WDKY Chapter 17: Sheer Torture?

What Doesn’t Kill You
Chapter 17: Sheer Torture?
A Yu-Gi-Oh Fanfiction
 Azurite – azurite AT seventh-star DOT net
Site: seventh-star DOT net
Conceptualized/First Written: 12/21/04
Completed/Final Edit: 7/26/05 (Ugh, don’t ask)
Posted: 7/26/05, 8/23/05, 7/27/09 (Version 2.5)

Don’t Forget! All Review Replies are now hosted here. Thanks for your continued support!

It’s Time To Duel! As with all of my fics involving actual duels (and there will be several coming up in this and future chapters), I take some liberties with cards— I use translations for cards that have not yet been released in English. I might have gotten the translations from the anime/manga, or I may have read them on a website— most likely Edo’s page. I give complete, total, and utter credit to the translators involved in any/all of those projects. My apologies if Upper Deck/Konami end up changing the official card names if/when they are released for the English TCG in the future. Don’t pester me about the cards not existing in the English TCG, though! At least I’m keeping all the cardtypes the same… I am taking SOME liberties with the effects, though. That’snothing new for anyone that watches the anime, though. ^_~

Big Thank You!!!! to my betas for this chapter, Mamono and __kitschy!

Wanna edit WDKY? If you’re interested and think you have what it takes (high school juniors and above only, please) to be a WDKY beta-reader/editor, then I suggest you check out the betasquad community on LiveJournal.com. Membership IS restricted though, so you have to state your intentions about editing and letting others pre-read YOUR work before I’ll give you access to the community and the fics. But I do plan on posting all future chapters of WDKY there for mass-editing, and hopefully, faster release.

“Not again.”

Another dream.

No, not a dream—not this time. This time he didn’t wake up trembling and hot, parts of him still tingling with residual sensations that only existed in his mind. No, this time he was frozen all over—and his heart wouldn’t stop racing. A nightmare. It had been a while since one of those….

But there hadn’t been any Duel Monsters threatening to eat him alive, no vortexes of magic or bottomless pit traps…. Just nothingness. More accurately, loneliness.

Kaiba dreamt he’d awoken in his own mansion—his own bed, even—to find no one there. No servants, no workers, no Mokuba… no Téa.

When his dream self finally dared to breach the confines of the house, he found everyone outside waiting for him —Charles, Mokuba, even Yugi and his friends…but still, no Téa. No matter how hard Kaiba searched, he couldn’t find her amongst the throngs of people. He would always catch a glimpse of her—just past a shrub, or behind someone trying to get his attention. But she’d slip away before he could reach her, before he could touch her, before he could find his voice to call her name. Faces started to melt away into shadow, everyone turning into motionless statues that didn’t mean anything to him….

A strange impulse welled within him: Find her, find her now,before she’s gone forever, she’ll be gone forever…

And then he woke up. It took a few moments for him to realize that he was awake…and for the remnants of that nightmare to disappear.

Bit by bit they vanished into memory, and slowly, sensation returned to his body. Unlike the other dreams that plagued him the past several nights, this one didn’t leave him hot and trembling. Rather, the nightmare—the very thought of Téa being gone, lost forever to him—left him cold, covered in goosebumps, and with a rather painful acidic lump lodged in his throat.

He could hear his blood rushing, his heart pounding in his head—all he had to do was turn, just a small bit and he’d see…

She was there.

Curled up, safe and sound…asleep by his side, right where she’d been when he’d turned out the light earlier, right where she belonged… still breathing softly, clutching the blankets to her face….

Relief washed through him, and Seto let out a rush of air he didn’t know he’d been holding in. Years of practiced calm brought Seto that sense of peace that he’d been lacking the past few minutes since he’d awoken….

‘I’ll just forget about it in the morning.’ It was a far hope that he could actually get back to sleep, but that wouldn’t stop him from trying. After all, he couldn’t just wake Téa up and tell her about his recent dreams…or this latest nightmare.

She probably wouldn’t mind…and it wasn’t as though she would laugh in his face, but….

‘I…I can’t.’

Resigned to at least try and get some sleep, Seto once again shifted in his bed, hoisting a few centimeters of blankets back up to cover his shoulders. He remained completely unaware that Téa, right beside him, had her eyes open the entire time…and was well-aware that he had awoken in the dead of night from something inexplicable.

‘Seto…why can’t you talk to me?’

‘Well he sure isn’t sleeping…’ Téa thought as she chewed absently on a thumbnail, wondering once again what her boyfriend was up to and where he was. She’d been coming up with possibilities for the past ten minutes now, and now her once-crunchy cereal morphed into a mushy, misshapen blob of flakes and berries.

She still had no idea where he was, what he could be doing, or why—once again—he wasn’t talking to her. Something was obviously on his mind

It didn’t matter how haggard Seto had been looking all morning—he wasn’t doing anything about it. He was forcing himself to the point of exhaustion, without reason…at least, without telling her what his reason might be.

‘We promised we wouldn’t keep secrets from one another, and we both know how long that idea lasted. Maybe it’s pointless to even think about it…’ If he couldn’t bring himself to tell her what was keeping him up and night, and she couldn’t force herself to ask him about it, then they both might as well forget about it, right?

But she couldn’t forget the dark circles around Seto’s normally stormy ocean blue eyes, or the fact that he smelled like a veritable coffee house each morning—which probably meant he was downing more and more coffee than usual when she wasn’t looking. He already drank three cups every morning as far as Téa knew—what if he bumped that number up, or dropped his usual spoonful of cream and sugar for the strongest brewed black coffee he could make himself?

Somehow, the idea of a wide-awake and ever-stoic Seto Kaiba didn’t quell Téa’s thoughts at all.

Téa had no idea how right she was.

It was an unfortunate truth that Kaiba wasn’t getting any sleep as of late—though the past night brought about a drastic turn in his sleeping schedule. While before, dreams about him and Téa in rather…compromising situations were the subject of the night, last night’s nightmare was something completely different. He hadn’t had a nightmare in so long, and Kaiba wasn’t sure if avoiding sleep was just the first step back down a path he’d already traveled—one where he was constantly teetering on the edge between sanity and….

He’d almost fallen asleep earlier, only a few hours after they’d risen for the day. His eyes began to droop, his head began to loll—but then he caught himself.

What would she think of him if he fell asleep in the middle of the day? Forget his image as a genius—it would be destroyed and forgotten. But that didn’t matter if…

‘If she thought me weak…if she thought me foolish…if…’

Since when did Téa’s opinion matter so much to him? Since when did her face, her eyes, her scent, her touch—when did she gain such power over him? Why…? Why did she plague his dreams every night? No matter how hard he tried to ration everything out—love or not—he didn’t understand. What was the point of all this if Téa was just going to leave in the end?

“Well one thing’s for sure, I can’t be here.”

It didn’t matter that it was snowing—had been snowing since late Christmas Eve, actually—and it was bitterly cold outside; the insides of Kaiba mansion were just as cold and lonesome as the grounds outside. Kaiba had holed himself up in his office—ever since Téa and Mokuba nearly caught him dozing on the living room couch only hours after they’d gotten up that day. He’d looked so humiliated—and angry!—that he barricaded himself in his office without another word to anyone.

The thought just frustrated and saddened Téa more—she didn’t know what to do.

She couldn’t possibly mother Seto Kaiba and demand he tell her what was wrong…but she couldn’t just “ask” him, either. She didn’t know why something so mundane, so routine… suddenly became so impossible, just because Seto Kaiba was part of the equation.

“Argh!” There was just nothing to be done about it. She couldn’t just stay here and wallow in her thoughts—she had to go out and do something, even if that something had nothing to do with Kaiba and his secret dreams or nightmares—or whatever else was keeping him awake at night.

‘If he wants to tell me, then he’ll tell me on his own time. And if not…’ Téa swallowed hard, willing away any tears that might come to her eyes. ‘He trusts me…I know he does. We’ve come so far, and we still have so much ahead of us. There’s just no way…‘ Téa shook her head to rid herself of those thoughts. With one swift movement, she removed her heavy winter coat from the hall closet and snatched her purse from upstairs.

She was just about to leave the mansion without a peep when a voice stopped her in her tracks.

“Where ya going?”

Téa smiled wanly as she turned to face Mokuba; the poor kid undoubtedly wanted to be enjoying his winter break, same as all the other kids his age, but…Mokuba wasn’t like other kids his age. While other 12-year-olds were out sledding or getting into snowball fights, Mokuba was trapped by his own will…and by the fact that he, too, was worried for his older brother. But if Mokuba couldn’t get through to him, then who could?

“…Just shopping,” Téa said, putting on a bright smile. “Girly things, you know.”

Up until Téa added ‘girly things,’ Mokuba’s face was bright—but then he became crestfallen.


“Mokuba, I—”

“Just bring me back something, okay?” Mokuba asked, turning around swiftly. Téa realized the younger boy was upset—lonely, since he didn’t have anyone to spend these last few days before New Year’s with—but she couldn’t help the situation…and she couldn’t stay here, trapped in this mansion, constantly letting her thoughts run circles in her head.

“Something? Like what?” Téa tried to keep the mood light; there was no way she could deny Mokuba anything, anyway. After everything the Kaiba brothers had said and done for her in the past several months…. Besides, with her recent windfall inheritance, it wasn’t as if she was lacking in the money department. The whole idea about going out and shopping was letting her thoughts wander—and if her credit card lead the way, then, well…no loss on her part! Not much of one, anyway….

Was this what it was like, to have absolute freedom and control—but still somehow feel trapped? Was this what Seto Kaiba went through everyday? Was this how she would keep living her life—no matter where she went?

“A kimono!” Mokuba exclaimed, shaking Téa from her quickly-darkening thoughts.

“A… kimono?” Téa repeated slowly, confused.

“I don’t have one,” Mokuba admitted, clenching his fists to his sides. When he finally turned around again to face Téa, he’d plastered a fake smile over his lips. “Gozaburo never saw the need to let us go to the festivals or anything like that when me and Big Brother were younger. And Seto, well, he…”

Obviously Seto didn’t care for tradition or culture any more than Gozaburo had—it was the way he was raised. No, the way he was trained.

“I’ll bring one back for you and Seto ,” Téa winked with a smile. “Something bright colored!”

“All right!” Mokuba rushed up to Téa and enveloped her in a huge hug. “Thanks, Big Sister Téa!”

It had been a long time since Mokuba called her that, and the silly little name warmed her to her toes.

“No, Mokuba,” Téa whispered, long after the boy bounced around the corner to play more video games. “Thank you.”

Kaiba tossed and turned in his makeshift bed—the leather couch in his office, with barely more than a knit quilt to cover him. It was the one place he could hope to catch up on his sleep, find some peace and quiet, some solace from his nightmares…at least, that was what he hoped.

It wasn’t to be. He kept waking up every five minutes, alternately feeling hot and then cold. Visions from his nightmare continued to reappear and haunt him—stone-faced shadows of people, melting away as soon as he got near…Téa darting in and out of sight, always just a hair’s breadth away and out of reach….

She was running away from him.

Leaving him.

‘But why…?’

