What Doesn't Kill You
Chapter 26: The Nightmare Trio
A Yu-Gi-Oh Fanfiction
Site: seventh-star DOT net
Conceptualized/First Written: 6/28/05
Completed/Final Edit: 3/29/09
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!
Super-Speshul-Awesome: This chapter would not be possible without Aelibia, a.k.a. the Gnat on my Windshield. An incessant pest of my favorite kind, she kicked my writing into high gear, inspiring creativity, motivation, and so much more. Thank you, Nat. Words can't express how grateful I am to you for all your help. Let's keep working together until the end!
He was only half-aware of the footfalls and yells behind him as he tore up the stairs, sneakers squealing against the concrete. In the back of his mind, he registered the fact that he'd failed to change his shoes to the proper indoor ones: not that much of a crime, really…but he'd also neglected to tell the guys thundering behind him why he was so desperate to find Téa. It was just compounding one error on top of another, but he couldn't stop now.
By the time he reached the roof, he was out of breath, but somehow he managed to push open the heavy door with a slam that felt like it vibrated throughout the entire school. His feet began to tingle uncomfortably by the time he made it out to the clean, sunlit area of the roof. There, Téa stood alone and lunchless, staring listlessly out at the skyline.
She turned around slowly, her fingers still sticky with sweat. Unsurprisingly, the heat and humidity still lingered in the air, typical for this time of year in Domino. Téa knew it, but she'd still chosen to wear her jacket anyway. She continued to wear it even when the lunch bell rang. She wandered out to the fence-lined roof of the high school and stared out at everything and nothing all at once. She didn't want to take the chance that her still-bright bruise, in its green stages now, might be seen through her white, school-regulated blouse. If it was seen, she knew just what to expect. Questions, demands for an explanation, arguments, fights.
Téa didn't even have the energy to talk, let alone make explanations for anyone— even her own friends. So when one of those friends came thundering up the stairs of the school, shattering the silence, she felt concurrently scared and angry.
But when Téa turned to face Joey, the expression on his face reflected anything but anger: fright, tinged with something else Téa couldn't quite place. At any rate, he babbled and gestured far too fast for her to understand. Before she got the chance to ask Joey to slow down and repeat himself, an out-of-breath Tristan emerged from the roof door and interrupted.
"Dude, slow down, will you?" Tristan snapped at Joey, who had nearly smacked his approaching friend with a wide gesture. "Look at Téa, I don't even think she's hearin' a single thing you're sayin'!" He thumbed toward Téa, who was facing the small crew of boys, now including Malik and Duke as well. She still had a vaguely dazed expression on her face, though the boys clearly thought it was only because of Joey's rambling, not anything else.
Truth was, a sort of fog had settled over her mind not long after the photo shoot, and it lingered in her mind still. It had gotten particularly worse today, the first day of a week free of Seto Kaiba. Business plans took him to the United States , but he hadn't told Téa until the last minute. She wasn't sure whether to be angry about that or relieved about the space she was finally getting.
'Shouldn't I feel guilty about being relieved?'
She couldn't explain it. Maybe it was a sign. Just thinking about the possibility of that made her skin crawl in ways that her relief or lack of guilt had yet to do.
Joey took a deep breath, glanced at the circle of people surrounding him and spoke, slower this time.
"I screwed up. Big time. Last week, Yug' and I were cleanin' up the game store when Guess-Who makes himself known—"
"'Guess-Who'? Who do you mean?" Duke asked, looking perplexed.
"The 'Other' Yugi…" Malik murmured, looking first at Téa and then back at Joey. "Am I right?"
"Yeah. Yami, Other Yugi, whatever we're callin' him these days. Anyway, he just kinda…you know," Joey put the fingers of both his hands along his thumbs and moved them away in opposite directions, spreading his fingers as he went, simulating a sort of explosion with his hands. "Outta nowhere."
"No duel, no threat?" Malik inquired, sounding curious. "Does he normally do that?"
It was Téa who spoke first. "No, he doesn't. Only when Yugi relinquishes control. There was only one time when Yugi forced him out…."
Their "date," ages ago. The thought gave Téa pause, inciting a strange feeling from within her. She wasn't quite sure how to describe it.
"But there was no reason for Yug' to do that. We were just cleanin', that's it," Joey reiterated, growing frustrated. "And of all things, he brought up—" Joey stopped, looked up at Téa, who appeared astonished, and then both of them looked down glumly.
"Uh, Joey? You can't just leave us hanging like that! What'd he say? Or at least tell us why you're freakin' out," Tristan said, clapping a hand on Joey's shoulder.
"You," Joey said, looking up at Téa again, though her gaze didn't meet his. "He thought you were actin' weird at the pool party and wanted to know why you didn't talk to any of us. I— I said stuff. Must have got him thinking. Then today, just before class, I noticed Yug'— or Pharaoh, probably— starin' at his cards."
Before anyone could say anything, Joey produced the aforementioned cards from a pants pocket. He fanned the cards out, face-up, jutting his chin out at those who were not yet close enough to see the cards. Everyone stared down at the cards with a measure of curiosity and confusion before Tristan glanced up, looking befuddled.
"I don't get it. What's so weird about the cards— and why exactly do you have Yugi's deck?"
"That's just it, man. What's wrong with this picture?"
"Yugi'd never go anywhere without his deck," Téa breathed, beginning to understand. "And…"
"The God Cards. They're gone," Malik finished. He pivoted suddenly and started rushing toward the door.
"Hey, Malik, what gives?" Duke asked. "Something we're not getting here?" He thumbed toward Tristan, who looked just as confused as he did. "Did someone steal the God Cards and kidnap Yugi?"
Malik let out a sharp laugh, startling both Tristan and Duke. "If only it were that simple."
"So what then?"
"Yugi took the God Cards and went to the museum…right?" Téa said before turning to face Joey. He nodded.
"He's going to end this," Malik muttered. "As in, find out the truth, once and for all. Only those depicted or mentioned on the tablets have any control over the God Cards, and…." Malik shrugged. "He's the main character. It's his story, and he's writing the end to it."
No one said a word, but all eyes present widened. Finally, Tristan and Duke understood.
"We gotta get going, then," Tristan said. "When did he leave, Joey?"
"That's the thing," Joey said, shaking his head. "I cut out to get lunch the minute the bell rang. You guys know me. By the time I was getting back to the class, I saw Yug' takin' off with his bag in hand. I figured he was just takin' his lunch to the voc ed room to eat there. But I wanted to talk to him, see how he was, but then Kinomoto stopped me in the hall. By the time I was done and got to the voc ed room, Yug' wasn't there— or anywhere on campus."
"We can either waste time asking people on campus if they've seen him anywhere else…" Duke started.
"…Or we can get our butts to the museum before Yugi does something potentially stupid," Téa finished. "No ending the story without consulting the supporting cast. Come on!"
Without another word, she took off for the stairs and flew halfway down to the second floor by the time the bell rang. Joey, Malik, Tristan, and Duke followed in short order, much to the surprise of Miho and Serenity. The girls had been talking to each other just across the hall from the door to the roof when everyone came charging down.
"Hey, where are you guys going?"
"Can't talk, gotta save Yug'!" Joey yelled, before casting a quick half-wave at his sister and darting out after Téa. Tristan and Duke slowed down long enough to try to explain things, but when both caught sight of a teacher trying to usher students in the hall into their respective classes, they had to cut their explanations short.
"Gotta go, ladies!" Duke blew an air kiss to Serenity, much to Tristan's chagrin, before both boys headed out after the rest of their friends.
By the time everyone caught up and congregated about a block from campus, all were out of breath and red-faced.
"So what now? Joey saw Yugi before the bell, and then again, as he was heading out after Joey got lunch. That could have been what, fifteen minutes? Yugi's no sprinter, and the museum's clear across town from here," Duke pointed out.
"But lunch is forty-five minutes long. Yugi has a thirty minute head start, and no one said he had to walk all the way there," Tristan said.
"He's right," Malik added. "There's a special bus that stops right in front of the museum to cater to the tourists," he explained. "But it only runs from eight-thirty in the morning to four o'clock in the afternoon—even if Yugi would have left right after school and gotten to the stop on that line nearest here, he still wouldn't have made it on time."
"So he left early," Joey finished. "Without bothering to say goodbye."
Everyone fell silent, exchanging weighted looks.
"So what do we do? Something tells me talking to Yugi is something better done with numbers on our side, but none of us have a way of getting everyone there all at once; that bus line you're talking about only runs, like, once an hour in the afternoon, right?" Tristan turned to Malik. "So even if we took off at a dead-run—which, I'll be honest with you, I don't exactly think I'm up to at the moment—we'd never make it to the bus stop on time to catch the one for this hour."
"And even though we cut out of class early, none of us have a way of getting everyone there all at once," Duke added.
"No, that's not completely true," Téa said in a whisper. She brought out her cell phone and pressed a number on speed dial.
"Hi, it's me. Can you get me a limousine for pick-up one block east of Domino High? Yeah, thanks."
The boys all stared at Téa in open-mouthed shock as she pocketed her phone. "What? It's a perk."
Only Joey appeared embarrassed, face reddened, but neither he nor the other boys said a word until the Kaiba Corp. limousine arrived.
"You're even talkin' like him. What happened to the girl who was always polite, 'please' and 'thank you,' and all that jazz?" Joey asked, shaking his head.
Téa smothered the first laugh in what felt like a long while. "I did say thank you, you know."
"Eh, still…" Joey shuddered over-dramatically and then turned to stare out the tinted window, remaining wordless for the remainder of the brief ride.
"Renowned scientist Dr. Arthur Hawkins has uncovered evidence of a long-lost civilization in the North Atlantic Ocean over two hundred kilometers southeast of Greenland. In a press conference in New York yesterday, Hawkins said he has reason to believe the ruins he discovered sunk in the ocean date back over ten thousand years, making it the oldest known civilization to date, predating even the Egyptians in Northern Africa…"
Rex Raptor didn't really pay close attention to the newscast as it continued on the television set in the electronics shop he passed. He tilted his head toward the ground, his eyes glued to the laces on his shoes, flip-flopping left and right, lifelessly, meaninglessly. It hit too close to home for comfort, but Rex wasn't the type to admit it.
He was still angry with himself, not even looking where he walked, when he slammed right into someone.
"Hey, why don't you watch where you're going?" he snapped out of frustration, his gaze lifting just in time. His scowl quite suddenly deepened as the other person, who'd also been looking down.
"You! What are you still doing here?" Weevil Underwood demanded, pointing an accusing finger at Rex. "The Battle City tournament's been over, and everyone knows there won't be any more tournaments at the Kaiba Dome since it got decimated earlier this summer!"
"I know that!" Rex snapped. "What are you doing here?"
"Wh-wh—I'm here for the Egyptian exhibit at the museum, of course! I didn't get the chance to see it when it was originally here," Underwood retorted, pushing his glasses up his nose. "History fascinates me almost as much as bugs do: an ancient Egyptian connection to modern day Duel Monsters. But you haven't answered my question yet!"
"I don't have to answer to you!" Rex said, growing angry. "And by the way, Underwood," he said with a smirk, "The museum is the other way."
Weevil possessed just enough grace to blush, a horrid contrast to his green outfit. He pivoted on his foot and started to walk in the direction he'd come from— toward the museum that apparently held so much importance to him. Rex snorted and started striding down the street himself, his chin now jutted high as he walked faster and faster to keep pace with Weevil.
"You're really going to the museum because of the connection to the God Cards, right? You can't fool me, bug-boy."
"Speak for yourself, dino-brain! A second-rate duelist like you would have no chance of getting his hands on the God Cards!"
"And you would—" Rex turned, prepared to let loose a strong of further insults, when both boys collided into a tall, black-robed figure who looked none-too-pleased at them. The pair ended up with their butts on the ground, each cursing and scowling before they even realized the man they'd bumped into had yet to move or even say anything; he merely stared at them with a terrifying smile on his face.
"Rex Raptor. Weevil Underwood," the man stated, his face nearly concealed by his dark hood and a single eye covered by a tinted monocle. When he raised his head slightly, the boys could make out glinting teeth from behind a neatly trimmed beard.
"Get up," the man said. The boys obliged, their eyes still fixed on the man, right up until the point when he raised his arm and the boys closed their eyes in fear, expecting to be struck. Both pairs of eyes opened in astonishment when the strange green device on the man's arm extended outward into a very familiar shape, that of a Duel Disk.
"It's time to duel."
Yami stared up at the stone columns of the Domino Museum, imagining for a minute that they stretched on into the heavens, holding up the very sky. Briefly, weatherworn limestone appeared superimposed over the speckled white stone, a fragment of a memory from centuries gone by. There was no need to shake his head to rid him of the memory; it vanished on its own, flying away from him like a dream on wings.
He felt a push, or maybe a pull—not a real one, but something in his mind, urging him forward. This was it, then. This was the time, this was the place…. There was no going back. No looking back.
One foot stepped on the first of many steps up to the museum doors, but before its partner could join it on the second step, a cacophony of voices sounded out.
Though the pull continued to tug him, urging him onward, he fought it momentarily and turned to look toward whomever was calling him. Emerging from a black limousine only a few meters away were Téa, Joey, Tristan, Duke, and Malik. Téa spoke before Yugi got the chance to, the question of how they'd known where he'd be and how they'd somehow managed to catch up so quickly lingering on the tip of his tongue.
"Just what do you think you're doing?" The tone of Téa's voice was harsh and accusing; almost unfamiliar, barring that time back at the Duel Dome…. But he didn't care to remember that. He was here to find out new memories, his real memories.
Téa's expression softened as she placed two hands on Yami's shoulders. "No ending the story without consulting the supporting cast, hm?"
Yami blinked in mute astonishment; he hadn't even told them what he was doing. That had been part of the point— he wasn't even sure himself, but if there was a sliver of a chance, it would be just too hard to say goodbye.
"It could be dangerous," Yami finally said, shrugging off Téa's warm hands. She didn't attempt to touch him again, but she looked at him, the hurt quite clear in her eyes.
"Since when has that ever stopped us before, Yug,'?" Joey said, thumbing his nose and grinning.
"Yeah, you make it sound like we're strangers to this sort of thing," Tristan added. "We're kind of veterans by now, aren't we?"
"Not only that— aren't we a team?" Duke added, glancing at the others.
Malik nodded firmly in agreement. "Indeed. Pharaoh, if there is a danger, I should be there to ensure your safety." No one said anything about the irony of Malik's statement, given that less than a year ago, he'd been trying to kill them all and demonstrated anything but the sort of person they'd want "ensuring" Yami's safety.
"Let's go, guys," Téa said, her voice strong again. 'Danger or no… they're right. We are a team, right? And Yugi's the leader, and we…we all matter to him, don't we?
Yami continued up the stairs, his stride more confident now that he had his friends flanking him. He didn't look back to notice Téa still lingering on the sidewalk below.
Téa shook her head furiously, trying to rid herself of those thoughts. 'Who am I kidding? Of course I matter! This is no time to be a scaredy-cat!' But since Kaiba had left, Téa found herself doubting a lot of things. Her relationship, her home…her friends.
'Friends are there for one another, and my friends are going to leave without me if I don't stop being such a slowpoke!'
Téa dashed up the steps two at a time without a second thought, quickly catching up to the others. It wasn't long before they were all in the museum, staring at the very tablet that Téa hadn't seen since before Valentine's Day, and which the others, besides Yugi and Malik himself, had never seen at all.
"I may be stating the obvious, but that looks just like Yugi!" Joey said, pointing at the figure on the right-hand side of the tablet.
Malik nodded and turned to Yami. "Would you rather explain it to them, or shall I?"
Yami shifted his weight from one foot to the other, looking slightly uncomfortable. "That's because that Pharaoh…is me," he began in a low voice, his gaze darting just beyond his ring of companions to the other museumgoers.
"Say what?" Tristan asked, looking flabbergasted. He peered closer at the brass plate to the left of the tablet. "Uh, but this thingy says the tablet is over 3000 years old!"
Yami said nothing in response. His gaze dropped to the three God cards in his hand. He felt a thrum of something that told him this was it; at last, this was the first step toward recovering his memories as that Pharaoh carved into millennia-old rock.
'When I show these cards to the stone, the door to my memory will be unlocked. But…what will happen?' Like any good duelist, he'd gone over the possible scenarios. He'd thought, plotted, and strategized. But he hadn't asked Malik, who probably knew, hadn't asked his friends, who would probably worry….
What he feared to admit was the persistence of his own worry. This wasn't a duel or a game: this was it, the moment of truth, no going back, no second-guessing.
Yami lifted his hand holding the three God cards in it, splayed out, their faces to the ancient tablet. All at once, a bright light flashed— a golden-white color that flickered or pulsed as if alive.
"Do you see what I see?" Joey asked, wincing as he tried to focus on the source of the light: the cards or the tablet, right in the dead center. Which was it?
Téa and the others did see: it was not the cards themselves glowing the brightest, but the Eye of Horus in the center of the Millennium Puzzle-like carving on the tablet's center. But all of a sudden, that light began to fade, and with it whatever light had been reflecting off the God cards. Suddenly, an ice-like substance began to creep up the tablet from within its glass confines, obscuring the details of the Pharaoh and his great battle from view.
Bolts of pain shot through Yami's arm holding up the cards, making his limb feel leaden. "What the—?"
"Yugi, what's happening?"
"Something is draining the energy of the God cards!" Malik gasped, his eyes still fixed on the now-frozen tablet. "But where is it going?"
