The younger dragon opened his eyes, blinked, and leaned forward to rub against him in turn. His paw rose and reached out to pull him closer in order to lick along his forehead. Yugi lowered his head, pressed his beak into Atem's chest, and closed his eyes tightly.

"Well…the offer is still there."

The Sky Dragon blinked, bewildered. "Hmm?" he asked quietly. He'd forgotten the original reason they had come to the discussion at paw. He nearly could not recall at all what it was that Yugi meant to say. He blinked again, tilting his head to the side.

Yugi pulled away, looking at him pointedly and studying every inch of him. "If you would like to mount me…" He hesitated when Atem blinked in confusion and then faltered at the words. His golden gaze grew wide as he tilted his head slowly to the side. Then he blinked again and Yugi felt nervous and sick for a moment. He wondered if perhaps the Sky Dragon was truly against the entire thing but had simply meant to suggest it for his sake. "Or…or not. I guess it doesn't really…"

"I…cannot keep us airborne long enough to consummate the victory to begin with." The shame was clear on his face again as he shook his head slowly and looked away rather pointedly. "It is not important, I suppose."

But it clearly was.

One did not even need to know Atem to realize this.

Perhaps Atem was not only crestfallen because of the rejection of Yugi mounting him. It occurred to him that perhaps the Sky Dragon felt more than slightly dejected due to Yugi's own reluctance. He had told him no. And Atem had clearly been offering a piece of himself up to him in the way of partaking in a ritual that was not normal for a Sky Dragon. He had been offering to let Yugi mount him after having won a fight, something that was almost the antithesis of everything that Sky Dragons did within their own mated pair bonds.

But he also wondered if perhaps Atem felt dizzy and sickened by it. Because he had been prepared to do this in light of the various many times he had been threatened upon being courted. Perhaps he had become so conditioned by those consistent sneers that he felt the need to make such an offer to him. Perhaps he was so afraid of his genetics that he was convinced of the necessity to do so.

But it could have also been that it was the physical intimacy that Sky Dragons took to displaying upon bonding. Those first few days they were meant to be almost inseparable…

Yugi's own parents had not practiced this in even the slightest. They were closer emotionally rather than physically. And it was only around two seasons of the year that either of them became physically attracted to each other. It was the mating cycle that made them both this way, as the two species were ruled by these rather than anything else. Being solitary species meant that they hardly sought another out except those few small times. Yugi had never found it bothersome but they'd also seemed reluctant to create a second clutch.

He had not known if that because of the stress it had caused them when they'd been forced to flee or if it was simply that it was painful for his mother. He had no idea and he had never thought to ask before.

"We don't have to fly. Not until you feel better and you're all healed up," Yugi said after a moment, voice gentle and soft as he searched his face. "I think until then, we don't have to risk it. But we can do it here, on the ground."

Atem tilted his head and glanced at the ground by Yugi's claws. "I do not think I can keep my balance for long if I remained standing either."

The Gandora thought vaguely of the humans beneath the mountains. They had faced each other when they mated, one on their back and another on their hands and knees. They made weird noises and cried out in soft little gasps. And sometimes the female wound up with a kit or they didn't.

He shrugged the thought off.

Changing into a human form did nothing to ensure that Atem would not get hurt again. He did not know if the human body would prevent him his barbs sinking into Atem's flesh or if he it might prevent it. He did not know if it would prevent Atem hooking inside of him.

He did not know that it would do them well at all to even so much as suggest it.

"I will lay on my belly." The statement made Atem startled, stiffening and staring at him with shocked wide eyes. Yugi nodded at him slightly. He knew the implications of the position. He knew that it was one that was only meant for a dragon that had beaten their mate into submission and thus forced them to accept the mounting. He knew the various implications that were made by the very suggestion itself. It meant he was handing a lot of control over to Atem. It meant that Yugi was giving him far more control than Atem was probably used to. But he could not imagine the Sky Dragon abusing such a thing, regardless of his status as a God Dragon or his species. In general, Yugi did not see Atem as one to abuse the trust of another for personal gain. "I don't mind doing it for you."

The Sky Dragon blinked, shaking his head slowly and keeping his eyes firmly on the ground. "I do not know I want to do so where one could possibly see us." He looked at Yugi sideways, a somewhat tentative expression on his face. "Do you think that perhaps the den will do us well enough?"