None of it made any sense—not why she was with him in the first place, not why she continued to stay with him…

‘She could leave…without a moment’s notice. She’s got the means, the will…the reasons…’

Why would she even bother getting into a relationship with him when she could just move into an apartment of her own and then leave Domino after graduation—no strings attached? She’d said before that she stayed to finish high school…but what then? It was assumed she had the will to get accepted into Juilliard, no matter what.

He had enough faith in her for that. But…

Things had only gotten increasingly tough for them lately. She felt like he didn’t understand her, and he felt—

Well, he wasn’t sure what he felt. For all intents and purposes, he was in love with her, but why was such a supposedly simple feeling driving him up the wall? Why was he suddenly consumed by dreams and nightmares alike, and why was he so…

‘Scared.’ He was scared of losing her—and he hated that feeling. Scared meant you had fear, which meant you were weak, which meant you were vulnerable.

Seto Kaiba was never vulnerable—not to anyone or anything.

But no matter how hard he tried to build up his defenses, no matter how hard he tried to be the strong, invincible man he once was…he couldn’t. She was under his skin, part of his life.

‘And if she just left…?’

The sound of the front door closing suddenly snapped Kaiba from his reverie, and he bolted from the couch without a second’s hesitation.

‘Don’t let her leave—!’

But by the time he got out to the entryway, she was already gone. The door was closed, and the mansion fell silent once more. Silent, at least, until Mokuba spoke.

“Big Brother, what—?”

Mokuba was startled by the sudden sound of his brother’s office door banging open—and then his brother stormed out, took two long strides toward the door…and froze. Mokuba stared at his older brother for just a moment, taking in his haggard appearance and the dark circles under his eyes. His eyes…wide and almost…

“Big Brother?” Mokuba repeated. He finally got a response—Seto slowly turned to face him, almost astonished that Mokuba was standing there.

“Where did she go?” Seto finally asked, his voice coming out hoarse.

Mokuba blinked in surprise. “Uh—shopping, she said.”

The ebony-haired boy started to walk toward the kitchen, but he cast one last lingering look at his older brother, still frozen in place. What was wrong with Big Brother lately?

“So did you buy them, then?” Mokuba squealed the moment Téa walked in that evening. The younger boy hadn’t even taken a bite of his dinner before he abandoned his chair and went skidding to the hallway where Téa put an armload of bags into the closet.

Kaiba’s fork clattered to his plate—she was back? She was really back?

“I’ve never had one in my whole life! I wanna see, I wanna see!”

Somehow, Kaiba’s ears tuned out Mokuba’s enthusiastic cries, and he could only stare at Téa. She hadn’t left him…

Téa nodded proudly, rising from her chair to rummage in the nearby closet just around the corner from Kaiba’s office. She withdrew two shopping bags, each with two carefully tissue-paper-wrapped packages inside. Kaiba continued to eye Téa, even as he removed the dinner plates from the table and allowed her to put the packages on the table—one in front of him, and one in front of Mokuba.

Mokuba tore into his eagerly, revealing a bright red haori jacket with wide sleeves, a pair of loose pleated yellow hakama pants, and an off-white nagajuban, or thin robe meant to be worn under the main kimono.

He thrust the juban out at Téa, his expression intensely determined. “Help me put it on!”

“Right now?” Téa giggled. “Besides, you didn’t say please.”

“Please?” Mokuba whined, making his best puppy-dog expression. His older brother scoffed, crossing his arms over his chest.

Mokuba and Téa both shot unamused glances at Kaiba, though it was Mokuba who decided to take action—he moved toward the larger of the two bundles of tissue paper that Téa took from the shopping bags. Before Kaiba could even blink, Mokuba was tearing through the paper—and with a flourish, he revealed a stunning pair of blue hakama, dyed and embroidered in such a way that it looked like the very ripples of the ocean were imprinted on the silk.

Mokuba gaped first at his older brother, then at Téa, before stuffing the pants into his brother’s hands and shuffling through the rest of the fabric. With a ginger grasp on the delicate silk, he withdrew a brilliant white haori coat with highly embellished discs on the upper shoulders from the tissue paper.

“Big Brother, look!” Mokuba thrust the fabric into Kaiba’s face, revealing that the discs weren’t just ordinary circles—they were really a pair of embroidered dragons, circling in opposite directions over a bright crescent moon.

Kaiba’s gaze slowly shifted to Téa, but she refused to meet his gaze; she was too busy staring at her feet.

Something had just happened—right there, in that moment. All those doubts about her leaving him, about having some ulterior motive for being in a “relationship” with him—they faded away, as if washed away by the eternal sea. But in place of those frightening feelings and dark memories grew something else—confusion…and guilt. He didn’t understand why she was doing this for him, why he was the one to deserve her attention and her love…

The final garment in the package was a black, full-sleeved kimono, simple, but beautiful and elegant at the same time. Nestled between its folds was a man’s thin obi belt, dyed in varying stripes of blue, and accompanied by a midnight blue braided cord, meant to keep the haori coat closed.

If the silky texture and delicate embroidery wasn’t tell enough, the expression on Kaiba’s face certainly indicated it—she’d bestowed them both with very expensive gifts. The unspoken question that finally prompted Téa to raise her head was merely “Why?”

“I…I wanted us to be together for New Year’s—celebrate for real.” She averted her gaze again, though Kaiba caught sight of her crimson cheeks and smiled to himself. “I guess it’s silly—’pyrotechnics’ and all, but…”

“I love it!” Mokuba exclaimed happily. “And I wanna see the fireworks, too! And we can go to a temple, and I can tie one of those wishing-knots for the New Year, and we can ring the big bell and— and—”

Mokuba continued to list all the things he wanted to do in the coming days as preparation for the nationwide celebration that was New Year’s, while Kaiba continued to stare at Téa.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she whispered. “At least try it on.”

“I don’t hate it,” Kaiba finally said. “It’s—” He couldn’t really think of the right word to say. He’d never had a kimono before —not one of his own, and certainly not one as nice as this. But he was a wealthy CEO, well-known by everyone in the country…it was just that he never saw the need for such a formal, traditional garment. And here his girlfriend had gone and gotten him what was probably the most expensive one on the market—as a gift.

It felt strange.

“It’s amazing. Thank you.” Kaiba stood, surprising Téa as he held the coat up to his chest. It looked like it would be a perfect fit— but no one would know until he tried it on.

Kaiba picked up the remainder of his set before brushing past Téa on his way to change. “What about you?”

“Oh—” she blushed pink again, her nose wrinkling, “I have one—it’s just an old pink one my mom got me a few years ago, but—”

“Wear it.”

“W-Wh—right now?”

“If we have to try ours on, so do you!” Mokuba called out in a singsong, whipping his own kimono off the table and dashing around the corner to go upstairs.

“Come with me—that way if I tie myself in a knot, you can help me out!”

Téa chuckled lightly and followed Mokuba upstairs, smiling and nodding at Kaiba as she went. “Okay, okay—I’ll wear mine. But don’t laugh—it’s not exactly new….”

Barely twenty minutes later, Seto and Mokuba arrived downstairs in their kimono. Mokuba had opted to try and change into his kimono on his own, leaving Téa to find and change into her kimono on her own. Ever the father figure, Seto stooped to adjust Mokuba’s hastily-tied sash—even though he’d never tied one in his life. Perhaps it came instinctively? Or maybe…

A shadow of a memory darted at the corners of his mind, but it deftly escaped Seto’s grasp the moment Téa coughed lightly—and he saw her. His eyes widened immeasurably, and the hand that had just finished tying Mokuba’s obi dropped limply to his side. When he finally rose to his feet, everything from his knees on down tingled, as though he would collapse a second later.

She looked beautiful.

“…I know it’s just a silly old thing, but—”

It didn’t take more than few seconds to close the distance between them— his eyes riveted to hers, a dark blush staining Téa’s cheeks a color not unlike her kimono. His hands drifted up to her shoulders, gripping them of their own accord…

Mokuba coughed none-too-discreetly, and the moment ended.

“You look really good, Téa!”

Kaiba wondered what to say that wouldn’t result in him sounding like he was parroting Mokuba. Téa did look good—she looked better than good, in fact, but he hoped she knew that the look in his eyes expressed that. Things were growing increasingly more difficult to say as of late.

“Hey!” Mokuba exclaimed suddenly, catching the attention of both Téa and Seto. Before either of them could wipe the ‘deer in the headlights’ expressions from their faces, Mokuba spoke again. “We should have a New Year’s party! The biggest in Domino! Or maybe just the coolest—we could invite everyone and—”

Mokuba kept prattling on about all sorts of ideas he had for decorations and things he could do, and it was plain that his enthusiasm was infectious—if the growing smile on Téa’s face was any indication. It didn’t take a single word from her before Seto agreed—far too easily, for Mokuba’s taste. But he wasn’t about to argue with his brother when he’d just gotten his way.

“Really? All right!” Mokuba tore around the corner to Seto’s office, moving as fast as a whirlwind despite his kimono.

Seto turned his gaze back to Téa, the barest hints of a smile gracing his lips. “Now…where were we?”

“We—” Téa began, her voice tinged with confusion— but Seto cut her off easily, pressing his lips against hers without further hesitation.

Four days later, the pressure upon the Kaiba mansion’s occupants reached its climax.

Since Kaiba gave all his household employees off for the duration of the holiday, that meant he was responsible for putting together this last-minute plan for a party—and despite his impeccable sense of planning (he did, after all, start a nationwide Duel Monsters tournament “on a whim”) he wasn’t entirely sure this plan was going to pan out.

Part of that feeling probably stemmed from the fact that he was away from Téa once more, unsure of what she was doing or thinking or feeling….

Without his permission, paranoia slowly crept its way into his body, sinking its claws deeper and deeper into his bones.

Mai Valentine tapped her heel repeatedly against the smooth concrete just outside the Kaiba mansion. Unlike most visitors to the mansion, she wasn’t the least bit awed by the wrought-iron gates or the masses of greenery covered in a light sheen of snow.

She just wanted to get inside, talk to Téa, and…

Well, what use were wishes for Christmas or New Year’s, anyway? They never came true.

Finally, there was a crackle in the speaker, a squeak in the gates—and Téa’s voice. “Mai, is that you? What are you doing out there in the cold—get in here!”

Téa didn’t even give Mai the chance to respond before the gates swung open, inviting a freezing gust of wind to whip through Mai’s dark denim outfit. She shivered briefly before heading inside—never rushing, but not taking her sweet time either. She didn’t have any ‘sweet time’ to be frostbitten….

It just started snowing again when Téa opened the front door and ushered Mai in. The sound of the wind rushing past her ears left Mai a bit deaf, so it surprised her when she heard Téa babbling on.

“…trying to reach you for days now! Where have you been, I wanted you to come today—but I guess if you’re here you must have gotten my messages, right…?”

“Messages?” Mai repeated blankly. “Sorry sugar, I never got any messages—but what are you going on about, anyway?”

Téa looked crestfallen. “The party—tonight?” She gestured around the Kaiba mansion, which Mai realized, was beautifully decorated for New Year’s. Paper lanterns hung from the ceilings, as did decorations for the zodiac animal of the upcoming year. Everything seemed to glitter or glow, and the whole house seeming warm and welcoming—absolutely nothing like what Mai would have imagined it. Truthfully, she didn’t think Seto Kaiba was much of a New Year’s-celebrating person at all.

