What Doesn’t Kill You
Chapter 25: Summer Heat – (Version 1.5 – Minor formatting fixes)
A Yu-Gi-Oh Fanfiction
By: Azurite – azurite AT seventh-star DOT net
Site: seventh-star DOT net
Conceptualized/First Written: 6/28/05
Completed/Final Edit: 11/3/07, 4/13/10
Don’t Forget! All Review Replies are now hosted at my LiveJournal. Look for a section in my Memories called ‘Review Replies,’ and you can choose from the story/chapter of your choice to see what I had to say to your reviews! Thanks for your continued support!
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—this fanfic as a whole is rated M for mature, MOST ESPECIALLY THIS CHAPTER! This chapter contains semi-graphic situations of a sexual nature. You have been forewarned!
Happy Belated Birthday, Seto Kaiba…
Happy Three-Bordering-on-Four-Year Anniversary WDKY! I apologize for the year-long delay between updates, but updating while I was in Japan was difficult, and afterward, I had quite possibly the most stressful semester of my life at school. Since then, a lot’s changed, but not my love for this pairing, this fic, or fandom in general! I’m also finally a senior at my university, and a busy one, but I am honestly dedicated to finishing this (sometime before I die…) I really, really, really appreciate anyone and everyone who has stuck with me this far and will continue to keep reading. Thank you so much!
Thanks to WinterWing3000 and Stubborn-Aesthetics for beta’ing for this for me, especially after I was going berserk about a hacker scare. Thankfully, that’s all over with and I can stress on the most important things in life: school and fics! Haha!
And to praiseofshadows, who, in retrospect, deserves a hell of a lot more than a single chapter’s dedication. If I ever finish this monster (and its babies), this fic will go to you and Mamono, for sure. But for now, praiseofshadows, this is for you: thanks for making me unafraid.
To everyone else: Another agonizingly long chapter. Love me or hate me, it’s been a year in coming. If you’re reading this, thank you.Thank you.
She sucked in a sharp breath, and then another, feeling decidedly warm for reasons other than the mid-afternoon spring sun streaming down on her through the windows of Domino High School. Her gaze was pinned up to the ceiling of the empty hallway, her thoughts all a jumble, even when she heard his voice calling to her—calling out her name. It took a moment for the haze in her mind to clear and she found herself able to crane her neck to look at the source of the voice.
“Téa? Are you all right? You were staring off into space.”
She stared at him now, rather than the ceiling; was it really him and not his other half that seemed to love to torment her with his presence? Was it really Ryou Bakura, and not Bakura, the self-proclaimed thief king who “coincidentally” shared the name of his host?
‘No, it can’t be just a coincidence. But if it was “destiny” or “fate,” then….’
And now just because Ryou had appeared, Bakura was preoccupying her thoughts once again! It wasn’t fair to Ryou, and it wasn’t fair to her—she had her own life to live and her own troubles to contend with, but all because of a single incident, she was indebted to Bakura—Bakura the Thief King, Bakura the Spirit of the Millennium Ring—and that was never a favorable position for one to be in. Now, whenever her own friend approached her, Téa felt an odd wariness, as if she could never be quite sure who she was dealing with.
But after a moment, she didn’t hear any sort of change in the way he said her name—over and over, looking more concerned by the moment.
‘I don’t think Bakura has it in him to be concerned for anyone but himself,’ Téa realized, feeling relieved. This was Ryou—her friend. This man she could trust. This man she could speak to without worrying about it getting her into trouble later on, right?
“Sorry, Ryou, I was just….”
“In shock?” Ryou interrupted, his expression the most serious Téa ever remembered seeing on his face.
Téa let out a short laugh and nodded slowly. “Something like that. You won’t believe what I just heard….”
They’re going to what?!” Miho cried out. She shook her head so vehemently that her normally neat hair slid out of its yellow ribbon and fell in streams beside her face.
“Cut our funding. I know, it shocked me too. But I don’t know just what we can do about it. It’s the government’s decision, based on the school’s attendance. And we can’t force people to come to school,” Téa explained. It had taken a good fifteen minutes before Téa herself had recovered from the shock of hearing the teachers’ discussion.
She’d been walking toward the dance studio on her way to practice when she’d heard the teachers discussing—in some cases, shouting quite loudly—the supposed budget cuts. The moment they’d mentioned clubs and possibly sports teams being cut unless attendance went up before summer, Téa realized just how much this would affect her and the rest of the Dance Club members. They were a brand new club, with fewer members than some of the more popular ones—and that meant they were more likely to be on the chopping block. Regardless of that, Téa didn’t want to see any school clubs cut on account of a few no-shows who decided to skip school for more than 30 days out of the year—and thus make the rest of Domino High suffer in their place, as they dealt with government-enforced budget cuts on “non-essential activities.”
“I wish we could,” Chieko said, frowning deeply. “Doesn’t the school care that our club brought in more revenue than ever from the Autumn Festival?”
“Almost all of that money went toward renovating the room we’re using as a dance studio,” Téa sighed. “I don’t think much more than ten thousand yen went to the school, if that.”
“In addition to that, being a registered club gives us privileges that other groups that meet up don’t have,” Miho added. “We get free use of the classrooms and any supplies that we need. Being Dance Club, we don’t really need much—just a room to practice in and electricity to power our stereo. But practicing for all the hours we do must add up after a while.”
Téa nodded and exhaled a deep sigh. “Just remember, I just overheard this; no one told me formally. If they do make an official announcement about cutting clubs or our budgets, it’ll probably already be too late. That’s the only reason why I called this emergency meeting. You can’t tell anyone else—not even your friends in other clubs—about this. It’ll get around too fast, and then we might be in even more trouble.”
All the members of the Dance Club fell silent. They were in quite the predicament—the school was threatening to cut clubs from the official school register, or at least cut their budgets. Either way, it would severely damage all of Domino High’s clubs, the Dance Club included—and all because some other students didn’t bother to showing up at school.
“Uh….” one of the first-year girls sitting in the back of the classroom raised her hand timidly. Téa smiled kindly at the girl, hoping for some words of encouragement, or perhaps a good suggestion that would help them out. For the first time, she didn’t have a single idea what to do, and it was making her more worried by the second. The last thing she needed to do was bring back old habits—like chewing her nails to the bit in times of stress. But stress was practically inevitable in a situation like this—especially when she had no idea what would happen to the club she’d worked so hard to found!
“Couldn’t you just ask Kaiba to make a donation to the school? I mean…well, he has the money, and you’re his girlfriend and all, right?”
Téa’s kind smile vanished from her lips, and her normally bright blue eyes turned icy cold. She didn’t say anything in response to the first-year’s suggestion, but her stiff posture and pursed lips sent a message all the same. Chieko sensed that Téa hadn’t appreciated the other girl’s suggestion in the slightest, and immediately made to intervene.
“Ah, it would be great if someone would just donate money to the school, but there’s no reason why it should have to be Kaiba. After all, it would look like Téa is abusing their relationship if she were to ask him to do that….” Chieko glanced hesitantly back at her friend, who had closed her eyes and was sitting on her hands in an effort not to chew on her nails—this time, more out of frustration than stress.
“There are plenty of students who could help out the school more if they wanted: students that have rich parents, or who are well off on their own. But that seems to go against the spirit of the school, don’t you think? We might not be an elite private school, but we’re still one of the best, even if we don’t have as many students as those other schools. We have to work harder and earn any money we make.”
“That’s right!” Miho said. “If anything, the clubs should all get together behind a single project and try to earn money in the name of the school. That way it doesn’t look like we’re abusing our privileges, and no one person or family feels obligated to help the school just because they attend. Don’t we already pay enough for tuition and other expenses?”
Many of the older Dance Club members—who’d been paying fees for years—nodded resolutely. At last, Téa opened her eyes and brought her hands out from under her thighs. She’d resisted her nail-biting urges thus far, but now that Miho had pointed out something they could possibly do, it was a matter of figuring out just what that something was. Téa brought her thumb to her lips and absently nibbled on the nail.
“What kind of project could every club possibly take place in? It would have to be something that could earn a lot of money quickly, but not at a great expense, otherwise we’d end up just needing to cover costs, let alone make a profit enough to give to the school.”
“Well, what does Domino High have that no other high school in the area has?” Chieko asked. She glanced around at the other club members, but none of them were particularly forthcoming with an answer.
Suddenly Miho slammed her hands onto her desk and stood up, nearly knocking her chair backward. “DUELISTS!” she exclaimed. “We have the King of Games! We have Yugi, Kaiba, Joey, Duke….”
“And you, Bakura!” Chieko added, turning her gaze to the white-haired boy who had been lounging in the corner of the classroom. No one had really paid much attention to him when he’d walked into the classroom with Téa, but since the announcement of club budgets being cut hadn’t seemed to surprise him, they all assumed he knew somehow. Téa may have told him first since he was a friend of hers, and apparently prone to staying as late after school as she did. No one quite knew why, since as far as they knew, Bakura wasn’t in any clubs, but if he could somehow help the school out anyway, it hardly mattered.
“That’s right, he was in Battle City! And Malik Ishtar in 3C was the Battle City runner-up, wasn’t he?”
Bakura’s eyes narrowed at the mention of both Malik and Battle City, but no one really noticed; the girls were far too excited about this idea that the resident duelists at Domino High could somehow help their cause.
“You’ve got a point,” Téa said, having chewed off a good two millimeters of her thumbnail. “But how do you think having the duelists here at school will help us?”
“Since the duelists aren’t affiliated with any particular club, I’m sure all the clubs would back them if they did some sort of a ‘Domino High’ project involving dueling, right?”
“A Domino High sponsored tournament?” a girl suggested.
“No way, too expensive,” Téa said knowledgeably. She remembered Mokuba absently telling her about how much money it had cost Kaiba Corporation to stage Battle City—at the last minute, too!—and Téa’s jaw had nearly dropped to the floor. But that was long before she’d come into her own small fortune, and before she understood just how much money Kaiba Corp. earned. Still…there was no way she was going to ask Seto to just give money to Domino High. It wasn’t just beneath him, it was beneath her! Chieko was right: why did she have to abuse her relationship with Seto? That’s precisely what it would be, Téa knew, not a “favor” between lovers or anything like that. It was perfectly possible for the clubs to earn money on their own…wasn’t it?
“But it’s got to have something to do with Duel Monsters, or else it won’t make any sense. And whatever we do has to have ‘Domino High’ on it somewhere, or else it’ll just look like the duelists are doing it for themselves.”
“I have an idea,” another girl piped up quietly. “It may sound a little silly, though.”
“My ears are open,” Téa said. “Any idea is a good idea, silly or not.”
This response seemed favorable to the girl, so she rose from her seat and looked around at the other Dance Club members. “Well, what about a calendar?”
“A calendar?” Miho echoed. “I don’t understand.”
“We could design a calendar,” the girl explained. “The duelists could appear on each month’s page. We could print the Domino High logo in the corner of each page, and mark special dates that have to do with particular club performances or events on the calendar.”
“And of course we’d have all the usual calendar events on there—national holidays, moon phases—it’ll be the calendar that everybody in the know will want!” Chieko added, her voice growing more excited by the moment.
“We’d probably get more clubs to back the project if we had more pages—say, a twelve or thirteen-page calendar, with one month on each page, instead of the usual two-month-per-page ones we usually see.”
“Right,” Téa added, liking this idea. “Matter of fact, we could probably theme each page depending on the time of year. It could have a duelist theme—maybe by season, or birthdays, or holidays or something!”
“And maybe the duelists could add a special touch to it by giving advice on the pages?” Miho suggested, thrilled that everyone seemed to like her idea.
“Advice?” Téa scratched her head. Somehow, she couldn’t picture Kaiba giving advice of any sort, let alone the kind Miho was probably thinking of. Miho’s latest interest was advice magazines, where so-called professionals helped people with their everyday problems from relationship difficulties to problems with one’s friends.
“I don’t mean dating advice or anything!” Miho said huffily, seeing everyone staring at her strangely. “I mean Duel Monsters advice! Advice about how to use certain cards, or how to take care of your deck, or…you know, things like that!”
Faces began to light up as they saw the possibilities. “Oh, I get it now,” one girl said, nodding in approval. “That could work. It’ll appeal to both pro-duelists and wannabe-duelists, so it should sell well.”
“Plus if it includes information about school or club events, people who live in the community might want it.”
“I know I’d want it,” one girl said excitedly. “Those duelist boys are hot! Who wouldn’t want a pin-up calendar of them?”
Téa’s face turned a faint shade of pink, but she laughed along with all the other girls. Somehow the idea of countless junior high and high school girls ogling her boyfriend—and her best friends, too!—seemed a bit strange, but if it saved Domino High’s clubs from being disbanded, then she wasn’t in any position to complain. But there was still one problem….
“Well, it sounds like a good idea. Ryou, do you think you would do something like that? Would you help us out?” If she at least got Ryou’s help, then maybe she could convince the other guys—and other clubs—to sign on. Plus, the sooner they got the project started, the sooner they could sell the calendar and prove to the school that they were serious about saving their clubs.
It was only after a moment passed without Ryou saying anything that Téa’s wary feeling from much earlier returned. Ryou happened to be standing in the part of the classroom darkened by the afternoon shade, so she couldn’t quite make his face out—but the way he stepped forward from the shadows somehow sent a chill racing down her spine. Was it even Ryou looking at her anymore?
“I’d be happy to help you, of course,” Bakura said, his face slashed by equal parts shadow and light. Téa swallowed convulsively, still unsure. Bakura was awfully talented when it came to tricking people, even people like her, whom he supposedly “needed.” Well, he “needed” her to the extent of using her, Téa knew, and if it really was the Spirit of the Millennium Ring talking, this time was no different. But what could she possibly do about it, surrounded by friends and classmates of hers that didn’t even have any clue what the Millennium Items were?
“But what’s in it for me?”
It was those words and that tone of voice that sealed it for Téa: it was no longer Ryou talking to her, but the Spirit. But she couldn’t acknowledge the difference without endangering all of her friends and Dance Club partners…and likewise, what could she possibly agree to that would satisfy Bakura so that he would help them?
