Rending the Veil

BY : ScarredSwordHeart
Category: Yu-Gi-Oh GX > Yaoi - Male/Male
Dragon prints: 1079
Disclaimer: YuGiOh and all characters thereof are the sole property of Kazuki Takahashi and all media rightsholders. I am merely a fan borrowing for fun and entertainment and derive no profit therefrom.

July 16, 2000, Obon
Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egypt

{

“Silent Magician, direct attack on the player!” Mutou Yugi cried out as quickly as he could, before his resolve could crumble.

SILENT BURNING!

A bright light chased away the darkness of the tomb for a fraction of a second. When it cleared, Atem was standing, shoulders slumped just a bit, his life points reduced to null.

It was Yugi, the winner, who slumped to the stone floor, sobbing brokenly. It was over. He had done what he had had to do. So why did he feel this terrible ache inside? He didn’t move or look up as he heard the click of boots over the floor as he was approached.

“You did it, Partner. You won,” the Pharaoh said, voice filled with pride, as a master might feel for the pupil who had just broken his most difficult technique.

Yugi still couldn’t look up, couldn’t meet the gaze of the one who had been his confidant and mentor for so long. The gnawing ache filled his heart and it took all his effort not to just dissolve into a sobbing mess. Then he felt a strong hand settle heavily on his right shoulder.

“Stand up! The winner shouldn’t be on his knees,” Atem chided. “I wouldn’t cry if I were you.”

‘No, of course not. You’re so strong.’

“It’s because I’m too weak. You were my hero, my goal. I wanted to be strong like you, that’s all,” Yugi sobbed.

“You’re not weak. You’ve always had a strength that no one could beat,” the Other’s voice admonished. “The strength of your kindness. That’s what I learned from you, Partner.”

Finally, Yugi was able to look up and permit Atem to help him to his feet, the last time the ancient spirit would be able to do anything for him.

“The courage you showed by dueling me has shown me the path I must take,” said the Other, hands resting on Yugi’s shoulders.

“Other Me…” Yugi began. ‘I wish you didn’t have to go!’

“No, Yugi. I’m not the ‘other you’ anymore, and you are no one but yourself, the only Mutou Yugi in the world,” Atem said gently squeezing the younger man’s shoulders.

As Yugi looked into the regal countenance and those beautiful crimson eyes, waves of sorrow broke over him at the thought that this would be the last time he would see his Other. Abruptly, he wrapped his arms around the spirit’s waist and held on with all his strength, even as his heart began to dissolve into thousands of tiny pieces. After a fraction of a second, he felt Atem’s arms wrap around him too, a hand caressing the back of his head; a strong, loving embrace that made everything else fade away. The two stood like that for what felt like way too short a time before they pulled apart.

“OK…” Yugi said quietly, looking his Other straight in the eye, their souls communing for the last time.

“The Eye of Wadjet guards the door to the afterlife. Through the Ceremonial Duel, it has seen the truth of the Pharaoh’s soul. After 3,000 years of being lost in the world of the living, it is now time for the Pharaoh’s soul to be welcomed into the afterlife,” Isis intoned.

A collective gasp of shock arose from the onlookers.

“Soul of the Pharaoh, speak your name to the Eye,” Isis instructed.

“Atem!” the Pharaoh’s voice rang loud and clear.

A deep rumbling sound filled the room as the door started to slide open, flooding the dark room with brilliant, white light. Atem put one foot forward.

“Other Yugi!”

The sound of his friends’ voices staid the Pharaoh’s steps. He could not bring himself to look back, for he knew if he did, he would lose his resolve to leave.

“Are you really going? You don’t really have to go to the afterlife, do you? I mean, don’t leave us!” Honda sobbed.

“Nnngh!” Jou was barely able to choke back a sob.

Bakura and Otogi could only look on in dismay and sorrow, while Grandpa’s violet eyes were filled with a suspicious moisture.

Standing a bit away from the others, Kaiba gazed at the scene with sharp blue eyes, which betrayed no emotion, while Mokuba’s softer eyes seemed to express the sorrow in both brothers’ hearts.

The sounds of more sobs arose. Yugi broke down again and Anzu as well. Jou tried to stifle a sob, but was unsuccessful this time.