"Where is what going? Malik, we have to help him!" Téa shouted, trying to steady Yami even as he stumbled with the pain, his fingers contorting in ways unnatural.
"Drop the cards, man!" Duke said, holding up Yami's other arm. "Just let them go!"
"I…can't…" Yami gritted out, his fingers pressing deeper into the cards. Cards though they were, the paper didn't bend or wrinkle in the slightest. It seemed as if they, too, had a shield of something icy-hard and impenetrable covering them. All the while, some dark force leeched the awesome energy away from the three God cards.
Yami let out a guttural scream that startled everyone in the museum. He bit his lip and forced himself to stay silent after that, even as he fell to his knees, clearly in excruciating pain.
Téa stood at his side, shell-shocked and unable to move. 'Is this…how it's supposed to go? This can't be how the story ends! I have to be able to do something— ' Téa reached out, hoping that she could do something— anything— but before her hand could even make contact with Yami, he turned at her, his eyes ablaze.
"Don't!" He groaned and let his head loll for a moment, before raising his head and glaring at Téa fiercely once more. "Don't touch me."
Téa's hand froze where it was, her eyes wide and unblinking. "I—" But she couldn't say any more; another loud scream from Yami interrupted her, whose body was beginning to buckle a second time, threatening to send him toppling to the floor completely.
"Break his fingers if you have to!" Malik snapped. "Whatever's draining him won't stop until he's dead!"
Téa frowned at Yami and then yanked his hand fiercely, pulling his fingers back with as much force as she could muster, while Duke and Joey attempted to support Yami from the other side. A series of sharp cracks split the air and Yami emitted another scream, but Téa didn't stop until the cards began to slip away from his palm.
The stiff and cold God cards slipped from Yami's hand, skittering to the floor like the flecks of paper they were. The black lightning energy formerly leeching away at Yami and his cards flickered and stopped altogether, leaving a crumpled Yami on the floor. He sat weakly, supported on one side by Duke and Joey and on the other by Téa, who let his hand—fingers unbroken—go before she took a step back, feeling oddly numb from head to toe.
Malik looked ready to say something, but before he could speak, another scream shot out, this time from outside the museum.
"Something has happened," Yami whispered. "We must go."
"Yug' are you—" Joey began, but Yami cut him off.
"We MUST go!" With that, he shook Duke and Joey's grips on his other arm off and he stood, albeit a bit unsteadily. A moment later, he seemed to have regained his composure and he dashed out to the entryway of the museum, the boys following in short order.
Téa turned to Malik, who stared at the God cards lying on the floor. He produced a cloth from his pocket and gingerly used it to pick up the cards, his touch so hesitant that Téa briefly thought he was afraid of the very God cards he'd once wielded.
"He's right— something has happened. We should go."
Téa gave a slow nod in response and jogged after Malik, but not before casting one last unsure glance at the still-frozen tablet.
'What's happening now?'
"No. Effin. Way," Joey said slowly, his hazel eyes wide and unblinking. A horned Cursed Dragon sailed past him, a pointed wing very nearly slicing off the tip of his nose. It arced upward into the sky, and a moment later, Joey shivered terribly, as if he'd jumped into ice water in his birthday suit.
"I'm not seeing things, am I?" Tristan asked, his eyes fixed on a Reaper of the Cards that was using a scythe to hack its way up a building.
"No, no you're definitely not. Not unless I am, too," Duke muttered, shaking his head and blinking rapidly. He didn't want to think he'd just seen an Orgoth the Destroyer go thundering into the nearby mall. But he was pretty sure he had, and he was pretty sure the screaming population of Domino City was seeing it—and other monsters—too.
"What is this, a prank with someone's Duel Disk?" Joey muttered.
"It can't be," Malik murmured.
Téa glanced at him—him, from the family of future foretelling Tombkeepers, looking as though he were in absolute shock. "There are too many of them to be coming from just one broken Duel Disk," she pointed out. "Besides, I've never heard of a malfunction like this before…" A supposed 'benefit' of being Kaiba's girlfriend meant she heard about the latest product developments and tests before the public did. She swore to keep such things mum from her friends, if only because Kaiba's business depended on it, but considering they currently thought his Duel Disks were behind this sudden insanity…well, it couldn't be true, could it?
'Seto doesn't exactly tell me everything, though,' Téa realized with a slight grimace. He hadn't told her about his past (she'd found out on her own and nearly gotten killed as a result), he hadn't told her about his simulated battle with Yami (which had, again, nearly resulted in her death, but that was more the fault of Anubis than Seto), and he hadn't told her about his business trip to the States until right before he was about to leave.
Téa couldn't quite chase the thought that he didn't trust her, that even when he said he loved her, he still considered her part of the "geek squad." He was more than just an 'honorary member' at this point, too, after acknowledging that he was friends with everyone (in his own way), so why…?
"Well maybe it ain't just one busted Duel Disk, but a whole computer mainframe or somethin', you know what I'm sayin'?" Joey said.
"He's right," Duke added. "Someone could have hacked into Kaiba Corp.'s computers and caused this."
"In any event, we'll have to head to Kaiba Corp. to see if there's any connection," Tristan said.
"Yes, let's!" Yami said. Téa was about to motion the gang to head back toward the limousine that had taken them there, but before she could even do that, a giant purple clawed foot smashed its way into the asphalt not a meter away from her. A car squealed to a sudden stop, and the driver, a salaryman with thinning hair, took one look at the Twin-Headed King Rex and bolted from his vehicle, screaming soprano while he ran in the opposite direction. Tens of cars followed, crashing into newspaper stands, careening into sidewalks, braking suddenly when monsters suddenly appeared in their path.
"Uh, maybe it'd be faster if we ran?" Tristan asked, his eyes darting to the monsters that seemed to have tripled in numbers in only a minute.
Everyone nodded and took off in the direction of Kaiba Corporation, Téa hesitantly jogging in the rear.
This didn't feel right at all.
They'd hardly gotten halfway there when suddenly the boys in front of her stopped. Téa slowed down, surprised to see a mop of light hair blocking the pathway.
"Weevil…? And Rex?"
"What are you two doing here?" Joey asked in surprise. He knew the two former regional duelists weren't natives to Domino City, and nothing short of a duelist tournament would usually bring them out. But Weevil and Rex didn't answer; instead they stared blankly in opposite directions, their eyes drawn to the myriad monsters floating, wiggling, stomping, and slithering their way around the city streets.
"Hey— hello? Anyone in there?" Joey waved his hand in front of their eyes, but the younger boys' only response was to laugh.
"Hee hee hee…it's begun! This is the sign! The sign of destruction!" Weevil chuckled, his eyes heavy-lidded.
"Heh heh, this world…it will all end soon!" Rex added, his mouth gaping even after he'd spoken.
"What are you talking about?" Malik asked sharply, but the only response Weevil and Rex gave was more high-pitched laughter.
Joey scowled. "I've had it with these two; they're no help. Come on, let's go." He motioned everyone to follow him around Weevil and Rex, and let the spaced-out duelists continue staring at the sky until some dragon swooped down and ate them whole.
'Good riddance is what that'd be!' he thought.
Minutes later, they reached the front steps of Kaiba Corporation headquarters in downtown Domino City, only to see a number of employees in dark suits and sunglasses pushing a huge group of reporters out.
"Our systems are operating as normal. Whoever said that these events are caused by any malfunction in Kaiba Corporation's Solid Vision 3D technology was misinformed! Because Mr. Kaiba is out of the country on business, you will have to wait until he holds a press conference for any official comment. Now please leave!" A harried looking Roland pocketed a handkerchief he used to wipe his sweaty brow, doing his best to look intimidating.
The reporters began to disperse, and right as they did, just enough space appeared for Roland to spot Téa standing amongst her friends. He took off his shades and briefly wiped the lenses, fixing Téa with an apologetic look before he smoothly put the glasses back on. She knew that look; she knew Roland well enough. Things at the company were stressful enough; they didn't need "Kaiba's girlfriend" wandering around with her famous friends, asking questions that were no better than what the reporters were accusing the company of.
"There's no way we're gettin' through that mess!" Joey exclaimed on sight of the reporters, many of them still thronging the entrance, shouting accusations at Roland, such as Kaiba's likely location within in the building, probably hiding at that, and how no one would believe anything Kaiba Corporation representatives said or did if they didn't issue an official statement to the press soon.
Téa inwardly winced and wondered if Seto, far away in the United States, was all right. She wondered if he even knew what was going on.
'I wonder if he cares at all.'
Hours later, the gang found themselves sitting around the television at Yugi's house, a room away from the Turtle Game Shop. Though the store was officially closed, Grandpa Moto was in the other room "maintaining" the three God Cards. Whatever icy-hard shell had formed around them earlier was gone, leaving the cards in pristine condition. Grandpa had been in the Game Shop for some time now, pretending to "clean" the God Cards with special gloves and protective casings whenever they walked through the shop to get to the kitchen catty-corner to the store's rear entrance. Every time, they spotted Yugi's Grandpa staring dreamily at the cards like some ancient lost treasure.
"Let him be," Yugi told them. "I never did make it up to him after I lost Exodia. The least I can do is let him look at the God cards for a while."
Joey had tried to protest, saying Yugi should never ever ever leave the God Cards alone. Or any other part of his deck, for that matter, reminding Yugi of how he'd just left his other rare and powerful cards at school earlier that same day and that losing Exodia wasn't his fault at all, it had been Weevil's, and, well, Weevil was a space cadet off in La-La Land now.
Every channel on the television featured some sort of special report; it seemed that the appearance of Duel Monsters was a worldwide event, what with Nightmare Penguins showing up on the African savannah, Funny Bunnies making themselves known in China, and Red Mermaids suddenly appearing off Australian shores.
"And now, we'll go live to Mr. Kaiba, chairman and President of Kaiba Corporation, who will make a statement about these recent terrifying events."
The screen changed to Kaiba, who looked as immaculate as he always did— at least in public. He sported that odd purple trench coat Téa thought she'd sneaked out of his closet and into a box meant for charity, but apparently he'd found it and taken it with him to America. Oddly enough, the background didn't look like the KC United States headquarters Téa had seen in pictures, but maybe they'd recently renovated or something. Another thing Kaiba never bothered to tell her.
"Our company has nothing to do with the recent 'Duel Monster' sightings around the world. As soon as they were reported to Kaiba Corporation, a system shutdown was authorized and a thorough diagnostic test of our systems was run. However, during this period, these 'monsters' were still appearing, and in greater numbers, all around the world, and, might I add, in places where Kaiba Corporation has no presence." Kaiba grimaced as he said this, as if disgusted by the fact that countries existed out there without even a single shop carrying a Kaiba Corporation product.
"Logically, one can no longer argue that Kaiba Corporation has anything to do with this event. Kaiba Corporation will give its utmost cooperation to the people as we attempt to solve the circumstances behind these sightings, as it is quite apparent that something outside of the Kaiba Corporation systems and products is behind these creatures' appearances."
"So wait a sec, Kaiba's saying his company has nothing to do with it? No way. Who else has the technology to produce holograms that huge?" Tristan asked.
"What if they're not holograms, after all?" Téa mused. "Maybe it could have something to do with the stone slab?" She glanced at Malik, and then at Yami, who nodded sharply before facing her. Téa felt an odd shiver race up and down her spine, but she somehow managed to suppress it, keeping her back ramrod straight so no one could tell how much all this was affecting her.
"I was thinking that, too," Yami spoke. "The moment when all this happened, some force blocked the pathway to my memories. Right after that, the monsters appeared. And then, what Weevil and Rex said…"
"What, that 'this world will end soon' and all that garbage? Aw, come on, Yug' don't tell me you're puttin' any stock into what those creeps say!" Joey exclaimed.
"There was something wrong with them, though," Duke said. "And I'm not talking your usual kind of 'wrong,' I mean something 'different-in-a-bad-way' wrong."
"Just what is the 'sign of destruction,' anyway?" Yami wondered aloud. But before anyone could brainstorm as to what Weevil and Rex had been talking about, the shatter of breaking glass and a hoarse cry emanated from the other room.
Everyone gasped, and without a moment's hesitation, dashed into the hallway connecting the living area to the Game Store. But by the time they got there, it was already too late: Grandpa Moto already lay collapsed on the floor, the primary glass cabinet shattered, cards and display boxes scattered everywhere.
"Grandpa!" Without anyone having realized just when, Yami had phased back into Yugi, who slowly helped his grandfather to rise.
"He's not hurt," Malik said after giving the older gentleman a cursory glance. "But we'd better get this glass cleaned up before someone does."
"Hey, what happened, Gramps?" Joey asked.
"Grandpa? What's wrong?" Yugi asked, his eyes widening ever so slightly.
"You can't mean…!" Yugi gasped.
"They were stolen?" Joey yelled, immediately rising to his feet and glancing toward the store's entrance, where the door swung listlessly in the wind. "No way I'm gonna let anyone get away with this!" He immediately dashed out the door, but barely made it more than two meters outside the entrance when he saw something that stopped him in his tracks.
Obelisk the Tormentor.
Not just some projection. Joey had seen enough duels to know what the projected form of Obelisk the Tormentor looked like. It was still huge and scary, but something told him that this was much more than a complex mess of protons and electrons or whatever.
A moment later, Yugi and the others joined Joey on the sidewalk, where they gasped as The Winged Dragon of Ra and Slifer the Sky Dragon joined Obelisk in short order, filling the sky with their awesome presence.
'Only those with a connection to the Gods can summon them,' Yugi remembered. It may have been more than a year ago, but he knew full well what happened when someone lacking that connection tried to summon the Gods.
They died. Or at least got mentally scarred, as was the case with Mai in her duel with Dark Malik.
Suddenly, a bright light shone in everyone's eyes, drawing their attention away from the gods in the sky. But it wasn't just one bright light, it was three— three motorcycle lights turned on full-blast, their riders obscured by helmets and shadow.
"When the forbidden door is opened…" the first man on the right started, crossing an arm over his chest.
"The light of the Orichalcos shall purify this world!" the second man continued, making the same motion with his arm.
"We are Doma's three swordsmen!" the last one said in an unfamiliar accent, repeating the gesture his companions made.
"Three swordsmen? What are you, a buncha medieval throwbacks?" Joey taunted.
"Did you steal the God Cards?" Yugi demanded, getting straight to the point.
"Exactly," the middle one said, a sneer coming through his tone of voice. He flicked his hand into a pocket, producing a card. He flipped it over to reveal The Winged Dragon of Ra, bright yellow and apparently gleaming in the bright light. His companions repeated the gesture, the one on a yellow motorcycle flipping the card in his hand over to reveal Slifer the Sky Dragon, and the one on the red motorcycle holding up Obelisk the Tormentor.
Yugi drew back with a gasp, utterly astonished. 'They know…about Yami? About the other me?' No one else did— not outside their circle of friends, except by extension: Pegasus, Shaadii, Isis, Odion, and a scant few others knew, but that truly was all.
"We're issuing you a challenge," the man continued, revealing an ornate Duel Disk strapped to his wrist, a deck of cards already in place. "If you want them back, come to the unfinished building." With that, the man revved up his motorcycle and took off in the opposite direction, heading for a building in the distance. There was a crane placed at the top, ready to lay down more steel girders. The two other men followed, leaving Yugi and the others looking stunned in their wake.
Seconds later, Joey bolted after them, and one by one, the others followed, running faster than they ever had in their entire lives.
'Why am I doing this?' Téa thought, even as her legs began to burn with the over-taxation of her muscles. It was a painful reminder that she was out of practice. 'I don't get why I'm asking myself that, but, well, here I am! Whatever the weird feelings I've been having are…they're not as simple as "friendship," anymore, are they?'
Part of her already knew the answer to that. That was the way of things; most questions any person asked themselves they already knew the answer to. The same held true for her. It wasn't just now that she'd begun questioning herself, and it wasn't just a matter of 'Why?' It was also a matter of admitting that, deep in her heart, she'd known the answers all along.
'Am…I still in love with the Pharaoh? Has part of me refused to give up on him? No, that's not it. And it's not that I started to project those old feelings for him onto Seto, either. If I still felt anything for the Pharaoh, I would have taken the chance when it presented itself. Forced myself to learn to love Yugi, too…'
But that was even crueler than injuring an old man to steal his grandson's famed God cards.
She would have been using Yugi, and that thought would have never sat well with Téa.
'But using Seto is okay?'
At first, that's all their relationship had been: a means to an end. He hadn't been on her radar, not even in the slightest. He was just the same egomaniac with a grudge he'd always been… just, after her parents' death, he'd strangely been nice to her, given her a place to call home again. She'd been so desperate for the feeling of 'family' that she'd lost that it was easy to start feeling things for Seto Kaiba.
But then those feelings had become real. And then, reciprocated.
"God Téa, I'm so in love with you…"
It had felt like a dam breaking when he'd said those words, a rush of welcome relief. She hadn't felt that when Yugi'd admitted his feelings for her, but she'd imagined that was what it would feel like if the Pharaoh ever did.
But those feelings were from long ago, and in the here and now, she was in love with Seto Kaiba, no matter how much of a jerk he could be at times…right?
'It happens to all of us,' Téa thought grimly. After all, the whole reason why this had started was because Yugi had taken off on his own without telling any of the friends he supposedly cared for and trusted so much. It wasn't just the Pharaoh taking over Yugi again; she knew this was something between the two of them, and she wasn't sure who she was more mad at: Yugi for shunting her to the wayside for whatever 'noble' reason, or the Pharaoh, for trying to leave without saying goodbye.
