Conceptualized/First Written: 8/22/04
Completed/Final Edit: 9/5/04 and 10/12/04, 10/17/04, 6/8/07
Posted: 10/15/04 – Happy (6 days late) One Year Anniversary, WDKY!
Edits: 8/20/06 – Found some old notes on edits for this chapter. I don’t make any huge PLOT changes to my chapters if they’ve already been posted, but I do make fixes for spelling, grammar, or incorrect details. So if you’re reading this, that’s why there’s been an edit. 🙂
Notes: The rating for WDKY has gone up to R or M (Mature). This will hold true for this chapter and almost every chapter thereafter. Keep in mind that it is rated R or M (Mature) for a reason, so don’t send any complaints or flames my way because of that.
Mamono: My life-saving beta in a week of crisis and insanity. Thanks soooooooo (x1 bazillion) much!
Shadowed Mediocrity: Thanks for helping me with some of the edits…the majority of them were small, so in regards to the rest of your review and comments, please check out my Review Replies page to see what I had to say!
He didn’t want to leave her.
Dawn was just breaking over Domino, but Joey Wheeler was already awake. It hardly mattered that he’d been thoroughly exhausted last night (not like he’d admit it, though), or that there wasn’t any school that day. And it wasn’t as though he were worried about his father, and what would happen when he returned home.
But he had work.
He needed money.
He couldn’t stay.
Much as Joey Wheeler wanted to spend the rest of the day—and every day thereafter—with Mai, just being with her, lying beside her in bed, kissing her, feeling her soft skin under his, and running his hands through her golden hair…
“Where are you going?” Mai murmured, her voice thick with sleep. Violet eyes opened halfway, her cheeks flushed and her skin glistening slightly in the morning light. She turned ever-so-slightly, but enough to send the blood rushing to Joey’s head; even if he’d become intimately acquainted with Mai’s every curve, the draping of her blanket over her chest still tempted his thoughts, daring them to enter naughty territory.
“I–I gotta go to work, Mai.”
“You ‘gotta?'” Mai echoed blearily. “Call in sick.”
“Mai, I can’t just—”
“I’ll give you a reason to stay.”
She didn’t mean she was going to sneeze on him and cause him to be violently ill. Normally, that was what it took to get Joey Wheeler to miss a day of work. He was a dedicated kind of guy—and he needed the cash that badly.
But Mai presented a very tempting reason to call in sick, even if it meant no pay….
Mai decided the most effective way to win Joey Wheeler over (when it was a choice between love and money, at any rate) was to not say anything at all. So instead, she shifted, letting the blanket fall off her body as she grabbed Joey by the collar of his shirt and kissed him on the mouth—hard. When Joey finally caught his breath, his pupils were dilated and his voice a mere whisper.
“You know what? I think I feel this fever comin’ on…”
Mai only smirked.
“You owe me a duel,” Seto Kaiba announced as he walked into the kitchen the afternoon of November 14th, not bothering to offer any other sort of greeting. He nodded at Téa—trying his hardest not to think of all the strange things she did to his insides whenever he looked at her. If asked to describe the sensations, he probably would have said they were a mix between his insides boiling alive and an army of tiny creatures running up and down his limbs.
But of course, he’d never tell anyone what he felt…especially not Téa.Not if she didn’t feel the same way.
He just couldn’t let himself be set up for another loss—and one much more painful than any duel. If what he felt for her really was that bizarre feeling known as love, then–then he could stand and bear it, as he did with every other silly human emotion. He just couldn’t let her get to him.
But the fact remained, she owed him. He remembered it earlier, and thought it odd, but the idea of dueling someone other than Yugi and the random oddball (including Wheeler, though Kaiba still mentally referred to him as a mutt, simply for amusement’s sake) appealed to him.
“Excuse me?” Téa glanced up at him from where she was leaning over Mokuba, the two of them engrossed in the child’s mathematics homework. Had Téa not been blocking his view of Mokuba, Seto Kaiba would have seen his brother’s cheeks burn a bright red from how close Téa was to him, his hands purposefully placed near—but not particularly touching—hers.
“Remember the Iron Chef Duel that we never had? You promised me a duel of some sort. Well, I’m going to collect. A real duel. This week.”
Téa stared at him, wide-eyed. “Yo–You’re not serious. Come on, Kaiba—”
The slight smirk that graced his features slipped away. Kaiba. Just plain old Kaiba. Not Seto. It was useless to expect anything different from her, anyway. He was just her employer.
They could never be anything more.
“I’m completely serious. Come on.” He intended to lead her to the dueling arena hidden down in the hallways of the basement; Téa probably hadn’t the slightest clue the place even existed. There were several places like that in the Kaiba mansion—including the recently discovered secret room in his own office. But he didn’t want to think about that place…
“I–I can’t. I’ve got a DPAC meeting tonight, and after that I’m going to dinner with the girls…I’m really sorry, but I promise I’ll make it up to you.”
“A duel?” Kaiba stared at her, masking the disappointment he felt inside.
Each second that passed, she slipped farther and farther away.
“A duel. Though I really don’t know why you’d want to waste your time with—”
Mokuba tugged on the hem of Téa’s shirt, urging her downward as he whispered something in her ear. She looked a bit thoughtful at first, and then grinned lopsidedly at Mokuba.
“You’re on, but I don’t know why you have so much faith in me.”
Kaiba idly wondered what it was that his brother could have whispered in such secrecy to Téa. He couldn’t be that carefree and open with Téa…or anyone else, for that matter. That Mokuba now placed more trust in someone else hurt. Just as much as it hurt not being able to whisper in Téa’s ear what he felt for her…whatever it was.
“I’ve got to get going…Mokuba, I’m sure you’ll do great on your exam; you’ve got all the formulas down pat. Kaiba, if he needs any help, you’ll give him a hand, right? Darn, I’m going to be late—you probably won’t see me later tonight, so I’ll see you guys tomorrow! Bye!”
She didn’t even give either of the Kaiba brothers the chance to say goodbye before she dashed out of the swinging kitchen door and out of the house altogether.
Kaiba glanced at his brother, who quickly reverted his gaze to his homework, spread out all over the kitchen table.
“You need any help?” Kaiba asked in a fruitless attempt to distract himself from thoughts of Téa.
“No! I don’t need your help!” Mokuba snapped, too quickly for his own good. Kaiba stared at him, surprised at the tone his brother had taken on, but before Kaiba could say anything, Mokuba apologized in a low voice and scooped his papers up, rushing upstairs to his own bedroom.
Kaiba remained alone.
‘Well, she didn’t lie.’
Not that he really expected her to, but he was hoping that, by some minuscule chance, he’d see her before she went to sleep that night. But, true to her word, Téa stayed out all night at the Domino Performing Arts Center, going to dinner with the girls afterward and not returning home until late.
The only reason why Kaiba knew was because he’d waited for her.
At first, it had been a restless sort of waiting, where he just stood at his office window, staring out at the complex across the way, and into the black window that was now Téa’s cramped apartment.
‘It just isn’t right.’
His own thoughts, akin to what she’d told him before agreeing to move back in to the Kaiba Mansion. How it simply wasn’t appropriate for them to be sharing the same hallway, the same breathing space.
Kaiba wasn’t sure if her being so close—and yet so far—stung more than her not being there at all.
He detested feeling so dependent on her presence, on her smile, on her eyes. He wasn’t the weak sort of individual who needed someone else that badly, but…
All the same, he found himself rushing through work he’d previously ignored, knowing that if he simply got it out of his way, he could see her that much sooner. The hours passed by, with the only sound to comfort him the clicking of his own fingers on the keyboard.
Finally, only minutes after Kaiba completed his work, the light in the apartment across the way flicked on, bathing the tiny space in a soft golden hue. Téa’s silhouette was plain through the thin curtains she’d chosen, and for a moment, just the sight of her shadow froze Kaiba where he stood. He wanted to go there and…
“It’s just not appropriate for me to…”
To be with you. To care about you. To have anything to do with you, really.
Kaiba turned away from the window, unaware until after the fact that Téa turned the light in her apartment off. She was beyond his reach, even now.
So close, and yet so far…
He’d never felt so lonely.
Another tiring day at the performing arts center, but it was worth it. Every single day was worth it, no matter how much her legs ached and her arms protested…
She was one day closer to her dream.One day closer to leaving Domino, to leaving Japan…to going to Juilliard.That was her dream, and Téa Gardner was nothing if not determined. Shecouldn’t let anything hold her back—not any longer. She couldn’t afford to haveregrets.
But every day, it got that much harder.
Every night, the same nightmare…
The scent of flowers, thick in the air. Sunflowers, stargazer lilies, roses…the smell of moist earth, and preserved flesh. An odor that one could only describe as “death,” and it permeated Téa’s every thought, haunting her dreams. A massive monster—a demon of her own imagination—created from decaying flowers rose from the coffins of her parents, looming and leering its way toward her.
Every night, it reached out for her, massive hands ending in razor-sharp claws aiming to clench around her neck. Every night, she stood frozen in place, quaking with fear and…
That was when she woke up. Every night, the same.
The temptation was there to just return to the main house, where she felt inexplicably more comfortable. It made no sense though—the main house was just another building. There was nothing special about it, really…
It was hard, schooling herself to call him ‘Kaiba’ now, as she had for so long before her world had become a disastrous mess. But it was her way of taking things one step at a time. One step at a time, each step further away from Kaiba…away from those feelings of ‘love.’
Soon, she’d stop loving him.
She had to.She simply couldn’t go on pursuing something so fruitless and painful. Even if there was the slightest chance…
‘I can’t!’ Even if it meant sleepless nights, and a void within her—a constant source of loneliness…even if it meant crying herself to sleep, clutching her pillow, curled up in her bed.
“Sergeant Konami?” A short, young rookie knocked hesitantly on the door of his superior officer’s office, clutching a manila folder in his hand.
Konami glanced up at the sound of the voice, raking a hand through his hair. Every single day, the same—frustrating amounts of paperwork, crazy people on the streets, callers from all over Tokyo…it was just too much to hope for: something mundane and normal. But then, he’d gotten into this line of work for a reason.
He wanted excitement. He wanted to help people. The perfect blend of risk and responsibility, all in one uniform, one office, one job.
But every now and then…
“What is it?”
“Decryption asked me to bring this to you. They said they finally figured out that string of numbers you gave them a while back, and here are the results.”
‘String of numbers…?’ Konami glanced at the manila folder as the junior handed it to him, about to ask what the kid was talking about, but he’d scrambled out of the office before Konami had the chance to speak.
Konami reached for the folder curiously, wondering what string of numbers he’d brought to decryption in the past. He opened up the folder, his eyes widening as he read the paper.
Without a second more of hesitation, Konami picked up his phone and dialed a phone number he’d unfortunately memorized long ago.
“Miss Gardner? This is Sergeant Konami from the Domino City Police…and I have some information I think you need to know about.”
“Tell me again, why are we here?” Téa mumbled in a tired voice.
Ever since Konami called her earlier that morning—at two o’clock!—she’d been wondering what new piece of information he’d obtained. He said he couldn’t tell her the exact details over the phone, and that they’d have to get all the specifics later in the afternoon, after she was finished with her half-day of classes. So now the two of them were standing outside the imposing stone structure that was Domino First National Bank, Téa gazing at Konami with her tired blue eyes.
“We’re about to find out.”
Konami stepped forward, courteous enough to hold the door open for Téa, though her steps remained hesitant; she had no idea what was going on or why she was here. So far, Konami had only brought bad news into her life; what would become of her now?
The moment Sergeant Konami and Téa entered the bank, they caught the attentions of several people, including a wiry, balding man whose spindle-shaped fingers shook with every step he took.
“C-Can I help you, Off-Officer?”
“Yes, you can,” Konami responded promptly, gesturing for Téa to step forward. “This young lady has an account here in her name, and she’d like to know what the contents of it are.”
Clearly surprised by this everyday request, the thin man blinked in surprise before replying. “F-Follow me.”
He walked them over to his desk, taking a paper from Konami that apparently had some specific information on it. He typed rapidly on his computer’s keyboard, practically yanking a sheet of paper as it spooled from the printer. Téa barely sat down before the man sprung up again, this time leading her and Konami down a long, dimly lit side hallway. Téa’s outdoor school pumps clicked on the marble surface, sounding frighteningly loud in the long, empty space.
Black marble seemed to stretch on for eternity, until finally, they reached a steel door without a single window on it at all. The bank manager keyed in a string of numbers on the small, glowing panel beside the door, and after a soft whoosh sounded, the door sprung open.
The bank manager waited for Téa to step inside, and once she did, she gasped in awe. The walls were lined with hundreds—no, thousands—of darkened silver boxes.
‘Safe deposit boxes? But…’
As far up as the eye could see, stretching meters and meters into the air. How did anyone get to the ones at the top?
“I’m af-afraid that the bank does not keep personal identification numbers on record, Miss Gardner,” the bank manager began in a whisper. “We have the key cards and the standard lock used for the boxes, as a backup, but the PIN is known only by the customer…”
Off the terrified look on Téa’s face, it became clear to both men that Téa had no idea what the PIN was.
“How many tries does she have?” Konami asked in a gruff voice. The girl had waited long enough for answers. There was no reason to let some silly little obstruction get in their way now…
“O-Only t-three, S-Sir. After that, the mechanisms in the box cause the contents to self-destruct.”
No wonder why Domino First National was the most reputable, high security bank in the entire prefecture.
Téa steeled herself, taking in a deep breath. “Show me the box.”
The wiry man moved along the walls, tracing his finger along the ridged boxes as he searched for the number indicated on the paper. 813, 814…
With spade-shaped, trembling fingers, the man slipped the paper into his side pocket, reaching up to box number 818. He slid a brilliant white key card along a slot, prompting the clamps in the rear of the wall to unlock the individual box. It popped out slightly, allowing the man to slide it from its casing and out. He walked with frighteningly slow steps toward Téa, finally placing the heavy box into her hands.
Once assured that she could handle the strange weight, the man pressed a key into the top, pulling back a sliding lid. A nine-digit key panel gleamed at Téa from the box—the only layer left separating Téa from the last relic—the last piece of her parents.
Konami moved forward to help Téa hold the box while she tried to think of numbers her parents might have used in the creation of a bank account in her name. None of it made any sense…
It might have been a bit too obvious, but…
Her father’s birthday. The day and the last two digits of the year…
A bright red light to the side of the panel blinked on, the lock beeping angrily. It was not the right answer.
Téa swallowed, a decidedly acidic taste filling her mouth. No…well, maybe then her mother’s birthday. Inputting the numbers in the same format, her fingers shaking wildly, Téa could only guess at the contents of the security box, and why her parents had chosen to go to the extra effort to conceal it.
The red light blinked on again, the shrill noise echoing loudly.
Only one more try.
Her mouth went dry, her lips feeling horribly chapped. She couldn’t mess this up…
It was just like a riddle, only harder than any of the previous ones. Only one clue—it was a four digit number. Not her father’s birthday or her mother’s birthday. So maybe…
“1-2-0-8…” Téa whispered. It was a long shot. But maybe her own birthday would be the number she needed.
Her fingers felt like weights, pressing down into the keys. The mechanism registered her entry and…beeped. A bright green light flickered on, and a soft clicking sound indicated that the box was now unlocked. All that remained was for Téa to open it.
“Ahem,” the bank manager coughed none-too-discretely, indicating that he and Konami should give Téa some privacy while she examined the contents of the box.
Konami cast a hesitant glance back at Téa before following the bank manager out of the safe deposit room, leaving Téa alone in the marble space that echoed the tiniest sounds endlessly.
“Oh my God.”
The box spilled from Téa’s hands, the metal crashing against the floor, and echoing loudly. Konami and the bank manager rushed in to find out what happened—they were shocked to find Téa, wide-eyed and red-cheeked, surrounded by thousands of dollars in American money.
They’d left her a fortune.
Everything she’d ever wanted—everything she’d ever needed…
She could get it.
“What’s this?” Konami murmured, his eyes catching on a slip of white amongst the green dollar bills.
“What?” Téa mumbled, snapping from her reverie. Still, everything seemed clouded by an impossible haze…
“‘Chase your dreams,'” Konami read off a small slip of white paper that he’d found. “Does the handwriting look familiar?” He showed the paper to Téa, noting her already wide eyes increasing to the size of saucers. She recognized it all right…
“I-It’s my mother’s.”
But it didn’t make any sense! How could they have gotten all of this money? Why would they have been so sure that they would need to pass it on to her, through a series of riddles and codes? Why…?
The whys didn’t matter anymore. None of that did.
Nothing was stopping her from taking all the money and leaving Japan, right then and there.
Nothing except herself.
With the help of Sergeant Konami and the bank manager, Téa managed to sort out the entire affair, and she left the bank with a metal suitcase with the money inside.
$200,000 in American dollars. $50,000 in bonds, each of them made out in her name. $50,000 in property holdings—not just the deeds to the property that her house was on, but also several other estate holdings—complete with furnishings, according to the paperwork. The bank manager also revealed that the bank rented out Téa’s former home, the largest percent of the rent going straight into another account in Téa’s name. Come her 18th birthday on December 8th, that additional money and property could be hers. She could do what she wished with the property—evict the current residents, move back in…or even sell the property to someone else.
“I want to meet them,” Téa stated, refusing to evict the residents of her old home without even knowing who they were. The bank manager agreed, saying that it was entirely possible, as she was the holder of the property. He couldn’t reveal everything about the residents, only that it was a newlywed couple by the name of Chiba.