“Other Yugi, I mean… Atem,” Anzu cried heartbrokenly. “I understand that you need to cross into that light. But once you go through, you won’t be able to come back. Why?! I don’t understand! We’ve been friends for so long. Now all of a sudden, you’re going to leave? I just don’t understand!”

The Pharaoh’s form was still, shoulders rigid, as though he were warring with himself.

“Anzu, ya don’t gotta undastand; ya just gotta accept it. Burn dese memories into yer brain; da time ya spent wit’ him and what ya felt, burn it in so ya nevah forget,” Jou gently admonished his friend.

“Othah Yugi!” Jou called after the Pharaoh. “Even if yer a pharaoh, yer still Yugi to me! Even if a thousand years pass, we’ll always be friends!”

At this, Atem finally looked back at the group of people who had become so dear to him, a smile lighting his features.

“Yes,” his voice echoed through the room.

“We’ll never forget you!” Yugi called.

Atem started forward again, holding out his right hand in the familiar thumbs-up gesture. As he disappeared into the light, his form shifted from Other Yugi in the blue jacket, black tank top and leather pants, to Pharaoh Atem, in his white shenti, purple cape and gold finery.

“My Partner, my friends, thank you,” Atem’s final words rang out, filling the room and everyone’s souls with such a sweet ache that no one could hold back their tears now.

Yugi squinted his eyes and could just make out the hazy forms of the Pharaoh’s friends and family from Ancient Egypt. This allowed his aching heart a tiny measure of comfort, knowing that Atem wouldn’t be alone in the afterlife.

As they all watched, Atem’s form disappeared gradually until he was entirely swallowed up by the white light. With a loud rumble, the doors slid shut again, cutting off the light and leaving the tomb in darkness once again.

Atem was gone…

}


Mutou Yugi’s eyes flew open, and the young man sat up in bed, gasping. Reaching up a trembling hand, he touched his cheeks to find them damp with tears.

‘It’s been months since I’ve even thought about it,’ he thought dismally. ‘Why the random dream?’

Yugi listened inwardly, hoping in vain to hear the deep, reassuring tones of his Other, as he once would have after having had a nightmare, yet knowing all the while that his inner ear would be met only with silence. There was no gentle voice to soothe him, give advice or hash out gaming strategy with him; only cold emptiness, a feeling of loss beyond description.

Reaching up automatically, Yugi pulled out from under his PJ top the cartouche that Anzu had given to the Pharaoh, on which was engraved the hieroglyphs for his name: Atem. The small pendant had resided against Yugi’s chest for the past eight months, never being removed, not even when Yugi showered.

His gaze fell upon the golden box reposing on his window sill, inside which dwelt the dueling decks that Yugi and Atem had built together. Those cards had gotten them through many difficult times, but had also led to their final parting, so looking at them always stung Yugi’s heart a bit.

Yugi slowly rolled out of bed and knelt before the small butsudan that Grandpa and he had erected in the corner of his room upon their return from Egypt. Moving automatically, he performed the daily ritual that had become second nature to him over the past eight months.

Yugi opened the wooden doors and gazed upon the small black memorial tablet with the katakana for the Pharaoh’s name inscribed on it.                                                                            

Yugi held out the cartouche and gently tapped it against the small silver singing bowl, creating a beautiful chiming sound, soft and sweet, which floated up to the heavens, and hopefully to Atem’s ears. He folded his hands in silent prayer.

‘Other Me… I don’t know if you can hear me anymore… But I miss you,’ Yugi thought as tears welled in his eyes. ‘It’s been almost a year, but the pain hasn’t eased at all. The silence in my head is deafening.’

Yugi's fingers softly caressed the hieroglyphs engraved on the cartouche.

‘The Ceremonial Duel was our final goodbye to each other. It was the right thing to do. Just as Isis said, the souls of the dead don’t belong in the world of the living. As your vessel, it was my duty to send you to the afterlife!’

Yugi stopped and shook his head vigorously. ‘Right thing to do,’ ‘Duty,’ ‘He didn’t belong!’ These were but empty platitudes to try to cover up the nakedness of loss.

‘Even if it was the right thing to do, I miss you so much, it hurts!’ Yugi groaned inwardly, resting his brow against the butsudan’s wooden surface.

“Yuuuugi! Come down for breakfast! You’re going to be late!” Grandpa’s voice from downstairs intruded upon his thoughts.

