Version: 3.6 – Various 2010 edits
Conceptualized/First Written: 5/9/04 – Happy Mother’s Day!
Completed/Final Edit: 8/19/04, 12/29/04, 3/6/06, 6/8/07, 5/20/10
Notes: Anyone here watch Fushigi Yuugi? The the chapter title will be familiar to you. Don’t worry though, no one’s going to die. That’s about the only thing I can promise, though.
I don’t own the song “Stupid,” by Sarah McLachlan. It’s on her “Fallen” CD, which I do own. The lyrics in the official booklet, btw, are a bit wrong. I fixed them as appropriate. No, I’m not imagining things, thankyouverymuch. I also don’t own Yu-Gi-Oh, or the Evil Blue Thing (snagged from Webtender.com) Waha! Lyrics to “In Your Life” by La Bouche, and reference to t.A.T.u’s “All The Things She Said,” belong to them as well.
DO NOT try and print this, for whatever reason. I warn you in advance, it is 120 PAGES LONG!
Harlequine—Without you, that certain scene never would have gotten written. Thanks for ‘punching my lights out’ with great ideas!
Atlantis2—You’re a plethora of great ideas and constructive criticism. Every compliment from you deserves to be printed, embossed, and hung on my wall in a gold frame.
Mamono—You always catch the little things that make it past every other filter I have. You are my third, fourth, and fifth eyes. THANK YOU SO MUCH!
akaVertigo—Thanks for pestering me. This chapter is all yours.
RECAP: Okay, so Seto was obviously not guilty of the Gardners’ deaths—but the fact that Téa couldn’t trust him from the start has wounded both of them. And now Seto is back to being cold and callous, desperate to prove to himself that he never needed Téa in his life. Téa, for her part, has run away from the Kaiba mansion…so where will she call home?
It was raining.
Téa Gardner wandered the streets of Domino as night wore on, clutching her pink duffle bag and a tiny scrap of paper as if they were the only things left in her world.
If one were to be technical about it, they were.
‘Stupid, stupid, stupid!’ Téa thought to herself with each step, punctuating her angry thoughts with stomps. One of her misplaced angry feet landed in a puddle, splashing her legs and what little of her shorts weren’t already wet.
It was official, she looked like a drowned rat.
‘Stupid drowned rat who just let herself get kicked out of the only home she’s known for the past few months. God, what was I thinking!?’
Earlier, Téa went and suggested that maybe and she and Seto Kaiba should spend time apart. And at the time, it had sounded like a perfectly good idea. They were having serious problems trusting each other as of late, and Téa was well-aware that she’d gone too deep when it came to her feelings for Kaiba.
He wasn’t the kind of person that opened up easily. He wasn’t the type to sit down and talk about his past…No. Before he’d say anything about his past, it would resurrect itself and throw his little brother’s tutor against a mirror.
‘And this was the guy I thought I was in love with?’ Téa shook her head, but most of her hair still clung to her face and neck. She could barely make out Mai’s angled print on the small piece of paper—and the ink was starting to run.
Finally, Téa found the place. Or at least, she thought she did.
‘There’s no way Mai lives in a place like this!’ Téa had her eyes locked on the towering penthouse apartment complex—one of three towers in a wide, round area. The grounds were surrounded by tall gates and manicured gardens, while the inside of the building was, at least from what Téa could make out through the rainy haze, floored with solid marble.
But by the time Téa had finished gawking, the small slip of paper she’d held had turned into mush. There was no going back—if this wasn’t the right place, there was nothing she could do. Nowhere she could go….
Trying to swallow her fears, Téa took a hesitant step forward and toward the door. With trembling, dripping fingers, she searched the directory—and to her astonishment, found an M. Valentine listed for Apartment 2333 in the Yoake Tower.
Keying the code into the apartment bell phone, Téa waited with bated breath, hoping that it wasn’t some sort of cosmic mistake and that Mai would actually—
“Took you long enough, Téa. Get upstairs, it’s pouring out there.”
And then there was a click. Téa didn’t even have the chance to say a word; Mai just knew.
Heaving a great sigh of relief, Téa pushed the great glass door open as it buzzed. She hurried across the marble floors to the elevator, eager to get up to the 23rd floor and get warm and dry.
Téa winced as she left the elevator and headed down the ivory-carpeted floors of the 23rd floor in the Yoake Tower—she’d left pools of dirty rainwater wherever she stepped, and her clothes were still soaked to the core.
After a few moments of wandering—and admiring the perfectly wallpapered halls, the elegant lighting, and the tall, supporting pillars—Téa found it: 2333. A small bronze plaque beside the door read ‘M. Valentine,’ so Téa knew she was in the right place.
Realizing that she was dripping all over the floor, Téa knocked. Moments later, the door swung open, Mai wearing a vaguely cocky smile as she stood aside and welcomed Téa in.
“What’s up with the drowned rat look, Téa? Didn’t have time to grab a raincoat?” The older blonde disappeared into the hallway just right of the doorway, coming back with a fluffy lavender towel.
She tossed it at the brunette, who quickly dried herself off to the best of her abilities.
“No, I–I just kind of cut and run,” Téa admitted quietly, shaking her head. When she glanced up, she had an inquiring expression on her face. “How did you know it was me?”
“Truth?” Mai asked, gesturing Téa to follow her. “When I saw you earlier, you looked like a total hang-dog. And after our little chat, I had a feeling I’d be seeing you sooner rather than later. I admit, I know what it’s like to be on the run, so I…well, I made my offer, and look, here you are.” Mai shook her head, as if trying to brush away bad memories.
“In any case, you stink to high heaven, so take a shower. I’ll give you some of my smaller clothes, and we can stay up talking all night if you want. Or you can go straight to sleep—I’ve got the most comfortable couch this side of Domino. Guaranteed, according to the sofa salesman.”
Téa smiled crookedly.
“Thanks Mai,” she whispered, her eyes watering suddenly. “I really mean it.”
Mai blinked, a bit surprised, but nodded back all the same. “No problem, Téa. It’s what friends are for.”
One steaming shower later, Téa found herself back in Mai’s darkened hallway, staring at the scant few picture frames lining the walls and decorating the tops of cabinets and shelves.
Mai’s home was modestly decorated; humble and monotone, and more like what Téa would have envisioned the Kaiba mansion had looked like—before she had moved in. The very thought brought pangs to her chest, and an acidic taste to her mouth.
“Finished, are you?” Mai asked, emerging from her bedroom. Téa nodded wordlessly, stepping forward into the main entryway. The side hallway that housed the bathroom and the closet rounded the corner back to the living room and kitchen; the balcony spanned out from the edge of the living room, while Mai’s bedroom was catty corner to the kitchen.
“Hungry?” Mai stepped into the kitchen, her eyes darting from Téa to the photos. For a moment, she looked as though she wanted to say something else; do something else maybe, but Téa couldn’t fathom what. The older blonde busied herself in the kitchen, grabbing things from cabinets, while Téa moved toward one of the frames perched on a tinted glass bookshelf.
‘I know that face…’
There was a startlingly familiar face smiling alongside Mai’s and another person’s—a young man in the photo Téa discovered. And then, it hit her.
The woman from the festival—from the Domino Performing Arts Company.
Fran, with her shoulder-length red hair. There was simply no one else that it could be.
‘Mai knows her?’
Well, judging by the picture Mai did. And rather well. The two girls were standing cheek to cheek with one another, the young man on the far right of the photo smiling. While Fran was smiling brilliantly at the camera, Téa noticed, upon closer inspection, that Mai’s violet eyes were tilted in the direction of the man beside her. More than that, her cheeks were stained a bright pink….
“Mai, who—” Téa held up the frame to the blonde, who was just exiting the kitchen now with two steaming mugs of cocoa in hand.
Mai exhaled deeply. She set the two mugs down on her glass coffee table, flopping onto her couch with a soft plunk.
“You were going to find out sooner or later, even if you never noticed those photos. Stupid me…I expected you’d come, but I forgot that Fran asked you to come to a rehearsal this week.”
Mai was right. Back at the Festival, Fran has presented her, Chieko, and Serenity with a flyer regarding the DPAC’s new recruitment auditions and rehearsal period. Interested parties were asked to show up to a special meeting only two days from now.
“So you do know her.”
“Know her?” Mai shook her head, the regret plain in her voice. “Yeah, I know her. We used to be best friends.”
“W-What happened?” Téa asked hesitantly. She knew they weren’t friends anymore; after all, Mai had run away from Fran at the Festival, and running away was simply something that the Mai Téa knew didn’t do.
“More like ‘who’ happened,” Mai corrected Téa, her gaze drifting to the photo still in Téa’s hands. “His name is Vincent Lohrs…” Mai let her head drop, long blonde bangs hiding her face from view, “and he’s Fran’s husband.”
Téa had only known Mai for a year or so, and though the woman was a good seven years older than her, they’d found they had a lot in common—to an extent. It was now that Téa discovered the true extent of their similarities and differences, and the story went back all the way to when Mai had been a third year senior high school student, over five years ago.
“Back then, DPAC wasn’t even around yet,” Mai explained wearily. “We were both in the same high school class. She was the outgoing, wild one, and I was the shy and quiet type.”
Téa’s eyes widened and she tried to suppress the astonishment that came through plain in her voice. “You, shy and quiet?”
Mai laughed shortly, nodding. “Yeah. Things change in five years, Téa. Back then, I was different. I wasn’t the girl you know now.”
As it turned out, Mai and Fran had once been the best of friends. They’d gone through all of high school as inseparable companions, having met at the high school exams the spring prior to their first year. The two couldn’t have been more different, which made them best friends—they offset one another in every possible way. But in their third and final year of high school, everything changed.
That year, a handsome young teacher arrived at their school—and his name was Vincent Lohrs. From the moment Mai had laid eyes on him, she’d had a deep, intense crush—that, as the year went on, developed into something much more.
Vincent had the fantastic idea of starting a dance company, and he wanted to start by recruiting interested students at Domino High, the prefecture’s largest public high school. Mai and Fran both were only too eager to help, and ended up spending long hours helping put the company together.
From getting a building in which to practice to distributing flyers across Tokyo, the two girls had done everything in their power to make DPAC a success. And that included spending after school hours with their dance teacher.
Mai was sure that Vincent felt at least something for her, but was too afraid to tell him, and as the year wore on, she found herself deeper in love and more confused about what to do. While initially, Mai managed to maintain her grades and help with the company, the more time she spent with Vincent, the more perplexing her feelings got, and the less focused she became on her other courses.
Worse, her parents noticed the sharp decline in her grades, and forced Mai to quit the dance club—or else.
“Well, that’s another thing we have in common,” Téa muttered blandly. “What is it with parents and not accepting dance as a viable thing to do? I mean, ballet dancers make loads of money each year, don’t they?”
“Don’t ask me, Téa,” Mai shook her head remorsefully. “My dancing career ended on February 14th, five years ago.”
After her parents had forbidden her to dance, Mai had done her best to bring her grades up and ignore her growing feelings for Vincent. But things hadn’t changed—not with how she saw Vincent everyday. So she’d rejoined DPAC, but in secret. Nights she claimed to be studying at the library were really spent at the DPAC studio, practicing for the debut performance. As one of the co-founders of the company, Mai was given a leading role…and she hoped that if all went well, her parents and all of Domino would come to love the Performing Arts Company she’d helped put together.
“St. Valentine’s Day? What happened then?” Téa asked curiously. She settled on the couch in a cross-legged position, tossing a blanket haphazardly over her legs as she listened to Mai. But the older girl remained sitting on the couch, stiff-backed and staring off into space.
“‘Then’ was the debut recital of the Domino Performing Arts Company,” Mai whispered. “‘Then’ was the day I found out that Vincent and Fran had been seeing each other for months, and were so enthralled with each other that they didn’t even notice me.”
What that translated to was Mai walking in on Fran and Vincent when they’d been kissing passionately just before DPAC’s dress rehearsal, prior to the debut performance. She’d stared at them, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, for a good two minutes, but they never noticed her.
Mai had made it a point to show up extra-early for their dress rehearsal that night, because she’d made up her mind to give Vincent a love letter that she’d spent countless hours penning. She had called Fran before leaving her home, as well—but her ‘friend’ hadn’t answered her cell.
In all the months that they’d known Vincent, Mai had not once revealed that it was he she had fallen in love with. She had hinted at it in the way she spoke around Fran—talking about someone who was older, handsome, gentle, and funny. How she saw him every day, and even snuck out at nights to see him. But Fran…
“She betrayed me,” Mai responded flatly. “They both did. They went on and had their performance, and no one even knew I was supposed to be up there. My parents were furious that I’d snuck out, but I let them ground me. I didn’t speak to Vincent or Fran after that, even after we graduated and…well, the minute I got a chance, I flew the coop. And I swore to never deal with dance companies or back-stabbing men ever again.”
“Oh, Mai…” Téa whispered. She never knew that her friend had such a sad story behind her lifestyle.
Mai went on to tell her that she’d changed after that—she decided that she was tired of being the shy, quiet, obedient girl. She wanted to get out and try new things, and explore the world. She didn’t want to be the kind of person that waited months before timidly attempting to return someone’s affection. She wanted to be the “get it and go” type, the kind that saw something they wanted and took it without hesitation.
And, after world travels and some more heartache, she became that person—and the woman that Téa knew. Confident, assured, beautiful, and…scared.
“But…what about Joey?” Téa suddenly asked.
Mai blinked at Téa, looking at her for the first time since she’d started her story. “Joey? What about him?”
“Well,” Téa began, smiling slightly, “he has changed your mind about guys, hasn’t he? You know he’s not out to betray you or anything.”
Mai was silent a moment, and she looked away. “It’s not that simple.”
“Sure it is, Mai! You’ve trusted Joey on plenty of occasions before and—”
“I said it’s not that simple!” Mai snapped. She sucked in a breath, noting Téa’s astonished expression.
“I’m not doing it, Téa. Before you even ask, I’m not going with you to that rehearsal audition. Fran and I have nothing to discuss. And you are hardly the person to be talking to me about trust,” Mai continued, rising from the couch. “After all, look what happened with you and Kaiba.”
Téa fell silent, her resolve for argument dissipating. Mai was right. Maybe there was a moral to her story that Téa hadn’t wanted to see at first—those you trust and believe in the most will betray you. That was how it had been with Seto, and…
Yugi had looked at looked at her with an expression so infinitely sad, Téa was struck immediately by the thought that he might be saying ‘goodbye.’ And Yugi was her best friend in the whole world—her most trusted confidante. Yet, she’d never known until earlier that he was in love with her.
And now, she was paying the price. For her blindness, and for her foolish trust in the world….
“I guess you’re right,” Téa spoke after a moment. “What’s the point of loving anyone when you can never tell them your deepest secrets,” she raised her gaze to meet Mai’s, “without getting betrayed?”
The night ended like that; the only sound in the living room was the pounding of the rain on the glass windows. Mai retreated into her bedroom, leaving Téa alone on the couch with only her thoughts for company.
“You’re crazy,” Mai remarked from the couch, lifting her legs up in a half-stretch and glancing at Téa from the gap. It was now early Monday morning, and Téa had woken up in a panic, exclaiming that she had to go to school.
Sunday had passed without much incident…Téa slept most of the day away, willing the daylight to leave her be. Luckily, she got her wish: Mai went to work, leaving her friend alone in the apartment for hours, until late night, when the two of them snuggled up on the couch watching movies, but not saying a word about anything that had transpired over the past week, be it the ghosts that haunted the Kaiba mansion on Halloween, Yugi’s confession or Kaiba’s cruelty the night before.
Now it was early Monday morning, and Téa was busy digging through her now-dry duffle bag, muttering incomprehensible things under her breath.
“Augh! The one thing I knew I was going to need today and I left it at—” Téa’s voice dropped to a dull whisper, her eyes suddenly flitting to the floor, “home.”
“Hah. Home is where your heart is, Téa, and I doubt your heart would be very at home in the freezer box that is the Kaiba mansion. And for the umpteenth time,” Mai said, getting up and walking toward her hall closet, “you do not have to go to school today. Or for the rest of this week, for that matter.” She reached into the closet, but paused, turning to Téa to stare at her dead-on in the eyes.
“You are the top student at that high school. You’re a pretty, enthusiastic, outgoing girl. You’re class representative, co-president of the dance club and—”
“Still going to be screwed without my uniform! But showing up in something is better than not showing up at all, oh…” Téa renewed her search through her tiny duffle, hoping that a second run-through might find her the parts to a make-shift uniform.
“Téa, listen to me. You have been through so much more than the rest of the kids at that school. You deserve a break every now and then! Why should you have to go to a school where you have to be surrounded by the very people that are going to make you miserable?”
Téa shook her head in a firm, resolute ‘no.’
“My friends are there, Mai. Even if Se—even if Kaiba is going to be a total jerk to me, well, I asked for it. I figured it was best that we have some time apart, and this is it. He’s giving that to me. Besides, it’s my fault that he got into that whole mess in the first place…”
“Oh, please, Téa! That is so far from the truth, it’s not even funny! Look, what happened the other night—” Not even Mai could bring herself to go into Téa’s discovery that her parents had been murdered and how Seto had been framed for it. “What happened was out of your control. That whole thing was totally orchestrated by a bunch of suit-wearing fat cats, and you never entered their equation once. If it hadn’t been for you, Kaiba would still be sitting on his ass in a jail cell, wondering if he’d look good in an orange jumpsuit.”
Téa tried to stifle a giggle, but it came out anyway. He really wouldn’t look good in orange….
“I know, Mai, I know. But I caused a lot of problems for him, so…I don’t know,” Téa shrugged, “the least I can do is say I’m sorry.”
Mai fell silent. She knew that once the younger girl had her heart set on something, she followed through. That was Téa—her nature, her spirit, her very essence. Determined, emotional, and…apologetic. Even for something she didn’t do.
The blonde pulled out the garment bag that had been hanging in the dark depths of her hall closet.
“What…?” Téa blinked confusedly at Mai, who just held the black garment bag out to her. Téa unzipped it, her eyes widening with surprise.
“My old Domino High uniform. It might be a bit big on you, but you can always stuff your bra.”
Téa laughed, looking up at Mai and smiling gratefully.
“Mai, I had no idea—”
“No time for reminiscing. Go get dressed!” Mai shooed Téa off into the bathroom, smiling the whole time.
The shrill bell signaling the start of class rang, but Téa was still dashing through the hallways, having entered school from the opposite side, which she was not used to. She’d had to navigate through halls she’d never even known existed before, and now, she was late to class!
Téa just rounded the corner toward Class 2B, hearing Mr. Kinomoto, the History teacher, announce the start of class. She reached out her arm seconds before she slammed into it, sliding it open breathlessly.
All eyes immediately turned to her, while she panted in the doorway, bowing apologetically. “Sorry…I’m…late…Mr. Kinomoto…”
“It’s quite all right, Miss Gardner, class has not yet begun. Please take your seat.”
Absolutely exhausted from her dash across campus, Téa settled gratefully into her seat, resisting the urge to glance toward Kaiba and see if he was looking at her. She did feel someone else’s pointed stare boring into her head though, and that person was Chieko.
Téa blinked innocently at her friends, whose eyes were wide, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips. “What?” Téa mouthed silently, pulling her textbook from her desk. Chieko only smirked, gesturing to Téa’s blouse—or rather, Mai’s.
Contrary to what Mai had thought, the uniform was easily a size too small, and Téa remembered Mai saying, back at the Festival, that the Domino High uniforms had barely fit her then. Téa was far from being Mai’s height, but obviously that didn’t matter where shirts were concerned.
Téa shook her head wryly; there was nothing she could do about it now.
So far, so good.
It wasn’t easy pretending that life had gone back to normal—back to the way it had been before this whole mess with Kaiba—but he was ignoring her, and she was doing her best to ignore him.
It was strange to be thinking that she wouldn’t be going home—to the place that had been home for many months now—tonight. Rather, she’d be staying at Mai’s. It was a far cry from the house she’d lived in with her parents, or from the Kaiba Mansion, but…
‘It’ll have to do for now. I’ll figure something out, and get out of Kaiba’s way completely. I’ll find a way…to fall out of love with him.’
She’d done it before, so why not again? Why not just accept that Mai was right? All guys were just out to hurt you in the end.
Well, not all guys, Téa smiled lopsidedly. She still had her friends.
Today she didn’t have any particular desire to explain her whole situation to Chieko—she’d rather tell the guys, and hope that, as they had been for her when her parents had died, they would be her support again.
Maybe now she could admit to them that she’d been living with Kaiba, and that, for a brief while, she’d tinkered with the idea of being in love with him.
Except, that ‘tinkering’ had lasted a good solid two months so far.
It didn’t matter anymore, though! Now her situation was different, and she was going to get back on her feet—and start fresh, all over again. No matter how much it hurt, she would fall out of love with Seto Kaiba! It was the best thing for the both of them; she would stay out of his way like he wanted, and she’d find a way to start living her own life once more. Apologizing to Seto Kaiba would likely ring meaningless to his ears, and the realization that no matter how much she meant it or how much emotion she poured into it, Kaiba would still hate her frustrated and angered Téa. She didn’t want to be the kind of girl that threw herself endlessly at that which she couldn’t have. Not anymore. No, she needed to move on and try toretain what little of her old life—the parts that made her happy, likeher friends—was left.
“Yugi!” Téa called to her friend, moving toward him in the crowded school cafeteria. He paused and turned to see who was calling his name, but when his eyes met with Téa’s, she froze.
It was that same look from before…
“I–I’ve been in love with you for a long time, Téa.”
How could she not have seen it before? And now, the look in his eyes…there was simply no denying. He was going to—
‘Don’t say goodbye. Don’t go Yugi, please!’
But Yugi bowed his head, his gaze broken from Téa’s. And he turned and walked away—completely ignoring her.
Joey bounded up from the side, Tristan and Duke following behind, their own lunch trays in hand. “Hey Yug’, hold up!” Yugi glanced back at them once, his eyes meeting with Téa’s for another brief second. But he shook his head and kept walking.
Joey was perplexed; why wasn’t Yugi waiting? He raced to catch up with his friend and find out what was wrong. Tristan and Duke paused in front of Téa, Tristan casting an unsure glance back at Téa.
“Sorry, Téa,” he murmured, hurrying after Joey. Duke just stared at her, an eyebrow raised. Her hands were trembling on her tray, as if she might drop it any second. And though she wasn’t openly crying, he could tell she was upset. But…
After a moment, he too, followed Yugi, Joey, and Tristan, leaving Téa to get swallowed by the crowds.
It all went in the trash.
Every last shred of her lunch.
After Yugi and the others had just…just abandoned her like that, Téa had made for the one place in the school where she knew she could be utterly alone. In the janitorial wing of the third floor, there was a lone staircase leading up to a side of the roof that wasn’t usually accessed by students eager for a quiet lunch and a nice view.
There were only pipes and vents on that side of the building, and it was dark and dirty, but Téa didn’t care. She didn’t care about eating lunch, or where Kaiba was, or what Yugi was telling the guys right at that moment.
Her only friends had deserted her…and left her completely alone.
‘I thought they would understand!’
But they hadn’t even stopped to listen. Didn’t even bother to ask her what was wrong, or try to stop Yugi from leaving. They’d just followed after him….
After all, she wasn’t the ‘leader’ of their group. She was the lone female, and a silly sidekick…
‘Just another dumb cheerleader…’
The tears began their trek down her face long before Téa even reached the roof, but by the time she stumbled out, she was crying wholeheartedly. She didn’t give a damn if anyone heard her, or if anyone thought less of her. She’d been keeping her heartbroken feelings in for so long, shedding few tears and forcing herself to get angry instead.
But no one noticed.
Everyone else at Domino High was busy enjoying their lunch. With friends. With boyfriends, or girlfriends…
They were all laughing and smiling. If any of them had any cares in the world, it sure didn’t look like it. Their biggest problems had nothing to do with where they were going to sleep that night, but everything to do with the latest cell phone game or next period’s exam.
It was all so trivial.
None of them had really lived life like she had. They hadn’t loved and lost so utterly. They hadn’t lost their parents, been involved in a murder conspiracy, and spent sleepless nights fighting off ghosts and horrifying phantasms.
None of them could even grasp what she’d been through, and what was in her heart.
No one but her friends, and they…
The lunch period wore on, but Téa didn’t stop crying. And when the bell rung, she stumbled down the stairs to the girl’s bathroom, scrubbing her face dry and willing herself not to care.
If she could just brush it off—forgive and forget—then she could go about her ‘normal’ life, as if the past two months had never happened.
She wasn’t even considering Yugi’s feelings, after all. Maybe he, like Kaiba, just needed some ‘time apart’ from her. But to have Yugi—her best friend in the whole world—suddenly ignore her, and treat her so coldly…It wasn’t like him.
Téa just didn’t have the courage to approach him. How dare she, when she’d broken his heart? She’d been oblivious to his feelings all this time, and had rejected him, even though she’d known that her relationship with Kaiba was going to change.
Kaiba was back to hating her.
When Téa had dared to look at him in any of their classes, he’d glanced up sharply—shooting her a withering stare, glaring daggers at her with his eyes. There was simply no doubt in her mind…
“You’re a curse.”
He hated her.
It hurt so much…
Japanese Literature was next, and with Miss Ninomiya’s “interactive” style of teaching, Téa was sure she could distract herself from the boys. And if there was some kind of project, she was sure she could just work on it with Chieko…
To Téa’s surprise, when she entered class, people were already paired up, their desks turned to face one another—and Chieko’s was turned to face another girl’s.
“What’s going on?” Téa asked, sliding into her seat.
“Oh, Téa,” Chieko frowned sadly, “I didn’t get a chance to tell you! When you were absent the other day, Miss Ninomiya assigned us a project. We have to work in pairs.”
And she was already paired up. As were the boys—Yugi with Joey, and Tristan with Duke. Everyone was already engrossed in their projects, even though class had not yet begun. Miss Ninomiya didn’t even need to say anything to the class when the bell rang—everyone was already started.
The perpetual loner had probably given the teachers an excuse for Saturday, when he’d spent the day in jail. And now he was working by himself—he didn’t need anyone. Not for class, and not for…
“Miss Ninomiya?” Téa approached the older woman’s desk with a small measure of trepidation; at times, Ninomiya was charming, funny, and almost childlike, but other times she exuded a supreme mastery over her class, commanding silence and getting it—because you simply didn’t mess with her.
“Ah, Miss Gardner. You were absent Saturday, so…”
“Th-There’s no one I can be paired with?”
Anyone at that moment would have been okay. Just so long as she wasn’t alone…
“I’m afraid not, Miss Gardner,” Miss Ninomiya shook her head. “Everyone’s already started.” She handed Téa a set of papers. “You’ll need to catch up quickly. It was intended to be a pair project, but I’m sure you can handle it on your own.”
Téa stood there with the papers in her hands, wishing that Miss Ninomiya could see how much she needed to be with someone at that moment. Anyone. Couldn’t she just bend her rules for once, and allow her to be the third wheel in a pair? She could be with Chieko and Miho, if Yugi and the other boys wouldn’t take her in…
“Is there anything else, Miss Gardner?” The teacher’s tone made it implicitly clear that her business with Téa was finished.
“N-No, Miss Ninomiya. Thank you.”
And Téa stumbled back to her desk, utterly alone.
Her thoughts had been in a downward spiral ever since lunch, and ten minutes before the end of Lit. class, she’d reached rock bottom. She quietly approached Miss Ninomiya’s desk, turning in her completed paperwork.
She hadn’t put much effort into it, distracted by her thoughts as she was, but Téa wasn’t in the mood to care. She didn’t even want to be at school anymore. She felt sick.
“Miss Ninomiya, is it all right if I go to the restroom?” she asked quietly. Miss Ninomiya nodded silently, making a gesture with her hand for Téa to step out. Téa hurried out of the class with her hand over her mouth, sure she was about to throw up. She hadn’t looked at any of the boys as she’d left, sure that she would just get more upset and sick to her stomach if she did.
As if heartache wasn’t enough….
Once Téa reached the bathroom, she proceeded to regurgitate what little was in her stomach—her meager breakfast from earlier that morning. She didn’t care if she was going to become even skinnier because of it, or if the enamel on her teeth wore down. She just didn’t care about any of it anymore…
The bell rung while she was still in the restroom, cleaning off her face and trying to rearrange herself. It didn’t work. She still looked like a horrible mess, and she didn’t feel like going to gym and having her gaze drawn to the boys time after time, only to have them ignore her.
Her mind was made up.
She couldn’t stay.
By the time Téa returned to class 2B, the room was empty, devoid of any presence, including Miss Ninomiya’s. The students had headed downstairs for gym, their desks neatly packed away for the day. Only Téa still had her papers and pencils spread out over her desk, items which she carefully stored away before reaching for the lone plastic bag that contained Mai’s winter uniform sweater.
She couldn’t do this.
Téa halted in the doorway, staring at the classroom with glassy eyes. What if–what if she just never came back? She wasn’t required to be here, just like Mai said. Plenty of people got by on junior high educations alone…
“Are you going to go for it?” Seto’s voice echoed clearly in her mind. A voice from a time that seemed too far away to be real. It hadn’t been all that long ago, but…
“Yeah! Yeah, I am!” She’d dreamed of going to Juilliard ever since she was small. And big, overseas dreams like that meant she had to graduate high school. She had to conquer all her fears and hurdles, and make it.
Even when the odds were against her.
But now…things were different. Now Téa wondered if any of it had been worth it. Maybe it was better to just fade into the shadows.
“Move.” Téa practically jumped out of her shoes, startled to hear a voice behind her. Shockingly enough, the voice belonged to none other than Seto Kaiba.
He’d returned to the class to get something—and though Téa’s eyes were locked on him the entire time he was in the class, he didn’t even spare her a glance. There was only the cold, callous stare he’d given her when demanding she get out of his way. When Kaiba got what he’d come for, he breezed out of the classroom, completely ignorant of Téa’s presence.