Was this was Téa’s presence did to a person—to a place? Was everyone and everything affected by her light?

“Ah, let me guess,” Mai started, sucking in a breath. “Everyone’s going to be here?”

Téa nodded hesitantly before gripping Mai by the shoulder. “Please Mai, I know you don’t just want to end it like this with him—”

He ended it, not me, Téa. And it’s his loss. ‘Guys suck and we don’t need ’em,’ remember?”

The reaction Mai got from Téa was not what she wanted or expected—Téa cringed and turned away, red-faced.

“I’m sorry I ever said something as stupid as that. I’m sorry that I hurt one of my best friend’s feelings because I was too afraid to deal with my own problems. And I’m sorry you don’t want it to work out between you two—because I know Joey hasn’t been able to stop thinking about you, and—”

“Okay, okay!” Mai winced, wishing for just a minute that she didn’t have a conscience that bent so easily. “I’ll stay—but only if you let me tell you what I originally came here to say!”

Téa frowned slightly, adjusting her stance and crossing her arms over her chest—it was plain she wasn’t in the mood for receiving any bad news or putting up with an argument.

“It’s good news, I promise—” Mai paused, slipping her manicured hands into her denim purse. “That is, if you agree.”

“Agree?” Téa raised an eyebrow. “To what?”

Mai smirked and produced a pair of tickets from her purse. “To come to San Francisco with me.”

“America!?” Téa squeaked, dashing forward and nearly tripping in her sandals. She scowled at the offending wooden shoes, having forgotten for just a moment that she’d put them on to “practice” for tottering around all night in them—with the rest of her legs bound up by her kimono.

“The one and only—a Duelist’s cruise.”

Téa’s expression fell. “Duelist? Oh, Mai, I can’t—”

“Don’t B.S. me, Téa Gardner. I don’t care what you say about not having dueled in a year, or having ‘more experienced’ friends. Besides,” Mai clucked her tongue against her cheek, “It’s girls only. I can’t think of a better candidate for my partner.”

Téa swallowed painfully. She’d always stood on the sidelines of duels…for so long. It was a deep, hidden, secret dream of hers that one day, she’d be given her chance to shine too—but she’d always told herself that her time would come, the moment she got accepted to Juilliard. And from there, all her dreams would come true. She’d be on stage, pushing her limits, doing her best, standing in the spotlight…and all her friends would be there to watch her succeed.

But in the meantime, she had to watch them become the most popular and well-known people in Japan. She had to support them no matter what…

She’d only dueled a few times—always ‘off the record.’ She’d dueled Mai once back in Duelist Kingdom, after…

‘After Kaiba defeated Yugi for the first and last time.’ When it came to recalling that painful time, it didn’t matter how close she was with Seto now, or what she currently felt for him. Back then, he’d been ‘Kaiba’—a guy who’d struck her as nothing more than desperate, lonely, and scared. But his attitude and behavior didn’t cry for anyone’s help, let alone hers. She never imagined they would get to where they were.

But twists of fate and circumstances brought her here, to the Kaiba mansion. And now…

“Partner?” Téa echoed. “Okay, I’ll admit I know how to duel—I’m not going to just say no without giving it a shot—but Mai, you’re a seasoned duelist, a champion… why would you want to be stuck with someone like me?”

“Not ‘stuck,’ really,” Mai admitted. “There are two divisions—upper and lower. Upper division is reserved for female duelists who have been officially entered into championship tournaments before.”

“And lower division is for people like me—no official tournaments, but enough know-how to kick some butt?”

“Now you’re thinkin’ on target,” Mai smiled. “Well?”

Téa turned around, her eyes still locked on the fine-print of the ticket. Duelist Cruise to San Francisco—a chance for recognition at last in the dueling world. No longer would she be anyone’s sidekick or cheerleader, but her own woman, her own champion…!

Maybe even Seto could come to respect that.

But with friends like Yugi and Joey and a boyfriend like Seto, how could she ever hope to come out of their shadows? How could she ever hope to be recognized as a duelist in their eyes? Her dream of dancing always kept her going…but that wasn’t their world. They didn’t understand those kind of dreams.

“Well, I…” Téa’s gaze rose, and she suddenly found herself staring at the basement door near the stairs. She hadn’t been down there for days, not since Seto showed her the remodeled dance studio… but there was more down there.

“I challenge you to a duel.” Téa turned around and smirked at Mai.

Mai couldn’t help but smile back; this was the spunk she knew and loved from Téa—the attitude that would boost her confidence and win her duels…and recognition. Mai wasn’t blind— Téa had been sending out signals, cries for attention for a while now—and here was Mai’s chance to give Téa the spotlight she deserved.

“You’re on.”

“You couldn’t have picked a worse time for this, Wheeler,” Kaiba growled under his breath.

Joey sauntered beside him, casually swinging a pair of plastic grocery bags in each arm. “Hey man, Mokuba called me and said it was all good—”

“And you—!” Kaiba seethed at his little brother, who was all aglow and smiling as widely as he could manage. It was hard to be angry at that face, but… “I knew you were going to do this!” But in saying so, Kaiba really meant he didn’t know—more accurately, he’d forgotten. It felt like it had been so long since Wheeler had last been at the mansion—after Crump kidnapped Téa, and there was some mysterious discussion about a ‘bet’ and…

Now Wheeler was going to stay in the mansion—starting that night. For a whole week—the remainder of the winter break.

‘My life is going to be a living hell.’

“We’re going to have so much fun!” Mokuba grinned as he high-fived Joey. Both boys were smirking as widely as possible, refusing to let Kaiba’s cloud of gloom affect them in the slightest.

Mokuba and Joey busily exchanged plans over what to do the next week even as Kaiba marched up the short set of steps from the Kaiba mansion garage into the main household. When the door swung open, he was greeted with a smothering silence.

Suddenly, all the fears that he’d pushed aside the moment Wheeler joined their party came back with full force. Where was Téa? Why was she gone? She hadn’t said anything about leaving and going anywhere—but that could mean anything. It could mean she suddenly thought of something to get, or perhaps there was an emergency and she hadn’t been able to get ahold of him…perhaps she was purposely hiding things again, or maybe she’d just left—

“Someone’s in the duel arena,” Mokuba remarked, snatching a sweet rice cake from a pink box in one of the grocery bags. He chewed on it thoughtfully while examining the brightly lit panel by the basement door.

Not everyone knew how to access the duel arena—most people didn’t even know Seto Kaiba had such a place in his own home! So that had to mean…

‘She’s here! But…dueling?’ It had been a long while since anything involving Duel Monsters interrupted their life. True, the game remained the common denominator between them all—”them” being Yugi, Joey, Tristan, Duke, Téa, and Kaiba himself—but there hadn’t been any tournaments or championships as of late. Real life simply took over.

“Come on,” Kaiba ordered without a second thought—he wanted to know what was going on, but without alerting Téa. He couldn’t have her aware of how afraid he was of losing her as of late…so that meant he had to take certain steps to make it clear he wanted—no, needed!—her to stay in his life.

Joey was about to loudly protest to Kaiba giving him orders, but he fell silent the moment he saw the secret passageway open up in the wall near the front door. His mouth hung open for a good few minutes before Mokuba scuttled back down the mezzanine steps and hauled the astonished blond after him.

“Let’s have some stakes, shall we?”

“You’re not talking T-bones, I presume?” Téa asked with a quirking of her lips.

Mai frowned playfully. “No. Let’s make a bet—I win, you come with me, no questions asked…and I get to help you construct your deck. You win, you can choose whether to go or not, and I won’t badger you either way. And if you do end up going, you can create your own deck without any interference from me whatsoever.”

It sounded like a win-win situation to Téa…after all, she’d already made up her mind about going to the tournament with Mai. But she wasn’t going to tell Mai that.

“Just promise me one thing,” Mai smirked.

Téa raised an eyebrow. “What’s that?”

“That you won’t use that Fairy deck from Duelist Kingdom—maybe if you backed it up with something like Isis had back in Battle City, I could understand, but—”

“This isn’t a Fairy deck, I guarantee you that,” Téa smiled dangerously, shuffling her cards carefully.

Mai tilted her head to the side, regarding Téa carefully. “What are you hiding?”

Téa only averted her gaze, the smile still plastered to her lips. “Nothing. You’ll see.”

Mai only grumbled and began the duel.

“Whoa…” Joey murmured once within the dark room—the only glow came from the myriad of television screens and control panels covering every centimeter of the walls.

Kaiba quickly took a seat in one of the Commander-style leather seats in front of the panels on the right side of the wall; Mokuba joined him in a chair of his own. Joey was left gawking in the doorway, until a shrill beeping informed the blond he’d best move or be crushed by the steel sliding door.

It took Kaiba a few minutes to slide his fingers over the panels—the keyboards were specially designed so the buttons could withstand a great deal of pressure or very little. Touch-sensitive pads that nearly sat even with the rest of the panel—just perfect for a speedy typist like Kaiba. He shifted the control of the security systems to manual, and changed the view of three of the center television screens to that of the cameras in his basement Duelist Arena.

One camera viewed the arena from Mai’s side, the other from Téa’s side, and the third from right in the middle, facing the doorway both girls had come in.

“She’s duelin’ Mai!?” Joey practically shouted when he realized who the blonde in the indigo denim outfit was. Mokuba glanced back at Joey with a questioning expression, prompting Joey to clap his hands over his mouth. “Sorry,” he mumbled out, realizing he’d been unnecessarily loud with his exclamation.

Mokuba only turned around again to hide his smile. “This room’s soundproof,” he explained. “No one can hear you but us.”

“Unfortunately,” Kaiba murmured, though his words didn’t quite miss Joey’s ears.

Joey was about to make a snappy comeback when suddenly the audio from the dueling arena flared to life.

“…activate Temple of the Kings!”

Kaiba’s Solid-Vision holographic technology flashed around the arena, and soon the entire room was lit up like an ancient temple. Brightly-lit torches adorned the carved walls, and ancient hieroglyphs gleamed from massive pillars and the extensively long walls. Statues and idols of Egyptian gods completed the illusion of an ancient Egyptian royal shrine.

To the boys’ surprise, Mai was silent in the face of this strange card in Téa’s deck. Her long bangs obscured her face from view when she finally spoke, her voice quiet.

“A gift, huh?”

Téa nodded slowly, the expression on her face flickering from serious to hesitant.

“From…the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come,” Téa managed. “At the cast party.”

“You’re allowed to say his name around me, Téa. It’s not like I’ll faint from hearing it.” Mai managed a weak smile, ignoring the exotic setting surrounding her. She’d seen this very shrine once before—when Joey was the Duelist on the other side of the arena, and he was battling Odion aboard the Kaiba Kraft 3 during Battle City. It was a time Mai preferred not to remember, but…

“Malik gave it to me,” Téa finally said. “If you knew it was him all along, why didn’t you say anything when you came by?”