Startled, Yugi straightened up and looked at his clock. The time indicated to him that he had been in front of the shrine for ten minutes already! Plainly, there was no time to be wasted, as today was another school day, one of the last he would have to endure. In just one more week, he, Mazaki Anzu, Honda Hiroto, Bakura Ryou, and even the thick skulled Jounouchi Katsuya would be graduating from Domino High. Where had the time gone?!

“Coming, Grandpa!”

Hastily closing the butsudan’s doors, Yugi rose and changed for the day. After dressing in his blue uniform with white collared shirt and grooming his seemingly untamable hair, he thumped down the stairwell that led to the lower level of the house, where the living area and kitchen/dining area reposed. The smell of the German breakfast, hash brown sausages, filled his nostrils. Having traversed the world in his younger days, Grandpa knew many wonderful recipes, which he had cataloged meticulously, and never failed to make a tasty meal for them.

“Morning, Yugi,” said Mutou Sugoroku brightly as he brought everything to the table.

“Morning, Grandpa,” said Yugi as he sat down.

“Thanks for the food!”

As Grandfather and grandson ate in companionable silence, Sugoroku glanced at the boy… no, young man, who sat with him. Yugi had changed so much since that day two years ago when he had solved the Millennium Puzzle. Not only had his dueling skills advanced greatly, but his confidence as well. No longer did Yugi cower and hide his face when confronted by unpleasant people and situations. Now he held his head up and always stood up for himself, albeit still politely.

‘Yugi and Atem were a good influence on each other. From Atem, Yugi learned to be strong and to stand up for himself and from Yugi, Atem learned kindness and compassion. I’ll always be grateful that they were able to know each other,’ Sugoroku thought as he ate.

After breakfast, Yugi cleared his dishes, then grabbed his backpack and blue jacket and stepped down into his boots.

“I’m off!” he called to Grandpa as he went through the side door to where Jou, Honda, Anzu and Bakura were waiting for him.

“Have a good day!” Grandpa called after him.

Yugi fell in with his friends and they began the walk to school.

“Just t’ink guys, one more week and we’re done widdis shit,” Jou remarked happily. “I can’t wait t' burn dis uniform.”

“I’ve had enough education for a lifetime,” spoke Honda, voice heavy with weariness.

Yugi had to bite back a giggle at this because Honda and Jou always slept through most of the school day.

“I’ll finally be able to work fulltime at the museum,” declared Bakura.

“I was able to save up enough money to go to New York!” cried Anzu happily.

“Dat’s great, Anzu! You’ll be a first class dancer b’fore ya know it!” congratulated Jou.

Yugi was silent. In all the excitement of their adventures and then the huge adjustment of returning to normal life after leaving Egypt, he had completely forgotten that Anzu wanted to leave Japan.

‘She’s really gonna leave,’ he thought, eyes dimming a fraction. ‘This was always her dream. Well, I’m happy for her and I’ll support her in any way I can, no matter how much it hurts…’

“Um, my grandpa and I could probably give you a lift to the airport when you’re ready to go,” the young man offered quietly.

“Thank you so much, Yugi,” said Anzu with a bright smile.

Soon, the familiar school gates came into view and the students crossed through them and into the school, where they left their shoes in their lockers and donned their white school slippers before going up to their senior classroom.

Yugi and friends sat through another boring day of lectures, pointless busywork, speeches, announcements and rallies.

At long last, the clarion call of the dismissal bell sounded. The students put their stuff in their backpacks, stood up from their desks and headed to get the cleaning equipment. The teens worked in silence as they pushed all the desks to the side so they could clean the floor. Anzu swept up while Jou polished the windows, Honda cleaned the blackboard and Bakura emptied the garbage can. Yugi wiped down the desks, then mopped up after Anzu finished sweeping.

Finished with the cleanup, the five teens congregated at the shoe lockers.

“Let’s go ta Burger World!” Jou suggested amiably.

“I’m in,” agreed Honda.

“The new Triple Cheese Supreme looks very tempting,” was Bakura’s response.

“Fattening,” warned Anzu. “Yugi, are you coming?”

Yugi sighed regretfully as he stepped into his boots.

“I can’t tonight, guys. Grandpa needs my help in the shop,” he declined with a slight bow of his head.

“OK, pal. See ya t’morrow,” said Jou, nothing daunted.