Until the last moment when he rounded the corner and headed down to the gym, Téa couldn’t pull her gaze away from him.
But he didn’t care.
If he ever did, he didn’t show it. He hated her now, and that was the start and finish of it. There was nothing left for her here.
She was leaving.
Once and for all.
“Going somewhere, Téa?” a smooth voice halted the brunette dead in her tracks. She hadn’t expected anyone to see her dashing out of the school grounds—she’d hoped she’d slip out just as invisibly as she came.
After all, who would notice?
The white-haired boy pushed himself off the wall of cubbies he’d been leaning against; he was still dressed in his normal school clothes, while all the other boys and girls in their class were busy getting changed for gym.
But Téa couldn’t stay…she just couldn’t.
Kaiba was one thing—she expected him to be cold to her—but Yugi, too? And Joey, and Tristan?
It wasn’t fair. This was exactly the kind of misery she’d been hoping to avoid, and yet by following her heart and being true to her feelings, she ended up in the same rut that she would have landed in had she kept lying all along.
“I haven’t collected what you owe me yet.”
Téa winced; she knew she still owed Bakura a great deal for saving her life back when Gozaburo Kaiba had nearly killed her, but…
“What do you want, Bakura?” she asked in a resigned voice, turning around and letting her body go slack. She owed him her life…and she wasn’t going to run away from a debt like that.
Bakura looked thoughtful a moment, cocking his head to the side and narrowing his deep brown eyes.
Instantly, a vision of Seto appeared before her, murmuring words filled with the same intent, the same desire.
“I want you.”
“W-What?” Téa stuttered, stumbling backward with surprise.
“I said I want you,” Bakura repeated, the irritation plain in his voice. “I…need your help with something.”
Well, he hadn’t gone and shoved her against the wall, kissing the daylights out of her. That was a good sign…right? Téa shook her head warily; Bakura was not that type of person in the first place. Then again, neither was Seto Kaiba, but…
“What do you need my help with?” Téa asked, forcing her thoughts away from the callous CEO who had stolen her heart.
Bakura looked away, his expression bordering on angry. He didn’t care to admit that he needed help with anything—perhaps the only thing he had in common with Seto Kaiba—but he needed to explore that connection with Téa as much as possible. And to do that, he…
“Not myself. Rather…my host.” Bakura made a sweeping gesture toward his own body; the body of Ryou Bakura, vessel of the Spirit of the Millennium Ring.
“What?” Téa repeated, her eyebrows knitting together. What in the world was Bakura talking about? Since when did he speak for Ryou—let alone care enough about him to request a favor on his behalf?
“Contrary to what you might believe, I’m not some sort of soul-sucking leech.”
“You’re not?” Téa’s reply was sarcastic, but her tone of voice made it sound as though she were genuinely surprised by Bakura’s words. The boy scowled.
“No, I’m not. I do care for my host, as it were, for without him, I’d still be trapped in that fool Ring.”
“And would your other half really complain about that?” Téa whispered. Bakura’s hollow gaze fixed on her face, and she found herself unable to look away.
“While we’re far from living in the sort of pathetic ‘harmony’ the Pharaoh claims to have with his other half, I do let my other live his life. But he is weak-minded, and unable to block so much as a single thread of darkness from within.”
Téa knew what that felt like. In order to save her life, Bakura gained entrance to her very soul. He’d been inside her, part of her…and she’d willingly let him control her. She’d been seduced by darkness…
It was such an easy thing to succumb to, but so terrifying to remember. Ryou had undoubtedly learned the hard way that fighting did him no good.
“What do you expect me to do, exactly?” she asked, averting her gaze. She hesitantly twisted her fingers together; Bakura’s presence still made her somewhat edgy, even though she told him at the hospital that they were starting fresh, on a clean slate.
Perhaps even as friends.
“Befriend him. Strengthen him. I cannot be in control of this vessel forever, and if he collapses, I lose my only means of living in this forsaken modern world.”
Téa could hardly believe what Bakura—legendary Spirit of the Millennium Ring—was asking her to do. But…if it cleared her debts with him, and if it eased the discomfort that rose in her soul so easily whenever the thief were around…perhaps it wouldn’t be such a foolish endeavor after all.
“Agreed. But…not now. I can’t stay here, Bakura.”
She didn’t need to explain why.
“They are fools for letting you slip away this easily. I, at least bothered to seek you out and stop you.”
Téa allowed the faintest of smiles to curve her lips; “Try and stop me, Bakura. You can’t really prevent me from leaving, no matter how much power you possess.” She shook her head, sighing. “I don’t belong here anymore. Not with…them. But I will stay true to my word, I swear it.”
And with those words, she gave Bakura a brisk nod before turning on her heel and dashing out of school grounds, slipping between the bars of the front gate without a single bit of struggle.
“You had better be true to your word, girl,” Bakura hissed under his breath. “I shouldn’t like to seek you out if you aren’t.”
“It’s not like her to pull a stunt like this,” Tristan murmured, shaking his head.
“Even if she wasn’t feeling well, she would have told us, right?” Duke asked. Joey nodded in the affirmative. “Man, I don’t like this. I really don’t like this.”
“Do–Do you think maybe she was upset about earlier?” Tristan mused. Téa had stared at them when they’d walked away from her at lunch—and Tristan had held her gaze just long enough to note that she hadn’t blinked, and was standing stock-still.
That wasn’t like her.
“Maybe,” Joey agreed after a second, “I still don’t get why Yug’ was avoidin’ her in the first place. Maybe they had a fight or somethin’?”
“We are talking about Yugi Moto, right?” Duke quipped, sarcasm thick in his voice. The two other boys shook their heads; Duke was right. It wasn’t like Yugi to get into a fight, not with his best friend—and the girl that they all knew Yugi was head over heels in love with.
“I’m gonna go talk to him,” Joey stated as he sprung from his seat. Duke immediately yanked down on Joey’s jacket, as the blond’s sudden movement had drawn the attentions of Mr. Takahashi, the Chemistry teacher. They’d been ordered to have a study period that day, and had been sitting quietly in their seats filling in a blank copy of the periodic table—until Joey’s bouncing out of his seat drew the attentions of everyone around him, including the teacher.
“At least wait until class is over, dunce,” Duke gritted out, trying not to draw attention to himself. Joey sat down with a resigned sigh and eyed the clock on the far right wall with extreme distaste.
When the bell signaling the end of school finally did ring, Joey practically jumped over three desks, nearly causing a catastrophe in his efforts to catch up with Yugi. But the shorter boy hadn’t made a serious effort to escape the confines of the classroom before Joey, and was thus easy to catch up with—after all, the spike-haired boy was still at his desk.
Yugi turned to him, and it was then that Joey got a truly good look at his friend—his usually bright violet eyes were muted and almost glassy, rimmed underneath with thick red circles—proof that he’d not slept the last night, or had been through one hell of a sob-fest.
“Yug’ uh…I was kinda hopin’ we could talk.”
“About what?” Yugi murmured quietly, shoving his textbooks into his bag.
“Erm…about Téa. What happened?”
Joey Wheeler was never known for his tactfulness nor his sensitivity, but it was that brute honesty that made him a good friend. If you ever needed someone to tell it to you like it was…Joey was your man.
Yugi swallowed, unwilling to admit everything to Joey. After all, it meant revealing that he hadn’t listened to Joey, Tristan and Duke. He hadn’t gone and told Téa about his feelings, not when he should have, and not when it really mattered.
She was in love with someone else now, and…
Kaiba was just leaving the classroom, not even sparing them a glance. He didn’t seem the least bit disturbed that Téa was absent from the latter half of her classes that day, though he had seemed mildly surprised at Téa’s sudden entrance earlier that day.
‘They didn’t come to school together,’ Yugi realized. Téa probably left the Kaiba mansion, but where had she gone? She hadn’t called any of the guys, that much was obvious.
‘And even if she had,’ Yugi realized sadly, ‘I’m not sure I would have wanted to put her up anyway.’
He knew it was selfish of him to be thinking that way, but Téa…beautiful, sweet, charming Téa had gone and broken his heart. When she’d told him that she once loved his other half, but had never loved him…
He would be betraying her trust forever if he told them the truth—that she’d been employed by Kaiba, and that, up till recently, had been living with him. That she was in love with him, and though Kaiba probably didn’t realize it yet, the feelings were mutual.
“I told her how I feel,” Yugi whispered. “She doesn’t feel the same.”
Joey froze, not expecting this answer. How could it be? Duke and Tristan had come up alongside Joey at the last moment, hearing Yugi’s whispered admission—and they’d all exchanged a glance.
One long conversation later, everyone agreed that perhaps they couldn’t do anything at the present time. If Téa had felt the need to leave school early—and go wherever it was she was staying—then maybe they needed to give her some space.
Chasing after her wouldn’t change things, Yugi told them. She was in love with someone else, living somewhere else. She was completely out of their reach.
One more day they would wait. After all, Téa was in all their classes…surely by the next day at school, she would be back to her old self, and things would start returning to normal again.
Mai took one look at the bedraggled Téa that walked in her door that afternoon, and immediately claimed that they were going to go out and have fun that night. Téa would put all her miseries behind her, and enjoy herself, no matter what lengths Mai had to go to.
“Where are we going, Mai?” Téa asked, tugging nervously on the hem of her mini-skirt, if you could call it that. The black lace number barely skimmed Téa’s thighs, hugging her upper curves like a second skin.
“You’ve got to be kidding me, Mai. Why would I wear this? It looks like lingerie!”
“For the place we’re going, it’s ‘appropriate nightwear.'”
“Isn’t that what I just said?”
Téa groaned. But she’d gone along with Mai’s plans—including those that involved the brunette getting dressed up in a strapless corset top, complete with velveteen rosebud designs stretching across the mesh-covered front.
She felt like she’d walked out of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue.
“There.” Mai pointed a perfectly manicured finger at a place surrounded by crowds of people—the line wound around the block and beyond, at which point it disappeared from Téa’s sight.
“DV8?” Téa furrowed her brows, “But that’s a club, Mai, and I’m only seventeen—”
“No problem, darling.” Mai grinned, tugging Téa along. “I have a hook-up.”
Téa allowed herself to get dragged along, offering a sheepish smile at all the people in line that they barged past. When they finally reached the fore of the line, Mai took one look at the imposing bouncer and grinned.
The intimidating, thickly muscled guy stopped in the middle of reprimanding a pair of girls who were obviously too young to be going inside, and grinned at Mai.
“Mai, darling! My goodness, it’s been so long!”
Téa blinked. Had that guy just—?
“Tell me about it, Donny darling. Listen, I know I’m off tonight, but my friend here,” Mai nudged Téa forward, poking her in the ribs to indicate that the younger girl should at least smile, “has never been here! So I figured I’d show her what we’ve got.”
“Oh, totally understandable, darling. Go right on in.” Donny moved aside, his hulking mass brushing against the crowded line. Several girls, in their teetering stilettos and off-balance kitten heels, nearly fell over and into the street, but regained their balance by clasping onto one another.
Each and every one of them shot Téa a dirty glance as she walked in without a single problem.
They were glaring at Mai too, but the blonde was either unaware of the dagger-like stares being directed at her back, or she was an expert at ignoring them.
Inside DV8, the music was loud and the crowds thronging; the entrance opened up into a wide balcony that split off to the left and the right, giving one the perfect view of the dance floor and bar below. Bright purple and blue neon lights curved around one another, forming the club’s name high up on the ceiling, where bright lights flashed quickly from one color to the next, adding to the pulsating rhythm of the club.
Téa was so amazed by the scenery that she hardly realized Mai was yanking on her wrist, toward the bar.
“Brucie!” Mai waved at the tall, wiry man behind the bar, a perfect burgundy ponytail sprouting from the back of his head as he bounced from customer to customer.
“Wait! Don’t tell me!” Brucie covered his eyes with one hand, pointing at Mai with the other.
“Mai! And you’re going to get…a Screw on the Rocks!”
“A what!?” Téa hissed in an astonished voice. Mai didn’t respond; she only strode up to the bar and grinned at the bartender. Brucie grinned broadly, leaning over the glass counter to reach out and hug the tall blonde.
“Kisses, darling! It feels like it’s been forever!” Mai sat down, signaling Téa to do the same, though the young brunette looked more like a rabbit caught in the headlights than a girl ready for a night of clubbing.
“Your friend needs…” Brucie gave Téa a once-over, and then snapped his fingers, “a Pink Pussy!”
“Excuse me!?” Téa gasped, her face turning crimson.
Mai laughed as the bartender procured a few bottles and started to mix and pour the liquid substances in a pair of glasses.
“Relax, Téa. They’re drinks, and damn good ones at that.”
“Thank you, Mai darling, I know you love my drinks.”
“Of course I do, Brucie. Besides, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t work here!”
“You…work here?” Téa glanced at Mai, an eyebrow raised in query. Well, she had said something about ‘not working tonight’ to Donny, back at the door.
“Three nights a week, I bartend here with Brucie. He owns the joint, and we’ve known each other for years.”
“Three years, six months, and twenty-seven days to be precise.”
“Since when are you such a stickler for dates?” Mai smirked, grabbing her glass. The ‘Screw on the Rocks,’ as Téa discovered, was technically called a ‘Screwdriver,’ and ‘on the Rocks’ meant ‘with ice.’ The actual drink was simple enough—orange juice and vodka—with some ‘secret ingredient’ which Bruce refused to divulge.
“The day I met you,” Brucie smiled, stirring Téa’s drink, “was the same day I met Donny!”
‘Oh. So they are…’ Well, that answered that. Donny and Brucie were…
“That’s because I introduced you two, goofball.” Mai laughed, downing her drink. “God, it doesn’t seem like it’s been that short of a time. Three years ago I was stuck on the damn Midnight Star.”
“Midnight Star?” Téa queried, staring into the rose-colored depths of her glass. It certainly smelled strong. Surely Brucie knew she was under-aged, but he didn’t seem to care. He was Mai’s friend, and he worked at the bar….
“Before I bought up this delish space, Mai and I used to be globe-trotters on this casino cruise ship,” Brucie explained. “In my case, I was stuck as an overworked, underpaid travel agent. The Midnight Star was taking its special ‘Caribbean Summer’ voyage, and as spectacular as the ship was, I was bored out of my mind.”
“And it showed,” Mai chimed in. Téa nodded slowly, reaching for her glass and taking a tentative sip of the concoction.
“If I hadn’t gotten hold of you, you probably would have gotten smashed off the horrible drinks they had and dropped yourself overboard!” The two of them laughed, just as the sensation of vodka flooded through Téa’s mouth.
Her eyes widened and her lips puckered as she tried to swallow, the burning sensation building in her throat despite the tart cranberry flavor mixed in.
“Oh, don’t look like that Téa. He wasn’t serious about it.”
“Goodness no!” Brucie exclaimed. “I love my life. I love this bar, I love bartending…” He cast a warm gaze toward Donny, who had a free moment at the door and gazed down at him. “I love Donny!”
“You two are solid.” Mai grinned. “Too bad not all of us are that lucky.”
“Oh, shush you, Mai. I thought you said you didn’t need a guy.”
Mai laughed, standing up from her chair. “And I don’t. What I need to do is prove that same fact to my friend here. So we’re going to get her as far away from your kind as possible and party as hard as we can tonight.”
“My kind!” Brucie shouted in mock hurt. “Hey, my kind is gay! You have nothing to worry about!”
Mai only laughed, tugging an astonished Téa back to the dance floor.
By the time the two girls got home, it was after three on Tuesday morning, and they were both incredibly tipsy, if not drunk. Mai of course, could hold her alcohol a lot better than Téa—who’d never before had such strong drinks—so she appeared a lot more in control than the brunette did.
Since DV8 hadn’t been far from the upscale apartment complex where Mai lived, the two ladies had walked all the way there. Luckily, the weather had stayed dry, though the temperature had dropped significantly as the hours wore on.
“Loads of fun,” Téa hiccupped, giggling. Her face was flush and she felt warm and tingly all-over; only when the wind blew did she really get the shivers.
If this was what being drunk was like, it wasn’t half bad. She was almost euphoric. Téa had successfully pushed all her thoughts on Yugi, Seto, and everything in-between to the darkest corner of her mind.
“I told you,” Mai smiled, laughing loudly. Her voice echoed off the soot-gray buildings, enveloped in the shadows of nightfall. Neither of them cared if anyone heard them. They didn’t want to care about anything at that moment. It was like the world existed only around them, and their problems had flitted off to somewhere else, vacationing for a while.
“Get out here,” Mai gestured from the balcony of her apartment.
“We were just outside,” Téa pointed out, stumbling from the darkness of the apartment. She blinked sleepily at Mai, who was clutching onto the railings and staring out at the eastern city skyline.
Mai shook her head. “We’re not done yet. You have to do something.”
“I hafta—” Téa began, but Mai silenced her with a finger to her lips.
“Repeat after me.”
“Repeat after me,” Téa echoed, and burst into a fit of laugther. Mai only rolled her eyes, straigthening as best she could in her high heels and on wobbly legs.
“I DON’T NEED A GUY!” Mai yelled, her voice bouncing off the buildings.
Téa blinked, but smiled widely, clearing her throat and preparing to yell.
“I DON”T NEED A GUY!”
“GOOD FOR NOTHING—”
“GOOD FER NUTHIN’—” Téa hiccupped and laughed, “RUDE—”
“INSENSIT-Inshinshi—Insho—INSENSITIVITIBLE!” The two girls laughed and gripped the balcony railing tigther, leaning out as far as they could, shouting for all their lungs were worth.
“BOSSY!” Mai shouted.
“EGOTISTICAL!” Téa added with a frown.
“SELF-CENTERED PRICKS!” Both girls yelled at the same time.
By now, several dogs had started barking, and lights flickered on from the various apartment complexes. Mai and Téa exchanged one last glance and nodded to each other.
“GUYS SUCK AND WE DON’T NEED ‘EM!”
And with that, both girls stomped into Mai’s apartment, slamming the balcony door after them. They sank to the floor in peals of laugther, faces pink from the cold and their bouts of screaming.
“That was therapeutic.” Mai grinned.
“Def’nitely,” Téa slurred, the tiredness evident in her voice. She glanced toward the couch that had been her bed the previous night, and waved to Mai.
“I’m gonna sleep now. Sleeeeeeeep.” She collapsed bonelessly onto the couch, her fingers tangling up in the knit blanket before throwing it crookedly over her body.
“You’re drunk, Téa. Sleep is good. If you wake up and need water, you know where the sink is.”
“Hey! If I’m drunk, what’re you?” Téa cried, bolting up from the couch. Mai only laughed, closing her bedroom door with a click. “Hey!”
Joey Wheeler was absolutely exhausted.
His job had taken him all over the city today, and it hadn’t been until just an hour ago that he’d finished his last delivery. He’d had to swing by the office to fill out the delivery slips and then finally clock out.
But, despite the fact that he was tired enough to collapse on the nearest bench, Joey took the long route home. This meant wandering through the entertainment district, through the upscale apartment complexes, and…to his neighborhood. Where his drunken, lay-about dad was probably waiting with an empty bottle, ready for throwing.
He didn’t want to go home.
He never wanted to go home. It didn’t even feel like home. Where he lived was just…it was a house where he crashed every now and then. He couldn’t even say it was the place where his bed was, where he ate…
“Hah, if I’m eva’ that lucky…” Joey whispered under his breath. Few things in Joey’s life made him happy. They were, in no particular order—his sister, dueling, and—
“I DON’T NEED A GUY!”
Wait a second. He knew that voice.
“I DON’T NEED A GUY!” He knew that voice too.
Joey wandered down the streets, following the two voices that were startlingly loud for that time of night.
“GOOD FOR NOTHING—”
“GOOD FER NUTHIN’—” There was a loud hiccup and a giggle.
There. Joey glanced up—he knew that apartment complex. He knew that balcony.
He knew those girls. Leaning over the railing like they were about to tip over—
“BOSSY!” Blonde. Streams of golden blonde hair falling over slender shoulders, exposed to the autumn cold.
Mai always did wear the oddest clothes out of season.
“EGOTISTICAL!” And Téa. TÉA!? What was she—
“SELF-CENTERED PRICKS!” Both girls yelled at the same time.
“GUYS SUCK AND WE DON’T NEED ‘EM!”
“Guys…suck?” The two girls had been utterly unaware of Joey’s presence, and had retreated into Mai’s apartment, a loud bang signaling the closing of the balcony door.
Still, his chest had ached at the two girls’ words. He could imagine fiery, violet eyes boring into him, those words ringing in his ears as if they’d been meant for him all along.
Mai hadn’t been around lately. Had been avoiding him, Joey now realized. Téa too. She wasn’t sick or…
Something was wrong, though. It wasn’t like either of them to just up and get drunk like that.And Joey knew they’d been drunk. He could recognize drunkenness even from kilometers away…because he’d spent most of his life with a drunk: his own dad.
Téa and Mai weren’t like that, though. Mai was too smart to let herself go like that, as was Téa. They were two of the girls that, aside from Serenity, meant more than anything to him in the entire world. He couldn’t let alcohol claim them, not like it had his father.
The father that would yell and scream at Joey, chuck bottles at him until he was locked in his bedroom…that father would be enraged if Joey took any longer getting home.
Joey cast one more glance up toward Mai’s apartment, the neighborhood now quiet and black once more. He shoved his hands in his pockets and quickened his pace, though he hated the thought of going home.
But it wasn’t as if he could just march up to Mai’s apartment and…do anything. He was a guy. They hated guys.
He’d tell the guys st school later on. And they’d do something about it. They had to.
Joey was in his seat nearly thirty minutes before the bell rang.
Even Kaiba entered the class after Joey, pausing in the doorway with a strange expression on his face. Never before had Joey been so extremely early to class.
But he had good reason: he was waiting for someone. No, not just anyone, but Téa. As the minutes slipped by and more and more teens came into the class, Joey grew increasingly worried. It wasn’t like Téa to be this late. She was normally one of the first people in class…. Was she really going to skip out on school that day?
It just wasn’t like her—to go out and get wasted. But Joey had seen her—had heard her! There had been no mistaking that head of brown hair, and that high, soprano voice. Even if she’d been shouting, her voice slurred with drunkenness…he knew it had been her.
Joey’s gaze constantly drifted between Téa’s empty seat and the clock. The ticking continued, its march endless. She still wasn’t here…
The bell rang, loud and shrill.
Classes began, and Téa remained conspicuously absent.
It wasn’t like before, when she’d been excused from classes for a week by the teachers. The boys had been unaware of her excuse for being absent, but nonetheless had understood. Her parents had just passed away, and Téa, determined girl that she was, had kept going, even if she was falling apart on the inside.
But that obviously wasn’t the case now.
She’d been at Mai’s apartment—not wherever she worked. She’d yelled about the infidelities of men, her drunken state plain to see—or rather, hear. Something big had happened, and now she wasn’t showing up to school.
Yesterday she’d only been in half of her classes, but she’d looked fine…
He had to tell the guys what he’d seen last night. They would help him come up with a plan to find out what had happened to Téa and get her back.
He was sure of it.
Unbeknownst to Joey Wheeler, others had noticed Téa’s absence and were equally disturbed by it.
One was Chieko, the co-president of the dance club she and Téa had helped found. She had a feeling she knew who she could ask, but…
The same person Chieko was thinking of also happened to be thinking of Téa. She was gone—defaulting on her promise. He would have to find her then.
No one but Chieko saw Bakura clench his fists tightly, his hands turning distinct patches of red and white with the pressure. The irritation and anger was plain on his face, yet Chieko couldn’t help but remember Yugi’s words from last month:
“Bakura’s not—You can’t trust him!”
But if Bakura knew where Téa was…
“Yug’!” Joey called out to his friend, dodging fellow classmates cramming their way toward the hot bread stand.
Yugi was small—but far from easy to miss. He couldn’t possibly hide himself, not with that hairstyle of his. Joey was glad that Yugi stood out from the rest of the school, especially now, when he really needed to talk to him.
The shorter boy turned decidedly tired eyes on his friend; it was the same expression Joey had seen on Yugi the day previous. He wasn’t sleeping, and Joey had the feeling it had something to do with Téa.
‘Of course, you nimrod! He told her he’s in love with her, and she didn’t feel the same! Any guy would be hurt by that!’
Suddenly, Joey remembered exactly what he had seen and heard last night—most especially Mai, and how she’d done a good deal of “guy-cursing” herself. It wasn’t just Téa—who was no longer living with her employer, it seemed—but Mai as well.
She hated guys…didn’t want anything to do with them. And for some bizarre reason, that hurt—a lot.
Joey would never admit—aloud—that he liked Mai. He did care for her, but then, he cared for all his friends. Still, hearing her scream that “guys suck”…?
“Joey?” Though Yugi would have rathered to just just spend his day in silence, contemplating where he went wrong with Téa, Joey suddenly became distracted. What was wrong with him?
Joey shook his head furiously, as if ridding himself of memories. “Yug’, I know you’re upset about Téa and all, but there’s somethin’ you gotta know.”
Had Joey found out who Téa’s employer was? Who she was—had been—living with and…who her heart belonged to?
“I probably already know, Joey,” Yugi mumbled, not wanting to discuss Kaiba at all. The very thought of the older boy brought a sour taste to Yugi’s mouth. It wasn’t just a matter of rivalry now—Kaiba really had beaten him, and this wasn’t like a duel…there couldn’t be a rematch.
Téa wasn’t some kind of prize to be won.
“Nah, I don’t think you do, Yug’,” Joey continued, motioning Duke and Tristan over. The boys eyed Joey with a measure of curiosity, waiting for him to continue. “Téa ain’t livin’ with her employer anymore, whoever he is. Last night I saw her—and she was completely wasted.”
“I still don’t believe it.” Duke murmured, shaking his head.
“It totally doesn’t sound like Téa…” Tristan began. In the back of his mind, he thought that it maybe sounded like Mai, and perhaps the older girl had coerced Téa into getting drunk. But Joey would flip his lid if Tristan dared to say something bad about Mai, and so he wisely kept his mouth shut.
“Yug’, is there something you’re not tellin’ us—I mean, about when Téa told you…” he trailed off nervously, not wanting to upset his friend even more than he already was.
“If you don’t mind my asking, when did she tell you, anyway? Téa’s been absent a lot lately—half of yesterday, and all of the day before that, too.”
Yugi hadn’t the sligthest clue where Téa had disappeared today, but the day before yesterday…that was the day she’d told him everything. The day Kaiba spent in jail, while Téa worked tirelessly to get him out.
And Kaiba didn’t even know.
If they’d had some huge fight that had resulted in Téa—who had been completely honest with Yugi when she’d admitted her true feelings for Kaiba—left the mansion, and then…
“…She told me the day how she felt on Saturday,” Yugi murmured. He could tell them everything—and betray both Téa and Kaiba’s trust. He could tell them that Kaiba had been arrested for the murder of Téa’s parents, and that Téa had worked her butt off trying to prove him innocent—because she loved him that much.
That wasn’t exactly how Téa had told him—initially, she’d said that she thought Kaiba really had killed her parents. But as the day had worn on, she’d found more evidence that made clear the fact that Kaiba had been framed, and she’d been terrified of what would happen. Not just to herself, but Kaiba and Mokuba, as well.
They were part of her life, and…she loved them. Loved him.
“Well, what happened to her?”
They had a right to know why she’d been absent. Maybe–maybe if he could just omit some truths…it would certainly take a weight off his chest. He was tired of being in the dark all the time, and he was sure his friends felt the same.
“S-She found out…that her parents were murdered,” Yugi admitted quietly.
Joey pulled back in surprise, unable to blink or even look at his other friends. Duke and Tristan both wore similar expressions of astonishment. The Gardners…murdered?
“By who? Did they catch the guy?” Duke blurted after a moment.
Yugi shook his head, “I don’t think so. They had a suspect, but…well…” How could he tell them that the real murderers—the Big Five—were still out there? Duke and Tristan wouldn’t understand, having not faced them in the Virtual World back when Kaiba had premiered his RPG program, but Joey would.
The Big Five were just as much a threat in the real world as they’d been in the virtual world. Only now, they didn’t bother with five-headed dragons and mystic rituals, they just skipped straight to the killing part.
“Oh, man…” Tristan shook his head, “that girl just never has it easy, does she?”
“No, I guess not,” Duke agreed. He looked up suddenly. “Joey, if she was getting plastered only three days after finding out about this, don’t you think we should go find her?”
“Yeah,” Tristan agreed, “getting drunk just isn’t like Téa, and if something’s happened with her job too, then she’s pretty much stuck where she is. She might do something stupid and dangerous if we don’t try and talk to her.”
Duke turned and looked regretfully at Yugi, “I know it must be tough for you, Yugi…if you don’t want to come, you don’t have to.”
Yugi shook his head resolutely, “No. It doesn’t matter what Téa does or doesn’t feel for me. She’s my friend and…I care for her. We should go out and talk to her.”
Yugi realized that he had to, as well—he had to ask her so many questions. What had happened between her and Kaiba? Why was she now staying with Mai? Why had she gone and gotten drunk the previous night? What else was she hiding from him that could put her in so much pain…?
In the back of his mind, Yugi thought he should probably tell Kaiba. As much as he detested the older duelist for gaining Téa’s affections—even if he didn’t know it—he had a right to know what was going on with Téa.
‘But what if he doesn’t care?’ Yugi suddenly realized that Kaiba acted the same as he always did—at least, when Yugi was around. But perhaps he’d said something to Téa yesterday, and that was more the reason why she left.
‘You just want to take blame off yourself, after you were so cold to her yesterday,’ Yugi thought with a frown.
That’s not true, Yugi.
Yugi shook his head, forcing Yami’s voice out. He didn’t need input from him at the moment. No, this was an issue that went deeper than dueling, and beyond the time that Yami had existed in this world.