And now, Téa stood out of the house that was once her home—and oddly enough, it appeared almost entirely unfamiliar to her. The lawn was manicured and blossoming with vibrant asters and other autumn and winter flowers. The hedges that once pushed their way through the front fence were now neatly trimmed and box-shaped. A bright brass plate nailed to the front wall just above the mailbox indicated the family name in both Japanese characters and English letters.
“The Chibas…huh?” Téa sighed, walking up the pathway. It didn’t feel like home anymore.
Had staying at the Kaiba home for so long really changed her mind about what was home? For the longest time, Téa thought she would regain the property rights to her home when she turned eighteen, and she’d move in…finish school, and find a way to get to New York.
Now it was all within her reach.
She could drop out of school tomorrow, finish her education in the United States, or even by correspondence. She could get a General Education certificate in America if she so desired…pack up and leave Domino behind, by the end of next week!
There was still something holding her back. Unanswered questions, unresolved feelings.
True, Téa had no family left to keep her in Japan, but…she had friends. They were her entire world now, despite everything that’d happened, and if she up and left, she wouldn’t do it without letting them know.
‘One step at a time, Téa. One step…’
And so, Téa took a deep breath and steadied her hand as she rang the doorbell to the house that was no longer her home.
“Good, I was looking for you,” Téa said the moment Seto Kaiba walked in the door. Kaiba paused, surprised, that surprise growing into full-blown shock, seeing the seriousness on Téa’s face. That and…her eyes. Red-rimmed.
She’d been crying.
“What is it?”
He meant to say ‘What is it?’ in the sense of ‘What is it that’s bothering you?’ Or ‘Why are you crying?’ He wanted to know—really. But he couldn’t force himself to suddenly care like that, and put his heart on the line. Not when he didn’t even understand what it was he was feeling.
Besides…she didn’t feel the way he did. He knew that much for a fact.
And even if she did—by some bizarre miracle—he still couldn’t pursue anything with her. Not after he’d been the cause of her tears, so many times before…
“I need a VCR.”
Well, that was an odd request.
“Over here.” Kaiba led her to the living area, with the large, wide screen television, complete with digital surround sound, a stereo, and of course, both a DVD and VCR player. Téa was clutching a video cassette, Kaiba noted, holding it close to her chest as if it were something precious.
“What is it?” he asked bluntly, referring to the video.
Téa looked at him with an almost frightened glance, keeping silent.
He could just walk away. Let her watch whatever it was, and not have anything to do with it. Or her.
Try to push his irrational feelings for her away, and just…be her employer. Until she didn’t need him anymore, and then…
‘And then she’ll leave.’
But not just leave his home, or even Domino. Kaiba remembered with a startling clarity how badly Téa wanted to go to New York. She wanted to get away from Domino, out of Japan…for good.
But she was here for a little while longer, at least.
And he’d have to settle for that.
Trembling fingers pushed towards the Play button on the VCR after Téa inserted the cassette, and she mutely switched the television on. A bright blue screen flickered on, flickering and morphing into a blurred, shaking screen.
A hand pulled away, revealing a handsome, middle-aged man backing away from the camera. It was a home video, and if Téa’s reaction—a sharp gasp and wide, unblinking eyes—was a sign, then the man in the video had to be her father. Mr. Gardner backed farther away, revealing his wife sitting beside in a chair beside his own. They were sitting in what looked like a kitchen, glancing between each other and the camera nervously.
The date at the bottom left corner of the screen read ‘August 8th.’ The same day that they’d died.
“Téa, honey, if you’re watching this, then, well…” Mrs. Gardner started, biting her lip and looking up at the camera, as if she were staring at Téa in reality.
“Then that means we’ve died, Téa.” Mr. Gardner chuckled wryly, shaking his head as he did so. “And if we haven’t kicked the bucket yet, then please, just take this silly tape out of the VCR and burn it. I mean it, Téa.”
“But…if the worst has happened, then we want to tell you everything. Why we…did what we did.”
Téa sucked in a breath and walked backward toward the couch, very slowly. She almost bumped into Kaiba, but she hardly cared; her eyes were riveted on the television screen, and the last she’d ever see of her parents.
“T-This was from the day they died,” Téa whispered. “I got into a fight with them that day, and I left the house in a total rage…”
Truth be told, Seto Kaiba couldn’t imagine Téa in ‘a total rage.’ But he knew what got her irritated, and he knew full well the pain of having ‘family’ criticize the things you loved.
‘Her parents…didn’t approve of her wanting to become a dancer.’
And instead of letting that defeat her, Téa made every effort to become stronger, to keep fighting her parents, and to prove them wrong: she could become a successful dancer, and make money, and have a stable life.
But without them…
“You know that we’ve always taught you, no matter what, Téa, to be honest with yourself, and to do the right thing. For so many years, we told you to think about a more stable career, to leave behind your love of dancing.”
“The truth is, Téa,” Mr. Gardner continued, “we were afraid. For many years, we were afraid that’d we’d lose our jobs, lose our security, and lose everything we’d ever known. We wanted you to have a good life, Téa.”
“We didn’t realize that, in the process, we were hurting you. We both know that it’s your dream to dance, and that no matter how financially infeasible it might be, it’s still your dream. It’s what you want to do—and that’s being honest with yourself,” Mrs. Gardner smiled slightly, bowing her head.
“Your father and I want you to know that you can do it. You can become a dancer—the best in the world. We’ve always believed in you, Téa, the same way you believe in all of your friends. We may never have been good at saying it, given the sort of things we had on our minds…to be concerned about, but that doesn’t change the fact that we love you, and we’ll support you, no matter what.”
Téa crumpled onto the couch now, holding her hands up to her face to try and halt the tears slowly falling down her cheeks. It wasn’t enough that she’d cried upon realizing the fortune they’d left for her, but now to find out that all along, they’d supported her dreams, and that she was the one who’d left the house, left them, without giving them a chance to explain? She’d let her emotions rule her that day, and now…
There was no going back.
Hesitantly, Kaiba sat down beside her, keeping one eye turned to the television. He’d never met the Gardners, but after hearing what they’d done for him—his company—he couldn’t help but admire the couple—and their daughter. Headstrong, stubborn Téa: she could be no one else but her parents’ daughter, if their behavior was any indication. In the face of intimidating bosses and financial destitution, the Gardners put themselves in danger, for the sake of others. For the sake of Kaiba and his company reputation, for the sake of the employees, whose health care was at risk, and of the public in general—civilians who didn’t deserve to have their lives turned upside down by a company selling war weapons and battle vehicles again.
“Téa, we don’t work for any ordinary offices or firms. You know that I’m an attorney, but I work for a very powerful, nasty man—who just happens to be on the Board of Directors for Kaiba Corp.”
“And I’m not an office lady, sorry to say, Téa,” Mrs. Gardner said ruefully. “I work at Crump Financial, a subsidiary of Kaiba Corporation, just like your father’s business. Mr. Crump is a greedy, obsessive man, who’d like to see nothing more than Seto Kaiba removed from CEO position of his own company. Téa, I know you’re friends with Mr. Kaiba, but this goes beyond the dueling you and your friends do together.”
“We’ve found out that Crump and Johnson, my boss, along with the other three directors from Kaiba Corp., are trying to siphon money from employee health care in order to fund a secret project of theirs—the revival of Nesbitt Heavy Industries.”
Kaiba’s eyes narrowed; he hadn’t heard this information from Konami, when the officer revealed that the police had warrants out for the Big Five’s arrest. Now, the very people they’d had murdered were speaking to him—well, Téa, really—through a videotape that was months old. They’d known, all along…
“They’ve blackmailed the employees into keeping quiet, Téa, but we’re not going to stand for it. We’re putting ourselves at risk, and we know it, but it…it would be so worth it, to have those five in jail, where they belong. Then everyone would get their health care back, and we could have the extra money we’ve always pinched go to your dreams.”
“Téa, there’s an account, in your name, at the Domino First National Bank,” Mrs. Gardner stated solemnly, clutching a small piece of paper in her hand. Téa squinted at it between her tears, realizing that it was the same note she’d found in the security box at the bank. The one from her mother that read only: ‘Chase your dreams.’ They must have gone to the bank and put it in, at the last moment.
“We saved up for your college fund ever since you were born. In the past several years since the Big Five have started this little ‘project’ of theirs, we’ve had to take money from our savings…and from your savings.”
“We hated ourselves for it, Téa. Even more so after this morning. We know you’re angry at us, and you probably don’t want to forgive us anytime soon. But you should know that we did and said everything because we cared about you—because we didn’t want you to ever be in a position like this, unsure of what might happen the next day, and whether you’d have a home, a job, and food to eat.”
“We converted most of the money to American dollars, so you can easily use it in New York, Téa. The rest of the money comes in property holdings your father obtained through his cases, or land that was passed down to us from family or friends. Make use of it, Téa. You can do more than just chase your dreams with that money—you can live them. It’s more than we ever would have told you about in life, Téa, but if you’re watching this now, and we’re…” Mrs. Gardner trailed off, wiping her face with her fingertips.
“If we’ve passed on Téa, then this is our last request to you. Please, honey—be happy.” Mr. Gardner glanced at his wife before moving forward and shutting off the camera, leaving the television in a state of static. Téa finally allowed her eyes to close as she dropped her face into her palms, her body racked with silent sobs. Kaiba had no idea what to say or do to comfort her—so out of instinct, he placed a hand on her back. The moment his hand touched her, the television abruptly flared to life again—only this time, Mr. Gardner stood alone.
“A question for you, Téa,” he murmured in a broken, quiet voice. The clock now read a time several minutes after the initial recording, and this time, it was in a bedroom rather than a kitchen. Téa glanced up at the screen through her tears, either unaware or uncaring as to Kaiba trying—in his own strange way—to comfort her in this moment of sadness.
“What can’t you see that’s always before you?” Mr. Gardner paused, as if truly waiting for Téa to respond. In reality, Téa was having a hard enough time trying to breathe, catching her breath between sobs. Everything around her seemed so hot…so stuffy and suppressing.
“It’s the future, Téa. And I know you have a bright one ahead of you, even if we’re gone. Never let anything drag you down or keep you anywhere Téa, especially not us. We’ve taught you, above all else, to be true to yourself. Be a free spirit. Go wherever your heart takes you.” Mr. Gardner looked toward the ground, nodding to himself in affirmation that Téa received his message. Then, he reached over and flicked the camera off.
The screen was momentarily gray, flickering before revealing a handwritten note.
“‘What always ends everything?'” Kaiba read aloud, his eyebrows knit together. Another riddle? Konami had mentioned riddles before, when he’d told Kaiba that the AWOL Big Five were wanted criminals. Téa had helped get the arrest warrant for them, due to her intuitive nature and ability to decrypt her father’s riddles—clues that led to the evidence proving the Big Five guilty.
The paper moved up slightly, Téa’s wavering frown curling up into a slight, terrified smile.
“‘G. And G is for Gardner,'” Téa whispered, reading off the words. “‘We love you.'”
After that, the video cut off—for the last time. Téa burst into tears, instinctively leaning over toward Kaiba, pressing her forehead to his shoulder as he turned off the television and VCR. Moments later, Seto Kaiba swallowed his pride and wrapped his arms around her, letting her cry.
Serenity’s fingers brushed upon the bright neon pink pamphlet before Téa could bend over to pick it up. Serenity’s clear, hazel eyes scanned it, Téa mute before her.
“‘Get your high school diploma through the mail’…?” Her eyes shifted to the other paper she’d picked up: a glossy brochure with the New York City skyline on the masthead and beautiful, script written letters saying ‘Juilliard.’
“Téa, are you going to be leaving us?” Chieko piped up in a concerned tone, worry lilting her voice.
“It’s not like that…” Téa began, uncomfortable. She couldn’t explain it to them.
“Then what is it like?” Serenity demanded, putting a hand on her hip, keeping her other hand’s grip firm and on the papers.
“I don’t really feel like explaining it now…”
“So when would you tell us about it? After you got to New York City?”
Téa sighed. Serenity was a Wheeler, through and through. She had the infamous stubborn streak that Téa knew all too well from Joey…
“Going somewhere, Téa?”
Serenity, Téa, and Chieko all turned to the source of the voice.
Téa would have exhaled deeply, glad for Mai’s intrusion. Except now, it was obvious that Mai had overheard Serenity and Chieko’s words, and now wanted the same explanation her two other friends were expecting. But how could she possibly tell them everything that had happened?
“Look Téa, save it for five minutes from now. I agreed to pick you girls up for our usual dinner, but I’m not too keen on being spotted by The Lovely Two. So you’ll tell us all what’s goin’ on at the diner, okay?”
Téa sighed resignedly. She had no way out of this one; it wasn’t as if she could convince Mai, spur of the moment, to finally face Fran and Vincent.
“Fine. Let’s go.”
Okay, so they’d been expecting that answer. That excuse, as it were. Everything in their lives was complicated. At least, as far as Mai and Serenity knew. They’d experienced all sorts of ‘complications’ outside of the usual teenage angst or adult worries. The problems in their circle extended beyond the death of family members, shortages of money, and confusing confessions.
No, there were also magical items, ancient dueling monsters, reincarnated spirits, and vengeful, power-hungry maniacs.
“I can’t—look, I can’t stop thinking about Kaiba.”
“I knew it,” Serenity leaned back in her chair, her expression satisfied. The look on her face prompted a raised eyebrow from the other three girls present, so Serenity continued. “I know what it’s like to care about someone so much, Téa. Maybe it’s not the same kind of care as you have for Kaiba, ” the redhead emphasized meaningfully, “but I’m pretty sure it’s along the same lines. No matter what someone does to hurt you, your mind remembers the best of times you had with them, and that’s what keeps you hanging on, and hoping.”
At first, Téa was sure Serenity was talking about Joey, but now she wasn’t so sure. Before she could query her younger friend on who exactly she meant, Mai interrupted.
“Pretty wise words from you, Serenity. Where’d all your experience in the area come from, huh?”
“I watch and observe,” Serenity began carefully. “I know you’ve been in the same spot, Mai. Fran talks about you.”
“She what?” Mai blurted before she could stop herself, violet eyes widening to the size of saucers. Her eyes strayed to the only girl who hadn’t yet spoken: Chieko. The blonde nodded in mute affirmation; Fran did indeed talk about Mai, though not by name. But to those that knew Mai personally, it was more than obvious whom Fran referred to in her nostalgic speeches.
“Miss Fran misses you a great deal. I believe her husband feels the same way.”
These words, unfortunately, were not the right ones to say; the fact that Fran married the one man Mai truly believed she’d fallen in love with still brought a sour taste to her mouth. Mai turned away, abruptly grabbing her cup of latte and taking a long swig, careless of the boiling temperature of the liquid.
And then there was Joey.
None of the others knew about what happened between them the other night, and if Mai had her say in it, none of them ever would. She still wasn’t sure…
“I love you, Mai.”
It still baffled her.
She hadn’t been able to respond—not the way Joey wanted—that night, or even the day after. They’d just spent mindless hours with one another, working off months and months of pent-up passion and frustration…
“Back to the subject at hand: Téa. Even though Kaiba was a total ass to you, you still care about him?”
“Y-Yeah,” Téa mumbled. “I tried to forget about him—I even moved out of the main mansion and into the employee quarters, but—”
“Waitasec,” Serenity interrupted, “where were you staying before?”
Téa swallowed, tempted to chuckle wryly. Of course, Serenity didn’t know…
“Across the hall from Kaiba…” Téa murmured under her breath. She tried to hide the dark blush threatening to seep up to her cheeks with her hair, but Chieko pressed two fingers to the base of Téa’s chin, forcing her head back up once more.
“And the plot thickens,” Serenity mumbled. “Geez, no wonder why you can’t forget about him.”
“But I told you!” Téa hissed. “I moved out! I don’t know why he still keeps popping up in my head!”
“Maybe because you spent all those months before just across the hall from him,” Chieko suggested. “You cannot have him return to the state he was before, now that you have truly gotten to know and care for him.”
“Of course, the fact that he didn’t believe me when I nearly got killed by the ghost of his adoptive father, or the fact that he thought I framed him for murder doesn’t help things any,” Téa groused. The memories brought a fierce frown to her lips and tears to her eyes, but they were always quickly blocked out by other times—Seto’s awkward smile at the beach; his lips pressing against her wounded knuckles; his lips crushing against hers, his mouth filled with the spicy aftertaste of alcohol…
‘The good times…?’
But he didn’t even remember. He didn’t even care!
Even if last night, he’d just let her cry in his arms…
It didn’t mean anything. It couldn’t. She still had to leave. Before this situation got any worse, and before she fell so hard and fast, she couldn’t escape. There still had to be a way…
“What does any of that have to do with moving to New York and finishing your high school by correspondence?” Chieko asked abruptly, snapping Téa from her reverie. She hadn’t heard about any ghosts or Kaiba being framed for murder, but…somehow, it made sense.
Mai and Serenity turned to face Téa, both of them fixing her with unrelenting stares.
She sighed, realizing that she couldn’t breathe any more lies. She just…couldn’t. Maybe giving up in this respect wasn’t such a bad thing. Maybe…she’d be free from the burdens of her lies and worries, for once.
“My parents…they left me a fortune. Yesterday I went to the bank and picked up nearly $300,000 in American money.”
Serenity wore a blank expression on her face, while Chieko and Mai, well-familiar with American money, gasped.
“That’s nearly 33,216,000 yen, Téa,” Chieko breathed in astonishment. Téa rolled her eyes slightly; Chieko sure had a way with numbers.