Before Téa could even come up with something to say—even if it were just to stall—the other club members spoke up, completely unaware of the shift in Ryou’s demeanor.
“Fame?” one girl put in. “We couldn’t agree to give you a portion of the profits since it is for school, but you’d certainly be better known outside of the usual dueling circles, and the Domino community.”
“Yeah, if the calendar sells well, then people all over Japan will know about you and your deck style. You can make your Occult deck famous, but because it’s yours, no one will be able to copy it perfectly!”
Bakura nodded slowly, though Téa doubted that the Spirit found the concept of fame the least bit alluring. His gaze was still pinned on her, which meant only one thing: he was waiting for Téa to chime in with her contribution, which would probably have to be something much more tangible than the possibility of being famous.
“Fame and….” Bakura drawled, intentionally pressing his tongue against his teeth as he enunciated the word ‘and.’ It was clear what he expected Téa to add—what everyone expected her to add.
“Fortune, right?” But of course, what Bakura expected people to say to him wasn’t at all what he wanted from them. Even Téa knew that much.
He walked forward, a clear swagger in his step, stopping only a few centimeters away from Téa’s desk before casually pressing one hand against its surface and leaning dangerously close to her. “We’ll have plenty of time to discuss my terms later.”
There was a moment of silence as the other club members stared, wide-eyed, at Bakura’s sudden attitude change—the way he was leaning toward Téa, and the way he was smiling, as if one could call that twisting of his lips an actual “smile.”
Then one of the girls spoke up. “So does that mean you’ll help us out?”
Bakura’s all-too-malicious grin widened a fraction before he pushed off Téa’s desk and turned to face everyone else. Perhaps in the light, the way his lips curved somehow looked friendlier, because the girls all seemed to visibly relax before he even said a thing. “But of course. What kind of a gentleman would I be if I left you ladies hanging in the balance? Besides, Téa and I are such dear friends, I’m sure she’ll think of some way to adequately reward my time. After all, the time I spend posing as your pin-up boy could be better spent telling your fortunes for a few hundred yen now, couldn’t it?”
The girls all giggled, but Téa only rolled her eyes. She watched Bakura warily as he—and not Ryou, whom the Spirit had claimed needed more time in his own body, owing to a lack of rest and proper nutrition—moved through the ranks of the Dance Club, practically charming the skirts off every girl in the room. If any of them had the slightest inkling that the boy before them wasn’t the timid and shy Brit who had arrived in Domino just last year, they didn’t show it. But Téa couldn’t afford not to be aware of Bakura’s shifts—not when she was indebted to him, and would be twice over if she couldn’t think of something…and fast.
“And just where do you think you’re going?”
“Home,” Téa responded, without looking back at Bakura. She knew he would walk along with her in stride, or else he would find some way of detaining her, so she quickened her pace. Quite predictably, Bakura simply sped up his own walking, until Téa tried to round a corner and Bakura walked her right into it, effectively blocking her path.
“Don’t forget you owe me, girl. That’s twice, now.”
“I already cleared my debt with you,” Téa hissed at him. “You asked me to watch over Ryou, and I have been. And you know full well it was him we were asking to be in the calendar, not you.”
“Oh please, you know full well my host didn’t duel once during Battle City. Though I must give him credit for assembling the deck I used.”
Téa’s lips twitched slightly, but she didn’t say anything. There was no way she was going to give into Bakura a second time and agree to be in his debt once more—no matter what was at stake.
“And for the record, your watching over Ryou is something you would do out of the generosity of your heart, is it not?” Bakura smiled wickedly. “And even if it’s not, I believe we made that deal on the basis of a fair trade—keep my host happy and healthy, and you don’t have to deal with me as frequently.”
“If only you kept to your word,” Téa shot back acidly.
Bakura pulled his face back from her but kept his arms on either side of Téa, effectively pinning her into a corner of the hallway. “I’m offended,” Bakura said, and even Téa wasn’t sure if he was being serious or not. “It’s not often I make deals with others. Normally I just take what I need. But in some particular instances where that’s not possible, I’m perfectly willing to make a fair trade, or perhaps an exchange of services….”
“There’s nothing ‘fair’ about you, Bakura.” Téa narrowed her eyes at him. “Besides, even if I did owe you one more for this silly calendar thing, what would you have me do for you this time? It’s not like I can steal any Millennium Items for you,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. Before Bakura could respond, she fixed him with her most no-nonsense stare. “And even if I could, I wouldn’t. I’d rather put Bonz and his cronies on the calendar than be in debt to you for something so trivial.”
“If it’s so trivial, then why did you ask my help at all?” Bakura chuckled. “Come come now, Téa, you’re only digging yourself deeper! Why not just accept the fact that I can help you?”
“But for a price,” Téa added darkly. “Always for a price.”
“It’s only fair,” Bakura grinned again, echoing Téa’s words from just moments before. “But before you throw a temper tantrum, let me allay your fears. I don’t even have anything particular in mind yet, and though it would certainly be in my power to ask for whatever I pleased, it would make no sense to ask for what a mere girl such as yourself could not obtain. Instead, we’ll both bide our time, and I will collect from you when the time is right.” And with that, Bakura removed his arms from either side of Téa’s body and jammed his hands in his pockets. He walked away from her in a few long strides, and moments later, the shadows of the hallway leading to the school’s exit swallowed him, and Téa saw no more of him.
She stood right where he’d left her, fuming.
‘Mere girl? That bastard!’
It probably hadn’t helped that Téa was still rather upset by what one of her own Dance Club Members had said earlier—about her using (more like abusing, Téa thought) her relationship with Kaiba in order to get him to donate money to the school and thereby save their club, and every other club at Domino High in the process.
Sure, Chieko had been right in saying that other students—Chieko herself and Téa as well—could easily afford to make a donation to the school, but it simply wouldn’t look right. Domino High was a public school with government funding; the moment they received private donations from students or their families, there was a chance the government would cut their funding even more. No, the school had to prove that they deserved the funding they needed from the government and that the students that did attend all year round were dedicated enough to earn enough money to make up for those students who chose to be no-shows.
There was the slightest chance that it wouldn’t work, and that she would be put in the awkward position of asking Seto for help. After all, the money that her own parents had left her was meant for her to chase her dream of dancing with. Téa had no idea just how much money Domino High received from the government, but she was sure that her fortune probably wasn’t enough to help the entire school, from classes down to clubs.
‘No way! There’s just no way that it’ll come down to that. We’ll make it work—even if I do have to be in debt to Bakura. We don’t even have to work on the calendar until summer, after finals and the next festival are over. I’m sure in that time, I’ll think of something to get Bakura off my back…once and for all.’
Malik Ishtar had made it a routine to go walking through the ancient exhibit at least once every few hours; this was not only to protect his family’s legacy (and investment), but also to see if anyone was taking an unusual interest in the tablets, or any other pieces of Egyptian history specific to what the Tombkeeper Clan often referred to as the “Lost Dynasty.” That was the era of the Nameless Pharaoh, of the Millennium Items, and of the darkest hour mankind had ever known.
When the exhibit had first premiered, Malik knew Isis had debated over how to present it: as something of a dynasty heretofore unknown, or simply one of the many mysteries of the supposedly established and well-known dynasties. With the urgent need to find the Pharaoh, Isis had opted for the latter, marketing the exhibit as part of the 18th Dynasty, one already well-known for the rule of Tutankhamun and his heretic father, Akhenaten. The truth was, what little the Tombkeepers could say definitively about the Nameless Pharaoh’s time was that it came long after the 18th Dynasty, sometime around 1004 B.C.E., during the Third Intermediate period.
It wasn’t as if any of them could prove exactly how they knew that, though. As Seto Kaiba had so vehemently insisted when he’d first seen the mortuary palettes, even carbon dating wasn’t exact. Besides, the details wouldn’t matter to anyone except those deeply intertwined in the Lost Dynasty in the first place. Thus, when someone did take an unusual interest in the exhibit, Malik took that as his cue to observe said, individual. Such a person could only be friend or foe to the Pharaoh and his ultimate destiny. However, even those whom Malik undoubtedly knew were deeply involved in the Lost Dynasty, not all could be classified as ‘friend’ or ‘enemy.’ Kaiba, for one. Téa, in an ironic twist of fate, was another.
But the individual currently staring raptly at the second of the three tablets on display in the museum was none other than a foe in an absolute sense of the word. This Malik knew without hesitation, and without even seeing the person’s face.
The person looked ordinary enough, to be sure; he was dressed in a simple pair of dark blue jeans and a plain gray hooded sweater. The hood covered the person’s hair, but a small amount of white hair stabbed out from underneath the fabric: a sharp contrast to the brown-stone color of the tablets before him or the deep fog-gray of his sweater.
Somehow, Malik didn’t have it in him to be shocked; in fact, he realized he’d actually been expecting this, sooner or later. What he hadn’t done was made up his mind about what to do about Bakura. What little experience the Egyptian had with the enigmatic holder of the Millennium Ring didn’t reveal much: all Malik knew was that Bakura was not one to be taken lightly. Nonetheless, the first words out of his mouth were as dry as the sands of the Sahara Desert.
“Do you always stare at things, expecting the answers to simply jump out and into your brain?” Malik asked blandly. Bakura didn’t turn around fully, but he acknowledged the Egyptian’s presence with a slight cocking of his head.
“Do you always assume that what one appears to be is what they truly are?” Bakura asked in response.
Malik only rolled his eyes and stood beside Bakura, wondering which tablet and which segment had captured Bakura’s attention so. “Do you mean to tell me that the great and legendary Thief King is actually a homely little student with a passionate interest in Egyptology?”
The question was laced with sarcasm, and was entirely rhetorical, but apparently, Bakura enjoyed the banter Malik started with him, and so he responded in kind once more. “Why is it that you Tombkeepers believe there is only one truth to everything when your very reality dictates that there is much more to this world than a pitiful human mind can envision?”
Malik pursed his lips in frustration; Bakura was right—to a degree—but Malik wasn’t about to give Bakura the upper hand in this duel of words. “You seem to wish to live up to your legendary name, yet you insist there is more to you than just legend. Just what is it you are doing here staring at the tablets of old, when you of all people must know precisely what happened in the Lost Dynasty, and what must happen in the future?”
Bakura turned around fully and narrowed his eyes at Malik. “Legendary, am I? I would have thought your clan would have wiped my very existence from the walls of your precious ‘Lost Dynasty,’ assuming I was ever on them in the first place.”
Malik swallowed; he was trapped. It was true that there was nothing that mentioned the name ‘Bakura’ or even a self-titled ‘Thief King.’ Everything he knew, he knew because….
“Just who are you, anyway?” Bakura asked in a low voice, leaning in a bit closer to watch the expressions flicker across Malik’s face. Spotting a bead of sweat trickle down the side of the Egyptian’s face, Bakura’s mouth broke out into a wide grin. “Certainly not who you’ve been pretending you are.”
“I could say the same for you,” Malik snapped back. “You must not as remember as much as you claim, or else you wouldn’t have any need to come here at all.”
Bakura’s smile slipped from his face and he leaned backward again. “As you said, things must happen in the future. I am simply ensuring that the end result is favorable—to me.” With those words, Bakura considered his ‘conversation’ with Malik finished, and he began to walk away, unaware of the panic rising in the Egyptian’s throat.
‘Think fast or he will walk away with the upper hand!’
“What is your interest in her, anyway?” Malik suddenly asked. He was taking a wild guess here, a complete chance…but part of him knew it somehow, part of him felt it. And when Bakura froze mid-step, Malik knew he had hit the mark. Empowered by the discovery that Bakura truly didn’t know everything he claimed to and that he wasn’t entirely sure about everyone or everything, Malik barreled onward.
“She’s beyond you. And any obsession with her will only result in your demise. History is—”
Bakura wheeled around and cut Malik off, his face bearing the most vicious expression Malik had ever seen on him. “History is doomed to repeat itself, perhaps?” Bakura’s angry frown suddenly curved up into a wicked smile. “Somehow I doubt that. The Tombkeepers exist not to ensure the past repeating itself, but the exact opposite, am I correct?” He didn’t wait for an answer before he walked forward again, this time coming within a hair’s breadth of Malik’s own face.
“For someone that doesn’t want to live a life of servitude to the Nameless Pharaoh, you seem to be quite skilled at convincing yourself that his side is the best to take. I will inform you here and now—out of the generosity of my own heart, no less—that history will most assuredly not repeat itself, and that your empty threats will not stop me from pursuing my connection with her.”
Bakura pivoted on the ball of his foot again and turned to leave, but right in the doorway of the exhibit, he paused. “Oh, and though I’m sure you’re already aware, what with your legends and your historical predictions and the like, there is a presence here in Domino. It’s a force quite older and perhaps even stronger than the Millennium Items, and you of all people should know what that means. When the person behind that power arrives…I do hope you will have made up your mind.”
Without a word further, he left the museum once and for all, a stunned Malik in his wake. For all the knowledge Malik managed to keep from everyone even the least bit involved in the ancient past, Bakura still managed to astound him with what he knew . There was certainly more to the ‘Thief King’ than anyone had ever known, and that made him especially dangerous. But fortunately or unfortunately, Bakura had been right about a great many things, including the force moving toward Domino. Malik wasn’t sure how Bakura had sensed it first, or where, but he had a pretty good idea, especially considering how adamant Bakura was to not give up on his obsession with her.
‘But was he really speaking of “her”? Why would Bakura have any interest in the “engine of destruction” when he supposedly has his own strength that rivals that of the Gods?’
Malik didn’t understand it fully at all, but Bakura had given him one vital clue: that he was “connected” to her. This was something Malik had not anticipated, and it could either be a benefit or a hindrance to all involved. It was up to Malik how to figure out how to get the situation to best suit him and his cause before Bakura did the same for himself.
“Yugi, are you coming downstairs? Your friends are all here,” Solomon said, leaning close to the upstairs bathroom door. “Matter of fact, I think Joey brought his portable grill for making cheeseburgers.” Solomon expected Yugi to make some sort of noise after that—even if it was just a flat-toned “yay.” But there was nothing but silence from the other side of the bathroom door.