Yugi had to do this…on his own.
“This isn’t going to be easy,” Tristan groused, dumping the remains of his lunch in the trash can. “If Téa’s really stayin’ with Mai in that classy apartment complex, then how the heck are we gonna get in to talk to her? Somehow I doubt Mai’ll be on our side.”
“Yeah, especially after that whole ‘guys suck’ thing,” Joey grumbled. He’d grudgingly elaborated to the guys how he’d known who Téa was with and how he’d known she was drunk.
“What I wanna know though,” Duke began with a smirk, “is how you knew that place was Mai’s. Something you’re not telling us, Wheeler?”
Joey frowned, not liking the implications in Duke’s voice. He knew the guy was probably just making a joke, but it stung—after all, it wasn’t like he really was…
“I went there once,” Joey mumbled. “Dropped Mai off at her place, after the whole RPG affair.”
Back in the RPG Virtual World, Joey had defended Mokuba from what would have been a lethal blast against the younger boy—and Joey fell. The Big Five altered the digital world so that there was no way to know that if you died there whether or not you’d ever wake up in the real world.
But Joey had, and once away from the intruding gazes of the Kaiba brothers and the others, Mai embraced him tightly, glad that he was still “in one piece.” Joey hadn’t expected any such warmth from Mai, but he certainly wasn’t about to complain.
Contrary to what people believed, Joey was a gentleman—and after a quick stop at a local eatery, he’d offered to walk Mai home. And she’d let him, without a single word of fuss. Miss Mai Valentine, headstrong, no-nonsense, don’t-need-a-guy Mai had let Joey Wheeler take her home.
All the way upstairs, and right to the front door of her apartment.
The place was so ritzy, Joey couldn’t keep his jaw from dropping or his eyes from bugging out. He was amazed. Mai really did live the high-life. This was life on the other side of the tracks for people like Joey. He worked hard everyday just to ensure he could eat dinner, but Mai…
Though he was astonished and more than a bit jealous, Joey didn’t let it show. He told Mai he was glad she was okay and bid her goodnight—but she’d grabbed his arm to get him to face her, and she’d kissed him, ever so softly. Her perfume had wafted in the air around Joey long after she’d gone inside—and Joey still stood outside her apartment, eyes wide with shock.
His lips still tingled after that, but he hadn’t told anyone. Not even his stupid father, who wanted to know why Joey was so out of it when he finally returned home that night. He’d paid for his silence with bruises, but Joey didn’t mind—the memory of Mai’s sweet kiss made up for everything.
And then…and then Battle City had begun. So many things had happened, and while Mai never made mention of the kiss, she did look at him in that devilish, coy way—the same way she had before parting from Joey at her apartment door and sauntering inside.
Joey grew increasingly unsure of his feelings toward Mai throughout the Battle City tournament—it was confusing enough, dealing with mind-controlling enemies and all-powerful God Cards. In his duel with Odion, Joey fell unconscious…and seen all his friends—even Mai and Serenity, who didn’t even go to Domino High—encourage him to get up and keep dueling.
He’d locked eyes with Dream-Mai, reaching out for her hand beyond everyone else’s. Joey had wanted the rest of his dream-friends to fade away, so it would just be him and her, and he could finally admit that he—
But no. He’d woken up, and gone and blurted that Mai hadn’t been in his dream at all. And who had reprimanded him for that—and told him that lying would never get him anywhere? Téa.
That brought everything full circle, now. Téa—his first high school crush, his cheerleader, his best girl friend, his sister’s confidante, and Mai’s best friend. Mai…the girl he’d fallen in love with.
Even if Mai did think guys sucked, Joey couldn’t just leave it like that. Not when two of the girls that mattered most to him were both obviously in pain. He wouldn’t back away from this…not a chance.
“Well, do you think we’ll stand a chance of getting inside?” Duke asked, breaking Joey from his train of thought.
“Wh—aw, man, no way.” Joey realized they were still on the subject of Mai’s apartment complex. “That place has got a phone-dial entry, a security guard at the front desk 24-7, and a card-swipe apartment lock. No way we’ll get in there.”
“Then that only leaves us with one option,” Tristan murmured.
“Yeah,” Yugi whispered, “we have to find Téa ourselves.”
“Are you ready yet?” Téa asked in an exasperated tone, tapping her high-heeled boot against the hallway in Mai’s apartment.
A muffled voice came out from the bathroom, followed by a bang and then a string of colorful curses. Finally, the door opened and Mai emerged, fumbling with a pair of stilettos with lace-up straps that refused to stay tied together.
“Why are you so gung-ho to go to DV8 tonight, anyway? I thought you hated yourself for getting drunk last night.”
“No,” Téa began, trying to sound a bit cheerful, “I hated the hangover. I don’t mind the distraction, I don’t mind the drinks, and I sure as heck don’t mind the dancing.”
“Hmph,” Mai grinned. “I knew you’d see it my way. You’re just lucky I can party with you most of tonight. My shift doesn’t start until ten.”
“Good. I need a dance partner, anyway.”
The moment Téa had spoken, Seto’s face came to mind. The way he’d looked at her when they’d danced back at the Ball…and then, lightless eyes glaring at her just before he—
‘I promised myself…I would fall out of love with him. I’ve got too many things to worry about besides Se—besides Kaiba!’
And promises–promises reminded her of someone else. Maybe…
The music pulsated throughout DV8, urging the dancers crowding the semi-circular floor to dance faster, more energetically. Téa and Mai were in the center of it all, their faces flushed and glistening with a thin sheen of sweat. They were completely surrounded by adoring guys—many of them surprisingly Téa’s age, and even younger.
She didn’t know how they’d gotten into the club, and she could have told Mai…but it didn’t matter. She was having fun. And she was not thinking about Kaiba…
‘Ugh. Thinking about him by thinking I’m not thinking about him is the same thing…’ Téa groused to herself. She slid and pushed her way out between the throngs of people, flashing some of the boys sweet smiles.
Mai was getting most of the attention, really, and what Téa wanted at that moment was someone to pay attention just to her. Sure, it was a selfish thought, but Téa wasn’t entirely confident of herself at the moment.
The alcohol she’d consumed earlier had a double-edged effect—sometimes it blocked out her painful memories and saddening thoughts, but sometimes it just brought them to the fore of her mind. Her loneliness grew tenfold in times like those, and she found herself wanting to be in a world outside of DV8—a place where she could be herself, and not have to hide behind so many lies, broken hearts, or forgotten promises…
‘I didn’t forget.’
Ducking into the dimly lit hallway, Téa pulled her cell phone from her purse and quickly skimmed her phone book for one particular number. She stared at the bright screen for a moment before taking a deep breath and pressing TALK.
‘Here goes nothing.’
It had been easier than he would have expected.
People eager to get into the darkened, thronging club surrounded the place, and Ryou Bakura would have thought a snowball would have an easier chance of making it into hell in one piece. But two older girls had latched onto his arms and brought him in. When he’d politely thanked them and told them he was looking for a girl, they’d exchanged nasty looks and stalked off.
So now, he was looking for Téa.
What an odd situation. He never would have imagined himself in a place like this—at least, not in Tokyo. In London, he’d been to a few clubs just like this, but that was a lifetime ago.
Why had Téa asked him to come, anyway? They rarely did anything together, and yet she’d asked him to come. Him specifically—and him alone. He’d asked about the others, but she’d just said she wasn’t on good terms with them.
That was surprising.
She didn’t want to talk about it, Ryou realized, and he completely understood.
It was then that he spotted a head of familiar, thick blonde hair—Mai. He approached the older woman at the bar with a bit of hesitation—she was surrounded by muscled boys his age or older—all of them not looking the least bit ready to step aside and let him talk to her.
Fate must have intervened, for the moment Ryou cleared his throat, she looked up and noticed him, a measure of surprise plain on her pretty face.
“Bakura! What the…are you here for Téa?”
Téa had told Mai the entire ghost story, including the bit leading up to her ‘debt’ with Bakura. Mai wasn’t entirely sure what to believe when it came to dark spirits and Millennium Items, but after her adventures during Battle City with Malik, she learned not to question them.
The white-haired boy nodded solemnly, averting his gaze from the older boys surrounding Mai that were now growling faintly at him. They probably didn’t appreciate the fact that Mai’s attention had suddenly been drawn away from them, let alone to another guy that she actually knew!
“Ryou!” Before Mai even had the chance to tell Ryou where Téa was, the brunette came bounding out of the crowds of people, her face flushed a bright red and her face and neck glistening brightly. The straps of her tank top were sliding off her shoulders, and Ryou was well aware that he wasn’t the only one staring. But he was probably the only one who resembled a candy cane, with a head of snowy white hair and a bright red face.
Much to Ryou’s surprise, Téa wrapped her arms around him and dragged him off into the crowds, much to the bewilderment of Mai and her entourage, as well as the boys that had been eyeing Téa like hungry wolves.
What Ryou would have given for an ounce of his other half’s confidence—how he wanted to shoot an evil glare their way to tell them to back off, to stay away, because Téa was—
“Téa,” Ryou began slowly, “are you drunk?”
She just bobbed her head up and down rapidly, smiling.
“Why not?” Téa hiccupped. “The drinks here are delish, and Mai’s the bartender, sooo…”
But that obviously wasn’t what Ryou wanted to hear. After a moment of swaying to some nameless song, she finally responded in a soft voice, “I just…for a few days, I wanna forget. I wanna forget about stupid ghosts, stupid love confessions and…and stupid Kaiba.”
There. She’d gone and said it. Practically admitted that Kaiba was still on her mind, even though she’d told Ryou—well, his other half, technically—that Seto was still very much in her heart. No matter how callous he was to her.
“Ah.” He couldn’t really think of anything better to say, so they just continued dancing.
“All the things she said, all the things she said, runnin’ through my heeeeeeeaaad…” Téa slurred in a loud, off-key voice. She slumped against Ryou’s shoulder, giggling quietly and then slipping off into sleep.
“Okay, that’s one too many Rum and Cokes for you, Téa,” Mai tsked, pulling the few remaining shot glasses surrounding Téa away from the barely-conscious girl.
“Do me a favor, Bakura, could you wait with her outside while I finish cleaning up? I’ll be out in a few.”
DV8 was closing up, and Mai was wiping off the counters and herding the straggling dancers—and drunks—out of the club. It was well past four in the morning, and hardly a time Ryou would have thought himself to be out—let alone with a girl. Least of all Téa. Obviously his initial impressions of her had been horribly wrong…or drastically left-of-center.
Now he had a completely drunk Téa hugging onto his arm, more asleep than anything else.
“A-Ah, of course,” Ryou nodded slowly, his gaze drifting to the brunette slumped against his arm. She was awfully close….
Mai glanced up at him from behind the counter, an eyebrow raised in question. She apparently wondered why Ryou just stood there—staring at Téa’s rosy face and slightly-parted lips. Embarrassed that he’d been caught, Ryou quickly mumbled something under his breath and scooted out into the night, guiding Téa out with his hand on her shoulder.
The crisp cool night seemed to awaken Téa a bit, but it did nothing for her drunken state. She stumbled from Ryou’s light grasp, twirling in a crooked circle and plopping down on the rim of a large cement tree planter, a few meters away from the DV8 entrance.
“Ba-ku-ra…” she enunciated slowly, giggling. “Nope, nope, nope! You’re not him!”
“Téa? Are you—are you all right?” Ryou hadn’t had much experience with drunk people, truth be told. It came as a bit of a shock that Téa was the first, and a huge relief that she wasn’t stereotypically throwing up everywhere or accusing him of anything. Or throwing things.
“You’re Ryou!” Téa continued deliriously. “That’s a good thing! That you’re Ryou and not Bakura, because it means I kept my promise and I’m doing something right for a chance. Means that I–I don’t have to bother with those stupid other guys!”
Maybe she was being a bit stereotypical. Didn’t drunken people tend to spill their deepest secrets?
Ryou blushed at the thought of Téa leaning against him, telling him things that not even Yugi and her other close friends were allowed to hear. It was just the two of them now…late at night. All alone.
Why had she invited just him, anyway?
“Téa…” Ryou had to still her constant movement by placing a firm hand on her shoulder, gently turning her to face him, “Why? Why did you ask me to come tonight?”
Her gaze dropped to her lap, where she began to twist her fingers anxiously. “You really wanna know?” she whispered.
Ryou nodded firmly, though a hint of trepidation arose in his throat; what if he didn’t like what she was about to say?
“I–I’m pretty lonely. I mean, I came here last night and partied just the same, and it was fun…but it’s not the same. Mai–Mai had to work, and all the guys that ask me to dance…none of them care. None of them know me, you know? And Yu—the other guys—” Téa frowned, unwilling to refer to Yugi, Joey, Tristan, and Duke by name, “are mad at me now or whatever. I don’t care. I just needed to get away from them, from school and everything and…well, I remember you could dance…”
“Not as well as you, Téa,” Ryou whispered, unthinking. The moment the words spilled from his mouth, he looked up at Téa, expecting to see a horrified expression on her face. But instead she seemed to be smiling an odd sort of half-smile.
“Let’s get out of here!”
Mai was walking from the DV8 entrance, looking entirely exhausted and ready to go home. Ryou didn’t dare say anything further to Téa, and the silence lingered between them even after they’d started walking home.
Mai and Téa arrived at what Ryou surmised was Mai’s apartment complex—a very upscale place, to be sure—when Téa reached out and grabbed Ryou by the shoulder.
“Tomorrow night,” she murmured. “Come.”
“Téa…” he hesitated. She was drunk, and there was a pretty large chance she wouldn’t even remember his appearance at DV8, let alone her asking him to come again. But…
Téa smiled widely, her cheeks still flushed a bright red. She bowed a bit too deeply in thanks, prompting Mai to lead the younger girl upstairs, a quick wave to Ryou signaling her goodbye.
Ryou didn’t walk away until long after Téa and Mai disappeared.
What was he thinking!?
“What are we thinking?”
“That’s the problem,” Duke grumbled to Tristan. “We aren’t thinking at all. There’s got to be a way to find Téa.”
“But how? She ain’t answerin’ her phone, she ain’t here at school, and she ain’t wherever she’s supposed to be, workin’ with her employer or—”
“That’s it!” Tristan snapped his fingers, rising from his chair.
“What?” Duke and Joey asked in unison, blinking widely at Tristan.
“Kaiba!” Tristan said flatly. “He’s the one who introduced her to her employer, right?”
Yugi was the one with the memory for such conversations, so all eyes turned to him. He nodded slowly, not wanting to divulge the truth, out of respect to both Téa and Kaiba. Part of him insisted that he could tell the others the truth, and make Téa out to be a bad person…but he couldn’t. He didn’t hate Téa. Just because she didn’t love him the way he loved her? Just because she’d told him the truth about how she’d felt for so long, and how after not getting any signals in reply, and understanding that Yami and Yugi were two different people, she’d moved on?
To his rival, no less.
Yugi spent so much time trying to encourage Kaiba to be more social, to bring them into their circle…and now he’d gotten what he wanted. Just not how he wanted. Everything was so horribly confused now, and who knew what Téa could be thinking…or doing.
It wasn’t like her to go off and get drunk. It wasn’t like her to put herself in danger, or to ignore her troubles, rather than face them head on. Something happened outside of what Yugi knew…and Kaiba had all the answers.
“Yeah,” Yugi finally murmured, “he was. I should go talk to him.”
“Yug’…” Joey mumbled, surprised that his best friend—after all he’d been through with Kaiba—would readily volunteer to speak to his rival about where Téa was. Though Joey didn’t want to admit it, it would make sense if Kaiba knew where Téa was. He’d been able to find her when none of them could, and…
‘What if Seto Kaiba is her boss?’
Funny how Duke’s words came back to haunt him. Joey doubted that Tristan and Duke even remembered that—but Joey did. If only because Mai brushed that theory off so easily, and now…now Téa was off getting drunk with her. Not that Joey doubted that Mai could take care of herself, but…There was so much he didn’t know. About Téa…about Mai. If Téa really felt desperate enough to throw her problems into a glass of alcohol, then who knew what else she’d be willing to try?
That was why they had to find her—and fast. If they pretended that Téa would just reappear and things would go back to normal, confusion would escalate, and the problems increase tenfold. That was just how it went in their little circle. A day ago, maybe he would have held out hope…but with Téa being gone a third day in a row, it was just too unlikely.
“Yeah, Yug’. You should talk to him. Maybe he’ll listen to you.”
Maybe. Joey sure as hell hoped so.
If there was one thing Yugi had learned from Joey, it was that bluntness had its moments. Now was one of those such moments, when he only had a few seconds to get through to Kaiba, or risk never knowing about Téa again. It would be so easy for her to disappear from their lives entirely…and he couldn’t let that happen. Regardless of his unrequited feelings, Téa was very much apart of his life.
“Where is she?”
Kaiba didn’t turn around to face Yugi; he barely favored him with more than a sidelong glance. If he wanted, he could have ignored Yugi altogether, but apparently Yugi’s direct question caught his attention.
“Where is who?”
“You know who,” Yugi frowned. “Téa. Where is she?”
Kaiba frowned in distaste, “Why should I know where your little cheerleader is?” He started gathering things to get up and leave, to return to the classroom. Lunch was almost over anyway, and didn’t want to have to spend a single second more around Yugi Moto than he absolutely had to.
Yugi clenched his hands around his Millennium Puzzle, resisting the temptation to allow Yami to take control and—and what? Knock him senseless? Duel him to death? It was all pointless. He just wanted Téa back.
“Because you were living with her for the past three months, that’s why!” Yugi hissed, trying to keep his voice as low as possible. His words had the expected effect—Kaiba froze where he stood.
Yugi refused to be the one that ran around to look Kaiba in the eye—rather, Kaiba had to do the turning. He had to be the one to look him in the eye. A single moment could have lasted an eternity, and Kaiba spun around to face him. Had he been wearing a trench coat instead of his school uniform, it probably would have swooshed in that gravity-defying arc, like all of Kaiba’s coats.
“How do y—” Kaiba started, but Yugi found his voice again and barreled onward.
“Because Téa told me everything! Because the other day when you were stuck in jail—”
“How dare you—” Kaiba started, his eyes narrowed in anger.
“I dare because of Téa!” Yugi exclaimed vehemently. He hardly cared if anyone overheard them now. Kaiba deserved just what he was getting. “She was running around without sleep, without food, putting herself in danger to save you! Because she cares about you—” his voice quieted, “more than she cares about me.”
Kaiba was going to snap at Yugi, but the smaller boy’s words caught him off-guard.
“I–I told her that…” Yugi fumbled for the words, hating the memories that burbled forth, “that I was in love with her. And she told me that she doesn’t feel the same. She cares for someone else,” Yugi looked up from behind his blond bangs, violet eyes wide and filled with sincerity. “You, Kaiba.”
Kaiba wanted to accuse Yugi of lying, but—he wasn’t. Yugi didn’t lie. But…
“You should dare too,” Yugi continued in a softer voice. “Because she stuck her neck out for you, spending all day to prove you were innocent. She could have let you rot in there, and die for her parents’ murder, but the minute she knew the truth, she did her damndest to prove you innocent.”
“…She should have known in the first place.”
“How? How do you expect her to know when all she hears is that her parents didn’t die in an accident, but they were murdered in cold blood? If someone told that to you, do you think you’d be able to keep a straight face?!”
Yugi’s words hit Kaiba harder than he expected. His parents were already dead. If someone came up to him now and told him that his mother hadn’t died of an illness and his father in an accident, he…
‘I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t know who I’d believe.’
“None of us know where she is, Kaiba. We thought—I thought…Look, there’s got to be a reason why she’s not coming to school, but instead she’s off getting drunk and yelling from the tops of roofs!”
“She’s what?” That didn’t sound like her. That wasn’t Téa at all. But how could he possibly he claim he knew her when he couldn’t even trust her? And now she apparently cared for him? It was all a bunch of lies.
“Joey…saw her the other night. With Mai. We’re afraid Téa’s going to do something…dangerous, and we don’t know how to find her. Please, Kaiba.”
“I’m so sorry!”
That night, she cried. He’d seen her tears, but he’d steadfastly ignored them. It was her fault he’d landed in jail in the first place, her fault that he’d gotten tangled up in her problems…her fault that he was starting to feel something for her and he didn’t know what.
Seto Kaiba hated not knowing things. It meant that he was at a disadvantage, that he was…
But had Téa really made him weak, like his inner-Gozaburo insisted? Wasn’t it also true that no one could change you, or force you to feel anything—that you made every choice yourself? Seto Kaiba didn’t believe in fate or destiny—he made his own decisions. His own choices…his own feelings.
Maybe Téa really wasn’t the one to blame.
“What did you say to her?” Yugi asked suddenly, no longer pleading. Kaiba was the last one to see her—to talk to her. He knew why she was like this.
It couldn’t be because of that one single lunchtime when Yugi couldn’t face her. The thoughts of how to act and what to say to her terrified him. Out of the need for something akin to self-preservation, he’d run from his very best friend. From the girl he loved with all his heart.
“I don’t think you should come back to the mansion, either.”
No, it wasn’t as simple as that. She’d suggested it in the first place—for whatever reason!—but he was the one to call her foolish. To stare at her coldly…without a shred of regard. She’d cried, and he hadn’t given a damn…but now, now he did. Now he had to.
Because she was gone.
A quiet voice interrupted the boys’ private conversation, drawing their attention to the speaker—Chieko. Kaiba frowned at her appearance; he still wasn’t very fond of the blonde, and she’d grown decidedly close to Téa since arriving at Domino High. Yet no one bothered to interrogate her regarding Téa’s location.
‘She wasn’t the one that left Téa homeless,’ a previously silent voice in Kaiba’s mind spoke. The very thought of Téa brought feelings to the fore again, and Kaiba became unsure as to what to do or say.
“What is it, Chieko?” Yugi asked, almost tiredly.
“I am aware that Téa is missing,” Chieko said softly, “and I believe I know who to ask to discover her whereabouts.”
Kaiba stiffened, trying to look as though he didn’t care, but the truth was, he did want to know. If none of them could get hold of Mai, who was obviously with Téa, then who…?
Yugi froze in place, his face entirely placid. But his eyes betrayed his shock…and how overwhelmed he was by Chieko’s words.
Someone would have said something—anything—to fill the air, but the silence was abruptly broken by the slamming of the hallway’s double doors, banging loudly against the wall. The crowd of students returning to their classes—including Joey, Tristan, and Duke, lingering in the hall, waiting for Yugi—halted and turned to the source of the disturbance.
“Serenity!” Joey exclaimed in a shocked voice.
The redhead marched right past her brother, Tristan and Duke, not even sparing them a glance. She stopped right in front of Seto Kaiba, not at all intimidated by the older boy’s height, nor his icy blue gaze.
With a movement swifter than any eye could catch, she slapped him clean across the face, the action making a noise heard clear across the hallway.
“Seto Kaiba, this is all your fault! I was supposed to shadow Téa at school this week, but because of you, she’s not coming. She’s not even picking up her cell phone to talk to her friends!” Serenity snapped at him, daring Kaiba to challenge that he was Téa’s friend. Still in a state of shock from the diminutive Wheeler girl’s slap, Kaiba forced himself to hear her ramble, unwilling to be the coward that walked away from a girl—let alone a Wheeler one.
“Try as you might to be king of the world, you’re far from perfect, and I know I’m not the only one that knows that! Everybody makes mistakes, and ‘everybody’ includes you! So you better find Téa and admit you’ve made a mistake, and tell her you want her to come back to school!” Serenity continued, her voice taking on a suspiciously familiar Brooklyn accent.
“If you don’t, I swear to high heaven that I will kick your sorry ass from here into the next millennium! And I won’t be the only girl you’ll have to fear either, you got me!?”
Of course, Serenity didn’t even favor Kaiba with the option of responding. She just stalked off, leaving an amazed crowd of people behind. It wasn’t long before the murmurs began: “Who was that girl?” and “Does anyone have her number?”
After that, Tristan and Duke got into a series of arguments, while Joey ran around doing damage control.
Seto Kaiba only blinked, his eyes drawn to the double doors Serenity Wheeler had just stormed out of. His face still burned from her sudden slap, but what echoed in his mind were her words.
“You better find Téa and admit you made a mistake!”
“You said Bakura knows where Téa is, right?” Yugi murmured, turning to Chieko abruptly. She nodded, still a bit surprised that the gentle girl she’d met at the school festival just slapped Seto Kaiba clean across his face. His cheek still burned a bright red, too.
“We gotta trail him,” Tristan spoke up, breaking from his argument with Duke. The dice master frowned slightly, but nodded in agreement.
“Much as I hate to say it, Tristan’s right. I just wanna know why the heck Bakura knows where Téa’s been these past few days.”
“She saw him,” Chieko stated firmly, “before she left school on Monday. I did not hear much of their conversation, only Téa saying that she couldn’t stay, and Bakura expecting her to do something.”
This struck a chord in Kaiba as he remembered Bakura’s words from several nights ago—“You owe me.”
He’d agreed to do anything if it meant saving Téa from Gozaburo, and now…
“You don’t have to come, you know,” Yugi murmured, standing alongside Kaiba. The spiky-haired boy didn’t meet Kaiba’s split-second gaze, but he didn’t need to. “It’s up to you. We’re meeting up tomorrow evening in front of the game shop. If you want to come.”
Kaiba didn’t need to be enrolled in a university-level course to know reverse psychology when he heard it. Yugi just wasn’t doing a very good job at it. Still…why should he bother? Gardner, who had screwed up his life so royally. Who…was still on his mind.
You never should have trusted her!
It didn’t matter that Seto had forgiven Gozaburo for all the suffering he’d put everyone through. It didn’t matter that the Kaiba patriarch was never again to see the mortal realm. He was dead—long buried—and a shade of the past.
But Gozaburo’s voice lived on in Kaiba’s mind, constantly reminding him of the fool Téa made of him. She had wormed her way into his heart, given him feelings that he’d never experienced before. And right when he was on the verge of giving into them, she had delved into his past, abused his trust, and landed him in jail.
She could not be forgiven.
Yugi knew the truth—but he hadn’t told the others. They were all utterly clueless. He could easily tell them that he bore no fault for whatever happened to Téa, and that he didn’t owe her anything. She owed him.
But he couldn’t say it…not even now, given the opportunity. Probably because the words sounded so hollow and false, even in his own mind.
Yugi Moto didn’t wait for Seto Kaiba to respond; he just walked out of the hallway, leaving Kaiba alone with his thoughts.
“Ah, Mr. Kaiba, you’ve returned.”
Seto glanced toward the once-secret mezzanine entrance; since the ghost catastrophe, he hadn’t yet replaced the tall mirror with anything else, and now there was a gaping black hole in the wall right next to the front door.
Charles was coming down from the dimly-lit staircase, an odd expression on his face.
“What is it?” Kaiba asked his head of security. He’d never seen Charles look so uncomfortable before, and the young CEO had the slightest inkling that he wouldn’t like whatever Charles had to tell him.
“Please come with me, sir.” Charles motioned Seto to follow him up the stairs and into the security room; along the way, Seto couldn’t help but shiver as he passed the panic room. The steel door had since been replaced, and the room was dark once more, devoid of any ghostly presence.
But the image of Téa blasting that door out of its grooves—a two ton door, pushed away by powers possessed by a girl so slight, so delicate…it was unthinkable. Téa had gone and changed everything in his life and he…
She brought you down to your knees!
It was all he could think about. Gozaburo’s voice still echoed in his head, but the face, the memories that had once burned him, of painful times and hard-learned lessons…they were gone. He’d actually forgiven the man. It was all a thing of the past, and now…
“Sir? While preparing our quarterly security report I…came across some odd videos. I thought you might like to have a look at them.”
A short stack of videos sat neatly next to one of the monitors on the right side of the room, the leather Commodore chair already pulled out and waiting for him. A pair of thick headphones sat jacked into the console, a single screen blue, blank and waiting.
“What about them?” Kaiba asked, sitting down in the chair. The videos weren’t labeled with anything other than the dates they were from—and few of them stuck out in Kaiba’s mind as being important dates. Most were from the previous week, but there was one video…from the last week of August.
The night of the Ball.
“It…” Charles began. He wasn’t the type of man to duck around the truth, but what he’d seen in those videos defied explanation. “It is rather hard to explain, sir. It is probably for the best if you watch them yourself.” Charles began to walk out of the room, and then paused. “The last video, sir, from the week of August the 24th? I believe we had some sort of hardware error, as there is hardly any actual video feed, but there is audio. I thought you might find it interesting.”
Charles didn’t elaborate further, and exited the security room, closing the heavy door behind him with a click.
It was just Kaiba and the videos now.
He took one of the cassettes and inserted it into the nearest monitor’s VCR, pressing Play and putting the headphones on.
“Here goes nothing.”
The film was from the kitchen camera, placed just in the corner of the hallway between the laundry room and garage door, and the open entrance to the kitchen. It was the only camera in the area, given its appropriate placement and ample swivel room—but it did not capture where Téa emerged from. She looked completely exhausted when she slipped by the camera, the device sensing her movement and following her with its lens.
She was still wearing pajamas—a simple tank top and loose sweat pants. While no one else would have thought this odd, it struck Kaiba as such, since he always remembered her being immaculately ready every morning when he saw her. Even though he was the one who got up willingly at 5 o’clock in the morning, here she was…a good ten minutes ahead of him, yet still in her nightwear.
Téa hurriedly started preparing coffee—odd again, Kaiba realized, since he knew she didn’t drink the stuff. She preferred tea and soda, given the option. But it wasn’t as if she told him as much, it was just something he noticed. But somehow, he doubted that she was hiding a secret caffeine addiction, and that was what Charles wanted him to see. No, there was something else here….
Midway through pouring the grinds in, she visibly stiffened, nearly dropping the cup of grinds all over the counter. She turned around slowly, her gaze first and her body following—she sensed someone watching her. But not the camera—no, someone else. She suddenly pressed herself against the counter, fear written in her eyes as clear as day. She was downright terrified—but of what?