The Gandora fell silent for a long minute. He leaned forward to nuzzle his neck, licking at the spot where his wounds had formerly been. "I'm not letting you mount me until you at least eat something." He watched him for a long handful of moments, pulling back to watch him with sharp eyes. "You haven't eaten in a couple of days and you're still wounded, Atem."

The Sky Dragon tilted his head, then nodded slightly. "I should not be surprised you have noticed."

Yugi snorted softly, shaking his head. "You really shouldn't be," he agreed with a grin. He could feel a small touch of warmth within his chest, his hearts skipping beats and his stern edge lost as they looked at each other. Atem was watching him with those same beautiful golden eyes that seemed to put the sun to shame. He wanted to melt for a brief moment. "How about this, Atem? How about I see about hunting something heavier—a goat, one of the sheep, maybe one of those horses the humans can never seem to catch—and I'll bring them here. You can eat your fill and then we'll bring whatever is left into the den with us and you can rest there for a little while."

Atem flicked his tail. "I was not nearly as wounded as you," he scoffed softly. "You are the one who so foolishly charged Keith like that. And am I not right in saying that you did the rather foolish thing of catching yourself on fire into order to slow him down or scare him off? Or perhaps that fire ring was because you coughed up a fireball?"

Yugi blinked at him. Then he ducked his head and raised a paw to rub along his muzzle in mild shame. He huffed; he'd been incredibly hopeful that Atem might have simply overlooked that entirely. He had been extremely hopeful that the God Dragon had been too busy subduing Keith to even care in the smallest sense.

"Well…I'm not the one limping," he griped instead. But he found it oddly amusing to peek out from beneath his paw and see the God Dragon in front of him. Atem was staring at him with a mildly frustrated, yet entirely concerned expression as well. He flicked his tail and tried not to wiggle as the Sky Dragon continued to glare at him. Yugi whined and put both paws back on the ground. "Okay, okay! Fine! All right! I'm sorry! Stop looking at me like that!"

Atem snorted and raised his chin, thumping the tip of his tail in a slight declaration of victory before chortling in delight. Yugi huffed and smiled in amusement. Atem seemed far too happy to make him concede. "I can always catch fish instead."

"But red meat will fill you up more—"

"Me?" the Sky Dragon snarled softly. His head tilted and his eyes narrowed. "You will be eating as well, Yugi."

The black dragon faltered. He thought to argue at first. Then he looked away again quickly, sighing. He lashed his tail and flexed his claws unhappily. "Okay, so… Fine, we'll both hunt and eat," he grumbled, a part of him more concerned with the task of being assured that Atem was healthy again. It did not truly matter if he himself was hungry and tired for a little while. Atem was far more important to him. A small part of him wondered if Atem felt similarly to him in that fashion. He remembered forcing him to eat two nights prior, furious with his reluctance to do so. "Goat or sheep would be easier, right?"

Atem blinked. "Than what? Buffalo or horse? Yes, immensely. And there would be less travel as well in order to find them." He fell quiet, then tilted his head and drew in a deep breath as he considered. "But did you want buffalo or horse or deer? I don't mind—"

"You don't mind?" Yugi snorted and rose to his paws. He almost laughed as he shook his head and glared at him playfully. "I'm not going to let you go hunting on your own! You're a dog-brain if you think otherwise!"

The Sky Dragon blinked in surprise at the mild teasing insult. Then he growled softly as he reached a paw to tap him in the shoulder. "And I am sure you just the most cunning little dragon in all existence, yes?" he teased. He snorted when Yugi nodded vigorously at the comment. "Then how about you tell me the best way to hunt the sheep and goats and then we'll just have to see about that, won't we?"

Yugi growled a small noise that was almost intimidating. He wiggled his rump as he pawed at his shoulder in response. "Okay, then I'll prove it! I'm smarter than a God Dragon!" he growled. When he wiggled again, Atem expected him to pounce. Instead, abruptly, the younger male raised his head, stretched his neck out, and ran his tongue from his beak to his gem. "The best way to catch them is, when you're on the cliffs, you attack them from behind and knock them off the cliff."

Atem blinked, then frowned in confusion as he tilted his head. "But then you are forced to go after them. It becomes a waste of energy."