Mai nervously played with a strand of hair behind her ear. “Well…”

The truth was, after the incredible success of Domino High’s “A ChristmasCarol” adaptation, as written by Téa Gardner herself, Mai had bothered to stop by the cast room and wish Téa her congratulations. Mai had barely gotten more than a sentence out when a cold feeling washed over her—one she recognized all too well.

She’d felt it the moment the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come came on stage, and here it was, happening again.

It was almost funny how a character meant to be spooky and frightening was just that—but Mai didn’t appreciate the feeling at all. She wasn’t one of those people who liked being “immersed” in the plays or movies she watched—she liked to keep a comfortable distance between herself and the fantasy world.

It could only be one thing, then.

There was something besides makeup and creepy music behind the Ghost’s effect on her. But the only time Mai had ever felt like that before was when—

Mai shrugged, ridding herself of the memories of Battle City. She didn’t care to relive that part of her life.

‘The past is passed,’ Mai thought to herself. ‘I won’t be weak anylonger!’

Téa nodded slowly in understanding. She remembered her own reaction upon finding out that the Ghost was really Malik—newly-transferred to Domino High. Now he was a resident of Domino, with no intentions of leaving any time soon. His own exhibit at the Domino Museum was proof enough of that.

‘He tried to kill us all, destroy our minds and our friendships…yet now he’s just a regular teenager trying to keep his past behind him…right?’ Téa had asked herself that same question when Malik first handed her a small pile of Duel Monsters cards, shortly after Mai left them alone…

The moment the older blonde disappeared down the hallway to leave Domino High, Malik removed his hood and gloves. He stared after Mai, an odd expression on his face—one that Téa thought said: “She recognized me.” Whether Malik wanted Mai to have known it was him or not, Téa couldn’t be sure.

‘Did he want to say something to her?’ Téa mused to herself. No, he couldn’t have—Mai probably didn’t want anything to do with Malik, and he had to know that.

When the Egyptian finally did turn around, he removed something from the pocket of the pants he wore beneath his voluminous robe—cards.

“For you,” Malik explained quietly, obviously trying to avoid the attentions of Yugi, Joey, and Seto, immersed in the crowd of cast members happily celebrating their performance. Seto hung on the edges of the crowd, constantly casting urgent looks at Téa, but she didn’t feel quite ready to join in the party just yet.

Mai wasn’t the only one who’d been watching her in the audience—Téa knew it. She didn’t know who else would have been there, or why—or even how she knew—she just knew. That was all.

“I—I don’t exactly play Duel Monsters…” Téa began, upon realizing what the cards were. And not just any Duel Monsters cards, either, but very powerful ones that Malik and his adopted brother Odion had used in their Battle City duels.

“You will. Just take them. They’re not part of my life anymore. But they will be part of yours.”

Until Téa found herself staring at a pair of tickets for a Duelist Cruise to San Francisco, she never quite comprehended Malik’s words. Now she did.

Part of her didn’t want to use these cards to defeat Mai, as if they would have some sort of double significance for her, but…

“I’ll sacrifice my Mudora to summon the Mystical Beast of Selket to the field!” The Mystical Beast was also one Mai had seen before in Joey’s battle against Odion. It was a powerful monster capable of a rather tricky effect—though Mai wasn’t entirely sure Téa remembered them all. Whichever one Téa did use though, Mai knew she better be prepared for it.

With only two Harpie’s Ladies on the field, that seemed a bit unlikely…

Effect one—Téa could throw away the protection her Temple offered and sacrifice it and her Beast and summon anything she wanted from her hand, deck, or Fusion deck. That could be dangerous, depending on where Téa had been getting her cards lately. Even though Malik lacked the God cards, he wasn’t someone Mai wanted feeding her opponent cards. It didn’t help any that Téa was best friends with the reigning champion—Yugi—or that her boyfriend Kaiba came in a close second, with some of the rarest cards in the world under his belt.

Effect two, and the more likely scenario—Téa could simply use her ugly scorpion-thingy to attack, and instead of simply destroying her monster, she’d remove it from the game—while amping up her own Monster’s attack strength. Without a Return from the Different Dimension, this meant Mai would never see two of her three Harpie’s Ladies again, and she’d be taking a very big risk with her third one if she didn’t get Elegant Egotist out in time. Her only other option was to hope she drew a Cyber Armor card, or Harpie Girl or Harpie’s Brother.

To make matters worse, thanks to the Temple, Téa could activate Traps when she Set them, instead of having to wait the traditional turn, like Mai did.

Before Mai could even shift her gaze from the arena ceiling to the control panel at her fingertips, Selket attacked one of her Harpie’s Ladies, effectively removing it from play—and since the harpy had been in attack position, Mai lost a good chunk of her life points in the process. Selket had a whopping 2500 attack points, which was far more than Mai could handle—until she managed to get the other Harpie’s Ladies on the field, use their special Formations or attack power, or summon their Pet Dragon.

And judging by Mai’s sorry-looking hand, that wasn’t going to happen any time soon.

‘Huh. Maybe it’s time I start believing in “The Heart of the Cards,”‘ Mai thought bitterly.

‘Still,’ she reasoned, even as the duel continued and Téa whittled away at what had once been a generous 8000 life points, ‘This means Téa is more than ready for the challenges a true Duelist tournament brings.’

As the turns progressed, Mai found an old feeling surging through her veins—that of excitement. She was getting challenged…by Téa, of all people!

‘If I’d finished that duel back in Duelist Kingdom…I wonder whether I would have won or not.’ Back then, Téa didn’t even seem to know what she was doing…but it was more than obvious by now that all the duels she’d stood on the sidelines of her provided her with ample information on strategies and tactics…and having champions as best friends probably didn’t hurt her deck-building any, either.

Mai finally saw her chance and, using a combination of traps and spell cards, she managed to get Téa’s lifepoints down to a meager 1200—but without any further monsters, spells, or traps able to do damage, Mai ended her turn there. To her surprise, Téa smiled widely.

“All right, I’m getting hungry. Time to end this.”

Mai blinked. That sounded more like something Joey would say than Téa. Heaven forbid the boy was rubbing off on Téa…

‘I might be too late to stop that, unfortunately,’ Mai realized with a wry grin. She was about to further ponder on why Téa suddenly seemed so sure of herself—especially when a single attack from practically any monster would end the duel in Mai’s favor—when Téa did something astonishing.

“I’ll send my Temple of the Kings and my Mystical Beast of Selket to the Graveyard and activate its special effect! I’ll summon the— ” Téa had a triumphant expression on her face, but it suddenly morphed into one of extreme pain. Her words died a quick death as she doubled over the control panel of the arena, the sound of the blood rushing in her ears blocking out the sound of Mai calling her name.

“I said it once, I’ll say it again: whoa.”

“Ditto,” Mokuba murmured in agreement with Joey. Who knew Téa had such an arsenal up her sleeve? Gone was the Fairy deck Mokuba expected her to have. In its place was an interesting medly of cards—spellcasters, warriors, beasts, fiends, and dragons alike—with some sort of haphazard pattern to them all that Mokuba couldn’t quite figure out.

But, judging by the look in his brother’s eyes—analyzing every turn of the cards—Kaiba knew full-well what to expect from Téa’s deck.

The Duel was just about done though, and it looked like Mai was going to make a victorious comeback—when Téa did something surprising. She offered her Temple and Mystical Beast to the Graveyard, but before she could summon a monster as the result of the sacrifice’s effect, she doubled over her duelist panel, trembling.

Kaiba shot out of his chair, ready to head down to the Arena and find out what was wrong, but Mokuba stopped him.

“Big Brother, wait!”

Joey and Mokuba were both leaning in and watching the screen carefully as Téa righted herself. She was still visibly shaking, her fingers desperately clutching onto a card that she was only centimeters from placing into an open Monster slot.

The microphones on the arena cameras didn’t pick up Téa’s whisper as she summoned her chosen creature—but the brilliant flash of white and blue was tell enough.

The Blue-Eyes Ultimate Dragon!

“Heh,” Joey chuckled as he pulled away from the monitor. “She swiped your card.”

Kaiba stared at the screen intently, now more so than he had when Téa collapsed. A smile was returning to Téa’s face—but whatever traces of joyous victory Mai might have been wearing were gone. The blonde looked utterly shell-shocked—if not at Téa’s quick recovery, then at her sudden summoning of a creature that was supposed to be ONLY in Kaiba’s deck.

But if she could make good use of it, then…

Téa could still feel the goosebumps snaking up and down her arms, and she felt as though her knees might give any second.

‘I don’t know what’s come over me,’ she thought worriedly. ‘Maybe I’ve just been stressing out lately.’ She didn’t want to waste any more time thinking about what was stressing her out—instead she activated a face-down spell card that she had on the field.

She’d been waiting for Mai to knock a sizeable chunk out of her life points…and now was the perfect time to end this, with an amazing finisher that no one would have expected.

“I activate Megamorph, which doubles my Dragon’s attack strength to 9000—now that my life points are lower than yours.”

Mai swallowed feebly—a one-turn kill. If Téa wanted to, she could have done that earlier in the game, when Mai first attacked and the scales tipped in the blonde’s favor. Had Téa actually been playing her? Not just dueling her—but taking her for a sucker, and prolonging the duel longer than she had to—just to show off? No, that wasn’t in Téa’s character at all. Maybe she’d been trying to go for another strategy, but the cards in her hand added up…

But still, Mai couldn’t shake the thought that something was wrong about all this—aside from the fact that Téa had her boyfriend’s prized card, of course.

And why had Téa almost fainted before summoning the Dragon? Was she really that hungry?

Something told Mai that wasn’t it. But aside from the slight tremble that shook her frame, Téa looked healthy enough—she certainly was grinning pretty wide when she declared her attack—and then the duel ended.

Mai stepped away from the dueling platform, and shook hands with Téa. The grip that she got in return was strong and not shaking in the least bit.

“Nice duel. So are you coming or not?”

“With a deck like mine, you think I could lose?” Téa winked.

Though Mai was pleased with Téa’s decision, she couldn’t refrain from asking, “Did you really get that card from Kaiba?”

Téa blinked owlishly, as if Mai had asked her whether or not she was guilty of some capital sin. “I just borrowed it, is all…”

Mai rolled her eyes. “Couldn’t have borrowed something a little less ass-kicking?”

Téa only laughed.

Kaiba leaned back in his Commander chair with a mixed expression on his face. Even Mokuba had some difficulty reading it at first, but his silent assessment determined this: his brother was surprised. Whether it was good surprise (Téa could win a duel against a tournament champion, albeit Mai never competed against Kaiba himself) or a bad one (she “borrowed” one of Kaiba’s cards, which no one EVER did), Mokuba couldn’t tell.

Kaiba wasn’t talking, at any rate.

Joey, on the other hand, was more than happy to fill the silence.

“I don’t believe it. I just don’t believe it.” Joey kept looking from the screens—now devoid of any human life, since Mai and Téa had left the arena and went off to unknown rooms within the mansion—to the door, as if contemplating whether he wanted to run downstairs and…

‘And what? What the heck am I gonna say to Mai?‘ Joey wondered bleakly. He hadn’t seen nor heard from her since Téa’s birthday party—though he had been thinking about her nonstop.