There was a crackling in the sound—not made by any human, or by anything in the kitchen. It wasn’t the sound of the coffee grinder or of Téa breathing. Rather, it was a crackling, staticky sound mixed with that of a whisper…
Raspy, like a snake’s. Familiar…
He wasn’t visible—not on the screen, anyway, but somehow Seto Kaiba knew that it was Gozaburo. It had to be. There was only a blur—not even a hint of color, but a distinctive warping in the screen, and not caused by any smudge on the lens. It was as if the ghost’s presence somehow imprinted itself on the camera film, but not entirely. Things of a supernatural nature weren’t meant to make sense to the scientific, electronic world…
But the tape was from several days before she’d told him about the ghosts! Before the situation had spun wildly out of control, and…
‘That morning. I woke up…and she was gone.’
He remembered pressing hands to her sheets, panic racing through his veins when he realized that she hadn’t slept in her bed recently. Where was Téa? And then he’d nearly stumbled into Mokuba, amazingly awake at that early hour. His younger sibling claimed to have seen Gozaburo, but Kaiba had just brushed it off…impossible, he thought. Utterly, completely impossible.
But he’d still been afraid.
Up until he’d walked into the kitchen and saw Téa—alive and whole—he hadn’t been sure what to expect. But now he knew. Now he saw everything that happened when he wasn’t there.
“Gozaburo Kaiba,” Téa gritted out, her arms still bent sharply toward the counter, gripping the edge like lifelines. She was trying to mask her fear, but it showed anyway.
Another staticky rasping, this time he could clearly make out what had to be Gozaburo Kaiba’s voice: “Téa Gardner.”
How had this all started? How was any of it even possible?
The staticky sound in the background increased, as if someone were crumpling paper next to the video camera’s microphone. He couldn’t make out any distinct words except for the hissing rasp that echoed in every decibel of sound.
“Oh yeah? What have you seen?” Téa said, trying to sound snappish. Her voice wavered ever so slightly, her palms still gripping onto the counter’s edge as if it could provide her with a mode of protection.
Abruptly, the crackling sound in the background stopped, and Kaiba could make out a single word: “Happiness.”
An expression of fear—mixed with curiosity—replaced the grimace of revulsion masking Téa’s face as she leaned forward ever so slightly. “Why are you here?”
The blur shifted, darkening on the edges as it came closer to Téa. The crackling sound began again, this time louder and tinged with a deeper hiss. “You know what?” the sourceless voice asked.
“W-What?” Téa was trembling visibly now, seeing what Kaiba could not.
“Games are fun,” the voice leered, moving outwards. Suddenly, a black shape appeared in what could only be the phantom’s hand—impossible to make out from the distance the camera was at, but somehow familiar to Kaiba.
‘What is it?’
Téa obviously recognized whatever it was, as her eyes widened in fear as the shape drew ever closer to her.
Again, the background noise stopped abruptly, as though Gozaburo’s words were intended to be heard later on, by Kaiba. But it made no sense. Gozaburo…long dead, reawakened somehow in his own household, thirsting for vengeance. Threatening and harming Téa when she hadn’t even known the man! And these fragments of audio didn’t answer any of the questions surging forth in Kaiba’s mind.
“I like games.” Without warning, the blur that could be no one but Gozaburo Kaiba disappeared and reformed just behind Téa, spinning her in a semicircle and twisting her arms up so that she was pinned against him, unable to move. Although Kaiba recalled that he wasn’t able to see anything at the time, the camera, albeit not very clearly, had the ability to detect Gozaburo’s spectral presence.
“You’ll soon learn, Téa dear, that this is no game.”
“You think this is funny?” Téa spoke in a trembling voice, “That haunting this place—doing this is going to change anything? You haven’t been apart of Seto’s life for years now. Your haunting this place isn’t going to threaten him in any way.” The specter drifted slightly to the right, as if looking toward the swinging door between the kitchen and the dining room. The gray shape in Gozaburo’s invisible hands protracted unexpectedly into a slender blade, pressing directly against the skin of Téa’s neck.
“It’s not a damn hickey!”
Kaiba suddenly remembered Téa yelling at her friends at school…tearing the bandage on her neck off with such force and swiftness that her wound, upon coming into contact with the air, bled, trails of crimson arcing down her neck.
She’d asked him if he believed in ghosts…and he’d said no. Told her that the very thought was completely preposterous.
He hadn’t even given her a chance, and she…
“You’re the problem here,” Gozaburo rasped, still an obscure haze to the camera. The rustling noise continued, growing louder still. “…He’ll never know true happiness.”
Moments later, Kaiba saw himself burst into the kitchen, staring at Téa. He remembered what he expected to see—something horrible, something beyond his imagination. And just as quickly as he’d realized she was all right, he’d dismissed every notion of ghosts or Gozaburo reappearing in his household. He hadn’t seen…
Téa remained frozen in place, tense with anticipation. Gozaburo pressed the blade closer to her throat, daring her to speak, to move.
‘She could have died.’
And he never would have understood.
“He doesn’t believe in you and your stories enough to see me. Doesn’t believe I even exist anymore,” the phantom chuckled. “But you know different, now don’t you, Téa?”
The camera angle hid most of Téa’s face from view, and Kaiba was only able to see one side of her face—her eyes darting from him—sitting at the table with a fresh cup of coffee—and her captor, invisible to all eyes but her own. She was terrified. And he hadn’t seen. Hadn’t noticed at all…
“What’s wrong with you?”
Not, “Are you all right?” but “What’s wrong with you?”
‘What was wrong with me?’
Barely an instant passed before he saw it—a crimson trail of blood sliding down Téa’s neck, the result of that blade he’d seen before, slicing her open. Her eyes widened and her knees buckled, but Kaiba—the one in the video—didn’t even notice. Téa mumbled something to him and clapped a hand over her wound. The Kaiba on film continued to read his newspaper, as Téa stared at him with mournful, desperate eyes.
‘I didn’t even see…’
Téa’s gaze dropped to the floor as she stood, standing, shaking in place. Moments later, she looked up ever so slightly…and noticed that same dark blur on the floor. Only now, there was no blade protruding from its base. With trembling hands, she lifted it up, facing away from the Kaiba on film. The Kaiba watching the video immediately took the opportunity to slide his fingers over a few buttons and zoom in on the object—a chess piece.
A rook…its turrets covered in a fresh sheen of blood. Her blood.
Kaiba fast-forwarded through the next several hours of tape…there was nothing to see. At least, not until the afternoon of that same day. Téa appeared on-screen alone, glancing about as if waiting—no, hoping—that someone would appear. And she probably wasn’t hoping for a ghost.
The distortion in the screen that Kaiba now identified as Gozaburo materialized not a meter away from Téa, hovering over her like a cape.
The phage hissed, his voice unaccompanied by any static this time. Kaiba could clearly hear his words: “Welcome, welcome, dear Téa.”
Téa steadfastly ignored the ghost, clenching her fists at her side. She was trying to appear strong—resolute—but in the face of something that couldn’t even be seen, let alone understood…how could she not be afraid? She was pretending. For him. She was pretending to be strong in the face of someone so dangerous for him—Kaiba. He’d told her that he didn’t believe in ghosts…
So she couldn’t rely on him. Not for support, information, or protection.
He’d left her utterly alone, and she’d paid dearly for it.And now, Kaiba realized, feeling the incredible emptiness of the mansion that he’d never dared notice before, so was he.
“Ah, pretending to ignore me, are you? It won’t work.” The blurry mass that was Gozaburo Kaiba’s ghost sidled closer to Téa, even as she took a plate and prepared a snack for herself. She was distracting herself, but failing miserably. She shook slightly as she cut a few slices of cheese, Gozaburo’s presence irritating her to the point where she slammed the knife on the counter sharply and wheeled about, facing the specter that remained invisible to the lens of the camera.
“What do you want, anyway?!” she yelled, the exasperation plain in her voice. “It’s not like Seto’s here anyway, and if you’re here to drive me crazy, well then, Mission Accomplished!” Téa heaved a great sigh after that, sitting down at the kitchen table and taking out her schoolwork. She nibbled lightly on her snacks, desperate to prove that she could ignore the apparation’s presence.
Much to Kaiba’s surprise, the next sound he heard was laugther. A sickeningly familiar laugh, too. “No wonder you bring him such…joy.” The disgust in Gozaburo’s voice was plain, even if it wasn’t be echoed on a visible face.
Gozaburo haunted the house long before this incident. Long before Téa and Mokuba first saw him. How else could he have known…?
‘When did she bring me joy?’ Kaiba was so dead-set on reminding himself of the messes Téa had gotten him into that he’d forgotten about the little things she’d said and done that—Gozaburo was actually right—had brought him joy.
“Smile. For me?”
Her eyes, riveted on him throughout the course of his speech. Gloved fingers pointing at the corners of her mouth, urging him, up on stage and in front of a crowd of people, to smile.
“Duel Monsters cookies!” She’d taken boring old sugar cookies—that they’d made together—and shoved him out of the kitchen. Under a cloak of secrecy, she’d gone and decorated them to such a degree, Kaiba couldn’t find a single flaw in their design. And they’d tasted delicious, too.
“These are a family secret.” She’d blushed then, and looked…
The memory caused Kaiba’s mouth to dry suddenly. She’d looked beautiful. It was probably one of the few times he could really admit it, without engaging in a fierce battle with his inner voice seconds later. Beautiful. That was all there was to it.
And she did bring him joy.
Kaiba shook himself out of his reverie, focusing on the screen again. Gozaburo’s ghost loomed large and intimidating over Téa, who stared up at him quietly, regarding him with a coolness that looked out of place on her usually-smiling face.
It was then that Kaiba remembered her tears when he’d told her that she was no longer welcome in the Kaiba mansion. She hadn’t even returned to get all her things. She still filled the house with her presence, even without being there. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t the same.
“Quiet, girl! Don’t speak of that which you have no idea!” Gozaburo snarled, his form growing larger and more menacing. As a normal man, he intimidated corporate giants and presidents alike. He scared his own adopted sons into submission…and he terrified an innocent girl without reason.
“No idea?” Téa chuckled, her voice soft and her eyes drawn downwards, “No idea.” She looked up a moment later, her eyes startlingly clear.
“I don’t care how long you’ve been haunting this place, or how well you think you know me. Haunt me all you want—you don’t know a damn thing about me or what I’ve been through! I know what it’s like to lose someone you love—I know what it’s like to suffer! All you Kaibas are the same—you think that by wearing a smile, I’ve forgotten?! I’m doing my best just to stand right now!”
She wobbled a moment later, collapsing into her chair and sighing.
Kaiba was silent in the face of this admission—and startled by her words. Somehow…they were familiar.
When next he looked at the video screen, Gozaburo Kaiba was gone.
Where had he heard her words before?
Of all the spats he’d gotten into with Téa (the fact that there had been multiple instances rather embarrassed him), he couldn’t remember an instance in which she’d said anything remotely like “You think that by wearing a smile, I’ve forgotten!” But still, the words…he’d heard them before. From her, and he was sure of it.
But he couldn’t remember.
Seto Kaiba prided himself on having a perfect memory. The good, the bad, and the ugly—he remembered it all. It meant that he could catalogue his opponents’ weaknesses and strengths. It meant that he could adapt to any situation, based on past experience. It meant that things like this wouldn’t happen! He hated not understanding what Téa meant when she’d snapped at Gozaburo, and not remembering…
‘The night of the Ball.’
There was one time in his life when he couldn’t remember what happened to him—and it had been the night of August 24th. Later on, Yugi and the others approached him, showing him a newspaper photo that Kaiba didn’t remember having taken. He’d held a glass in his hand. The contents must have been alcohol. Why else wouldn’t he have remembered…? But why would he have gotten drunk in the first place? He wasn’t that kind of person—he was too smart to just down one drink after another.
“It’s a little late for that!”
After the beach trip, he’d practically admitted that he wanted to–to…
‘I wanted to kiss her.’
Téa nearly drowned that day, and he hadn’t performed proper mouth-to-mouth on her. He claimed that he didn’t want to have her mistake his intentions, or do anything before they were ready. She knew exactly what he was talking about—”Didn’t want me to mistake it for a kiss?” It was no use dodging the truth around her. Yet when it came to finding out the truth from her, it was a whole other story.
He still didn’t know what happened the night of the ball. Téa never told him.
The answers were just one video tape away.Maybe–maybe all his questions could be answered from that one tape.
It was just like Charles said. No video. No anything. The time still displayed in the lower right corner, but there was no error message to indicate why the video suddenly went black. The sound of the door being opened drew Kaiba’s attention back to the audio—if the video couldn’t tell him what he needed, then maybe the audio could. There was a brief flash of light from when the door opened, and it was then that Kaiba understood.
The bulb in the camera burnt out, and now the only source of light was whatever came in near the camera. Given the positioning of the device—in the narrow corner next to the mezzanine stairway—no wonder it was so dark.
There was the scuttling of feet—Mokuba—going up the stairs, and finally, Téa’s voice.
“Seto Kaiba, what is wrong with you? Why are you so grouchy—I thought tonight went well! Everyone liked your speech, and you danced wonderfully, and the press didn’t annoy you…”
Kaiba wondered why he didn’t respond. He didn’t remember coming in with Téa…in fact, as he racked his brain, he realized he couldn’t remember much after dancing with her. Those memories were locked in a confusing haze.
“How can you do it?” Kaiba pressed the headphones closer to his ear, turning up the volume. Why did he sound so…harsh? What was he talking about, anyway?
“What? Do what? What are you talking about?”
“How can you…” There was a pause, one that Kaiba recognized as the sort that crept into his voice when he grew frustrated, “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!?”
His fingers slid to the pause button without thinking, freezing the blank screen and the accompanying audio.
He wasn’t just drunk, he was incredibly idiotic! No wonder Téa had been so…silent with him the next day. So quietly upset. How dare he?
“I dare because of Téa!” Kaiba remembered Yugi yelling at him. Téa was gone now. Missing. Unreachable. It was in his power to go with them—to try and find her—but to do what? To accomplish what? How could she possibly forgive him after all he’d said and done?
He would only know if he continued watching…if he heard what came next. Pressing the Play button, Kaiba closed his eyes and listened intently.
“Wh…How dare you? I haven’t forgotten my parents, I can’t forget about them, not for a second I’m breathing on this planet!”
Her voice caught, as if she were beginning to cry. Still, she continued strongly, despite the wavers in her voice. “I honestly thought we were getting somewhere, Seto Kaiba, where you at least tried to understand me and what I’m going through—what I’ve been going through! You should know, better than anyone else, that I’m always going to be in pain, that I can’t just forget anyone or anything! I smile because if I don’t, I’ll fall apart! I’ll break into tears, I’ll scream, and I’ll suddenly realize that I have nothing left!”
So that was where he had heard those words before.
She was gasping for breath now, having expended all that she had in her brief rant. No words were spoken, but there was a sudden thumping, and then a gruff, hardly audible voice—his.
“I don’t know…” The rest was unintelligible. Kaiba paused the tape and rewound, turning the volume up slightly. “…how you…no matter…say.”
“Damn,” Kaiba cursed under his breath. Even the audio was of poor quality. Still, he listened.
“You’re everything…when I lost them…”
Kaiba didn’t need subtitles to realize who he’d been speaking of. His own parents. And it was the truth. Thoughts that he’d pushed to the deepest recesses of his mind suddenly came surging forth—those of jealousy, confusion, and…desire.
“I want…determination…courage, your…ability to smile…”
Kaiba turned the volume up as high as it could go, noting how his audio-self’s voice had become gruff and his breathing heavy. Téa said nothing, but if he listened close enough, he could hear her slight, gasping breaths, slowing as she regained her composure. There was silence for a moment, and then what Kaiba heard almost caused him to slip out of his chair.
“I want you.”
He rewound the tape and played it again, thinking he’d perhaps misheard his own words.
“I want you.”
There was no mistaking it. Following those words, there was an extended period of quiet—and then the sound of a door slamming. Téa’s breathing came in quick, high-pitched breaths—and he realized the moment she sobbed aloud that she was crying.
Because of him.
To his surprise, something flickered on the monitor. Kaiba again rewound the tape, removing the headphones he wore and staring—Téa, just barely visible in a blue light, tears streaming down her face, her fingers covering her mouth as she raced upstairs.
‘What did I do to her?!’
Thinking about it didn’t work. Not thinking about it didn’t work. Everything just came back to the fact that he still couldn’t remember what happened the night of the Ball, and the video footage—or lack thereof—hadn’t helped answer his questions, either.
Therefore, the only conclusion was that he had to speak to Téa.
Speaking to her meant apologizing. Not because he had to, but because he wanted to. It was odd, thinking that he wanted to be sorry for anything, but the videos with Gozaburo revealed just how she’d been feeling—when he hadn’t been willing to believe in her. That and, if he wanted to remember the night of the Ball, he had to ask. He couldn’t demand answers from her, not after what he’d said and done.
She’d put up with the spectral presence of his adoptive father for a several days before she’d told him about it. Him and…
“Your adoptive brother.”
Noah. Kaiba had only encountered him in brief spurts—once at the festival, and again, when Gozaburo nearly killed Téa.
‘And I couldn’t help her…’
Maybe it was best if he didn’t try and approach Téa again. It would be selfish of him to do so, just to get answers—to resolve the bizarre feelings cropping up in his heart. Imagine—him, Seto Kaiba—with a heart. But it ached, thinking of her. Of never seeing her again, of…having her angry at him, for the rest of their lives. He couldn’t have that.
There was so much to apologize for. For not believing in her. For not giving her the faith in him she needed. For not understanding…
Kaiba put the old tape—from the week the ghosts had first started to appear—back in the player, daring to watch more.
“You shouldn’t have said anything.”
Noah. Kaiba recognized that voice, but, like Gozaburo’s phantom on camera, the source of the sound remained unseen.
“Your father’s an idiot,” Téa said frankly. Her words brought a slight smirk to Kaiba’s lips; she always did say whatever was on her mind, didn’t she? Around Noah, she didn’t seem half as afraid as she was around Gozaburo. There was something she knew about Noah that apparently put them on equal footing. Besides that, she’d gone and said what Kaiba had ached to tell his adoptive father for years.
Gozaburo Kaiba was an idiot, whether he was alive or not.
“Sometimes.” Noah, like Gozaburo’s phage in that he was transparent—at least, partially—pulled out a chair and sat in it. To the camera, it looked as though the chair moved out on its own, and the space that Noah occupied was a mix of blurry and static-filled. Still, if Seto squinted, he could almost make out Noah’s ghostly features, from his stature to the curve of his lips.
“H-How do you do…that?” Téa asked, looking more confused than afraid. How did she know Noah? If both he and Gozaburo haunted the Kaiba mansion, invisible to even Téa and Mokuba up until recently, why had they revealed themselves when they had? Why–why Téa? Why was she the one able to see them, and the one to get entangled in problems that were of Seto’s past…and no one else’s?
Kaiba frowned when Noah smiled winningly at Téa, a chuckle escaping from his ghostly lips. “What, this?” His gaze never broke from Téa’s as his arm faded to invisible and he picked up a nearby napkin holder, the object appearing to hover in mid-air.
“Never been too sure of that myself,” Noah continued, putting the holder down, “I’ve just been playing with my options recently. I can touch things sometimes…” Kaiba’s eyes narrowed, catching the way Noah licked his lips while looking at Téa. But—he was a ghost! Surely he couldn’t have—
‘I am not jealous of a dead guy.’
“But most of the time, it’s like I’m in a different dimension. Can’t touch, can’t feel…”
Maybe that explained why no one else could see the ghosts until recently. Something about the dimensions intersecting, and the time being right for ghosts to appear, and certain events to happen…
Suddenly, a vision of a card—not a Duel Monsters card, but a tarot card—appeared in Kaiba’s mind. At the festival, when Bakura told Kaiba and Téa’s fortunes…he’d known. Gozaburo Kaiba appeared in that spread—as The Devil.
‘He knew all along,’ Kaiba realized with a dry mouth. Bakura knew all along of the ghosts, and that Kaiba would turn to him for assistance. He had to have, or why else would he be the only one now with knowledge of Téa’s whereabouts? He’d been the one to take her to the hospital, the one to be at her side when she first awoke…the one to save her.
“You owe me.”
Maybe he’d blackmailed Téa too, and that was why…
“…Bakura expected something of her.” Chieko had said.
The pieces were coming together. The ghosts…Bakura…
But everything went back to Téa. Kaiba turned back to the video, startled to see that the slightly amused smile disappeared from Téa’s face. She regarded the teenage ghost beside her with curious eyes.
“Do you…even know why you’re here?”
“Too soon. I died too soon. It feels like—like I’ve been living here for years and years, but…asleep. That’s why I take this form more often, I think.”
‘A different form?’ But it was useless wondering now—Noah, like the other spirits that appeared only a few nights previous, was never to appear again.
“How…I mean, if I can ask…how did you die?”
Téa had voiced the very question Kaiba wondered himself—but asking it aloud would have meant he believed in the ghosts. Seeing was believing for Seto Kaiba, but looking back on the whole incident, it sounded a bit crazy in his own mind. And yet…here was solid proof. An undoctored tape, with the sourceless voice and mysterious events…
“I…” Noah cocked his head to the side, as if trying to remember, “I—”
“Don’t tell her anything, Noah.” Gozaburo’s voice snapped, calling Kaiba’s attention back to the tape, and away from his questioning thoughts. Gozaburo Kaiba’s phantom now occupied a very visible space—a mass of darkness, shifting and sliding about like black smoke. To the camera, Gozaburo still had no face nor body, but it didn’t matter—so long as his words were heard.
“None of this makes any sense!” Téa yelled staring angrily at Gozaburo, “You two both died under mysterious circumstances, Seto doesn’t even know who the heck you are,” Téa gestured to Noah, “and I’m the only one who can see either of you.”
And to anyone else watching the video, she would have appeared crazy. But…
“Mokuba can see us,” Noah replied quietly.
Though he didn’t realize it, watching the video so intently, Kaiba’s skin went ashen. They’d threatened Mokuba?
“Don’t drag him into this. He’s just a little boy—” Téa started, her voice trembling.
“And a Kaiba!” Gozaburo interrupted. Seto wanted to scoff—that was his adoptive father’s way of thinking, all right. Once a Kaiba, always a Kaiba. Live up to the name, or else. Seto never wanted to find out what ‘else’ really was.
“It doesn’t matter WHAT his name is! Don’t hurt him!” Téa cried out, surprising both phantoms and Seto with the intensity of her voice.
“So then, better you than him?” Gozaburo asked in that crisp, business-like manner of his. Kaiba waited for her answer with bated breath.
‘Would she really have—?’
‘She’d sacrifice herself…for him? For me? For…us?’ The thought was almost incomprehensible. Téa stood up to forces beyond anyone’s understanding, and practically dared them to kill her. If it meant Seto and Mokuba were protected…
“Because she cares about you more than she cares about me!”
Yugi didn’t lie. The boy was sickeningly honest about everything, practically displaying his weaknesses in kilometer-high neon lights above his head. But he didn’t care.
Likewise, Téa was nothing if not up-front with her feelings. Yet, for the past several months, Seto found himself entirely confused by her—her words, her actions…her expressions…Everything was a puzzle, and she was the key to it all.
Seto skimmed the rest of the tapes—pausing to watch one where he saw himself entering the kitchen and catching sight of a slew of papers on the kitchen table. That day, he’d come home early…wanting only to talk to her. He remembered the feeling.
It was strange—a sort of desire, but…simple. It wasn’t like the desire he had for the God Cards, or his desire to see Yugi defeated once and for all. It was different—the desire to merely see her face, to hear her voice.
But when he’d seen his own adoption papers mixed in with news articles and hand-written notes, that feeling drained away from him like water down a drain. It was replaced by a feeling Kaiba knew only too well by now—betrayal.
‘How dare she!?’ he’d thought. He hadn’t even bothered to ask her questions. To give her a chance.
‘She was trying to save us.’
“What the hell is all this?” Seto wrenched his gaze away from the security monitor, unwilling to see himself treat Téa so cruelly. Yet he made no move to remove the headphones from his ears, knowing that he had to listen—to her.
‘If I couldn’t listen to her then, maybe now…’
Maybe now, it would make a difference.
She tried to explain things to him—tried to tell him about the ghosts and their threats. Of the danger Gozaburo Kaiba’s presence put them in…but he wouldn’t listen. The single thought of Téa—who he’d wanted to see for no reason at all—betraying him ignited his anger. He couldn’t escape it…
“STAY THE HELL OUT OF MY PAST!” Kaiba cringed, hearing himself yell at Téa. It wasn’t until she came along that Kaiba ever bothered with emotions—at least, not ones like the regret threatening to swallow him whole in that very instant. With a great deal of reluctance, he glanced at the monitor, the guilt within him multiplying when he caught sight of Téa’s tears. Strong as she made herself out to be, his words had hurt her—a great deal.
She stumbled out of sight, and Kaiba paused the video—his video-self staring in the direction Téa ran to, an odd expression on his face.
Hours of video later, Téa reappeared onscreen, her steps hesitant and her gaze wild. The timestamp in the corner of the monitor revealed that it was very late at night.
‘She wanted to avoid me. Protect me, but avoid me.’
He hadn’t understood…
“You should stop. Go.” The voice that Kaiba now recognized as Noah’s sounded, but there was no form onscreen. The light in the kitchen where Téa diligently worked was dim, the camera not able to see the blur that Kaiba was sure was there. But to Téa, there had never been any blurs—only phantoms.
“I don’t know why he’s so dead-set on hurting you…but I know you’re a good person Téa, you don’t deserve this—”
‘The damn ghost realized it before I did,’ Kaiba cursed under his breath. Seto Kaiba hated feeling inferior, but as of late, it was all he felt. Compared to Yugi, compared to a ghost, and compared to Téa.
“You’re damn right I don’t! And you didn’t deserve it either! I’m trying to help here! I just want to know the truth.”
“I want to know why, too, Téa! Please, just don’t anger him anymore. I’ll find a way…we won’t bother you anymore. Please, just don’t…”
His voice faded to a soft echo, and Téa was left in the kitchen, alone again. Moments later, she resumed her work, heedless of Noah’s warning. It was then that it became inescapably clear to Seto—Yugi had been right. She did care. Too much. She willingly—knowingly!—put herself in danger…for people she barely knew. For people that her own best friend claimed she cared about more than him.
Of course there had been a few instances when everything seemed muddled, and maybe—just maybe—she felt something for him. But now? After everything that happened, after all he’d done and said…how could she ever forgive him? How would he ever know unless he spoke to her?
Kaiba went through each tape, committing the scenes to memory. If he could apologize for what he couldn’t have known—for what he was unable to see—then maybe…
Maybe the house wouldn’t feel so cold and empty anymore.
Maybe she would come back.
Maybe she would be herself again, and he…
Kaiba stopped, suddenly seeing Téa dangling mid-air and then, in a blur of motion, flung against the tall mirror that once guarded the door to the mezzanine he now occupied. It all happened so fast—he rewound, and played it again, this time careful to wear his headphones and listen to the audio.
“What a pleasant surprise to greet Seto when he comes home—young Téa Gardner, broken and bloody in his very doorway!”
Gozaburo. Kaiba’s eyes narrowed—he was the one, invisible to the camera lens, unseen by even his own eyes…he was the one that had hurt Téa like that…!
As a man, he’d been strong—terrifying. But in the end, his own mental instability bested him, and Gozaburo Kaiba flung himself out of a twenty storey window. But as a phantom, he possessed strength unlike anything he possessed as a human. Téa, struggling futilely with her captor’s grip on her neck. Her movements slowed, and Kaiba realized that had Gozaburo not thrown her when he did, she would have died of suffocation.
She would have been dead when he walked in.
‘Am I supposed to be grateful…?’ Kaiba wondered mutely, forcing himself to watch—repeatedly—as Téa sailed through the air, the force of Gozaburo’s throw sending her careening into the mirror.
The suffocation hadn’t killed her. The fall hadn’t killed her. The glass hadn’t killed her.
‘I didn’t understand. I didn’t see…I couldn’t be grateful that she was in my life for even that much longer…’
Everything had gone awry after that. Gozaburo, sucking the very life from Téa…Bakura exorcising demons…
Only now did Kaiba remember that he’d seen her. His mother. The one other time he thought he’d seen her was years ago. When Gozaburo locked him in the panic room, and he’d been terrified that he’d starve to death. Each and every doubt that flooded his mind back then came back to sting Seto painfully now—in the present, when he already had so much to regret and feel guilty for.
He hated it.
He’d seen her, and she’d comforted him in a time of despair, and…
And he’d gone and thrown away everything she’d taught him. He’d become the very man Gozaburo trained him to be, which was the exact opposite of what Seto himself wanted.
It was then that he made up his mind—he wouldn’t succumb to the echoes of Gozaburo’s faded memory anymore. No more would he believe that a single person could force weakness upon you, or that feelings of any sort detracted from your chances of success. Seto made his own choices, forged his own destiny…felt what he wanted to feel.
Though Seto Kaiba was far from figuring out exactly what it was he felt for Téa Gardner, he knew one thing—he didn’t want to let go of that feeling. He wanted to keep feeling it and–and have her back. Back home.
The brunette looked up in shock, her blue eyes wide as Serenity Wheeler came bounding up to her.
The redhead was soon accompanied by another familiar face—that of Téa’s classmate, Chieko Sagusa.
“We did not think you would come, Téa,” Chieko smiled. The three girls stood on the foyer of the Domino Performing Arts Company’s small building, only a few minutes from the starting time Fran had specified for the “rehearsal auditions” back at the Festival.
“But I’m so glad you did!” Serenity embraced Téa tightly, “Where have you been? I’ve been going nuts trying to get in touch with you.”