“WHAT?” Serenity exclaimed. Her friend was a millionaire!?
“Not just that,” Téa continued resolutely, “but I went to my old house. The couple living there now is really nice—very sweet. Come my 18th birthday, I could just evict them and move back into my house if I wanted. Or I could move to New York and finish high school by correspondence. I–I’m leaning toward that, because I just can’t evict that nice couple. They– they found this video tape that my parents left me. I watched it the other night… My parents explained everything. From why they did what they did, to how they knew what they were doing would get them killed. And I never knew! All this time, I thought–I thought it was an accident, and…”
The tears started dripping down her face before Téa even realized it. It wasn’t until there was a plopping sound—that of her tears falling into her soda—that she realized she was crying.
“Oh, Téa…” Chieko, closest to Téa in the booth the four girls occupied, reached over and hugged her friend as tightly as her lithe arms could manage. Moments later, Serenity and Mai joined in, stepping from their side of the booth to Téa’s, all their arms embracing her.
“T-The couple at my old house—t-the Chibas? They’re newlyweds. And when her husband was in the kitchen making me tea, Mrs. Chiba told me she’s pregnant. She’s so excited, and she thinks the house will be this wonderful place to raise her kids. She’s one-hundred percent certain that their first child’s going to be a girl, and after I’d told her about growing up in the house, she was even more sure…after that, I j-just can—can’t evict them!” Téa hiccoughed.
“But why move away, Téa? Running away never solves anything!”
Mai frowned, looking away. Despite the years that she had on the other girls, sometimes it seemed as though they were all wiser than her.
First Téa, then Serenity, and now Chieko.
Was the world trying to tell her something?
“I–I know. But I c-can’t just…”
“Why not?” Serenity interrupted. “Why can’t you tell Kaiba everything? Tell him you love him, tell him about the money. Tell him that he was a total jerk to you, and if he wants what you’ve got to offer, he’s got to earn it like a real man should!”
Téa laughed slightly through her slowing tears. “You sound like your brother, Serenity.”
Mai stifled a chuckle at that, while Chieko only smirked.
‘Why can’t I?’
If he didn’t return her feelings after all this time, then…fine. She would have no regrets. She could leave Domino…leave Japan once and for all.
She could chase her dreams.
So now it wasn’t a matter of taking things one step at a time, it was a matter of waiting for the right moment.
There’d been plenty of opportunities in the past, now that Téa thought about it. Of course, now that she was renewed in her resolve to admit her feelings for Seto Kaiba—if just to “get them out of the way”— it seemed as though time was not on her side. Everything seemed to pass by so slowly, with opportunities hidden deep in the shadows, and far from Téa’s reach…
She raised a slightly-trembling hand to knock on the solid door that separated her from Seto Kaiba.
Well, it was now or never…
Téa subconsciously pressed her hands to her skirt, inhaling deeply before she opened her eyes and walked into the room.
“Kaiba, I have a question.”
She knew she had to speak before he did, because his words—the very sound of his voice—could send her thoughts sprawling into dangerous territory, filling her with questions, and in her present state of mind, she would blurt them unnecessarily, and embarrass them both.
“What is it?”
He swallowed hard, desperately trying to mask the stab of pain that shot through his chest.
‘Kaiba,’ again. Why did he want her to whisper his name so badly? Not his company name, not his adopted name, but his name—Seto. Why did he want such irrational things so desperately?
“I–I was wondering if I could have off on Friday.”
There. She’d said it.
Téa blinked. It wasn’t supposed to be that easy!
Kaiba, for his part, wondered why Téa still stood there. Didn’t she know her very presence distracted him? She’d gotten what she wanted, so why was she still there? He could feel her gaze boring into him, searing through his computer and straight into his eyes…His gaze flickered up to glance at her, when she didn’t think he was paying attention.
“Y-You aren’t going to ask me why?” Téa asked, twisting her left leg behind her right. She knew she looked foolish now, twiddling with her fingers and staring at Kaiba with the slightest traces of a pout on her lips, but she didn’t care. Didn’t he want to know? Regardless of her feelings or his, wasn’t he supposed to be an efficient, informed employer?
Who was this imposter, and where was the real Seto Kaiba?
Kaiba steeled himself, hoping that his face wouldn’t burn scarlet on the very sight of her. It was bad enough that she haunted his dreams and his every waking moment, ‘maybes’ and ‘might-have-beens’ threatening to swallow him whole, but now she stood before him—alone, and so beautiful…
“Why?” Navy blue eyes met with brilliant, clear blue ones, and Kaiba swallowed the acidic lump in his throat.
“It’s my birthday,” Téa responded in an almost-shy whisper. “Actually, I was kind of hoping I could do something with my fr—” Téa realized what she’d been saying, and stopped herself. How foolish to be thinking so selfishly. She’d gotten what she’d wanted, so why was she pushing her luck?
“Never mind. Thanks, Kaiba!” And she rushed out of the office before Kaiba could think of a single thing to say.
“I dare you,” Duke stated firmly, looking as smug as ever.
“Done,” Joey snickered, though inwardly he wondered why Kaiba looked so incredibly out of it. Duke, Joey, and Tristan all noticed the moment Kaiba came into the classroom—uncharacteristically late, and looking surprisingly haggard. Everyone at Domino High knew that Seto Kaiba went well out of his way to arrive at school insanely early each morning, and no matter what was going on, his appearance was always immaculate.
Perfect grades, perfectly composed…on every day but today.
What was the deal? Joey finished folding up a paper football and carefully took aim at Kaiba’s head, across a few aisles.
Lunch was about to start any moment, and the teacher stepped out of the classroom. Most of the students were already packed up and eagerly talking, but Seto Kaiba remained staring at his paperwork, lost in thought.
With a quick flick of his fingers, the paper football went flying, and smacked Seto Kaiba right in the back of the head.
“Touchdown!” Tristan laughed, high-fiving Duke. The bell rang just as Kaiba glanced at the paper football tangled in his hair; he shot Joey an un-amused look as he shook himself from his stupor and prepared his things. Surprised by Kaiba’s lack of a reaction, Joey pushed his way through the exiting students and toward Kaiba’s desk, much to both Duke and Tristan’s surprise.
“What’s up with you?” Joey asked bluntly, blocking Kaiba’s exit from the class by planting an arm on the desk in front of him. Kaiba fixed Joey with a flat stare, clearly unwilling to speak to him, let alone get into a fight over getting out of the class.
“Move it, Wheeler,” he ground out, his voice strangely hoarse.
“You sick or somethin’ Kaiba? Come on.”
“Come on, what?”
“Hey Joey, I finished Téa’s birthday—” Yugi, who’d just dashed into the classroom from outside—since he’d spent study hall in his vocational education class, stared at Joey and Kaiba, both of them unmoving and speechless.
“Ah, I got it.” Joey nodded wisely, noting how Kaiba’s eyes widened slightly at the mention of Téa’s birthday, “Someone didn’t get Téa her present yet…” His voice was singsong and decidedly annoying, so when Kaiba’s face contorted into a disdainful frown, Joey grinned. At least the old Kaiba was back—for a moment, anyway.
Even if the guy was a jerk, he was no fun to mess with if he wasn’t acting like himself.
“You didn’t know?” Yugi piped up. In all honesty, he would have thought such information was basic knowledge for Kaiba. He and Téa had lived with each other for so long, after all…
The thought still stung, but Yugi was trying his hardest to put his feelings for Téa behind him. Only, it wasn’t easy—not when he could so plainly see that Kaiba was feeling something for Téa in return. Though Yugi was at least partially content to act as mediator when fights broke out with Kaiba and Joey, it was another matter altogether to play matchmaker with the CEO and Yugi’s own former crush.
Things just had to take their own course.
“I just found out yesterday, okay? One week’s notice, how the hell was I supposed to know?”
That wasn’t the entire reason, but it was good enough for the Yugi and the mutt. Kaiba hardly cared to explain everything to them—from his confusing feelings to Téa’s tears the other day. If she didn’t feel the need to tell them, why should he? It was his business, and his business alone.
Joey, Tristan and Duke snickered briefly, despite the angry stare Kaiba shot in their direction. Realizing Kaiba was on the verge of snapping, Yugi quickly intervened.
“Hey guys, why don’t you come into the computer lab and check out what I’ve got finished so far? I think Téa will like it…”
“Sounds cool,” Tristan and Duke nodded, following Yugi out of the classroom. “Joey, you comin’?” Tristan called back.
“Nah, gimme a sec.” Joey stared at Kaiba up and down, his hazel eyes narrowed.
“She’s probably gonna wanna have a party, you know.”
“Yeah.” She’d mentioned something about wanting to do something with her friends. The least Kaiba could do was offer her the day off, and maybe some space in the mansion…
But maybe not. Maybe she didn’t want him to have any part in her birthday.
Yet, Kaiba couldn’t help but envision the tiny Blue-Eyes White Dragon statuette on his desk. He couldn’t help but remember when Téa gave it to him, her face pink and her knees knocked together. And then, when he’d spun her into his arms, she’d collapsed into him so easily, her body warm and soft against his. They’d come so close again…
‘But she pushed me away. She doesn’t feel the same.’
Fortunately or unfortunately, it didn’t change things. Téa’s birthday was still coming up, and regardless of his feelings—whatever they were—for her, Kaiba still had no idea what to get or do for Téa. He didn’t know what her favorite food was, or even what she wanted. It occurred to him at that very moment that despite months of living with her, and quite possibly having feelings for her, Seto Kaiba knew very little about Téa Gardner.
“Truce,” Joey stated, thrusting a hand out to Kaiba. “She’ll want ya there, and I’m not gonna ruin it by fightin’ with ya.”
Kaiba stared at Joey suspiciously for a moment, wondering if the younger man was going to retract his hand at the last moment and walk away, laughing. Wheeler never bothered to treat him with respect until now, so why…?
‘Respect is earned,’ Kaiba remembered. Had he really earned Wheeler’s respect, after that gang brawl? Months ago, Kaiba wouldn’t have cared what Wheeler thought of him, but now…
‘He’s friends with her. He knows what she wants, what she likes. He…he can help me figure this out.’
It was just as ludicrous as the idea of Yugi the pacifist beating up a hoard of gang members, but then again…he’d done that, too.
“Ya kiddin’ me, right? Moneybags, you have everything on the friggin’ planet at your disposal, and you can’t think of a single thing to get Téa for her eighteenth birthday?”
Kaiba only glared at Joey, while Tristan and Duke smothered their laughs under their arms. Yugi, Tristan, and Duke returned from the computer labs, where Yugi showed them the project he’d been working on tirelessly for several months. Now, they all sat in the classroom eating lunch—while Téa and the other girls in their class were in the newly-reconstructed dance studio, refurbished from the autumn festival’s funds.
“You’ve got it easy, Wheeler,” Kaiba seethed, “you have a sister, so you know what it’s like to shop for…girls.”
The last word came out sort of fumbled on Kaiba’s part, as though he weren’t entirely sure how to refer to Téa. As always, Kaiba remained unsure of whether or not Wheeler knew the extent of Téa’s relationship with him—whatever that ‘extent’ even was, at this point. But obviously, Joey didn’t have qualms with him caring for Téa—unless he really was that dense.
It didn’t matter, though. Téa wasn’t any ordinary girl, and her upcoming birthday was no ordinary birthday. Even if her own friends didn’t realize it, Kaiba did.
Her eighteenth birthday.
If she wanted, she could get up and leave. Leave the mansion, leave Domino, leave Japan…leave him. Never to return, ever again.
“You gotta be kiddin’ me,” Tristan piped up, shaking his head, “Serenity is so hard to shop for…”
“Agreed,” Duke nodded. “She may be female, but she’s a Wheeler though and through, and that makes her not only picky, but hard-headed, too!”
“Hey! The two of you better shut it where my sister’s concerned, or I’ll—”
“No use threatening us, Joey,” Tristan grinned. “We all know Serenity can take care of herself. So Kaiba, how did you get rid of that bruise you got when she slapped you?”
Kaiba chuckled sarcastically, his grin wry. “Lots of ice.”
Lunch continued in this fashion, with the conversations sporadic and awkward…but for the most part, it was an interesting experience for Seto Kaiba. He’d never eaten lunch with any of his own peers before, let alone ones he previously deemed his rivals. Well, Yugi was still—and always would be—his rival, but Duel Monsters was the furthest thing from Kaiba’s mind at that moment…
When the bell rang again indicating time for Japanese Literature class, the boys scrambled back to their seats, not wanting to anger Miss Ninomiya any time soon.
“Yo, Kaiba!” Joey hissed just before Miss Ninomiya walked in. He flicked another paper football in Kaiba’s direction, indicating that Kaiba should open it up. When Kaiba did, he was greeted with a haphazard scrawl that could only be Wheeler’s handwriting. It read: “Store-bought isn’t Téa’s style. If you get her something that only you can get her, it’ll mean a lot.”
Kaiba glanced up at Joey just before the blond turned away to face the teacher, in some semblance of attentiveness.
Luck was with the boys that day, as their usual gym teacher scrambled to attend a last-minute meeting with the other gym teachers. The boys in the east gym were left to their own devices, most boys choosing to play basketball, while the girls remained hidden by the wall separating the gyms. The wall, though it could be pushed away to merge both gyms, rarely ever got opened. The only way to see into the girl’s side of the gym was by sneaking up the balcony—not an easy task, especially when the entire area was exposed for the gyms below to see.
But the moment a loud cheer of “Téa! Téa!” rang, Kaiba couldn’t help but wonder what was going on.
Apparently, the same held true for Joey—ironically enough, the only one who seemed to even notice Kaiba’s presence in the gymnasium. Tristan and Duke were bickering again, heatedly arguing over a basketball foul, while Yugi was nowhere to be found.
“Moneybags,” Joey hissed, “Come on, let’s see what the girls are cheerin’ about.” He waved at Kaiba, gesturing for him to follow him to the balconies while the rest of their classmates played sports. After a moment’s reluctance, Kaiba followed silently—despite his urge to snap at Wheeler for calling him ‘Moneybags,’ yet again.
Though no one appeared to be watching, Joey went through the exaggerated motions of ducking forward as he crept up the stairs, glancing back at Kaiba every so often to make sure no one else was following him. After they reached the balcony landing, they moved towards the foremost part of the seats—the lower ones closest to the gym floor, but those hardest to see by the students playing below.
Kaiba felt ridiculous, stepping slowly and carefully behind Joey. He’d never had a need to hunch over before in his life—Seto Kaiba did not creep. So while he fought every urge to protest vocally, his spine found a very good way of protesting otherwise—sending very real, physical shoots of pain up and down his back.
‘This had better be worth it.’
And that was when he saw her.
He was sure Wheeler did too, but after a split second, Joey was the farthest thing from Kaiba’s mind. The two boys emerged from their own gymnasium into what was dubbed the “Girl’s Gym,” and saw two teams of girls playing a fast-paced game of basketball. Unlike lunch hour, when most girls refused to play sports due to the short skirts they wore as part of their uniform, the gym uniforms were much different: small, white shirts emblazoned with each girl’s name, and shorts that were so short, they were closer to bathing-suit bottoms—or, to the more lecherous mind, panties. Hence, watching a gym full of girls leaping around in such attire, yelling back and forth and sweating with exertion did certain things to both Kaiba and Joey’s minds that they probably wouldn’t have repeated to anyone.
“Well, at least now she can’t complain about guys wantin’ to look up her skirt…” Joey chuckled under his breath. Off Kaiba’s raised eyebrow and querying stare, Joey continued. “First year, back when uh…when Yug’ and I weren’t on such good terms, you know? Téa used to go outside with the other guys and play sports. One day they suggested basketball, and uh…well, when she started scorin’ real well, she found out the guys were just starin’ at her panties every time she made a shot. Went back inside and caught Tristan and me hagglin’ Yugi. ‘Course, I didn’t actually bug Yug’ till I knew she was comin’ inside…”
Joey froze, his eyes widening. “Uh, er…”
“Wheeler, what aren’t you telling me?” Kaiba ground out, his eyes narrowed to slits.
Joey scratched behind his ear nervously, “Well, first thing I’m gonna say is, I got a girlfriend now, so you don’t gotta worry about me complainin’ about you and Téa gettin’ together or whatever, ’cause if you like her, and she likes you, I guess…well, yeah, whatever. She’s her own girl, you know?”
“Get to the point, Wheeler,” Kaiba seethed, though inwardly he was curious as to when Joey and Mai—she had to be the girlfriend Joey referred to; it simply couldn’t be anyone else—got together. That thought, in turn, led to a brief burst of jealousy—second-rate Wheeler, Joey Wheeler the mutt, had gotten a girlfriend before him. It was the most idiotic, stereotypical thought Seto Kaiba had ever had, but one that remained in his brain all the same.
“I kinda crushed on Téa back in first year. Nah, ‘kinda’ ain’t the right word. I had it for her—bad. Yug’ bein’ all wimpy and quiet bugged me before, but I never did nothin’ about it. He didn’t get in my way, and I didn’t get in his. But then one day, I was havin’ a lousy time, and I kinda snapped at him. Téa stormed up to me and gave me an earful and I…well, I never thought about nothin’ the same way again.”
“…You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Joey frowned, shaking his head though his eyes were still trained on Téa and the other girls playing basketball below; Téa just scored a shot, and her fellow teammates happily cheered her victory.
“It always went like that, Moneybags. I’d bug Yugi, Téa’d come to his defense, we’d fight…it was bliss.”