Now she was right here in the house—doubtless invited to the same New Year’s party Joey was—and he had a chance to talk to her, to apologize, to straighten things out, but…

‘But what am I supposed ta say, anyhow?’

The thought of fumbling with his words again—in front of Mai, one of the few women that mattered to him in this world— made Joey fall silent. He forgot all about Téa’s amazing victory or how she’d swiped one of Kaiba’s rare cards from under his nose. Instead, he sank deeper and deeper into his thoughts, wishing he would never have to leave the dark security room for the whole week he was staying in the mansion.

Ten minutes later, Mokuba finally managed to usher his brother and Joey downstairs. The boys had no idea about the tournament Téa agreed to go to with Mai…and the girls had no idea that Joey was with Mokuba and Kaiba.

It came as quite the shock when the two parties collided right in the entryway of the wide-open Kaiba mansion.

“Uh…” Mokuba started. He looked to his brother for some sort of indication that he should reveal they’d just watched the duel.

But his brother wouldn’t take his eyes off Téa.

“Just got home, did you?” Téa smiled, trying to inconspicuously hide her deck behind her back. Even Mokuba noticed her gesture though, and he couldn’t help himself from smirking wildly. Just what would Big Brother say about Téa taking his Blue-Eyes Ultimate Dragon, anyway?

To Mokuba’s surprise, Kaiba nodded brusquely. “Just now.” He nodded curtly to Mai. “Valentine.”

“Kaiba,” Mai nodded back—though halfway through her nod, she noticed a familiar dirty blond head attempting to hide behind Kaiba’s rather lean frame. Needless to say, Joey’s attempt at hiding behind Kaiba didn’t work.


Joey decided it was a good as time as any to pop up, so he sheepishly stepped from behind Kaiba, scratching behind his ear the whole while. “Eheh…hey, Mai. How ya doin’?”

Mai suddenly found herself fumbling for words too—something that never happened. She had something in common with Kaiba: simply put, she never wanted to appear weak. Someone who was fidgeting and stumbling couldn’t present a more vulnerable image.

“Hey, so guess what? Girls-only Duelist Tournament cruise—Téa’s coming with me and we’re going to conquer the Pacific Rim,” Mai said in a rush, abruptly averting her gaze from Joey. She couldn’t think of anything to say directly to Joey. What was she supposed to say, anyway? ‘Hi, I’m sorry I lied to you to protect your friend from you and your asinine assumptions about people?’ Obviously not.

Kaiba’s gaze turned steely, still focused on Téa. “You’re going?”

A barrage of unwelcome thoughts rushed through his brain all at once: She’s leaving she’s going she might not be coming back why would she come back what reasons does she have why is she here does she really love me what am I feeling none of this makes sense…

Téa blushed brightly, finally deciding to bring her deck out from behind her. “Yeah—I mean, it’d be nice to duel myself, after all this time, and I—”

“She kicked my butt,” Mai interjected, a proud smile playing on her lips. “Good thing she’ll be in the lower division and not the upper, but she could easily make it if—” Mai stopped, wondering whether Téa was going to tell Kaiba she’d “borrowed” his powerful card, and that probably had a lot to do with her astonishing victory (gift cards and house rules aside).

“If I hung onto this,” Téa thrust out the Blue-Eyes Ultimate Dragon, her eyes averted from Kaiba. “I borrowed it from your deck earlier—I’m sorry.”

Kaiba wasn’t about to tell the two girls he’d watched the entirety of the duel, let alone how pleasantly surprised he was at Téa’s dueling abilities. Perhaps that time she’d “beat” him before was no fluke?

He took the Dragon from her, noticing that the moment the card left her fingers, her whole body seemed to shudder ever-so-slightly. A moment later, Téa looked up, smiling hesitantly.

“I’ll find another card to put in its place,” she murmured.

Kaiba didn’t say anything—his thoughts were already a jumble, many of them still in shock over Téa’s win, the others contemplating what card she might try and replace the Blue-Eyes Ultimate Dragon with.


He didn’t realize he’d been staring at Téa intently, wordless, for the past few minutes. It was Joey’s voice that finally broke him out of his trance.

“Ain’t the little lovebirds cute?” There was a trace of sarcasm in Joey’s thickly-accented question, but no one bothered to point that out.

Instead, Mai responded. “Lovebirds indeed—so have you two finally figured out what’s what?”

Mokuba blinked, looking from his brother to Téa, and from Joey to Mai. He couldn’t help but feel horribly out of place in this picture, this scene of adults with romantic entanglements and duels abound. He wasn’t even 13 yet! And so, without anyone even batting an eye, Mokuba slipped around the corner—to not be part of the scene, but to merely observe it.

Téa didn’t break her gaze from Kaiba, but her cheeks remained a healthy shade of pink. It was odd, how Kaiba’s gaze could still get to her this way—like he was seeing right through her—but this time, it also brought a warm tingle to her skin. She didn’t feel the urge to look away…she met his gaze head-on.

“You already know how I feel,” Téa started in a voice so low it was almost a whisper. It seemed easy enough to forget that Joey and Mai were both standing nearby and watching them intently— all Téa could think about was how deliciously warm she felt inside, and how happy and amazed she’d been when Kaiba finally admitted that he shared his feelings for her. Whatever that meant for their future…

“I love him,” Téa said—still speaking to Mai, but detached from the dimension where the blonde’s presence distracted her.

“And I love you,” Kaiba responded, his eyes almost entirely glazed over. Téa realized with a warm jolt that he’d said it—in front of Joey, in front of Mai—like he didn’t care if they were there. He really meant it, didn’t he? If he was willing to say it in front of other people, his voice so confident and sure…

Joey swallowed the burning lump away in his throat. There was Mai, the girl he loved more than anything, standing only a meter away from him…but he couldn’t even measure up to Kaiba and his courage. Joey Wheeler hated coming in second to anyone, least of all Kaiba, so it stung even more that his once-rival had found love and happiness before Joey could.

“Romantic, ain’t it? Heh, ‘love.’ Who knows what the heck it is, anyway?” Joey shoved his hands in his pockets, wishing for the life of him that he had a home to go to where he could sulk about this kind of thing. But ‘home’ for him meant a place with a drunken father that never cared, that never understood…

Once upon a time, Mr. Wheeler might have understood his son’s feelings—maybe in a rare moment of sobriety, he could have said something enlightening about love and the complexities of women…but Joey was never around to see it. He was too busy working his butt off to pay for his tuition and pay off his father’s debts.

“A powerful emotion felt for another person, manifesting itself in the form of deep affection, devotion, or sexual desire… a great liking or a fondness,” Mai replied automatically, her voice almost breathless. She didn’t realize that she’d just quoted a dictionary definition until she realized both Kaiba and Joey were staring at her with surprised expressions on their faces. She was about to say something to defend herself against any accusations of her being a nerd when Joey mumbled something that froze Mai’s mouth shut:

“Thank you, Webster’s.” Only this time, there wasn’t a trace of sarcasm of enthusiasm— it was just a quiet, dull whisper.

“Lucky?” Mai finally managed—and Kaiba’s eyes widened.

“Violet?” Joey croaked.

‘There’s no way—’

“Seto, what…?” Téa tugged on his collar, obviously confused by what was going on.

“It’s nothing,” Kaiba smiled gently at Téa and ushered her away from the entryway, where Mai and Joey continued to stare at each other in disbelief. “I’ll tell you later.”

“…What’d you mean when you said you were spoken for?” Joey finally managed, flopping down on the massive marble stairway.

Briefly, he wondered which of the dark doors he spotted upstairs led to Kaiba’s room, and which one to Téa’s. He briefly envisioned Mokuba’s room as being a brightly-colored mess of toys and Duel Monsters cards—just like Joey’s own room was—but maybe the younger Kaiba would surprise him.

Mai was surprised that Joey remembered such a silly statement from an online chat room—nearly a week ago, no less! Didn’t the boy have other things to think about during this holiday season?

Joey’s intent stare answered her own question. ‘Guess not. Should I feel flattered?’ Part of her was—it seemed like Joey really wanted to know the truth, and if the way he was clutching onto the edge of the stair he sat on was any indication, he was bracing himself for the worst.

“Ah-hah…” Mai tried to find an effective way of dodging the question, and laughed meekly in an attempt to stall for time. “You, actually,” she finally admitted.

Joey glanced at Mai with one eyebrow raised in surprise. “You mean—”

“Yeah, Joey… look, this whole conversation thing seems totally awkward. We fought for totally stupid reasons—”

“I fought,” Joey corrected her. “You didn’t do nothin’ wrong—”

“Didn’t do anything wrong,” Mai smirked. “But thanks.”

“I was just all—I mean, come on!” Joey gestured vaguely in the direction Kaiba and Téa had gone. “Him and her? Kaiba and…well, anyone, but least of all, Téa!?”

“Yeah,” Mai sighed. “I was just as shocked as you when I found out. And I did warn Téa, but…she was just so afraid of what you guys would say…”

“Probably didn’t help any that all that time she was makin’ those mushy admissions, I thought she was talkin’ about Yugi,” Joey grumbled guiltily. He realized that he’d had just as much a part in his best friend’s heartbreak as Téa had. After all, if he hadn’t encouraged Yugi into believing…

“That’s what I would have thought, too—I mean anyone could see he’s had eyes for her since the beginning.”

Joey knew that, too. But things had happened—big things, like the death of Téa’s parents—and circumstances or fate or whatever brought Téa together with Kaiba, instead of Yugi. It didn’t always add up right in Joey’s head, but it was how things were. He couldn’t change it, even if he wanted to.

He was therefore understandably hesitant before he spoke next. “…And what about us?”

“Us?” Mai repeated. “Us.”

Mai rose to her feet, inhaling sharply. She looked around at all the decorations Téa hung up, and how amazing the house looked. Here she was, at one of the last places she would ever expect to be on New Year’s Eve…Kaiba and Téa were together, almost disgustingly lovey-dovey with one another, and…they were happy. Silly as it was, Mai wanted a piece of that happiness. She wanted to wish on the dropping New Year’s ball, she wanted to kiss someone at midnight—she wanted things for to go right for once in her life.

Maybe that meant winning some duels and proving her worth to a bunch of teenagers…or maybe it meant apologizing for being tactless and cold. Maybe it meant accepting apologies from a clumsy teenager who only thought of her, despite everything else he had in his world.

“Let’s stick around the party and see what happens, hm?” Mai forced herself to smile as she proffered a hand down to Joey. “For now—friends?”

With her eyes squeezed shut as she tried to smile brightly, she never saw the hurt expression cross Joey’s face. But Joey mustered some courage and reached up to grab Mai’s hand in his own.


“I’m glad you’re not delivering postcards this year, Big Brother,” Serenity smiled at Joey as she latched onto his arm. Like everyone else, she was appropriately attired in a kimono and trying to walk in traditional Japanese sandals, with her toes separated by a thick cord attached to the shoe.

Their not-so-small band of friends gathered in front of the Kaiba mansion, wishing that it wasn’t so very cold out…but at least they would all be together this New Year’s.

‘All of them.’

It meant more to Serenity than she could really say, so she settled for being glad that her brother wasn’t working as an assistant for the postal service this year, as he had in the past several years.