“Your favorite…?” Solomon added after a moment. Still nothing.
“Yugi, are you—”
“I’m fine,” Yugi mumbled at last, startling Solomon, who’d half-expected to discover Yugi wasn’t still in the bathroom like he thought. Inside, he stood hunched over the sink, pinching the bridge of his nose with one hand and leaning heavily on the porcelain with his other arm. He’d had a pounding headache thrumming in the back of his brain since earlier this morning. He’d already taken as many painkillers as he thought medically safe, but they didn’t seem to help in the slightest. In fact, if anything, his vision seemed to be getting progressively worse, with a mirage appearing not one meter away, somewhere in the vicinity of the bathroom door.
‘Sand…? But nobody’s been to the beach recently…’ Yugi thought absently, trying to keep his focus in the hopes that it would make his headache go away. He focused through the mirage, trying to see the outline of the bathroom door and not the minuscule grains of sand that appeared to be piling up in front of it.
‘This isn’t your battle, Yugi….’ Yami seemed to be in pain as his words filtered through Yugi’s mind, but whatever the former Pharaoh was doing, it was taking the pain away from Yugi—the mirage and sand particles along with it.
But the Pharaoh didn’t respond. The Millennium Puzzle hung from Yugi’s neck, a seemingly empty pendant, no trace of the Pharaoh emerging from it. This sort of thing happened occasionally, and each time, the Pharaoh stubbornly refused to allow Yugi to share in the visions and the subsequent pain that came with them. It frustrated Yugi to no end, but….
Perhaps for today, it was better to just let it be.
After all, today was his 18th birthday at last, and Yugi was certain his excitement had filtered through to Yami, letting him know that he wanted nothing to interfere with this fun day spent with his friends. Yugi hadn’t intended that to mean the Pharaoh was excluded in any way, but it seemed there was no way.
At least…Yugi had seen it. It had only been a slip of something, but as the pain receded, just what Yugi had seen came into a focused clarity.
He was standing on a barren cliff-top, staring out at the desert. In the distance to the East, where a sliver of sunlight was just breaching the winter horizon, a collection of stars—a constellation Yugi somehow recognized as Gemini—twinkled faintly. What little light there was revealed a gruesome battlefield—bodies everywhere, the stench of blood repugnant to his senses. Some bodies seemed to have bits of gold twinkling from under them, the blood adopting a strange luminescence to it.
But then the horizon suddenly blinked out, as if he were watching a sunset, and not sunrise. Then the battlefield, and then the space directly above him; all became darkness and shadow. It seemed to be moving: throbbing and pulsating as a particularly long extension of it seemed to reach directly for him….
Then there was nothing.
But that “nothing” was something because it meant Yugi could prod the Pharaoh into talking about what he’d seen, and what it might mean. All the other times they’d shared visions, Yami had blocked out Yugi completely, refusing to let him see or feel a single thing. Today, the vision had come on suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving no time for Yami to block the sensation from Yugi’s mind. Today, Yami couldn’t claim that he, too, had seen nothing–nothing that made sense, anyway.
There had been something, and it was connected to the ancient past, Yugi knew that much. Though he’d been hesitant to bring up the ancient past—in the form of the mortuary palettes at the Domino Museum, he knew they were important to Yami, and they couldn’t keep avoiding the tablets forever. The more he did, the more reclusive Yami became, and above all else, Yugi didn’t want that.
Even if someday….
“Yugi, are you coming?” Téa’s voice filtered from downstairs. “Joey said he’s going to eat your cheeseburger if you don’t come down, and knowing him, he will; he’s a human trash compactor!”
There was some sort of muffled shout and laughter—Yugi presumed Joey took offense to being called a ‘human trash compactor,’ something Duke, Tristan, and Kaiba had found amusing. Yugi stared at himself in the mirror, unable to decipher anything from the reflection that stared back at him. It was just him—-not Yami, not a Pharaoh. Today, he was just Yugi Moto.
Today, that would be good enough for him.
But just for today.
Her nails were a good three millimeters shorter than they had been before summer break began only four days ago. Back in April, when she’d realized that she’d fallen back on an old childhood habit—a habit borne of nervousness and fear, Téa had done her best to start taking care of her nails again, but for all of her efforts at keeping her appearance neat and clean, her nails were still jagged and thin enough to cut through every tissue or paper towel she laid her hands on. It certainly made otherwise-distracting tasks such as cleaning the house frustratingly hard.
Whenever Téa cursed herself for chewing her nails again, she remembered just why she’d started up that bad habit again—the more she thought about Bakura, the more nervous she became. It wasn’t as if she wanted to think about Bakura, but she knew she had to come up with some way of erasing her debt to him. Surprisingly enough, after his brusque encounter with her after the emergency Dance Club meeting, they’d had absolutely no interaction whatsoever.
Téa found herself wary even around Ryou, who apparently had no idea that the Spirit of the Millennium Ring that lived within him was a ghostly loan shark. Her nervousness had led her to do a few rather foolish things: first, in order to both keep her promise to Bakura and to “keep an eye on him,” she talked Ryou into joining the Dance Club. In the four months or so since he’d been a member, Bakura had not once made an appearance from within the Ring, not even during the last Dance Club performance at the pre-summer school festival.
‘And all the better. The less I have to deal with him, the better.’
But the problem was that she knew all too well that Bakura was an expert at pretending to be Ryou when he most definitely wasn’t like his vessel at all. His host was a great deal less vicious and conniving, but that didn’t mean that Bakura couldn’t play the part of a supposedly innocent schoolboy when it suited him (which was whenever it had some benefit to him). It was entirely possible that it wasn’t Ryou she had been dealing with the past several months at all, and now she was getting herself into even deeper trouble, having invited him over for the calendar photo shoot the following day.
That was the second rather foolish thing she’d done: the whole arrangement of helping out with the calendar was a deal she’d made with Bakura, and not Ryou, and that meant Bakura would most definitely be making an appearance, assuming he hadn’t been watching her from the guise of Ryou’s gentle face all this time. To make matters worse, the shoot was to take place at the mansion, which meant Bakura would have ample time and a decent-enough place to get her alone and “discuss” her debt with him.
Téa could only pray that for the duration of the summer break, Bakura wouldn’t be a bother to her at all. If she could spend enough time away from him, maybe she could find out what he wanted that she could actually get and clear her debt with him at last.
She sighed deeply and started chewing on one of her nails again. Four months of working with Ryou in the Dance Club hadn’t produced any new ideas, and neither did four languid summer days away from him.
‘I can’t exactly ask anybody for their suggestions,’ Téa thought. For one, it wasn’t as if she wanted to tell anyone just how she’d gotten into debt with Bakura in the first place. Second, of all the people she could tell, she doubted any one of them would take too kindly to her desire to actually help Bakura out, rather than go back on her promised debt to him.
First, there was Yugi—kind, understanding Yugi. He would do anything for a friend, and while his grades seemed to reflect a less-than-stellar student, Téa knew that Yugi was beyond clever: he was strategic. The only problem was that he was the host of the Pharaoh, and unlike Bakura who simply smothered Ryou into non-existence when he felt like taking over, Yugi and the Pharaoh seemed to share everything. Téa had no idea if they ever kept secrets from one another, but she highly doubted it. Unfortunately, that meant she couldn’t even tell her best friend about her predicament because she knew the Pharaoh—who apparently had a deep grudge against Bakura spanning thousands of years—wouldn’t help her at all.
Joey and Tristan were out too. Whenever it came to anything Egyptian, mysterious, or complicated, Yugi and the Pharaoh were their guides, no exceptions. They also didn’t seem to have any particular fondness toward Bakura, and for good reason too: he’d gotten them into more messes than he’d gotten them out of. They were also fully aware that Bakura used Ryou as nothing more than a puppet, and while their friendship with Ryou was tentative at best, they had no mind to encourage the Thief King to abuse his vessel’s body further.
And then there was Seto. More often than not, he seemed ambivalent about anything in regards to Bakura, but lately, she wasn’t so sure. He hadn’t been very pleased when she’d told him that she’d asked Ryou to join the Dance Club, and he hadn’t exactly looked happy when she mentioned that Bakura was among the duelists she’d invited to their mansion during the summer for the calendar photo shoot.
But wasn’t it entirely possible she was just transmitting her own paranoia onto Seto? Wasn’t he supposed to be the one she could trust the most, with all her heart and soul? Wasn’t that what being in love with someone meant?
The fact that Téa couldn’t even be sure about that scared her—more than just a little.
But the more she tried to think about what to do about Bakura, the more she realized that she really couldn’t tell anyone about her situation with him. Doing so would mean admitting that she’d made a deal with him when she knew full well that she shouldn’t have, especially with the amount of experience she had in dealing with the Spirit of the Millennium Ring before. She certainly had no mind to be chastised about something she’d done—and she wasn’t even particularly sure that what she had done was a mistake. She had rarely been this uncertain about anyone or anything before. But time was clearly not on her side, as summer kept slipping through her fingers. She was sure she wouldn’t be so lucky to evade or placate Bakura the next time they met up, so she wanted to be prepared.
‘It looks like I’m on my own for this one,’ Téa realized. ‘But I can handle it. Bakura’s nothing if not predictable, right? If I can figure out what he wants before he even knows he wants it, he’ll never bother me again.’
At least, Téa hoped so.
“Tell me just how you can have an Olympic-sized pool and not know where your swimsuit is?” Téa asked laughingly as she went into the bathroom to change for the upcoming pool party.
“I work,” Seto said in a low growl, too low to be heard by Téa. The truth was, Téa was just pushing home a point Mokuba had been making for ages: that he worked so much he didn’t even relax or take care of himself properly—not that Seto Kaiba’s idea of a relaxing summer afternoon was to invite his rival, the mutt, and all their mutual friends to his house for a “party.” But it was what Téa wanted, and that was reason enough. Had Téa not fixed him with the wateriest-looking pout he’d ever seen on her face when she’d asked him about hosting the event, he would have flatly said ‘no.’ And even if she’d just asked him quite plainly to join in, he still would have said ‘no’—except Téa had been so delighted when he’d grudgingly agreed to host the party, she’d kissed him rather emphatically. Thus, when she asked if he’d participate in it a minute later, he ended up saying ‘yes’ to that as well.
It was only now when it came to actually finding a swimsuit—and he knew he had one somewhere in his wardrobe!—that Seto wondered if agreeing to this had been such a good idea after all.
“What the hell—” After a few minutes of searching, he’d finally found something made of that stretchy material that all swimsuits seemed to be made from—but there was no way Seto Kaiba would be caught dead wearing what he’d just found: a pair of high-cut swimming briefs with the Blue-Eyes White Dragon emblazoned on them. It wasn’t anything he’d bought, and anyone that dared buy him such a thing would have faced his wrath. Rather, it was an idiotic “gift” he’d gotten from Pegasus not that long ago. Once Pegasus came out of hiding, he went back into marketing all kinds of Duel Monsters products, from new cards to skimpy swimsuits based off the designs of various popular cards. Seto remembered—with no small amount of annoyance—that Pegasus had included a little note telling Kaiba that he would have the only pair of Blue-Eyes White Dragon swim trunks—just as he possessed the only three Blue-Eyes White Dragon Duel Monsters cards in existence.
Imagining Pegasus’ high-pitched voice laughing in his head only annoyed Seto more; he crumpled the swimsuit into the tiniest ball he could manage and hurled it back into his wardrobe, hoping it would fall through some minuscule singularity and disappear forever.
But the law of the conservation of energy decided not to bend to Seto Kaiba’s will that afternoon, so when he reached into the wardrobe a moment later, his hand came back with those selfsame briefs balled up in his palm. He stared at them a minute before angrily deciding he had to throw them out, even if they did have the Blue-Eyes on them, and even if Pegasus wasn’t lying, saying he had the only pair in existence. Who the hell cared about a skimpy pair of swimming shorts, anyway? Seto tossed them over his shoulder, intent on finding something much more suitable to wear when he heard a voice from behind him.
“Wow, what are these?” Téa grinned, holding out the tiny briefs that had flown through the air just as she’d re-entered the room.
At the moment Téa spoke, Seto wished he could drop into a randomly-formed black hole. He turned around with all the enthusiasm of a sloth, wishing he didn’t possess the ability to feel so mortified. But for some annoyingly inexplicable reason, he was embarrassed—more so than he had been in a long while.
“Just an idiotic ‘present’ from Pegasus.” He paused, contemplating whether there was anything further that was necessary to say. When his eyes met Téa’s, he found hers filled with mirth, her lips barely holding back a laugh. “I have absolutely no intention of wearing them.”
Téa fixed him with an impish smile. Though the innocent look in her eyes was entirely fake, and Seto could more than tell, it gave him an uneasy feeling.
“Just how did Pegasus know your size, anyway?” Téa asked with a raised eyebrow.
Seto’s only response was to turn red, though not of his own volition. Seeing Seto blush only seemed to please Téa more, and she leaned forward, hands on her hips. Though Seto’s eyes were inexorably drawn to Téa’s chest, she was wearing an oversized white shirt—probably stolen from his office closet downstairs— and a pair of denim cut-offs, concealing anything that might have otherwise gotten his blood rushing.
“He didn’t happen to send you an Obelisk pair, did he?” Her words, her posture, and the very expression on her face all dripped with innuendo, but before Seto could even come up with anything to say, Téa skipped out of the room, wearing that same smirk on her lips.
“Téa! The photographer says he’s ready!” Yugi called from outside on the pool deck.
“Yeah, he’s ready, but are we?” Serenity asked, incredibly hesitant about her two-piece swimsuit. She’d never worn a two-piece before—but then again, it wasn’t as if she’d been able to see very well, either. Now that she’d gotten accustomed to having good vision once more, she also became more self-conscious about anything she wore, and how it looked on her.
“We are, honey, but are you?” Mai asked, adjusting her strapless bikini top with a nudge. “I don’t get why you’re so knock-kneed. Is it because of a certain someone out there on the pool deck?”