It wasn't a matter of holding the Pharaoh back from his true destiny anymore; she knew that. She'd known since Battle City, and that realization was what had eased her feelings away from the Pharaoh in the first place.
'If I'd just kept on thinking, "there'll be a way for us to be together," then I'd be way worse off than I am now.'
If she'd kept on having faith that there was a way for the Pharaoh to be a permanent fixture in her life, the tiniest thing would have broken her heart. Like today, with his trying to leave without a word to her or any of the others….
'He'd probably say "it'd be too difficult to say goodbye to you" or something like that.'
She knew it would be difficult too, which was why she kept running forward.
'He might be ready to say goodbye, but I'm not. Not by a long shot!' Not with monsters crawling in the sky, her relationship with Seto hanging by a precarious thread, and the full truth of the Pharaoh's identity and past still a secret. 'Not now. Not like this.'
"They're splitting up!" Téa hollered as she noticed the taillights of the three motorcyclists abruptly changing. The tall, bulky man with Ra in his coat pocket kept powering forward, while the cyclist on a yellow bike veered to the right and the cyclist on a red machine sped off to the left.
Yugi didn't say a word as he kept running in the same direction he'd been charging in for the past several minutes— after the gruff-voiced duelist with Ra.
"I'll take the guy with Obelisk, you guys—"
"Got it! Let's hope they all meet in the middle!" Joey cast an extremely brief wave at Téa before he and the other boys, minus Yugi, tore after the motorcyclist with Slifer. Téa veered to the left after the cyclist with Obelisk, well aware that the road would eventually lead to one of Domino's busiest thoroughfares. Was it possible the motorcyclists intended to split up to shake the teens off their tail and get away with their theft of the God Cards? Maybe they didn't intend to go to some empty construction site after all!
'I won't give up so easily!'
None of them would. Or maybe it was more like none of them could. They'd been in too deep ever since they went to Duelist Kingdom those years ago. And even though they were "just" teenagers trying to graduate high school, there was no way to just stop running and turn back.
At this point, there was nowhere to turn back to.
He was on his way to the Turtle Game Store when he saw her, tearing down the opposite side of the street like the hounds of Hell were after her.
He was exhausted from all that had been happening: near-constant phone calls, a press conference on his jumbo jet, and worry over whether or not Mokuba and Téa were caught outside in the mayhem or doing the smart thing and staying indoors. He wished he could say with some affirmation that he knew exactly where they were…but he didn't. Téa hadn't answered her cell phone when he'd called, and the phone had simply kept ringing when he'd tried the mansion and the Turtle Game Store. He was heading to the shop now, hoping to find everyone congregated in one place…and that was when he'd spotted her.
"Téa…?" A cursory glance into the bright oncoming traffic revealed no one was chasing Téa, but she certainly seemed to be running somewhere with purpose. "Follow her," Kaiba told his driver as he gestured to Téa, by now half a block ahead of where she'd been last.
"Just do it!" Kaiba demanded. The driver hesitantly pulled back into the center lane of traffic with the intention of driving alongside the divider to keep Téa in his sights. She was running against the proper side of pedestrian traffic, but few people seemed to be out at this time of night, which would have struck Kaiba as unusual were it not for all the bizarre reports of Duel Monsters coming alive around the world.
The thought caused Kaiba to look backward and upward, but there were no Duel Monsters chasing Téa from behind or from the sky. In fact, to Seto Kaiba, the night appeared as any other—up until the God Cards quite abruptly appeared in the sky some distance ahead. The moment he tore his eyes away from the Gods in the sky back to where Téa was supposed to be, she was gone, but there was a figure running down the alleyway just ahead of where Téa was last.
"After her!" Kaiba motioned to his driver to turn off, and within moments they were caught in a maze of warehouses and detoured streets.
"I can't get any further, sir; the streets are too narrow. There's a construction site up ahead as well."
Well, that explained why Obelisk the Tormentor had suddenly appeared, towering over a crane.
"Fine. Stay here unless I call and tell you otherwise." Kaiba bolted from the limousine and slammed the door shut. He headed into the maze of narrow side streets to find Téa, and to see if the Gods he had seen in the sky were actually real.
Téa nearly tripped over an abandoned motorcycle—faintly red in the moonlight and still warm—before she realized she'd arrived. Looming before her was a massive construction site, the skeleton of a building just ahead, a crane perched at its apex. She could see the shadows of the boys emerging from an entrance up ahead where two other motorcycles sat, riderless. They reunited in the center, a wide area surrounded by crates, steel girders, and massive piles of lumber all around.
"They've gotta…be in…here somewhere…." Joey panted out, hands on his knees as he caught his breath.
"No kidding. These have gotta be their bikes," Duke managed between gulps of air. No one among them was not winded, though some seemed much less worse for the wear than others, Malik, Téa, and Yugi among them.
"I've been expecting you, Yugi Moto," a voice boomed suddenly, echoing strangely off the crates and the girders. "No, I should call you…Pharaoh, shouldn't I?"
"Hey! You're one of them, aren't you?" Joey accused, thrusting his finger up into the semi-darkness. The figure above them shook as if laughing, but they couldn't hear anything. A moment later, the person—a bearded man with a strange monocle over his left eye—was right before them. He'd jumped an impossible distance from the top of the crane and landed on his feet without a single scratch. He came down upon a platform made of lumber, the sort stacked in such a way that it looked stable and yet fragile, like it all might come toppling down at any moment.
"My name is Gurimo, and I serve Lord Raphael, one of the Three Swordsmen of Doma. I challenge you to a duel!"
"Fine," Yami bit out, hauling himself up onto the lumber pile without incident. "But I warn you, only those chosen by the Gods have the ability to properly summon them and make use of their powers. If you are not chosen and you attempt to summon the Gods, you will offend them."
To everyone's surprise, Gurimo started to laugh. "You can see with your own eyes whether I am able to summon the Gods or not."
"Interesting. I'll accept your challenge. Let's duel!" Yami raised his arm and activated the mechanism that clicked the two halves of the Duel Disk into place, the Life Point counter flashing to life. Gurimo did the same with his odd Duel Disk, a tapered protrusion emerging from the side into a deadly point. They were lucky all the man wanted was a duel; else, he probably could have gouged them open if he'd used that thing as a weapon.
"I'll go first—draw!" Yami did just that, practiced hands drawing six cards from the deck in one swoop. He took one glance at his hand of cards and withdrew one, inserting it onto a slot on the surface of his Duel Disk.
"I place Beta the Magnet Warrior in Defense Mode and lay one more card down. Since I can't attack on the first turn, it's your move."
High above the lumber stack, up in the girders of the partially finished building, three men emerged.
"Nameless Pharaoh, let us try your power."
Below, Téa felt another odd shiver run through her body, and she glanced up, right at where the men were standing. But the darkness was too thick for her to make them out, and none of them moved and revealed their position to the onlookers below.
"It's my move. I'll summon the Marauding Captain, in Attack Mode! With his ability, I can also summon a Level 4 monster—so I choose Shadow Tamer!" Beside the armored captain with his twin swords, a voluptuous warrior princess appeared, clad in white and brown, looking fierce with a whip held taut and ready.
But the man didn't declare an attack, though he quite clearly had the advantage. Instead, he withdrew another card from his hand, laughing all the while. "Let me show you my true power, Yugi Moto," the man said in a mocking tone. "Behold! The card born of the darkness! Its divine power will be ours, and will imprison all enemies within the duel circle!"
Suddenly, a fierce wind began to whip all around, stirring objects and creating an unearthly echo as it whistled off the steel in the construction yard. Dark clouds loomed overhead, hovering as if they were about to swallow them whole, girders, crane, and all.
"I activate…the Seal of Orichalcos!" Gurimo thrust the card down onto his Duel Disk, which suddenly flared with green light, a circle of strange symbols lighting up the rim surrounding the Disk portion of the device. The circle spun ever faster, growing wider and wider until it seemed echoed in the very sky itself, falling down as if to encircle everything within its confines…. As it came down and settled on the lumbar stack where Yami and Gurimo dueled, six points on the circle's inner rim glowed brighter, sending out beams of light underneath the duelists' very feet, connecting in a multitude of sharp lines. Finally, the lines formed a strange six-pointed star of sorts, the light flaring up more and shooting outward.
Suddenly, as if the light itself had somehow been responsible, Téa and the boys were blasted back from the lumber stack, flung outward as though they were no more than rag dolls.
Seto Kaiba had never felt the desire to 'live vicariously,' as the saying went. He didn't care much for thrilling movies, didn't envy skydivers and BASE jumpers, didn't sympathize for the poor saps who injured and humiliated themselves on so-called reality television programs.
But in that instant, that moment when he watched, as if in sickening slow-motion, Téa crash against the construction yard wall, he wished he could feel everything she felt—take any and all pain away from her, and make this pointless suffering end. Above all else, one thought rang clear in his fogged mind: 'She doesn't deserve this.'
She deserved better, actually: a life away from madmen who used cards to dictate the fate of the free world, a life away from conniving murderers and devious plots, away from ancient sorcerers, magic, pharaohs….
'He's always putting her into danger!'
The second that thought broke through his mental haze, time seemed to speed up again. His eyes were still fixed on Téa—even though the other boys were with her, beside her, having been blasted back just like her, Kaiba didn't see any of them. He simply didn't have it in him to care.
She didn't move.
Kaiba's eyes widened a fraction, wider than they'd ever been in the past several sleep-deprived, back-and-forth, back-and-forth days. His stillness abruptly transformed into a wild abandon as he struggled to find a way around the barriers separating him from her. He pinched his arm between two towers of girders; the opening was too frustratingly small. He missed spotting a toolbox on the ground and nearly sprained his ankle as a result, but with a hop and a hobble, he got over or around it, trying to find his way closer, closer— without ever letting his eyes stray from Téa's form. He got closer by a meter or two, but not close enough for anyone to see or hear, not soon enough to do a damn thing, to stop it all from happening again, dammit! And then…and then she stirred.
He saw her hand move first, as if it was some sort of singular entity on its own, a weak thing hanging onto the last vestiges of life. But that left hand trembled a bit more, a bit violently, and the tremor seemed to wrack Téa's arm, her shoulder, her neck. Then, her eyes opened, and before Kaiba could even think a coherent thought, she was back on her feet, limping but marching back steadily toward the pale green dome. The others followed in short order, Joey clutching his shoulder, Duke his right knee. They were all injured in some form or fashion; they all showed it plainly, but not on their faces, no, they all—Téa perhaps more so than any of her companions—looked strikingly determined, unfazed, unsurprised.
Were Kaiba to see his own reflection in a mirror at that moment, he would have realized that he was just the opposite of them; his own face was drawn in shock, worry, and that which he detested most but had no real control over: fear.
But that fear slowly dribbled away, replaced by a wash of confusion: while the others eventually let go of their injured areas, Téa still gripped her shoulder tightly, still had a grimace curving her lips, marring the fiery determined look in her eyes—a look Kaiba had come to recognize quite well. The boys stood behind her, each looking wary in their own way; it was Joey who reached out a hand as if to tug Téa back a bit, to get her away from the barrier the Seal of Orichalcos had created, as if it might spring out at them and blast them beyond the construction lot walls next time.
"Don't touch me!" Téa abruptly snapped, centimeters before Joey's hand even made contact with her. Joey's hand froze in mid-air, his expression more than a bit shocked. Belatedly, Téa's gaze dropped, her frown becoming more sad than angry. "I'm sorry. I'm fine."
A lie if he'd ever heard one. They all knew it, but Kaiba was the only one who would do something about it and yet couldn't.
It was pointless trying to get to her, anyway, he realized, letting his gaze finally fall from her silhouette; the mysterious barrier blocked the only direct route between Kaiba and the others. If Kaiba had wanted to experience the pain of the Orichalcos, he would have done it to save Téa, to prevent her from being in any pain. But it was useless now; what was done was done, right? And if there was one thing to be said about living vicariously, it was this: Seto Kaiba learned from others' mistakes. He would not venture a step closer to any of them until the barrier was gone. He wouldn't reveal himself either, lest that jeopardize his and Téa's safety even further.
And as for Yugi, trapped within that sealed barrier, once again dueling for the fate of the free world and who knew what else?
'Let him duel.'
"Everyone!" Yami gasped as he saw his friends struggle to stand from behind a sheen of green light. He instinctively ran toward them, aiming to leave the duel circle and help them, but he was barely within a centimeter of the inner rim of the circle when a force pushed him back into the circle proper. There was a brief sensation of numbness up and down the arm that he'd thrust forward in his run toward his friends, but it soon tingled and faded away—just like the ripples in the light barrier surrounding him on all sides.
Gurimo started to laugh wildly again. "Isn't it wonderful? A dueling arena without any distractions, where one can concentrate on what is most important: the duel! No one can come in, and no one can go out…no one but the victor!" Gurimo raised his head, revealing a smaller version of the very barrier that encircled the duel arena—the "Seal of Orichalcos" he'd called it—shining bright, along with a pendant that hung around the man's neck. "The loser's soul will be sealed within…forever!"
"What are you talking about?" Yami demanded, turning to face Gurimo fully once more. Gurimo only laughed, the pupils of his eyes looking off-color and inhumanely tiny, while the whites of his eyes stretched and gleamed, giving him the appearance of a bleached-white beetle.
'Is this man able to create a Game of Darkness?' As soon as the thought crossed his mind, the Millennium Puzzle began to glow, the faintest traces of an Eye of Horus appearing on Yami's own brow. But just seconds after the light began to glow, it faded and vanished, as if sucked away into an infinitely dark space as tiny as a pinhead.
"It's no use!" Gurimo laughed. "The Millennium Puzzle is nothing more than a mere toy compared to the Seal of Orichalcos! Its powers have no effect here!"
Yami looked around the greenish space warily; he'd been unable to pierce the barrier when it had first gone up, and now it seemed to be able to suck the very energy from his Millennium item. 'A different power than the Millennium Items…?' But how? The Millennium Items were supposed to be the oldest source of magical power that still existed, and given that there were so few Items, and they were so selective of "their" owners, how could anything exist that could negate the energies of an Item like the Puzzle?
"I know you want to know why," Gurimo said, chuckling with each word. "The seal, you see, is far more ancient than your Puzzle, your pendant, any of your Items. Far, far older, and far more powerful. So powerful, in fact," Gurimo raised a hand, and the seal seemed to brighten, light filtering through the space like a cloud, passing through the bodies of the enemy monsters, the Marauding Captain and the Shadow Tamer. All of a sudden, their eyes began to glow a demonic red, and in short order the same symbol that appeared on Gurimo's head and surrounded the duel arena appeared on their brows. Both creatures shifted as their bodies seemed to ripple, and suddenly Yami swallowed a lump in his throat that he hadn't noticed before.
By now, Gurimo was cackling madly. "Yes, yes, Pharaoh, you are beginning to see, aren't you? The seal does many things…including increasing the strength of all of my creatures by 500 attack points!"
"Now…Marauding Captain! Attack Beta the Magnet Warrior!" The armored captain with his glowing red eyes shot forward, faster than Yami expected, and in an instant, his Magnet Warrior was no more than holographic shards disappearing into the ether. But Yami was nothing if not prepared; he quickly activated the face-down card he'd set on his first turn.
"I'll activate Soul Rope, allowing me to summon any four-star monster from my deck at a cost of 1000 Life Points. I choose…Gamma, the Magnet Warrior!"
The 1800 ATK-value Magnet Warrior appeared on the field, a coral-colored conglomeration of metallic parts and glowing pieces.
Gurimo guffawed openly. "You'll have to try harder than that, Pharaoh!"
"He sure is confident given that his two monsters, powered-up or not, don't add up to what Gamma's got," Joey griped. "What's this guy's deal, he forget how to do basic math or somethin'?"
"No…" Téa breathed, keeping her eyes fixed on the duel. "He's got something else planned."
Indeed, to finish his turn, Gurimo placed one card down in his Magic and Trap Zone. "Feel free to try again," he chuckled darkly. Clearly, whatever he'd laid down was some kind of a trap…but what kind? Or perhaps it wasn't a trap, but a powerful magic card, a spell meant to lure Yami into attacking one of Gurimo's two weaker, still-in-attack-position creatures. If Yami took the bait, he'd likely lose the one monster he had, his one defense…but if he didn't, Gurimo would only get stronger.
"I plan to do more than try!" Yami shouted back, his gaze never wavering from Gurimo's face. "Feast your eyes on this—Alpha, the Magnet Warrior!"
The third of Yami's famous Magnet Warriors appeared on the field, a moss-green magnet monster with a sharp blade clutched in one hand. But before Yami could even declare an attack, Gurimo's smile stretched so wide, it looked as though his face might split.
"Why thank you! You've activated my Hidden Soldiers trap. And now, unfortunately for you, I am able to conjure up a creature borne of ultimate darkness. Appear, Makyura the Destructor!"
"Is it just me guys, or has that bearded dude gotten a heck of a lot more arrogant since he played that weird Seal card?" Duke asked. "Not that there's anything wrong with self-confidence, but this guy went from quiet and simple to loud and probably more than a bit crazy."
"You're right," Malik said softly. "All of that man's monsters are now Dark, and so is the man himself."
"He also said…the soul of the loser will be sealed within that thing. What—What could he mean?" Téa asked, her voice nearly breaking.