“Wh-You have? But…but why?”
Serenity fixed Téa with a stare that plainly said ‘Why not?’
“Because I was supposed to shadow you this week at school, dummy,” Serenity grinned lopsidedly. The smile quickly faded from the younger girl’s lips. Her hands remained fixed to Téa’s shoulders as she regarded the older girl with a measure of concern on her face.
“I’m not the only one, too. When I showed up at Domino High—”
“You went all the way to my school, Serenity? But…why didn’t you just call me?”
“I tried,” Serenity interrupted flatly. “You haven’t been answering your phone.”
Téa blinked and rummaged around in her bag for a moment—realizing sheepishly seconds later that she didn’t have her cell phone with her because, aside from the one night she’d called Ryou to meet her at DV8, she had no one to call. No one she wanted to talk to. She’d forgotten entirely about Serenity and Chieko also being invited to the audition, and neglected to remember that the young Wheeler girl was apt to calling her.
“Besides, even if you had your phone on you, I doubt you would have heard me over the music at DV8.”
Téa stilled, turning startled eyes on Serenity. She only looked at Téa with a blank face, regarding her almost coolly.
“How did you—” Téa began, but Serenity cut her off again.
“I have classmates—friends—that go there. Old friends of Joey’s really, back from his gang days—”
“You know about that?” Téa gasped. She always figured that Joey’s stint with Hirutani’s gang remained his biggest secret from his precious little sister. After all, Serenity always seemed so enamored with her brother’s goodness and generosity, Téa figured that finding out her brother had once been a rebellious bad boy would shock her to death.
Yet here she was, talking about it as if the knowledge were commonplace.
“Of course I do!” Serenity snapped, looking slightly upset with herself at her outburst. “It doesn’t really matter how I found out, just that I did. Why are you hanging around in a place like that, anyway, Téa? It’s smack in the middle of gang territory.”
Téa hesitated. She actually liked DV8, despite some of the strange characters—Donny and Brucie excluded, of course—that frequented the place. Besides, Mai worked there…
“It’s not that bad, Serenity,” Téa tried to reassure her. “I haven’t even seen any gang members—”
“Maybe because you weren’t looking.” Serenity’s voice dropped to a dull whisper, “Téa, look—I heard about everything. My friend from school…his older sister goes to Domino, and you know that anything involving you, Yugi, Joey, and the others is always big news. I knew you’d stopped showing up to school, but when Chieko called me saying something about Bakura and you being drunk—”
“How do you guys know all this stuff?” Téa cried out, exasperated. It wasn’t as though she could change the past, though. There was no way to undo what she had said and done…including getting smash drunk and yelling from the balcony of Mai’s apartment. But…
“People talk, Téa,” Chieko murmured, shaking her head remorsefully. “The whole school is gossiping about you—everyone but your friends, of course.”
“Hmph,” Téa scoffed. ‘Some friends.’ The same friends that had abandoned her when she would have needed them? Second only to her parent’s funeral, Kaiba’s abrupt cruelty to her left her jarred and terrified. But her own friends hadn’t cared….
“Joey’s been rallying up the guys to see if they can find you. He was the one that found out you were staying with Mai, but told everyone that her apartment was super high-class, so none of us could get to you through her.”
Briefly, Téa wondered how Joey would know about her taking up residence with Mai—and what was more, how he knew about her apartment complex. Mai vehemently denied that she had any sort of relationship with Joey, and Téa had believed her. After all, how else could Mai be so honest with her about her tumultuous past with guys? Mai yelled right along with her that night on her balcony—“Guys suck and we don’t need ’em!”
But had either of them really meant it?
“They were actually running out of ideas, until Yugi approached Kaiba,” Chieko continued Serenity’s summary.
The last two people she would have thought would care about her fading from existence. After all, her once-best friend had to hate her now—for rejecting him as she did. And Kaiba…
Well, no surprise there.
“And that was when Serenity came in,” Chieko finished, a smile spreading across her lips. Téa blinked in confusion, staring from the blonde to the redhead.
Serenity only looked away, her cheeks coloring a brilliant red. She refused to say anything, her lips pursed together tightly.
“She slapped him. Kaiba, that is,” Chieko finished with a triumphant grin.
Serenity nodded meekly, but she couldn’t disguise the smile curving the corners of her lips.
“After all that I’d heard from everyone at Domino and even my own school, Téa, you can understand why I was pissed at him. Come on, he treated you like a total jerk, and he deserved it!”
“I’m not exactly going to argue with that,” Téa mumbled. But it still perplexed her about how much everyone knew—and how they all found out.
“Ladies! Time for the auditions!” a voice called from the studio, disrupting any chance Téa had of questioning Serenity or Chieko further.
‘Time for me to start my life all over again.’
The final video in the pile didn’t seem to feature anything out of the ordinary. At least, not compared to the others, with their ghostly distortions, blacked out screens, or scratchy audio. However, it was from the same week the ghosts started appearing, so Kaiba deduced there had to be a reason why Charles indicated he should watch it.
Tuesday, October 28th.
Kaiba wracked his memory for what happened that day, but nothing significant came to mind.
And then, the video flared to life—Téa walked down the marble stairs at an ungodly hour of the morning, slowly and stiffly as if…
‘As if she were following someone.’
Perhaps there was someone there he couldn’t see. But why would Téa have willingly followed a phantom down the stairs, when they proved to be such a danger to her later on?
‘She wanted to protect me.’
Maybe–maybe it didn’t matter whether she was willing, or whether she’d be put in danger. Maybe she just cared too much for her own good.
Abruptly, the camera view switched from the one nestled high in the ceiling above the stairs, to the one inside Kaiba’s own office—as Téa walked in. She froze, staring at the wall for a moment, before she turned around, glancing about in surprise. The light that captured her face was dim at best, but there was no mistaking her, or the look she wore.
She flicked on a light, revealing herself to the camera in her entirety—and revealing to Kaiba the subtle trembling of her body that he hadn’t noticed before. There had to be a ghost behind this…
Téa trailed her fingers over the books in his office—his study—as if searching for one in particular. But it made no sense—why would she have the sudden urge to read Latin at three in the morning? Her fingers paused over one title, her expression hesitant. And finally, with firm resolve taking over her form, she gave the book a tug—and, to Kaiba’s astonishment, the entire bookcase shuddered and slid backwards, and behind another row of shelves.
Téa stepped into the secret room revealed by the doorway, and vanished from the camera’s—and Kaiba’s—sight.
His breath lodged in his throat, Kaiba finally stopped the video.
Ghosts were one thing. But a secret room in his own house?
Slinging the headphones off his neck and returning all the videos to their neat stack, Kaiba stood up—his legs startlingly wobbly—as he made his way out of the security center. A secret room…he had to find it.
What had Téa found within?
Within minutes, Kaiba got his answer. It didn’t take him long to figure out which book it was—it was one of the few without dust covering it in a thin sheen, and the only one with a slightly upturned rug right below it. His fingers found the binding of the book with ease, and after a second’s hesitation, Kaiba pulled—and the door opened.
The first thing his gaze met with was an old chessboard…and a single rook lying haphazardly across the left side, its turrets coated in dried blood and rust.
To his right, a strange device—something that vaguely resembled his own Virtual World Pods, but in a state of disarray. Cords leading from the chair went across the small space, and into sockets on a large computer. The machine still flickered with power, prompting Kaiba to move toward it. He pressed several buttons in quick succession, the computer whirring and beeping as it processed his commands.
Countless files scrolled past, far too fast for Kaiba to make any of them out. All of them were ancient—at least, by Kaiba’s standards. Files authored by Gozaburo Kaiba himself…Several of them encrypted.
Kaiba easily could have decrypted them, but the shrill ringing of the nearby phone disrupted his train of thought. The moment Kaiba stepped from the small room, the sliding bookshelf immediately slid back into place, as if the space weren’t there at all.
“Mr. Kaiba, glad to hear you’re back to being your businesslike self.”
Kaiba’s eyes narrowed; he recognized that voice. “What do you want, Konami?”
He didn’t understand how Konami had gotten access to his private line anyway; most of the time, his calls were routed through a switchboard operator or secretary. But Sergeant Konami was a police officer, so…
“I’m not sure if Miss Gardner informed you, but we’ve obtained a warrant on all five of your AWOL Directors—alias ‘The Big Five,’ if I’m not mistaken?”
“…What do they have to do with anything?”
Konami was silent a moment, surprised that Téa hadn’t told Kaiba everything…about how she’d gone without food or sleep, desperate to prove Kaiba not guilty, the moment she knew the truth. She’d stood up to a whole crowd of adults, insistent that she didn’t care about the consequences to herself—she had to prove Seto innocent.
“Mr. Kaiba, you weren’t able to reach your attorney the night you were here, isn’t that correct? Didn’t it ever cross your mind as being odd, that the one time when you would need an attorney, Mr. Johnson couldn’t be reached?”
Well, of course it had crossed his mind, but…
Come to think of it, why hadn’t he put further thought into it? The Big Five attempted that stunt—to trap him in the Virtual World—almost a year ago, yet they’d all escaped, and he’d let them come back and work for him. And he hadn’t put a single thought into the Board of Directors since.
Were they really stupid enough to try something new—a fresh conspiracy, all to get him out of the CEO’s chair—of his own company!? Well, if they had, then they’d succeeded—at least temporarily. But what Kaiba didn’t understand was how it all tied back to the Gardners.
“Go on,” Kaiba ordered, not giving a second thought to pleasantries.
“Miss Gardner discovered from her parents’ former co-workers that the Big Five were blackmailing your own employees into silence regarding their activities. Mr. and Mrs. Gardner decided not to go along with the plan, so the Board of Directors initiated a plan to remove them from the picture—and frame you in the process.”
Téa…cleared his name? She stood up to police, a crowd of Kaiba Corp employees, and even the Big Five themselves?
“As it turned out,” Konami continued, “they embezzled money from employee health care funds. Mr. and Mrs. Gardner worked for a long while to obtain information from their respective companies—the Johnson Firm and Crump Financial—to prove the Big Five’s guilt, but we believe that the Big Five had them killed just before they could bring their evidence to the police. Luckily, with Miss Gardner’s help, we managed to obtain copies of that evidence from her father’s safe deposit box at another bank. I have to admit, Mr. Kaiba, I’m astonished she didn’t tell you any of this.”
“We haven’t…spoken, lately,” Kaiba finally admitted. He caught himself just before revealing that Téa also wasn’t living with him anymore, and therefore breached the contract she’d made with Konami all those months ago. After all, she was still supposed to be employed by and receiving room and board from Kaiba, lest she get tossed into a foster home for the few remaining weeks that she was seventeen.
“I…see. Well, excuse me if you’ll think I’m a bit bold for saying, but that Gardner girl is certainly quite smart—I doubt we would have solved all those riddles without her assistance.”
“Ah, yes,” Konami responded with a wry chuckle. “Mr. Gardner was aware of the risks he and his wife took when they decided to go after the Big Five, and so left a trail for Téa to follow. They didn’t know that the Laroque kid would be the one to carry out the Directors’ plan, but he was still an accessory to murder. The Big Five are the ones we’re after now.”
What else could he say?
“Well, if you hear anything, Mr. Kaiba, I don’t think I have to tell you—”
“I’ll inform you immediately,” Kaiba said crisply. For each minute he’d spent in jail, the Big Five would spend in years—rotting away in a maximum security prison. Kaiba couldn’t stand being made a fool of, and the Big Five had done so—twice. They would pay.
“Have a good evening, Mr. Kaiba.”
“So Mai didn’t want to come, did she?”
Téa glanced up from her duffle bag, into which she packed her dancing shoes and talc powder.
The entire rehearsal long, no one made mention of Mai or how she—like Serenity and Chieko—danced with Téa back at the Domino High Autumn Festival. And now, Fran approached her directly, with no warning whatsoever…mentioning Mai like it was the most casual thing for her to say.
“She doesn’t dance anymore,” Téa responded carefully. She wasn’t about to betray her friend’s trust, especially if Fran and Vincent didn’t really know the truth about why Mai didn’t speak to them anymore.
“That’s a complete lie,” Fran muttered, though her voice was still audible to Téa. “The day Mai Valentine stops dancing, is the day she goes brunette—no offense.”
Téa felt a smirk curve the corner of her lips—Mai was proud of being labeled a blonde bombshell, and wasn’t apt to changing her ways or her face anytime soon—hair included.
“None taken. But I wasn’t lying. Mai said she’d never have anything to do with dance or…” Téa stopped herself mid-sentence, resuming packing away her things.
“Or vile betrayers?” Fran supplied, sighing. She flopped down heavily on the bench where Téa had her things; she appeared more like a regular young woman than she did the sophisticated manager of a popular performing arts company.
“I figured out just a bit too late why Mai stopped talking to us—me and Vincent, that is. I don’t regret my relationship with Vincent for a second, but…I do miss Mai. I was really hoping she’d show up today.”
“She’s got work,” Téa said flatly.
“But does she love it? Look…You were fantastic today Téa, and I’m not going to put undue pressure on you. Just…pass the message on to her for me, would you please? If she just came for once—if she gave us another shot…” Fran trailed off uncertainly, her bright eyes clashing with Téa’s clouded ones. The redhead sighed heavily once more, picking herself up from the bench and walking off.
Moments later, Serenity and Chieko approached Téa.
“What was that all about?”
Serenity frowned, but didn’t say anything. Chieko, sensing the awkward silence about to build between them, spoke first. “So, we all had fun today, right? I know Mrs. Lohrs asked us all to come back, but there is a rather large amount of commitment involved—”
“Oh, I’m coming back. This isn’t just fun and games for me, guys. I’m all about commitment.”
“Juilliard, huh?” Serenity murmured. Everyone knew it was Téa’s big dream to study dance in New York, but…Serenity couldn’t stand the thought of Téa leaving. She was the only true friend Serenity could really say she had.
“Hey, Téa?” Serenity spoke up, her voice raising a notch in volume, “Do me a favor, will you?”
“Sure. What’s up?”
Serenity stared at Téa, unblinking, with eyes so clear and serious one would never have thought that the short redhead before her had once been blind. “You’re probably going to go back to DV8 tonight, right?”
“…Yeah…” Téa didn’t want to get into an argument right now—especially if it was regarding her behavior the past few days, or her new sanctuary.
‘Let her say what she wants,’ Téa thought angrily to herself. ‘It’s not like she can stop me.’
“Just promise me something, okay? If something happens—if a fight breaks out—get out of there. Don’t get hurt.”
“I told you, Serenity, I—”
“I know, I know,” Serenity waved her hand dismissively, “you don’t think there are any gang members there or whatever. But promise me, okay?”
“Okay. I promise.”
“I didn’t think you’d come.”
Seto Kaiba had just set foot on the edge of the Turtle Game Store property when Yugi instantly hailed him from the shadows.
“You thought wrong,” Kaiba replied darkly. Yugi probably wanted to know why Kaiba was there—but why did he need to justify himself to Yugi Moto? Kaiba was there because–because…
‘Because I want to apologize.’
And maybe Téa would accept his apology, and maybe she wouldn’t. Truth be told, Kaiba couldn’t envision a satisfying future where Téa wasn’t back at the mansion. Ever since Yugi told him that Téa cared for him…since Serenity slapped and threatened him…since he saw those videos, he couldn’t erase the guilt from his mind. He didn’t want to apologize just to appease his inner demons, but…
To get her to come home.
Somehow…it felt right. It was where she belonged. The question was, was it just at the mansion—had she become some sort of fixture, like a lamp or a table? Or did he really need her, in that bizarre, emotional way? Did he need her to come home…not to his house, but to him?
He wanted to apologize so he could find those answers.
“Come on, Yug’,” Joey called, dashing out of the Game Shop without sparing Kaiba a glance, “Tristan spotted Bakura leavin’ his place a few blocks down. He’s headed downtown!”
Another thing that muddled Kaiba—though he would never admit it so long as he breathed—was Wheeler. Did Joey know that Téa lived with Kaiba since August? Did he even suspect? For that matter, did he even wonder as to why Kaiba wanted to find Téa just as badly as Yugi did, or what he had to say to her?
Kaiba half thought that Wheeler would want to pummel him just for coming within a few meters of Téa and wanting to talk. Not duel, not insult her…but talk.
It was odd, considering that Wheeler had the upper hand—at least, he had the information to obtain the upper hand. The question was, would he do anything with that information?
‘Hmph. Wheeler’s a mutt, through and through. I doubt he would know if he had the upper hand until someone smacked him with it.’
Still, he was the one who knew where Tristan was—and where Bakura was headed. And at the moment, that was all that mattered.
Tristan was a bit hard to miss, what with his gelled, pointy hair, shaved close to his head on either side. That and, he was waving his arms around like he were signaling a plane to land.
Joey, Kaiba, and Yugi hurried over to meet him—and from their new spot in a dirty alleyway, they could easily see the tremendous line spiraling from a building not far away.
“DV8,” Joey muttered under his breath. “I shoulda guessed.”
“Someone care to tell me why the heck Téa’s dancing here of all places?” Tristan grumbled under his breath. He flipped the kickstand of the motorcycle he still sat astride—which Kaiba glanced at with a brief, though appraising eye—and shook his head.
“Well, Bakura just waltzed in. I’m thinking he played some mind games with the bouncer, if you know what I mean.”
Joey and Yugi both nodded grimly, before the shorter of the two boys glanced at Tristan curiously. “Where are you going, Tristan?”
“I wish I could stick around and help you find Téa over there, but I gotta go babysit my nephew,” Tristan grimaced. “‘Course, I’m sure as hell not going to mention Kaiba,” Tristan continued without looking at the taller brunet, “since all the kid does is wax eloquent about him.”
“Still?” Joey frowned, “Why does stick-boy get a fan club, huh?”
“Would you please stop talking about me like I’m not even here?!” Kaiba snapped. “Besides, I thought we were here to tail Bakura and find Téa, not argue about—” he made a face as if he’d eaten something rotten, “my ‘fans,’ as you call them.”
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the man’s right,” Tristan stated. “I gotta jam.” A few moments later, Tristan revved up his motorcycle, tossed on his helmet, and sped out of sight.
“So…what do we do now?” Yugi asked, staring at the line. “Not only is it an eighteen-and-up club, but that line looks pretty long…”
Joey stared at the line for a moment, his gaze barely straying from the large bouncer at the door to the last person in the line, leaning against the wall just before a break between the buildings.
“This ain’t one of those in with supervision deals, so even if Kaiba here’s eighteen, it doesn’t do us any good, Yug’. But I know a way to get in.” Kaiba would have protested, but then again, he didn’t exactly want to wait in line. Impatience slowly got the better of him, and he wanted to know what the heck it was Bakura wanted from Téa.
Yugi and Kaiba followed Joey in silence, as the lanky blond maneuvered his way through the line and down the dark alley between DV8 and the next building. Past slimy fire escape ladders, the nauseating odor of garbage, and the stench of cigarette smoke, a back entrance to the club waited—manned by no less than three boys that jerked their heads upward the moment Joey came into view.
“Well, well, Wheeler.”
Joey thrust a hand out behind him, signaling Yugi and Kaiba to stop before they got too close. Kaiba didn’t particularly understand—nor care to—what was going on, but Wheeler was obviously negotiating with the back door guards. They hardly looked like bouncers, but Kaiba couldn’t possibly fathom what else they would be, or why else they’d be lounging around outside the club rather than in it, like everyone else waiting in the monstrous line.
“You holdin’ up?” The one called Odagiri asked.
“Yeah, not bad.”
“Your sister’s doin’ well at school. Top scores in her phys. ed. tests. Must be genetic, hm?”
“Yeah, guess so. Ya sister’s pretty popular these days over at Domino.”
Kaiba didn’t know a single female with the name Odagiri at Domino, but…
“You want in?” Another one, this one with slick, oily hair asked Joey, apparently trying to intimidate him. He was more thick and muscled than Wheeler, but his appearance obviously didn’t deter Joey one bit.
“Yeah. I got a friend in there I need to find.”
“Which friend would this be?” a third guy asked, leaning against the door. His eyes were masked by a pair of sunglasses, and he talked with his lips pursed over a cigarette, which he didn’t bother to tap, as his arms were crossed over his chest.
Joey hesitated a moment, glancing off to the side—and almost at Kaiba, as if asking his permission—before speaking. “Gardner.”
The one with the sunglasses stared at Joey, revealing astonishingly pale blue eyes behind his glasses. “You serious?”
Joey became suspicious, same as Yugi and Kaiba. What was so surprising about them knowing Téa?
“Yeah, I’m serious. Why would I joke about somethin’ like that?”
“Hah,” the guy chuckled, taking a long drag off his cigarette and leaning back contentedly on the door.
“What Cigs means is that every guy who’s got a pair and isn’t otherwise attached has been tryin’ to get their paws all over her since she showed up. Half the Kings are head over heels for that chick—” Odagiri chuckled under his breath, “and can you blame ’em? She’s got curves that—”
“Hey! I don’t talk about your sister that way, Odagiri.”
“Gardner ain’t your sister,” Oil Head hissed.
Joey frowned, “Might be true, but she’s close enough. I care about her, and I’ve heard what she’s been up to lately.”
“More like who,” Cigs laughed, expelling smoke from his nostrils. “She lets anyone and everyone buy her drinks until Ghostie shows up.”
“Ghostie?” Joey queried—though Kaiba had a strong feeling he knew who the person in question was.
“Dunno,” Odagiri admitted. “Some white-haired guy. She dances with him every night, and they always leave together.”
Staying with Mai, and dancing with Bakura? It all seemed a bit ridiculous. So uncharacteristic of Téa. He wanted to ask her why she would act so carelessly, but they needed to find her first.
“Look, Wheeler, I don’t have a bone to pick with you. I know you care about your friends so…go.” Odagiri stepped away from the door, letting Joey in. Odagiri glanced at Kaiba for a moment, then at Yugi—and his eyes widened. Cigs and Oil Head backed away from the door, letting Yugi in before Kaiba. They said nothing as the trio entered the club, not even casting Kaiba a glance as he passed them by.
It was impossible to see. The back door led to a dimly-lit hallway just off the dance floor, and the entire place was packed with people—mostly adults in their mid-twenties or so, but a scant few teens appeared here and there.
“Come on,” Joey yelled over the crowds. “We ain’t gonna see nothin’ from here. Let’s head up to the Crow’s Nest!”
“The what?” Yugi shouted back, straining to get closer to Joey in order to hear him, but not get crushed by the crowds. Kaiba, easily the tallest of most of the people there, had no problem pushing when necessary, and when one particularly rowdy boy threatened to force Yugi from his line of sight, he ended up on the receiving end of an icy glare and a forceful hand from the CEO—and he quickly backed away.
“Thanks,” Yugi muttered under his breath, refusing to meet Kaiba’s gaze. This wasn’t the stubborn opponent Kaiba had faced in countless duels. What happened to that boy?
“Crow’s Nest,” Joey repeated after Yugi and Kaiba caught up to him. “There.” He pointed, while Kaiba and Yugi stared in the direction Joey gestured in. A pair of twisting staircases wound up into the darkness, both of them connecting to a wide, semi-circular balcony that hung over the dance floor. Most people filtered down the far left staircase, down to the bar and the dancing area…but the stairs nearest them, shrouded in darkness, led straight up to the balcony, providing a prime spot to scope out the dance floor.
Five minutes passed, and they hadn’t spotted Bakura or Téa. A new song flared to life across the club, people skittering to the dance floor and join in the thronging masses. Kaiba couldn’t understand why Téa would willingly put herself in the midst of such a crowd—drunks, smokers, and perverted, underage teens looking for a free grope. Everyone was pressed skin-to-skin against everyone else, most people—men and women alike—scantily clad in revealing tops or tight pants.
“Damn! Maybe Tristan saw wrong, and Bakura didn’t go in here. I don’t see Téa, either…” Joey frowned. Much as Kaiba hated to admit it, he agreed with Wheeler. It was starting to look hopeless…
“Guys?” Yugi spoke up, his voice soft and hoarse. “I think I found her.”
“Where, Yug’?” Joey asked, excitement tinging his voice. Yugi brought a shaky arm out and pointed straight ahead toward the nine television monitors lining up the wall directly opposite the balcony, and just above the raised stage beside the dance floor.
Dancing amid flashing lights and blaring music was none other than Téa Gardner—center-stage, and onscreen.
“How many tears…or how many broken hearts? Just how many sorrows, how much you’ll take—” Téa mouthed the lyrics to the DJ’s latest spin to herself, remembering the song from her own dance CDs. Téa loved being in the spotlight—the bright, almost burning lights, glittering as they danced off her sweat-sparkled skin and her sequined blue tanktop. She swung an arm out behind, curving her hips up and down in a slide. With a quick movement, she brought her other arm out as she pointed to the bars, where Mai caught her eyes—grinning as she shook a drink for another customer.
Téa remained blissfully unaware of everyone else around her—she was the one on the stage, the one onscreen.
“In your life, in your life, in your life, in your life, in your life! In your life, in your life…in your life, in your life! In your life! nobody knows, olé olé, olé ola! In your life…”
‘This is my life. This is…’
A hand sliding down her shoulder to hug her arms interrupted Téa’s thoughts, and she spun around, still dancing, to face Ryou Bakura.
“You made it!” She smiled, turning back around and dancing against Ryou. He didn’t seem to have a single problem with this, though there was an odd sensation in the back of his mind. Still, he ignored it.
Every night up until now, he’d meet meeting Téa at DV8—always precisely at the same time, and almost always in the same place. If she wasn’t capturing the attentions of everyone in the club while dancing onstage, then she was relaxing at the bar. She still got a bit drunk every night, but Ryou learned to deal with it—in the most gentlemanly way possible. Basically, that meant letting Téa—whatever state she was in—drape herself all over him. He still turned a brilliant red when it happened but…it meant she was all his. The other boys—even the menacing-looking ones—never approached them when he danced with her.
Ryou supposed this could be because he looked a great deal more intimidating than he previously thought. It could have something to do with his other half frequently taking control, Ryou mused. For the past several days—ever since Halloween, actually—Ryou blacked out more frequently, almost always at his living room table. He would wake up as if from a long nap, finding his tarot cards stacked neatly beside him, but nothing else out of place.
But his other half remained interestingly silent whenever Ryou met Téa at DV8. And that was just what Ryou wanted.
For once, he wasn’t the cause of accidents, death, or destruction. For once, he wasn’t treated unfairly, just because his other half had a taste for blood, or an eye for pretty baubles. Téa just danced with him.
The song came to a close, and Téa stopped dancing, grasping Ryou’s hand and leading him down the short set of stairs. “I’m parched,” she explained with a smile. “Let’s go get drinks.” Ryou complied wordlessly, smiling at Téa in his own private way. She never walked off without him, and her eyes always met his straight-on. It was amazing how he’d never noticed how blue her eyes were before.
“Hello, lovely!” The bartender grinned at Téa as she approached. Téa leaned over the counter to hug the wiry man, several other of the counter patrons leaning over to catch a glimpse of Téa’s shining skin and supple breasts, pressed against the glass counter. Ryou shot them all as fierce a glare as he could manage, and to his surprise, they all blinked and returned to whatever they’d been doing before, their gazes averted from Téa.
“Oh hi! Back again? I’m guessin’ you liked that Evil Blue Thing from the other night, right?” Brucie smiled, pulling bottles from behind the counter. Ryou cringed slightly; Téa had coaxed him into drinking a bizarre blue concoction the other night, and while he hadn’t blacked out or awoken in an unfamiliar bed, the drink had given him a bizarre sensation all throughout his body.
Then again, that was probably why it was an Evil Blue Thing, and not a Happy Blue Thing, or a Tame Blue Thing.
Cocktail drinks had rather bizarre names—Téa was especially fond of a strong brew called a Pink Pussy, but she’d asked for something different that night.
Ryou sipped at his EBT—a blend of creme de cacao, blue curaçao, and light rum—something that tasted vaguely like an orange-flavored chocolate, but with a powerful twist of alcohol. Téa, meanwhile, downed an entire shot of something—and promptly ordered another.
She turned toward Ryou, her eyes a bit misty, but smiling nonetheless. “Want a goodnight kiss?” she asked in a soft whisper. Ryou practically fell out of his chair, his eyes wide and his cheeks flushed.
Téa laughed a moment later, her cheeks pinking and her eyes crinkling at the edges. “I meant the drink, silly!”
She tilted her newest glass—this one a champagne flute, instead of her usual tall cocktail glass or short shot—toward Ryou.
“Barely any alcohol in it. There’s even a sugar cube. Try it.”
“Téa—” The embarrassment faded, but not his concern. “Do you really think drinking will make all of your problems go away?”
The smile slipped off her face, and for an instant, Ryou regretted his words. Téa took the Kiss away from him, staring sadly at the glass counter.
“No, I don’t. Sometimes…I like to pretend, though. That for once, things might go my way. I can imagine anything I want, and that stupid little voice in the back of my head doesn’t bother me, telling me that it’s impossible. I don’t want to become dependent or anything, Ryou. I know…I know it’s not good for me. I just—I don’t have anything else to throw myself into. There’s just this.”
“No,” Ryou smiled, putting his EBT back on the counter, “there’s dancing. Come on.”
Ryou tugged Téa back to the dance floor, amidst the crowds rather than alone on the stage, where she could be surrounded by people, but still in the spotlight.
Téa wasn’t exactly easy to find. She’d disappeared off the stage when the boys tried getting downstairs, and now they were lost, looking for her once again. Rather, Joey and Yugi were lost looking for her downstairs, while Kaiba opted to remain upstairs in the Crow’s Nest, searching for her from above.
Surely she couldn’t have left already? No. She was probably surrounded by crowds of other dancers. With her rather ordinary hair color and her simplistic style, how was he to spot her amongst the throngs of people?
There was an odd head of hair out of place amongst the crowd. Prune out the browns and the blacks, weed out the occasional blue or orange haired people…maybe the scant blonde or redhead.