Joey mumbled a response around a mouthful of buckwheat noodles, which he and several of the others had picked up at a nearby soba noodle stand. The streets were packed tonight, even in the usually-quiet prefecture of Domino, and the lines at little food stands stretched out for blocks—they’d already waited forty minutes before they’d placed their order.

It was only about ten o’clock, and they still hadn’t reached the local Shinto shrine yet, where they and thousands of other people would be going to welcome in the New Year, pray to the gods for good fortune and prosperity, and watch the various celebrations and shows. Downtown, NHK, Japan’s national TV station, broadcasted the year’s best songs and list favorites, while the smaller stations highlighted more local events and parties, whether they were at shrines or at exclusive events.

“I wonder what changed about this year,” Mai remarked with a smile. She fidgeted in her emerald-green kimono, glad for what little warmth her faux-fur stole gave her. Oddballs lingering on the street corners kept shooting glances at her, likely waiting for some unattended girl to get separated from her crowd and be left prey to the wilds of the street. Well, Mai Valentine wasn’t that kind of girl.

Still, she kept close to Joey and the others.

It wasn’t long before they reached the local Shinto shrine, and made their way up the lengthy staircase with the rest of the massive crowd. Nearly an hour later, each one of them made it to the front of the temple.

“I wanna ring the bell!” Mokuba exclaimed happily, unaffected by the chill in the air. He seemed thrilled just to be out on New Year’s, surrounded by people he knew and liked. On top of that, he was wearing a brand-new kimono that he knew suited him.

All the old ladies who’d spotted him said he was ‘adorable,’ but it was Serenity’s compliment—that he looked “very handsome”—that had Mokuba practically preening in place.

“So does everyone else here,” Kaiba grumbled. After being jostled around by no less than a hundred people, he didn’t look all too comfortable to be outside in the cold, tottering around in sandals…when he could be inside his nice, warm house, eating nice, warm food.

Mokuba didn’t reply to his brother’s remark, and instead wormed his way through the crowd up to the front of the shrine. The others caught up with him soon enough, and soon the whole of them were standing in a line, clasping their hands in prayer and wishes for the new year. Well, all of them but Kaiba. He stood off to the side near a tree bedecked with little tied-up strips of paper, looking befuddled. Téa stood closest to him, and opened one of her eyes to peer at him.

She gestured with her chin for Kaiba to come stand by her side and join her, but her boyfriend didn’t quite get the message until a giggling shrine maiden tugged on his arm and positioned him next to Téa. Their sudden and abrupt closeness caused Kaiba to flush—though later he would attribute it to the cold—and as he clumsily put his hands together to imitate the ‘appropriate prayer pose,’ he wondered what he would pray for.

Before he could really think too long about it, another thought entered his mind—what would Téa be praying for? Was she praying to the gods to give her good luck and happiness…or was she wishing to leave Japan, to leave him and everything else she’d ever known behind—to chase a dream she’d harbored for years?

The minutes passed and he continued to stare, bile building in his stomach and rising up to his throat.

‘All I want… is for her to stay with me…’

It was prayer enough. Kaiba clasped his hands together quickly once more, inhaling the thick scent of incense before stepping away from the shrine. Once Yugi and the others had their turn, he made his way to the bell. He gave the thickly-braided rope a sharp tug, and it clanged back loudly.

Perhaps the gods would answer his prayer…even if Seto Kaiba wasn’t the type to believe in the divine.

‘Maybe just this once…’

The others had made their way to where smiling shrine maidens wearing all-white took their monetary offerings and allowed them to draw fortunes from a box with several clacking numbered bamboo sticks in them. Once the head of a shoot poked its way through the box, the shrine maiden took the fortune that matched the number on the stick, and gave it to whomever had drawn that number.

“4?” Joey groaned, shaking his head. “This ain’t a good sign.” Still, the shrine maiden smiled at him as she handed him the corresponding fortune, while Serenity and Téa got theirs.

“I got 46,” Téa grinned as she read off the folded red-and-white paper. “It says ‘Spring wind blowing, both plum blossoms and cherry blossoms are to bloom around the mountainside.’ Hm, what a nice poem.”

“That’s not the fortune, Téa,” Serenity giggled, hiding her mouth behind the sleeve of her sky-blue kimono.

“I know, I know,” Téa smiled. “Your fortune: excellent,” she read, “Have a strong will and be calm. Do not waver in your determination, even when you meet with misfortune. Work hard and bide your time, and you’ll have good luck.”

“Sounds more like a fortune from last year,” Kaiba remarked dryly, opting not to take a fortune—though the shrine maidens did keep looking at him, as if they expected him to relent and go back for one.

“It gets better,” Téa smirked. “It says my wish will be fulfilled in time—always a good thing—and that I’ll have to…well, this is weird.”

Kaiba’s interest piqued, he walked over to her and read the rest of the fortune.

“You will have to make an unexpected decision. You won’t be able to find what it is you’re missing until you give up the search. Travel plans may be hindered, but not for long. Be cautious about your business, as outside forces may hinder it to their own ends. You’ll have no problem studying. Give and receive support, and you will win any game. Take your time with love—” Kaiba abruptly stopped speaking as his eyes skimmed the remainder of the little fortune. For such a small piece of paper, it certainly went in-depth into people’s lives for the upcoming year!

“What does it say?” Duke asked, leaning over the duo in his pastel-colored haori coat and kimono. He was wearing a smirk that rather unnerved Téa—and by the way he kept glancing at Serenity and clasping his own fortune, Téa could easily deduce why he was smiling so oddly.

“Take your time with love,” Kaiba repeated softly. “Unless your minds meet, there will be no future for you. Be faithful to each other and—” Kaiba trailed off, wishing he could just crumple up the paper and dismiss it as the silly garbage it was.

“And conception will come easy!” Duke crowed. His eyes lit up the more he read. “Be tolerant of others, as their illness will weaken your spirit. However, your body is strong enough to withstand whatever comes your way. It isn’t time for marriage just yet—give it time.”

“Ho…” Joey murmured under his breath, shaking his head despite his smile.

“Man, you’ve got plans, Kaiba, don’t you?” Tristan laughed. “Forgetanniversary balls, he’s getting the whole kit and caboodle with Téa!”

“Guys!” Téa hollered, her face almost as pink as her kimono. First Seto reading her fortune, now Duke? How embarrassing…

‘Still, some of it…’ It made her smile. It made her worry too, but tonight was a holiday—a chance for celebration and fun, not dwelling on the sadness of the past year. Come midnight, that would all be just memory—embers of the past, and nothing more. She couldn’t afford to keep living in the past, wondering what life would be like if only her parents hadn’t died, or if only she hadn’t decided this thing or that thing…

‘My future is what I make of it, fortune or no,’ Téa resolved silently to herself. She wore a pretend-smile as she tied the fortune onto a nearby tree. The once-barren tree looked like a cherry blossom tree in full bloom, the little fortunes tied to it looking like bright buds. And soon, the dark and barren sky would fill with light and fire…

It was nearly midnight at the Kaiba mansion, and at long last, the party was in full swing.

Joey and Duke had conspired to find Kaiba’s wine cellar, and once down there, they’d discovered a great deal more than just grape wine— they’d also found import rice wine and the finest plum wines available. As drinking was actually encouraged during the New Year, no one could complain about the boys boisterously proclaiming that they would finish off all six of the bottles that they’d brought upstairs.

Kaiba couldn’t argue with them either—down in the basement, those bottles just collected dust. He had no use for them—and after ‘remembering’ how drunk he’d gotten at the Kaiba Corp. Ball, he’d vowed never to touch something that alcoholic again. Not if he could help it, anyway.

The girls sat on the couches in the living room, glad to be relieved of their constricting sandals. Mai agreed to loosen Serenity and Téa’s sashes, allowing them to sit down and breathe more comfortably than they had in the hours outside walking, but the beautiful styles their obi had been folded into were now loose and limp. They each nibbled from a variety of lacquered dinner boxes Kaiba had specially ordered for the occasion—though first they’d devoured the sets Téa had made for everyone.

“Are we staying here until sunrise?” Yugi asked Kaiba curiously. The younger boy already looked sleep-deprived, if the circles under his eyes were any indication.

“You don’t have to,” Kaiba responded gruffly. “Though the mutt probably will be no matter what—if he doesn’t pass out drunk first.”

“I still can’t believe it,” Yugi murmured softly. He had the faintest traces of a smile on his face, but his gaze seemed unfocused. Kaiba couldn’t tell who he was looking at: Joey, who was now engrossed in some sort of drinking contest with Duke, or Téa, who was sitting on the couch talking with Serenity and Mai.

“What?” Kaiba finally asked, though he was loathe to admit that curiosity had gotten the better of him.

“Well…” Yugi scratched behind his head, one of his bleach-blond bangs flopping into his eyes. Once he blew it away, he spoke, that same wistful smile still on his face.

“Everything, I guess. Everybody. A whole year’s passed us by, and yet here we are. Things are really different…but not.” Yugi absently fingered the Millennium Puzzle tied around his neck—despite his light blue haori and seafoam green kimono. He must have made an odd sight at the temple, but if anyone had commented on Yugi’s appearance, Kaiba hadn’t noticed. Had he really become so distracted with Téa that he didn’t pay attention to Yugi at all?

Was that how much his world had changed in the past year?

How much would it continue to change, whether or not the gods had their say?

“Soon, the gods will lose their voice.” The words lingered in the air for just a few moments, the sound echoing in the great cavern where the speaker stood alone.

The only light in the massive room came from a series of strategically-planted torches, each of them set in holders shaped to look like the mouths of great sea creatures. The two torches nearest the doors were wrapped in the arms of a pair of stone-faced mermaids, their legendary beauty marred only by time, which had worn away at their once-intricately carved faces.

“All that I have foretold shall come to pass.”

The flames in the torches flickered.

“This new year shall be their last.”

Malik Ishtar bolted upright from his simple bed, tossing his few blankets to the floor.

He’d just heard a voice.

Something felt wrong. Not just wrong, but horribly wrong. He wasn’t sick, but…

Without further hesitation, he rushed out of his tiny, makeshift bedroom and into the darkened hallways of the Domino Museum.

‘The prophecy…!’


Joey grabbed Mai’s hand without thinking. Her gaze turned to him, and time seemed to slow, the countdown fading to a dull whisper in the background of her mind.



“I don’t wanna be friends,” he muttered gruffly.

It felt like the floor had just given way beneath her. In that instant, her hand had gone from deliciously warm to icy cold. Just what was he saying to her? After everything they’d said earlier, when it had all finally come out, and they’d explained…

‘He just can’t trust me after all, can he? Well, I—’ Mai desperately wanted to ignore the beads of tears forming at her lash line.


“I can’t stop thinkin’ about that night, and—” Joey shook his head, his eyes still focused on the wide-screen television, which was simultaneously broadcasting New Year’s celebrations from all around Japan.

Mai hiccuped into her sleeve, thinking she’d misheard him. She was mentally calculating the ways she could insult Joey and forcibly remove him from her life. But when he spoke next, everything became unearthly silent, and all her thoughts left her.