Serenity flushed pink and shook her head vehemently, her red hair flying every which way and getting stuck to her face. “N-No, it’s nothing like that…I’ve just never worn anything like this before.”
“You look fine,” Téa reassured her. “But if you’re really so nervous, I guess Mai and I can try and distract the guys or something….” Téa had suggested a distraction only in jest, but when Serenity’s eyes widened and she clasped her hands together in pleading, Téa felt there was no way she could back out now—not when her friend was so terrified. It seemed silly for Serenity to be so scared of what the guys thought, but maybe, Téa realized, she herself had been hanging around them so long, she’d become immune to the reaction more ‘normal’ girls might have around guys their age.
And Mai? ‘Well, Mai doesn’t exactly care what any of them think, right?’ Téa mused. Mai was always so confident and self-assured; even when Joey succeeded in putting his foot in his mouth and insulting her, Mai always seemed to take it in stride. Things seemed to be better between them lately. Téa hoped it would stay that way.
“Just what do you have in mind?” Mai asked with a raised eyebrow as she put on a white beach robe, made of thin, lightweight material that still managed to conceal her swimsuit underneath. Téa replaced the oversized white dress shirt she’d lifted from Seto’s office earlier, and re-buttoned her denim cutoffs that she’d intended to take off —up until Serenity had gotten so scared of the boys seeing her in a two-piece.
“Whatever we do, it’s got to be distracting enough for Serenity to get into the pool without the guys noticing. I think one to two minutes should be enough.”
“The good thing about boys is that they’re easily distracted, and provided said distraction is tantalizing enough, we could easily keep their attention for five minutes, at least.”
“Tantalizing?” Téa repeated, cringing slightly.
Mai gestured with her chin toward a stereo system set into the wall just before the door to the pool deck. “That thing plugged in?”
“Knowing Seto….” Téa trailed off and then stared at the devilish grin curving Mai’s lips. “Are you thinking what I think you’re thinking?”
“I think so Téa, but we aren’t wearing nearly enough clothes to pull it off.”
Téa groaned and smacked a palm to her forehead. “Oh boy.”
Mai started glancing around the small room just before the pool deck—there was an assortment of pool toys, some leftover party favors from Mokuba’s 13th birthday party, including some oversized straw hats and huge sunglasses.
“They’re a bit over the top, but we can work with these.” Mai plucked a hat from the pile, one each for herself and Téa, along with two pairs of matching white-rimmed sunglasses that were easily half the size of their faces.
“Okay, let me get this straight: you’re thinking we distract the boys with a strip tease?” Téa asked incredulously. “Please tell me I was jumping the gun!”
“No, you’re right on the money, Téa…unless you have a better idea?”
Red-faced, Téa shook her head in the negative.
But one thing was for sure—it would definitely distract all the boys and give Serenity enough time to get into the pool without anyone noticing her swimsuit.
‘I guess it can’t be helped,’ Téa thought with the slightest of wry smiles. Besides, this was the big summer pool party meant to kick off their calendar fundraiser: it was meant to be fun! And if she could distract herself from her more pressing thoughts—things like Bakura and her debt to him—then so much the better!
“All right. Let’s do this.”
I’m too sexy for my love, too sexy for my love, love’s going to leave me….
“You rigged this,” Téa gritted to Mai as the two of them strutted out to the poolside, wearing as many layers as possible and carrying a variety of pool toys to supposedly aid in their ‘distraction.’ Mai only grinned back as she started shaking her hips in an exaggerated fashion, strutting like the song dictated.
At first, their dancing didn’t seem to catch much attention, mainly because everyone was so scattered about the pool deck. That presented a problem, so Téa and Mai immediately split up and fanned out, each covering half of the deck. On Téa’s side, Seto, Mokuba, Yugi, Bakura, and Duke were all lounging, Seto and Duke on lawn chairs, Yugi with his feet dangling in the water, Mokuba halfway submerged in the shallow end, and Bakura leaning on a tabletop. Mai had to cover Joey, Tristan, Malik, and Mako Tsunami—a smaller, but potentially more “dangerous” crowd of boys when it came to strip teases.
After the two girls dropped their top layers, it seemed they had everyone’s attention. Out of the corner of Téa’s eye, she saw Serenity lingering hesitantly near the entrance of the small room they’d just been in. Mai saw Serenity hesitate too, so the two girls made sure to block the view of the doorway as they urged everyone’s gaze to follow them to the other side of the pool—where they posed and removed more their silly hats and oversized sunglasses. Mai had grabbed a plastic grass skirt from Mokuba’s party favors and shook it off while Téa wiggled her hips out of her cutoffs. Once finished, the two preened and posed on the diving board—Mai facing those in the pool, Téa facing those on the deck. As the song came to a finishing crescendo and Téa saw Serenity successfully dash into the far shallow end of the pool, unseen by everyone else, the two girls squirted the boys with their fully-loaded squirt guns, another leftover favor from Mokuba’s 13th birthday celebration.
“Nice! But unfair!” Joey hollered as he tried to yank Mai by the ankle into the pool. Instead, she deftly avoided his grasp and dived into the pool like a mermaid, leaving Téa to turn back around and face a now-dripping wet Seto. To her surprise, he wasn’t there, but a leering Bakura was. Decidedly shaken by his unexpected appearance, Téa dropped her plastic squirt gun and dived into the pool after Mai, trying to distract the memory of Bakura’s toothy smile by engaging her best friends in an all-out water war.
Not much later, some of the boys got the grill set up and were busy preparing as much meat as they could haul from the kitchen fridge. Téa stood on the sidelines, having been firmly told by the boys that they were going to do the cooking for once, so she could just sit and relax after having done all her crazy planning. For once, Téa truly appreciated the gesture. Besides, the boys were right; she’d nearly gone crazy planning all of this, asking all the duelists to agree to a calendar, and trying to find times when they would all be available for the photo shoots throughout the summer. In addition to that, she had to plan for content, get submissions from the other school clubs and organizations, and above all else, keep Seto in an agreeable mood.
That last bit had been the hardest thing to pull off as of late, but she’d hoped that with the calendar photo shoot taking up only a small portion of a beautiful, fun-and-food-filled summer’s day, Seto would gradually relax.
But ‘relaxation’ didn’t seem to be in Seto Kaiba’s vocabulary, especially judging by the tense expression he wore on his face—what little of it Téa could make out from behind his Aviator sunglasses. Every time she came within a meter of him, he seemed to find something to distract him. Téa got the message loud and clear. Frustrated, she simply decided to ignore him. If he wanted to be that way, then fine: it wasn’t as if Téa had any shortage of other people to talk to or spend her time with.
“Hey, T, we’re about outta soda. Unless you want to break out the liquor, know where we can get some more?” Joey gestured to the array of now-empty bottles of soda littering the two-meter long table on the far end of the patio near the grill.
“I’ll go get it,” Téa said absently. “Be right back.”
As she headed back toward the house, she shimmied into her cutoffs and Seto’s shirt once more, her mind a confusing blur of unspoken words and imagined consequences.
“Geez Seto, is this your idea of keeping soda out of Mokuba’s reach?” Téa groused to herself, her fingertips just barely skimming the cap of a two-liter bottle of soda. It was teetering on the topmost shelf toward the back of thewine cellar beverage stash, a darkened area that Téa had never bothered to explorebefore. Without any shoes on, it was awfully difficult to balance and reach the soda, but there was nothing besides alcohol on any of the lower shelves. So far,the photography shoot and pool party had been a great success, and she didn’twant to chance it getting ruined by anyone getting drunk. So she was in thisdark, somewhat frightening place for the sole purpose of acquiring more sodafor the party.
“I wish I’d turned on the light in here….” Téa grumbled yet again. She’d groped around near the doorway at the top of the stairs in the hope that the light switch would be there, but she hadn’t found anything. The ceiling was far too high for there to be an overhead light at the base of the stairs, and there weren’t any apparent light switches in the basement itself either. So Téa settled for using what little light filtered down from the doorway at the very top of the stairs. Just as Téa’s fingers closed firmly around the bottle cap, the light spilling from the entryway above abruptly vanished; the basement door had closed, leaving Téa in pitch darkness.
“What the—” she grunted as she tugged the soda off the shelf, but the noise she heard was decidedly not from when the bottom of the bottle hit one of the middle shelves on its way into Téa’s waiting arms.
She turned around and glanced about suspiciously, but it wasn’t as if she was a cat: she didn’t have any night vision, and was practically blind in this kind of dark.
There was another sound—she swore she could make out some sort of a shape moving toward her, so Téa instinctively froze in place. Still, her shaking hands betrayed her fear of being “alone” in the dark of the basement, unsure of which way was which, or if she was even alone at all. Téa hefted the soda bottle as if it could be used as some sort of weapon, should she find herself facing someone dangerous in Seto Kaiba’s wine cellar.
Quite abruptly, the darkness shifted, and Téa suddenly found herself wrapped in a very strong pair of arms. A husky voice that she wasn’t quite sure she recognized whispered right into her ear: “Finally, we’re alone.” Before Téa could even respond with the smallest noise, warm lips covered hers, and the soda bottle she’d been hefting dropped to the floor with a clunk, missing her bare foot by only a few centimeters. Téa’s lips didn’t move under her captor’s, but a few moments after the soda bottle rolled away from her, she hesitantly lifted her free hand in the hopes that she might identify whose lips were raking across hers with such burning intensity.
For a moment, she was terrified. She had no idea who this was—and if it was who she’d imagined just a moment before, then she was in much more trouble than she’d planned for. Téa’s hand stilled midway up to her captor’s face. She was afraid that her intuitions might be right, and…and whatever it meant for her, it certainly wouldn’t be good. Better to just get out of this situation as soon as possible. But with only one free hand and the rest of her body practically immobilized, how—?
‘Stop being stupid and scared! You’re not just some “mere girl!”‘
Téa’s hand finished its journey upward, and she found herself silently astonished by the fact that she didn’t grab a handful of long hair, gelled hair, or anything even remotely close. Rather, it was fine, smooth, and short hair—familiar, in a word.
“Seto—?” Téa moaned out as the lips left hers at last and began a dangerous trek down her neck while his hands coursed down her body, urging her against a wall.
“I’ve been waiting too long for this,” Seto ground out, his voice much more recognizable than it had been before, but still gruff and harsh. Relief flooded through Téa’s veins that it was Seto after all, and not Bakura—and Hell would swallow her whole before she told Seto that she’d thought of Bakura for even an instant while he kissed her. How stupid had she been: Bakura wasn’t like this at all. But then again, neither was Seto, so why…?
Téa knew, judging by Seto’s earlier reaction regarding Bakura even being invited into their home a second time that he wasn’t very fond of the British boy—or rather, the Spirit of the Millennium Ring that resided within him.
“‘This’?” Téa breathed, desperately trying to maintain her composure even as Seto’s tongue traced hot wet patterns down her neck. Her own arms wrapped around his larger form as she tried to balance herself against his weight. Seto took her movement as a cue to press their bodies even closer together. Téa realized with mute surprise just how hot his body was against hers. Somehow, Seto managed to defy the very temperatures of his own basement. He was quite like a dying sun in his own right: blazing hot, but bringing no light to this deep, dark place.
“Ever since you did that ridiculous little strip tease earlier,” Seto ground out, urging Téa’s hands to wander down his bare back and up again. His own hands roamed shamelessly over Téa’s body, the dark obviously affording him protection from seeing the hesitant expression on Téa’s face. “Ever since…before,” he grunted as he fumbled with two of the buttons on the oversized white dress shirt that Téa wore over her bikini. The moment he freed them from their holes, he roughly shoved the whole shirt off Téa’s body, pulling her even closer to him and pushing them both harder against the wall.
“Ah!” Téa squeaked in surprise and no small amount of pain as one of her shoulder blades made contact with the cold concrete wall behind her—but if Seto had heard her cry, he didn’t give any indication. Rather, he kept kissing her, one hand fumbling with the plastic clasp of her swimsuit top while the other easily palmed one of her breasts, indicating just how shy Seto wasn’t in the dark. Téa was halfway between giving into the sensation and trying to keep her wits about her, but forming a coherent thought was becoming increasingly difficult, especially when Seto’s tongue made contact with hers, and she felt like she really was being consumed by a dying sun.
“W-What’s gotten into you?” she breathed the moment his lips strayed from hers, moving down, down, down, until he was kissing the valley between her breasts, kneeling ever-so-slightly before her so he could kiss them fully. His agile fingers at last unclasped the plastic hook of her swimsuit from its fabric loop, but the top remained suspended from the additional strap tied around her neck—and knotted quite expertly. But knots and other straps hardly seemed of any consequence to Seto, as he pushed the polyester and spandex top, up, up, and up—as far up as it would go, exposing Téa’s chest entirely to the cool of the basement air.
“Seto, wh—” Téa’s voice broke into a cry when Seto’s lips closed over one of her nipples, the sensation so incredible and so unlike anything she had ever experienced before that it was no wonder she couldn’t think straight, let alone finish her sentences. The hand that had undone her swimsuit clasp came forward to warm her other breast, while his first hand wound its way up to Téa’s neck, stroking the dampness left by his earlier kisses. Even when they’d come close like this before—back on St. Valentine’s Day—they’d never gone quite this far, and Seto had never seemed this…amorous.
‘If you can even call it that,’ Téa thought absently, desperately trying to keep her eyes open and focused. How was it that Seto could somehow see her in the pitch black, and now exactly where to kiss her and where to touch her to get her senses dancing? And how could he possibly be like this when only minutes before, he’d seemed so angry at her?
When his lips left her breast a few moments later, his hands finding their place on her hips where her bikini bottom straps rested comfortably, Téa finally found her voice.
“What’s gotten into you?” she repeated, still breathless; with the way Seto was making her feel, it was no surprise that she was practically gulping in what little air she could savor. It was as if she were on fire—but oddly submerged in coolness at the same time. Goosebumps abruptly crawled over her skin, eliciting a shudder from her head to her toes. The movement sent her arching just a few centimeters closer to Seto, her breasts just barely coming into contact with his bare chest. He made a sound, not unlike that of a feral animal and began to ease the straps of her bikini bottom lower and lower.