“You are one sick dog, Wheeler.”
“Shut up and lemme finish, Kaiba,” Joey hissed. “Well, then there was that jerkwad hall monitor. I used to think you had somethin’ crammed up your ass, but this guy was much worse—and bigger than the two of us combined. Not only did he blackmail Yug’ for loads of cash, but he kicked mine and Tristan’s asses. He woulda finished the job too, if Yug’ hadn’t showed up. After that…”
“You two became…friends,” Kaiba finished for Joey.
“Yeah, that’s about the long and short of it,” Joey paused, a grin spreading across his lips, “no offense to Yugi, of course.”
Kaiba stifled a brief chuckle at Joey’s clichéd but apt pun, turning his gaze back to Téa and the others. Though silence didn’t bother Seto Kaiba in the slightest, there was something nagging at the back of his mind—however irrelevant.
“So you and Valentine finally got together, did you?”
He didn’t really expect any details from Wheeler; more a retort about how the subject was none of his business anyway, but instead, Joey said nothing. Kaiba peered at the shorter boy, surprised to see Wheeler’s face a bright, flaming red.
“On second thought, I don’t want to know.”
“G-Good. ‘Cause I ain’t up to describin’ all that just yet.”
“‘All that’?” Kaiba repeated. He shook his head. “Forget it. But…when’d you get over Téa?”
“Two words, Moneybags: Duelist Kingdom.”
Two words were all Joey needed. Duelist Kingdom changed everything for everyone. Even Kaiba knew that, though he wasn’t too keen on remembering the events from back then.
“That’s where you met Valentine, isn’t it?”
“Yep. Hated her guts at first, too, but…” Joey grinned lopsidedly, “things change.”
“I was thinking—” Kaiba began, unwilling to let Téa have the first or last word again as he walked into the kitchen, interrupting Téa and Mokuba from their usual work together, “Why not have your birthday here at the mansion on Friday?”
Téa’s eyebrows shot up, her expression plainly surprised.
“Y-You mean it, Kaiba? I mean—wow. Really, thanks, that–that’d be wonderful.”
That was just what Téa had been thinking herself, but she hadn’t the courage to ask Kaiba. And yet here he’d gone and suggested it himself. But…why?
Their eyes met for a brief moment, the kitchen filled with silence. It was Mokuba who finally broke the stretch of quiet with an abrupt cough.
“Y-You wouldn’t mind—” Kaiba began again, his voice wavering slightly, “if I—that is, Mokuba and I—were there?”
‘He…wants to be there? For me? But why?’
It didn’t matter that he’d amended his question at the last possible moment to include Mokuba, who was, for once, an afterthought in Seto Kaiba’s mind. He still wanted to be there. For her.
“I’d like that.” And she smiled, a brighter, wider smile than either Mokuba or Kaiba had seen her wear for a long time. Something akin to hope blossomed in Kaiba’s chest—a warm, tingling feeling that curled the corners of his own lips upward.
Maybe…just maybe, he stood a fraction of a chance.
“Big mistake, Gardner,” Kaiba smirked, though the humor in his voice was startlingly clear. Téa shot him an irritated, sarcastic glare, waiting for him to make the next move. The two of them finally found the time to duel each other—in a real duel. Kaiba amazed Téa once more by revealing that he had a dueling arena in his own home—so of course he was never without practice for any duel. Initially, Téa tried every line in the book to get out of it—but the problem was, she was good on her word, and she had promised Seto a duel…
“I’ll now sacrifice my Wicked Worm Beast and Vampire Lord to summon one of the most powerful creatures in all of Duel Monsters! Come forth, Blue-Eyes White—”
The problem was, things seemed a bit…too easy.
“What?” Seto Kaiba blinked in astonishment as Téa flipped over a trap card—had that even been there before?—with a smirk just barely curling the corners of her lips. Damn her—damn those lips!
Before it could even fully materialize on the field, Seto Kaiba’s trademark Blue-Eyes White Dragon disappeared into a massive fissure, removing it from the playing field.
Seto fixed Téa with a bland stare. “Your move.”
“Thanks. And now, you’re seriously going to regret not countering that, because…” Téa smiled after she drew, her face lighting up like a light bulb; “I play Monster Reborn, and bring back the Blue-Eyes White Dragon that you just tried to summon!”
“Attack, Blue-Eyes!” Téa grinned triumphantly, watching as Kaiba’s life point counter dropped to zero.
“I believe that’s game?” Téa grinned innocently. Kaiba crossed his arms over his chest, cocking his head to the side and eyeing Téa critically. She returned his stare in kind, suddenly wondering if she’d won that game by a fluke.
Had Seto Kaiba purposefully let her win? But…why?
It made no sense! If there was one thing he was horribly serious about, it was his dueling! Still…
“All right! You know what this means, right Téa?” Mokuba grinned.
“It means your brother is going to hate me for beating him,” Téa frowned slightly. “And you too, for betting against him.”
“You bet against me?” Kaiba asked incredulously, turning startled eyes on his younger sibling. Mokuba just shrugged nonchalantly.
Kaiba shook his head in dismay. “Even my own brother’s turned against me…” he sighed. “What exactly were the terms of the bet?”
“I haven’t decided yet,” Mokuba grinned. “I’m sure I’ll think of something sure to drive you both crazy!”
“Oh great,” Kaiba and Téa groaned in unison, smirking at each other after the fact.
Well, this was going to be interesting.
Hours later, Téa finished cleaning up and assisting Mokuba with his schoolwork. Night fell, and the entire mansion was cool and quiet. It would be easy to just slip through the silence back to her lonely, small apartment, but something held Téa back.
She wandered the hallways idly, as if waiting for something to appear; something she could do or fix, or say…
Maybe she just wanted that ‘perfect opportunity’ to present itself, so she’d no longer be left with sleepless nights, wondering if her feelings would ever take her anywhere.
“Kaiba? Hey, Kaiba are you—” Téa hesitantly pushed the flat of her hand against the heavy door separating Seto Kaiba’s office from the cool foyer of the rest of the Kaiba household. It was late at night, but Kaiba was a workaholic if Téa ever knew one.
But this night, to her surprise, Seto was not seated, eyes wide and staring at a blinking computer screen. Rather, his lanky form was spread out haphazardly on the nearby couch, a thick book resting face-down on his chest, his hand still fixed to the binding.
“Asleep?” Téa murmured breathlessly. “I guess that’s a yes,” she finished with a whisper.
She’d never seen him asleep before.
He looked so…calm.
This wasn’t the same young man who fought passionately and fiercely in each of his duels (even though Téa suspected that in their duel, he’d let her win for some bizarre reason), the same man that argued daily with corporate executives and employees, or even the classmate, the acquaintance, the—dare she think it?—friend who walked into every situation prepared, determined, and ready to come out victorious.
The way he was sprawled out on the couch, one would never guess that he was so intimidating during his waking hours, or that he was the cause of so many strange emotions for Téa. As he was, he seemed so…ordinary.
A relaxed face, with brown bangs falling into closed eyes…he slept peacefully, his breathing even, and his face calm and neutral. Nightmares wouldn’t haunt his sleep. Nothing ever conquered Seto Kaiba…
‘I still envy him, I guess,’ Téa realized, tilting her head as she examined Seto Kaiba. There’d never be another chance like this—never again. She was sure of it.
And yet, there didn’t seem to be anything pressing on her mind. She just wanted to be there, and stay with him.
Maybe asleep, she could admit what she couldn’t say at any other time. Maybe without needing to worry about his reaction, his response, or his feelings (or perhaps lack thereof), she could just…tell him.
“I want to thank you, Seto,” Téa began in a hushed voice, just above a whisper. It still felt strange, calling him ‘Kaiba,’ even though she’d only started calling her employer by his given name some months ago. But in that span of time, their relationship changed so permanently that anything else—a reversion to her old ways, of calling him by that hated last name, that family name that meant nothing to him—seemed wrong.
“For everything you’ve done. Sometimes it’s been tough,” Téa winced, remembering that particularly painful night after Seto got released from jail, “but we’re both so much stronger because of it. During the hardest time in my life, you were there for me. I never…ever would have imagined that. That I would grow to…feel this way about you.”
He remained sleeping. His breath was warm, as Téa discovered in mute embarrassment as she leaned over his face to brush a few stray bangs aside. Worry lines vaguely creased his forehead, sure to become deeper as the years passed—if Seto Kaiba didn’t change his daily regimen of stress and overworking himself.
“We’re both crazy, you know that?” Téa sighed, flopping down on the floor beside the couch, her hand still running through Kaiba’s hair. It was surprisingly soft and fine, but it had a warm, almost spicy scent to it that coiled in the air about Téa, refusing to let her senses go. To her surprise, Kaiba made a slight noise—of agreement, maybe? It was half a moan and a sleepy murmur, but one that snapped Téa from her reverie. Sliding her hand away from his face, she realized Kaiba still slept—but even so, her heart was thundering in her chest.
‘See what you do to me? No, you can’t see, even when your eyes are open. You miss the way I look at you, and how red my cheeks get. You miss how messed up I sound whenever I talk about you, or talk to you. Maybe you don’t want to see anymore, because I cause you so much trouble, but maybe, just for one moment, you could see only me, and realize…’
What a selfish thought.
No, there was a reason that couldn’t be together—a reason why neither of them could breach that barrier between them.
Other priorities…other dreams.
But, if somehow, someway, that changed in the next week, then maybe Téa would have a reason to stay. Beyond her friends and finishing high school, she’d have a reason not to run away, but to face a new challenge head-on, and to…
‘Learn to love again, maybe?’
But until then, Kaiba still slept. Téa smiled at him, her body warm and her cheeks a vague pink hue. He’d never see her face like that when he was awake, but…who knew what Seto Kaiba dreamt?
Téa tugged the knit blanket draped over the back of the couch across Seto Kaiba’s frame, up to his hand. Téa bent down and gently removed the book from Kaiba’s hand, careful to bookmark the page he was on before setting it aside on a nearby end table. It was quiet and warm in the office, and Téa supposed that it was more of a sanctuary for Seto than his own bedroom could ever be. And if he could truly find rest and relaxation in that office, then she wouldn’t take that away from him.
“Good night, Seto,” Téa whispered, pressing her lips to Seto’s forehead. Moments later, she stepped away from him, willing the ache in her chest to subside. She took one last lingering glance at the sleeping Kaiba before flicking the light in the office out, closing the door with a gentle click.
He awoke from his haze, everything seeming a blur of gray and blue. It was startlingly warm, and the scenery around him seemed distorted.
He was in his office again, and this time, he’d fallen asleep on the couch. But Seto Kaiba didn’t remember pulling the blanket up against him, nor did he recall placing his book off to the side, neatly bookmarking the page he’d left off on while he read.
But he did remember his dream.
“You were too weak to do what was necessary to win, Yugi! You’re pathetic!”
He’d won the duel. That adrenaline rush that only accompanied sheer victory flowed through him, and for an instant, Seto Kaiba was the champion once more. But then, she turned on him, and reality slammed Seto Kaiba back into the ground—hard.
‘She’ was Téa Gardner—a girl of little to no consequence, really. She was just another one of Yugi’s pathetic sidekicks, and one of the mutt’s companions. Another unimportant face and whining voice in a crowd of losers and nobodies.
“You’re wrong, Kaiba! You’re the one that planned to give up the most important card—your life! You’ve spent so much time around all your machines, you’ve forgotten what it means to be human! You don’t even have enough courage to face yourself, but at least Yugi won the duel that mattered—the fight to protect you from yourself!”
For the first time, Seto Kaiba noticed Téa Gardner. It wasn’t just her loud mouth and biting words, but the fierce determination in her eyes. A brilliant blue, he realized, sharply contrasting against the oranges and pinks of the setting sun. Were he another person, in another time and place, he might have found her beautiful.
But now wasn’t the time for fanciful thoughts or idiocy.
He had to save Mokuba, and that was all that mattered.
“At the end of the day, what do you have? Tell me!”
“I have all that I need.”
The words spilled from his lips before he even put any real thought behind them; after he’d spoken, he took one last glance at Téa—the lone person in their whole group that dared to talk back to him, that dared to challenge him and his loyalties. For an instant, she may have seen the doubt and fear in his eyes. But he quickly hid it, turning away while a brisk breeze whipped up the tails of his trench coat.
It was now or never—he had to save Mokuba.
He was all that Seto needed. He was all that Seto had left.
Kaiba woke up with a start, his breathing suddenly sharp and loud in the otherwise silent office. His dream faded, but the images—and her voice—remained clear in Seto’s mind. He rose from the couch tiredly, but his mind was buzzing away, snapping with ideas.
He still hadn’t come up with a birthday present idea for Téa…until now.
Fleeting images from different times—always focusing back on those eyes. He didn’t recall staring at her too intently, and yet each image in his head seemed as clear as day, as though Téa stood right before him. Always her eyes, drawing him ever closer…
What was it about her, anyway?
None of it made any sense.
But then, was it really supposed to?
Wasn’t confusion part of the so-called ‘normal’ teenage life? The life that he’d never thought he’d live?
Kaiba stumbled over to his computer, hardly aware of the minutes passing after he booted the system up. Somehow, he felt as though he were locked in a trance, clicking through various windows and typing at various command prompts. And before he knew it, he was back there.
A smile—not a smirk—crept its way onto Seto Kaiba’s face, and he allowed himself a single whisper, breaking the stillness of the night.
“Why are you pacing, Téa?” Mokuba asked curiously, shifting a pillow around in his lap. He was glad Téa didn’t mind him being there, but he’d been counting on Seto holing himself up in his office all day.
Still, Seto was acting rather odd lately…
And Mokuba could probably guess why.
“I–I guess I’m just nervous, Mokuba,” Téa explained in a breathless whisper. Her birthday finally arrived, and she’d come no closer to confessing or realizing her feelings for Seto than she had weeks or months before. It was still entirely possible to take all that money and just leave—the very next day. Or next week, or…
She had plenty of perfectly good reasons not to leave Japan, and they were on their way to the Kaiba Mansion at that very moment.
“But why? Don’t Yugi and the others know you’ve been staying with us?”
Téa cast Mokuba a sheepish grin; it told him everything despite the fact that Téa didn’t speak immediately. “Yugi does,” Téa admitted. “And so do Mai and Serenity. But I don’t think Joey, Duke, and Tristan do, and something tells me they won’t be too happy…”
“Well, it’s your birthday,” Mokuba pointed out reasonably, finally bouncing off the couch and setting the pillow aside once more, “so they should be thinking about your happiness first.”
Téa couldn’t help but smile. How was it that Seto and Mokuba were related? Sometimes the two brothers seemed as different as day and night. Mokuba was such a sweet kid.
There was a part of Téa that hoped that things would somehow go smoothly.
That Tristan, Joey, and Duke would all understand—at least a little—where her feelings came from, and how hard it was for her to both realize and eventually accept them. She’d fought them for so long, and now…she was determined to see them through. If her friends could accept her feelings for Kaiba, then maybe Kaiba would as well. Maybe there wouldn’t have to be any more awkward moments or stretches of silence.
Maybe he could just look in her eyes and know. He’d know, the same way Téa always knew when she looked in his eyes, with the way his intense gaze, whenever it was locked on hers, brought a warm tingle rushing through her veins.
So many maybes…everything was up to chance.
Moments later, the doorbell rang.
Téa sucked in a deep breath, smoothing her glittering top and adjusting the satin ribbon straps.
“Are ya sure this it it?” Joey asked for the umpteenth time, still gawking at the massive size of the mansion. So this was where Téa lived with her employer, huh? Joey vaguely wondered if they’d finally meet the guy. He also wondered who else was there—Yugi was usually pretty punctual, but if he’d gotten stuck with helping Duke and Tristan with directions, then he might be late.
And Serenity was coming from farther away, so…
“Positive,” Mai responded flatly, rolling her eyes. As if there was any doubt in her mind where Seto Kaiba lived. As if the wrought-iron gate engraved with a large “K” hadn’t given it away?
“Joey, is that you?”
Joey turned to the sound of Yugi’s voice, abruptly removing his arm from around Mai’s waist. Mai frowned just a little; she missed the warmth and strength of Joey’s arm against her back.
‘How idiotic. I’m growing dependent on him.’
But after years of self-sustenance, would that be such a bad thing? Maybe after all this time, she could learn to trust—learn to love—again.
Maybe she could stop running away.
Regardless of how Mai felt, Duke and Tristan, accompanying Yugi, immediately noticed that Joey had been holding the lone female among them, and they both shot Joey angry scowls. Joey only smirked, his hand sliding down to grasp Mai’s.
“So, big place,” Duke finally commented. He had an odd feeling about all this, but…there was still that old suspicion, from the back of his mind. From so many months ago. Was it possible?
“You’re tellin’ me. I’m surprised we didn’t have to deal with a security guard or a pack of dogs as we got in here,” Tristan mumbled, running a hand through his gelled hair. He looked about abruptly, as if looking for said dogs, but there were none to be found. In fact, the entire expanse of the front lawn seemed abandoned—filled with all the usuals a rich businessman would have: thick, thorny hedges, bright rosebushes, elegant wooden benches, stone fountains spurting cool, clear water, and ivy creeping up the sides of the mansion.
Téa was certainly lucky to live in a place like that, even after all she’d been through.
“I think her employer was okay with us coming,” Yugi stated softly, his eyes briefly straying to meet Mai’s. She was the only other one that knew.
“Well, are we going to ring the doorbell, or what?” Mai interrupted the uncomfortable silence.