There was a head of long, snowy white hair in the thick of the people.
The guys outside said that Téa danced with him every night, but…
Bakura had a pair of long, slender arms wrapped around his shoulders, decidedly feminine hands tangling in his hair and playing with it.
Seto’s heart lodged in his throat. Dancing was one thing, but…
Those fingers, those hands, those arms—they were attached to a girl that Seto knew all too well. He’d been looking for her, but now…now he wasn’t so sure he wanted to find her. Not like this.
Not in Bakura’s arms.
Worse, Téa was smiling and…laughing? She giggled coyly at something, continuing to fiddle with Bakura’s hair, cocking her head to the side and blinking at him slowly.
‘S-she’s actually flirting with him!?’
There was a very large part of him that wanted to storm down there right then, to drag her away from him and just–and just…
Well, what could he say to her? What could he possibly do?
Lost in thought, when Seto finally jerked his gaze back down to where Bakura and Téa were dancing—so painfully close to one another—he was startled to see Bakura’s eyes riveted to his.
It was clear that the slightly older boy was well aware of Seto’s presence, but he hadn’t made any clear indication of it to Téa. She was still swaying in his arms, her back to Seto, blissfully unaware.
And then Bakura opened his mouth, mouthing something to Seto.
You owe me.
Eyebrows furrowing Seto tried to contemplate just what Bakura was implying—or why he was feeling so damn incensed that the white-haired freak was dancing so intimately with Téa. It wasn’t any of his concern.
It wasn’t like he needed her…
A voice in Seto’s head protested mightily to that thought; he’d come all this way, gone to such great extents and for what!? To watch someone else go and—
“Hey, what the hell you think you’re doin’ in here, you trash!?”
There was a loud yell, and then the sound of glass breaking—and then a scream.
And suddenly, the entire club broke out into chaos, and before Seto could turn around to spot Téa again, he saw Joey jogging toward him as he gestured urgently for them to leave.
“No go, man. We gotta get outta here—Some of Hirutani’s stupider lackeys decided to pick a fight with some Black Skulls that wandered into the wrong territory. Come on!”
“Some what!?” Seto hissed, trying to follow Joey back to the back exit on the lower floor, going against the flow of the crowds mobbing their way up the stairs.
“Gangs, you nimrod!” Joey yelled over the sounds of fighting that had broken out. Where people had been dancing only moments before, now there were at least sixteen guys beating on one another, grabbing whatever they could get their hands on and using them as weapons.
Kaiba tried to make Téa out through the masses, to check if she’d gotten out all right, but he couldn’t see her. She’d been in the center of the dance floor right when the fight had broken out. What if she was hurt, or one of those guys tried to—
“Going somewhere, Wheeler?” Joey froze in his tracks, instantly regretting that he’d doubled back when he noticed Kaiba wasn’t behind him.
It was almost impossible to believe.
Here she was, in the middle of Domino’s most popular club, dancing with—of all people—Ryou Bakura. It wasn’t really hard to believe that she was dancing, but the fact that she was in an eighteen and over club, her arms secure around a boy that, mere days ago, sent cold shivers down her spine…it certainly seemed strange.
Téa took to calling her dancing partner “Ryou,” as per his request. For once, she was grateful for this differentiation between his “darker” half and the boy she remembered meeting in first year.
“The name is Bakura. Always has been, always will be.”
Was it just a coincidence, then, that Bakura’s “host” in the new millennium had a family name exactly the same as his own? Or that the two supposedly bore a startling resemblance? These were things Bakura told her…
And only her.
Once the enemy, Téa now found herself in his arms, her thoughts filled with him.
‘Better him than Se—’
And just as abruptly as that thought had come, it flitted away. She couldn’t be thinking of him.
A heated whisper tickled the hairs near Téa’s ear, quickly catching her attention.
“Something on your mind?”
When she glanced up, Ryou’s familiar brown eyes seemed to narrow, while his bangs feathered upwards, as if static electricity had charged itself all around his head. No longer the quiet boy she knew from school, this was…
“Bakura.” Her voice came as a breathless whisper, but only because she was startled by his sudden presence. In all her encounters with Ryou at DV8 so far, Bakura had remained silent—true to his word, and keeping his bargain with her.
Why had he chosen now to appear?
“You seem distracted,” he murmured, his breath warm, and dangerously close to her neck. “Thinking of something?”
Téa bowed her head slightly, swaying almost robotically with the music, only half-aware of the weight of Bakura’s arms around her. This seemed strange. Dancing with Ryou—her friend and classmate—was one thing. But the self-proclaimed tomb robber, and sworn enemy of the Pharaoh?
Such intimacy felt like betrayal.
“I don’t think I told you,” Téa murmured, smiling slightly, swaying in his arms, “but I’ve made up my mind.”
“About what?” Bakura asked, smiling devilishly. Téa glanced up at him, her gaze flitting to the flashing lights on the ceiling.
“About Seto. Kaiba. Whatever.”
Bakura’s grin slipped off his face, but Téa didn’t seem to notice. “What about him?”
“I’m going to fall out of love with him.” The determination in her voice was clear—honest and pure.
“Are you now?” Bakura asked in that same teasing way. Well. This was fortuitous news.
“Yeah. I really am.” Téa smiled brightly at him, looking entirely pleased to be away from the man that had stolen her heart—the same man that was afraid to protect her. Bakura never told her that it was Kaiba who admitted that he would “do anything” for the Spirit’s help—and that Kaiba owed him.
And, just as that thought brought a smirk to Bakura’s face, he felt it. The tingling of a familiar presence…
Bakura’s eyes strayed up to the balcony where people looked down to the dance floor. And standing in the center of the outcropping was none other than Seto Kaiba himself, his eyes locked on Bakura’s.
The white-haired boy easily guided Téa in her dance so that she never even noticed Kaiba. His smirk widening, he mouthed three words to the once-High Priest.
You owe me.
This was his revenge. He would take away that which Kaiba held so dear—even though the daft fool didn’t realize it yet. He was close to understanding—he had to be, if he’d come all the way here, to this place, at this time. He probably wanted to speak to Téa, but there was not a chance in the Afterlife that Bakura would let him.
Suddenly, a young man flew backwards into them, breaking Bakura’s hold on Téa and splitting them apart.
“Say it again, jackass!” an approaching figure threatened, holding up a fist adorned with brass knuckles.
“Fuckin’ Black Skulls! Get ’em!” someone yelled, and then chaos broke out.
Groups of teens no older than Bakura and Téa were charging at one another, fists flying and glasses breaking. People started to scream and mob up the stairs toward the exit, while the DJ and the bartenders tried to figure out what was going on and put a stop to their club being trashed.
Mai darted through the crowd to Bakura and Téa, breathless. “Get out of here, you guys. Now!”
“But Mai—!” Téa began, but Bakura cut her off, a hand on her waist.
“She’s right, let’s go.” He guided her through the throngs of people, most of them desperately clamoring up the stairs and trying to escape the mayhem. But flurries of people kept spilling into the dance area, getting involved in the fight. Furniture flew and glass continued to break, the club in a state of total disarray.
“Where do you think you’re going, punk?” A heavy-set guy with spiky hair approached Bakura, obviously judging the youth by his black clothes—and thinking he was one of the gang members.
“I’m leaving,” Bakura uttered darkly, ready for the challenge sure to be issued any second now.
“Not if I have anything to say about it!” the guy yelled, aiming to punch Bakura. The white-haired boy easily side-stepped the attack, thrusting his knee into his attacker’s stomach and kicking him to the floor, knocking the wind out of him.
Téa blinked in surprise, “Wow.”
Bakura grinned, “Come on, let’s go.” They pushed their way through crowds of people toward the back door that few knew about, let alone used. In fact, Téa hadn’t known about it—not until Bakura led her to the door. She only turned around for a brief second—and a particular nasty gang member fell on her, trying to pull her into the chaos and away from Bakura.
“Get the hell away from me!” Téa yelped, slamming her heel into the offender’s toe, before she kneed him in the crotch—hard. The boy crumpled to the ground in a groan, and for just a moment, Téa had a perfect view of the fights breaking out all over the dance floor, and even high up in the balcony.
She was sure she had seen him up there—just for a second, before someone swung a fierce uppercut at him and he’d disappeared from view.
“Let’s go!” Bakura urged Téa, tugging on her arm.
“Wait,” she mumbled, struggling back through the hall, “I thought I saw Seto!”
“You were imagining things!” Bakura insisted, pulling harder. “Come on!”
Téa could supply no further argument—and got dragged out of the club by Bakura, and back into the crisp, dark night.
“Long time no see, Wheeler,” Hirutani grinned ferally. In all the time that passed since Joey had last encountered the gang leader, Hirutani hadn’t changed. His bleach-blond hair was still slicked back to perfection, not a single hair out of place. He bore an uncanny resemblance to Kaiba’s own sense of fashion—with a black turtleneck and dark pants, accented by a silver chain around his neck and thick rings on his fingers.
“What the hell do you want, Hirutani? I don’t have time for you.”
“You better make time, Wheeler. I’m not lettin’ you through.”
“Forget this, Hirutani—I ain’t part a ya stupid little gang no more, and I ain’t fightin’ for ya. I kicked your ass once and I—”
“Correction, punk,” Hirutani interrupted, “Your spike-haired friend nearly kicked my ass. He didn’t quite finish the job, or else I wouldn’t be here now. And technically, you don’t have a choice when it comes to fightin’ tonight, Joey,” Hirutani chuckled evilly, “‘Cause you’re in the thick of it.” The taller blond made a signal with one of his hands, and three muscled teens approached the cornered Kaiba and Joey, leering.
Kaiba didn’t need to be told how much trouble they’d just landed themselves in—Joey’s two words summed everything up.
Kaiba had never been in a fistfight before, but it didn’t take a high IQ to know when to dodge a flailing left-hook. Unfortunately, in the moment that he chose to duck to the left, another fist from the right connected with the side of his face—quite painfully. He grunted, feeling as if his jaw had been reduced to little more than glass and shattered. Delirious, he tasted blood.
He barely registered the fact that someone hauled him up by the collar of his shirt until he was level with the person’s face—Wheeler.
“Stop screwin’ around and hit one!”
Kaiba blinked, wound his fist awkwardly and hit the thug looming right behind Joey’s shoulder.
“Not bad! Thanks,” Wheeler said with something that might have been a smug smile, but Kaiba decided he was imagining things. Wheeler’s surprise attacker blinked stupidly, nose bleeding and eyes crossing and uncrossing before he fell to the floor in a crumpled heap. Kaiba gave a triumphant smirk.
Joey tapped a Skull on the shoulder, surprising the lanky boy and causing him to stumble forward—just as Joey firmly yanked the elastic band of the boy’s boxers, effectively giving him a rather painful wedgie. The boy yelped, fumbling behind him, caught completely off-guard when Joey kicked him hard in the small of the back, sending him tumbling down the stairs and knocking over at least four of his comrades in the process.
The Kings had the upper hand, but the Skulls weren’t about to go down easy. Two of the remaining Skulls on the top level stood beside one another, deciding to rush Kaiba and Joey at once. They obviously hoped to knock them off the balcony and down the several meters to the dance floor, littered with broken chairs and shattered glass. Both Kaiba and Joey abruptly ducked, sending one Skull careening over the railing and down onto the dance floor below, while the other’s leg tangled in the rail and he landed head-first into a glass-top table, which promptly shattered around him. Moments later, the Skull slipped into unconsciousness.
Another Skull—this one armed with the leg of a chair—thundered toward Kaiba, but just as he made to strike, Kaiba deftly pulled the leg from the Skull’s hands, grabbing the lackey’s arm with his free hand and twisting it painfully in the air behind the thug’s head. Kaiba jammed the chair leg into the Skull’s stomach, forcing the air from the would-be attacker’s lungs.
It was true that Kaiba disliked physical fights, but that, by no means meant he had absolutely no experience with them. Why, even back at Duelist Kingdom he’d…
But that was ages ago, and gang members were not the same as pointy-haired special police.
“Enough of this!” Hirutani, who previously watched the proceedings from the shadows, stepped forward, eyes narrowed.
“It’s you and me now, Wheeler.”
Sweat was trickling down the side of Joey’s face and his breathing was shallow, but there was no doubt that he was ready for this. He had been ready for this for years now.
“Wheeler.” A thick hand grabbed onto Joey’s shoulder just as he was heading home. His neighborhood was far from wholesome, and he liked to speed up his walk as much as possible—without interruption. Home wasn’t much better than the streets, but at least there was a roof over his head and a room to call his own. Sort of.
Having reason to be less than pleased by the delay, Joey already wore a scowl by the time he faced whoever grabbed him.
He hadn’t meant to sound so surprised, but the fact was, Joey was surprised. Startled…and dare he think it, a bit scared.
“Been a long time, Wheeler. What you been up to?”
“Eh…” Joey fumbled for the right words to say, given that it had been nearly a year since he’d last seen Hirutani. The last time was just before he’d started school at Domino High and met Yugi….
“Got yourself some new friends, I see,” Hirutani smirked, his bared teeth sending shivers down Joey’s spine. Hirutani wasn’t a particularly intimidating person by nature, but since Joey left his gang, the very sight of him didn’t exactly induce feelings of joy in Joey Wheeler’s brain. He was easily taller than Joey, standing at over 190 centimeters, with bleached blonde hair slicked back and pulled into a slight ponytail. His school uniform, already large to fit his muscular tall frame, was two sizes too big, the jacket looking more like a trench coat than anything else. He also broke standard school rules by wearing a black turtleneck under his jacket, thick rings on his fingers, and a silver chain around his neck.
No one could mistake him for an obedient student—he was a gang leader, through and through.
“What’s it to you, Hirutani?” Joey retorted. He didn’t need to deal with Hirutani right now. He just wanted to get home.
“Don’t front with me, Wheeler!” Hirutani snarled, shoving the blond against a wall roughly. Then he let Joey go, his eyes widening ever-so-slightly as a smirk graced his features.
“We’re expanding our territory, Wheeler. Not about to let those idiot Black Skulls think they own all of Domino. We want your help.”
Before Joey could even ask who ‘we’ was, a group of six more boys appeared from the shadows—all of them guys he didn’t recognize from the old gang. Leading the small group was a short, pimple-faced guy in glasses with streaked aquamarine hair, thick, shrimp-colored lips, and a glaringly bright red beanie on his head, clashing with his hair. He was grinning disgustingly, revealing teeth yellowed by the cigarette dangling out of his mouth.
“What do you say, Wheeler?”
It wasn’t as if Joey could refuse, with the threat looming so apparently in front of him, but…
“No deal, Hirutani. I’m not doin’ the gang scene anymore.”
“You’re ‘not doing the gang scene ‘anymore‘?! What the hell happened to ‘ain’t’ and ‘no more,’ Wheeler? Your precious Domino High converting you into some hoity-toity prince?”
“Yeah, like that star-head brat you we saw you with,” Shrimp Lips added, smirking.
‘Yugi!’ Joey wasn’t about to drag Yugi into his problems—the gang life was behind him—part of his past. Yugi didn’t even need to know about it.
“Or that cute brunette with those C-cups, huh?” one of the lankier boys leered, rubbing his hands together suggestively. “What’s her name, Wheeler? She looks like a catch.”
“Don’t even think about going near Téa,” Joey snarled possessively. He hadn’t told a single soul—not even Tristan—yet, but he had a bit of a crush on Téa. It was one of the reasons why Joey always went out of his way to tease Yugi (at first). Téa was always around to defend Yugi when the boy wouldn’t speak up for himself—and Joey had to admit, he loved seeing how flushed her face got when she argued with him.
“Ohoho, got a bit of a thing for her, huh?” Shrimp Lips laughed, taking a long drag on his cigarette. “Have you done her yet, Wheeler? Or are have you been neutered?”
Joey launched himself toward the pimple-faced boy without a second thought, but before he could lay a fist on the startled thug, Hirutani grabbed Joey roughly by the shoulder, fixing him with a cold stare.
“Here, tomorrow night at seven. You better be there Wheeler, or else we’ll pick off your friends—Star-Head and your precious Téa included—one by one. You made a mistake not coming to Rintama with the rest of us, so unless you want your class turned all shades of black and blue, you’ll listen to me.”
Joey paled a ghostly shade of white, the image of a bloodied and bruised Yugi—or worse, Téa!—lying in the halls of Domino High. Though it was against every sane fiber in his body, he couldn’t say no, not if it put Yugi and Téa in danger…
“This is a symbol of our friendship! So no matter how tough it gets, we’ll always know that we’re not alone!” Téa scrawled a ridiculously happy-looking face on the tops of all their hands, smiling as she did so. Téa was like that—weird, but…cute. And friendly. She believed in them all so much, even though Joey and Tristan both teased Yugi relentlessly before finally becoming ‘friends’ with him.
Before Joey could even come up with a reply, Hirutani and his lackeys had left.
With a great deal of reluctance, Joey had rejoined Hirutani’s gang in their efforts to expand their territory. The newest gang acquisitions were two clubs— the abandoned J’z, and the already-popular DV8. The latter was the better of the two, since it was legitimately open for business, and allowed for a great deal more space than the cramped J’z. The catch was that the large club sat on the fringe of the Black Skulls’ and Red Kings’—Hirutani’s gang—territories, making it a prime spot for fierce fights between the warring factions. Only a few blocks from DV8 lay the downtown border that separated the prefecture of Domino from that of Rintama, making the entire surrounding area subject to ‘negotiation.’
Between brawls, Hirutani’s gang hung out at J’z, abandoned by its original owners and left for the Kings to do with what they willed. Being in the harbor district, it offered the bonus of a great number of warehouses, including one that Hirutani fondly referred to as the ‘Torture Chamber.’ Hirutani had Joey brought to that chamber when Joey dared to punch Shrimp Lips out cold for hurting Yugi.
Joey just stood by and watched when it happened…but the guilt increased inside him with each passing moment, until he couldn’t contain himself anymore. He hadn’t liked Shrimp Lips—he hadn’t ever bothered to find out his real name—but the moment the punk dared to punch Yugi—who’d just asked why Joey hadn’t shown up at school, and why he was hanging with dangerous-looking strangers—he’d rocketed to the top of Joey’s Hit List.
No one hurt his friends. No one.
Hirutani made Joey pay for his indiscretions by having him knocked out and hung from his wrists in the Torture Chamber. Gang members took turns taking hits at Joey—who valiantly fought back, using his lanky legs as weapons, kicking away anyone with enough nerve to approach him. It didn’t take the Kings long to work against Joey, surrounding him from all sides and knocking him senseless with brutal kicks and punches.
Once trussed up, Joey didn’t bother with formalities any more.
‘Let Hirutani do what he wants to me. As long as he doesn’t hurt Yug’ and Téa…’
He wasn’t worried about Tristan. Tristan knew what it was like to be in a gang. Tristan could take care of himself, just like Joey could take care of himself.
“Heh heh. I like the view from here, Joey.”
“Hmph. The view from here isn’t so bad either. ‘Look! It’s a red-assed boss monkey and his pack!'” Joey sneered, heedless of his already swollen cheeks and bruised face.
Hirutani didn’t even need to give the order; two lackeys rushed Joey, kicking him hard in the stomach and punching him hard in the chest. The wind knocked out of him, it took some moments before Joey could breathe properly again. But he wasn’t fazed. Hirutani wasn’t going to gain his respect this way.
“You’ve been like that since junior high, Wheeler,” Hirutani frowned. “Always acting like you was my equal. Still, nothing could stop us when we was together—even some high school gangs was afraid of us. We had plenty of people working for us. But the one thing I never managed to do was teach you this: I’m the boss,” Hirutani stated emotionlessly. His eyes narrowed to cat-like slits, the sheen of his metal chains, rings, and small hoop earrings winking at Joey. The dim, warehouse lights cast eerie shadows upon Hirutani’s face, crawling on half of his visage as though they were part of a menacing mask that only Death himself would wear.
“You’ll always be second in command.”
“You’ll always be scum!”
Joey forced the memory of his father’s words away. It didn’t matter whether he was second in command or not—he was in control of his own destiny, his own life. He’d made the decision to leave the Red Kings, and he wasn’t about to go back on it. Let the Kings hurt him as much as they wanted—Joey was protecting his friends.
Yugi didn’t treat him like scum. Neither did Téa or Tristan. They all understood. They weren’t faking friendship, like the “brothers” did in the gangs. Every word was sincere, ever gesture filled with meaning…
Unbidden, a memory of Téa smiling brightly at him—blue eyes wide and looking at him directly—came to Joey. Damn it if the Red Kings ever went near her!
“Hahaha! Of course! That’s just what a boss monkey would think!” Joey laughed, even though the action brought a stinging pain to his ribs. He supposed one or more of them had broken, but it hardly mattered. As long as Yugi and Téa were safe…Joey repeated it like a mantra in his head. Nothing else mattered if they were safe.
They were all he had.
“You done? Well lemme tell you: I’ve got a good memory. I know you jerks’ faces…I remember how many times each of you hit me. You know I hold a grudge. I’m gonna pay you back double!”
Hirutani didn’t seem the least bit phased by Joey’s threat, and instead chuckled under his breath. “Don’t worry. This isn’t even the main course. The next item on the menu will blow your mind!”
The moment he heard the electrical zapping of the stun guns, Joey froze.
One of the the thugs with thick, oily black hair laughed at Joey’s sudden display of discomfort. “These are 200,000 volt stun guns.”
“Flip the switch and the electricity comes on,” another thug, this one with bright orange spikes for hair, added. “When that happens, it’s gonna blow the memories right outta your head. And maybe your life too. So let’s get started…”
“You damn jerk!” Spike Head only took one step toward Joey before the bound Joey kicked out fiercely, the heel of his shoe connecting with the boy’s face. A sharp crack echoed briefly, and a stream of blood gushed from Spike’s nose—it was broken.
Oil Head, among other gang members, took this as incentive to gang up on Joey all at once, each of them armed with a stun gun crackling away. Rain thundered down on the weak metal roof of the warehouse, but the only sound Joey heard was the zapping of electricity as it neared his body. He barely had a second to think before the metal electrodes came into contact with his skin.
Joey let out an pain-filled howl that echoed off the walls of the warehouse, heard for meters around, even outside in the thundering rain.
Joey didn’t remember much after that. The electricity that rocketed through his body gave him only a vague awareness of the world around him—the sound of the rain, and a shadow that suspiciously looked like Yugi. And then everyone—Tristan, Yugi, and Téa, each of them rain-soaked, hovering over him, concern plain on their faces.
They’d come for him.
Even after…after he’d let Yugi get hurt.
After that, Hirutani and the rest of the Red Kings disappeared from sight—and therefore, from Joey’s mind. Only once had they reappeared: as a violent gang wielding yo-yos as weapons. Hirutani sought revenge, but he’d ended up getting beaten by Yugi—no, Yami—and Joey a second time. They’d both come too close to death for comfort, and it was then that Joey resolved to put his past behind him—once and for all.
But Hirutani was nothing if not a man of his word. He really was horrifically persistent—though now on the balcony of DV8, it didn’t seem as though he were particularly eager to have Joey as his “number two.”
Joey spat expertly at the ground, cracked his neck purposefully and put up his fists, ready to take the offense. “I’m ready for ya, Boss Monkey.”
“Say it again, Wheeler. I’ll kick your ass that much harder.”
“I’ll say it hundreds of times and ya still wouldn’t be able to kick my ass if ya wanted to!” he shouted, before adding, as a taunting afterthought. “Red-Assed Boss Monkey!”
Joey gnashed his teeth together, his face ripening into a bright red. His fists clenched tigther together, and there wasn’t a single doubt in Kaiba’s mind that if they were thrown back into the animal kingdom, the Chihuahua would have launched himself against the bigger dog with a less than favorable outcome. Kaiba wasn’t one to compromise his own safety for the sake of Wheeler, of all people, but in this fight, if Wheeler went down, so would he. They were on the same team.
A steely grip latched onto Joey’s shoulders, holding him back. “Don’t do anything stupid, Wheeler.”
“You stay out of this, Kaiba,” Joey snapped, shrugging him off. “Hirutani and I go a long way back. He’s got this coming to him.”
“Idiot,” Kaiba muttered under his breath. Joey obviously heard him, but for once, he shrugged the insult off. Within seconds, he rushed Hirutani, exchanging a flurry of punches and ducking Hirutani’s swings.
Kaiba didn’t have enough time to watch the fight though, as he was surrounded a few moments later by a fresh set of thugs eager to see his face become intimately acquainted with the floor. This time, he knew what to expect. Luckily, Kaiba ducked just in time to avoid two of Hirutani’s lackeys move in for the attack. Both thugs swung, hitting one another in the face and awkwardly tumbling into the space that Kaiba occupied just moments before. He disposed of the remaining people fool enough to challenge him, looking up just in time to see Hirutani deliver a brutal blow to Joey’s neck, brass knuckles cleaving through fabric and flesh.
‘Hirutani’s going to kill him!’
Kaiba didn’t know the whole story behind Joey and Hirutani, but at that particular moment in time, it really didn’t matter. The last thing he needed on his mind was Wheeler getting killed in a gang-brawl.
Able to mimic the moves the Red King gang members used against him, Kaiba dodged the latest slew of them blocking his way to Joey and Hirutani’s one-on-one fight. Hirutani noticed Kaiba’s abrupt movement, and between uppercuts and left hooks, he called out to his lackeys still twisting through the shadows.
Kaiba was able to mimic some of the movements that the Red King gang members used against him—-mostly moving fast enough to dodge things. It was a hard lesson learned. His lip was swollen and his vision was blurry, but he was a lot more effective than he was before. He had managed to duck a hurling chair targeted for his head and delivered a gruesome punch to the gut of the property-damaging fool.
He never imagined himself involved in a fist-fight. Physical exertion was never really his thing—he often stayed away from rough sports and dreaded any contact sports in gym class. But there seemed to be a first time for everything.
Disposing of the last thug in his immediate area, Kaiba’s attention was now drawn toward the one-on-one combat that continued between Hirutani and the mutt.
“Blacks! Get him!”
Kaiba wasn’t the only one confused by Hirutani’s order—weren’t the Red Kings under his command?
‘Hirutani…he’s controlling both gangs. Letting them practically kill one another while he reaps the rewards!’
Unfortunately, Kaiba realized this before the Kings and the Skulls did. The moment the Kings saw the Skulls thundering up the stairs, they piled toward them, Skulls versus Kings—without a single one left to go after Kaiba. Viewing the distraction as an opportunity, Kaiba closed the gap between Hirutani and himself, knowing that even Joey had to see the advantage an extra pair of fists could give him.
The tall gang leader was momentarily distracted by Kaiba’s sudden presence next to him, allowing Joey the chance to punch him fiercely in the jaw, teeth cutting open his lip and forcing Hirutani to spew blood. The moment his head turned, Kaiba used the advantage of his long legs to knee Hirutani sharply in the tailbone, forcing him to double over in pain.
But rather than thank him for the help, Joey snarled at Kaiba, shooting him a glare hot enough to burn through solid steel.
“Stay the hell out of this, Kaiba! I’m handlin’ this!” Of course, Joey chose an inopportune moment to speak; Hirutani pulled his arm back and punched Joey hard in the jaw.
“Not from this angle, you aren’t!” Kaiba shot back, dodging a sudden swerving punch from Hirutani, who’d regained his composure. “Mutts like you just can’t be grateful, can you?” Of course, it was a purely rhetorical question, but it only served to get Joey even more angered, though at the moment he was too preoccupied fighting Hirutani to punch Kaiba for his remark.
“‘Mutt,’ huh? It suits you, Wheeler!” Hirutani sneered, making a fist and rocketing it into Joey’s stomach. Joey doubled over, coughing up blood, partially sprawled over Hirutani’s arm.
“Shut. The. Hell. Up. Ass-Monkey!” Joey huffed, clawing his way up to Hirutani’s neck. Once Joey got a firm grasp on the chains dangling there, he pulled them tightly—forcing Hirutani to drop his arm and struggle to prevent himself from being choked.
“This is for tryin’ to blind me with that glass in our last fight, ya prick!” Joey slammed an iron fist into Hirutani’s quickly-paling face. “This is for messin’ with my friends—” Hirutani managed to grab hold of Joey’s wrist, thus freeing himself from being choked. The older boy didn’t waste any time with words, he just sent a fist flying toward Joey. Knuckles connected roughly with the tender skin above Joey’s eye, pain lancing through his face as his vision blurred.
“Dammit Wheeler,” Kaiba cursed. He reached out and grabbed Hirutani by the stub of his ponytail, forcing the boy—who only had a few centimeters of height advantage over Kaiba—backward, his limbs flying from the sudden disruption in balance. Without wasting time spouting reasons for why he was stuck in the fight, Kaiba sent a clamped fist toward Hirutani’s face, the force knocking gold-plated teeth from the gangster’s mouth.
Joey regained his footing, a hand briefly nursing his latest bruise before he looked at Kaiba, his expression odd and somewhat winking. He didn’t say anything, but Kaiba knew he was grateful for the split-second distraction he’d caused that probably saved his skin. No words were needed in the following moment, as both Kaiba and Joey grabbed hold of Hirutani’s collar and punched him square in the face—this time knocking Hirutani unconscious.
“And that was for bein’ a back-stabbin’ ass-wipe,” Joey announced, his voice carrying over the commotion. Some gangers stop fighting to watch in awe as their leader stumbled back several steps, before collapsing on the floor, a bloody and bruised mess.
Kaiba caught his breath, aware that the fights surrounding them were coming to a stop—and all gazes were drifting in their directon.
“Well, it seems as though the tables have turned. They actually want to listen to you howl, mutt.”
“He—” Joey began angrily, but stopped—Kaiba was right. All eyes were on Joey…and they weren’t looking at him as a deserter or an enemy.