With the abruptness of one getting pushed into an icy pool, Téa realized just where Seto expected this little tryst of theirs to go—and it scared her. The warmth left her skin immediately, and even though Seto’s touch on her skin was electrifying, Téa knew it wasn’t what she wanted—not here, not now. In a basement, of all places, while her friends were just upstairs. What in his right mind was Seto thinking? But that question, of course, depended on whether Seto was even in his right mind or not. Judging by the fact that he had yet to answer Téa in any coherent way, she was leaning more toward “not.”
“Seto, Seto, please—” At first, Seto seemed to take Téa’s soft words as provocation, urging him to do more, to touch her everywhere, to bring her closer and closer until…
“Seto, stop.” But his hands kept roaming, sliding all over her skin while his lips sought purchase on Téa’s other breast. It felt good—it wasn’t as if Téa were going to deny that basic fact—but that didn’t change the fact that she didn’t want their first time to be in a cold basement while his younger brother and all their friends were right upstairs. The thought of everything they’d been through up to this point, whether it was romantic close calls on a couch, in a shower, in a bed, or anything and everything else in between coming crashing down because of a bad case of hormones was enough to cause Téa to lose any romantic inclinations she might have had up until that point.
“What happened to ‘I want it to be perfect’?” Téa asked, her voice cracking as she realized Seto wasn’t stopping, even though she had, and she’d asked him to as well.
Her words apparently got through to Seto, as he pulled away from her. Her eyes having adjusted at last, Téa could barely make out his face, but he looked almost expressionless, save for the sharpness in his eyes.
“I told you, I’ve been waiting too long,” Seto began. “Every time we get close, something happens. It’s always one thing or another. I’m sick of it.”
Téa’s eyebrows creased in the center of her forehead, but she remained where she was standing, completely motionless, her body only a hair’s breadth from Seto’s half-nude one. “So you’d like to throw all that away for a quickie in the basement, is that it? Well, what about our friends? They’re upstairs waiting—”
“Your friends,” Seto corrected, to which Téa glared at him unabashedly. “And they don’t matter.” He seemed to think that was explanation enough, and he suddenly pushed his hips against Téa’s—and she felt his arousal pressing between her thighs—the first time she’d felt it so clearly since that rainy day back in February, when not even a bathing suit separated them. But that was when Seto had seemed to care about what she felt and what she wanted, and now he seemed like an entirely different person.
“‘They don’t matter’?” Téa repeated hollowly, concurrently astonished and disgusted. Rather than be turned on by Seto’s own arousal, Téa felt her little flickering desire to continue their ‘rendezvous’ burn out and die altogether. The moment Seto made to lean in and kiss her—any part of her—again, she raised her hands and bodily shoved him back. She hadn’t realized how hard she pushed, but the expression of absolute shock on Seto’s face as he stumbled backward no less than three steps was indication enough: she’d pushed hard.
“They matter to me!” Téa said, her voice surprisingly loud—though quavering—in the dark cellar.
“But not to me. They’re not the one I want.” With those words spoken, Seto closed the space between them again and immediately pressed his mouth to Téa’s exposed neck again, teeth and tongue alternately scraping against her skin. Téa stood there, frozen, back pressed up against the cool concrete beam of the basement, too stunned for words or action. But when Seto’s hands started to roam again, Téa awakened from her reverie and pushed Seto away from her a second time.
“But what about me? What about what I feel, and what I want?”
“How the hell am I supposed to know what you want?” Seto said in a low, bitter voice. This time he didn’t try and kiss her again; his arms hung rigid at his sides, fists clenched. He almost looked defeated, more than he ever had in all the time Téa had known him. But he wasn’t shaking with anger or even raising his voice at her, something which Téa had halfway-expected, though she didn’t know why. The other half of her, she realized, was trapped in a numb state of shock. After everything that had happened and everything they’d been through together, Seto’s admission carried a great deal of weight. It didn’t just speak of that moment, with Seto exuding frustration over not knowing what Téa wanted and didn’t want, but it also said that perhaps for all his intelligence and worldly experience, there were simply things that Seto Kaiba had yet to understand at all.
“I thought—” Téa began, but her voice cracked and the salty taste of tears began to form in her mouth, “I thought we understood each other, somehow. I thought we both knew each other better than this.” Téa gestured at nothing in particular, her own frustration beginning to show.
“So did I,” Seto bit out. “All that flirting earlier, that little—that little strip tease of yours! Did you really think I wouldn’t react to all that?” Once started, Seto couldn’t bring himself to stop. “And just now, you didn’t exactly say ‘no’ from the beginning—”
“I had no idea what you were thinking! I didn’t even know it was you at first—”
“Who did you think it was, then?” Seto snapped, staring at Téa.
A cold feeling swelled in Téa’s chest, preventing any words she might have said from escaping her lips. In this situation, silence and spoken word were equally dangerous, especially considering she would have to lie if she said anything at all.
‘There’s no way I can tell him that I thought—even for just a second—that he was Bakura!’ Reminding herself of that earlier thought brought a sour taste to her mouth, and a guilty feeling to her chest. She hated that she couldn’t trust Seto, but his reaction now just affirmed it: he understood her even less than Téa thought, and he could never sympathize with her plight or what she’d done to get herself into it in the first place.
The silence felt as if it had the weight of the world sewn into it, pressuring Téa to the point where she didn’t want to be there—anywhere near Seto—anymore. She scrambled to pick up her discarded shirt and fumbled with her bikini top as best she could in the dark. She was about to run out of the basement as fast as her knock-kneed legs could managed when Seto abruptly spoke again.
“Didn’t you want this?” he asked, though he didn’t specify what ‘this’ was. Téa didn’t need to ask.
“I do want it, Seto. But not like this,” Téa glanced back at him for just a moment, waving a hand around in the cold, dank air of the basement.
This time, it was Seto’s turn to stay silent. To answer would mean admitting he’d let his lust get the better of him, when all along, his sensible self knew that he could never get anywhere with Téa using harsh words or forced actions. He knew that ‘love’ was supposed to be the result of two people’s combined efforts—not one person’s alone. But that meant giving up the control he’d spent years making his and his alone—the life that no one else had the power to destroy, as so many others had before. These were things he knew, and yet couldn’t admit to—admit that he could be wrong, or at fault. He hated even thinking that he might be questioning his actions when it would be so much easier to just have facts laid out: who was right, who was wrong, what she wanted, and what she didn’t. Things like “maybe” and “later” were too liquid and volatile; Seto needed solid, unchanging facts before he acted.
And he thought he’d had the facts right—thought that Téa wanted him just as much as he wanted her, and that they were both ready, regardless of the minor details like “when” or “where.”
Téa bit her lip, somehow knowing that Seto wouldn’t respond no matter how long she stood there. Finally, she spun on the ball of her heel and headed upstairs, never looking back.
The bottle of soda she’d come to fetch lay forgotten, up until it rolled just centimeters away from Seto’s foot. He stared at it, not bending to pick it up. Moments later, Seto’s left foot struck out, sending the bottle skittering across the concrete floor.
“Damn it!” Seto cursed under his breath, both from the sudden pain that had swelled up in his foot and from the irrationality of everything that had just transpired. Seto let out a soft growl as he leaned heavily against the concrete beam and hobbled his way toward the stairs, leaving the bottle forgotten in the darkness.
The moment Téa walked into the kitchen, Mai’s perfectly-plucked eyebrows arched upward.
“If you get any redder, you’ll have tan lines,” she said dryly. Téa turned around, her expression only halfway surprised; it was obvious she hadn’t really been paying attention to her surroundings, judging by the glassy look in her eyes and the stiff gait with which she walked.
Mai sauntered up to her friend, but she didn’t need to be up-close and personal with her to see the almost-bruise forming on Téa’s neck. Mai let out a sigh, guessing immediately just what Téa had been up to in the time since she’d disappeared from her own party.
“We’ll need to put some ice on that unless you want it to get worse,” Mai remarked, heading toward the refrigerator. When Téa didn’t respond with even a sigh, Mai turned back around and stared.
“What’s wrong with you?”
Téa’s eyes shifted downward, as if the pattern of the kitchen tile were all-engrossing. But she wasn’t really focusing on the floor or anything else in particular, for that matter. When she finally found her voice, it sounded distant and foreign to her own ears, coming out as quiet and dry.
“I feel stupid for thinking it, but I really didn’t think he had it in him to be such a jerk. Not anymore.”
Mai let out a sharp, brief laugh. “I don’t know who ‘he’ is, but I’ll be glad to tell you, it applies to all men.”
“Mai….” Téa’s voice came out weak and broken, but in her head, it had been laced with a hint of surprise. It seemed that it didn’t matter how good things were between Joey and Mai; she would never stop mistrusting men, no matter how close she was with them.
Perhaps she wasn’t the best person to vent about her almost-experience to. Perhaps it was better not to tell anyone at all.
‘I’ve got to be able to handle this on my own. Otherwise, what else am I good for?’
“Hun?” Mai asked, perturbed by Téa’s vacant gaze. “You wanna talk?”
“I’m fine,” Téa managed, though her gaze was still unfocused. “I’ll be fine.” She would have to be if she was to survive. Not just the rest of the party, but everything. High school, her friends, and their adventures…LIFE. Mai shook her head, trying to dismiss the odd feeling she got looking at Téa, but if the girl said she was fine, Mai wasn’t going to press the matter. Besides, Téa needed to learn to stand on her own two feet, anyway. Sure, it was great and all having her friends to lean on and a boyfriend who could probably give her whatever she wanted, but…Mai was sure Téa knew she couldn’t rely on it. Not forever.
“Hey, Téa? Just remember: you can always do what you want. Whatever you feel, whatever you’re thinking…never let anyone stop you from saying those things out loud. Ever.”
Though Mai didn’t turn around to catch Téa’s reaction, the words seemed to awaken the brunette from her stupor.
‘Whatever I want…?’
Feeling a bit better, Téa headed outside, intent on forgetting what had almost just happened in the basement. At least, forgetting about it for the time being. Besides, she didn’t want her friends getting upset, thinking she’d abandoned them, or that she wasn’t as serious about the true nature of this party.
She smiled as widely as she could manage and headed back out into the sun, entirely unaware of the array of gazes that fell upon her until her eyes adjusted to the bright daylight.
“Feeling all right?” Bakura’s smooth voice asked, emerging from what had looked like to Téa as a mass of blue and green spots. She shook her head a moment, ridding herself of the floaters dancing in her eyes, and then glared at Bakura as best as she could.
“Why do you care? Only because of the debt, I’m sure!” she snapped, having had more than enough of playing games with the supposed Thief King. She was tired of being his puppet. Not knowing when or where he’d call in her debt to him meant she was under his control, and Téa hated that feeling now more than ever before. Now, at long last, she was going to do what she wanted, and say what she thought.
Instead, Bakura looked surprised, and for a brief, terrifying moment, Téa thought she’d just revealed her secret—in quite a vicious tone of voice!—to Ryou. Worse, what if the others heard? It was one thing to finally react to Bakura however she wanted, and not worry about the consequences to herself,but if her friends found out…that was something entirely different.
“Haven’t you ever heard the phrase ‘Honor among thieves?'” Bakura finally said, giving Téa the confirmation she craved so desperately in that brief gap of time between her response and his. No doubt about it: this was Bakura the “Thief King,” and no one else.
“I’m not a thief,” Téa said slowly, “And—”
“And I do have a sense of honor,” Bakura said with a wide, toothy smile, interrupting Téa before she could say otherwise. “Quite unlike that lecherous boyfriend of yours,” Bakura muttered under his breath, just loud enough for Téa to hear. He said the words as if they left a foul taste in his mouth, though his gaze was directed just over Téa’s shoulder—back at the entrance to the house where Kaiba was just now emerging. There was a look Bakura recognized as lustful on Kaiba’s face, and when that gaze finally fell upon Téa, it became even more determined.
‘Does Bakura know what…almost happened? How could he? But why else would he call Seto “lecherous?”‘ Téa’s thoughts were swirling rapidly and it was only when she realized Bakura was no longer looking at her that she dared to turn around slightly, only to see Seto marching toward her.
Subconsciously, she clutched at her injured shoulder, as if being in Seto’s vicinity might make it hurt more intensely. She took the tiniest of steps away from him as he neared her, inadvertently stepping into Bakura’s arms. But she didn’t move away from him, even when his hand moved right to her injured shoulder—not pressing against it, but gently cupping it and her hand with it, as if to shield her from further injury. Téa barely had a moment to think about it before Seto was in front of her, practically exuding irritation likeit were a visible plasma seeping from his pores.
“I need to talk to Téa, Bakura,” Seto said, his tone of voice a surprising contrast to the look on his face. “Alone.”
Téa felt slightly irritated that Seto didn’t even bother to address her—as if she couldn’t hear his words on his own. Why couldn’t he just tell her he needed to speak to her, and not make it look like he was asking for Bakura’s permission? It wasn’t as if Bakura was her keeper!
Téa’s simple irritation strengthened as she realized Seto didn’t seem to have any qualms addressing Bakura, either. Obviously it didn’t matter whether he was talking to a mild-mannered British boy or the reincarnated spirit of a vengeful ancient Egyptian thief king.
‘Why should he care? It’s not as if he has a debt to Bakura. Seto’s never bothered to understand before; why would he start now? And if it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place!’ Her own thoughts surprised her. She thought she’d forgiven and forgotten about the time with the ghosts, when Seto had failed to believe her, when he’d failed to save her, when she’d opened herself to Bakura….
Who knew where she would be now if it wasn’t for Bakura?
Bakura cast a questioning gaze at Téa, who, lost in a web of mixed emotions, merely nodded her head once. He slowly—and quite pointedly—withdrew his hand from Téa’s shoulder, leaving her own hand still clutching herbruised shoulder blade.