“Say hi to your grandpa for us, Yugi,” said Anzu.

“See ya!” this from Honda.

“I’ll let you know how the Triple Cheese Supreme is,” said Bakura.

“You’ll get such a potbelly!” cried Anzu. “See you tomorrow, Yugi!”

With a wistful sigh, Yugi departed the school grounds and walked toward the game shop. He would have liked to have gone to Burger World with his friends, but it was his duty to help Grandpa. Yugi wasn’t certain if it was his imagination, but Grandpa seemed to move a bit more slowly than he once had and to tire more easily. Yugi decided to forego hanging with his friends until Grandpa had a bit more spring in his step.

‘I have to get him to go to the doctor,’ Yugi thought as he walked home.


Kame Game Shop

Yugi entered through the side door and stepped out of his boots before stepping into the house.

“I’m home!”

Grandpa stuck his head out, causing a smile to break across the teen’s features.

“Welcome home!” declared Sugoroku as he began shuffling downstairs.

“Let me change, then I’ll be down to help you,” said Yugi.

“Thanks, my boy. I know you could have been down at Burger World with your friends, so your coming home instead means a lot to me,” said Sugoroku with a loving gaze.

“You don’t have to thank me, Grandpa. You’re my family and that always comes first,” declared Yugi solemnly before disappearing up the steps to his room.

‘What a good, selfless heart that grandson of mine has. The heavens truly smiled on me,’ Sugoroku thought happily as he continued downstairs.

After trading his school uniform for a blank tank top and leather pants, Yugi made his way downstairs, through the house and into the game shop proper, where Grandpa was sitting behind the register.

“The register is yours,” said Sugoroku with a smile.

With a brief smile and a nod, Yugi sank in behind the register to watch the door for any customers while Sugoroku went to sort stock in the storage room.


Later…

Yugi sat behind the counter, idly watching the door for any sign of entering customers. So far, only a handful of people had dropped by today and only two had actually made purchases. This gave Yugi’s mind plenty of idle time and he found himself thinking of his dream from that morning, a dream which had dredged up heavy, unpleasant memories which he couldn’t share with Grandpa, nor with Jou, Anzu, or Honda. For although they were kindhearted and supportive, they could never understand…

{

One week after returning from Egypt…

The students had just finished cleaning up for the day. They were outside, getting ready to walk to Burger World when they saw Bakura stepping out the door and walking away from them, instead of joining them, as had become their custom since their return from Egypt.

“Bakura ain’t comin’ wit’ us?” asked Jou.

“Let me go ask him,” offered Yugi.

While the others waited, Yugi approached Bakura.

“Aren’t you gonna walk to Burger World with us, Bakura?” he asked.

The doe-eyed teenager smiled at Yugi and shook his fluffy head.

“I start working at the museum after school today. I have to catalog many new items for the Egyptian wing,” he spoke softly.

Yugi flinched at the mention of that country.

“Isn’t that against school rules?” he asked.

Bakura smiled sweetly.

“My father pulled some strings and got me special permission,” was his answer.

“Lucky Bakura,” said Yugi with a faint smile, even as a sudden, inexplicable compulsion seized his brain, tearing the next words from his throat before he could stop them.“Want me to come help you?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t possibly ask you to…” Bakura tried to decline.

“You aren’t asking; I’m offering,” pointed out Yugi.

“Well, if you really wouldn’t mind, I could use the help. I’ll treat you to dinner at Burger World after as a thank you,” Bakura said, features lighting a bit.

“OK. Lemme go tell the others,” said Yugi.

Bakura nodded and Yugi went to tell the others he wouldn’t be joining them at Burger World that afternoon.

The two young men walked to the Domino City Museum. Yugi felt his heart turning to lead in his chest as they approached the building, which had been the keystone to retrieving his departed friend’s lost memories.

Bakura led Yugi into the museum and into one of back rooms where all the new Egyptian artifacts resided, waiting to be cataloged. Yugi looked around the room, which looked as though it could have been a pharaoh’s tomb and something in him broke.

Images of Atem, with the bronze skin, white shenti and golden diadem, looking so exotic and beautiful, arose unbidden in his mind’s eye. Tears stung the corners of Yugi’s eyes and his chin began to tremble.