“That’s right, you heard me! Hirutani was playin’ you Skulls and Kings like a deck a’ cards! He always has been! What kinda boss has his own friggin’ Torture Chamber, huh? I know I ain’t the only one who was trussed up from a ceilin’ and shocked with tasers!”
Kaiba raised a brow, surprised. ‘So he isn’t just your run-of-the mill fighting mutt.’
“Don’t tell me all them bruises you guys had just from this fight alone. I’ve been in loads a fights tougher than this, and walked away with less scars. So I ask ya—what kinda boss tortures his own damn gang, huh? You call that loyalty? You call that respect?”
At this point, Hirutani, having regained his consciousness and seeing that he was beaten, slowly began crawling away. But Joey blocked his way, arms crossed. “Y’going somewhere, Hirutani? Don’t you got anything to say in yer defense?”
He kicked the gang leader in the gut, knocking him down. Hirutani stifled a groan. “Didn’t think so. ” Joey turned back to his audience. “See? You don’t need to take no shit from a red-ass boss monkey like him!”
“Okay, okay!” A wiry man ambled through the crowds of bruised and unconscious gang members, clapping his own hands, but for an entirely different reason. Once Joey’s applause died out, the blond looked a bit disappointed but he, like everyone else left in DV8, wanted to know who this stranger was clapping for their attention.
“Most of you guys have been coming to DV8 for a long time now, and I’ve never cared about whether you’re a Skull or a King or what. But this is the first—and the last—time I will let you get away with messing up my club, so you all better help clean up, or I swear I will call the cops on each and every one of your bottoms!”
There was a brief silence, broken only by muffled laugther. The wiry man shot the laugher an evil glare, and said boy immediately scrambled to his feet and started righting the chairs that had fallen around him. Not long after, Skulls and Kings alike followed suit.
It wasn’t easy cleaning up after a gang brawl, as Mai quickly learned that night. Brucie and Donny took over organizing the teams of gang members that weren’t injured enough to require any medical attention, and those that had already been fixed up, setting them to sweeping up the glass and righting the fallen tables and chairs. DV8 was a mess, but the boys were actually helping out—and the once-rivals were actually talking to one another.
Donny went to the trouble of hefting the apparent leader of both gangs over his shoulder and letting the paramedics pick him up outside. Brucie, meanwhile, called the cops and informed them of where the leader could be found—but had, true to his word, kept silent about the gang members still at DV8. They were, after all, helping out…
Which saved Mai a lot of extra time and effort. She was acting nurse, but her thoughts weren’t on her ‘patients’—they were on whether or not it had been an entirely smart idea to let Téa leave with Bakura.
“Hey darling,” Brucie called, “You almost done over there? You’re going to help us close up after these guys head home, right?”
“Yeah, then—Joey?” Mai blinked, looking at the dirty blond huddled up against the counter, covering his face with one hand.
“Mai?” Joey looked up, startled, the hand that had been nursing his black eye sliding off his face and landing limply in his lap.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Mai demanded, concern outweighing the irritation that masked her pretty face only moments before. “You weren’t one of those gang brats messing up this club, were you?” The tone of her voice implied that Mai wouldn’t have believed Joey if he had told her that he was—but there was worry in her eyes.
“Hirutani started it,” Kaiba mumbled, not liking the idea that he was coming to Joey’s defense. But it was the truth. If Joey really had been responsible for the brawl that had caused so much chaos, Kaiba wouldn’t have wasted his time. But they’d both been cornered and forced into the fight, and now they were forced to retreat, with stinging wounds acting as reminders.
“Hiru—what in the name of—KAIBA?!”
“The one and only,” he snapped sarcastically. It felt like someone had dropped a ton of bricks on the side of his face. Why couldn’t she just get him some ice, like she had for the others?
To Kaiba’s surprise, her expression softened, and Mai didn’t look so astonished any more. “You were here for Téa, weren’t you?”
Kaiba didn’t say anything, he only looked away. Mai frowned, bending down and inspecting Joey and Kaiba’s shared injuries. “I can’t think of any other reason why a stuck-up prick like you would be in a club like mine.”
“Yours?” Joey spluttered, eyes widening with surprise.
“Well, not really mine,” Mai amended, her cheeks coloring, “but close enough. The owners and I go way back, and I do work here three nights a week.”
“Since when?” the blond demanded.
“Since three years ago. What’s it to you?” Mai queried, suspicious. “You weren’t really—”
“I used to be,” Joey interrupted, knowing that she was toying with the idea that he was still involved with the gangs. “But I don’t remember seeing you around here.”
“Hmph. I doubt you would have recognized me.” And that was the end of that—Joey shut right up as Mai pressed an cold bag of ice cubes against his purpling bruise.
“I’m not a stuck-up prick,” Kaiba murmured once Mai began tending to his own bruises a few minutes later. In truth, he would have preferred it if he could have gotten the ice by himself, but the intimidating-looking bouncer was glowering down at them between snippets of conversation with the wiry man that had to be the owner of the club. No one dared move, or risk the wrath of at least three people in a single instant.
Ignoring his comment, Mai pressed the ice pack harder against his face. Kaiba would have protested, but there was a dangerous glint in her eyes as she regarded him. “Were you really going to apologize?” She sounded disbelieving. Mai was just another person that believed he wasn’t capable of apology.
So why did Kaiba feel like Mai was right? He didn’t recall that last time he had made a mistake in his life; he didn’t recall that last time he needed to apologize for anything—so why was he feeling so guilty?
But then there had been that time during Battle City when Téa had saved Mokuba…and risked her own life. She could have died, but she’d cared more about her friends and Mokuba than she did about getting crushed under a two-ton crate. He wanted to apologize for that. But the words had never come, and so much time had passed and…
Why was he even thinking of such a long time ago?
Because of her. Téa.
“I don’t know why else you would have been here,” Mai continued, “but the idea of you apologizing might be giving you too much credit. Still, it’d be a welcome thing. Téa’s…not been herself, lately.”
“If by ‘not herself’ you mean gettin’ smash drunk and screaming that guys suck from the top of a certain apartment complex’s balcony, then yeah, she ain’t been herself,” Joey muttered darkly, hissing with pain when he ran callused fingers over the cut near his shoulder. Stupid Hirutani with his brass knuckles.
Mai blinked in surprise, while Seto disguised his; he knew Téa hadn’t been showing up to school, but getting drunk and acting flamboyant? Yugi had said something like that, but Kaiba had ignored it. Getting drunk…that wasn’t like Téa. Even tonight, she’d seemed mild-mannered (if a little crazy, Kaiba mused. After all, she was wrapped around Bakura!).
“You heard that, huh?” Mai gave a wry chuckle, shaking her head. She edged over to Joey, slapped his hand away from his cut, and began to disinfect it with a cotton ball doused in hydrogen peroxide. The blond hissed between his teeth the moment the puff came into contact with his open wound, glaring angrily at Mai.
“Yeah, I heard it. ‘Guys suck.’ Plain as day—between the two of you, I’m surprised all of Tokyo wasn’t woken up.”
Mai retracted her hand with narrowed eyes, “Don’t patronize me, Joey Wheeler. I’m not the kind of girl to get drunk without reason, and that night, Téa wasn’t either.”
“Just that night?” Kaiba asked hollowly. Mai glanced at him before her gaze flitted to the ground.
Mai sighed deeply and sat down on the floor between Kaiba and Joey, finally allowing herself a moment to relax. DV8 was officially closed for the night, but the place was still a disaster, and they had a long way to go before everything was cleaned up. There were plenty of injured kids left, too.
“I gotta admit, she’s been scaring me the past few days. She won’t even wait a few hours before she’ll down some of the strongest stuff we have. When I’m on duty, I water it down as best I can, but she’s a real charmer. If I don’t give her what she wants, she’ll just get it from someone else. Téa’s got half the guys who come here every night buying her drinks. And she doesn’t care that she’s leading them on one stinkin’ bit. She just–she just wants to forget.” Mai looked meaningfully at Kaiba, hoping he’d get the message. His face showed no outward sign that he understood her words, but he looked away abruptly.
“So what’s your excuse?” Joey asked bluntly, referring to Mai’s reason for being drunk the other night.
Mai looked decidedly uncomfortable for an instant; an expression she’d never worn in front of anybody before. At least not Joey—and certainly not Kaiba. She hated appearing weak and easy in front of anyone, least of all people she regarded as…well, rivals. Joey was more than that, of course, but…
“Guys do suck,” she uttered darkly, rising to her feet and walking away.
“This sucks,” Téa groaned. “I can’t believe she was right about those gangs…”
“Who was what?” Bakura glanced backwards at her, his gaze briefly drifting to their still-joined hands. Téa fell abruptly silent, staring at Bakura and their hands, before she quickly wrenched her own away, just as Bakura made to tighten his grip.
Her free hand flew to her oddly fluttering heart—what was this weird sensation she got whenever she was around Bakura? It wasn’t just the uneasiness, of knowing that he was an enemy of her best friend, and a dangerous individual at that, but…something else.
Fingers groped the skin at the top of Téa’s glittering blue halter top, and she realized something with dismay.
“My necklace!” Téa spun around in quick circle, hoping that her mother’s precious sapphire necklace simply fell off while she and Bakura ran from the brawl at DV8.
‘Please don’t let it still be back at the club…’
But it was nowhere in sight.
“It doesn’t matter,” Bakura insisted between tightly clenched teeth, his hand once again snaking out to ensnare Téa’s wrist. She stumbled forward, practically falling into his arms, and that was when the bizarre sensation flooded her senses again. It wasn’t like anything Téa ever experienced before—nor anything she cared to explore at the moment.
She wanted to snap at Bakura, and tell them that he didn’t know anything about her, or what mattered to her, but…
‘He saved me. Again.’
Téa could only pray that her necklace would be found by Mai and given to her later that night.
The club was just about cleaned up, and Kaiba—the great Seto Kaiba, CEO of his own corporation—was reduced to sweeping up broken glass. But in return for avoiding another potential scandal and for getting free medical care, he wasn’t going to complain.
The last pile of shards were about to go into the trash when something caught his eye—a gold chain with a tiny, teardrop shaped sapphire dangling off the end. Kaiba bent to pick the necklace off the floor, removing the tangles of dust and glass specks that surrounded it.
It had to be hers. He remembered that necklace only too well—from when they’d danced.
But tonight, she’d been at this club, and dancing in the arms of someone else…
You owe me.
“Ready to go?”
The deep, familiar voice startled Kaiba out of the reverie he’d slipped into. DV8 was now as cleaned up as it could be, and Donny and Brucie—the co-owners of the club, as Kaiba had come to learn—told the remaining boys there was nothing more they could do. Grateful for the medical attention and the fact that the owners weren’t pressing charges of any sort (something Kaiba was privately grateful for, and sure that Wheeler couldn’t possibly understand), they headed toward the door…only to be greeted by a less-than-scathed Yami Yugi.
“Yug’, ya—” Joey stopped, his eyes widening as he caught sight of the pile of guys just outside the back door to DV8. It was pouring rain outside, but the gang members were piled one on top of another, not moving a muscle. A discarded taser, broken and still crackling, lay just outside the pile of boys’ reach.
Kaiba couldn’t hide his surprise; he would have thought Yugi the type to duck out from a physical fight—but that was obviously not the case here. The same Yugi that he’d dueled…the Yugi that hadn’t shown his face for so long. There was a nagging desire in the back of Kaiba’s mind: he wanted to duel again. Defeat Yugi, once and for all, but…
It was not the time nor the place.
“Repeat of the last trick ya pulled on these losers?” Joey grinned, stepping beneath the back door awning. He smirked as Yami Yugi, choosing to remain silent, wiped off his Millennium Puzzle with a towel from the washrooms. Kaiba noted with some disdain that Yugi barely sported more than a single bruise—a small one on his cheek, surrounded by a few scratches that would probably be gone in a few days.
It was horrifically unfair.
Yugi—diminutive, nobody Yugi. He always came up out of nowhere and triumphed, and it was obviously true for situations outside of dueling. While Kaiba—and even Wheeler, who had once been part of the very gangs they’d fought—had both walked away with large bruises and painful gashes, Yugi, who always waxed eloquent about not fighting and friendship, barely sported a spot.
This was probably his just reward for wondering where his dueling opponent went earlier. Timid little Yugi vanished, and the person Seto Kaiba recognized as his one true rival now stood in his place.
“We should get going. There is nothing left for us here,” Yami Yugi said simply, not giving Joey a definitive answer. But Joey obviously didn’t need one; he grinned like a banshee at the sight of the pile of guys outside the door—Odagiri, Cigs, and Oil Head conspicuously absent—passed out in the pouring rain.
“Better luck tomorrow?” Joey shrugged. He glanced from Yami to Kaiba, then sighed. “I ain’t stickin’ around in this weather. Gotta go.” And without another word, Joey Wheeler sprinted off into the gray rain.
“Tomorrow,” Yami Yugi said, and then walked off, heedless of the rain ruining his hairstyle or potentially damaging his leather-wear.
‘Tomorrow.’ Kaiba thought. He couldn’t give up. He had to find her. He had to.
“I would have thought she’d change her mind,” Yugi mumbled, flopping his head into his arms.
“Téa’s been through it all, Yug’,” Joey frowned, “I don’t think something like a gang brawl would stop her from going to a club and dancin’ her heart out.”
“Except she’s not just dancing her heart out, she’s been getting intoxicated, and there’s only so long before the teachers will find out, and refuse to let her back in school,” Chieko stated, shaking her head. Ever since she’d pointed the boys in Téa’s direction by mentioning Téa’s secret rendevous with Bakura, she had been privy to the meetings the boys had discussing how they would get Téa back to her senses, and back in school.
Chieko, Tristan, and Duke also joined Yugi and Joey in their plots, as they gathered in the classroom at lunch. Oddly enough, Kaiba, who sat only a few desks from Tristan’s desk, where the group meetings were held, remained in class during lunch—though he typically went out and ate lunch elsewhere—alone. Chieko knew she wasn’t the only one who noticed this—Yugi also had, and the small boy shot furtive glances in Kaiba’s direction when he thought no one was watching.
Kaiba was listening in.
“Tell me again why we don’t just go up to Bakura and—”
“Because!” Yugi hissed, “If he does, he’ll just tell Téa and we’ll never be able to get hold of her ever again.”
“Are you thinkin’ what I think you’re thinkin’, Yug’?” Joey asked, staring at his best friend with a raised brow. Yugi glanced up at Joey, confusion plain on his youthful face.
“That it ain’t Ryou Bakura we’re dealin’ with but—”
“The Spirit of the Millennium Ring,” Tristan finished, grimacing.
“Gah…natural light! It burns…” Téa flopped her arm over her eyes, but it didn’t serve as a total shield against the sunlight now streaming into Mai’s living room.
“Oh, stop complaining and get up. You’ve been asleep for nearly twelve hours now. Do you really want to waste the day away on the couch?” Mai replied, shuffling into the kitchen and grabbing herself an iced tea from her fridge.
“Do you really wanna know the answer to that?” Téa groaned. “Man, I have a hangover…”
“I know,” Mai snapped. “That’s why I want you to get up off your ass and do something. Work it off.”
“Mai, much as I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, you’re not my mother, and I didn’t come here to be lectured.”
Mai didn’t respond. When Téa dared to peer out from under her arms, Mai was glaring at her icily, her arms crossed over her chest.
“Mai, I didn’t mean—”
“Whatever, Téa. I’m going out. To do something. Have fun with your stupid hangover.” And with that, Mai slammed the door and left the apartment.
Téa groaned, smothering her face with a pillow. She hadn’t meant to anger Mai! If it weren’t for the blonde, she’d be out on the streets or dead from pneumonia!
Outside, Mai leaned against her apartment door and heaved a great sigh. She hadn’t meant to patronize Téa or sound like she was trying to mother her—especially since Téa’s mother was dead. But she was worried about the girl. Days passed since the gang brawl at DV8, but Téa, unperturbed, still went every single night. Bakura showed up as well—usually a bit late, and never there when the club opened at six, like Téa did.
In the meantime, Téa ordered strong drinks from the bar—from bartenders other than Mai—and danced with strange boys. She let them talk to her, flirt with her, dance with her—and buy her drinks. She continually threw herself into a world of disillusionment, until reality hit her hard and fast the next day, in the form of a fierce hangover. Mai warned her—in the gentlest ways she could manage—but Téa never listened.
It didn’t matter what Mai told her—about her past experiences, or about police catching her—a minor!—drunk and in an eighteen-and-up club. Téa slurred her excuses, and resumed the same activity, night after night. Mai was tempted—however briefly—to bring Yugi and the others into it, and maybe get them to get some semblance back into their friend, but…Mai remembered what Téa told her about the last day she’d been in school.
They’d ignored her. Abandoned her. And that was a feeling Mai only knew too well, and not one that Mai wished Téa would remember.
Maybe this was just one of those things she had to learn the hard way.
Kaiba paused, but he didn’t turn around to face the caller—he already knew it was Joey. The fact that he was stopping for the mutt spoke volumes already—words that Seto Kaiba would never utter aloud. He actually had a modicum of respect for the dog now, and, well…Kaiba owed him.
“You goin’ back to the club, tonight, ain’t ya?”
He certainly had a way with words.
“What of it?”
“I got my own issues to sort out,” Joey mumbled. “But if someone tries to pull a stunt like the other night…” he trailed off, unwilling to admit that Kaiba had saved his skin the other night—on multiple occasions. But then, the reverse was also true, and had he not saved Kaiba, it was likely that the CEO would be sporting more than one large bruise on the side of his face.
“…I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we actually make quite a team, Wheeler.”
“He—” Joey stopped abruptly. Not ‘mutt,’ but…’Wheeler.’ “Thanks, man.”
Kaiba merely nodded in acknowledgment, beginning to walk away again.
“Hey! What about—”
“Meet me at Lake Entrance to Domino Park, six o’clock sharp. Don’t be late…” Joey was unaware of the smirk curving the corner of Kaiba’s lips, “mutt.”
The Queen of Wands.
Bakura’s fingers slid over the highly decorated Tarot Cards, his eyes narrowed. He had several cards laid out in a six-pointed star formation, with three cards above those on the top three points, two in the center, and two at the upper joints. Téa’s card was the one on the uppermost point, while the two to the left and right were his and Seto’s cards, respectively. Bakura had chosen the Knight of Wands for himself—a card representing someone of a charming nature but volatile personality—and the King of Swords for Kaiba. The King of Swords represented one who was intelligent, logical and collected. Not someone who would make emotionally-charged decisions and get in the way.
Bakura couldn’t afford that.
He turned the card below the King of Swords face-up.
It wasn’t right. It couldn’t be. Seto Kaiba…feeling guilty about the past? Regretting his actions? It seemed highly uncharacteristic of him, but there the card was: the Nine of Swords, indicating just that. Well…Bakura had to be wary. He moved on to another card, this one two cards below Téa’s Queen. Justice.
Strange. Another card that he wouldn’t have been able to predict.
The card indicated that Téa would be making a decision soon. Choosing between two opposing forces and…Bakura swallowed the lump that had grown in his throat. He was not anxious. The fool Kaiba had missed his chance, and now the ancient Spirit had to make use of this opportunity to find out just what connection he had with Téa. Who was she? Why–why did he feel the way he did around her?
What did he have anything to do with her decision, though? Admittedly, he wanted to explore this odd sensation he got around her—that niggling in the back of his mind that started (by the gods, could he even remember?) long ago. The next card in the sequence was that of his own thoughts and feelings. Flipping the card over with a small measure of trepidation, Bakura examined the card.
The Eight of Cups. An abandonment of one’s current path in life, and…disappointment in love? How foolish. It wasn’t as if he was falling for the damn girl. Nor was he getting distracted from his purpose—collect the seven Millennium Items and destroy the Pharaoh utterly with them.
Yet…it had been a while since Bakura had truly made the effort to obtain the items. Other things had gotten in the way. Other…people.
It was simply too disturbing. Perhaps the cards could reveal his connection to Téa here and now, and he wouldn’t have to bother with—
The Blank Card. Sitting at the left joint of the star formation, between Bakura’s Knight and Téa’s Queen, was the Blank Card. It represented that which could not be foretold. The unknown, the impossible. The unpredictable.
The infuriating spread tempted Bakura to just sweep all the cards off the table, and mark their fortunes as meaningless. But he was a master of the occult! His predictions were never off!
That only made matters worse.
Flipping over the remaining cards with little patience left to him, Bakura revealed the Eight of Wands below the Queen, indicating that her goal was about to be reached. Involuntarily, brown eyes darted toward The Lovers card. In the last reading he had done for the fool Kaiba and Téa, that card had been in the position of their shared goals and hopes. They wanted to be together.
‘He doesn’t deserve her!’ Bakura thought angrily, unaware that his jealousy was increasing with each card he overturned. Him, jealous? Of the fool Kaiba, of the idiot priest? He was nothing—no one!—to him. He didn’t even have his memories of the past, and for that self-same reason, he’d be doomed to repeat his mistakes over and over…And for whatever reason, that meant Téa—the oddball out, with seemingly no real connection to the Bakura or the ancient past—had to be protected, lest Seto screw things up again.
Below that, the Wheel of Fortune. A cycle of good and bad, repeating again. Everything had been horrible for Téa up until this point—Bakura knew that much. And if the cycle was turning in her favor, then…
The Lovers. The Eight of Wands. Justice.
All the cards were beginning to add up, to make sense—and Bakura didn’t like it, not one bit.
Only three more cards to go—those crowning his, Téa’s, and Kaiba’s cards. The cards representative of their most powerful influences, and their past. For him, the Chariot. Being pulled willfully in two directions, by two opposing forces. There was his own inner desperation to see the Pharaoh pay for his injustices of so many years ago, to get the revenge that he’d always longed for.
And then there was her.
She was something…different. Not new, Bakura knew that. She had to be from the ancient past, somehow, even if who she had been remained unfathomable to Bakura. She possessed a great spirit and strength like nothing he’d ever known, like nothing he’d ever tasted before. She pulled at him, urging him away from his mission. Forget the Millennium Items. Follow me. Stay with me.
But she didn’t want him. After all those nights of hovering on the outskirts of his other’s mind, Bakura still knew…no matter what Téa said, she still loved Kaiba. She loved that damned fool, and he didn’t even know.
‘Let him feel guilty for his actions and words—he still doesn’t deserve to have her back!’
But this was a situation beyond his control.
Téa’s card was The Tower—catastrophe, and utter, complete change. The death of her parents, and her decision—no, her being kicked out—of the Kaiba Mansion. Life-changing events that made her wiser, more mature…and yet, not the girl he’d been drawn to initially. She was different from when Bakura first encountered her…
They all were.
And Kaiba? The Three of Swords. Reversed, oddly enough. Disorder, sorrow, and confusion. He wanted to act on his guilt, he wanted to apologize…but he was still unsure about his feelings for Téa.
‘Wait a moment…’
Seto Kaiba, guilty, upset, and confused? Ready to…apologize?
“Stay the hell away from her, fool!”
Bakura didn’t waste a second in grabbing his jacket and heading out the door. He had to get to DV8 before Kaiba did. He just had to.
“What are you doing here?” Kaiba asked bluntly, the moment he caught sight of Yugi walking alongside Joey. But aside from his rival, no one else accompanied Wheeler, and for that, Kaiba was privately a bit grateful. The last thing he needed was an entire entourage when he…
“Hey, don’t be startin’ nothin’—” Joey began, but Yugi actually cut him off.
“It’s okay, Joey.” Yugi glanced toward Kaiba with a strange sort of sadness in his eyes, and it was then that Kaiba recalled Yugi’s words from earlier: “She cares more about you than she does about me.”
“You know you’re not the only one that cares about Téa,” Yugi murmured. “I just want to make sure she’s okay.”
In the back of Kaiba’s mind, he briefly wondered if Yugi was just there to screw things up for him—whether he intended to or not. Yugi was more than his rival—he was a physical manifestation of all the doubts Kaiba harbored over the past several days—ever since he’d made up his mind to talk to Téa, and figure things out once and for all.
“‘Sides, we passed DV8 on the way here, shmuck. It ain’t open yet. They’re doin’ some kinda screenin’ of everyone that enters, so the line’s goin’ around the block. Even if Téa got smuggled in early,” Joey continued, his refusal to mention Mai’s name obvious, “she ain’t dancin’ yet. We gotta wait.”
He didn’t mean ‘wait in line.’ But the mutt was right, much as Kaiba hated to admit it—again.
“I’ve got to talk to Kaiba,” Yugi stated suddenly, catching both Kaiba and Joey’s attention. Joey looked at his friend unsurely, then up at Kaiba.
“You sure, Yug’?”
Yugi only nodded. Joey heaved a sigh, shoving his hands into his pockets as he walked away. “Good luck, Yug’!” he called, disappearing behind the curve in the path.
Kaiba had no intention of speaking to Yugi, but the unfortunate thing about his rival was that he was nothing if not horrifically stubborn. On more than one occasion, he’d been accused of being the very same thing—so he wasn’t about to walk away and make it that much more apparent to Yugi.
“I really am just going to check up on her,” Yugi admitted. “I’m not going to stop you from talking to her. You both need to…” Yugi shook his head and left his sentence incomplete. “Don’t you want to know why, Kaiba? Why I’m not going to get in your way anymore?”
“I don’t particularly care about the ‘why’s‘ Yugi, only that you stay out of my way from here on out,” Kaiba snapped, coming off as a bit more caustic than even he thought was necessary. But then…Yugi was his rival. And now, it was in more ways than one. They both wanted Téa—
“I kissed her.”
It wasn’t easy masking a reaction to that. Kaiba visibly flinched, wrenching his gaze away from Yugi.
“I didn’t want to do anything before we were ready!”
He’d wanted to kiss her, so badly. And he’d pretty much told her as much in that moment, but everything was so complicated…and problems piled on top of one another, and things ended up…well, not the way he wanted! Why was it that Kaiba found himself constantly competing against Yugi for everything? For the first time in his life, he’d wanted something besides victory, besides power, security, and protection. He’d wanted her. Selfishly, he’d wanted Téa, for no other reason than to have her.
But again, Yugi had beat him to it.
The smaller boy had crushed on Téa for longer than Kaiba could even remember. And now, after all this time, he’d gone and expressed his feelings for her. So now what?
“She doesn’t feel the same way,” Yugi continued, either blind to Kaiba’s reaction or choosing to ignore it. “I still love her, more than anything,” Yugi admitted, “but I’m not going to compete with you for her. She’s not some prize to be won. She’s–she’s my friend,” Yugi said forcefully, almost as if reassuring himself of that fact, “and I don’t ever want to lose that.”
The very same things that, a year ago, Kaiba would have reprimanded Yugi for: love, friendship, blind loyalty, and ridiculous devotion…well now, they were the things that made Yugi the better man. He didn’t see Téa—or any of the others—as a weakness. They were his strength, his constant companions and…
“Even if she doesn’t feel the same way, you’d still stay friends with her?”
Somehow Kaiba found that hard to believe. How could Yugi possibly stand being around Téa every day, seeing her bright eyes and brushing against her soft skin, without wanting her completely?
And now Kaiba had a whole new set of things to reprimand himself for. Not for bothering to listen to Yugi Moto, but for waxing poetic about Téa Gardner. For letting himself become hopelessly entangled in his own emotions, without any hope of returning…
Yugi looked pained. “I–I have to try.”
“Don’t bother trying,” Kaiba said gruffly, standing up. Yugi glanced up at him, ready to protest, but Kaiba cut him off. “Trying is useless. You have to do it. Plenty of things in this life are difficult, but making the honest, solid effort makes you all the stronger for it. Saying you’re only going to ‘try’ means you aren’t giving it your all, and that’s just not good enough. Not for you, and not for her. Think what you want abouther, Yugi, but she still needs you.”
Good God. Had he just given Yugi Moto a pep talk? Why wasn’t the sky falling?
“Comin’ from ya, Moneybags, that’s kinda scary.”
“What do you want?” Kaiba asked. Still, his voice lacked his usual disdain for Joey’s presence—the usual contempt. After that brawl they’d both been in back at DV8, there had been an unspoken sort of peace between the two boys. It unsettled them both, to be sure, but given the circumstances, it just didn’t feel right to say anything. Still, the mutt had chosen at apt time to reappear.
“To do what you want, and what Yug’ wants, too. Go get Téa.”
He had to find her.
Even if she was with that damned Bakura—that snake!—he had to see her.
His fist clenched around the necklace he’d found the other night. He knew it was hers. He knew that she would miss it.
Though he still couldn’t remember much of the night of the Ball, Kaiba’s dance with Téa was clearly imprinted in his mind. He remembered leaning her back, feeling the softness of her skin sending warmth coursing through his hands, through his veins…
A tiny sapphire pendant had winked at him from between the curve of her breasts: a simple, golden chain with a tear-drop shaped sapphire on the end. When he’d brought her back into his chest during that dance, Téa had told him that the necklace was her mother’s, and the last thing she had of hers.
Even if he’d been right in telling Téa that she possessed more than that—she had her memories—he had to give it back to her.
Maybe it was just an excuse to see her again…to talk to her.
Night, lift up the shades
Let in the brilliant light of morning
But steady me now
For I am weak and starving for mercy
It was easy to get into DV8, now that he knew those guarding the back entrance. Those once part of the Red Kings and still on good terms with Joey possessed a measure of respect for Kaiba—after he’d helped them in that last brawl.
His cheekbone still sported the remnants of a purple bruise, but it wasn’t as if Kaiba cared that much. After all, getting arrested, involved in a gang brawl, and spending sleepless nights thinking of her wasn’t the way Kaiba had envisioned spending his days with Téa in his life. But now that she was gone—or at least, appearing intermittently—all he wanted was to ignore the voice of Gozaburo…and to get her back.