“Let me!” a voice called out. Serenity jogged up the stone pathway, her grin widening as she spotted her brother and Mai’s hands linked together. Though she’d been a bit wary of Mai, hearing that she’d been bartending at the very club where Téa got repeatedly drunk, Serenity still remembered how strong, powerful, and dedicated woman Mai was. Memories of Battle City would never leave Serenity—not as long as she lived.
And besides, she wished her brother all the happiness in the world, and if Mai could bring him that happiness, then all the better.
“Serenity!” Tristan and Duke chorused at the same time. Serenity shot them both a sweet smile, but trotted up to her brother and Mai, grinning widely.
“Cute,” she finally murmured, her gaze purposefully straying to Mai and Joey’s joined hands. Joey flushed bright red and tried to wrench his hand from Mai’s, but this time, she wouldn’t let him go.
“Stop being such a chicken, Joey.”
Joey flushed, sulking even as his sister stepped forward and rang the doorbell.
The door opened moments later, Téa standing before them with a nervous smile on her face. Her cheeks were already flushed a light red, no doubt from the makeup she’d applied. It was rare to see Téa so dressed up, but after DV8, Joey was no stranger to the more feminine—but still tough—side of Téa.
“H-Hi guys! Come on in.”
No, too bright.
Where had he gotten that disgustingly lime green tie, anyway?
“You’re overdoing it,” a voice piped up from the corner of Seto Kaiba’s bedroom. Kaiba turned toward the sound of the voice, not at all surprised to see Mokuba there. The younger boy had abandoned his usual favorite yellow vest in favor of a solid red long-sleeved shirt with white collars and cuffs, and a pair of slacks that Kaiba was sure he hadn’t bought for Mokuba.
Kaiba tossed yet another tie off to the side and onto his bed; his room, for once in his life, looked like a disaster, with various jackets and dress-shirts scattered haphazardly over the bedspread and the chair in the corner.
“And how do you suggest I dress for Téa’s birthday, oh wise one?” Kaiba commented dryly. It was all in jest, but the nervousness in his voice was apparent, at least to Mokuba. He knew his brother better than anyone else. He knew that Kaiba wanted to look good for Téa, and his older brother didn’t know how.
Mokuba was more than reluctant to help his brother, especially if what he felt in his gut—that Téa might actually still like Seto, after everything that happened—was right.
But…he still loved his brother more than anything. And he didn’t want him to look silly in front of everyone else downstairs. The moment Téa moved to open the door, Mokuba scampered upstairs, wondering when his brother was going to make his grand appearance—and in what outfit.
The young, ebony-haired boy eyed his suit-clad brother critically. Why was his brother in a suit, anyway? He hated suits. Did he really think he had to be that stiff and formal with Téa?
“First off, ditch the jacket and the tie. It’s a birthday party, not a board meeting.”
Kaiba snorted, sliding the jacket off, and tossing the remainder of ties looped around his arm to the bed. He didn’t particularly care about hanging them back up at that exact moment. Maybe when he was 100% sure he would go downstairs, he’d put them back—methodically, and in order according to hue—just to buy him some time.
So now he stood before his full-length mirror, hanging on the door of his walk-in closet, staring at his reflection with a critical eye.
A blue dress-shirt and white dress pants. Nothing too shabby, and nothing too formal. It wasn’t a tuxedo, at least—the last thing Kaiba wanted was to stir up memories of the Ball. That and he thought he looked like a penguin in those things.
“And unbutton the first few buttons,” Mokuba said after a moment.
“Just do it,” Mokuba snapped. “Remember, birthday, not board meeting.”
Complying, Kaiba undid the first three buttons, surprised by how casual the change made him seem. It was almost…unnatural.
That and, he hadn’t yet combed his hair after his shower, so his hair almost appeared tousled—’roguish,’ as Kaiba often called Mokuba’s hair. But unlike Mokuba’s, his own hair could be easily tamed. And yet…
Maybe he’d just leave things as they were.
Maybe he’d let things take their course for once, and live in the moment. Maybe if he stopped thinking and started doing…
“Good. Now everyone’s here, so put your ties away and then come downstairs.” And with that, Mokuba vanished from Seto’s bedroom, leaving the older boy alone with his thoughts.
“Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday!” Mokuba barreled into Téa without a moment’s warning, surprising not just the birthday girl in question, but also all of her friends surrounding her.
“Mokuba!” Téa hugged the boy gratefully, wondering where he’d disappeared to when she’d let her friends inside.
“Mokuba? When’d you get here?” Joey asked curiously, surprised to see the diminutive Kaiba there. Joey was still unsure whether Téa actually invited the elder Kaiba for any sort of a birthday party, and even if she had invited him, would Kaiba have gotten over his stubbornness and agreed to go? More than that, would he have finally thought of something to get Téa?
Joey posed a trick question. Mokuba knew this might happen, given Téa’s earlier worry about the guys’ reaction to her employer’s identity and her own living quarters, so he knew the right way to answer.
“Oh, I’ve been here.”
He wasn’t lying. He wasn’t even omitting the truth.
“So, birthday girl,” Tristan grinned jovially, “where do we put your stash?”
“Better question—where do you not mind getting bruised? I believe we owe you nineteen punches…” Duke stroked his chin thoughtfully, winking at Téa with his emerald green eyes.
“Oh no guys—not punches!” she wailed, backing away with her arms crossed over her chest.
“Pinches then?” Serenity chimed in, her expression a mix of devilish and playfully innocent. Téa’s eyes widened and she shook her head vehemently, even as her friends closed in around her.
Joey actually got the first pinch in, and shortly thereafter, everyone else followed.
One step at a time.
‘Don’t fall down the stairs and crack your skull, you clown. That’d be a great birthday present for Téa.’
Kaiba scowled at his own mental voice, willing it out of his head for the time being. He kept one hand grazing the wood of the staircase banister, the other clutching the present he’d finally wrapped and labeled—’Open me last,’ echoing faintly of Téa’s own gift to him, so many months ago.
Maybe tonight he could bring that moment—that opportunity that he’d lost—back.
Maybe he could finally figure out just what it was he felt for Téa and, throwing caution to the wind, find out if there was even the slightest chance she felt the same.
He could hear their laughter—hers louder and clearer than the rest—before he even got downstairs. By the time he hit the landing, they’d see him…
Might as well announce his presence now, so as not to embarrass himself…
“Is that nineteen pinches total, or nineteen per person?”
Okay, it wasn’t exactly a formal birthday introduction, but once he’d heard Téa shrieking with laughter, and the others counting out pinches between their own chuckles, Kaiba understood what was going on. It was a childish practice, to be sure, but then, no one ever ranked Joey and the others high on the maturity scale. But such things obviously didn’t matter to Téa—she was having fun, and she was happy.
That was all that mattered—to them, and to him.
Joey Wheeler froze at the sound of the voice.
It wasn’t all that surprising that Kaiba was there—it was just where his voice had come from.
The tall, brunet duelist stood on the landing of the great marble staircase, his hand poised on the banister as if he were part of it. He stepped down the remaining stairs with an elegance and grace that could only befit someone who’d gone down that selfsame staircase hundreds—no, thousands—of times before.
Seto Kaiba wasn’t just a visitor to the mansion they were in. He was…
‘He’s her boss.’
The pieces came together. Why Kaiba had been able to ask Téa to that Ball, during that week when no one had been able to find her. Why Kaiba—of all people—suddenly seemed to know and care about Téa and what she did, what she liked, and where she went. Why Téa, of all people…seemed to care in return!
Joey turned accusing eyes on her, remembering with startling clarity her words from the Autumn Festival.
“You lied to me,” he whispered coldly.
Mai glanced at him, her eyes widening as she realized the depth of the rage in Joey’s eyes. He remembered her words—how she’d told him that Téa would never like a guy like Kaiba, and that she didn’t live with him of all people. At the time, Mai thought she’d been lying to save her friend, but now…
Now, when Téa wanted to come clean—not just to herself, but to all her friends, to ask for acceptance and understanding of her confusing feelings—the past came back to haunt Mai. And now it was biting her in the ass.
“Joey, it’s not—”
Joey didn’t give Mai the chance to explain. With one firm yank, he dragged Mai by the wrist from the living room area, through the foyer and around the corner to the kitchen—where a glass door led out to the patio. Joey hadn’t even known the place existed; he just acted on a whim. He needed to get this out—he needed to talk to her, and now.
He slammed the door between the patio and the kitchen shut, his hand still tight around Mai’s wrist. Barely a second passed before he started yelling.
“Why didn’t you tell me after all this time that you knew? I was so freakin’ worried—”
Téa winced, dropping her gaze from Mai and Joey to the floor. Joey’s shouts were muffled, but the loudness and tone of his voice could be heard through the glass nonetheless. She raised her eyes only briefly to meet Kaiba’s gaze, amazingly calmed by his presence.
“T-Thanks,” Téa whispered hollowly as Kaiba handed her his present. Her gaze warmed some as she read the words on the box, written in Kaiba’s meticulous handwriting.
“Happy birthday,” he whispered, bending down so that his breath grazed her ear, his voice just loud enough for her to hear.
Her eyes turned to meet his in that second, and a flash of something happened—maybe the simultaneous realization that they both felt something.
Minutes later, Mai emerged from the patio, alone. Her cheeks were flushed—though from tears or anger, no one could tell. She walked straight to Téa, removing something from her violet denim jacket and handing it to Téa before she gripped the younger girl by the shoulders.
“I’ve gotta go, Téa.”
“But Mai—” Téa protested, grasping the rectangular case in her hands.
“No buts. This isn’t running away, this is me doing what I have to do. And you’re going to do what you have to do, okay?”
Not just ‘have’ to do…but ‘want’ to do.
She’d wanted to tell Seto for so long.
“Okay, Mai. T-Thanks. For everything, really.”
“Anytime, sugar. Anytime.”
Mai swept out of the Kaiba household without a second glance at anyone, least of all the still-flushed and heaving Joey standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the patio. His gaze remained trained on Mai even after she arrived at the front door and shut it behind her.
After that, it was difficult revitalizing the mood to the party—but with Mokuba’s introduction of a buffet-style table of snacks and Kaiba’s sweeping introduction of the living room, complete with wide-screen plasma television and superior sound system, people started to perk up a bit. Joey was still oddly reclusive, unwilling to say anything in regards to why he’d truly been so angry at Mai, or what she’d said back to him.
His foul mood unfortunately rubbed off on Serenity, who’d been so pleased to see her brother and Mai finally together. And with Serenity unhappy, Tristan and Duke weren’t far behind. However, Serenity, like Téa and Mai prior to her leaving, put on a brave front, and refused to let her brother’s grouchy attitude drag down her fun or Téa’s celebration for very long.
Téa had opened Mai’s gift minutes after the older girl left, surprised to see that it appeared to be a very thick Duel Monsters card. When she turned it over, she was surprised to see that it wasn’t really a Duel Monsters card, but a makeup kit designed to look like one of Téa’s favorite creatures—the Dancing Fairy. And even more surprising was the logo in the corner: that of Industrial Illusions.
“Since I own sixty percent of the shares in the company, Pegasus’s old manufacturing team asked me to come in and give them some input on new products. I thought this one would attract more female duelists,” Yugi explained, grinning slightly. He felt a bit embarrassed that he’d come up with the idea for a Duel Monsters makeup kit, but the idea had taken off so well with test groups that Yugi hoped his best friend—and Téa, the best female duelist, in Yugi’s opinion—would enjoy it as well.
“It’s beautiful, Yugi. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me,” Yugi grinned sheepishly. “Thank Mai when you see her again.”
“Right,” Téa breathed. “I will.”
“Hey, Kaiba, do you have a DVD player?” Yugi queried, breaking the silence that abruptly filled the room. He too, felt guilty that Joey hadn’t realized the truth sooner; after all, Téa told him the truth first. But Yugi knew that if he’d told the others, it would have been a breach of trust between him and Téa, and he just couldn’t do that to her.
“Of course. Why?”
Yugi only grinned, grabbing one of his gifts—perfectly wrapped in bright, striped paper—to Téa. “Open it now. It’s more of an interactive birthday present.”
Téa glanced at her best friend in confusion, carefully peeling off the tape and the wrapping paper. Her eyes widened with surprise when she saw the face on the cover of the DVD box—her own! The video was labeled ‘Dancing Queen: Highlights from the life of Téa Gardner.’ Yugi took the box from Téa and pulled the glittering DVD from its case, inserting it into the player that Kaiba specified. As the video came to life and a recorded Téa danced across the screen, the birthday girl’s face flushed crimson.
“Oh Yugi…you didn’t,” Téa mumbled, pressing her hands to her face. Yugi only grinned broadly, looking decidedly proud of himself for something that appeared to be embarrassing Téa so badly.
“I can’t watch this…” Téa skittered out of the room and around the corner, much to her friends’ amusement; Yugi turned back to the wide screen television that his DVD played on, pressing a few controls on the remote. Kaiba smirked as still portraits of Téa flashed across the screen, the final one causing his breath to hitch in his throat. Yugi zoomed through several menus, the current one reading ‘Téa, Songstress Extraordinaire.’ And off to the side of that menu, Téa smiled, wearing a tight blue shirt that opened into a v-shape at her stomach, loose ruffles falling off to the side, along with a short, black lace skirt and high, leather boots.
Meanwhile, Téa peered down at the proceedings from the corner separating the entryway from the kitchen area, near Kaiba’s office. She was still in shock that her friends went to such efforts for her birthday—first a gorgeous and exclusive Dancing Fairy card and makeup set from Mai, and from Yugi, a DVD all about her, complete with recordings of her old recitals and performances.
Including one even she hadn’t remembered until now…
“You’re so going to regret putting that on the DVD, Yugi,” Téa murmured under her breath. Still, she smiled. She’d make it worth their while. She quietly rounded the corner out to the complex where she lived, dashing to her apartment as soon as she was outside.
“What is this, anyway?” Kaiba asked curiously, though his eyes remained transfixed on the image of Téa on the menu.
“Do you know that game, Final Fantasy X-2?” Yugi grinned. “When it came out, Square-Enix had this huge celebration thing, and lots of people dressed up as characters from the original game. Since there’d been pre-releases of the new characters, along with the main character’s new outfits, Téa dressed up as her—Yuna.” Yugi gestured to the artwork on the opposite side of the screen as Téa—a computer generated character with short brown hair that flipped out in different directions, with a long ponytail wrapped in pink flowing from the base of her skull. Like Téa, she wore a tight blue shirt parted at the stomach, lighter blue ruffles spilling off to the side and over a black, lacy skirt.
“Otherwise known as Miss Hotpants,” Joey snarked, obviously aware of another outfit of Yuna’s that Kaiba couldn’t see.
“Anyway,” Yugi continued, shooting Joey a lopsided grin, “a bunch of the fans put on performances throughout the event. Téa was one of the gutsy ones, and she volunteered to sing and dance to an entire song. She got the attention of the execs and the original singer, Kumi Koda, while she was there. Later on, the Square execs actually asked her to do a performance alongside Kumi Koda for everybody.”
Kaiba couldn’t mask his surprise; he’d always known Téa loved dance, but she was modest in the respect that she never bragged or made it sound as though she’d made it big anywhere. Yet dancing in front of thousands of people alongside a pop superstar, for the release of one of the biggest console games in history…well, she obviously had more experience dancing on stage than she’d let on.
Pressing Play, Yugi smirked, urging everyone to face the screen.
A loud clapping erupted, the audience cheering in intervals. The stage was dimly lit with frosted blue lights, a gigantic screen behind it showing a full motion video from the game’s introduction. A spiraling camera view revealed thousands of video game audience members clapping wildly, staring at a large, circular opening in the stage. The same held true for the stage where the game debut convention was being held. On screen, guitarists on flying platforms and lights on whirling paths moved around the stage, creating a wider and brighter circle of light until the stage was lit, glowing from the very center as a shadow moved forward.
Bright stage lights illuminated the actual stage, and Téa stood in the center, a slender shadow draped in blues and black.
“What can I do for you?” sounded, a large, echoing cry. The instrumentals started up shortly thereafter, the guitarists satisfied with their tuning and the audience ready to go. People cheered, some of them shouting out a countdown. Téa marched forward, swinging her hips and throwing her arms out to the sides, while the onscreen Yuna transformed from a summoner into a songstress.
With everyone’s eyes riveted on the screen, no one noticed the real Téa re-enter the household, a wide grin crossing her lips. Rather than the cute sparkling top and stretchy stirrups she’d worn earlier, she now wore her Songstress Yuna costume—something she hadn’t donned in a long while. She’d made the outfit herself, and if the people at the debut convention for the game were any indication, she’d done a darn good job on it. She even modified a pair of leather boots to match Yuna’s, cutting them to have the same curled pattern as the character’s, dyeing the inner layer a lighter shade of brown. It had been a frustrating, messy experience, especially since she’d kept it from her parents the entiretime, but the smiles and cheers from her fellow fans had been worth it.
Just as the countdown finished, Téa grinned, twirling her microphone.
“What can I do for you? What can I do for you? What can I do for you? What can I do for you? I can hear you! What can I do for you? What can I do for you? What can I do for you?”
Everyone turned astonished eyes on Téa as she danced into the room, the ruffles of her shirt flaring open and cascading down the side of her hips.
“Far beyond the hazy borders of my heart, I could see a place that’s something like this. Every now and then I don’t know what to do; still I know that I can never go back! All the things I’ve seen in those hazy dreams can’t compare to what I’m seeing now…everything’s so different, that it brings me to my knees!”