His gaze finally tore away from the TV, the reflection of the fireworks still glimmering in his eye. “I wanna be with you.”


Joey crushed his lips against Mai’s before she could even think to utter a sound. Since the whole of the Kaiba mansion was already dark, save what little light came from the last few lit lanterns and the television itself, no one saw the two of them wrapped in their own world, Joey embracing Mai for every centimeter of skin and silk she had.

Since he was so occupied, Joey didn’t notice when both Tristan and Duke leaned in simultaneously and managed to catch Serenity unawares, both of them kissing her on the cheek. She was so surprised that she squeaked aloud, her cheeks flaming red. Her posture riveted to stick-straight, but once both boys winked at her, Serenity relaxed, allowing herself a breathy laugh.


Only moments before, Téa had to remind Seto just what it meant to kiss someone on the stroke of midnight on New Year’s. Flushed and speaking in hushed tones, she mumbled something about him not having to kiss her if he didn’t want to—but just as the countdown hit ‘one,’ Seto kissed her wordlessly, gently holding her with a light touch to her arms.

Téa was so surprised that she forgot to close her eyes—and for the first time, she got a good look at what Seto looked like when he kissed her. A pleased smile curled her lips, and she finally relented and kissed Seto back.

Meanwhile, Mokuba lay sound asleep on the couch—he’d desperately tried to stay awake until the New Year’s countdown, but sleep called to him and forced his eyes shut precisely at 11:56pm on New Year’s Eve. Sound asleep, the youngest party-goer remained blissfully unaware of the special “moments” everyone else seemed to be sharing.

Everyone else… except Yugi.

Recessed from all the circles of lovers and friends, Yugi stood alone, hidden in the shadows. He could make out the silhouettes of each and every one of his friends… each of them caught up in their own moment with their own special someone (er, someones, in Serenity, Tristan, and Duke’s cases). And he was alone.

Briefly, he wondered what Bakura and Malik were doing, and if they ever felt like he did in this moment. If they ever did, maybe he could sympathize with them…just a bit.

Yugi sighed deeply, and reached for an abandoned saucer of sake. He downed it easily, despite the taste of the stuff burning its way down his esophagus.

“Hmph,” Yugi muttered sourly. “Happy New Year.”

Hours later, sunrise finally fell on Japan, and those who believed it was more auspicious to welcome in the New Year’s with the rising of the sun did just that.

For people like Seto and Téa, it signaled that they could finally get some sleep.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Téa smiled, loosening her sash but keeping her kimono tucked close to her body. The pink and orange rays of the sun were just stretching over the horizon, casting their pale glow over everything in their path. The light swept up and outward, finally making its way to the window where she stood. Beams of light pushed their way through the curtains and through whatever slits in windows and blinds were in the house.

At last, warmth spread through Téa’s otherwise-freezing feet, and she shivered in place. A moment later, she shivered again— but this time, it was because Seto embraced her from behind, holding her against his chest.

He didn’t respond to her question, he simply kissed her gently on the neck.

She smiled slightly and giggled as Seto continued his descent downward, tickling her with his kisses the whole while.

“H-Hey! No fair—!” When she finally wrenched away from him, she turned to face the mess their living room was in.

Well… it was a New Year. No reason to head into it dreading things like chores. They were a part of life.

‘Just like love and death. Everyone has to experience them both at least once.’

Supposedly, anyway. Briefly, Téa wondered if what Seto claimed he felt for her was really love. He knew it was a different feeling for everyone, but…. There was still a niggling doubt in Téa’s mind. She wasn’t sure where it came from.

“Hm. Guess Joey’s found his spot for the next week, right?” Téa laughed softly. Shortly after Mai left in the early morning hours—much to Joey’s protests—Joey had decided to curl up on the couch. His plan hadn’t worked out though, and he ended up falling off the couch and curling up beside it, snorting and kicking his legs out every now and then.

“I told you he was a mutt,” Seto chuckled in her ear.

“I hope everyone got home safe,” Téa chewed her thumbnail absently, ignoring Seto’s remark. She especially wondered about Yugi, but she knew better than to voice such thoughts around Seto. Her best friend had seemed somewhat sad and quiet the whole night long—but maybe she’d just mistaken Yugi’s occasional quiet countenance for sadness. That’s what Téa was hoping, anyway. She didn’t want Yugi to be upset at her again.

‘I don’t think I could take it if he was.’

Indeed, everyone had gotten home fine—though Mai, who’d taken Serenity in for the duration of the younger girl’s stay in Domino, reported running into several lewd drunks on the train ride home.

Businesses slowly started to open up again, beginning with toy and candy shops—Mokuba, like the millions of other Japanese children, had received a monetary present for the New Year, and he was most eager to spend it with other kids at the local toy stores. Even the Turtle Game Shop was open early in the morning, expecting a rush of children eager to get their hands on the latest packs of Duel Monsters cards.

Most everyone else in the country spent New Year’s Day relaxing and sleeping. Leftover foods from the previous night’s raucous celebrations were plentiful, and there was no shortage of beverages to drink.

“Ugh…remind me never to touch anything alcoholic ever again, ‘kay?” Joey groaned to Téa as he stumbled into the kitchen around 11 that morning.

Téa smiled, remembering her own bad experiences with the stuff. “I don’t really think I could stop you if you were determined enough,” she murmured pointedly.

Joey only stared at her with a sulky expression and bloodshot eyes, a sharp contrast to his eyes’ normal hazel green color.

It didn’t take long for Joey to recover from his hangover though—soon enough he was eagerly stuffing his face with whatever leftovers he could find, quite happily finishing off what Téa claimed she, Mokuba, and Kaiba could never eat—even between the three of them.

Mokuba returned home from the toy stores he’d visited, a stack of new games and packs of Duel Monsters cards in his arms. After he and Joey thoroughly inspected them (with Kaiba critically examining each card as he hovered over their shoulders), Mokuba agreed to tour Joey around the grounds.

It was nearing the mid-afternoon when Kaiba decided to go out and look for them, but had been unable to find them anywhere in the house. It hadn’t taken them long to locate him, though. Before Kaiba could give up his search, he was pelted with a snowball. And then another—and another. Each one of them seemed to come from different directions, and before long, he was showered in snow. It didn’t take him long to retaliate though, as he dodged behind a large pine tree, and spotting Mokuba’s tell-tale mop of ebony hair, he quickly formulated a plan of attack.

It didn’t help that he soon spotted a mess of blond hair bobbing beside Mokuba.

‘Wheeler.’ So, the mutt was helping his little brother out, was he? Well, no matter…Kaiba was glad the thick snow and evergreen underbrush hid his smirk.

“You’re outnumbered,” a voice whispered breathlessly beside him. Kaiba glanced sideways at Téa, who was wearing the ice blue coat trimmed with artificial fur—one of the presents he’d gotten for her. A warm feeling abruptly blossomed in his chest—she was actually wearing it, which meant she liked it, which meant…

“Whose side are you on, anyway?”

Téa smiled mischievously at him and lobbed a snowball at Joey’s head. There was a cry of astonishment from the other side of the pathway where the two teams had set up camp, and soon there was a torrential downpour of snowballs from one side of the entryway to the other.

Charles, the security guard, returned from his near-week long break from work. Unable to find his employer anywhere in the house, he’d dared to set foot outside—but he paused the moment he saw a flurry of snowballs seemingly launching themselves across the walkway. Charles decided that if his boss was somewhere in that mess, it was best not to disturb him… until later.

The day seemed to stretch on forever, much to Joey’s delight. He took great amusement in torturing Kaiba with his presence whenever he got the chance, though he was quite polite to both Téa and Mokuba, helping them clean up the remnants of the New Year’s party mess.

Finally, the hours dwindled into the late night, and Téa and Mokuba both retired to bed—but Kaiba didn’t, since Joey seemed all too eager to continue causing mayhem, and it wasn’t as if Kaiba was simply going to let him, even if he had agreed to putting Wheeler up for a week.

Unfortunately for Kaiba, Joey seemed wide awake as he leaned back comfortably on the leather couch, looking for all the world like he owned it. Kaiba wanted to scowl, but the last thing he wanted was to give Wheeler another reason to antagonize him. They seemed to have a strange, slightly amicable relationship with each other. They weren’t the heated rivals they’d once been during Battle City, but they were far from being close friends.

“So why didn’t you get back at Téa?” Joey finally asked, breaking the silence.

“Get back at her for what?” Kaiba couldn’t help the near-disgust lacing his voice.

“For beatin’ you at Duel Monsters,” Joey chortled. “After that whole Crump thing, she told me the whole story in the limo—remember?”

Kaiba grit his teeth together. Oh, he remembered. He remembered the big, silly grins the two of them had worn the moment they exited the limousine, while Kaiba was left wondering what he’d missed as he dismounted Tristan’s motorcycle. He remembered Mokuba excitedly deciding the terms of the bet later that night at dinner, but Joey suspiciously turning down the offer—for reasons unknown.

Yet he was here now, and he didn’t seem to have any qualms about it whatsoever.

“I’m not one for petty revenge,” Kaiba answered, wondering if Wheeler really thought him that much of a sore loser. Getting revenge on Yugi was one thing—Yugi was the one person Kaiba considered his true rival—but Téa? Long ago, Kaiba had dismissed Téa’s win as mere luck. Normally, he didn’t like to believe in such things, but…

But it could have been something else—true duelist skill—and Kaiba didn’t want to think about that. He didn’t want to consider the possibility of Téa, who he’d let into his heart after so much heartache and mistrust suddenly becoming competition to him. Still, he couldn’t just forget how Téa had defeated Mai quite soundly the previous night. She’d watched numerous duels, gotten cards from top duelists, and now…

Before Kaiba could recall the painful fact that Téa was leaving him—Duelist Tournament or no—Joey made an exaggerated point of rolling his eyes.

“Geez man, I didn’t mean like that! I meant…” the blond gestured broadly, a grin stretched across his lips. “Something creative.”

Kaiba raised a brow, wondering what Wheeler could possibly mean. “Such as?”

Joey’s smile only split his face wider, and he rose from the couch looking for all the world like a kid about to make some serious mischief.

“Got any whip cream?”

“You have some sick fetishes, Wheeler,” Kaiba murmured under his breath. He couldn’t believe he was doing this—creeping around his own house like he was some kind of cat burglar. Only he wasn’t going to steal anything—he was going upstairs to “get back at Téa, creatively,” as Joey had put it. And apparently that meant spraying whip cream over her hands.

Joey kept tip-toeing down the hallway, gently shaking the can of whip cream as he went. “Say that after you get some of this stuff licked off your chest.”

Kaiba pretended he hadn’t heard that. He had no desire to find out about what Wheeler and Valentine did in their spare time.

“Which one’s her room?” Joey asked when they finally reached the second floor landing. He poked his head into the bathroom and started padding down the hallway, gently nudging the doors ajar to find out which one Téa slept in.

Kaiba felt a surge of panic rise in his throat.