Yugi shook his head. "It's the best for a two-party ambush," he explained. He was pleased to see that he had caught Atem so off guard with the comment. It was somehow pleasing and more amusing than Yugi cared to admit. He wanted to draw Atem closer, to lay his chin on his head and soothe whatever worries he might have had formerly. But he supposed that would have to wait for the moment. First, he needed to actually get the God Dragon fed. "The one at the bottom of the cliff will catch it. And then you can both fly off with it. There's no unnecessary tracking them and trying to avoid them pressing against the ledge walls and hiding in crevices or trying to follow them down the cliff. And even if they aren't dead from the drop, they're going to be stunned, and the second dragon can always kill them. So it's pretty effective that way."

Atem watched him for a long moment. Yugi could see the thoughts moving behind his eyes, his gem flashing brilliantly before darkening slightly. "You've done this before," he acknowledged quietly. "Who with?"

Yugi blinked, surprised by the slight suspicion in the God Dragon's voice. He might have smiled had he not known the feeling so well himself. "Jonouchi—he's the Red-Eyes that was trying to come see me before you started talking to me. He's absolutely terrified of you so he didn't come any closer after that."

"Terrified of me?"

The Gandora laughed at how proud he sounded, moving to nuzzle his cheek. "He's scared of large bodies of water. He's scared of clearings of open space where humans of been. He's definitely more terrified of you than anything else, though. He's heard some of the…worse rumors about the way that you killed off your challengers."

"Ah."

Yugi smiled in amusement at the pride that remained in Atem's voice. "Anyways, he and I struck up a real fast friendship when we ran across each other while hunting the same gazelle. He tried to blame losing it on me and so we got into a fight and when I won he demanded to know how I did it." He tilted his head and watched Atem. His golden eyes seemed to be darkening and Yugi wondered at the thought, bristling faintly. "I was watching some eagles dive down and knock some of the sheep off the mountain side and I was hungry. I told Jonouchi that I would dive on them if he would kill it if it wasn't already dead on impact. It works really well, Atem."

The God Dragon watched him a moment longer. "I have no doubt of that," he said softly, shaking his head and narrowing his eyes. "You just sound so…affectionate."

Yugi laughed softly and growled as he tapped his shoulder a second time. "Jonouchi was my best friend for a couple of seasons before I left the region permanently. I haven't seen him since then." He flicked his tongue over Atem's beak again. "You don't have to be jealous, dear heart."

The Sky Dragon bristled in annoyance, huffing. "I am not jealous," he hissed, but even he seemed able to hear the flustered nature of his own voice and so shook his head with a small sigh. "And, anyways, I have won, have I not?"

The black dragon faltered for a moment, confused as to what he could mean. He had not assumed they were playing a game of any kind beyond nudging each other. Then he blinked, realization dawning on him. He shook his head, smiling, and butted Atem lightly in the shoulder. "I think I won more than you," he announced softly, turning back to him with a warm look as he began to walk ahead. "But I'm hungry. So let's go catch some food."

Atem did not miss the fact that Yugi was so carefully avoiding the opportunity to allow him the chance to answer. His eyes narrowed slightly but he did not comment, instead stretching himself out as his right leg had grown stiff. He shook himself out after a moment and nodded for the younger male to take the lead.


Atem kept his claws deeply embedded in the stone, his eyes caught on the black male several miles beneath him. The Gandora was keenly watching the herd of mountain sheep from his vantage point below. And the sound of their hooves against the stone made Atem's mouths water. He might have shivered, hunger clawing at his gut, had he not known better. The stupid herd would hear him if he brushed against the stone and he would lose a meal.

He tucked his wings more pointedly into his sides. They arched and the ends pressed uncomfortably into his haunches, reminding him not to move. His eyes were still on Yugi, but he could hear the sheep a mere handful of yards away…

For the first time since they had assumed their positions, Yugi moved. Atem stiffened, bristling with growing excitement. The Gandora had craned his neck, was looking at the sheep pointedly, and finally, he raised a paw, spread his claws out, and slashed diagonally. The Sky dragon looked down, along the edge of the outcropping he stood on. Then he sprang forward as his mate had instructed.

The goat he caught in the side was a large ram, one which bleated as it was thrown forward. Atem instinctively moved to catch it. But his claws slashed empty air instead of knotting in thick wool.