Téa danced exactly like Yuna from the video, obviously having watched the sequence enough to turn the clipped sequence into a fully choreographed dance of her own. And of course, for the gaps where Yuna wasn’t shown in the video, Téa improvised, shifting her hands around and bending her knees into a drop, mimicking the lyrics of the song.
“And though I know the world of real emotion has surrounded me, I won’t give in to it! Now, I know that forward is the only way my heart can go; I hear your voice calling out to me: ‘You’ll never be alone’!”
She knew all their eyes were on her; that was the point. She danced beside the television so they could still watch, but nonetheless, most of them still watched the live version of her performance, rather than the DVD gift Yugi compiled for her.
Serenity grinned widely as the music lead into the chorus again, skipping forward to dance alongside Téa, much to Joey’s chagrin. However, Téa appreciated the accompaniment; she could feel Kaiba’s eyes on her before everyone else’s, and for the first time in a long while, she felt decidedly self-conscious about dancing. But…she was having fun. And that was what counted.
“What can I do for you? What can I do for you? What can I do for you? What can I do for you? I can hear you!” Téa and Serenity both leaned over the microphone, grinning widely as they sang the chorus together, both of them still moving to the beat.
The two girls split apart, Serenity to the right of the television while Téa in her costume moved towards the left, careful as she moved her microphone not to knock anything over. It wasn’t really hooked into anything, but it was part of the costume, and did manage to echo her voice in the large living room.
“And if I find the real world of emotion has surrounded me, and I can’t go on, you are there the moment that I close my eyes to comfort me. We are connected for all of time; I’ll never be…And though I know the world of real emotion has surrounded me, I won’t give in to it! Now, I know that forward is the only way my heart can go. I hear your voice calling out to me: ‘You’ll never be alone’!”
Yugi couldn’t help from grinning; he’d been there at the original performance when Téa first publicly did her Yuna performance, and now he got to see the dance a second time. No matter what anyone said, Yugi was sure she’d succeed in her dream—she’d become a famous dancer, even more fabulous than she already was (and of course, in Yugi’s mind, that was already pretty fabulous).
That and, the expression on Kaiba’s face was priceless.
“What can I do for you? What can I do for you? What can I do for you? I can hear you! I can hear you!” The girls finished off with a sweeping pose, Téa bowing while the DVD switched back to its menu mode. Yugi, Tristan, and Duke were all applauding enthusiastically, while Serenity giggled alongside her slightly-smiling brother. It was obvious that Joey remained troubled by what happened between him and Mai, but he wasn’t about to run out on one of his best friend’s birthday parties, even if her living with Kaiba came as a complete shock.
But then, why hadn’t he seen it sooner?
No wonder why Kaiba was so slack-jawed. He saw Téa all the time, but…everything was always different when you were in love.
Joey knew that feeling only too well. The only problem was, he was afraid of losing it—this time, for good.
“Happy Birthday, Téa!” her friends called out in unison, now that the party came to a close. It was well after ten o’clock already, and everyone had to get going home—they did, after all, have school the next day.
“Thanks guys. Really, I—it means a lot. Thank you.” Téa smiled genuinely at her friends, her gaze drifting to each one of them. She surprised Duke and Tristan by hugging them both tightly. The two of them flushed when they spotted Serenity’s raised eyebrow and slight smirk, the redhead standing just behind Téa in the doorway of the Kaiba mansion.
“Your top kinda itches,” Tristan finally mumbled as an excuse, referring to Téa’s glittering top, which she’d since changed back into after her ‘performance.’ She’d enjoyed opening the rest of her gifts—though Kaiba had yet to ‘allow her’ to open his present, if he ever would (Téa remembered her own anxiety from Kaiba’s birthday months before)—and eating pizza and cake as a treat. Even more surprising, Kaiba paid for all the food without even giving Téa the opportunity to protest, something which apparently raised his status in the other boys’ eyes.
But it wasn’t the same without Mai there.
Téa couldn’t help but feel immensely guilty about the whole situation; Joey was moody, and Mai had gotten so fed up that she left.
‘If I’d just told everyone the truth from the beginning, maybe it wouldn’t have happened at all.’
But of course, hindsight was 20/20. There was nothing to be done about it at all.
It was even too late to wish…she’d blown out the candles on her cake, selfishly wishing for a better year, and a less bumpy future. She wanted things to start working out for her—for once. No more soul-snatching, Millennium Item-stealing, monster-resurrecting enemies. No more heartache, no more death. Just…normal, high-school life. Was that too much to ask? For only a while longer…
Téa finally let go of Duke and Tristan, and glanced at Joey. He was doing a good job at masking his feelings, but Téa knew him better.
He wanted to find Mai, and fix things with her. Even if he was upset with Mai, Téa could see what she’d refused to find in her own eyes and heart: they were in love. That was all there was to it, where Joey and Mai were concerned. If it hadn’t been obvious enough during Battle City, it sure as hell was now.
Funny how things worked out like that.
“Joey,” Téa smiled, poking her friend hard in the shoulder before hugging him tightly. Joey gasped, taken by surprise more than anything else, even as Téa squeezed him as tightly as she possibly could.
“Téa, you got one hell of a grip, you know that?” Joey choked out, grinning lopsidedly.
“I know. But I learned from the masters,” Téa pulled back, sticking her hand out to Joey. He took it unsurely, wondering why Téa would randomly want to shake his hand. Instead of do that, Téa yanked Joey forward into a proper hug yet again, keeping their hands clasped between them. “Promise me something,” she whispered in his ear. “Promise me you’ll find her, you’ll forgive her, and you’ll be happy, Joey. It’s one thing for me to angst over not getting the love I want, but you’re a go-getter, and a duelist at that. Don’t let this be a losing duel.”
Shocked into silence, Joey simply stared at Téa, looking quite the part of a landed fish. She backed away from him, removing her warm hand from his grasp as she stepped back into the Kaiba mansion—her home. It still didn’t filter right through Joey’s system, though it did explain a lot of things.
And it left more questions in their wake, waiting to be answered…some day.
But in the meanwhile…there was Mai.
“T-Thanks, Téa. I promise.”
And then he skittered after Duke and Tristan, leaving Téa and Yugi as the only ones on the doorstep. Truthfully, Téa thought Yugi had already left, and wanted to avoid any more weird encounters, so when he appeared from behind one of the pillars supporting the entryway, her breath caught in her throat. Mainly because it wasn’t Yugi, her best friend, but his other half—Yami.
It had been so long…and now he was here. For real.
“I wanted a chance to…convey my happiness for you, Téa.”
His voice still brought a warm shudder down her spine, but it simply wasn’t the same as before. Her heart wasn’t racing, her skin wasn’t flushing…but he was still Yami. He was still the Pharaoh.
Kaiba, entirely unaware of Téa’s thoughts regarding his rival, stiffened beside the doorway. He noted the abrupt change in the octave level of Yugi’s voice; the sudden alteration in vocabulary. While Yugi might have said something a great deal more simplistic (something mundane—something like, oh, “Happy Birthday,” maybe?), the High and Mighty Pharaoh had to “convey his happiness.”
A jealousy much stronger than that like he’d felt seeing Téa dance with Bakura boiled under Seto Kaiba’s skin, very little restraining him from going out there and bodily snatching Téa away from Yami. But then, Mokuba was staring at him—and glancing out at Yami and Téa, on the front porch. It wasn’t as though either of the Kaiba brothers were spying on the two; Téa was saying goodbye to her friends and had left the door open. But still, neither Seto nor Mokuba stared directly at Téa and Yami, both of them looking entirely nonchalant about their “accidental eavesdropping.”
“T-Thank you, Yugi…” Téa fumbled. She still called him Yugi even though she knew that another mind, another soul resided where her best friend normally stood. It was more familiar that way, more reassuring that he who stood before her really wasn’t some ancient, all-powerful pharaoh.
Pharaohs didn’t exist anymore.
Téa knew what happened to all the Pharaohs…
It was probably too much to hope for, Yugi realized within himself, that she might hug him. He couldn’t force Yami to make the move either, for Yami was fully aware of Yugi’s thoughts and feelings, most especially as of late. But what remained a mystery was how Yami felt towards Téa—if he felt anything at all.
Téa stared at her feet, more out of nervousness and embarrassment than anything else. What could she possibly say to the person that, for so long, occupied her every thought, every feeling, every heartbeat? And now, he just…was there. Before her, as if expecting something…
That was when he swept her into his arms without any warning whatsoever, or any words spoken. Yami pushed her away, his hands on her shoulders, before Téa could even think to say or do anything, nodding politely at her, his gaze averted.
And she stood there, her hand raised in a timid, half-wave, her fingers barely moving.
When she finally stepped inside, the expression on her face remained dazed; it took Mokuba’s squeal of “Okay, time for my present” and the sound of him bounding up the stairs to snap her out of her reverie. She glanced up at Kaiba, who stared at her mutely, examining her face for some sort of reaction to Yami’s abrupt hug. Above all else, the one thing he recognized in her eyes was confusion.
He’d seen that same look reflected in the mirror, in his own eyes…
“Here,” Mokuba thrust a hastily-wrapped box (with the comic book section of one of the local newspapers, no less) into Téa’s hands, having returned from his room with his secret gift for her. He waited for Téa to open it, his eyes aglow with eagerness. Téa carefully opened the rectangular, nearly flat box—she suspected a book or something similar, perhaps a handmade picture frame like Seto received on his birthday. Of course, Téa didn’t exactly want to remember that night…
Téa’s lips curled into a bright, happy smile, and without even showing the contents of the brilliant blue box to the more-than-curious Seto, she reached over and enveloped the younger Kaiba in a tight bear hug. The boy returned it joyfully, his cheeks turning a bright crimson—but he obviously didn’t care, pressed up against Téa the way he was. When Seto finally got a good look at the gift, he forced his own face to disguise his surprise.
It was a thick, heavy book—hardback, and undoubtedly expensive, even for Mokuba. And not just any book, but a rare, out-of-print book of ballet-themed woodcuts and prints, the scarlet cover embossed with gold leaf and silver trim.
“It’s so beautiful…thank you so much Mokuba!”
The trio stared at the book for several minutes, Téa carefully separating the thicker colored pages from the thin parchment paper that protected them. Some of the pages were worn at the edges, with faint aging stains, but for its apparent age, the book was in very good condition.
But Kaiba couldn’t keep his gaze on the book. Even if he was a tad bit jealous—he’d never say it. The same held true for everyone else’s gifts from earlier—from Mai’s Dancing Fairy-themed makeup set to Yugi’s DVD…even the mutt got Téa something, though judging from Téa’s reaction, it was too embarrassing to show to Kaiba.
Kaiba’s gaze strayed to the gift-wrapped box he’d put his own gift in, the words ‘open me last’ writing on the top. He stared at that and…her.
Téa and her slender form, her bright eyes, her flushed cheeks…
“Mokuba, I think it’s about time you went to bed,” Seto finally said. It was probably wrong of him on so many levels to be doing this, but he’d waited long enough. If ever opportunity knocked on his door, now was the time.
Mokuba glanced from Seto to Téa, his gaze almost sad.
Téa finally nodded in agreement with the elder Kaiba, the gesture practically breaking Mokuba’s heart.
“Your brother’s right, Mokuba. You’ve got school pretty early tomorrow, so you should get some sleep.”
Somehow, Mokuba doubted that was the only reason why they wanted him to go away.
Big Brother just didn’t see. He didn’t understand.
Mokuba wheeled away, his face screwing up into a frown before either Seto or Téa could see. He couldn’t stand to cry in front of Téa…
‘You don’t deserve her, Big Brother! You really don’t!’
After that, Mokuba dashed up the stairs, slamming the door to his bedroom once he got there.
Kaiba realized what was going on; he’d gone and upset Mokuba again. He’d seen it before, at the festival—Mokuba liked Téa. His younger brother, having feelings for a girl? Somehow it sounded silly. Kaiba was the older one, the supposedly wiser and more mature one. And yet he was the one constantly plagued by confusing thoughts and feelings for Téa, while Mokuba, child that he was, seemed to have everything perfectly sorted out.
He liked Téa, and that was that.
Why couldn’t things be so simple for Seto, too?
He was reluctant to just let Mokuba leave like that, knowing that the smaller boy’s feelings were hurt, but…then there was Téa. And an opportunity that would never present itself again. Somehow…he was sure of it.
‘Forgive me, Mokuba,’ Seto thought, swallowing hard.
What could he possibly say or do? There was a myriad of possibilities, ranging from the typical—”Here.”—to the insane: kissing her before even handing her the present. Crazy ideas and questions wafted through his mind, and for once, the silence grew to an unbearable level…
“Are you leaving?” Kaiba blurted.
“Are you leaving?” Kaiba repeated, forcing himself to slow down and not sound so…desperate. But it was the truth. He was desperate to know if this was his last chance. Even if it wasn’t, he’d wasted too much time already, and he just wanted to tell her that he—
“I–I don’t know.” Téa shifted uncomfortably in her seat, her gaze drifting off to the side. “Remember in that video we watched? Well, my parents left me more than a lump sum. They left me a fortune, Kaiba. And I—To be honest, I really thought I was going to pack up and leave, once and for all. But…I can’t just drop and leaving everything I have here. I have to at least finish high school.”
It was true. She’d thought about it—on and off—since deciding once and for all to just do something about her feelings for Kaiba, and make an opportunity for herself, rather than waiting for one to arrive. She’d thought of what she could do once she turned eighteen—of where she could go. But the prospect of being alone and away from the safety and care of her friends frightened her more than she’d ever thought possible.
Finally, she’d made up her mind: not to leave Japan until she’d finished high school, but to still act on her long-pent up feelings. She’d waited long enough. There was still a vast realm of emotions built up within Téa’s heart—fear, longing, hope…and above all else, love. It was crazy thinking that she could possibly be in love with him—with Seto Kaiba, of all people!—but she was.
She wanted to see him smile again. She wanted that warm tingle to rush from her head to her toes. She wanted that drowsy, delirious warmth to press her eyes closed—the scent of him against her, the pressure of his lips on hers…
But it might never happen. So she had to think of other things, like finishing school.
All of a year left before that would happen.
And then what?
But Seto Kaiba didn’t even know what was going to happen one minute from now, let alone a year.
“They left you money?”
Téa nodded silently, remembering the veritable cloud of money that fell around her back at the bank. And now, all of that money was safe and secure in a metal briefcase, locked away in the farthest reaches of her tiny closet back at her apartment.
“Millions of yen,” she whispered. “I–I could really have just left any time, taken all that money and just left Japan, but…something held me back.”
Maybe she should tell him just what it was. Right here, right now.
The silence grew, permeating the air between them. She couldn’t figure out the exact words to say, and he couldn’t put his feelings into words just yet. Just a little more time…
“Here.” Kaiba handed her the last remaining gift on the coffee table—the one marked ‘open me last.’ Téa glanced from the present to Kaiba’s face, still a bit surprised. What could he have possibly gotten her?
“A photo album?” Téa asked, tearing off the wrapping paper as gently as she could. Unlike the boys, who loved to poke fun at Téa with their heart-printed or Dark Magician Girl wrapping paper (or in Joey’s case, black and red ‘cheesecake’ paper, poking fun at the long-standing ‘cabaret’ joke he had with Téa), Kaiba’s wrapping spoke volumes about him—and the fact that he rarely, if ever, gave presents.
The paper was folded so precisely, it was a wonder Téa didn’t consider the gift wrap a form of origami, what with the perfect creases and beautiful, thick and glittering wrapping paper. Swirls of gold shone off a white and light blue background of varying-size stripes. The gold swirls curled out into bold, blossoming roses with elegant leaves framing them; an endless garden of metallic color wrapped around her album.
“Open it,” Kaiba stated softly. Not quite a demand, but not entirely a request, either. She glanced up at him after he’d spoken, almost instantly regretting it. They were close again, and his eyes were so dark and serious…
The first page took her breath away. A photo she’d long forgotten about, but here, right before her eyes and hands. The single happiest time from an otherwise painful past. Battle City…during the festival. They’d all lined up in kimonos and grinned for the camera, and Kaiba had his eyes closed. It was an entirely goofy shot, but…it made remembering the time just a little bit easier. Kaiba put forth extra effort, and captioned the photo with the precise date and time, labeling it exactly as it was—’Post-Battle City festival.’
The next page had the same effect: another startling picture from her past. This time, it was her face, her expression plainly angry, though Téa stood framed by a beautiful sunset. And she was yelling at him.
This time, the caption read: ‘Duelist Kingdom. Lifesaver.’
“I didn’t really—” Téa began, but Kaiba silenced her, putting a single finger against her lips. After a moment, he moved his hand away, a warm tingling spreading up to his shoulder.
“Where’d you get this?” Téa asked instead. No one took pictures at Duelist Kingdom. It had been a scary and trying time for all of them. And the picture in question—of Téa yelling at Kaiba just after the stunt that nearly took his life and Yugi’s sanity—brought vivid memories to the fore of Téa’s mind.
“You’ve spent so much time around all your machines, you’ve forgotten what it means to be human! You don’t even have enough courage to face yourself, but at least Yugi won the duel that mattered—the fight to protect you from yourself! At the end of the day, what do you have? Tell me!”
Kaiba shook his head slightly, willing the memory of her eyes—of the first time he’d genuinely taken notice of Téa Gardner, without the slightest clue as to the impact she’d have in his life—to fade away.