He didn’t exactly want Wheeler knowing he slept with Téa—Wheeler was sure to blow the fact out of proportion, and make rash assumptions—but what other explanation would account for the room Téa was undoubtedly sleeping in? It wasn’t some girly room festooned with lace and ribbons. There was no pink or purple or pine bookcases…it was a dark room accented with cherry and mahogany—a man’s room. Well, it had been a man’s room until Téa decided to “move in” with him. Now it was their room, and with Kaiba’s robe hanging off the nearby chair and Téa’s makeup scattered about his desk, there would be no mistaking…

“Didn’t she say something about some purple room last time we was here?” Joey mumbled, scratching behind his ear. He was peering into the Violet Room now, noting how the moonlight spilled onto the empty bed.

Kaiba swallowed. Why was he even bothering with this much pretense around Wheeler, anyway? What did it matter if Wheeler knew—let him jump to conclusions! If the mutt wanted to spend another hour in the Kaiba mansion, he’d keep his mouth shut about Kaiba’s nocturnal habits, regardless of where they took place or with whom.

“In here,” Kaiba muttered, his voice sounding oddly dry and hoarse. He pushed aside the door to a room on the opposite side of the hall—the converted master bedroom, with deep navy blue acting as its theme color. A tiny slip of moonlight filtered in through the thick curtains, illuminating Téa’s form in the bed.

Joey squinted in the dark, trying to find some tell-tale sign of Téa’s ‘personality’ in the room. Unfortunately, he spotted Kaiba’s clothes first. For someone Kaiba thought didn’t have much of a brain, he sure put two and two together rather quickly.


Kaiba hissed at him to be quiet or he’d wake Téa, and that would ruin everything. If Wheeler wanted to throw a hissy fit, he could do it out in the hallway.

Joey’s voice lowered to a dull whisper, but his eyes remained narrow in a suspicious stare. “How far have you gone with her?” he asked bluntly.

“None of your damn business,” Kaiba seethed. Joey grinned broadly at his response, as if those words were indication enough.

“Oh, I get it. Never mind then.” Joey’s countenance suddenly became cheery again, which only set off more alarms in Kaiba’s head. Just what did Wheeler know, anyway? And how had he found out?

‘Certainly not by using his brain,’ a voice in Kaiba’s mind supplied. Kaiba smothered a slight laugh; he didn’t bother so much with direct insults anymore these days, but the ability to conjure up words enough to befuddle and anger Wheeler was just too easy.

“Awright…” Joey leaned over Téa slightly, but the slight motion was enough to get Kaiba skidding to his side— to make sure Wheeler didn’t try anything funny.

That is, outside of spraying Téa’s hands with whip cream and tickling her nose so she’d smudge it all over her face.

Sure enough, once Joey pulled out his secret weapon—a feather procured from one of the dusters downstairs— and started tickling Téa’s nose, she started sniffling. Her hand subconsciously flung up to her face, and the dollop of whip cream from her hand dropped right onto her face. Joey stifled his laughter, but only for a moment—Téa moaned something in her sleep and batted at Joey’s feather, causing her nose to twitch once more.

She brought up her other hand to scratch, and this time she smeared more whip cream on the side of her face. Before Kaiba could allow himself to relish in this odd sort of ‘revenge,’ Téa licked the whip cream away from her mouth.

‘Is she—?!’ She couldn’t be awake. If she was, would she really have let them get as far as they had? Kaiba couldn’t be sure.

“Seto…” Téa murmured in her sleep, rolling over on her side. The whip cream on her face and hands was long gone—whatever Téa hadn’t licked off, it was now smeared as a sticky film on her skin or on the sheets.

“Whoa-ho…” Joey laughed under his breath. “Someone’s having sweet dreams.” He emphasized the word ‘sweet’ carefully, making it obvious even to Kaiba that there was an intended pun there.

Kaiba only glared at him as the two of them padded out of the room and back downstairs.

The next morning, Téa had no idea what had transpired the night before—though any shiny traces of processed sugar were long gone from her face. The brunette had scrubbed her face clean and dressed for the day, and when she spotted Joey and Kaiba, both still in their nightclothes and looking at her bleary-eyed and smiling, she stopped.

“Okay, what did I miss?”

Joey only yawned loudly and said he was going to bed. Seto only grunted in reply.

Téa blinked as Kaiba breezed past her, heading to his own office to get some sleep, while Mokuba rummaged through the cabinets looking for some early morning sweets. Téa exchanged a confused glance with Mokuba, but the boy only shrugged.

Hours later, Kaiba and Joey were both once more awake and, if just to prevent the possibility of destruction in his household, Kaiba watched Joey like a hawk. He could easily kick Wheeler out if his pranks got too far…but so far, they hadn’t succeeded—not really, anyway— in getting revenge on Téa. That called for a second attempt.

However, it seemed as though Joey ran out of “creative” ideas, and instead he opted for “kidnapping” Téa from bed after she’d fallen asleep. Joey procured a DVD from the rucksack he’d brought with him, claiming they would all watch it straight-through: the director’s cut, full-length, extended-feature edition…of something. The movie of choice was a violent movie— supposedly a powerful political statement in disguise, Joey assured them, but Kaiba wouldn’t believe it until he saw it.

The movie—something called “Battle Royale”—surprised Kaiba. But what surprised him even more was that it didn’t take long at all for Téa to fall asleep, despite the bright flashing lights from the television, depicting explosion after explosion, and the surround-sound booms of hand-grenades and machine gun fire eliminating student after student. Sure, it was a political statement…but you really only understood the message once you saw close to 40 students being eliminated in a massacre.

Then again, Joey looked like he was having the time of his life watching the movie and explaining the nuances between characters. He excitedly claimed that he’d read the novel (Kaiba had to refrain from feigning surprise and asking Joey if he could really read) and all the manga out so far, and whoever did the manga certainly knew how to draw! The adapted story was pretty interesting, too…

Soon enough, the sound of gunfire, character conversations, and even Joey’s voice faded off into the background. It wasn’t until the movie was over and the main menu screen was playing on a quiet repeat that Kaiba even realized the movie was over.

“Who won?” he asked hoarsely, adjusting so Téa leaned on his shoulder, still sound asleep.

“They got away,” Joey whispered proudly. “Shuuya and Noriko, I mean.”

Kaiba nodded—it didn’t make sense to him, considering all the gunfire and explosions he’d last seen, so maybe he’d actually watch the movie again later.

Joey glanced over at Téa, still asleep and curled up against Kaiba’s shoulder for warmth. Earlier in the evening, someone had haphazardly tossed the couch quilt over her, but her feet kept sticking out and she continued to fidget against Kaiba until she was suitably warm.

“You’re pretty lucky, man,” Joey finally said in a whisper. “I mean, even if you have seen more shit than a toilet…” he trailed off with a low chuckle. Before Kaiba could come up with a reply that wasn’t laced with the tiredness he felt settling into his bones, Joey spoke again.

“Not everyone can turn somethin’ so horrible into somethin’ so great, you know what I mean? I mean you did it with your whole foster dad and all; made Kaiba Corp. a massive empire… Téa here managed to get stronger and more independent without her parents, and look at her now. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so…”

Joey stopped, as if searching for the right word to describe Téa. If he ever found a word he deemed appropriate, he didn’t say it out loud.

Perhaps he found Téa happier, more relaxed, or more free-spirited. Or maybe something else altogether. Kaiba didn’t know. He was well-aware that Téa had changed greatly from when they first met, but…it wasn’t a bad thing. As hard as it was to truly believe, he loved her. At least, he thought he loved her.

He now knew that Joey was none other than LuckyChance777, the smart-mouthed, somewhat-perverted guy he’d encountered in a chat room online late Christmas Eve. He’d doled out the best love advice he could give—‘If you could call his innuendo-laden questions “advice”‘—and now…

“What about you?” Kaiba finally asked, allowing himself to ask the question that had been burning at the back of his mind ever since Joey came over. Why had he so readily agreed to stay over this night, but not before? Why did he work himself to the bone, apparently for no reason? Kaiba did it because it was what he was born to do, what he was bred to do, and truthfully, he enjoyed his work. Once upon a time, he had dueled in the same manner—specific cards for specific reasons—but things had changed. Serenity had her sight back, Mokuba was home safe…

So why…?

Joey shrugged nonchalantly, as if he were talking about the weather. “Dad’s a drunk. He and mom divorced when I was a kid, and she lives in the other part of the country. I’ve been pretty much supportin’ myself for close to six years now, no help from Dad at all. When he’s sober, he tries to find work. That’s about it.”

Something told Kaiba there was more to Joey’s story than he was letting on, but he didn’t ask any more questions. Wheeler had a way of surprising him into silence like that. So he wasn’t just a mutt or a ‘fighting mutt’… he was a loyal and dedicated friend and brother, a surprising similarity between the two of them.

When Kaiba didn’t respond to Joey’s words, Joey leaned back on the couch and allowed himself a short laugh. “I’m surprised at you, Kaiba. I mean, Téa’s really changed you, and I don’t even think you notice.”

Off the blank stare he received in return, Joey continued, “See, the old you woulda just laughed in my face—called me a loser, said I had a deadbeat loser dad, and that I probably deserved every bit of hard luck I got.”

Kaiba was about to protest, saying he wouldn’t, but Joey raised a hand and kept right on talking. “And don’t try to tell me you wouldn’ta done it that way, ’cause you woulda. And even if I got mad and yelled at you, part of me would have known the truth—you were right. That’d give me reason enough to keep fighting. I can’t stand being proven wrong by guys like you.”

“‘Guys like me,’ huh?” Kaiba repeated slowly. “You really felt that way about me?”

“Hated your guts,” Joey responded back promptly. For a moment, Kaiba thought he was going to add ‘still do,’ but Joey didn’t.

“She was right—” Kaiba finally said, gesturing toward Téa with his chin. “Said we’d make good friends if we ever stopped fighting. I suppose we have more in common than we bothered to look at before.”

It was odd to hear such words coming from Kaiba’s mouth, so Joey only said “Heh,” with a silly smile plastered on his face.

Several days later, Japan had once again blossomed into a highly active economy. Business was in full swing, and Kaiba Corporation was no exception. Kaiba had left for work earlier that day—the last day before they went back to school for the term, and the last day Joey would be staying in the Kaiba mansion. It was obvious from how longingly Joey looked at everything that he wished he could stay longer, but he didn’t want to ‘impose.’

Téa found it even more bewildering that Joey and Kaiba seemed to be getting along quite amicably—though she wasn’t about to jinx the peace and have the two of them blow up at each other when next they saw each other.

“Ain’t Kaiba supposed to be home by now, Téa?” Joey hollered from the kitchen.

Téa glanced at him with a raised eyebrow, noting his ruffled hair and his flour-smudged face. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to let him and Mokuba try and prepare dinner. Key word being try

“He—” But she didn’t have a chance to finish. The phone in the kitchen rang shrilly once, twice—though the living room wasn’t all that far away from the kitchen, both Joey and Mokuba were too busy arguing about how lumpy their concoction was supposed to be to answer the phone.

“Hello?” Téa asked.

The moment she heard the voice, her heart plummeted to her feet.

“Miss Gardner? It’s Sergeant Konami. I’m afraid I have some bad news. Mr. Kaiba’s been in an accident.”

All I’ve got to say is Bwa, Hah, Hah. In that order.

Continue to Chapter 18 →