The animal fell rapidly through the air. Atem could have performed a sharp aerial dive and caught it, but he was far too hungry to pay it such mind. He had already lost it. The thought was a slightly bitter one as he turned hungrily towards the other sheep.

They were too close to the rocks and the faces of the stones were cracked and porous. They'd escape before he even got the chance to lunge at them…

"Atem!" He blinked, startled, and turned his head at the sound of his own name. Yugi was seated at the bottom of the sheer drop of stones, head raised upwards to look towards him. The ram lay in a broken heap at his paws, the ground colored slightly red. "Come on."

The Sky Dragon faltered for only a moment. Then he dove forward and moved to land. The Gandora blinked at him, gathered the sheep in his mouth, and launched himself into the air. Atem followed him quickly, hunger making him almost quiver.

He was struck with the memory of following Timaeus after a hunt once, whining as a hatchling might about his hunger. The Wind Dragon had laughed in delight, teasing him about how the God Dragons seemed to be whinier than he remembered in legends. He'd settled a few yards away in a clearing, moving aside to let Atem eat his fill of the catch.

He'd been too wounded to hunt on his own, he remembered. And he'd been so stubborn and his pride so ruffled that he'd hurt himself on more than one occasion trying to prove to himself that he was not as weak as brothers had sneered at him. He'd tried to hunt for himself that last time, opened the wound so that it oozed pus and blood, and had decided that to lay there and rot was better than to ask for assistance.

He had not even realized Timaeus had followed him, nor that he had simply been waiting for Atem to ask him for help. So when he had come out of nowhere, killing the bison effortlessly and watching the God Dragon stumble to his paws, Atem had truly been amazed.

Timaeus had only said that he couldn't carry the bison too far since they couldn't fly but that they needed to move it out of the way before they could eat. He'd mentioned that the humans were nearby, telling him he did not care for them and so they had to move. And so he'd watched Timaeus drag it away as he'd hurried to follow him despite stumbling from pain and dropping twice when his side ached too much. And then the Wind Dragon had let him eat his fill, watching him and keeping guard before finishing off the remainder of the carcass when Atem was full and happy.

It had been rather clear to the younger dragon then that Timaeus meant him no harm.

Now, however, Yugi was not speaking. And Atem wondered if he had somehow upset him. Yet the Gandora did not seem to be angry with him when he banked and landed on the outcrop of stone they'd been resting on mere hours before. Atem followed hungrily, mouths watering, and he was not above begging for food at the moment. He was starving again, as if remembering that terrible wound had brought back that all too familiar pain. But now it was concentrated in his leg where the limb throbbed and begged for relief of his weight.

The Gandora placed the prey on the ground, stepped back to allow him room, and then moved away entirely. He took a seat several yards away and Atem was tempted to lunge forward and tear through the mountain wool. But another thought occurred to him and he remembered all too well how bad an idea that would be for him.

He blinked, padding a little closer, and took a seat. When neither dragon moved and Yugi appeared more curious than annoyed by his simple stance, Atem opened the blades of his tail slowly. Yugi looked at them curiously, almost mesmerized as he rose to his paws and moved closer. He looked confused and stunned, springing forward and blinking wide eyes at him.

"What are you doing?"

He had rushed to stand behind their catch. His head was slightly lowered. His eyes were still incredibly wide and his mouth opened and shut with his shock. But he did not look upset in the slightest and Atem was relieved to see this.

"You don't really wish to have to tear the hair off, do you?"

Atem did not truly think that it mattered much to Yugi in any real sense. And it hardly mattered to him either. But to bite and then tear away the wool was a task that required far too much energy for him to engage in. then again, Yugi could have simply swallowed the wool if he were so inclined. Fire Dragons were able to digest almost everything but for dirt and stones Yugi could probably ingest the hair and never have even the slightest of issues.

Atem, on the other had, would get a belly ache that would last for days. And that was being merciful. That was if it did not end up knotted in his belly and cut and pull at muscle and flesh there. That was if he did not end up puking and losing weight before it finally passed or he forced it out.

"Oh, uh, okay."

Yugi tilted his head and watched him with wide curious blue-violet eyes. Atem held the prey down with his right paw and sheared the hair away from right to left with his long tail. The skin was so pale it was almost as white as snow. The sight of it was somewhat amazing to the Gandora. He was used to just biting through fur and flesh and never truly looking. It was almost as clean as Atem's claws and that in itself was a surprising thought for him. He inched a little closer, still too curious to turn away, but kept a respectful enough distance to keep Atem from feeling crowded.