“Pegasus,” he said, amazingly keeping the disdain from his voice. “I hacked into his computer mainframe before, so…”
“So you went into his security database and pulled up the old camera shots?”
Kaiba smirked slightly, nodding.
Téa shook her head in disbelief, smiling nonetheless. “You’re amazing.”
It wasn’t quite the words he’d been hoping to hear from her, but…who was he to complain about flattery?
Téa trembled slightly as she turned the pages, taking her time in examining each photo that Kaiba carefully chose. He was far from being a ‘crafty’ sort of individual, but he was often praised for his creative genius. Unsure whether to judge Téa’s quiet as a good thing or not, he remained silent at her side.
Finally, she came upon the last page—the page Kaiba had the most reservations about. It wasn’t a particularly beautiful picture, but it was one that called to him—one that meant a great deal. From the beach excursion they’d taken so long ago…just the three of them: himself, Téa, and Mokuba, sitting scrunched together. The girl who’d taken the photo insisted they sit closer to one another, until Kaiba had no choice but to casually—as best he could—drape his arm around Téa’s shoulders.
Though it had been an awkward moment, it was one that he now held dear to his heart—and he hoped that Téa felt the same way, as well.
A tiny caption, printed in Seto’s neat script, labeled the photograph.
“At the end of the day…I have all that I need,” Téa whispered, her fingers grazing over the photograph. “Oh, Seto…” her voice was choked with held-back sobs; tears dropped one by one onto the plastic-covered page of the scrapbook.
For the first time in a long while, she’d called him Seto…For a moment, Kaiba felt actual joy. He refused to let his sudden elation show, however, not knowing if Téa was just reacting to the photo or something else altogether. But he had to keep going, because this was the moment between them—alone, quiet, and perfect in almost every way—that he’d been waiting for. If he didn’t tell her now, he never would…
“I mean it, Téa. I don’t want you to leave again. It was hard enough with you gone that one week, and that was my own doing. I still feel so idiotic for that, and I—”
‘I missed you.’
He couldn’t say it. He just couldn’t.
Everything else tumbled from his lips easily, but he didn’t regret it. Not a single word. Even if it exposed him completely, even if it bared his fragmented soul, even if it made him weak…
“I can’t apologize enough for the things I said and did to you, but…” Kaiba stared at his lap, unsure of how he’d react if he met Téa’s gaze, “I truly am sorry. I didn’t know that you’d tried so hard to help me back then, and that you actually could care about someone like me. I didn’t want to believe it, but I got used to you being here, and lately, with you in the other house, it just doesn’t feel like it used to…I can’t believe I’m saying this, but around you Téa, I get incredibly confused, and…” Kaiba chose this moment to look at her, startled to find she was looking at him straight in the eye, her eyes clear and her face calm.
“And Téa, I think I want to kiss you right now…”
Unaware of the words he’d spoken until they’d spilled from his mouth, Kaiba’s eyes widened, but he couldn’t tear his gaze away from her. Téa’s own eyes widened, ever-so-slightly, her mouth curling into a gentle smile.
“Then why don’t you?”
It was a simple enough question, but one Seto Kaiba remained entirely unprepared for. He actually expected her to say something along the lines of ‘Why would I want to kiss you?’ or ‘Why would you want to do that?’ but instead—
“Because I—” Kaiba began, his gaze shifting to his lap again, but the rest of his inadequate excuse was cut off by warm lips on his. It took a moment to register that Téa was the one who took the initiative and closed the distance between them. She clambered somewhat clumsily onto his lap, kissing him with every bit of passion she could muster. As though the sun were breaking through thick rain clouds, the confusion that muddled Seto Kaiba’s mind in recent months suddenly dissipated and faded away.
Before he could respond in kind, she pulled her lips away from his, her eyes half-lidded and her cheeks flushed.
It probably wasn’t the best moment to ask anything, but Kaiba couldn’t help himself: “That wasn’t…our first kiss, was it?”
Something about her lips on his felt deliriously familiar, but…he couldn’t remember. Something nagged at the back of his mind—harsh words, fierce stares, and salty tears. And…those selfsame soft lips…
“No–no it wasn’t,” Téa whispered, allowing the arms that she’d impulsively wrapped around him to drop back to her sides. “But…you still don’t remember, do you?”
Kaiba hesitated. He couldn’t remember the words the security videos revealed him as saying. He didn’t remember how he’d felt, or what he’d done…but the sensations, fleeting and distant, remained. When her lips came into contact with his, there’d been a brief instant of familiarity…
“The Ball, right? When…after I said—”
He couldn’t repeat those words. The shock still lingered—he’d been so callous toward her.
“How can you…do that!? Pretend to be happy, or smile the way you do, after everything you’ve been through!? Have you forgotten that your parents are dead!?”
He cringed at the memory, unwilling to admit that he wanted to hold her, to kiss her back, right then and there. He didn’t deserve to, after that—no matter how much he desired it.
“Yeah,” Téa murmured. “But it didn’t count.”
“What?” He glanced up at her, more out of surprise than any other feeling, startled once more when he realized how close they were.
“And neither did that last one,” Téa murmured, reaching up to cup Kaiba’s cheek in her palm. She was warm. His eyes drifted half-closed involuntarily, relishing in the sensation of her touch. It couldn’t be real…
But it was, and suddenly she was kissing him again, and that single moment could have stretched into eternity. He hesitated to respond at first, but gradually pressed his own lips against hers, moving his head slightly to fully capture her lips under his own. In the same way Téa held his cheek in her palm, he reached up without thinking, brushing some of her hair aside and using his thumb to tilt her chin up. Her own hand slid down his face, joining her other arm wrapped around his shoulders as she pressed herself against him.
Kaiba let out a muffled moan without thinking, the warmth spreading throughout his body. A bleary darkness clouded his vision, spiraling down through him. Téa was fingering strands of his hair, still sprawled over his lap and pressed up against him, nearly every curve of her body melded with his own. More out of instinct than any real thought process, Kaiba used his free hand, guiding it down her shoulders and arms to her ribcage, just under her breasts, pressing her down onto the couch.
Téa tumbled backward easily, her hands sliding from behind Kaiba’s head to his neck, guiding his kisses. His mouth slid from her lips to her chin, dragging down until he met with her neck. His hand tilted her chin up again, giving him better access to the tender skin there. This time, it was Téa who moaned vocally, raking her hands down Kaiba’s back and arching her hips up into his. Abruptly, he stopped his fervent exploration of her neck, realizing with hazy, dark eyes just what that dark feeling curling in the pit of his stomach was.
They’d gone from something so simple to something so dangerous in a matter of minutes, and once again, everything was a confusing muddle.
“Seto, I…” Téa whispered breathily, nearly panting.
“We can’t do this,” Kaiba managed, trying his damndest just to breathe. “It’s—”
‘It’s confusing? It’s incredible? It’s…’
“It’s too soon,” Téa agreed, turning her head to the side. But she couldn’t deny her racing pulse nor her flushed skin. She’d wanted that, waited for that moment for so long…
“I need to tell you something, Seto,” Téa started, shifting to sit up. With Kaiba still lying above her, it wasn’t an easy thing to accomplish—especially given that he didn’t seem too keen on getting off her. But the slightest movement brought forth a reaction from him, and all she had to do was press up against him once more before he scrambled off her, unwilling to chance things getting too heated again.
He couldn’t face her, not when he realized that at least part of the confusing things he harbored for Téa were…were sexual in nature.
There. He’d admitted it. He wanted her—physically. At least that much was clear.
“I love you,” Téa whispered, pressing her cheek against his as her warm breath tingled on his ear.
Kaiba froze, unable to think or speak.
There. She’d said it. She’d tried to deny it, to convince herself that she didn’t love him…but it was all for naught. And now, here she was, so close to him, on the verge of something she’d wanted for a long time now…
“I—” Kaiba wasn’t one to stutter, but suddenly the moment that seemed incredibly unreal became a sharp, clear reality. She loved him. She really…loved him?
Téa waited for his response with bated breath, her mind supplying her with countless possible replies as the seconds ticked on. Maybe…after all that, he didn’t feel the same? After all this, would she really walk away with a broken heart?
“You don’t feel the same,” Téa mumbled, dejection sweeping over her. Her head dropped and she pulled away from him, scooting to the far corner of the couch and curling up into herself. It was always too much to hope for…especially where he was concerned. He was Seto Kaiba…why would he change for her?
“That’s not it,” Kaiba said, wanting to reach over to her. But if he touched her again, who knew where they’d end up? “I–I don’t know what ‘love’ is, Téa. I think—no, I know—that I feel something for you. It’s more than just this…this lust, but I…Look, love’s not the kind of thing that’s pre-packaged and sold to every person, exactly the same. It’s different for everyone, isn’t it?”
Téa nodded dumbly, trying to absorb his words and block out the hurt that threatened to flood her soul entirely.
“I feel something for you,” Kaiba repeated, reaching over and tilting her chin up slightly, “I want to find out what it is…with you.”
Téa glanced up at him, startled by the amount of emotion present in his eyes. He was being sincere.
Silence enveloped the room, only broken by the slight scuffling as Kaiba moved toward her, tentatively wrapping his arms around Téa’s relaxed form to hold her. She shifted into his embrace, leaning her head against his shoulder. Eyes, sore and red from crying, drifted shut, her breathing slowing to a relaxed pace.
The moment could have stretched on forever, the two of them just sitting in perfect silence. But Kaiba, realizing that Téa was slipping off into sleep, reluctantly broke the silence.
“We should go to bed.”
Téa shifted in his arms, loosely hugging Kaiba back. “I don’t want to leave you,” she whispered. “I’m afraid I’ll wake up tomorrow morning in that tiny room in the other complex, and none of this will be real. It’ll all be some sort of dream…”
“You don’t have to go back there,” Kaiba murmured, speaking into Téa’s hair. He couldn’t seem to hold her close enough, now that he had her in his arms. But she was right—it all seemed too surreal. He’d wake up tomorrow in another cold sweat, and…she’d look at him in that same, gentle, but unfeeling way. She’d call him ‘Kaiba,’ not Seto. She’d leave him with that same cold, confused feeling as always, and he’d wonder if maybe his life really could change…
She glanced up at him, her eyes startlingly clear and wide. Téa only needed to nod once, and then the two of them slowly rose from the couch, his arm still around her. They walked up the stairs in a haze, hardly aware of the steps they climbed until they reached the landing and found themselves outside Kaiba’s own bedroom. He bent down slightly, once again lowering his lips to hers, all while keeping his hands firm on her shoulders.
This kiss was entirely unlike the others—his desire remained restrained, his touch gentle. Téa responded in kind, her lips barely grazing against his, her hands still at her sides. One hand slid from her shoulders to the handle of his door, freezing on it for just a second before turning it, nudging the door open with his foot and guiding Téa in with a hand on her hip.
He’d waited too long for this—he wasn’t about to let it slip from his fingers, like some sort of elusive dream.
As always, Seto’s bedroom remained cool and dark, the heavy curtains barely parted to let light inside. Covered in shadows, it was close to impossible to make out either Seto or Téa’s form—so the two of them settled for each other’s touch, as Kaiba guided Téa to the bed, holding her hand gently. She tripped slightly on the edge of his carpet, dropping forward into Kaiba’s arms—and he went backward as well, half-sitting, half-lying on his bed, Téa in his embrace.
He looked up at her, surprised but quiet, his want clear only in his eyes. After a second, Téa giggled lightly, nuzzling the side of his face.
“Do you always wear your slacks to bed?”
Kaiba blinked, then smiled impishly as a devilish thought crept its way into his mind.
“That’s only because you still have my pajamas.”
It was true—in all the months Téa stayed at the mansion, she hadn’t yet given him back the blue silk pajamas he lent her the first night of her stay. He remembered that well—if only because the image of a scantily-clad, still damp Téa haunted his thoughts at the most inopportune moments.
“So you want them back, is that it?” Téa smiled, her fingers grazing his skin. He wasn’t entirely sure whether it was an involuntary reaction or not, but he smiled, ever-so-slightly.
“Okay,” Téa murmured, abruptly getting off the bed and disappearing into the darkness. Moments later, the door creaked open and Téa slipped out, the faintest of mischievous smiles curling the corners of her lips. Kaiba raised a single eyebrow, moving to the doorway to watch her even as she vanished down the stairs. He flicked the light on and dropped back onto his bed, his arms spread-eagle.
It was real. She was real.
“I love you.”
But somehow, it still felt like a dream.
By the time she’d found the nightclothes in question, Téa’s thoughts abruptly took a nosedive into naughty territory. Her rational self gave up in the fight against her less-inclined muse—the part of her that told Téa that she’d waited too long for this, and couldn’t let something like doubts and worries concern her. He wanted to be with her.
Sure, Seto couldn’t say he loved her, but…
‘If I had to take falling out of love with him one step at a time, then he’s got to take falling in love with me one step at a time. Only, he better succeed where I failed,’ Téa smiled, pulling her sparkling top off and buttoning the large pajama top on. She’d only worn it that one time, and it still smelled vaguely of Seto’s in-office closet, and of that old knit blanket draped across the living room couch.
Giggling as she slid the too-baggy pants and a pair of fuzzy blue slippers on, Téa indulged her thoughts. Who knew what would happen after tonight? But the future wasn’t hers alone to decide—she just had to go with the flow, and make her own destiny.
‘It’s my birthday, and I plan to have fun. I haven’t gone through eighteen years of drama for nothing. This–this is my reward.’
Of course, it was too soon to take that step—that one big, huge step that couldn’t be retracted or undone. And by going back to the main mansion, back to Kaiba, back to his bedroom—she was taking a chance. But it would be worth it. Confidence swept through Téa, who steeled herself by taking a deep breath. She closed the door to her small apartment, scuttling down the stairs back to the mansion.
“Miss Gardner?” a hushed voice asked. Téa turned around to face the source of the voice—Charles, who’d just stepped from his own quarters, wearing striped pajamas and a navy bathrobe, eyeing Téa with a measure of curiosity in his eyes. He puffed on a cigar, the thick, vanilla-scented smoke twisting into the cool night.
“Ssh,” Téa grinned, putting a finger to her lips. She bounced down the rest of the stairs, running back into the main mansion in Seto’s pajamas, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. Charles shook his head in dismay, muttering under his breath.
“It had to happen sooner or later…” He only needed to take one look at his employer’s window—lit up, Kaiba’s silhouette plain to see, pacing back and forth before the window.
“I just didn’t think it would be this soon…” Charles groaned, heading back into his apartment. “I certainly hope you two know what you’re getting into.”
He’d started pacing, but only because the doubt that constantly lived inside him awoke the moment Téa was gone.
Maybe she won’t come back, he thought. Maybe she thought it was funny, and it was all just some sort of joke to her. But no, it couldn’t be, Kaiba reminded himself—she’d kissed him back! Not just once, but twice! That and she’d—
Suddenly, the light flicked out, and Kaiba turned toward the doorway, startled. The slender crack that revealed the light of the hallway narrowed and finally vanished, prompting Kaiba to speak.
A soft giggle was his only answer, barely indicating where in the darkness she stood. Kaiba moved toward the sound as best he could, but a hand abruptly snaked around his collar—which admittedly, he’d fiddled with out of nervousness, the top three buttons of his shirt undone. Jerked forward, his lips suddenly met with hers—a warm, enticing feeling that, given the circumstances, was entirely surprising, and quite unlike the previous kisses he’d shared with Téa.
This time in complete control of his motor functions, Seto wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close and stumbling slowly toward his bed. It wasn’t until he was sprawled on top of her again, barely aware of anything except the warmth and softness of her body beneath his, until he realized it.
“You’re wearing them.”
Téa chuckled softly, nodding as though she were proud. “If you want them back,” she began, licking her lips in a purposefully seductive fashion, “you’ll have to take them off.”
Of course, in all his genius, Seto Kaiba could not come up with a vocal response to that. So he settled for the first thing that came to mind—kissing her mindlessly again. For the most part, this plan—the Don’t Talk, Just Kiss Her Plan—worked, up until he lost control again, and his hands found themselves at the waistband of her pants—his, really, since they belonged to him—fingers just barely grazing the soft skin of her stomach.
He could easily push the entire shirt off her, off her shoulders, and toss it to the ground. One quick motion, and those pants would be on the floor, and she’d be…
It was so deliciously tempting, and yet—!
“We can’t do this,” he murmured huskily into her neck, despite his own consciousness screaming otherwise.
“Can’t because…it’s too soon, or can’t because you don’t want to?” Téa asked, lying still and breathing shallowly.
“How can you even ask me that?” He turned his intense gaze on her, planting his hands on either side of her face. “You know I want you.”
“You want to–to—”
‘Have sex with me?’ That was the obvious answer, but somehow, she couldn’t say it. She couldn’t deny her own amorous feelings, but they were firmly rooted in a love that had grown in her heart for many months, after many trials and tribulations.
“I care for you—a lot—Téa. You know it. I just…” Seto frowned, reluctantly rolling off her and off to the side of his bed, his legs dangling onto the floor. “I don’t know what ‘love’ is. I could tell you what I’m feeling, and…it might not make any sense. It might not be what you’re feeling, or what you want me to feel. I need some more time.”
Téa exhaled loudly, willing her body to relax from the heated, tense state it had been in only moments before. “Yeah. Me too.”
Silence filled the room until Seto finally drew himself fully onto the bed, putting his arms behind his head as he stared up at the ceiling. He could feel her beside her—her weight, her warmth, her gaze. He wanted to hold her, but he didn’t know whether trying would be futile. They couldn’t lose themselves to their hormones…they were just starting to figure out what everything was about.