“We’re connected, you and I. Don’t forget that,” Bakura whispered, his voice low enough for only Téa to hear. Seto glared at Bakura as he leaned back, his hair still brushing against Téa’s shoulders. But Téa didn’t look his way again, so Bakura pivoted on his heel and left the area, leaving Seto and Téa quite alone.
Though he’d gotten what he wanted, Seto’s gaze wasn’t on Téa at all, but on the retreating back of Bakura.
“Why the hell is he here, anyway?”
Téa took a deep breath and stared right up at Seto. “Because I invited him, Seto.”
Seto’s irritated expression deepened. “And why is that?” he said, practically gritting his teeth. “Half the time you don’t seem to trust him, and the other half you’re—” he paused, a disgusted look crossing his face, “hanging off him like some sort of fan girl. And it’s not as if he’s a competent duelist. I don’t know why thehell you think he deserves to be in this calendar project of yours—”
“And why shouldn’t he be?” Téa demanded, her voice louder than she intended. She knew she was drawing the stares of her friends now, but after everything that had happened—not almost happened; something had happened, and it was changing everything, righthere and right now—she didn’t have the mind to care anymore.
“He’s my friend, and just as much of a duelist as you!”
Suddenly, the whole pool deck seemed to be encapsulated in a soundless bubble. All eyes were on Seto and Téa, and no one was saying a word—until the spell was broken by Mokuba emerging from the water with a loud plunk! Mokuba looked confused at everyone and where they were staring, but he couldn’t figure out what was going on. He was about to open his mouth and ask, but the photographer broke the silence first.
“Okay everyone, let’s start this photo shoot!”
Everyone milled about for a few moments before finding suitable positions—half of them were in the pool, clustered along the wide stairs in the shallow end, while another half stood above them. Téa was smack in the middle of things, doing her best to smile as brightly as Mai and Serenity at her sides. Somehow Bakura had ended up in the girls’ cluster, and only moments before the flash bulb went off, his hand cupped Téa’s shoulder blade once more, inciting a strangetingle that went all the way to her toes.
“We’re connected, you and I.”
‘What does that mean?’
Téa was still sitting in the shallow water, befuddled, even after the crowds separated to look at the digital copies the photographer had uploaded onto his laptop. She could barely make out Joey cracking some joke about Kaiba looking awful, while the photographer insisted he looked intimidating, which was perfect for a Duelist Calendar.
While only a short while ago, the calendar and her desire to save the Dance Club had been the only things on her mind, now they seemed to be the furthest things from it. Téa’s gaze lifted to the sky, where a mass of clouds—strangely dark and heavy-looking for the season—were rolling in, their edges strangely tinged with a shade of green….
Hours later, Téa hesitated yet again. Somehow she’d managed to avoid Seto up until now, helping clean up after the party and photo shoot. The calendar was on its way to completion, though they had to take photos for a few more months before they could send the finalized designs off to a printer. The remainder of the photos would have to be done at school or at a studio, since there was no way Seto would stand for a repeat of today’s events.
Whether that was due to her actions or someone else’s, Téa couldn’t say for sure. Neither possibility was all that appetizing.
Now she was sitting in the master bathroom, fidgeting with her sleeveless pajama top. She’d heard shuffling in the bedroom, so she knew Seto was there—but she wasn’t sure if she was ready to come out and face him, let alone talk. But exhaustion lay heavily in her bones, with only her fear and nervousness causing her to be so jittery. If she didn’t leave the bathroom and face theinevitable, she’d fall asleep in there.
Téa took one look at the spa bathtub and its circular shape and decided her spine had been through enough injury for the night.
Taking a deep breath, Téa opened the door separating the bathroom from the bedroom.
She kept her eyes closed as she marched the slight distance to the corner of the room where she kept her clothes hamper, where she started placing the day’s clothes in, along with the towels she’d used at the poolside. Her back was to Seto, but she could feel his eyes on her, even though he had yet to say anything to her.
There was a deep sigh, and a rustling of the comforter, and for a moment, Téa stiffened, thinking Seto was going to approach her. That thought shouldn’t have scared her, she realized, but today had changed everything. She wasn’t really focusing on what she was doing, still hunched over her laundry basket, haphazardly shoving more things into it, trying to sort things without really paying attention to what she was grabbing.
Seto cleared his throat, and Téa realized he was still in bed, a good two meters away from her.
Téa’s posture stiffened suddenly, and the last item she’d been shoving into her hamper slipped between her fingers. She hadn’t been expecting that.
She didn’t turn around either, but the fact that she was standing straight up was indicative enough to Seto; she’d heard what he’d said, even though he’d spoken just below normal volume. He swallowed a lump in his throat—one that felt as if it had been there for ages, churning up acid and making this all the more difficult to say.
“I’ve been…frustrated, lately,” he continued, gritting his teeth. It would be so easy to just come out and explain everything—the erotic dreams, the nightmares of Téa disappearing—but dealing with the consequences wouldn’t be so easy. He had no idea how Téa would take his admissions, so he stuck withjust the basics, hoping that it would be enough for now.
Téa still didn’t turn around, so when she spoke at last, Seto wasn’t entirely sure he’d imagined it or not.
“I meant what I said earlier; regardless of our…relationship, or how much you’ve done for me, I’m not going to do anything I’m not ready for.” She tried to keep her voice steady, but she kept remembering what had transpired earlier. As if on cue, Téa’s shoulder blade ached, and she subconsciously lifted her hand to rub it gently.
“I respect that,” Seto said at last, realizing there were no better words to say. At least he was being honest; he did respect Téa, more thanhe’d respected most people he’d ever dealt with.
Téa’s mind churned over his words. If he really respected her, why would he have been so rough with her in the basement in the first place? Why follow her down there and try and seduce her in the cover of darkness? She knew Seto had it in him to be romantic: he’d staged that beautiful, private re-creation of the Kaiba Corporation 50th Anniversary Ball on White Day, to make up forthe near-disaster that had been Valentine’s Day.
But if she had to pick, she would rather have gone all the way on Valentine’s Day—ill or not—than think that she could never be intimate with Seto again, all because of today. Because of today, she wasn’t entirely sure she could believe his words: his apology, or his supposed statement that he respected her, respected her decisions.
‘Am I just being a prude? We were so close just a few months ago, and now…’
But Seto’s attitude had been different back then. It seemed like it had almost been a lifetime ago. After Anubis, Seto had been nothing but respectful, even though she’d nearly died and they’d nearly taken that step. And she’d been willing back then, too.
‘It was always go-stop, go-stop. Maybe I got used to that…I never even considered that he was getting frustrated with it. I never did, only because I kept thinking about myself—my debt with Bakura.’
Whether it was a matter of hours or mere seconds, Téa realized that the course of her life had changed yet again today. It had only been a few minutes in a dark, dank basement, but it was enough. Téa squeezed her eyes shut, willing her brain to stop swirling with so many thoughts, so many possibilities, few of them positive.
Téa turned around slowly, her chin nearly to her chest. She had to face Seto. She had to look him in the eye and tell him what she really felt.
Her life wasn’t the only one that was changed after today.
“I–I was scared,” Téa finally said, her voice a mere whisper. The eyes she’d been keeping squeezed shut opened.
“I was scared!” she repeated, louder this time, as if to ensure Seto truly heard her, to make certain he understood. Téa clenched her fists at her sides, her fingers just barely grasping at the sides of her pajama shirt. When her tears finally dried and her muscles finally relaxed, a cold feeling replaced the strain in her chest, and the words she’d really been struggling to say came out at last.
“I am scared.”
Whether it was out of shock or something else, Seto said nothing in response, though when Téa raised her eyes, she found him staring at her, unblinkingly. Her vision swam, half of her certain she was seeing a particular expression on his face, while the other half thought she couldn’t see anything there at all. Not worry, not love, not guilt or remorse. Simply nothing.
“Téa—” Seto began, having already taken several long strides out of bed to stand before her. He didn’t expect her to quiver the moment he came within range, or for her shoulders to start shaking so violently.
“D-Don’t.” It was a mere whisper, a single word, but it was enough. Seto froze like the veritable block of ice most accused him of being, his feet and voice locked in place. Téa clapped her hands to her face in a desperate attempt to stop the new flow of tears from overwhelming her, but her efforts seemed to be of little consequence. A moment later, when she tried to apologize, her voice came out cracked and broken.
“I’m sorry!” were the last words Seto heard her say before Téa wheeled around on unsteady feet and left that room which was once ‘theirs,’ slamming the door shut behind her. The banging of the door across the hall—that of the Violet Room—was indication of just where Téa had gone, and while Seto was silently grateful she hadn’t gone any farther than that, it still felt like an insurmountable distance compared to how close they’d been just yesterday.
But for the first time in so many years, Seto Kaiba knew not what to do, what to say, or where to go. When one of his feet started to fall asleep and he stumbled slightly forward, he could only lean against his own door, his chest tightening with each muffled gasp that echoed from the Violet Room to his own.
Téa lay in bed, curved into a mess of angles and sheets, but she still couldn’t sleep. For all the comfort the Violet Room offered, and for all the pain lurking in the corners of her reddened eyes, she still couldn’t bring herself to rest. Her mind was simply too busy, whirring with questions she didn’t have the answers to.
‘I really didn’t think he had it in him to be such a jerk. Not anymore.’
That was what she’d told Mai hours earlier, just after…’it.’ Téa didn’t even want to give the incident a name, but referring to the event with some generic pronoun didn’t help much, either.
“I thought he could change,” Téa whispered to herself. “But he hasn’t—or he can’t. Maybe I’m just fooling myself with false hope.”
Or maybe it was expecting something impossible. Hoping that Seto could just give up on his rivalry with Yugi and never speak of a rematch duel ever again was foolish. Téa knew that now, after being heartbroken after discovering Seto had lied to her, back when he’d staged yet another rematch at the Duel Dome, just before Anubis appeared.
‘Did we even learn anything from that? Did either of us change? Or has all this time really just been more of the same?’
It hurt to think that she couldn’t trust him. It hurt remembering that he’d so readily lied to her rather than admit that he needed to duel Yugi again, for whatever reason he thought Téa couldn’t understand. And it hurt to realize that the rematch hadn’t been the only time.
“STAY THE HELL OUT OF MY PAST!”
He hadn’t believed in her when both her life and Mokuba’s had been in danger. He hadn’t trusted in her enough to think that something might be wrong in the Kaiba mansion, that her delving into his private past might have had some justification to it.
‘I thought we’d moved past all that. I thought…things between us had changed. Can’t I forgive and forget about those times?’ It was easier said than done. Just remembering those times brought an acidic taste to Téa’s mouth. She desperately wanted to leave the past where it was, but…there was so much more to it. That was why she’d told herself it was okay to persist sorting through all the files she’d found about Noah, Gozaburo, Seto, and Mokuba. That was why she’d continued to work in the face of danger, and why she’d broken a promise to Mokuba.
Unlike when she’d lied to her friends to protect her own heart, she’d done all that to protect Seto and Mokuba. Because they were her family now.
‘And even in the toughest times, families stick together. Family members trust each other.’
Right now, she couldn’t trust Seto. In her heart of hearts, she couldn’t believe he was completely sorry for what he’d done, or that he really respected her decision to stop, or even her reasons for stopping.
‘Was I the one taking advantage of him?’ Téa wondered, sitting up in the bed. Had she grown so accustomed to Seto caring for her that she’d ignored all the growing tension between them? All the recurring problems of trust?
‘I…took the comfort he offered for granted. And I started to push my boundaries, too much, too fast. When he pushed back, it was unexpected. I–I got scared.’
Again. Today was just a repeat of what had happened before. It had happened many times by now, actually, but the circumstances had been different each time, and Téa had been unwilling to see them for what they truly were—untilnow.
Téa stared at the Violet Room’s closed bedroom door, imagining for a moment that she was back in the master bedroom, seeing shadows of herself standing near the bathroom door and Seto approaching her after he’d made his apology—his admission.
There was an expression of genuine hurt on his face that she hadn’t bothered to pay attention to.
Realizing it now, hours after the fact, didn’t help any.
‘He’s human too,’ Téa remembered, smiling wanly. She’d known that all along, but the predisposition to believe Seto Kaiba was an animated ice block was too difficult to let go of, for some ridiculous reason. It was just easier to believe that she was the one giving all the emotion, and Seto was merely taking.
But maybe he wasn’t. Maybe it wasn’t just his fault.
Maybe things were backwards. Perhaps it wasn’t that Seto had stubbornly refused to change since she first met him: maybe it was more like once he’d begun to change, he couldn’t stop. He was a liquid, ethereal being now, and she couldn’thandle him now any more than she could when she first met him.
‘It’s me, then, isn’t it? I have to be willing to change for myself and him…and he has to want to do the same.’
No one could change just for someone else; what kind of relationship would it be if either of them changed simply for the whims of the other? But something—or someone—had prompted Seto to change from the man she’d grown to love just a few months ago. Téa was sure it hadn’t been her, but then…who? Orwhat?
She’d felt something odd lately, but she didn’t know what the cause of it was. Up until now, Téa had just dismissed it as her imagination, desperately trying to supply explanations when nothing else could.
But the one thing Téa had deduced in the past few hours of crying was that it was no use torturing herself the way she was, bottling everything she was feeling inside and expecting Seto to just know, to just understand. She was the one who avoided telling him about her debt with Bakura, even though she knew that doing so was indicative of a lack of trust in him. She hadn’t bothered to consider just why she didn’t trust Seto until now.
‘I’m a coward.’ Téa chuckled wryly to herself at that. She heaved a great sigh and hauled herself off the bed. It was still late, but…Seto would probably still be awake. The least she could do was attempt to patch things up before summer break was completely over and they had to restart school.
She rose from the tangled mess of sheets in the Violet Room, quietly closing the door behind her. She gently pushed against the door of the master bedroom while turning the handle, careful to keep the noise down—if not for Seto, who never seemed to sleep, then for Mokuba, who thankfully hadn’t awoken afterTéa had gone storming out of the bedroom earlier.