Sleep has left me alone
To carry the weight of unraveling where we went wrong
It’s all I can do to hang on,
To keep me from falling
Into old familiar shoes
The boys at the back entrance gave Kaiba a curt nod before stepping aside, letting him into the DV8 entrance that led through a dimly lit hallway, past the bathrooms and straight onto the dance floor, completely side-stepping the upstairs balcony where most people entered.
As far as anyone knew, he’d paid the cover and been let in long ago—and just went to the bathroom. No one seemed any the wiser as Kaiba entered the main area, edging his way past throngs of people dancing to a remixed version of a foreign song.
He had to find her.
Before he lost his nerve, before Gozaburo’s voice came back and haunted him, yelling at him, reminding him that Téa made him weak, made him feel. But, as contradictory as that was to everything he’d been taught, Kaiba wanted to feel. Almost more than anything else…
The lights moved quickly, blue shining right into Kaiba’s eyes, very nearly blinding him and halting him in his steps. When he lowered the arm he’d shielded his eyes with and glanced about again, orange spots dotted his vision, people mere formations of color and shadow.
But amongst all the strangers and beyond all the unimportant shapes…she was there. Somewhere.
How stupid could I be?
A simpleton could see
That you’re no good for me
But you’re the only one I see
It was easy to become addicted to the kind of life DV8 offered to its patrons. Téa became drunk off it, allowing herself to meld with the music. Nothing else mattered. Not school, not life, not death, not love…
She forced herself into believing that she was perfectly fine without Seto Kaiba in her life, and that if Yugi and the others were going to ignore her for who she was and what she felt, then…then maybe she was better off without them.
Yet each time such thoughts burbled forth, her heart ached in protest. And each night, Téa drowned out those traitorous thoughts with drink after drink. She was well aware of the pounding headaches and lethargy that would sweep over her the following morning, those same thoughts coming back in surround sound to tell her that she couldn’t just forget about her problems with alcohol…
But each night, she repeated the process over and over again. Mai, once her staunchest advocate of doing whatever it took to forget about guys, now cast worried glances Téa’s way. But it didn’t matter. None of it mattered. Nothing mattered…not anymore.
Love has made me a fool
Set me on fire and watched as I floundered
Unable to speak
Except to cry out and wait for your answer
She was stupid. Stupid for ever thinking that anything would be easy, that love could ever be simple for her. What it came down to, plain and simple, was that she was cursed. First Yami, and now…
And you come around in your time
Speaking of fabulous places
Create an oasis
That dries up as soon as you’re gone
You leave me here burning
In this desert without you
What made no sense was how, no matter how hard she tried, Seto Kaiba kept invading her thoughts.
‘I told myself I would fall out of love with him! Why can’t I just…do it?’
Every time she tried to conjure up thoughts of how cruel he’d been to her, with his harsh words, his frigid stares, and his unrelenting posture, thoughts of happier times—of slight smiles, twinkling eyes, and warm, spicy lips crushing against her own—came to mind. Her body grew warm, and tears found their way to her eyes…
And she just knocked back another drink, refusing to admit that maybe love wasn’t as easy as she’d made it out to be.
How stupid could I be?
A simpleton could see
That you’re no good for me
But you’re the only one I see
‘This isn’t as easy as I thought it’d be.’
It didn’t matter if Mai was a blonde bombshell; DV8 had always been a popular club, and even though Mai was a bartender, she wasn’t easy to spot. But Joey Wheeler didn’t give up. Joey Wheeler never gave up.
After the other night, she was all he could think about.
“Guys do suck.”
Mai wasn’t being sarcastic. She meant it. And it hurt.
He had to ask her, then—why did guys suck? What happened in her past that made her so headstrong and determined? Why had she gotten tangled up with slimy guys like Jean Claude Magnum? What happened to Mai Valentine, renowned champion, casino duelist—the rare female duelist who could not only pack a punch, but…
But a hell of a kiss, too.
Memories of that time—that now seemed so far away—haunted Joey, and drove him forward.
The kiss, their petty arguments…
“Man, this is nuts. It’s like walkin’ in a ghost town! I’m gettin’ freaked out!”
“That pretty cowardly of you to say, Joey.”
Joey cast a surprised look at Mai, and quickly shrugged off the hurt he’d felt at her words. “Sorry.”
She was the only one he ever apologized, to, either. Well, besides his friends, but–but they were different. She was diifferent. Mai Valentine appeared in Joey’s every thought, his every dream. And he’d never felt the way he had for anyone before—at least, not for this long a period of time. Residual feelings from Duelist Kingdom dragged on into the RPG World, and afterwards…through Battle City.
‘I almost lost her.’
Malik almost killed her. She could have lost her mind, and lost her memories of them—of him!—but…
Yugi, as always, saved the day. The jealousy that always simmered below the surface of Joey’s skin boiled in remembrance—he’d wanted to be the one to defeat Malik, to save Mai, to have her wake up in his arms and—
Well, she’d woken up. She was fine. Everything went on. Life was back to “normal,” whatever that was. But questions remained unanswered, and thoughts were left unsaid.
He had to find her. He couldn’t wait any longer.
Everything falls apart
I can’t stand to feel myself losing control
In the deep of my senses, I know
‘Ever since she came into my life…’
Or his home, rather.
Seto Kaiba hadn’t really thought much about Téa before—during their first year of high school, or during his encounters with Yugi and Joey.
He’d noticed her, of course—she was the lone female in a pack of males, and an enigma compared to the soft spoken girls that surrounded her at Domino High. Loud, outspoken, boisterous—almost a boy in her own right, but…
With brilliant eyes, soft skin, and supple curves…
Oh, he remembered.
He remembered the dance, and how it felt to hold her in his arms, closer than he’d ever held anyone before. He remembered the touch of her skin under his, when she’d permitted him to slather her with sun screen at the beach. He remembered her gaze, directed solely on him, as she whispered for him to smile…
‘I don’t understand it. Around her, I–I can’t think straight. Everything is always so damn confusing!’
Once upon a time, he’d thought…maybe he was falling in love with her. When he’d visited his parents’ graves just after his birthday, she’d stood beside him…and he’d admitted in silent prayer that her presence did something to him that no one else’s did. But maybe he’d been too presumptuous. So much happened between then and now, and yet…he still wanted to find her, and figure his feelings out. Figure out why she caused such reactions in him. No, not just ‘her,’—her gaze, her touch—hell, even her scent!
She’d slept in his bed that first night she’d moved into the house. Despite the fact that Kaiba—flushed brilliant red—carried her to her proper bedroom when he’d discovered her, her scent imprinted itself into his sheets, his blankets, his pillows…
He hadn’t slept that night.
The only reason why his lack of rest didn’t show the next day was because Seto Kaiba was an expert at going without sleep. He could have gone down to his office, or even to the couch in the living room, but the same gentle smell that kept him awake also kept him riveted to his own bed. A soft, sweet smell…
And violet eyes, practically boring into his head.
‘Yugi.’ The smaller boy was staring at him from some distance away, his expression unreadable. After a moment, the spiky-haired boy disappeared into the shadows, obviously rescinding his search to Kaiba.
And there she was—just a flash of a glittering navy blue tube top, and shiny brown hair—but it couldn’t be anyone else.
‘Somehow…I don’t mind.’
It wasn’t that he didn’t mind Yugi giving up the search…it was that he didn’t mind Téa causing the strange feelings in him. The dark feeling in the pit of his stomach, or the frustration at not remembering the Ball…a myriad of feelings, of thoughts, sensations, and memories. And at the center of them all…her.
How stupid could I be?
A simpleton could see
That you’re no good for me
But you’re the only one I see
Téa once again found herself so lost in her thoughts—in her dance—that she wasn’t aware of her surroundings until they closed in on her. Particularly, a lanky boy wearing a black school uniform that she didn’t recognize—one easily three sizes too big for him. His hair was a disgusting shade of aquamarine, streaked with what appeared to be failed bits of blond, though the majority of his head was covered with a ratty red knit beanie.
Téa hadn’t heard him—at first. But the moment he’d laid his hand on her, she knew there was someone there, and he didn’t just want to buy her a drink.
“Excuse me,” Téa moved away, not wanting to bother with formalities. Where was Bakura?
“You’re excused,” the pimple-faced boy smirked, revealing yellowing teeth. Téa cringed, trying to take a step backwards, but she found herself pressed against a pole.
“But you’ll have to excuse me…I just can’t help but want to do you—” The smile on his thin, pink lips curved, horrifying Téa as she glanced past the boy, hoping that Bakura or Mai would appear and help her out.
The world was fast becoming a delirious blur of lights and colors, and Téa knew, with an astonishing level of clarity, that if she tried to fight the shrimp-lipped boy, she wouldn’t get away with it. She could scream, but no one would hear her—not over the loud music.
Shrimp Lips took Téa’s silence as acquiescence, and pressed himself against her, his greasy hands pinning her wrists to the pole. His breath, hot and tinged with the stench of cigarettes neared ever closer…
‘Oh God. Somebody—anybody—!’
A simpleton could see
That you’re no good for me
But you’re the only one I see
“I think the lady wants you to leave her alone.”
‘It can’t be…’ Téa thought, still struggling to get away from her amorous captor.
But it was.
“Mind your own business—” Shrimp Lips started, but in the second that he turned and faced the source of the voice, he paled.
“You’re that creep from the other night,” he stuttered, his grip on Téa’s wrists slipping away.
Kaiba gazed at the brute with a critical eye. “Didn’t I kick your ass that night?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Back for an encore?”
The guy released Téa in a hurry, shaking his head fervently. “Stay the hell away from this place if you know what’s good for you, punk,” Kaiba snarled at the Red King’s retreating back.
When he turned back around to face Téa, her gaze was averted from his, as she smoothed out her skirt and adjusted her dangerously-low cut halter top. The silence between the two was deafening, even more so than the loud music pulsating throughout the club.
“If you’re expecting a thank you, you’re not going to get it,” Téa finally said, refusing to meet Kaiba’s gaze.
The truth was, she’d been terrified out of her mind in that moment. DV8 was a place she’d gone to escape her problems, to ignore the outside world…but the fact was, DV8 was just a haven for people like that. People desperate for attention, for solace, for peace. That guy had wanted her attention, and he’d almost forced her to—
So what, then? Why was he here?
Instead of returning to the dance floor, Téa headed up to the balcony, Kaiba following wordlessly behind her. Once there, she leaned against the railing separating the balcony from the stage and the dancers below. The entering crowd thinned out some over the course of the evening, and now the entire right staircase remained shrouded in darkness, unused.
“We need to talk.”
“About what?” Téa asked, hardly missing a beat.
She still wasn’t looking at him. It began to grate on Kaiba’s nerves—he just wanted to…to talk!—but he remained silent. This was his fault, and he needed to ignore the snappish voice in his head, demanding that she look at him, or else none of this was worth his time. The bruise still on his cheek smarted, a very physical reminder of why she was worth it, even if it took her another week before she’d look him in the eye again.
But then, maybe he didn’t want her to look at him. He’d see the look in her eyes and suddenly realize…
‘That she hates me.’
She had every right to, really. Well, maybe not after saving her like that, but…
He would have done it again in a heartbeat, even if she did hate him.
The Téa that he remembered wasn’t afraid to look in his eyes. Even when she was angry at him, or saddened by his words…she always looked him in the eye. She always told him exactly what he needed to hear, even if he didn’t want to hear it.
A fleeting memory came to mind—of a distant night, of fingers brushing against shoulders and her suddenly turning to look at him and…
‘We were so close.’
So close to kissing. So close to…something more. And he’d gone and ruined it all. But he wanted that back, more than anything else in that moment…
He and Téa walked down the stairs to where Mai was busy finishing up her bartending shift—she was only working a few hours that night, having worked overtime when the gang fight occurred—in silence. Téa didn’t bother to pester Kaiba for what they needed to talk about, and he didn’t care to elaborate. If she would just agree to speak to him, then maybe…
“Téa, what are you—” Mai halted in front of her friend, her eyes widening as she caught sight of Kaiba standing right behind Téa. She hadn’t seen him come in—nor had she recognized him until the last moment. He looked odd, dressed in the same sort of clothes any usual club-goer would wear—which Mai supposed made him seem all the stranger. Gone were the usual trench coats and high collars typical of Seto Kaiba, and in their place were a navy turtleneck and black jeans, with a black pea coat hanging open and down to his knees.
“I’m going to head out a bit early tonight and…talk.”
“Oh.” Though she only said one word, Mai’s voice expressed all the relief she felt inside. It was about darn time Téa resolved her issues with Kaiba—and got herself off the dance floor, away from the bar, and back at the place that she still called ‘home’—even when she thought Mai wasn’t listening.
“I’m not the only one that needs to talk,” Kaiba said abruptly. Mai blinked, confused, until Kaiba gestured behind Mai.
Joey stood there, his eyes awash with seriousness. He didn’t even need to say those four little words “We need to talk.” Mai knew.
‘Maybe Téa’s not the only one with issues to resolve,’ Mai thought bitterly. She nodded solemnly, regarding Joey with a strange look in her eyes.
“Yeah. I guess you’re right.”
Joey Wheeler was not exactly one for talking. He was a firm believer in the proverb ‘Actions speak louder than words,’ but at the particular moment he was walking Mai home—for the second time in his life, and filled with the same anxiety as before—Joey couldn’t think of a single thing to do or say.
Mai, of course, was the exact opposite—she always knew what she wanted, and she always spoke her mind.
“Joey, do you have something to say to me, or not?”
He hesitated. His sarcasm the other night pushed her away from him, and it hurt him more than he wanted to let on.
But how could he possibly say it to her? That he was sorry, that he was concerned, that…that he cared? He was just run-of-the mill Joey Wheeler.
She was…rich. Beautiful. Popular. Famous, even.
And he…well, even in a city populated by Duelists, people could have cared less about whoever was 2nd place in Duelist Kingdom, or 3rd place in Battle City. Despite these crowning achievements (as Joey considered them), fewer people recognized him than Mai. That was just the defining difference between them, he guessed. And…she’d been around longer.
He wasn’t even eighteen yet, and she was twenty-four, going on twenty-five later on that month.
“I-I’ve been…uh, thinking…”
Temptation presented itself to Mai—she could just give up on Joey, and stick to her guns of never having anything to do with men ever again. She could make a sarcastic, cruel comment—that Joey thinking was dangerous, and she needn’t waste her time on the fruitless results of such an endeavor. But for some reason, she couldn’t bring herself to be so cold to him—not without reason.
He didn’t deserve to be treated like dirt, just because…because she’d been treated the same way, by every other guy in her past.
“…Ah heck, never mind,” Joey muttered, scratching behind his ear. He couldn’t do it. They were just too different.
“Joey Wheeler!” Mai snapped. The annoyance was plain on her pretty face now; she didn’t want to believe that Joey really was a waste of her time. She remained unaware of Joey’s own hesitation and doubts—the reasons why he forced himself to stay silent in face of what he desperately wanted to say.
“Spit it out already! There’s got to be a reason for why you dragged me out here, when I could be back in the club having fun!” Actually, it wasn’t much fun at the bar lately, and she was off her short opening shift, anyway. It wasn’t as if she had any desire to stick around past her designated time and drink or dance…not aftert the events of the past few days, at any rate.
Fun. Fun. Mai’s idea of fun was probably dancing with other guys, getting drunk, and…
“Dammit, Mai! You know I ain’t good with words, an’—”
‘And I don’t want to lose you. I don’t want to lose you to that kind of life, the way I lost my dad. You can see someone every single day, but know for a fact that they don’t look at you the way you want them to…‘
Such thoughts tumbled from his mind easier than they could from his mouth.
“And what, Joey?” Sure, she was trying his patience, but…maybe she owed him that much. Her voice dropped lower, and she dared to step forward, staring at Joey through half-lidded eyes.
“And here I’m tryin’ to tell you how you feel, and I just…”
Well. That was unexpected.
Mai half expected him to lecture her about Téa or something.
‘How do you feel, Joey?’ But she couldn’t say those words out loud. Instead, she said, “Why did you want to talk to me, Joey?”
Unfortunately, she came off as more exasperated than she really was. This resulted in Joey thinking she really was annoyed with him, and just wanted him—lowly Joey Wheeler—to leave her alone, once and for all.
“Why do I gotta give a reason for bein’ in love with—” Joey stopped, realizing what he’d just said. Mai’s eyes widened, her gaze changing from angry and annoyed to soft and surprised.
Joey ducked his head, as Mai’s intense gaze only caused his cheeks to burn even hotter. Great. He’d gone and embarrassed himself, again, and now she knew…
“Do you really mean that?”
Well, so much for the hope that she hadn’t heard him. Or that she’d misheard him. But Joey Wheeler wasn’t a coward. He couldn’t run away…not now.
A heavy silence lapsed between the two, until Mai finally broke, her cheeks a faint shade of pink. “Well, don’t just stand there sulking. Be a gentleman and walk me home!”
It wasn’t exactly the response Joey had been hoping for (especially since, as far as he knew, he already was walking her home), but she hadn’t slapped him, or laughed at him, or…Well, maybe there was some hope for him yet.
Joey stepped forward silently, his gaze still fixed to his scruffed-up shoes—and how much they contrasted with Mai’s high-heeled suede boots. He only raised his eyes when Mai impulsively grabbed his elbow, clutching it as they walked down the sidewalk that sparkled with the fading light of the sun.
And before he knew it, they were standing in that same place as before…right in front of her apartment door, everything around them a plain division between their world’s. Mai lived the high-life, surrounded by beautiful art and decorative pillars; Joey worked rough shifts and late nights in order to eat and finish his high school education. He’d promised himself long ago that he would make something of himself—be something to somebody—and not end up like his father.
Mai turned to him, violet eyes regarding him coolly. He couldn’t stand the way she was looking at him like that—analyzing him as if she could see right through him, past all of his carefully built walls and into his core, where he kept all his secrets, all his faults locked away…
He had two choices—walk away without ever knowing how she felt, or…
Joey closed the distance between him and Mai without any further hesitation. Hands rough with calluses reached up to tilt Mai’s smooth, perfect face up to meet his—and he claimed her lips in a passionate kiss. It was all he’d been thinking about ever since that first kiss, ever since that night he’d seen Mai yelling from the roofs, ever since the gang brawl. He only wanted to be with her, and it was the most insane thought he’d ever had…and the most impulsive thing he’d ever done.
But the moment Mai Valentine—twenty-four year old blonde bombshell, insanely curvaceous, top-ranked duelist Mai Valentine—wrapped her arms around him, kissing him back with as much force and sensuality as Joey tried to put into his end, everything fell into place.
Somewhere between when Joey dared to brush her hair aside and press hot kisses into her neck, and the moment she managed to get one of his arms out of his denim jacket, Mai had maneuvered her other arm to pull out her room keycard, quickly sliding it until the door beeped and opened. She didn’t even give Joey the chance to regain his balance when he fell forward—she just pulled him in by the collar of his jacket, the door slamming shut behind them.
That night, for the first time in nearly a year, Joey Wheeler did not return home, and he didn’t really care what his father had to say about it the next day. It was all worth it.
“Damn!” Bakura cursed, scanning DV8. She wasn’t there. She wasn’t anywhere!
He couldn’t find her…couldn’t feel her presence! The connection Bakura felt—the one he’d been exploiting ever since that night at the Kaiba mansion, when she’d willingly let him into her soul—vanished without a trace.
That fool Seto had beat him to her!
But Bakura was not known as the King of Thieves for no reason at all.
“Have your fun, foolish priest,” he muttered darkly, fading into the shadows of the club. “I will steal her from you when you least expect it!”
By the time Téa and Kaiba made it out to the lakeside path not that far from DV8, the sun was just beginning to set. Téa spotted an all-too-familiar silhouettestaring out at the lake, and she turned to Kaiba in confusion.
“I thought you said we needed to talk,” Téa pointed out, more surprised than anything else. Truth be told, she wasn’t sure how to react in Yugi’s presence. This was the boy that was her friend for as long as she’d known him, yet in the course of a week, he’d confessed his love, grew ashamed in her presence, and outright ignored her. He’d torn her out of his life, but here he was…
“What I have to say can wait,” Kaiba responded easily. “Go.”
It wasn’t a request.
Téa heaved a sigh. Why was she doing this? Two conversations she dreaded having, and yet…maybe it would mean a return to her semi-normal life. Maybe she could go find that ‘home’ where her heart was, and maybe she could still be friends with Yugi. Maybe…She glanced at Yugi, and at the moon reflecting off the waters of Domino Lake.
Here again. Where everything started, and everything ended…all over again.
“Shall we?” Yugi gestured down the lake pathway, his face frighteningly expressionless. Téa nodded slowly, casting a hesitant glance back at Kaiba. Her gaze wasn’t returned, so she walked away with Yugi, wondering how much her life would change in the next few minutes.
“Save her. Save yourself.”
His mother’s words…from that night, when everything changed.
Ghosts appeared, phantoms from the past—memories that Seto Kaiba thought long buried.
Sachiko Hiroma: his biological mother; his only mother. Her face, her voice…her words.
Was Téa really his salvation? His answer to the life that he’d never been able to live, under the tutelage of the “great” Gozaburo Kaiba?
She brought forth thoughts and feelings that, less than a year ago, he never would have dreamed of having. Instead of looking at her as he had other duelists, other opponents, she was one of those nameless factors that served as both a complication and a welcome disturbance in his otherwise ritualistic life: wake up, shower, get dressed, drink coffee, go to school, go to work, finish paperwork at home, go to sleep. Do it all over again the next day.
But she was something different. She brought beach trips, racing pulses, complex desire, and stunning birthday presents. She brought soft skin, and tempting curves, gentle scents and delicious home cooking. She brought…something to him, his home, and his heart that he’d never felt before.
‘Is this love?’
Seto Kaiba didn’t know. But he sure as hell wanted to find out.
“Yugi, ah…are we not friends anymore?” Téa asked in a quiet whisper.
It had been one of the two things gnawing at the back of her mind ever since that day…the day Seto spent in jail for something he didn’t do, and the day that Yugi confessed his feelings for Téa. But she’d been so confused and lonely—thinking that maybe Yugi really hated her, abandoned her just because she didn’t love him the way he wanted her to…
His silence was deafening.
‘Please look at me…please talk to me…please, please, please…’
She couldn’t lose him. Yugi had been there for her since the beginning. He couldn’t leave her—they’d been through so much together, and…god, she’d find a way to make it work, no matter how much it hurt the both of them!
Suddenly, Téa changed her mind, and she didn’t want Yugi to speak anymore. Moments that had previously been creeping by at a painfully slow rate were now breezing by, and she feared the worst. ‘No Téa, we can’t be. We can never be friends, ever again. I hate you.’ But that wasn’t him, that wasn’t the boy she’d grown up with, that wasn’t Yugi—
“Why would you think something silly like that?” And Yugi was grinning up at her, lopsidedly and somewhat half-heartedly, but grinning nonetheless.
The breath left Téa’s lungs in a great whoosh, and she found herself flopping down to the ground with relief, tears spilling from her eyes.
“Oh–oh, thank you, God, thank you…”
“Téa?” Yugi knelt down before his friend, concerned that she’d suddenly collapsed in a fit of gasping breaths that sounded like a cross between sobs and laughs. He was forcefully launched forward into her arms when she grabbed him, hugging him for all he was worth.
“Yugi, you mean so much to me. Let’s never fight again.”
“C-Can’t…breathe…Téa!” Yugi mumbled, struggling. Téa squeaked in surprise and released Yugi, who sighed heavily and sat down across from Téa on the worn, stone path.
“Friends?” Téa queried after a moment, hesitantly holding her pinky out to Yugi. He’d never seen her look so uncertain in her life before. She really was afraid of losing…him?
“‘Think what you want about her, Yugi, but she still needs you.'”
Kaiba was right, wasn’t he?
‘I need her too.’
Yugi held out his pinky, grasping Téa’s with his own, hooking them together and drawing her to him in a loose hug. “Friends. Forever.”
“You should go talk to him, Téa,” Yugi told her sincerely as they walked down the path, back toward DV8, and the park entrance where Kaiba waited.
“…Did you tell him, Yugi? Did you tell him about…” She couldn’t say it. ‘Did you tell him that I’m in love with him?’ The thought tumbled into her mind easier than it could from her lips; the very idea of Yugi telling Kaiba that Téa was in love with him induced more fear in her than she thought possible. Why was she afraid?
‘Because I didn’t–I didn’t fall out of love with him, like I thought I would. It’s just not that easy.’
It was a realization from long ago—that love was never simple, and life was always complex. And…she had to stop trying. Not because being in love with Seto Kaiba was futile, but because the idea of trying didn’t assure any effort on her part. She had to actually fall out of love with him, if that was what she really wanted. But did she?
Staying in love with him would inevitably bring more complications into her life, but…
“I want you.”
But maybe they’d be welcome complications.
“No, I didn’t,” Yugi responded. “Why?” Did she really think that he would have? Regardless of how he felt about her, or how upset he was that Kaiba had her affections while he didn’t, Yugi would never sink low enough to reveal her secrets to someone else. Despite the fact that she hadn’t explicitly asked him to keep her romantic feelings toward Kaiba a secret, Yugi knew that if she wanted to tell Kaiba, she would on her own time.
Or Kaiba had to figure it out for himself. Even he didn’t seem to understand what he felt for Téa—only that he wanted in her in his life.
‘And that’s hardly a crime.’
“I guess–I guess I’m not as mature as I hoped, Yugi. I’m still not ready to tell him that I…heck, I’m not even sure what I feel anymore.”
But Yugi knew. It was easier to see in her eyes than before. He’d been blinded by his own affections, unable to see what Téa was seeking. First in Yami, and now…in Kaiba. But knowing what it was like—to be in love, to be filled with yearning for one person and one person alone—now he could see. Téa had that same look in her eyes. The very same things Yugi had wanted from Téa, she wanted from Kaiba…
‘She loves him.’ And that was that. There wasn’t anything more to it.
Yugi’s lips twitched in a semi-smile; he wanted Téa in his life, too. It didn’t matter what as—friends, companions…it’d be a dream come true if she shared his feelings for her, and if they could be…lovers? Was that the right word? But that wasn’t meant to be. And he had to do what Kaiba said.
‘Fall out of love with her.’
Kaiba stood just a ways ahead, leaning on the railing separating the park walkway from the drop-off into the lake below. The setting sun reddened behind his imposing frame, highlighting the dark bruise on the uppermost parts of his cheekbone.
Yugi stopped a distance away, the scuffling of his shoes catching Kaiba’s attention. He turned and saw Téa, his gaze never leaving hers, even as Yugi spoke to her in hushed tones.
“You should talk to him, Téa. Work things out.”
“I–I’m going to, Yugi.”
“Good.” Yugi shoved his hands into his pockets, nodding affirmatively. He’d only walked a few steps away before he turned again and spoke. “I meant what I said that day, Téa. No matter what, be happy.”
And then he was gone, jogging out of sight before Téa could reply.
So, this was it. Now was the time to work things out with Kaiba, or else…or else she had no home to go back to. She couldn’t keep on imposing on Mai, she knew that much. Mai had things to work out with Joey.
‘And I–I have a life to get back in order.’
Catch up with school. Work with Chieko to make Domino High’s Dance Club one of the best in the prefecture, if not the city. Stay with the Domino Performing Arts Company with Serenity and Chieko, and work her way toward a scholarship. Follow her dream. Go to Juilliard.
It all seemed rather far off, but she had to start somewhere. And that somewhere was…home.
“Here.” Kaiba abruptly thrust out a closed hand to her, opening it when Téa glanced at him, her eyes filled with confusion.
“What…” Her breath left her in a quick gasp when Kaiba revealed what he held in his palm—her necklace. Still intact, still sparkling gold and blue…”But how did you…?”
Kaiba merely shook his head, gesturing for Téa to turn around. More out of shock than anything else, Téa nodded and complied without a word, feeling the cool chain press against her neck once more. She relished it—it and the sensation of Kaiba’s fingers brushing against her skin, for that one split second. But the moment Téa dared to wonder about the lingering feeling, it disappeared, and Kaiba was again looking at her, this time, his eyes searching hers in that penetrating way of his.
“Are you coming back?”
Something Kaiba had in common with Joey—he was direct, and completely tactless. But he couldn’t disguise the hope in his voice, and the thought made Téa smile, ever-so-slightly.
“I just have one condition.”
He had to admit, he hadn’t been expecting that. Thanks to him, a little voice in the back of Kaiba’s mind whispered, Téa called the Kaiba Mansion home. She had a bedroom the size of most people’s houses, a kitchen that talked to her, and a place she could call her own (sort of) for dancing. And she had the nerve to set conditions?
But then, Kaiba realized, she had every right. He hadn’t believed her when he should have, and…
“What?” His voice was monotone. He couldn’t betray his feelings, not now. It wasn’t as if he was exasperated by the idea of her laying down a condition—in fact, if it was just one condition, he should be thankful. He just wanted her home.
Téa turned away from him, her gaze drifting back out to the moonlit waters. “I can’t stay in the main house anymore.”
Kaiba turned toward her, unable to hide the surprise in his eyes. “Then where—?”
“In the adjacent building. Where Charles and all your other household employees stay, Kaiba.” He flinched. Not ‘Seto,’ but Kaiba.
What was he expecting, anyway? It had been his mistake…
“It’s just not appropriate for me to…” Téa trailed off, and suddenly Kaiba wondered if she really wanted to move out of the main house—for good. Not like earlier this week, when all her things remained just a few feet across from his own room, the bathroom still scattered with her things, and the scent of her still lingering.
“Fine,” Kaiba managed after a moment, swallowing the bile in his throat. Somehow, the house would seem even lonelier without her…colder than it had been this past week, not knowing if she’d ever return. But knowing that she was across the way, a whole house separating them? Somehow, that distance seemed much further.
Why was he thinking this way?
It didn’t matter. She was coming back.
At last, Téa was coming home.
End of What Doesn’t Kill You – Chapter 10