"Exactly what he said," Malik stated grimly. "And judging by the looks of that Seal, that man wasn't lying when he said it's even more ancient than the Pharaoh."
Everyone looked at Malik in mute surprise, but no one could find the words to say, though they were lingering clearly on the edge of everyone's lips: "There might not be a way out of this. This might truly be the final duel."
"Your guy Gurimo ain't half bad, Raph," Valon said. "What're you gonna do if the Pharaoh loses his soul tonight?"
"If the Pharaoh's defeated here, he isn't worthy of being our rival," Raphael snapped.
"Well then," Valon said, leaning forward a bit. "That leaves Joey Wheeler…." He glanced at the blond boy below, who looked agitated and restless, unable to stay still but miraculously able to stay quiet in the face of what looked to be his best friend's final duel.
"And Seto Kaiba," Alister added softly. He pointed toward a darkened part of the lot where one could just barely make out a lithe figure in an all-white suit, his body pointed not in the direction of the duel, but of the Pharaoh's friends. More specifically, the lone girl amongst them all.
"Well, I'll be," Valon said. "Shoulda known that guy would show up. Just figured it'd be later rather than sooner. Well, no skin off our noses, right?"
"We have to collect all their souls," Raphael said in a low voice, clearly ignoring Valon's commentary. "And we will succeed."
"And what about her?" Valon asked, thumbing toward Téa. "Perky, brunette, female…guess that's the girl the boss mentioned, then, eh?"
"The boss didn't call her 'perky,' Valon," Raphael said in a gruff voice, keeping his arms crossed over his chest. Unlike Valon, he left his wrap-around sunglasses on his face, his chin tilted up and away from the battlefield below them, as if he couldn't care less about the whole proceeding.
"Well it suits her, don't it? Though I can't see what the boss wants with her. Not unless his tastes run a little young, you know what I'm saying?"
"Shut up, Valon," the man on Valon's other side snapped. "It's not our place to question why the boss wants to know about her. He'll tell us if it's necessary for us to know." This third man who'd spoken, a redhead with a high-cut top and a long gray trench coat, kept his sunglasses on as well, though unlike the tall blond, he appeared to be watching the ongoing duel with at least minor interest.
Surprisingly, Valon did fall silent after that; his attention didn't seem stuck on any particular person, least of all Yami and the robed man he was dueling. Instead, his gaze wandered to the five teenagers clustered on the edge of the field, each of them with varying degrees of upset on their faces. He leaned in just a bit to see if he could hear any of what they were saying.
"I'm sick of this!" the perky brunette was saying angrily. "Every time we get half a second of peace, a new lunatic who wants to take over the world, steal the Millennium Items, or get revenge against the Pharaoh!"
"Yeah, well, bad guys don't exactly keep a schedule book, Téa," Tristan told her. "They're usually crazy, remember?"
"Crazy and possibly dangerous. We already got blasted back by it once—" Duke began to point out, but Téa was already sprinting toward the battlefield as if she had a chance of breaking through the barrier that the Seal of Orichalcos had created.
In an instant, her fists made contact with what should have been empty air, but instead was a shield that moved like liquid, glowing all the while. In the spot where her hands made contact, the liquid shuddered violently and glowed a brilliant white, nearly a meter's worth of the surrounding space appearing to freeze.
Valon's eyes widened in surprise, his head jerking back quick enough to cause his large goggle-like sunglasses to come sliding down his brow to rest crookedly on his nose. But he didn't reach up to adjust them; he kept staring at Téa, who was raising her arms to strike the barrier once more.
'Things are already complicated enough as they are! Why do these lunatics always have to come around, threatening to plunge the world into darkness?' Téa thought, squeezing her eyes against the bright light that flared from the Seal.
No one had ever managed to touch the Seal; everyone always got blasted back from it the moment they got too close. Only those who'd developed a strong connection to the Seal could even summon it, let alone remain unaffected by its power. After all, it was an intangible, nigh unstoppable force, something greater than anyone had ever known…anyone except the boss himself, of course, Valon corrected mentally. So how was this girl…?
No—maybe it wasn't a question of "how," but "why." And Valon sucked in a breath as the realization came to him: 'So that's why the boss is so interested in her. Well, I don't blame 'im.' Valon leaned back once more, pushing his goggles back up onto his head. It was pretty amusing, watching this little spitfire do her best, her pretty face contorted with anger and upset all the while.
'For once, can't a card game be just a card game, and not have something to do with the ancient past or the near future?' Téa thought. 'Why can't things ever be simple for us anymore? We always get caught up in this… No, not "us,"' Téa amended, '"me."'
Yugi and Joey willingly jumped into these kind of situations—they craved excitement, adventure—anything that would take them out of the mundane world of high school. Tristan and Duke followed because they felt as if they had no reason not to, nothing better to do with their time. Malik…he followed prophecy. Once, he'd tried to defy it, and it had only brought him pain.
'Am I the only one who bothers to resist diving headfirst into every new trap that comes our way, every new enemy that wants to duel with the fate of the world hanging in the balance?'
Why was it always about cards and games, monsters and magic, and a group of teenagers who should have normal lives? Why her?
Valon glanced briefly at his partners flanking him on either side. Despite the unprecedented things this supposed-nobody girl was doing to the Seal, they remained as still as statues, their lips set in tight, grim lines. Neither of them looked the least bit worried that the Seal might actually shatter under Téa's onslaught.
'Well, if they're not worried….' Valon shook his head briefly and resumed leaning on the railing to watch the spectacle below. Bright lights and big explosions, for sure, but…nothing would come of it. This was all just a test, after all. A test to see whose lives were worthy. And from the looks of things, Téa Gardner's very well might be….
With each successive pound, the shield grew brighter and shuddered more.
"Damn it, stop this! Stop it right now!" Téa screamed as loud as she could. The strain she felt was evident, what with the redness of her face and the tears starting to streak down her cheeks. Whether those tears were caused by her frustration or the intermittent bright light that flashed when she pounded on the area protected by the Seal was anyone's guess.
'I just want to live my own life!'
She raised her fists together, intending to hit the shield one last time with the most powerful blow she could muster.
All of her friends, Yugi and Gurimo within the barrier, and Kaiba on the opposite side, invisible to everyone present, stared in amazement as her fists made contact with the Seal's barrier one last time, an explosion of light bursting from the point of contact—so bright that those without sunglasses had to look away, and those within the barrier could almost make out the space where Téa stood, un-tinted by the unearthly green of the light of the Orichalcos.
"Foolish girl!" Gurimo snarled, momentarily distracted from his turn. "For your impudence, the Orichalcos shall take your soul along with the Pharaoh's!"
"I don't care! Just stop! Please…" The barrier's light died down once more, its liquid-like surface swirling and filling the momentary gap that Téa's blows caused. She sank to her knees in despair, her eyes too filled with tears even to focus on the shapes within the barrier anymore. "Just stop."
If anyone had heard her pleading whisper, there was no indication.
She sat there, heavy-limbed and unable—or at the least, unwilling—to move, her eyes having lost their focus. Always card games, always souls, destinies, and the fate of the free world hanging in the balance. Was there any escape from it? Was she stuck in this mess simply by virtue of being Yugi's friend?
While both Téa's thoughts and the Seal of the Orichalcos swirled about, the duel continued. Yami activated Shallow Grave in order to bring back Beta the Magnet Warrior from the graveyard, combining Beta with Alpha and Gamma to form Valkyrion, a decidedly powerful conglomeration of magnets and mechanics. Distantly, Téa thought she could make out a vaguely familiar voice high above, but she couldn't bring herself to raise her head and see who was talking, let alone make out their words.
But her fingers skimmed the space just ahead of her, a black space with a mass of splinters thrusting up from the lumber stack.
What looked so simple—like light and liquid—was powerful, and Téa knew it. She'd felt it. She hadn't seen when the barrier had convulsed and caused the scorching tear into the wood, but she realized that a split second could have been the difference between her and that piece of lumber. Her stopping when and where she did may have just saved her life.
'What's a life worth when you can't save anyone?'
The two duelists played card after card, the tide of the battle seeming to shift with each passing minute. Yami gained the upper hand the moment his Valkyrion destroyed the Marauding Captain and knocked Gurimo's life points down to 2200, but Victory's favor was fickle and quickly shifted back to Gurimo when he played Monster Reborn to bring back the Marauding Captain and sacrifice him, Shadow Tamer, and Makyura the Destructor to summon Obelisk the Tormentor.
A chill swept through Téa's veins as she watched the god appear in the ink-black sky, looming far over the battlefield. In moments, the shape of the Seal of the Orichalcos appeared on the god's brow, with eyes that glowed an unearthly red hue. Against all odds, the man without a Millennium Item had managed successfully to summon a god, with no apparent ill effects.
'What are you supposed to do when everything you think you know is wrong? When the whole world turns itself inside-out?'
Téa had no answer for herself, but she had enough sense to ease her way down the lumber stack and back to the group of guys. She could feel their gazes on her, has the inclination that they were probably worried or concerned or something, but she couldn't force any words out of her mouth. What was there to explain, and was there reason enough even to bother, when their doom seemed to march inexorably toward them in the form and shape of one ancient Egyptian god?
"The most powerful creature that ever existed combined with the most incredible force ever imagined!" Gurimo cackled, his eyes widening even further as mad glee overtook him. Tendrils of red appeared in Gurimo's eyes, the vessels snapping one by one and tinting his sclera a red not unlike the glow within Obelisk's own eye sockets. "You're trapped in a circle of doom, Pharaoh," he continued mockingly, "and soon your soul will be sealed away for all eternity!"
With a simple command, Obelisk turned on its former master, destroying Valkyrion and reducing Yami's life points to 2000—and his soul that much closer to being sacrificed to the Seal.
"It'll take more than that to get Yug' outta the game," Joey said confidently, affirming his words with a sharp nod. Téa stared at him with tired eyes. If she could have managed it, she might have looked surprised, but it wasn't as if anyone's eyes were on her anyway; she might as well be invisible for all the attention she commanded within this circle of 'friends.' How could he be so confident when nothing had gone right at all today? From the very start, it had been one disaster after another. It wasn't that she doubted Yami despite their personal ups and downs; Téa didn't think she was truly capable of doubting his strength—but more like she was growing increasingly unsure of this new enemy. If Pegasus had simply been a grieving maniac with too much time and money on his hands, and Malik was a misinformed teenager with a split personality, then what was this? Who were they even fighting? Without knowing that, how could anyone be so assured of Yami's imminent victory?
There were too many questions and not enough answers.
But there was a spark of hope; Gurimo stumbled forward a bit, clutching a hand to his head.
"Uh-oh. Didn't the boss say that the Egyptian Gods' power wouldn't mix too well with the Orichalcos?" Valon said anxiously.
"Forget about it, the geezer's just getting too old for this," Raphael said gruffly.
Alister rolled his eyes, opting to glance at those not dueling below. Neither Kaiba nor his petite girlfriend moved in the slightest, their eyes fixed on different things, dead to anyone or anything else. It would be so easy to do it right now, Alister thought. There were a number of ways he could do it, too—a screwdriver to the head, a well-aimed chisel at his back, a sledgehammer to—
"That is why we had him test the Pharaoh first," Raphael was laughing darkly, the out-of-place sound interrupting Alister's thoughts. He frowned slightly before glancing back at Seto Kaiba. No, he wouldn't do anything dishonorable. Alister had a sense of pride—he wouldn't sink to the Kaibas' level.
"Watch what you say," Alister murmured as his gaze shifted back to the playing field. "If it were merely a matter of age, none of us would have a job right now."
"Ah…righto, righto," Valon acquiesced in a low voice, scratching the back of his head in embarrassment. Raphael just snorted and went back to staring down his nose at the duelists far below.
Yami quickly took advantage of his opponent's apparent deliriousness; he played Graceful Charity and drew three cards, discarding two. He then summoned Gazelle, the King of the Mythical Beasts in defense mode, set another card facedown and ended his turn. It was clear he was on the defense, and as yet had no quick strategy for defeating his own stolen god card, but perhaps he was in the midst of forming a strategy.
Whether it was magic, age, or something else that had caused Gurimo's nausea, the sensation seemed to fade quickly enough; he drew a card, set another face down, and attacked Gazelle with Obelisk, destroying the creature with ease.
"Urgh, why'd Yug' let that happen? Now he's got no monsters left to protect him!"
Téa wondered that, too. Though she'd been witness to nearly every single duel Yami took part in, and realized a strategy could consist of a single card and some good timing, there were few "strategies" that involved allowing monsters to be destroyed one after the other.
And then she remembered: He wants to know the ending to his story. He'd been trying to discover the truth behind his past for ages now, and had almost succeeded at the museum. He'd tried to finish his story without properly saying goodbye, without telling any of them….
Maybe he didn't want to win this duel. Maybe some twisted, lost part of the Pharaoh wanted to be free of a world that had no memories for him, to let Yugi live his own life and play his own duels….
A flood of 'no, no, no, no, no' welled up inside Téa, but like a wave crashing upon rocks, she had the sudden realization that if that was what Yami—the Pharaoh—truly wanted, there was nothing she could do to stop him. She was powerless—and she always had been.
"The Age of Destruction is upon us," Gurimo told Yami, and with his back to Téa and the others she had no way of seeing his face, of knowing if being destroyed by his lunatic was what he wanted. Even if it was…would it show? Could she tell? Once upon a time, she wouldn't have had a shred of doubt: of course she could; she was his best friend! She…loved him. Once. And now?
Now, nothing made sense.
"The Earth shall be covered in darkness, and it will be your soul that devastates mankind, Pharaoh!"
"What are you talking about?" Yami responded, his voice carrying the hint of a snarl to it. Being able to discern this much pleased Téa, and brought the tiniest of smiles to her lips; if Yami was mad at Gurimo, then it wasn't likely he intended to lose to the man on purpose. Even if he was feeling particularly selfish and suicidal as of late, his story wouldn't end here—not tonight.
"A great beast is now awakening from its ancient slumber," Gurimo explained, gesturing widely to the night sky. "It will finish what it started centuries ago! But… before it can arise, it must absorb enough souls."
"That…sounds familiar," Téa whispered aloud, forgetting for a moment that the other boys were beside her.
"Yeah…hey, didn't Rex and Weevil say something like that earlier?" Duke mused.
Yami must have had the same thought, for the next words out of his mouth were "What did you do to Rex and Weevil?"
"The Pharaoh's askin' an awful lot of questions…" a voice said from above—not at a shout, but loud enough for Téa to have heard. When her gaze snapped up to the skeleton structure, she easily spotted three figures with vaguely familiar silhouettes.
"And who do you think you are?" Téa yelled. The three shadows started, seeming surprised that they'd been spotted, but they didn't move. Téa's gaze left the shadows for an instant, and she noticed Joey and Tristan had also spotted the men, and were looking for a way to get up to where the so-called 'Three Swordsmen' were. They scrambled up staircase after staircase, but the shadows still didn't move; if anything, Téa imagined they were amused by Joey and Tristan's attempts to get closer to them. Joey sprinted up the stairs, but when he got to a floor where the staircase going up wasn't where it had been on the other floors, he stopped to look around, only to get nearly pushed off the building when Tristan, who'd just come up from the lower level behind him, barreled into him.
"Are you tryin' to kill me, you nut?" Joey demanded as Tristan hauled him up by the forearm. "Geez, I thought I was gonna die."
"Sorry, sorry, dude," Tristan said. Before the two of them could make out the next stairwell up in the dark, a floodlight suddenly clicked on, illuminating the structure and the three men that stood on one of the upper floors.
"We are soul collectors," the blond man said, a pair of cards trapped between his gloved fingers. "And their souls are in my hands. They are to be offerings for the ancient gods."
"Souls in cards…." The words were not spoken by just Yami alone. Téa and Kaiba both echoed them, though none of them heard each other. But each remembered the same thing: this method of soul theft was no different from when Pegasus had trapped the souls of Kaiba and Mokuba within a pair of blank Duel Monsters cards. Their bodies had been nothing more than empty husks….
"How do they have that kind of power…?" Yami mused aloud. It wasn't as if any of them carried Millennium Items, and there was no way there was some other ancient artifact like the Pyramid of Light that could be giving them power…right?
"The sooner you make your next move, Pharaoh, the sooner your own god shall deprive you of your soul!"
"Obelisk is indeed powerful," Yami replied in a careful, measured tone, "but it's not unbeatable. The card rightfully belongs to me, and I'm quite familiar with its strengths and weaknesses." His words had undoubtedly piqued the interest of all present, for there was a brief moment of absolute silence. Yami himself broke it as he played Monster Reborn to return Valkyrion to the field.
"Should I be impressed?" Gurimo asked sarcastically. "Obelisk already destroyed your magnet toy once, if you don't remember."
"Say goodbye to the god card," Yami whispered in response. Then, louder, he said "Valkyrion! Disassemble into the three Magnet Warriors!"
The magnets did so, and as soon as all three were on the field, Yami played the magic card Brave Attack, which protected his Magnet Warriors from Battle Damage and took away an opposing monster's ATK strength equal to the ATK of the attacking monster. In return, the three Magnets would be destroyed at the end of the turn, but if the math was right….
Alpha the Magnet Warrior attacked, chipping away 1400 ATK from Obelisk's massive 4500, reducing it to 3100.