It was odd to him, however, then Atem flipped it over, shaved the other side, and then moved back several paces to take a seat. His long tail wrapped its way around his paws and he settled there comfortably. Yugi blinked, frowning at him, and tilted his head in bewilderment.

"You aren't hungry?" he asked slowly, incredulous. His eyes flickered and searched his mate's, suspicion making his tone grow harder. "You seemed pretty hungry a few minutes ago when you nearly chased the rest of that herd."

Atem stared back unblinkingly. "You are the one who carried it. You eat first."

"And you're the one who killed it. It landed so hard its neck snapped when it came down. You killed it. It's your right to eat first."

Atem shook his head. "You brought it here."

Yugi sprang for his paws, flexing his claws furiously and lashing his tail. "Yes, for you!" he spat. His lips pulled back to show off more of his teeth and he shook his head angrily. "Atem, I carried it for you so that you could eat and then we could rest and—"

"So, then say that I eat my fill and the carcass is picked clean of meat. Then what? Do we hunt again?" Atem snarled. "Yugi, you are just as tired and wounded as I am. You weren't bleeding but I did not force myself to potentially kill myself by catching on fire to attack Keith. And if I am to eat red meat, I will become sluggish afterwards. I cannot be of much assistance in your endeavors to catch prey later."

Yugi blinked, startled by the admission, and then considered it.

Atem's core diet was that of fish and larger birds. He had seen him send them into the air and then catch them immediately after. And he'd watched him dive underwater and resurface with mouthfuls of fish. He had only once or twice spotted him attempting to catch something of red meat before.

That explained his reluctance to do so. If he was not at the top of his game when challengers came, he could not have been severely injured…

"Okay, so… How about you eat the organs—?"

Atem narrowed his eyes, clearly annoyed. "The organs are for healing."

The Gandora lashed his tail and took a seat again, huffing as he looked away. "Fine, we'll split them. You get an equal amount as me, all right? An even split. And then you can eat the front to the shoulders and I'll get the rest. Is that more agreeable, you stubborn Sky Dragon?"

The red male nodded his approval immediately. "I am surprised you are only now realizing just how truly stubborn I am."

Yugi snorted loudly. "Oh, no, Atem, I knew you were stubborn, you beautiful dog-brain. I just had not considered how much I would have to negotiate with you over a single meal of all things!" he laughed. His eyes brightened and softened as he searched his face. "But if you are okay at the end of the day, I don't care how much compromise is necessary."

Atem blinked, surprised by the declaration and how Yugi said it without hesitation. His primary heart squeezed with something warm almost akin pure delight. There was a small part of him that was incredibly satisfied with the declaration and another that was stunned.

The realization came to him that he truly was lucky to have lost to this little Gandora, who actually did seem to love him and worried so terribly about him when he was so much as mildly hurt. He wondered somewhere in the back of his mind if his mother had been right.

Maybe it was not some simple story she'd spun in order to make them settle for the night. Maybe one dragon truly was born for another and would eventually find their way to each other no matter the journey.

He hesitated for a long moment. Then he got up and moved forward. Yugi blinked, startled, and instinctively began to move back. Atem considered him, frowning, and shook his head pointedly. He put a paw on the ram's shoulder, pinning it effectively, and looked at Yugi intently.

"I will not eat until you do as well."

The statement was met with a blank stare at first. Then Yugi blinked and came forward a step, eyes searching his for a moment or so. Then he moved to the position adjacent Atem, lowering his jaws to take a bite. The Sky Dragon did the same, taking a large chunk from the throat. Yugi relaxed visibly in the corner of his eye, then took a mirroring bite from the sheep's hind leg nearest him.

"You seem rather surprised," the God Dragon commented when he swallowed his mouthful of meat. He flicked his tongue, tracing the contours of his muzzle to get the blood from his scales. Yugi looked at him, puzzled by the comment, and he tilted his head curiously. "You've never shared prey like this before?"