Téa was surprised to see the lamps turned off, the only source of light coming from a thin slit where the curtains parted. Though it was dim, the light from outside was just bright enough to reveal Seto turning repeatedly under the blankets. Téa stepped closer hesitantly, hovering just a meter away when Seto turned upright again, his face clearly a mask of pain. His eyebrows knit downward on his forehead, his teeth gritting against one another and glinting in the light just before his body seemed to relax.
Quite suddenly, he bolted upright, breathing heavily. A few moments passed before he caught his breath and realized he was in his own bedroom, and, judging by the lack of a presence beside him in the bed, quite alone.
“I really have made her disappear,” he said aloud in a whisper, shaking his head.
“Her who?” a voice questioned softly. Seto turned to the source, astonished. He swallowed a heavy lump in his throat as he watched Téa emerge from the shadows, closing the door to the bedroom behind her.
At least this time she was looking at him directly. This time, she wasn’t shaking or crying. She was just staring, waiting.
And if he didn’t give an explanation, Seto knew there wouldn’t be any more chances left for him.
“You,” he finally said. Her eyes widened a bit, and Seto turned away. He turned to look at his hands, still white-knuckled and clutching at the comforter. “You,” he repeated, softer this time.
“You dreamed…about me disappearing?” Téa clarified, taking another step forward. Seto didn’t look at her, but he knew if he made any sudden movements, she might bolt again. The effects of the nightmare lingered on him still, and he didn’t want to scare her into disappearing for real, making his nightmare come to life.
Instead of speaking, Seto just nodded once, nearly lowering his chin to his chest. He managed to relax his hands, but he couldn’t quite let go of the comforter. He detested the cold feeling that swept over his hands whenever he let go of the blanket, realizing that his hands were empty without holding her in them.
“And?” Téa prompted, obviously wanting more of an explanation.
“It’s outside in the gardens,” Seto finally said, his voice hoarse. “Some sort of gathering. I spot you and try to find you, but…I never can. People start turning to stone. You seem to be slipping between them, between the bushes and trees. I finally get to where you should be, but…you’re not there. You’re never there.”
Téa sucked in a sharp breath before swallowing and asking a new question. “How long has this been going on?”
His words ‘You’re never there’ could only mean one thing: the nightmare was recurring. Judging by Seto’s reaction after he’d awoken, he’d had them enough times to be truly bothered by them. That was saying something, especially considering how long Seto had withstood nightmares constructed by Yami’s Mind Crush all that time ago. But she wasn’t prepared for the answer that came from Seto’s lips a moment later.
“A few months,” he admitted. “Off and on.”
Téa swallowed. Months?
“How many is ‘a few?'” Téa asked, her voice clearly hesitant. She swallowed for a moment, willing the ringing in her ears to go away. To hell with fear…even fear of the truth.
“About seven,” Seto said in a low voice. If it hadn’t been the dead of nightwith silence enveloping the whole mansion, she might have missed his words. But she hadn’t.
“Seven?” Téa repeated, her voice coming out hoarse. Her words were louder than she intended, and part of her supposed it was only natural to sound like a bullfrog after hours of crying.
“Seven? Seven is ‘a few’ nowadays?” Téa shook her head in bewilderment. “You never told me. I never knew.” She began to pace aimlessly around in the space between the bed and the door. “They’re not your usual dreams. Are they?” There was something about the tone of her voice which wasn’t quite questioning, but not quite accusatory, either.
Seto stiffly shook his head, an admission that he’d been having nightmares stubbornly refusing to cross his lips.
“I’ve had worse,” he finally said, making a flippant gesture with his hand. “You shouldn’t be concerned.”
He glanced up long enough to see an angry expression flit across Téa’s face, and he realized those words hadn’t come out the way he wanted. He’d meant to say she shouldn’t worry herself over his nightmares, even if she now knew they were about her, and they’d been happening quite frequently since January.
“Obviously you’re concerned about something, or you wouldn’t still be having them,” Téa countered. “And if the ‘worse’ nightmares you’re talking about are the ones from Yami, they’re not natural, anyway. Those were just the result of your own brain trying to sort through what you went through and how you felt about it.”
Seto’s voice was wry as he regarded Téa, stalking around their room like some sort of caged animal. “You speak as if you know from experience.”
He’d spoken on the assumption that Téa knew about Yami, the Mind Crush, and the subsequent nightmares the way she knew about everything else: by observation. But when Téa stopped her pacing and turned to actually look at him in the eye, she said nothing, and that was telling enough.
Seto blinked in surprise, a flood of questions coming to mind. Had she really experienced it for herself? But why would she have been on the receiving end of any penalty game, let alone Yami’s?
“He doesn’t deserve you!”
“He means everything to me!”
Had it been then? Back at the Duel Dome, after Anubis was defeated once and for all, and Yami had questioned Téa’s reasons for being with him? Had he thought her answer unacceptable, and…
‘He wouldn’t have—’
And then, today: she clearly hadn’t told her friends what had happened—almost happened? hadn’t happened—in the basement, or else Seto would have been chopped up into little bits by now, making his way through Domino’s sewer system. The fierce loyalty Téa displayed rarely went unreciprocated. So if they didn’t know and therefore had no reason to be mad at him or Téa, how…?
No, the question was more like “Why?” Yugi was obviously smitten with Téa; Seto had known that long before Téa had been in his employ, when she’d become something more than a simple employee, and even now, when things seemed to escape definition. Yugi had said that he would get over her, but Seto knew from experience that it was easier said than done. It was yet another thing he didn’t expect to have in common with Yugi Moto. But it wasn’t Yugi in question here, it was that annoying, arrogant “other self” of his, the reincarnated Pharaoh with the power to change anything in an instant.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Téa asked, interrupting his train of thought. Her voice was quieter now, no longer sounding irritated. “All this time, and not once…”
“You didn’t tell me how you felt earlier. If you had, I wouldn’t have gotten the wrong impression and we wouldn’t be having this conversation now,” he countered.
“Are you blaming this on me?” Téa demanded, her eyes ablaze and her fists clenched at her sides. Now, as before, the simplest wrong utterance could mean the end of everything. So Seto stayed quiet.
After what felt like an eternal silence, Téa relaxed, letting her gaze drop to the floor. “You know, I came in here to apologize,” she said. “I don’t want to be a coward; I don’t want to be scared or doubting you, Seto.” She raised her head, her gaze now calm, a hint of sadness lingering. She let out a heavy sigh, her muscles finally relaxing to the point where she could unclench her fists. “What almost—no, what happened scared me. And I’ve been trying to work out just why that is, because I’ve been through so much, part of me felt like no one and nothing could make me feel that way anymore. I guess–I guess I just convinced myself that you weren’t that kind of a person.”
Seto raised an eyebrow and was about to ask just what sort of person she’dpigeonholed him into being, but she kept talking. “A sexual person, I mean. I figured, you’d never get to that point where you’d be desperate or wanting of something so…base.”
Téa blushed a bit before she spoke again, her voice having dropped to a near-whisper. “That’s not—I mean, it’s not a bad thing; I wasn’t lying when I said I wanted it too. It’s just…there’s a difference between being aware of that and and acting on it.”
“You figured that the logical side of me would have known better,” Seto put forth. Téa nodded, her cheeks still red, as if she were ashamed to admit it. In another time, perhaps she would have been right; once upon a time, Téa had accused him of being inhuman and unfeeling, and certainly that Seto Kaiba would have had no interest in sex whatsoever. That Seto Kaiba derived pleasure from crushing his past, from defeating his enemies—not necking in a dark basement. But that Seto Kaiba hadn’t known Téa Gardner that well, andas recent months had more than proved, she changed everything.
“I–I wanted you to change. To become predictable and safe. To be the kind of person I could always rely on…but that’s not you. It’s never been you, and…I didn’t fall in love with someone like that.” Téa stared at Seto, her gaze unwavering this time. “I’m not in love with that man.”
There was a silence as Seto tried to digest her words and figure out just what he really felt about all this in the first place. On the one hand, she was right: he had been predictable, at least a little. They’d constantly dance around the issue of taking the next step in their relationship, logical or not. One step forward, two steps back. Téa had never realized just how frustrated he was, and Seto had never wanted to tell her. He’d never wanted to reveal what she was doing to him, inside and out. But if he didn’t, then he might lose whatever he had gotten from her: what she’d willingly given him, after everything…
“I’m sorry for not giving the right message,” Téa said, breaking the silence. “But I’m not sorry for feeling the way I did, or reacting the way I did. I…” Téa trailed off and began to play with her fingers behind her back. She’d never had difficulty admitting her fears before, if only because she’d always had someone to fall back on: family, friends. But lately it had all seemed so intangible. Maybe it wasn’t so easy for her anymore.
It had never been easy for him. The sense of recognition that pooled low in his throat was acrid, bitter, unwanted. He couldn’t get away with apologies as a child, so he’d stopped making them.
“I know you’ve never really…had to do this. But I do know you’ve been afraid. And even if you can’t say it, I—part of me knows. It’s…it’s really maddening,” she said, raking a hand through her hair and disheveling it even more. “It’s like I can’t believe you understand a word I’m saying unless you say so. But I want to believe you do. But it’s hard, when you’re always covering it up, one thing afteranother—”
“I’m not covering anything up.”
“You are!” Téa yelled, looking startled after her voice echoed a moment later. She looked guiltily toward the doorway, as if Mokuba might appear there any moment now, asking what was going on. “You always are,” she said, softer now, but her voice still terse. “Can’t you just say it? Just this once, and really mean it? ‘I’m scared. I’m afraid. And I’m sick of covering it up and pretending and hurting the people I care about in the process.’ Is that really so hard?”
“I. Am. Not. Afraid,” Seto said through gritted teeth, irritation starting to win over the fear that had been burbling in him all night. It was an easy enough feeling to suppress; he’d had years of practice with countless opponents, from Gozaburo to Yugi. She’d get no satisfaction from him…
“I am not Gozaburo, Seto!” This time Téa really did yell, and she didn’t look the least bit perturbed by it. She stood perfectly still a moment, her chest heaving and her shoulders shaking before she marched forward, almost too quick for Seto to react. He blinked, and then she was there, centimeters away from him, kneeling on the bed with a vice-like grip on his shoulders. “When are you going to understand that I’m not going to hurt you?”
Though the flush was still clear on her face, any traces of tears were long gone. Téa stared at him, unblinking, her gaze pure. He met her gaze hesitatingly, inexplicably unable to look her in the eye at first. But then he did, searching for something that he couldn’t name.
“Please,” she whispered. “I’m not asking because I’ll get some sort of kick out of it. I just want to know that you can understand me.”
Anger. Sadness. Disgust. Fear. Love. These were basic human emotions. She knew full well that he could be angry, that he could be disgusted. Somewhere near love, near “happiness,” was that lust, that greedy love that had made itself known hours earlier. But could he know sadness? Could he understand fear, if he couldn’t even admit to having felt it himself?
“I was scared,” he said in the lowest possible voice, his chin to his chest and his thick bangs obscuring his face from her view. He looked up and noticed the momentary look of fear on Téa’s own face when she glanced up quickly. “I am scared.”
Téa gasped so sharply, Seto briefly wondered if she were having breathing problems. But she launched herself into him, very nearly toppling them both over into the headboard. “I’m not leaving. I’m not going anywhere. And…thank you.” She pulled back, tears of a different sort streaming down her cheeks now. “I’m not afraid anymore.”
They stayed like that, in silence, minute after minute. It was only when Seto felt one of his legs starting to fall asleep that he dared to speak.
“I won’t do anything. If you don’t even want me to touch you, I won’t. Just—stay here tonight? Please?”
Téa pulled her hands away, looking at them sidelong as if they were foreign objects attached to her body. She backed away a bit—just a bit—and lether gaze stay fixed on the rumpled comforter. She swallowed once, her face briefly contorting into a mask of pain, as if she’d swallowed something particularlyvile. After a minute, she took a deep breath and nodded once, slowly.
They shuffled about for a minute, trying to ease through the awkward tension that had been building since the afternoon. Téa seemed to move back with every centimeter Seto moved forward, something undeniably frustrating, especially after all they’d just talked about.
“Can you trust me?” Seto asked.
Téa studied him, this time, her eyes doing the searching. “I’m going to try.”
For him, for her, for now, trying would have to be good enough. For now.
It still stung, and Seto supposed that might have been why he didn’t speak until nearly twenty minutes later, long after they’d settled into the bed together. Somehow, they’d found a comfortable distance to settle into in what had been “their” bed for months now, few qualms barring the almost instinctive need to hold each other at night.
“There were other…dreams,” he said. When Téa didn’t answer, he half-wondered if he should turn over to see if she was awake, or if she was waiting for more detail. “That time—you remember?—I went into the shower in the middle ofthe night?”
“It was that kind of a dream. Admitting that I couldn’t control myself wasn’t something I wanted to do. Losing control…even less so. But in the end, it had to be one or the other. I’m sorry.”
“Apology accepted,” Téa said softly, surprising Seto with the clarity of her voice. She clearly hadn’t been sleeping and stirred awake by his words. “Try not to think so narrow-mindedly next time, though. There’s almost always a third option.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
Téa turned over on her side, her lips struggling between smiling and frowning. She was a bit surprised: Seto Kaiba was habitual about keeping secrets, in the way humans were habitual about breathing. He constantly suppressed any emotions other than anger, loathing, and disgust, and yet tonight he’d moved past all that. He’d admitted he was afraid, admitted he’d lost control over his…love, lust, whatever it was. And he felt guilty about it. Embarrassed, even.
‘I’m probably not supposed to feel happy about this, but…I am. Is that messed up, or what?’
But at least it meant things were once again on the road to normalcy, right? Not everything would be the same, and Téa knew that. In fact, she hoped for it. She didn’t want to be stuck in a perpetual rut of a relationship. Part of her was afraid of that too, in addition to everything else she’d admitted tonight. It was a tiny, flickering fear, and one she had yet to give voice to. But maybe all it would take was a good night’s rest to go away, and she could start to thing positively about the future again, instead of questioning everything and everyone.