"Pathetic! Your monsters can't even scratch Obelisk!" Gurimo taunted. Had he bothered to look through the miasma of green light that the Orichalcos created, he would have seen an array of disbelieving faces staring up at Obelisk, for a scratch had indeed formed on the god's plate-like armor.
"Beta the Magnet Warrior, attack!" Obelisk's 3100 dropped to 1400, and the gash grew deeper still. Gurimo realized his predicament a moment too late, as Gamma, the third and final Magnet Warrior, and 1500 ATK points strong, leapt across the field to deliver the finishing blow.
Gurimo's life points dropped to 2100, and he stumbled right as the Magnet Warriors disappeared in three explosions of holographic light.
Joey and Tristan had since given up on finding a way up to the 'Three Swordsmen,' and instead opted to return to the others outside the playing field below. Even with their former height advantage and the new floodlight brightening the area, they failed to notice Seto Kaiba quietly observing the duel from the shadows.
"So, guess the Pharaoh really is powerful, ain't he?" Valon asked, a wary edge creeping into his voice.
"He's learned to defeat the gods," Raphael responded. Valon looked to the blond, awaiting further explanation, but none was forthcoming. Such was Raphael's way, Valon remembered; Raphael wouldn't say one way or the other if it was a good thing if the Pharaoh won this duel, and not their own man.
"Fool! I don't need Obelisk to defeat you!" Gurimo scoffed as he straightened. Yami narrowed his eyes as the man made his next move: the Card of Sanctity, allowing them each to draw until they each had six cards in their hand.
"Now they're even," Tristan said. "Could be worse."
"It is worse," Joey pointed out, thrusting a finger toward the still-glowing barrier. "Nutso's still got his freaky magic circle on the field, and that gives all his monsters that instant power boost!"
"I summon Watapon to the field in Defense Mode," Yami remarked calmly. Gurimo started to splutter.
"Insolent worm! Have you lost your mind as well as your manners? It's not your turn!"
Despite the insults, Yami didn't raise his voice when he responded; he only quirked a single eyebrow up and smiled in an unsettling, predatory way. "And here I thought you knew all the cards there were to know. Watapon's effect allows it to be summoned to the field the moment it is added to my hand by another card's effect—which it just was. Thank you."
Gurimo audibly growled, for his move clearly hadn't been intended to give the Pharaoh a monster when he had none of his own to claim. He managed another faint scoff before thrusting a card toward his odd-looking Duel Disk. "No matter—that card is useless, anyway! Warrior Dai Grepher, come forth!" The Warrior appeared on the field, and an instant later, his eyes began to glow red and the now-familiar Seal of Orichalcos appeared on his brow. His ATK points rocketed from 1700 to 2200, changing him from a slightly powerful, ordinary warrior into a fearsome force to be reckoned with, especially considering the warrior had required no sacrifices to bring him onto the field.
"I activate Dark Renewal!" Yami proclaimed, reversing a facedown trap card that had been in his Duel Disk for some time. "I'll sacrifice your Dai Grepher and my Watapon to summon a Spellcaster from my graveyard—the Dark Magician!"
Joey gave a small cheer as Yugi's signature monster made its appearance on the field, and he especially delighted in the ire plain on Gurimo's face. "He musta sent the Dark Magician to the graveyard when he played Graceful Charity! Man, Yug's always thinkin' ahead of the game!"
"You have no monsters to protect you, Gurimo," Yami observed.
There wasn't much else Gurimo could do, given that he'd already used up his Normal Summon for the turn. But in an instant, the disgusted and irritated expression on his face vanished, replaced with an eerie serenity. Gurimo placed one card facedown in his magic and trap-card slot. "This will be all I need."
As the turn play shifted to Yami, he declared his attack despite the potential threat of a trap card backfiring on his Dark Magician. Gurimo quickly activated the card—a magic card by the name of Shield Wall— and Yami watched in dismay as four token monsters appeared on the field in Defense Mode, the Dark Magician only able to target and attack one. Since the creatures were in Defense Mode by default, Gurimo's life points remained the same.
Gurimo activated another set magic card, this one Bronze Knight. He discarded three cards from his hand, and suddenly three Bronze Knight Tokens appeared on the field in Attack Mode, with initial ATK and DEF values of 500 each.
"Hold on—six monsters?"
"That's right, Nameless Pharaoh," Raphael called down before Gurimo could respond. "The Seal of Orichalcos allows the controlling duelist to play monsters in his magic and trap card zone!"
"And," Gurimo continued smoothly, "you can't attack the back row of monsters without first going through the front!" Gurimo cackled in delight as the Seal took effect on his newly summoned Bronze Knight Tokens, boosting them up to 1000 ATK each. "Your single Dark Magician is no match for my army of monsters!"
Téa's brow furrowed; it seemed Duke's earlier theory that Gurimo was getting steadily crazier was right on the money. She was no professional duelist, but even she could see there were a number of ways that the Pharaoh could easily bring down Gurimo's "army." For one thing, not one of his frontline Bronze Knight Tokens were strong enough to withstand an attack from the Dark Magician, which meant Yami could always whittle away at Gurimo's life points bit by bit. But there were a number of cards Téa knew were in his arsenal that could take the Spellcaster's single 2500-point ATK and turn it into a wave that would destroy all of Gurimo's monsters, frontline and back, in one fell swoop….
"My move!" Yami declared. He quickly set two cards facedown in his magic and trap zone, and followed up by summoning the Queen's Knight in Defense Mode. Téa watched him through the green haze of the Orichalcos intently; there was a reason why he was electing not to attack now, but what was it? Yami jutted his chin upward slightly, as a non-verbal indication that his turn was complete. The moment Gurimo lay his hand on his deck to draw, Yami pulled out one of the cards he'd set in his previous turn, activating it. "I activate Dust Tornado—and I'll destroy your Seal!"
A great wind whipped through the area, sending dust, dirt, and bits of trash whirling through the air. Moments later, the dust settled… but the Seal of Orichalcos still glowed bright green, its liquid surface seemingly entirely unaffected by Yami's move.
"The Seal's too powerful to be destroyed by your measly trap card, Pharaoh," Raphael said mockingly.
Gurimo, meanwhile, continued his turn as if nothing had happened at all. He played the magic card The Warrior Returning Alive to bring back Warrior Dai Grepher, whose ATK points immediately shot up to 2200. Then he played The A. Forces, raising the ATK value of all the Warrior-type monsters for each Warrior and Spellcaster-type monster on the controller's side of the field. To Yami's dismay, Warrior Dai Grepher and the three Bronze Knight Tokens each gained 800 ATK points, making them formidable opponents indeed. Warrior Dai Grepher was now strong enough to finish off the Dark Magician in one blow, and the three Bronze Knight Tokens could easily dispatch of the rest of Yami's life points without giving him a chance to retaliate.
'No! It can't end like this, it can't!' The feeling from earlier was back in full force now, especially now that Téa knew Yami was in this duel to lose intentionally, to send his soul someplace different, maybe someplace with answers. To have him yanked away forcibly from her world—because of a card game? She was ready to go back and pound on the Seal again, but with the speed of an electric shock, Téa realized it wouldn't do any good. Her eyes wandered from Yami's shadowy form inside the Seal to the scar on the lumber not far from where the Seal met the wood.
She'd done that. She'd caused the Seal to shift, ever-so-slightly, and the force was enough to carve a chunk the size of her arm out of a solid block of wood. It could have been her arm. Téa rubbed her shoulder anxiously, remembering how the first time, when the Seal had projected out suddenly, she'd been hurtled back right onto her still-green bruise. If she dared to play with the Seal again, it was likely it wouldn't be just her shoulder hurting.
All the rage Téa felt seemed to deflate in an instant, leaving her limp-limbed and unable to stare straight ahead. Again, she was helpless. Powerless, while her best friend—Because yes, despite everything, that's what he was, wasn't he? And wasn't she the same to him?—dueled, his life and soul on the line because of a card game!
Gurimo quickly took the chance to attack the Dark Magician, knocking Yami's life points down to 1500. But the moment he made to attack Queen's Knight with one of his own Bronze Knights, Yami activated a magic card he'd set—Magical Academy. Yami quickly discarded two cards from his hand and the Queen's Knight herself to summon the Dark Magician Girl, whose attack points swelled from 2000 to 2500 due to the Magical Academy's effect, and then up another 300 points thanks to the Dark Magician's position in the graveyard.
"Now, it's over," Yami said quietly.
Gurimo only scoffed, but there was a trace of fear in his bloodshot eyes. "A few extra points won't help you against my warriors!"
"He's wrong, Pharaoh; they're always wrong," Téa murmured. She shook her head at Gurimo's foolishness; it wasn't mere luck that always pulled Pharaoh through his toughest duels, it was intelligent strategy, it was quick-thinking, it was a solidly-built deck, it was…trust. Whether he called it the "Heart of the Cards" or something else, Yami trusted his deck. Nothing and no one else mattered besides that, not even his friends. The realization stung a little—to dwell on their presence there, their infallible encouragement for him, pouring their hopes and energy into a duel they couldn't take part in…. Nonetheless, Téa knew the arrangement didn't exist frivolously. It was how it had always been. And who was she to try and change it?
Yami didn't seem the least bit apprehensive as he drew, his eyes never leaving the battlefield or his opponent. Téa's heart seemed to lift the moment she saw Yami's lips curve upward ever so slightly, forming a smirk that she knew all too well.
"I play Diffusion Wave Motion!" Yami called, activating the magic card Téa had known all along would turn the tides. Trust, luck, or something intangible and in between brought that card into his hand, right when he needed it, and now….
Yami gave up 1000 of his life points, dropping him to a dangerously low level, in exchange for this one finishing move to save his soul: the Dark Magician Girl waved her scepter and each of Gurimo's monsters fell pray to her magic. Knight after Knight, Shield after Shield, and finally, Warrior Dai Grepher. With each warrior destroyed, the remaining warriors' attack value lessened, increasing the damage to Gurimo's life points.
And then there were none.
But it wasn't Gurimo who collapsed to his knees; it was Yami, whose voice was raspy and almost unfamiliar as he demanded the return of his God cards.
"Never!" Gurimo hissed. He raised the arm holding Obelisk and hurled it up into the sky; all eyes were on the tall blond as he stepped forward ever-so-slightly and caught the card deftly between two fingers, looking otherwise dispassionate about the results of the duel. Gurimo suddenly started to gag and choke as the brilliant green of the Orichalcos began to close in— on him, and him alone. The barrier passed through Yami's body without even the slightest feeling of static and instead ripped across the lumber toward the bearded man before exploding in a column of brightness. Suddenly, it was gone, only the faintest traces of dim glow surrounding Gurimo's boneless form on the ground. His eyes were wide open and staring vacantly into space, his mouth hanging open.
"Time to go," the blond said to his compatriots in the structure looming above the duel field.
"Stop! Return the God cards at once!" Yami shouted out hoarsely. He felt too exhausted to move, and the others seemed too paralyzed to do anything about the Three Swordsmen making off with the God cards—whether it was by fear or something else was anyone's guess. Téa herself desperately wanted to chase after them, but what would be the use? Gurimo had clearly been a mere underling to the three thieves, and yet he'd managed to nearly suck away the Pharaoh's soul to who-knows-where, sacrificing him and everything he was to some so-called 'Great Beast.' Who was she to go after anyone that not only possessed all three God cards, but also wielded a strange and mysterious power allowing them to steal souls?
"I…can't…." Téa murmured, frustrated with her self. Half of her remained locked in position, her knees bent and ready to sprint after the three thieves the moment they exited the structure and tried to leave the yard. But the other half of her—knee, arm, and all—was pointed straight at Yami. He'd fallen and he didn't seem to be getting up. He'd won the duel and kept his soul, but he'd come so close…wasn't this the time she was supposed to be here for him, above all others? Or…did he even need her?
"You'll have to duel all three of us to get them back," the blond man shouted. "But since you're such a good sport, here." He sent two cards whirling down from his position and then disappeared with the other two men into the inky black shadows. As Téa approached the former duel field slowly, she could make out the fading faces of Rex Raptor and Weevil Underwood. By the time the two cards touched the ground, they were nothing more than blank Magic Duel Monster cards.
"Hey, you lousy yellow-bellied cheatin' swindlers! You get back here! I'll take all three of ya on, right here, right now! Come on, what are you waiting for?"
In the shadows, Valon chuckled to himself. "Reminds me of me when I was a younger bloke." He paused and then shouted over his shoulder, "No rush, mate! We'll fight soon enough. Hey, Wheeler! The name's Valon! You'd best be remembering that, 'kay?"
If Joey responded to Valon, it wasn't loud enough for Téa to hear. She'd already left the boys' sides and headed up the lumber stack to Yami, who had risen unsteadily to his feet and was now approaching the fallen Gurimo, ignoring Téa's concern about his own exhaustion. He focused so intensely on the empty face of his former enemy lying before him that he failed to catch the hurt in Téa's own eyes as he swatted her arm away as though she were nothing more than a persistent fly.
But Kaiba saw. Even with the duel done and the three so-called 'Swordsmen' making off with the God cards, none of that stole his primary concern. And despite all that, he still couldn't bring himself to move. There was no Seal blocking him now, merely a perfectly clear path from here to where she was, standing in the illuminated duel field just a meter behind her precious Yugi. But the willpower to go up to her, to check on her, to see if she was all right simply drained away. She didn't want his help. And the only person she wanted to be of help to ignored her, but she kept hovering near him, constantly there, even though Kaiba could tell…he could see she was aching on the inside….
"Is he dead?" Tristan asked, nudging Gurimo hesitantly with his foot. With the man's voluminous robes and back angled halfway toward the side of the lumber stack and halfway to the sky, it was hard to detect any signs of breathing.
"No," Yami stated after inspecting the man's eyes more closely. "His soul is gone." Still on his haunches, Yami plucked the Seal of Orichalcos card from the man's intricately designed Duel Disk. No longer an image of a complex-looking Seal, the center of the card featured none other than Gurimo's own face, hands up as though pressing against the card's surface, his eyes white and wide with fear. "More precisely," he said, rising to stand once more, "his soul has been trapped in this card. But that doesn't explain where this…power comes from."
Téa's downcast eyes suddenly spotted something bright near the corner of the duel field where Gurimo once stood. "Guys? Think this has anything to do with it?" She picked up a teardrop-shaped crystal that seemed to glow hotly between her fingertips. As the boys approached to inspect Téa's find, the greenish light faded, and with it, the heat.
"This…stone. It's no ordinary stone." Yami plucked the crystal and its attached chain from Téa's hands without a word of thanks, the sudden motion startling Téa into taking a step back. She stared at Yami briefly, but then looked away. Fleetingly, Kaiba could have sworn he saw a mask of anger steal across her face, but she quickly disguised it with the same hurt expression from before. He clenched his fists at his sides; damn Yugi for hurting her again! For putting her into danger, for never appreciating her, for—
"When are you going to understand that I'm not going to hurt you?"
'But I've hurt you,' Kaiba realized, an acrid taste filling his mouth. He watched as Téa's hand mechanically moved up to her shoulder blade again and massaged it gently, thoughtlessly, her eyes still on that crystal pendant even as Yami and his other lackeys inspected it. Téa was detached from the crowd, but no one seemed to notice.
"This stone is dark…like the power within the Millennium Items," Yami was telling the others.
"Go ahead, play detective, Pharaoh," Kaiba scoffed. His weakness and ineptitude got them all tangled in this mess in the first place, wasn't it? If only he could whisk Téa away, take her from this place and make her forget about him—about all of them…. He turned on his heel and stalked out of the construction yard without a word to anyone. The sooner he recovered the God Cards and got them back into some responsible hands, the sooner they could both be free of this madness: free from soul-stealing 'swordsmen,' free of annoying mutts and ancient thieves…free of Yugi Moto, once and for all.
Yami, as always, led the pack of boys and the one lone girl back into the night streets, where they easily found Rex Raptor and Weevil Underwood blinking and gawping in surprise.
Tristan and Joey abruptly swooped in from the sides of the formation and each hauled one of the former regional duelists into the air by their shirtfronts.
"How ya doin' Bug Boy?" Joey asked with a bit of a sneer. "Feel like predictin' some doom today?"
"What are you talking about? Unhand me, you cretin!" Weevil snarled, struggling futilely.
"What did the two of you do yesterday?" Yami asked, unperturbed by the fact that Joey and Tristan were essentially holding Rex and Weevil against their will. Téa hesitated; she didn't like either of the younger boys any more than she liked finding ants in her kitchen, but she didn't like the way the boys were treating Rex and Weevil, and how the others— Duke and Malik— were just standing by, letting it happen.
"Let them down," Téa said sharply, casting the angriest glare she could muster at both Joey and Tristan. The boys, startled perhaps by the sound of her voice, did as she said. Téa said nothing further, knowing it would only provoke an ill response from Rex and Weevil when in fact, they really needed to know what had happened yesterday— when this all began.
Weevil dusted off his shirt and jacket as if removing invisible fleas, while Rex made a showy effort at adjusting his jacket and hat. But neither of them turned tail and run away, which was what the boys likely expected after having let them down.
"Some old guy with a beard got the jump on us," Rex explained. "More or less forced us to duel him."
"Forced you?" Joey asked with a quirked eyebrow and a lascivious grin. Téa elbowed him in the ribs.
"Yeah, forced us, dog breath, or can't you hear?" Rex repeated angrily. But then his gaze wavered to Téa and his expression calmed some. "Big guy, weird thing on his eye. Weird Duel Disk, too. Hey, did Kaiba Corp. come out with a new model somethin'?" His question was directed at Téa; clearly, he was no stranger to the fact that Téa and Kaiba were dating, and figured she would have inside information on any hot new products.