“Stay?” he asked her, the slightest of quavers in his voice.
“I wouldn’t dream of leaving,” she whispered moments later, turning and wrapping her arms around his waist.
Relaxing, Seto sighed, holding her in kind. Maybe for once, his dreams would finally come true.
“I can’t sleep.”
It was well after three in the morning, yet neither of the two teens—awkwardly lying beside one another in Seto’s bed—could sleep.
“I was tired, but…” Téa trailed off. The truth was, her entire being remained acutely aware of Seto beside her. It wasn’t just the weight of him on the bed beside her, but his rhythmic breathing, his radiating warmth, and his scent that surrounded her so entirely. Though she was exhausted, each and every detail—of having him beside her, of her confession being a reality—kept Téa wide awake.
“So…” she trailed off, unsure. What could she possibly say to fill in this lapse? They couldn’t just go back to what they’d been doing before.
‘Not like I’d complain about it, but…’
They weren’t ready. She didn’t even know what their relationship was—after all, Kaiba had no idea what he actually felt for her. And Téa refused to let her hormones control her and force her to act on impulse. She knew that when she took that big, point-of-no-return step—whether it was with Kaiba or not—she would be completely assured of her partner’s love for her. Téa Gardner wouldn’t be used by anyone.
“Yeah. I guess…” She swallowed, trying to think of something to say or ask. All of a sudden, something came to mind, and she blurted it without bothering to phrase her thoughts properly. “You were the one who paid for all our food at the diner—the day after my parents died. Weren’t you?”
Kaiba stared up at the ceiling, blinking in surprise as he recalled the day. Téa’d seemed oddly robotic that day, and it wasn’t until Kaiba had overheard a teacher passing on his condolences to Téa that he’d even known what had happened to her. At first, he’d thought that maybe he’d found someone he actually had something in common with—something real, something life-changing, something more important than schoolwork and card games.
He’d lost his parents as a child, and it changed everything.
And Téa, while older than he’d been when he’d lost his parents, knew how he felt.
He’d never her told her that—though she actually had asked him why he was so generous to her, some time after he’d offered her room, board, and a job at the Kaiba mansion.
“Yeah, it was.”
She’d broken down in class, crying hysterically.
If it had been anyone else, under any other circumstances, Kaiba would have brushed it off and forgotten about it hours later. But it was Téa—the fiery, spirited girl who lectured him about the values of life, about friendship, and about caring for others. The girl who put her own safety after the well-being of her friends, and even those who weren’t her friends. People like him.
He couldn’t get her out of his head, and so he’d trailed the gang to a diner. It was amazing that they hadn’t noticed him in the restaurant, but in the end, it’d worked out in his favor. Téa’s tears had ceased, if only for a short while, and for a brief instant, she’d smiled.
“Thank you,” Téa whispered, turning over onto her side and snuggling up against Kaiba. The sensation of her against him brought back those feelings from before, but this time, on a lesser scale. He wanted her beside him. He wanted to comfort her, protect her, and see her smile.
Seto Kaiba had a question of his own that plagued him.
“You were the one that suggested leaving the mansion in the first place. Why?”
Téa groaned, shifting to her side and smothering her face into a pillow. “Because I’m stupid,” she mumbled. A moment later, she continued, raising her head only slightly, “You weren’t supposed to agree with me.”
“I wasn’t feeling particularly kind that night,” Kaiba recalled, though remembering his exact words and the caustic sarcasm he’d used surprised him even in memory. He was sure Téa had a retort ready for him, but she didn’t say anything.
“You didn’t tell me what you’d been through to get me out.”
“Would it really have changed things?” Téa responded immediately, staring up at the ceiling. She hated remembering that night, when her world crumbled from underneath her—all over again.
“I guess not. But things are different, and we aren’t really complaining now, are we?”
Téa smiled, turning over to face Kaiba once more, her expression gentle. “No, we’re not.”
Her smile did very strange things to his mind.
“I like the way it was before—back when you actually smiled!”
Mokuba’s words. It stung, remembering that—remembering that his own brother didn’t find him…good enough. It wasn’t a matter of being sufficient or effective as a brother, or even as a guardian. Mokuba wanted someone he could laugh and play and smile with—and Seto couldn’t be that person. But Téa…she was. She could be. And if she was happy, then Mokuba was happy, and then…
‘And then maybe I can be happy.’
Strangely enough, the next thought—the next question—that popped into Kaiba’s mind had little to do with that initial discovery regarding the death of the Gardners, or the night Téa’s investigative work got him out of jail.
“How did you make those Duel Monsters cookies, anyway?”
Téa giggled lightly, righting herself by pushing her arms up on the bed, each of her hands placed to Kaiba’s sides. Though the room was dark, he could see her face clearly: her gentle smile, her bright eyes…
“Promise you won’t be mad?”
“I sort of snuck into your office and looked at your deck.”
He blinked. “You what?”
“I sort of—” Téa started to repeat, but Kaiba pressed a finger to his lips.
“It’s not that I didn’t hear or understand you, it’s that I’m surprised, is all.”
He paused, remembering the Blue-Eyes White Dragon cookie, and how Téa revealed the frosting-coated sugar cookies—that they’d made together—with a dramatic flourish. She’d gone out of her way to cook for them—to teach him how to cook. She spent time with Mokuba, helped him with his assignments, and yet still found time for her friends, schoolwork, and dream of dancing.
In comparison to her, was he really even that amazing? She’d been through so much, and still came out smiling, strong, and beautiful.
“Oh,” Téa whispered, still staring at him. The single hand that Kaiba had lifted to silence her moved to her chin, his thumb stroking the corner of her mouth and her cheek. Her eyes drifting closed, Téa closed the distance between them, allowing her arms to go lax as she pressed herself against Kaiba once more, her lips gravitating toward his as if pulled by an outside force.
It was nearly impossible to believe that the very man she’d once brushed off as “cold as ice” could be so utterly warm and tempting. The selfsame hands that she’d wondered about while she’d made cookies were now dipping sensuously over her shoulders, his fingers lightly brushing against the skin of her face, her neck, her shoulders, her back. That same warm tingle—from back at the beach, when he’d massaged sunscreen into her skin, lulling her into a gentle sleep—spread throughout her body, urging Téa into a state of relaxation.
“Mmm, Seto…I—” Kaiba abruptly stopped his ministrations, realizing that things were again, getting too heated for their own good. Despite his own thoughts, a traitorous voice suggested that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea for him and Téa to be sharing a bed.
“I love you,” Téa whispered breathlessly. Upon Kaiba’s lack of an answer, she pushed herself up again, propping her chin up with her elbows bent on the mattress. She stared at him, her gaze soft but true. “I love you, Seto Kaiba. And I’ll say it again and again, until you get sick of me saying it, or until you say it back.” Before Kaiba could come up with a reply, Téa pressed her lips directly against his, quickly moving to kiss his nose, his eyelids and then his brow.
“Good night, Seto.” And then she turned on her side, pulling Seto’s arms with her as she wrapped them around her torso.
“I…love…” Seto whispered. But Téa was already asleep.
He felt like a ten-ton rock.
The last thing Seto Kaiba wanted to do, feeling so lethargic and lazy, was to wake up that morning. But the sunlight was already streaming in through the gap in his curtains, and his body, adept at waking up and getting to work promptly, started churning.
First thirst, then hunger…
But he didn’t want to leave.
Téa still remained beside him, curled up in his sheets and blankets. Her incredibly soft, sweetly-scented hair splayed over the pillows, giving her the appearance of an angel with a halo of chocolate brown hair.
So it wasn’t a dream.
And as much as he wanted to relish that fact, and continue to hold her, to be beside her, her warmth, and her scent, his body refused to relax now that he was awake.
‘Damn,’ Seto cursed. Curse his years of waking up precisely at the same time each morning, with or without school and work. Curse his Circadian clock…
Seto forced himself up, the blood rushing to his fingers and toes causing a bizarre tingle.
“Seto…?” Téa murmured drowsily, her hand sliding to occupy the space Seto just left. Her eyes opened slowly, her pupils still dilated and large. The normally-brilliant blue of her eyes seemed muted, almost appearing to match the deep navy bed sheets surrounding her, or as Seto noticed with a blush, the silk pajamas practically falling off her slender shoulders.
“Come back to sleep,” Téa mumbled, her fingers curling toward Seto’s hand. For a moment, he relished in the feel of her hand against his, their fingers twined together. “It’s too early to be getting up for school…”
“Seto…” She shifted slightly, the too-large silk top sliding off her left shoulder altogether, and revealing the supple curves of her chest. Seto blinked and looked away with crimson cheeks, willing himself to imagine the thick, powerful scent and taste of black coffee. It didn’t help any.
“Go back to sleep, Téa.”
Téa was tempted to frown disdainfully; how dare he order her around? But then, she was too sleepy to really complain. She felt so warm and comfortable…
She pouted, her half-lidded eyes and slender shoulders appearing all-too inviting to Seto Kaiba. She was his first real foray into the world of females—and all their complexities. Téa Gardner presented a very challenging puzzle for Seto Kaiba to solve—but he couldn’t. Not at the moment, anyway.
“Okay. Big meanie…” Téa grumbled, about to turn over. Seto, feeling particularly bold with Téa already in his bed, dared to lean over and plant a warm kiss on her lips—and just before she could respond, he pulled away, wearing his trademark smirk. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes closed, but she was the picture of surprised bliss.
“Big, big meanie…” Téa mumbled, smiling. Seto only grinned wider, hoisting himself up from the side of the bed and walking from his bedroom.
Two and a half hours seemed to go by extremely fast that morning, as Seto was just sipping at his coffee and reading his paper when the door to the kitchen swung open. Glancing up, he saw Téa—still clad in his pajamas, no less—smiling in the doorway, her eyes fully open and staring at him playfully.
“7:30 already? Time flies.”
“Hmm,” Téa agreed, walking slowly up to Seto. He rose to his feet without really thinking; in the next second, she was in his arms, pressed up against him in that way that felt insanely right—beyond all explanation. He didn’t even have the chance to say “good morning” before Téa kissed him, winding her arms around his neck, and giving herself extra leverage by standing on the balls of her feet. The minutes slipped by easily, Seto sliding his hand up to cup Téa’s cheek and kiss her fully before allowing that selfsame hand to run down the curve of her neck and shoulders to grip her closer.
The loud bang of the swinging kitchen door slamming against the cabinets brought the duo from their lip lock, both of them turning astonished eyes to the still-swinging door.
Neither of them realized what happened until the front door slammed as well, the sharp noise echoing in the foyer for several seconds. It was then that Seto understood, the flush from his cheeks draining away.
“Seto, what is it? What—”
“It’s Mokuba,” Seto shook his head ruefully. How could he have been so stupid? So selfish?
No, he’d wanted this—Téa!—for a long while, but the past several days, he hadn’t been thinking straight. He knew that Mokuba cared for Téa—as more than a tutor, as more than a company employee, and as more than a friend. And yet…
“What are you talking about? Why would Mokuba have run out like that?” Téa asked, distress creeping into her voice. It was plain she cared deeply for the young Kaiba boy, through the tone in her voice and the expression on her face. She loved him, same as Seto did. And maybe that was why Mokuba’s own affections were so misplaced, but…
“He…likes you. A lot, Téa. He must have seen us, and…”
Somehow it didn’t compute.
“He’s got a crush on you, Téa. Has had one for a long time. I knew it, but I didn’t say anything.” Seto clenched his fists, realizing that again, he’d done the stupidest thing and put his own flesh and blood second to his inane desires. And now Mokuba was hurting, and it was all his fault. How dare he? What kind of a brother was he?
Téa flopped down into a nearby chair, her eyes wide and limbs stiff at her sides.
“I never knew…I–I tried not to get in the way of you two. T-That’s why I stopped, that time on your birthday. When we were so close—”
They’d both known, for different reasons, that Mokuba presented a very real obstacle to a relationship. It had stopped Seto from saying anything to Téa before, and it stopped Téa from acting on her impulses.
“I-I’m so sorry, Seto.”
“You have nothing to apologize for,” Seto told her resolutely, the determination plain in his voice. “We just have to talk to him. I’m sure he’s just gone to school, and he’ll be back later on.”
Téa glanced up at Seto, her gaze unsure at first. But then, she too realized the truth in Seto’s words. She wasn’t about to give up the incredible feeling she’d just discovered—not for anything. Mokuba was such a smart, sweet child…surely he’d understand.
Mokuba’s disappearance wasn’t the only thing plaguing Seto and Téa’s thoughts as they walked to school that morning. Also distressing Téa were the inevitable questions about her and Seto. It was what she’d feared all along—what would everyone else think? Though Téa was a free spirit, apt to doing what she pleased and hanging out with whoever she wanted, she did place a high value on her friends’ opinions.
They cared about her after all, and only had her best interests in mind…
How did he know, without even asking? Seto just squeezed her hand in reassurance. The driver of the limo stopped before the school, around the corner, as had become usual for them. Seto got out first this time, reaching his hand out to Téa. Her reluctance faded away moments later, with the warm touch of his hand.
What did she have to worry about, after all this time, things were finally starting to fall into place?
The two of them walked the remaining distance to school, Seto never letting go of Téa’s hand. It felt…odd, but a good kind of odd. It didn’t matter that people actually noticed, and stopped to stare and whisper. Some of their school mates even pointed, a few of them gasping exaggeratedly and shrieking.
But all that Téa saw was Seto.
‘I’m so in love…’
It was hard to believe that she could feel this way again, after everything. After all the duels, after all the battles…after Yami.
‘He wants the best for me, too. And right now, the best person for me is Seto.’
Somehow, it all seemed to hard to believe. But it was true.
The day passed without any extreme incident; of course, classmates crowded around both Seto and Téa at lunch, pestering them with questions. Suddenly, Seto, who previously intimidated almost every other male student at Domino High, save those he’d dueled before, was the center of attention, guys asking him how he’d scored Téa and how far they’d gotten. As reticent as ever though, Seto said nothing—his silence only giving wild ideas to the boys present.
Of the girls pestering Téa incessantly, only one didn’t ask a question: Chieko.
“It is about time you two finally got together,” she smiled gently. “I am sorry I had to miss your birthday party yesterday,” the blonde went on, handing Téa a small, beautifully wrapped package, “but I had to meet my fiancé.”
Téa stared at Chieko, her eyes asking the questions her lips did not: “Well?”
“He is…interesting, as is his family. But I shall tell you about him another time. Please, open your gift.”
Téa did, gasping in pleasant surprise as she revealed a set of greeting cards, each of them featuring a different scene from ballet, most painted by Degas. They each bore matching envelopes made of thick, handmade paper and decorated with tiny silk ribbons, with flecks of rose petals mixed into the paper.
“Thank you so much, Chieko…” Téa whispered, reaching over to hug her friend. Seto glanced over at Téa and the blonde, when Téa’s hand slid from his own. His eyes briefly met with Chieko’s, who favored Seto with a slight smile. It was strange—not all that long ago, Chieko professed supposed ‘feelings’ for Seto, but they’d turned out to be a farce of sorts—and Seto still remained confused as to why. But the words he’d said to Téa after their beach excursion remained true—she was the only girl he wanted—or needed—in his life.
Maybe he wasn’t entirely sure if it was love yet, but…he’d find out, soon enough.
Now, the two of them walked up the path to the front door, the chauffeur having gone around to the garage in the rear of the complex after letting the two of them off at the front. After Seto opened the front door, an unusual silence greeted them.
There wasn’t a single sound.
But the young, ebony-haired boy was nowhere to be found.
“He’s usually home by now…”
“Maybe he had a club meeting?” Téa suggested, hoping that Mokuba wasn’t really too distraught about what he’d seen that morning. It still seemed a bit hard to believe that the young Kaiba brother had feelings for her. Téa always regarded him as a close friend—and dare she think it, her own sort of little brother. She’d never had siblings of her own before, and Mokuba presented a very tangible reason to be jealous of Seto Kaiba, when everything else about the CEO made him appear inhuman and unworthy of any positive feelings from Téa’s direction.
But things changed.
“No…I’m going to look for him.”
Téa nodded in affirmation, agreeing to search the lower floors and outside. He had to be somewhere. After all they’d been through—all the kidnappings, stunts, and heists—surely Mokuba wouldn’t run away, and willingly put himself in danger, right?
But he wasn’t in the living room, the dining room, or the kitchen. Not in Seto’s study, in the secret mezzanine, or even in the secluded computer room tucked behind Seto’s bookshelf. He wasn’t hiding in any of the closets, nor was the youngest Kaiba out in the gardens, the backyard, the patio, or the pool area. Téa dared to venture down into the basement—past the workout room, the dueling arena, or the wine cellar, which Téa discovered during her attempts at cooking.
Hopefully Seto found his younger brother, simply taking a nap upstairs in his room.
But when Téa emerged from the side staircase, she found Seto staring blankly at a piece of paper in one hand, the other hand, still frozen on the banister of the main staircase. He seemed much paler than normal, frozen in place with his limbs rigid.
“It’s Mokuba,” Seto whispered hollowly. “He’s gone.”
Everybody say: HALLELUJIAH! HALLELUJIAH!
No, I don’t mean over Mokuba’s disappearance. I mean that I got this blasted thing DONE, that the two are finally “together,” and that the plot will only get better from here on out! YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY! 11 down, 25 to go!
HAPPY ONE YEAR ANNIVERSARY, WDKY!