‘I…really want this to work. I think. I’m not trying to make Seto into someone he’s not. I can’t force him to change. He can’t be anyone but himself. He can’t be…’
Téa’s own thoughts took a sudden turn as an image flitted through her mind: Yami. Seto could never be the Pharaoh, that enigmatic spirit that Téa believed she’d really been in love with for so long, since the day he’d first appeared. But it had been so long since she found out the truth about him, about the Millennium Items, about his true destiny. And she remembered Yugi and his heartbroken face and the truth they’d both admitted that day in the park….
‘Why am I doubting myself now?’
It was one thing to doubt Seto after he’d given her reason to mistrust him, after he’d practically stomped on what trust she’d spent so long building with him, thinking theirs was a mutual effort.
Could that trust ever really be regained?
“I’m going to try.”
Téa closed her eyes, adamant in her thought that she was going to try, and try her hardest.
Seto, for his part, also lay awake for several moments. Was he weak, now that he’d admitted practically everything to Téa? He’d never done that before, not with anyone. Not even Mokuba. His little brother needed a proper role model, someone, who was brave and strong and didn’t let the world abuse him into submission. But Seto didn’t want Mokuba to end up like him, to have to go through these kind of things. Seto knew that it wasn’t right, that it wasn’t normal, andhaving Téa point it out to him only emphasized that truth.
He hated weakness. But he couldn’t hate Téa or her reasons for what she’d said or done tonight. In the back of his mind, he understood everything: the whys and the hows, from her tears to her shouts. He’d never considered another person’s feelings—save Mokuba’s, perhaps—to be so important. He’d never bothered to register those suppressed thoughts in the back of his mind, the ones that explained to him just why she cried, or why she ran away: why she couldn’t just say “I will trust you,” but “I’m going to try.”
He couldn’t make her trust him. He couldn’t make her believe that he was going to be perfect all the time, honest all the time. He couldn’t even convince himself of that. There was nothing permanent to be gained by manipulating her: there was nothing she could do for him that he couldn’t do himself, and there was no point in acting like someone he wasn’t just so she’d think or act a certain way around him.
But she couldn’t trust him. Not now, not yet. She had some trust in him, even now, he knew that—otherwise, she wouldn’t be in this room, in this house, or even on the Kaiba property. But the slightest thing could shatter that trust, and Seto was still unsure of just what words or actions might provokeher.
She could easily manipulate him. Make him weak. Make him a fool.
But that was Gozaburo, talking. His spirit had been forgiven and moved on, but his words lived on within Seto, and likely would for the rest of his life.
As would Téa’s: “I’m not Gozaburo, Seto!”
Far from it. But he couldn’t quite reconcile what seemed so simple to Téa: was being in love more important than being strong?
He wanted to ask her. He wanted to find out the answer to this ongoing challenge, this eternally-perplexing puzzle of feelings. Seto hesitated as he rolled on his side, mentally considering all the possible reactions Téa might have if he touched her, even gently, just on her shoulder. She’d been terrified of his touch earlier, but less than an hour before, she’d initiated an embrace on her own. But then she’d backed off again, and now she was curled up on the edge of the bed furthest from him.
She shifted for a moment, the comforter sliding off her bare shoulder and revealing something Seto had failed to notice before: a dark patch of skin, a sharp violet contrast to the paleness of the rest of her. The bruise extended well over her shoulder bone. It was no surprise she wasn’t sleeping on that side.
He did that to her. Not the egg-headed Pharaoh. Not slimy, suspicious Bakura. Him.
Seto pulled his hand away, clenching it into a tight fist. He couldn’t touch her now. He didn’t deserve to. He couldn’t trust himself to.
Joey and Yugi were busy cleaning out the card display cases of the game cabinets at the Turtle Game Store when Yami’s voice unexpectedly broke the silence. Joey had failed to notice Yugi relinquishing control, or whatever it was that changed him into a baritone, bad-ass duelist who just happened to be the spirit of a long-dead Pharaoh.
“Téa was acting strange at the party.”
Pharaohs probably asked questions that weren’t in the form of a question, right? Joey suspected Yami wanted some sort of verbal agreement, but as he sorted through Yami’s words, he wasn’t so sure he could give one so easily.
“Er, maybe? Why, what’d you notice?”
Yami stared too intensely at a pile of card packs, almost like he had x-ray vision and was seeing through the foil wrapping. Of course, if he could, that would totally be cheating and yet would explain why he always seemed to have the perfect card on hand….
Joey shook his head free of the thoughts and continued spraying glass cleaner on the cabinets. It was much easier focusing on the areas of the cabinet that stubbornly retained their streaks than thinking about Yami appearing out of nowhere (well, not nowhere, but for no reason, really: since when did he appear when there wasn’t a duel involved?) and questioning Téa’s behavior at the pool party and photo shoot yesterday. Truth be told, Joey had a good idea of why she’d been acting a little funny. Point in fact, he had a lot of good ideas, but it wasn’t as if he was privy to Téa’s personal thoughts, so he wasn’t sure just which one was the right one. And the only person that probably was likely wouldn’t tell Joey or Yami.
“She avoided us. Seemed…distracted, upset, somehow. It’s not like her not to tell us when something is bothering her.”
‘Us, huh?’ Joey noted. Actually, it was weird for Téa not to turn to Yugi when something was bothering her; if Joey or Tristan happened to be in the vicinity, most of the time she didn’t care. But Yami was an altogether different story—always had been. Somehow, Joey doubted that would ever change. Yet here he was, acting like he was Téa’s best friend.
‘Does he even know? Téa crushed on him for so long, it had to be obvious.He might be a couple thousand years old, but he can’t be that blind.’
Didn’t he understand just why Téa didn’t come to them anymore? Why she’d intentionally sought out company with girls, because they could understand or sympathize where her admittedly crude male friends couldn’t? Joey accepted that explanation as reasonable enough and moved on with his life. Yami apparently hadn’t, and couldn’t, assuming he’d even understood anything that had happened over the past few months in the first place.
Joey scratched behind his ear uncomfortably, extremely hesitant to recount specific incidents in which Téa clearly didn’t feel right going to her guy friends to deal with her problems. Joey had long since learned that trying to push Téa when she didn’t want to be pushed only resulted in her snapping, her normally pleasant demeanor shoved aside to make way for a girl akin to one of the Furies. Like back at the Duel Dome, when she’d loudly shouted at Yami that Kaiba—thoughshe hadn’t exactly said his name—meant everything to her.
In retrospect, Joey figured she didn’t mean those words the way they sounded. She still had plenty of room in her heart for her friends. They meant a lot to her too: that would never change. Not even Kaiba could make her turn her back on her friends like that. But back then, she’d been mad–mad at Kaiba, mad at Yami. But while Yami had gone and saved the world again, Kaiba had been used as a pawn and nearly died. Yet it was Yami who’d been on the receiving end of her wrath, all because he assumed that Téa was making a mistake in who she spent the bulk of her time with.
‘Hell, it’s a little more than that,’ Joey realized. Maybe Yami really didn’t get that. Maybe Yugi’s feelings didn’t transfer over into Yami, and he had no idea what it was like to really, really love someone.
It was crazy and almost sick imagining being in love with Kaiba, and Joey had absolutely no desire to imagine himself in Téa’s shoes. But he knew what the feeling was like, all the same. He knew what it did to someone, inside and out, morning and night.
“Listen, Yug’,” he began, though he knew full well it wasn’t Yugi he was talking to. “So maybe Téa was actin’ a bit weird yesterday, but it’s her right, you know? Girls have their whole times when they don’t wanna associate with guyslike us—”
“She didn’t seem to take issue with associating with Kaiba…or Bakura.” Yami said the latter name as if he were speaking of decaying corpses and flesh-eating worms.
“Well, uh…can’t explain Bakura, really, guy’s weirder than a Magic Eight Ball, but come on, Yug’…Kaiba’s her boyfriend and all. Guy might not deserve her and all, but they’re totally into each other. Er, uh…Shackin’ up and all, you know? I’d say that entitles them both to act a bit funky around one another every now and then, wouldn’t you say?”
Joey’s was a rhetorical question, but he didn’t stop to consider that perhaps Yami didn’t have a grasp on the concept of rhetorical questions. When Joey didn’t hear any further shuffling from the area where his friend and fellow duelist stood, he looked up, gulping when he noticed the reflection of Yami’s face, contorted into something simultaneously strange and amusing. His eyebrows were drawn deep toward the center of his brow and his lips were curved in the deepest frown Joey had ever seen on his face. But wasn’t the sort of angry expression he wore when he was dueling a particularly diabolical opponent; it was the expression of someone trying his hardest to think without letting his emotions get the better of him. Clearly, when it came to controlling his anger, Yami had great difficulty, especially where Téa was concerned.
Joey thought, for the briefest of instants, that maybe Yami knew more than he let on.
“Uh, basically what I’m sayin’ is, we both know they really are into each other, so even if we’re not exactly fans of Kaiba and all, she likes him, and we’re her friend, so for her sake, we gotta at least cut the guy some slack and all, give them space and not think he’s screwin’ her ov—er, I mean, not messin’ with her head or anything, you know what I’m saying?”
Joey blushed to his roots, hoping Yami hadn’t caught his Freudian slip that once again, implied something Joey wasn’t entirely sure Yami understood—and if he did, would only serve to make him angrier: at who was the question and the problem, all at the same time.
“Wait for her to talk to us, if she feels like it, you’re saying,” Yami said slowly. “Don’t intrude.”
“Uh, yeah. Sounds about right.”
“But we are her friends, are we not? Are we meant to simply stand by and,” Yami’s mouth curved into a frown again, this time looking alternately displeased and frustrated, “and not do anything if we see she is hurt, but is perhaps unwilling to come to us?”
Joey walked over to Yami and clapped a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Hey man, Téa’s been through some rough shit. And she’s a big girl now, and can take care of herself. I don’t think she’d be stupid enough not to come to us if she needed our help.”
“She trusts us,” Yami stated, but Joey got the impression there was a hint of uncertainty in his voice. Maybe he thought that after the Anubis debacle, Téa didn’t trust him.
“Yeah, man. You of all people—” Joey cut off, realizing he’d veered right back into the conversational territory he had been working so diligently to avoid. Joey turned back to the cabinets, scrubbing at the insides of the glass cases with surprising ferocity. He tried to ignore Yami’s presence behind him,still and solid, quite possibly thrown for a loop by his words.
The blond kept scrubbing. Why was this one area so stubborn?
“Joey,” Yami repeated, his voice firmer this time. Joey failed to see the reflection of Yami’s irritated expression in the glass, so when Yami repeated his name for the third time, this time practically yelling, it startled Joey and he slammed his head on one of the cabinet door sliders.
“Ow ow ow…” Joey withdrew from the cabinet’s interior, rubbing the back of his head with his free hand. He looked at Yami with one eye, noting how his friend looked awfully impatient for an explanation.
“Look, man, the truth of it is, Téa was into you.” Joey took one look at Yami’s expression and shook his head furiously. “No, not the right words: she was completely in love with you. I knew it, Tristan knew it, Yugi knew it, eventually. Heck, Kaiba probably knew it, too. But no one ever said anything, because no matter how much of a friend you are with someone, how do you tell them that the guy she’s in love isn’t who she thinks? She trusted you more than anything, more than anyone, but you never even saw what she was offering. Let’s face it, man: you and Yug’ might share the Puzzle and a face, but that’s about it. Téa probably knew that in the back of her head, but she hated herself for it. She wanted to be in love with this version of Yugi that was never really there. You and him—peas in a pod, but not the same pea, you get what I’m saying?”
“…She loved me.”
Joey nodded, tossing his rag off to the side. “Past tense, yeah. I thought she loved the whole package, to be honest with you. But when she finally figured that you’re not just Yug’ with a ‘tude, she musta felt pretty bad about it. She wasn’t in love with her best friend, she was in love with this spirit from a puzzle. But Yug’ loved her, who he was, who she was, you know what I’m sayin’?. I know you had to have felt that. But everyone knows you’re hardcore on getting your memories back, not on being someone’s boyfriend. I think all of us figured that, and Téa respected it. Moved on, somehow.”
Yami moved from behind the counters as if to leave, but Joey once again gripped his friend on the shoulder, stopping him. “You can’t change anything now. Besides, Yug’s already tryin’ his hardest to let things be. If you fight it, it’ll only make it harder on him and Téa.”
Yami’s muscles suddenly lost their tension and he relaxed, his posture taking on a droopy look.
Joey immediately felt guilt seep into the air, and he fumbled for the right words to say now fix what he’d so royally screwed up.
“Look, I don’t know much about how it is with you and Yug’—shared body, shared mind, whatever. But I figure, if you guys…I dunno, ‘talk’ or whatever,” Joey made air quotes with his fingers, “it’ll be a lot easier on everyone. You can question why people do what they do and all…but even if they give you the answer, sometimes you think, afterward, ‘Was it really worth it to know?’ And you have to live with the consequences—your question and their answers. There’s no way of takin’ it back. You can’t run away from what’s already said and done, yanno? You just gotta keep moving forward.”
“…Keep moving forward, huh?” Yami repeated, even after Joey disappeared into the back room, leaving him alone in the fore of the Game Shop.
Wow. This took over a year. The fourth anniversary of WDKY, along with both Seto and Téa’s birthdays have passed while I’ve been working on this, off and on. For those of you that have kept up with my LJ, you probably know the various reasons why. All I know is, I’m glad to have gotten this chapter out once and for all, because it was damn hard for various reasons. I’m looking forward to working on the 26-28 arc, but I know how impossible it is for me to make promises or stick to deadlines when it comes to this fic. It is, however, what I’ve been looking forward to ever since I wrote Ch. 4 (which was ages and ages ago!), so hopefully I won’t get road-blocked or anything.
For those readers who have come this far, whether you’re new to the fic or have been with it since the first year it was up… thank you for sticking with me. Even if you had to re-read all 24 of the preceding chapters to understand anything referenced in this one, thank you! I really appreciate your time and effort– because heck knows it is an effort to read fics as long as mine, and a WIP, to boot!
Hope to hear from you!
-Azurite, November 3, 2007