"No," Téa answered honestly, though part of her felt perturbed by the fact that, once again, she was relegated to being Kaiba's "girlfriend," nothing more. "It's not anything Kaiba Corporation made. What happened next?"
"Well, Beardo squashed Weevil here like a cockroach," Rex snickered, but his humor was short-lived, as the bug duelist clonked Rex on the head with a fist.
"You're the one that held me back, you dinobrain!"
The two of them were about to start bickering between themselves when Téa surprisingly reached out and separated the boys with a firm hand on each of their shoulders. "And then what happened?"
"The guy…he played some weird card," Rex murmured, scratching behind his ear.
"Yeah, the Seal of—Seal of Something," Weevil added.
"The Seal of Orichalcos?" Yami asked, piping up suddenly.
"Yeah, that's right!" Rex and Weevil said in unison. They both turned and growled at each other again, but this time Rex stopped the glaring match, turning back to the assembly in front of him.
"So what, are you with that guy or something?"
Joey furiously burst out from behind Téa and once again hauled up Rex by his shirtfront. "What the hell are you implying, you two-bit dinobrain? Yug's the one that got your souls back! If it wasn't for him, you two would be zombies walkin' into traffic right now!"
"Earlier, you were saying something about the end of the world—the sign of destruction. What did you mean by that?" Duke demanded.
Joey let a gagging Rex drop to the floor. While he coughed, Weevil answered: "I don't know about dinobrain, but…I don't remember."
"Me neither," Rex finally bit out.
Joey sighed heavily and looked ready to keep walking down the street, back to the Turtle Game Store.
"Hey… Yugi, do you think we can see the God cards?" Weevil ventured. Alarms immediately blared in Joey's head, remembering how Weevil asked to see Exodia in much the same manner, and then tossed the cards into the ocean. That he remembered…the God cards were gone. For all that, Rex and Weevil remained the least of their worries. But did it also mean that, for once, it was a good thing that Yugi didn't have the God cards? Joey shook his head in silent confusion; if Yug' didn't deserve the God cards, then who did? No one, in his mind.
"Unfortunately…the cards were stolen."
Rex abruptly let out a rasping sound, while Weevil's eyes bugged out, giving him the appearance of a squeeze toy on overload. Both seemed to be fighting the urge to say something, or perhaps run as if they could catch up to the thieves and grab the God cards for themselves.
"But we'll be getting them back, one-two-three, you just watch!" Joey said. At that point, Yami and the others seemed to decide that now was as good a time as any to depart, and started to walk around and beyond Rex and Weevil. "Hey, keep an eye out for us if you see any suspicious lookin' biker punks, okay?"
Weevil and Rex both plastered the widest smiles they could manage as they gave little waves back to Joey and Tristan, unaware that Téa, leading up the rear of her group, still had them in her sights. The moment Rex and Weevil thought they were out of the boys' earshot, Téa clearly heard them both chuckle darkly and mutter, "The God cards are up for grabs! Soon they'll be all mine!" With that, the two boys snorted and angrily stared each other down again, walking in the opposite direction and keeping pace with one another the whole while.
Téa never really considered Rex or Weevil a threat, but…given the circumstances, maybe there was reason to worry if not just one, but two more people wanted the God cards— people who would probably do anything to get their hands on them.
She sighed heavily, finally motivated to speak up. "Guys, these things have to have something to do with one another. Come on, monsters appearing at the same time some biker gang decides to steal the God Cards?"
"Aah," Joey howled, scrubbing his hands in his hair rapidly. "Why does this weird stuff always gotta happen to us?"
No one dared answer for no one had an answer to Joey's rhetorical question. But Téa couldn't help but think that it wasn't the weird stuff that was happening to them, it was them happening to the weird stuff.
Téa looked up in time to see a petite blonde girl with red-rimmed cat-eye glasses go flying past Tristan and Joey only to launch herself at Yugi. Téa raised an eyebrow as Yugi received the girl with the most befuddled expression she'd ever seen on his face.
"Yugi, do you have any idea who she is?" she asked, stifling the smirk that threatened to curl her lips. Judging by the expressions of similar confusion on all the boys' faces, no one recognized Rebecca Hawkins. 'Get rid of the teddy bear and the pigtails and everyone forgets you,' she thought.
Rebecca only looked fleetingly distraught by the possibility of Yugi having forgotten who she was. Suddenly she beamed and withdrew a Duel Monsters card from her skirt pocket. "Remember me now?" she asked, doing something with her eyes that she probably thought made her look coy. Téa just shook her head and watched the proceedings with a fraction of amusement.
"Oh!" Yugi's eyes widened as he recognized the Ties of Friendship card that he'd won when he defeated Pegasus. He'd given that card away, to… "Rebecca Hawkins!"
"I knew you'd remember me, Yugi darling! As if I'm that easy to forget."
'Again with that weird eye-fluttering thing. Doesn't she realize it makes her look like she's having a seizure?' But Téa didn't say anything, even as the slightly-amused smile on her face slipped the moment Rebecca squeezed Yugi's arm gently. Seizure-glances or not, there was no way a gesture like that could be misinterpreted. A growl almost escaped Téa's throat before she stopped herself and looked at her clenched, white-knuckled fists before realizing what she had almost done. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, raising her gaze just in time to see Yugi's uncertain one flick back to Rebecca. He'd been looking at her carefully, as if checking to see how she was reacting to Rebecca lavishing attention all over him. Their gazes had only met for a split second, but it had been enough for Téa to see everything from hope to fear to disappointment flash through Yugi's eyes. She hadn't known him all these years for such expressions on Yugi's face to slip right by her notice.
Téa narrowed her eyes as she realized what had just happened in a matter of seconds: 'He wants me to be jealous. Well, I'm not going to be! Let Rebecca drape herself all over him like she's some sort of rug. It makes no difference to me. None whatsoever!'
At least that's what she kept telling herself, even as Yugi's smile widened and Rebecca pushed herself closer to him.
"Bu—that brat!" Joey was muttering, his eyes as wide as saucers. He looked frozen in a state of disbelief, completely blown over by the idea that Rebecca Hawkins could have returned to Japan , let alone without her precious 'Teddy.' "And she looks different. Did you get a haircut?" Joey finally asked Rebecca, prompting her to peel herself off Yugi's chest.
"No, bonehead, she traded her teddy for glasses. You really couldn't tell?" Tristan asked. Téa rolled her eyes at her friend. He hadn't recognized Rebecca any more than Joey had; it wasn't until Yugi had announced Rebecca's name that any of them had gained the least bit of recognition on their faces.
"I don't need a teddy bear anymore," Rebecca said with a sugary-sweet smile. "I graduated, after all, and besides…I have a boyfriend!" Rebecca suddenly clutched tightly onto Yugi's arm, and Téa found herself choking on an air bubble that somehow had worked its way down the wrong pipe.
Rebecca looked at her curiously, but resumed her seizure-like eye-flutters in Yugi's direction when Téa stared back at her, waving her hand to indicate she'd be just fine, stupid coughing fit or no.
"Geez, add another weird event to the list," Joey said. "You really grew up fast," he said, but Téa couldn't tell if the tone in his voice was sarcastic or sincere.
"Anyway, Yugi darling, my grandpa really wants to see you. Come on, come on!" She started tugging on Yugi's arm, and before long, all the boys were following Rebecca's lead toward the Domino Museum. Téa sighed heavily as she watched them go, and a moment later, she joined them, once again bringing up the rear.
Malik headed up the group of teens—as loathe as Téa was to admit it, Rebecca was actually a teenager now, at age fourteen—entered the museum, thankfully bypassing the line of people outside that had to pay to see the exhibit. They headed straight to the too-familiar room featuring the collection of relief tablets that supposedly predicted Yami's past, and perhaps his ultimate destiny. A man in a tweed suit with a shock of gray hair stood before the tablets, inspecting them intently, while off to the side was a man that Téa could have recognized in a crowd of a thousand: Yugi's stout grandfather, who sported a tamed-down version of his grandson's wild hair. For whatever reason, Solomon Moto didn't seem to be too interested in the same tablets his longtime friend was. Instead, his gaze seemed to wander to any number of other Egyptian artifacts that Malik and his sister had arranged to be brought to Japan , any artifact except the relief tablets.
"Grandpa! Professor Hawkins!" Yugi exclaimed, apparently surprised to see his grandfather in the museum as well.
"Ah, Yugi, just the person I wanted to see!" Professor Hawkins greeted him warmly, turning from the reliefs. "And Mr. Ishtar! I must compliment you; this is quite the splendid exhibit. I must thank you for bringing it to Japan; seeing this sort of example of ancient Egyptian culture is quite rare in this country." Malik bowed his head slightly, acknowledging Hawkins' words, but he didn't say anything in reply. Téa glanced at him, wondering if he was keeping his mouth shut on purpose. He didn't look like he was suspicious of Hawkins, so why was he being so reticent all of a sudden?
"My grandson, Arthur?" Solomon referred to Professor Hawkins's initial exclamation. "You know if you have any Egyptian archaeology questions, you could always ask me," The grey-haired man said with a strange half-smile on his face.
Professor Hawkins chuckled lightly and shook his head. "It's not an Egyptian archaeology question I have for Yugi, old friend." Hawkins faced Yugi directly this time, all traces of his smile vanishing in an instant. "Actually Yugi, what I wanted to talk about was these recent monster sightings. I have a theory—"
"It could be bunnies?" Tristan muttered under his breath. Unfortunately, his voice wasn't quite as soft as he expected, for Hawkins started chuckling again.
"No, not bunnies. And not Mr. Kaiba, either," Professor Hawkins continued smoothly, as if someone would logically suggest 'Kaiba' next, if bunnies weren't behind the monster appearances. Hawkins' gaze shifted to Téa. "I saw his press statement a short while ago, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. In fact, I believe Mr. Kaiba and countless others around the world are simply unfortunate victims of circumstance."
Téa pursed her lips, hard-pressed to imagine Seto as a victim of anything, but part of her hoped Professor Hawkins was right, all the same.
"In fact, I believe the epicenter of all these mysterious sightings is someone else entirely." The professor pivoted on one foot, facing Yugi once more. "You, Yugi."
Everyone's gazes widened, including Rebecca's, as her python grip on Yugi's arm abruptly slackened. Yugi's eyes widened to the size of saucers, his hands squeezing the Millennium Puzzle in an attempt to hide his nervousness. His mouth opened and then closed again, as though he couldn't think of the proper words to respond with.
"What are you saying, Hawkins?" Solomon began to bluster, the loudness of his voice capturing the attention of other museum patrons in the room. Solomon paid them no mind, and marched straight up to Professor Hawkins, un-intimidated by the several extra centimeters or so Hawkins had on him in height.
"Ah, you're right Solomon, I misspoke," Professor Hawkins corrected himself, taking the opportunity to step back and survey the relief tablets again. In particular, he seemed to focus on the one with the Yugi and Seto-look-alikes depicted on it, battling each other with the ancient versions of a Blue-Eyes White Dragon and the Dark Magician. "What I meant to say," Professor Hawkins said, turning away from the tablet once more, "Was you, Nameless Pharaoh."
"Please tell me you're packed already," Mai said crisply over the phone.
Téa chuckled nervously, pausing on the steps of the museum. "Hi to you, Mai," she said, nodding slightly when Joey looked her way upon hearing Mai's name. "I just have to get my things from the mansion. We're still meeting there for our cab to the harbor, right?"
"Yeah. Here's hoping there won't be any issues with the departure. I've been checking the news on and off today, and monster sightings are down. It's like a weather report now: highs in the upper thirties, humidity at seventy-two percent, with a five percent chance of monster showers," Mai said grimly. "I don't know about you, but nothing's going to stop me from dueling."
"Me neither. So I'll see you at the mansion in a bit?"
"Let's say a half-hour, darling. I'd rather avoid the crowds at the harbor than be fashionably late and stuck in the middle of them."
"Right. See you soon." Téa flipped her phone shut, disconnecting the call before turning to face the others.
"I gotta get going," she said. "The tournament…."
Yugi's eyes widened. "Oh, right," he murmured, sounding a bit disappointed. Téa frowned. It was if he'd forgotten about it entirely and was sore about her having to leave. How many girls did he want hanging off his arm, anyway? Wasn't one hyperactive, super-intelligent blonde from the exotic country of America enough for him?
"What tournament?" Rebecca asked curiously. Téa scrutinized the blonde still gripping Yugi's arm like he was a life preserver. She couldn't tell if Rebecca was being polite due to Yugi's presence or if she was genuinely curious about the tournament.
"The Pan-Pacific Ladies' Duelist Tournament Cruise," Téa said. "Have you heard of it?"
"Heard of it?" Rebecca grinned. "I won that tournament when I was eight! Good luck!" she said with a sugary-sweet grin threatening to split her face in two.
Téa chuckled wanly. "T-thanks."
"Hey, I got an idea!" Joey put in. "Let's all split a pair of cabs back to the dungeon and see Mai and Téa off!"
Before Téa could interrupt with "The Dungeon?" and protest against the guys seeing her off, everyone else was nodding in agreement—well, not Rebecca, but Yugi was nodding so vigorously it seemed like she was, too—and Joey was flipping open his own cell phone to call a cab company. Joey took the liberty of informing the others how everyone technically rode for the price of one anyway, and it wasn't as if a handful of them didn't have the money; besides, for friends, wasn't it worth whatever the cost would be? Téa sighed, realizing nothing would stop the guys from tagging along at this rate.
Maybe being seen off at the docks wouldn't be so bad. At least it wouldn't be as lonely.
Mokuba replaced the house phone on its receiver as he grabbed his jacket from the closet and started heading toward the garage.
"Geez, how does a limo driver get lost downtown when he's told to stay in place? I don't blame Big Brother for being mad at him," he said, despite there being no one else in the house to hear him speak. Seto had called just a few minutes ago, saying he'd arrived back in Downtown Domino and asked his driver to stop at a construction site. When he'd returned to the spot where the limo should have been parked, it was gone, and the man couldn't be reached on the satellite car phone or his cell phone.
"He probably got scared off by those stupid monster sightings," Seto theorized. "I'll give him one opportunity to explain himself and that's it. No more second chances."
Good thing they had a veritable fleet of drivers that could be reached at a moment's notice. One of them was already waiting in a new limo downstairs, ready to take Mokuba downtown to meet Seto. Considering all the scary monsters that had been appearing and all the over-eager reporters that seemed inclined to blame it on them, Mokuba couldn't wait for his brother to be home.
He hopped in the limousine with a smile that remained on his face long after the taillights of the vehicle disappeared, out of sight from the Kaiba Mansion.
"Hello?" Téa pushed open the front door of the mansion with a measure of hesitation; she wasn't sure if Mokuba was home, or if not, where he was.
Today had been a very long day, beginning with Yami trying to "end his story" without telling any of them, climaxing with the theft of the God Cards and a duel of souls, and it wasn't even close to being over yet.
A solemn silence returned Téa's call. She turned back to her friends, scattered on the steps. "You might as well come in guys. It's air conditioned."
"Magic words!" Tristan shouted with glee, bolting from his sitting position on the steps into the house. "Aah, air conditioning, how I missed thee!"
The others followed in shortly thereafter, Joey rolling his eyes at his best friend's antics. "You sure you don't need any help with your stuff? I know you girls always have like, cases and boxes and trunks and stuff."
It was Téa's turn to roll her eyes, this time at Joey. Yugi and Duke also looked at her expectantly, asking with their eyes if they could help. "I'll be fine, guys. I only have two bags, and neither of them are anything I can't handle. It'd be pretty stupid if I needed a guy's help with my things for a Ladies' Duelist Tournament Cruise, wouldn't it?" Before they could answer, Téa turned on her heel and headed up the stairs to the room she shared with Seto. If it weren't for the small, random things that indicated the room belonged to Seto as well, it would have been easy to mistake the room as just Téa's: her suitcase and its contents spread out over the bedspread, an array of cosmetics scattered across the top of a chest of drawers.
Téa sighed and swept them all into a bag, which she then zipped up and stuffed into one of her drawers. She'd long ago decided that she didn't need to be one of those duelists who was all looks and no substance. The only makeup she carried lay in her purse, along with a few facial cleansers already packed away in a small pouch in her suitcase. She'd had a hard time deciding just what clothes to bring, so she'd opted for her defaults: tube-tops, dressy tank-tops, several pairs of shorts and skirts, a few pairs of thigh-highs, some platform sandals and boots, and a smattering of light jackets. She knew the weather in San Francisco in the summer was vastly different from that in Domino, but if worse came to worse, she could always buy clothes on the ship or in the States, right?
She double-checked to ensure she had her passport, her tickets for the cruise, and her wallet before zipping up her suitcase and hefting it off the bed. It was probably close to weighing more than she did, but there was nothing she could do about that. Téa clumsily loaded her smaller bag with a few books, seasickness medication, and her deck of Duel Monsters cards on top of the bigger bag and began bumbling down the angled staircase to where her friends were still chatting.
She went through every single room—just in case—before resigning herself to the fact that neither Mokuba nor Seto had remembered that today was the day of her big tournament. No, they were both too busy doing their own things to remember anything about her.
'So much for family,' Téa thought sadly. She removed a small notepad from a drawer in the kitchen and hastily scribbled a note that she left on the tiny end table near the stairs.