The Gandora shook his head slowly. "Fire and Wind Dragons don't share like this. We squabble and end up going to blows probably before the first bite. We're way too territorial." He looked at Atem and smiled faintly. "When Jonouchi and I caught the sheep before, I had to fight him for it when I got hungry. And, when I was younger, my parents would make sure that I got the first pick of meat. Then my mom would eat and then my dad. They didn't want to have to fight me so they would eat after me. And my dad saw it as I was the most important since I was their hatchling and my mom was second most important because she's capable of laying eggs. So he would eat last. But we couldn't really hunt together either, because all of us were way too hot-headed."

Atem nodded slightly. Then he took another large bite and swallowed the chunk of food and licked his jaws. It was easy to see that Yugi was still somehow nervous. He did not seem to want to stay so close and eat like this. But it did not seem to be troubling beyond being so unfamiliar to him. It took only a few heartbeats for the Gandora to follow his lead again, eating large chunks and flicking his blue-black tongue out to clean away blood once more.

"I only ever did this once with Timaeus," the Sky Dragon admitted. He flexed his claws and grabbed another bite. Yugi paused to look at him, blinking curiously. "I was so hungry and I wasn't speaking to him yet and I saw that he had caught a horse. So I charged him for it and he knocked me over and offered to share. It upset me to have to rely on someone else because I was arrogant and wanted to be a God Dragon like everyone claimed I was. So I pretended to storm off, waited until he went back to eating, and tried to charge him again to steal it. That time he backed off and watched me grab it and try to run. I dragged it a few feet, was exhausted because of my side, and literally tripped over myself. Timaeus came over and teased me a little about it. He told me I was a cute little thief who had paws too big for his body. So I bit him in a temper tantrum while he helped me up again. And then he told me to eat from one side while he ate from the other."

Yugi laughed softly, shaking his head with a smile. "You bully," he teased, leaning forward to bump his beak with his. "He tried to help you and you just tried to fight him and steal from him!"

"I am very lucky he was not aggressive." Atem did not like to think of what Timaeus could have done to him before then. He'd had every opportunity to try to abuse him and he could easily taken advantage of the wound on his side in any of that time. He could have pinned him and knocked him around. He could have left him for dead. He could have used him a plaything like his brothers. "He could have taken my head off but he just genuinely enjoyed my antics to best him. He laughed at me every time. Especially when I finally followed him into his den during a thunderstorm. I was so tired and I wasn't used to such heavy rains and I didn't have control of my magic yet so I couldn't sleep and then this lightning bolt struck right in front of my beak and the tree caught fire and I bolted straight into that den screaming. Timaeus was ready to charge out there and fight if it was another dragon, but he ended up laughing at me so hard that he could not breathe for a good while after he figured out what had happened."

Yugi watched him for a long minute, laughing loudly. His eyes were bright and his head tilted, searching his face. "He seems very fond of you."

"He is very easygoing and patient. And it helps a lot that he tends to think of me as an adopted son. He saw a younger dragon that needed help and he took pity. He grew fond of me as I grew up with him and I am very fond of him as well. But it is amiable and he did well to teach me that I should not be so hateful of other dragons."

He fell silent for a long moment. He busied himself with taking another bite of meat and licking his jaws clean again. Then he moved to stretch himself out on his belly and keep eating.

"I do not know how I might have turned out had he not been the one I ran into that day. And if he had not been as patient and understanding I do not think I would have bothered for even a moment to attempt challenging you to a contest. I might have simply killed you for even arriving before me."

Yugi blinked and frowned, tilting his head a fraction. He wondered at the idea, whether it was accurate to assume such a thing. Atem had been so kind and caring when he'd still lived with his family. But perhaps his being younger had also tempered much of his potential rage.

But, as a God Dragon, Yugi could not be sure that such an assumption held merit. There was a reason that most God Dragons in lore were rather benevolent in nature…

"It would have perhaps been my greatest mistake."

The certainty in his tone made Yugi blink wide, startled eyes. But then the words sank in and his jaws fell open as his eyes grew thrice their usual size. But the God Dragon would not look at him any longer. He was biding his time by way of busying himself without bite of food, ignoring him altogether now.

Yugi hesitated for a moment. He considered saying something else, then leaned forward again to lick his forehead and nudge at his jaw. "I would have been heartbroken if my net trick hadn't worked properly," he murmured. He'd said so before, but to say that he loved him again might have made Atem uncomfortable and so he chose otherwise. Atem blinked and looked over at him, confused for only a moment. Then he quickly turned away again and busied himself with his food, flexing his claws as if he were uncomfortable.