Upon seeing the change in his usually cheerful friend, Bakura came up to Yugi’s side and stared long and hard at the room with him. Even now, he could feel the phantom impression of the Millennium Ring against his chest.

“It’s a unique experience that you and I went through,” he mused. “To share your body and mind with another soul is beyond understanding, and never to be forgotten.”

“Never,” agreed Yugi, lowering his head as a wave of sorrow engulfed him.

Bakura laid his hand gently on Yugi’s shoulder, the only way he could think of to try to comfort his heartbroken friend.

“You miss him that badly, don’t you?”

Yugi nodded, breath hitching in his chest as the tears continued to fall. Of all the dear friends he had, only the white-haired young man standing at his side could truly understand the depths of his loss.

“It’s the silence in m-my head,” Yugi cried, brokenly. “I’ll be th-thinking and expect to hear him reply, but n-now there’s nothing. I just feel so…”

“Empty,” Bakura finished.

Yugi nodded rapidly.

“You’ll always miss him, Yugi. But he’ll always be with you, as long as you remember what you learned from him and that close bond you both shared,” Bakura said, squeezing Yugi’s shoulder gently.

Bakura continued to grip Yugi’s shoulder while the tricolor took deep breaths in order to compose himself. After a few minutes, the flow of tears stemmed and Yugi’s breathing evened out.

With nothing else to say about the matter, the two young men got to work, cataloging and counting all the new artifacts. It was long, boring work, but at last they put away their last artifacts, their stomachs crying out for food.

“Now I owe you that burger and Coke,” Bakura observed at length.

Yugi looked at Bakura and managed a wan smile.

“I think I’ll call in your tab,” he joked.

“Come on!” said Bakura and with that, the two young men exited the museum and headed for Burger World.


Hours later…

By the time Yugi and Bakura emerged from Burger World, night had fallen, gracing them with a navy blue sky bedizened by stars that twinkled like diamonds. As they began to walk, Bakura stopped and craned his head back to some stars directly overhead of them. Yugi stopped and looked over at the white haired teen. Bakura had always been a bit strange, so this behavior didn’t surprise him in the least.

“I didn’t know you were a stargazer,” he said.

Bakura laughed quietly as he lowered his gaze to meet with Yugi’s.

“Normally, I’m not. However, the stars overhead remind me of something my father told me on one of his rare visits,” Bakura said.

Yugi looked overhead and saw the constellations he recognized as the Little and Big Dippers.

“And what’s that?” he asked.

“He said that when a Pharaoh died, his soul was shot out of a chute in his pyramid aimed directly at the North Star, which at the time was surrounded by two fixed stars: Beta Ursae Minoris and Zeta Ursae Majoris, which the Ancient Egyptians called ikhemu-sek, or The Indestructibles. If he made it to the stars, his soul was guaranteed entrance into The Field of Reeds,” mused Bakura.

Yugi felt himself swallowing around a large lump as he gazed up at the stars overhead.

‘That’s where you are now, Other Me. I’m happy for you. It’s what you deserve after being trapped in the darkness for so long,’ Yugi thought as he worked to control the trembling of his jaw.

With nothing more to say between them, Yugi and Bakura started walking toward their respective homes. Neither of them saw the shooting star that flew briefly overhead.

‘Rest well… Atem.’


Kame Game Shop
That night…

Sugoroku and Yugi were watching a documentary on the excavation of King Tut’s tomb. The ancient pharaoh, whose whole existence had been erased from history for centuries but was now the most famous, struck a deep chord in both of them.

“Now that’s what I’d call justice,” Sugoroku spoke up as the credits rolled.

“What is?” asked Yugi.

“How Ramses II tried to erase Tut from history, but these days, Tut is the best known pharaoh, while Ramses II is an also ran,” expounded Sugoroku, violet eyes twinkling.

Yugi caressed the cartouche beneath his shirt, eyes far away in thought. An ancient pharaoh, whose name might never have graced the history books… How that thought made his heart ache!

“I want to fix that…” he murmured.

“Eh?” said Sugoroku.

Yugi turned to his grandfather, face as serious as the old man could ever remember seeing it.

“For my Other Self, for Atem!” he spoke up. “I want his name and deeds to be recorded in the history books too. He saved Ancient Egypt! He deserves better than to be forgotten. He should be honored!”

Sugoroku couldn’t help but smile at the resolve shining in his grandson’s luminous eyes.