"Hey, the cab guys are sayin' they're gonna split if we don't get down there in five minutes. You ready, Téa?" Joey hollered.
"Yeah, I'm ready," she said, casting a backward glance at the solitary note sitting on the solitary table in the empty mansion. "I'm ready."
"The traffic wasn't as bad as it was earlier, now that most of the monsters have disappeared. I wonder why? Think they're all taking naps or something?" Mokuba quipped as he and Seto entered the mansion from the garage entrance. After the door clicked shut, Mokuba looked around curiously. "Wow, it's dead in here. I guess Big Sis isn't home yet."
Seto furrowed his brows, concerned. Téa had definitely left the construction site, hadn't she? Seto grimaced; he'd impulsively left before she had, and therefore had no idea where she was. He rounded the staircase in the hope that he'd see a light coming from their shared room upstairs, but the entire house was dark, save a single light over the entryway. Then he spotted it: a note on the end table. It took him only seconds to read it, glance at the nearest clock, and bolt back toward the garage.
"Big Brother? Hey, where are you going?" Seto tossed the note over his shoulder, which Mokuba readily caught and read. "Her tournament? No way! I can't believe we almost forgot about it! Are we gonna make it on time? You have to take me along, Big Brother, I can't just let her go without saying goodbye!"
"We will," Seto said with a grimace. "Come on." He gestured Mokuba toward his garage's newest acquisition: an imported bright blue and silver SSC Ultimate Aero TT, the fastest car on the planet.
"'Screw the laws, I have money'?" Mokuba quoted impishly, sliding into the passenger side door and reaching up to pull the passenger-side door closed.
Seto grinned, but only slightly. "Something like that." He slammed his own door shut and revved up the engine, speeding out the Kaiba Mansion garage in a matter of seconds, leaving only a cloud of leaves spiraling in his wake.
"Whoa, lotta people here," Joey observed after they got out of their respective taxis and inspected the harbor crowd. The area was thick with people, noisier than the docks probably were in the daylight hours, and the air smelled vaguely of fish.
"Lotta chicks," Duke observed, turning as one of those 'chicks' in a tight-fitting orange mini-dress walked by. "Hel-lo!"
Téa thwapped Duke soundly on the arm with the rolled-up tournament guide she'd remembered to bring from the mansion. Duke winced and bobbed his head lightly over one of his hands: the closest Téa supposed she'd ever get to an apology of any kind from Duke Devlin.
She unrolled the guide and glanced from its cover to the massive cruise ship teeming with people and glittering with lights. The photo on the front didn't do the Arielle justice: it was a massive white vessel with glistening lights covering nearly every surface, even the aft balcony which greeted Téa and the others upon their arrival at the harbor. The ship's name was emblazoned in a curling bold turquoise script with water lilies blossoming from the ends, a light blue rose-like shape coiled up behind it.
"They've definitely retrofitted the ship since I was last in this tournament," Rebecca chuckled abashedly.
Téa raised an eyebrow as she glanced at Rebecca, but she pursed her lips and didn't say anything. So what if Yugi was letting Rebecca hang all over him like she was some sort of decorative animal hide? So what if he was just standing there with his face all red and his eyes fixed to the ground, not doing a damn thing?
'Doormat,' Téa thought. She'd hoped he'd grown past this. She'd hoped he'd learned a little from Yami— at least one or two of the good qualities the Nameless Pharaoh possessed. Téa sighed deeply. Now wasn't the time to be thinking of him. Or any of them, really.
"You about ready?" Mai asked, clapping a manicured hand on Téa's shoulder. "Don't tell me you've lost your mojo before we've even gotten on board."
Téa was well versed at fake smiles by now, and it was one of these that she offered to Mai, ignorant of the narrow-eyed stare she got in return. "I'm as ready as I'll ever be."
She was about to turn and say her farewells to her friends when she heard a feminine squeal from over her shoulder.
"Oh my God, is that Yugi Moto?"
"What? The Yugi Moto? What would he be doing here?" another girl asked. Out of the corner of her eye, Téa could see the girl hopping up and down, trying to see over Téa's shoulder and the combined mountain of suitcases. Téa intentionally shifted her stance to hide Yugi even more from their inquiring gaze, grateful for once that Yugi wasn't as tall as the average Japanese boy.
"You should probably go," she whispered to Yugi, afraid that if she spoke at normal level, the hawk-eyed girls might also overhear her. "Before you get mobbed."
"She's right, Yugi-darling," Rebecca said, her tone grating on Téa's ears. "You don't want to be mobbed by a bunch of fangirls, do you?" Rebecca nodded in assent on Yugi's behalf, cutting off any chance of a reply from his own lips. For some reason, Rebecca's steely grip on Yugi's arm seemed to be affecting his ability to talk.
Téa rolled her eyes at the spectacle, mentally grousing, 'Oh, so now you're agreeing with me?' But she bit her lip and kept silent, gaze to the ground. She looked up once with another one of her should-be-patented false smiles, her eyes squeezed shut tight enough so the tears wouldn't fall and none of them— especially not Rebecca— could see the hurt lingering just under the surface.
"Well, I guess I'd better be going…." Téa turned away and grabbed the handles of her two suitcases, hoping that this way, it would be easier. Better, even. Her grip grew white-knuckled and her palms slippery, but she kept marching forward.
'I can't stop. This is finally my chance to break away from this, to finally show them…!'
She was barely two meters away from her friends when she heard a voice call out to her urgently.
No matter what her better judgment might have argued, Téa's body seemed to act of its own accord, freezing in place and swaying forward ever-so-slightly with the suddenness of her stop.
A small hand closed gently around one of her arms, but it was enough to get Téa to turn and wrench her gaze away from the glitter of the Arielle and her future. It was Yugi, who had miraculously wrested away from Rebecca and was now staring up at her with pleading eyes.
"Good luck, Téa," Yugi said, his voice just barely above a whisper.
"Yeah, kick ass and take names," Joey added, coming up beside Téa with Mai's suitcases in hand. Mai glanced at Téa with both of her suitcases in her own hands and yanked her bags from Joey with a scowl.
Tristan and Duke walked forward, both shouldering each other in an effort to be the closest. It was Tristan who finally won the match with a hard jab that left Duke wincing and grabbing his shoulder in pain.
"Uh…well, I'd say something witty and intelligent, except Yugi and Joey stole my lines."
"You shoved me aside for that? I could have come up with a better line, you monkey!" Duke said.
"Then why don't you, jerk wad? Hey Téa, bring me back a snow globe or somethin' okay?" Tristan winked. Téa nodded dumbly, but did her best to keep the smile on her face. She was beginning to feel like a plastic doll, her cheeks sore and her mouth cold from how wide her smile kept it.
'Does he really think this is some sort of pleasure cruise?' Téa wondered. 'What does he think I'm going on this trip for?'
But she didn't voice these thoughts aloud. She kept the fake smile on her face and her fingers wrapped tightly around her luggage grip. That was when she heard the sound that didn't belong; it wasn't the sound of fangirls squealing or of luggage wheels scraping across asphalt, but the distinct clack-clack of expensive Italian men's dress shoes hitting concrete, the sound of someone walking with decided purpose.
"Did you really think I'd let you leave without you saying goodbye to me?"
The blood in her veins ran cold, and had anyone but a mob of Yugi-fangirls seen her from the front, they would have seen her skin tint the color of ash. Subconsciously, one of Téa's hands slipped from her luggage grip to her stomach, where she could feel the volley of butterflies flapping like mad inside. She turned slowly; she simply couldn't force her body to move any faster.
Téa saw his brightly polished shoes first, then his all-white (pristine even at the docks; how was it possible?) pant leg. By the time her eyes had followed the swivel of her body, she knew who it was without a doubt in her mind.
"Seto…?" The question mark wasn't because she doubted her ears, doubted her eyes, but because she wondered why— or how!— he could be there.
She had yet to fully process his presence there—right in front of her—when he closed the distance between them and enveloped her in a breath-stealing embrace, willfully ignorant of the camera phone flashes snapping off all around them.
"Don't let anyone get in your way," he whispered, his breath hot on Téa's ear. His words seemed to lift the bright haze that had filled her mind, and now her brain rushed to fill the space with myriad thoughts.
"Seto, how…?" She pulled away and looked up at him, truly befuddled. How was he there? Why?
"Hey, good idea, group hug!" Téa heard Joey call, and in the next instant, Seto's husky voice turned into an outright snarl as he was pressed even closer against her by the force of the other boys hugging them from all sides.
"I'm going to kill that mutt," he growled under his breath. Téa couldn't help the smile that suddenly crossed her lips. Unlike the others she'd had this evening, this one was genuine.
She'd miss this. Not the bone-crushing hugs or the commentary from the peanut gallery, but the rapport she had with the others and they with each other. Her smile slipped though, upon realizing that, even if she felt this way, it didn't mean anything. It didn't change the whole reason why she was doing this, didn't change the fact that these moments were just brief flashes amid their bigger duels to save the world and solve the mystery of the Pharaoh's memories.
No one took a nostalgic, emotional girl seriously. She'd show them that memories and tears weren't all there was to Téa Gardner.
After this tournament, they would take her seriously. They'd respect her for who she was, not simply as some "cheerleader" that stood on the sidelines and didn't understand the true mechanics of a duel.
"Duke, if it's my shoulder you were going for, you missed," Téa murmured behind a forced grin. "And Joey, my boobs only provide minimal protection from your gorilla hugs. Tone it down a bit, will you?"
"Why don't we just…shake hands, guys?" Yugi suggested before Duke or Joey could comment. He was the first to pull away from the sandwich that was Seto and Téa, and as he stepped back, his eyes seemed to dart toward everyone but Téa herself.
"Gorilla, hmm?" Seto stroked his chin thoughtfully, glancing out the corner of his eyes at Joey. "I like that. Much more ungainly that just a simple 'mutt.' Fit to be caged."
"Now see what you've done?" Joey whined plaintively to Téa. "Gone and given him an idea!"
Téa chuckled briefly and shrugged her shoulders nonchalantly. "Sorry?" Joey's scowl only deepened; even he could tell she didn't mean it in the least bit. When Téa stepped forward to shake his hand, she had to extract it from where it crossed over his chest. The handshake Joey returned was limpid at first, but as Téa started to pull away, he squeezed her hand tightly, wordlessly, and then let her go.
This befuddled Téa, until Malik stepped forward. When he spoke, his words were soft and barely audible to Téa, less than a meter away. "Come back safely to us someday." He squeezed her hand once, not too tightly but not gently either, and then stepped away, a half-smile curling his lips.
It was Yugi she spotted next, standing in the same place he'd been before the group hug, his eyes to the ground and the toe of one of his shoes rubbing into the asphalt. Téa stuck her hand out, hoping Yugi would take it, but what he did instead nearly knocked the wind out of her: he took her proffered hand and swung it around himself, forcing Téa into a tight hug.
"I believe in you," he whispered, only loud enough for her ears. Téa pulled away a moment later—a moment that came all too fast for Yugi—and that was when he realized that of all the smiles she'd shown him that day, none had been real. But before he could formulate the words to ask, the gentle fake smile he'd seen her wearing all day returned to Téa's lips.
"I know," Téa responded. But who was she responding to? Was it her best friend Yugi that had hugged her tightly? Or had it been the enigmatic Pharaoh who'd whispered those words to her, words she'd been wishing for years he'd say? Long ago, she'd come to the conclusion that it would never happen, or he'd never mean it and it would all be pointless anyway. But now to finally hear them…no, it was useless after all. She was on her own now; she didn't need anyone's well-wishes. She would win in this tournament, and she'd do it because she had the skill to do so, not dumb luck or belief in some mystical "Heart of the Cards" or anything else.
She straightened up and put her hands on her luggage grips again, forcing another smile as she looked back at her friends. "I'd say it's go time."
Minutes later, they'd managed to weave through the throngs of people crowding the gangplank. A porter took Téa and Mai's suitcases ahead of them onto the ship, while Mai followed shortly thereafter, having kept her goodbyes short and sweet. Even now, her only gesture to Joey and the others was a simple two-fingered salute at her brow, a quick wink and the slightest of smirks gracing her lips.
'If I could only be so casual about this,' Téa thought, swallowing the acrid lump that had formed in her throat. She was having a hard time keeping her plastic smile in place; it was slipping only now that she was so close to saying goodbye.
"Téa, wait." Seto gripped one of Téa's wrists, stopping her halfway up the gangplank. The fact that he'd come as far as he had with her, while the others stood awkwardly below on the harbor seemed to have caught the attention of a great deal of people— Téa heard the murmur of the crowd again, saw the bright flash of camera bulbs out of the corner of her eye, felt the heat rise up to her neck.
"Take these," he insisted, abruptly pushing a thin stack of cards into Téa's hands.
Téa needed only to look at the top card before she began to sputter, "Seto, I couldn't possibly—"
"You can. You will," he stated firmly, leaving no room for argument. His hands had already fallen slack by his side; if she tried to push the cards back to him now, they'd flutter away in the ocean breeze.
"But—" It still wasn't right. These cards were—!
"No buts." His voice dropped an octave lower. "Please."
Téa sucked in a deep breath and dropped her head in a single nod. "Okay, but…I'm not going to promise I'm actually going to use them."
"Fine," Kaiba agreed, looking satisfied but, much to Téa's befuddlement, not smug. He wasn't treating this like a duel he'd won or an opponent he'd bested. He just looked…content.
'Like I need to be thinking about this before my big tournament!' Téa shook her head rapidly, as if expecting the motion would jiggle the tangle of thoughts in her head right on out her ears. It was time to go. Time to focus on something other than Pharaohs, God Cards, romance and Kaiba!
She bowed her head slightly and started walking up the gangplank again, thinking Seto would head back down so the last of the passengers could board. But instead, he let the space between them widen for only a moment before he grabbed her wrist again and this time spun her forcibly into his arms, tilting her back deeply before his lips claimed hers.
'Oh,' Téa thought, and then her mind went blank. She felt her eyes close as if weighted, and from there on out, it was just pure sensation: his lips moving warmly and expertly over hers, one hand gripping firmly at her hip, his heat seeming to soak through the shorts Téa was wearing. The moment his tongue pushed up against the seam of her lips, the blankness of Téa's mind vanished and she gripped him as tightly as he gripped her, one of her hands clenching at his shoulders while the other found its way past his iron grip and into the hair at the nape of Kaiba's neck.
She didn't know how many moments passed, how many camera bulbs she'd dimly seen flashing, or how many wolf whistles and catcalls she'd heard. But she was hyper-aware of the moment when Seto's hand dared to drop a few centimeters lower and he tried to hold her tighter, bend her back into his arms a bit further, and that was when she stopped. She pushed a hand firmly against his chest and stepped back at the same time, severing the intimate contact their upper bodies had been in only seconds before.
Seto was still standing there, his hair thoroughly mussed and his blue dress shirt collar sticking up. Téa smirked slightly and patted the offending fabric down before taking another full step back, acknowledging her friends on the harbor below with the same two-fingered salute that Mai had. She winked at them all and then turned around and didn't look back once.
As Kaiba descended the gangplank back down to the harbor, he caught sight of Joey practically stewing in his sneakers, looking quite peeved. He kept on scuffing the toe of his shoes on the ground only to realize the damage he was doing and then stopping to look up at Kaiba and growl under his breath. When Kaiba finally made it past the gates, Joey exploded with a string of shouts.
"Freakin' show-off! What are you, some sort of preying mantis, leaning Téa back so you can eat her head off? Yeesh!"
Before Kaiba could reply, a blonde that Kaiba hadn't taken notice of before—'Ah, that Hawkins girl'—piped up.
"What do you mean?" Rebecca asked, looking confused.
"You know, a preying mantis. They prey on things," Joey explained, standing up a little straighter as he did so. He completely missed Rebecca's jaw falling open in complete shock and the exaggerated roll of her eyes.
'Dumb mutt. Probably thinks he's smarter than Hawkins because he knows the name of an insect.'
"Actually," Rebecca said, pushing her red-rimmed glasses back up onto her nose, "It's a PRAYING mantis." She demonstrated a prayer pose and then dropped one hand to her hip. "And it's the female of the species that eats the male—not just his head, but the whole body—after she's mated with him."
Duke, Tristan and Joey all cringed uncomfortably, while everyone else gave a collective sigh.
Yugi shifted his weight from one foot to another and spoke aloud, his eyes still on the ship. "I noticed you gave Téa some cards, Kaiba."
Kaiba didn't respond, even when Joey, Duke, and Tristan all turned to glance at him. Yugi continued.
"Do you think she can win even without them?"
"That's why I gave them to her," Kaiba said with a confident smile.
"H-Hey!" Joey blustered. "Just what are you saying? Téa can duel just fine!"
"Joey, Joey," Yugi interrupted, trying to intervene before a full-fledged argument could break out and call too much attention to them. "I think Kaiba was saying he gave the cards to Téa not because she would have to use them, but she could, if she wanted to. I mean, he trusted her with them—"
"Whoa, whoa—just what kind of cards did you give her, Moneybags?"
Kaiba rolled his eyes at Joey and then sighed. Everyone was staring expectantly, and there was no point being close-lipped about it now, was there? They'd all find out about it sooner or later. Still, it was the mutt asking, and who was he to pass up an opportunity to goad Joey on? Sure, his treatment of the blond nowadays was a far cry from how he treated him a year ago, but things couldn't change too drastically in that regard.