But then Yugi also knew it was not just his comment. The admission of his own attachment had caused Atem to withdraw somewhat. He was aware of just how easy it would have been for another to abuse the statement.

"Do you ever worry that I may be incapable of loving you in turn?"

The Gandora blinked, startled by the abrupt question. Then he tilted his head in confusion. "Should I be?" he asked slowly.

"I would believe that many others would be, don't you? I killed suitors. I nearly killed my own siblings. I am beside you now saying that it is possible that something else might sadden me more than your death." Atem narrowed his eyes into slits. "You do not believe that makes my ability to find such emotional attachment to you to be questionable?"

"No, I don't believe you mean anything by it. I think you're struggling with the idea of having a mate more than anything. And I think that you need more time before you can properly just if you can have such a sense of attachment to me in any way."

Atem blinked, stunned by the soft declaration. Yugi truly thought to give him such time? He knew that had been one of the things he'd requested when he'd chosen to extend the possibility of compromise between them. But the realization still shocked him. It was mildly horrifying to him.

How could Yugi truly feel such devotion to him that he was willing to wait for him to see past the damage he still held so close to his hearts?

The Sky Dragon stared at him, feeling dizzy and sick to his stomach. The meat felt heavy and swollen in his belly for a moment. And he shivered as he looked away again, glancing at the food and dreading eating anymore. But he was still hungry and he knew Yugi would argue should he try to dismiss it. He made a show of swallowing another large chunk and biting into the shoulder as Yugi continued to watch him with those same warm blue-violet eyes.

Yugi felt somewhat flustered. When he had attempted to pull himself up into the entrance of the den, he'd found himself too small. He had been unable to push off his hind legs. There was enough power but he did not have the height or weight to allow it. He had just barely managed to hook his claws into the dirt but had been utterly incapable of pulling himself up. He realized, embarrassed and increasingly horrified by the oversight, that his younger age and somewhat smaller body had left him incapable. He had not considered that his front legs were still rather weak, his sexual maturity failing to ensure the same physically.

And, as he tried to scrabble to pull himself up and into the cavern, Atem had come up behind him. There had been a snort, a small chortle of amusement, and then his head was beneath his hindquarters much as he had done with him before. How Yugi had managed to get into the den before now was beyond him. Maybe his panic at seeing Atem hurt had given him the adrenaline he'd needed.

Now, however, the head beneath him tossed its muzzle and he went over the side. He rolled a few feet, grunting, and slowly got to his paws again. The Sky Dragon joined him immediately after, looking him over and asking quietly if he was okay. When Yugi nodded, Atem licked his head, nudging at his shoulder.

Yugi still could not shake the embarrassment. Being sexually mature truly meant nothing in the long run for a dragon.

Still, he failed to glance back as he moved forward towards the cavern. When he got to the sand and paced several yards into the center, Yugi tucked his paws beneath his chest, settled onto his belly, and raised the base of his tail slightly to move it aside for him. He expected Atem to be right behind him, as he had been the entire way in.

Instead, he heard the softest of thuds and a loud snort. The air was hot where the breath came out and he looked over in confusion. The Sky Dragon had fallen chin-first into the soft river stones and sand. His legs were tucked into his sides, flattened as if he were preparing himself for a sharp aerial dive. His tail, however, was tightly coiled, in ringlets of bright red and black as deep as the night, with soft lines of white like stars. The blades were deeply sheathed beneath all of the muscle and his wings lay prone at his sides.

Had he not heard the soft breath that left him, seen the dirt stirring faintly beneath his muzzle, Yugi would have panicked and thought him dead. Now, however, he simply laughed softly and climbed to his paws to join him at his side.

The Sky Dragon abruptly seemed to stiffen. Yugi startled, stopping short. The older male's sides moved with a deep breath and Yugi swore he saw the gem in his forehead flash. Then, abruptly, the God Dragon relaxed again, breathing out in a gust.

Yugi blinked, then tilted his head.

Atem had scented him. In his sleep, he'd still somehow remained coherent enough to process the smell of the younger Gandora and he'd identified him as harmless. He supposed that explained how his gem had come to flash as well, how Atem had known when he'd first approached him days prior.

The Gandora smiled, snorted and ran his tongue over Atem's forehead, and burrowed beneath his wing to tuck himself into his side comfortably.