“I agree with you,” he stated. “But changing the history books is easier said than done. Proof and peer reviews are required.”

“I’ll write a letter to Isis. I’m sure she’ll have all the proof we need. As for peer reviews, what about Professor Yoshimori?” suggested Yugi, eyes shining with enthusiasm.

“Of course! Tell Isis to send everything to him! I’ll get you his address to forward to her. I think between all of us, we can get Pharaoh Atem’s name into history where it belongs!” said Sugoroku.

“Thanks, Grandpa,” smiled Yugi.

}

Week followed after week and month after month. Before Yugi and the others even realized it, life had slipped back into the old groove of before all their Duel Monsters adventures, with the teens attending school, hanging out and just generally growing up.

Now here he was, almost at the end of his senior year. Soon he and his friends would have their diplomas and would begin making their way in the larger world. But what sorts of change would that entail? The more Yugi thought about it, the more he realized there could only be one outcome: Anzu would be leaving for New York. Bakura would work in the museum, but would likely travel the world one day, digging for artifacts. And who knew what Jou and Honda were planning?! One by one, his friends would all move away to live their own lives. Yugi wouldn’t be able to follow. As the only living relative, it would be his duty to run the game shop if anything should, Kami-sama forbid, happen to Grandpa. They would all go on, while he remained behind.

‘Why do people have to grow up, move on… change?’ Yugi thought dismally.

A loud clatter from the stockroom pulled Yugi sharply from his reverie. Swiveling his head toward the door, Yugi listened for a moment.

“Grandpa?!” he called.

“Unh…” Grandpa’s voice sounded from the room.

Yugi was up off the stool, tearing back into the storage room. There, slumped against the wall, staring blankly at a box on the floor, was Grandpa.

“Grandpa!” Yugi cried, kneeling down before the elder. “Are you OK?!”

“Eh? Oh, yes. Sorry. Can you lend an old man your hand?” said Sugoroku, seeming to recover his senses.

Yugi was able to pull Sugoroku to his feet, but the elder immediately stumbled, leaning his weight on Yugi.

“Maybe you should see a doctor,” Yugi suggested.

“Nah. I overdid things a bit today. I’m sorry *cough* to have worried you, Yugi. If you can manage things from here, I think I’ll go rest a while,” said Sugoroku.

After helping Sugoroku upstairs and to bed, Yugi silently returned to the stockroom and picked up the box that Grandpa had dropped. It was quite light and shouldn’t have been any trouble for the old man carry.

‘Grandpa, what happened to you?’ Yugi thought unhappily as he put the box in its place before returning to the register.


Mokuyobi, Thursday, March 15, 2001

Yugi was sitting in his room, engrossed in an old Mario Brothers video game, jumping Mario from one platform to the next, climbing ladders and powering up with mushrooms, when an envelope was slid under his door.

“Mail for you,” called Grandpa’s voice.

“Thanks, Grandpa!” Yugi called indifferently as he continued to play.

“It’s from *cough* the professor!” Grandpa’s voice called again.

‘The professor!’ thought Yugi, quickly pausing his game and diving for the envelope.

He opened the door, revealing Grandpa standing on the other side.

“C’mon in and sit down!” Yugi said quickly.

After Grandpa was seated in Yugi’s chair, Yugi tore the envelope open and read the missive aloud.

 

Dear Yugi,

I have been in contact with Isis Ishtar regarding Pharaoh Atem’s place in history. Ms. Ishtar told me everything and showed me the evidence of the Pharaoh’s deeds in history as well as his name.

Please look forward to a revised version of the Domino University history book, which will correct the Nameless Pharaoh with the name Atem.

Congratulations, Yugi. Your friend’s place in history is assured.

Cordially,

Professor Yoshimori

For a moment, Yugi and Grandpa could only stare at each other. Then, a giddy feeling sprung up in Yugi’s core and spread through the rest of his body, engulfing him in dizzying warmth.

“YES!” the teen cried, jumping up into the air, letter and envelope flying from his hands.

“You did it, *cough* Yugi!” cried Sugoroku, struggling out of the chair and embracing his grandson warmly.

‘You’re in the history books, Other Me!’ Yugi cried inwardly as he returned his grandfather’s embrace, even as he absently felt that it wasn’t as firm as he was used to.

 



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