"It's none of your damn business, mutt," Kaiba responded snidely, but his eyes glittered with anticipation that Joey would get all riled up and retaliate with a barrage of questions.
And retaliate he did: "What are you talkin' about, 'none of your business,' you—you—!"
"Joey, dude, calm down!" Tristan said, tugging on Joey's arm. "You're making a scene," he hissed, gesturing with his chin toward the crowd of people whose attentions were shifting from the ladies on the ship to the commotion Joey was making.
"Damn right I'm making a scene! Who do you think you are, Moneybags, shovin' some cards at Téa and then tryin' to pretend it never happened?"
Kaiba opened his mouth to dig at Joey a bit more before Yugi interrupted, his voice audible despite its softness. "You gave her the dragons, didn't you?"
Joey's bluster deflated like the air from a hot air balloon. "You—what?"
'Damn Yugi,' Kaiba cursed silently. As insightful and meddlesome as ever.
"Big step," Duke commented.
"Right, whatever. Yes, mutt, I gave her the dragons." He glanced off to the side, where there were at least a few people with their cell phones in hand. Who knew how many of them had the number of one of the ladies on the ship, and would reveal whatever he said to them? He wasn't going to put Téa's strategy at risk, even if she didn't plan to use the cards. "De-Fusion, Polymerization, a few other cards, too." He smirked when Joey started to turn red again, ready to bluster.
"But Big Brother, won't you need those cards?" Mokuba questioned curiously.
"Maybe, maybe not," Kaiba said carefully. He certainly didn't have any plans to get caught up in another adventure with Yugi, the mutt, and the rest of their motley crew, but…. The thought of the God Cards being in the wrong hands left Kaiba with the urge to find those three idiot motorcyclists, get the God Cards back and be done with it. But he couldn't. No, he wouldn't. He didn't need the God Cards anymore, didn't care about stupid titles or duels for vengeance. Let Yugi and his gang run around the world trying to be saviors. It wasn't his job to be part of that, no matter what associations he'd shared with them in the past.
'Let them think what they want.' They hadn't even bothered to tell him to his face that the God Cards had been stolen yet, or that there was a new threat involving a strange new card, monster sightings, and a Duel Disk that wasn't an authorized Kaiba Corp. model. There hadn't exactly been much time since he and Mokuba had arrived, and the crowds were still thick and swirling around them—hardly a time or place to be discussing sudden, secret, or strange-anything—but it was enough of an indicator to Kaiba that they didn't trust him as much as they all claimed.
'So much for friendship speeches and smiley faces,' Kaiba thought grimly as he watched the Arielle depart into the night.
"Well, well, well, if it isn't Mai Valentine."
A girl with thick, curly black hair, perhaps Téa's age or a bit older, sauntered up to them, confidence rolling off her in waves. She jutted her hip out, clad in a scarlet skirt that barely reached the ends of her thighs, and placed her arm with the Duel Disk II strapped to it on it. She cocked her head and eyed Mai and Téa critically, her brown eyes shifting up and down the girls as if she were a butcher inspecting meat.
"Aren't you supposed to be retired by now or something?"
"Excuse me?" Mai snarled icily, her violet eyes narrowing into slits.
"You heard me. Aren't you a little old to be at a 'Young Ladies' Duelist Tournament'?" the girl asked offhandedly, lifting her hand only briefly to make air quotes with her fingers. Before Mai could respond the girl continued, a smug smile creeping across her painted lips. "This isn't some two-bit tournament where sticking your breasts out and wearing skirts too short for your buttis going to help you any. There are no male duelists to distract here, in case you didn't know."
"I'm well aware of that, pipsqueak," Mai shot back, standing up a bit straighter in her high-heeled boots. She easily towered over the other female duelists present; without her heels, she was already 175 centimeters; with her boots on, she was easily 185, tall enough to be a super model and quite the intimidating female duelist. "But in case you missed the memo, I don't need distractions to win duels. If I did, I wouldn't have made it as far as the Duelist Kingdom semi-finals or the Battle City quarter-finals."
"Oh please," the girl snorted. "Duelist Kingdom may have been the first major tournament in Duel Monsters history, but it was a joke and Pegasus knew it. There were hardly any rules, and I heard he rigged it with his own 'player killers' anyway. And Battle City, well…I heard you were on your knees, begging for mercy from that Ishtar guy. And he still kicked your ass. You're a pathetic excuse for a female duelist role model if there ever was one."
Mai's rose-colored lips opened slightly, as if she were about to make a scathing retort, but Téa's fingers curling around her upper arm stopped her. The curly-haired duelist clearly noticed this gesture, her brown eyes flicking from Mai to Téa. For a split second, she almost seemed surprised— though whether because Mai Valentine had someone with her or because that someone was Téa Gardner—neither of them were sure. Heedless of speculation, the expression vanished as quickly as it arrived, and a devilish smile crept its way up the girl's lips, sending chills down Téa's spine.
"You," the girl sneered, thrusting her chin out at Téa. "I know you."
"Oh really?" Téa asked, an eyebrow raised in query. But before she could say any more, the girl with the thick curly black hair interrupted again.
"You're the little air-headed cheerleader who's always hanging around Yugi Moto and Joey Wheeler, like some kind of leech trying to suck off their fame," she sneered. "And on top of that, the newspapers are calling you Seto Kaiba's girlfriend? They should get their stories straight—you're probably nothing more than a cheap accessory to him, if that."
"Maybe you're the one that ought to go…suck off," Mai snapped, frowning. "Preferably back in whatever barnyard you came from." Mai didn't normally bother with crude insults or personal attacks—not at duelist tournaments, not anymore. Clearly, this dark-haired duelist had pushed one button too many in Mai's mind and that made her worthy of being taken down in the fastest way possible.
"Mai, don't," Téa said softly. "Let it go."
Mai wheeled on her feet, staring at Téa with her eyes ablaze. "Are you kidding me? You're just going to let this no-account stranger come up to you and tell you who you are, and whether you're worthy of being here?" Mai's violet eyes flitted off to the side, glancing at the smug curly-haired duelist without turning to face her. "What makes you think she even has the right?"
"By the way," Mai said, turning around to face the other girl, "I guess you missed it earlier when Seto Kaiba kissed Téa here in front of everyone before the ship left? Or when Yugi Moto and Joey Wheeler—you know, those duelists Téa's 'leeching' off of—hugged her so hard, told her they'd miss her so much, she nearly turned blue?"
The curly-haired duelist frowned, but quickly covered up her displeasure with a smirk. "An act, I'm sure. What would world-famous duelists want with someone like her? I know what you probably wanted from them, though," the girl continued. "You probably thought they'd all lend you a hand in this tournament, maybe give you a leg-up by association. Well, I hate to break it to you; it doesn't work that way here."
"I don't need anyone's 'leg-up,'" Téa snapped in a tight voice.
"Well, then, a pack of free cards," the girl said, refusing to back down. Her dark eyes seemed to sparkle when she saw Téa's expression falter in surprise. "Ah, hit the nail on the head, didn't I? I bet they managed to distract you with all that weepy fake talk about missing you that you just forgot to ask. I bet they wouldn't trust you with a cheap trap card, let alone any of their famous monster cards. And now you're on a ship of true duelists, probably without a clue what you're going to do. Maybe you should drop out now and swim back to shore while you still can."
Téa clenched one of her hands into a white-knuckled fist. The other hand closed tightly around her deck box where Seto's cards rested, innocently unexposed.
'I didn't want to take those cards from him in the first place, but he insisted. At first, I thought it was because he trusted me, but maybe he thinks I can't build my own tournament-worthy deck…?'
The curly-haired duelist leaned in toward Téa. "You know just as well as I do that you don't belong here," she said in a low whisper. Téa's eyes widened a fraction; her gaze was still riveted straight ahead, though focused on nothing in particular.
Though the other duelist could not see Téa's face from where she stood, her face mere centimeters from Téa's ear, she seemed to sense it, as a devilish smirk curled her lips. "You're just trying to fit into a world that doesn't suit you, because it's the only way they'll notice, and it's the only way they'll care. But let me save you some heartache: they won't notice. They won't care. And you won't win a single duel here."
The curly-haired duelist leaned back again, expecting to see a look of abject horror on Téa's face, but she found herself startled when the face looking back at her was anything but.
"If this is your idea of trying to trip me up so I'll show you my deck before a duel, so sorry; you lose," Téa said, her expression relaxed into a mask of eerie calm. "But I can guarantee you we'll finish this in the duel arena sooner or later. Come on, Mai." And with that, Téa turned on her heel and walked away. Mai smiled briefly before turning back to the baffled woman.
"I'm looking forward to that duel when she kicks your ass. And she's got a whole lot of powerful friends—Yugi, Kaiba, and Joey to say the least—who believe in her. She'll pull the rug from right out under you… and I'll be there laughing on the sidelines. See you, pipsqueak." Mai thrust a perfectly manicured hand up in a sharp wave before pivoting on her heel and following after Téa.
"Not bad digs for a pair of future championship-winning duelists, wouldn't you say?" Mai grinned as she glanced around her and Téa's assigned quarters. "Well, what do you think?"
Téa remained in the doorway, simply staring as though there were something through the side of the ship capturing her attention, or that held her spellbound. She didn't seem to notice the accouterments of the wide chamber at all, outfitted with two twin-size beds, a wide curtained window opening out onto a small private balcony, and a cushioned love seat covered in royal blue fabric.
"Don't tell me you're hung up on what that pipsqueak said back there," Mai said softly, putting a hand on Téa's shoulder. "Hell, you handled it better than I did! With…with finesse! Assuming that brat even gets seeded, you'll kick her ass and that'll be the end of it."
"Maybe," Téa murmured as she walked to one of the twin beds and set her bag down. "But Mai, you know…" She looked up at the older blonde, her expression suddenly distraught. "She was right. I never even met her before, but she just saw right through me."
"What are you going on about, Téa? Didn't I just tell you not to believe the bull coming out of that pipsqueak's mouth? She said all that stuff to unnerve you—Dueling 101: freak your opponent out. Come on, you've seen it enough times to know better!"
"I have, I know, I do, I do know better! But you know the reason why it works, the reason why it always works, whether it's some girl we've never met, or Joey, or Yugi, or Seto—it's all the same! She was right Mai, I don't belong here."
Mai's eyes narrowed again as she crossed her arms over her chest. "Then why are you here? Why did you challenge me to a duel and wipe the floor with me; why did you bother assembling a deck? Why did you accept the cards—from Malik, from Pegasus—"
"From Seto, too," Téa interrupted softly. "He gave me these." She withdrew the fifteen cards—enough to function as a side deck, if she so desired— from her deck box, fanning the cards out in her palm.
Mai only needed to see the top half of one of those cards before she withdrew a sharp breath and sat down on the bed beside Téa, her angry expression melted away. "I can't believe it…" Her eyes lifted to meet Téa's forlorn gaze. "Are you going to use them?"
"How can I, Mai? It'd be like admitting that girl—that 'no account pipsqueak'— is right!"
"How so?" Mai asked, baffled. "She thinks you're just some bimbo hanging off the fame those boys enjoy as top-ranked duelists—she doesn't get how close you really are with them. And Christ, Téa, Seto Kaiba gave you— you, his girlfriend, not his plaything or accessory—his Blue-Eyes White Dragons! Not one, not two, but all three! If that's not a show of trust, I don't know what is!"
Téa furrowed her eyebrows, looking distressed again. "Maybe…but isn't he basically saying that no deck I could put together would ever be tournament-worthy? That I couldn't win if it were just me and my cards, my decisions?"
"You're reading too much into it," Mai assured her. "If he were thinking that way, he wouldn't have handed you fifteen cards, he would have handed you forty. Hell, he would have sat down with you and analyzed your deck before letting you out of the house. He would have forced you to take that massive suitcase of cards with you that he's always hauling around. Forget the tournament rules about bringing no more than forty cards and a side deck. He'd tell you, 'Screw the rules, I'm Kaiba!' or something."
Téa couldn't help the smile that curved her lips at that moment. "He probably would have said something like that. But you know, Mai, he didn't."
"That's right. He trusted you to make your own decisions. And that includes choosing whether or not to use those cards. Now, you mind showing me your deck? You don't have to worry about me selling you out or anything—I want you to win, remember?"
Téa didn't hesitate as she removed her deck from the box. Mai shuffled through the cards quietly, mentally taking note of those cards that she'd seen before— in Téa's previous deck, when they'd last dueled— and which were new. There was a whole host of cards that Mai had never even heard of in there as well.
'These must have been the ones she mentioned getting from Pegasus. She only could have done better if she'd convinced Yugi to hand over his God Cards.'
"He knows you," Mai smiled briefly. "He didn't try to turn your deck into his deck. All the cards he gave you will support what you've already got."
"I didn't even show him my deck," Téa said softly. "I didn't—I was afraid. That he'd say it was terrible, that I'd never be able to win—"
"Didn't we already go over this? If he really thought that, why would he have only given you fifteen cards, and not a whole new deck? This is Kaiba, here—didn't he like, hack into Pegasus' satellite mainframe or something just to make your birthday present?"
"Yeah," Téa murmured, smiling. "Yeah, he did."
"He's mostly a good guy," Mai said, leaning back. "Thing is, even though the guys do so much for you, try to take care of you, they don't even know how to take care of themselves. Our time away from them will be just as much a test for them as it is for us. Think they can last without us?"
Téa grinned. "Seto can, I think. As for the others…."
Mai cocked an eyebrow. "You're awful sure about a guy that couldn't seem to take his suction cup lips off you. I mean, come on, what kind of a guy puts his girlfriend in the spotlight like that, in front of thousands of people?"
Téa blushed the color of a maraschino from the base of her neck to the roots of her hair. "It wasn't that bad…."
"Wasn't it?" Mai lifted a manicured finger up. "Never let a guy put you in a position like that, Téa. Always stay on top."
Téa's color deepened to a pomegranate shade. "Mai…" she muttered, shifting uncomfortably.
"I'm serious, Téa," Mai said, though she was smirking through her lipsticked lips. "You know the praying mantis? The female of the species is the one that tops the male, and then bites his head off and eats him when she's done."
Téa blinked at Mai, pursing her lips together in an effort not to laugh. Instead, she said, "Have you been hanging out with Weevil lately?"
Mai smacked Téa lightly on the head with her own rolled-up tournament guide. "No, smart ass. Why do you ask?"
Téa abruptly sobered up, remembering Weevil's empty eyes and monotonous voice, doom saying the end of the world. "Earlier, we ran into him. He…wasn't himself."
"Uh, details, Téa? I'm not the Evening Star, here. You can tell me what happened."
"He looked like he'd had his soul sucked out of him," Téa said flatly. "He was wandering around Domino like a zombie, predicting the end of the world."
"And?" Mai asked. "You took a picture and left him there?"
"No," Téa said slowly. "Mai, promise me that what's said in here doesn't leave this room."
Both of Mai's eyebrows shot to her hairline. "You're not going to tell me you smuggled Bug Boy home and had your way with him, are you?"
Téa's eyes widened to the size of saucers. "Eew, Mai, are you kidding me? No!" Then she quieted, staring at her folded hands resting in her lap. "The God Cards were stolen. The guys and I went after the people who took them, and then this freaky guy calling himself 'Gurimo' challenged Yugi to a duel."
"Par for the course," Mai said. "Okay. Go on. I get the feeling that this wasn't a regular card game."
"Is it ever?" Téa quipped. "Long story short, Yugi won, but Gurimo didn't have the cards. And when all was said and done, he was just as much a zombie as Weevil—and Rex, too—was earlier."
Mai whistled low under her breath. "Let me get this straight: it's raining monsters, duelists are turning into zombies, and the God Cards are back out on the loose? Yeesh, now I'm glad we left Japan."
Téa gave a half-hearted chuckle. "I'd agree with you, but is it really okay to be leaving them like this?"
Mai shot up from where she was sitting. "Are you kidding me? Of course it is! Besides the fact that we've been planning this for months, you should be relieved! You're getting away from that madness and being sensible about it, too. Why do you always have to be the ones off saving the world or investigating weirdness?"
"Yeah," Téa whispered. "Yeah…."
"Don't look so bent out of shape," Mai said, clapping a manicured hand onto Téa's shoulder.
"The guys didn't seem too upset about me leaving despite all this craziness. Maybe they don't need me after all."
"Maybe you don't need them," Mai revised. "Why do you always put them first? Remember: always stay on top."
"So you're saying I should eat their heads off?" Téa asked with a grin.
"You planning on mating with all of them, or just Bug Boy?"
The laughter from Mai and Téa's suite filtered out into the hall, bringing a smirk to the lips of the one person out there.
He wasn't eavesdropping, per se…he had a job to do. He shouldered himself away from the wall and returned to a shallow alcove a couple feet away. He adjusted a few wires in a box there, just a few meters from the girls' suite door, and then snapped it shut quietly. Using the sleeve of his left arm, he rubbed the slight sheen of sweat that had formed on his brow. He longed to toss the ridiculous crewmember's hat he had to wear off his head and just let his wild brown hair be free, but he had to keep up the charade for just a bit longer. A little bit of discomfort on his end was no problem…not with the payoff he was going to get.
He replaced the hat on his head, altering the brim so it sat at cocked atop his mop of naturally spiky hair.
A young female duelist coming down the hall looked at him curiously. "Evenin' miss," he said, only barely disguising his accent. The girl passed him, her eyes never leaving his, her cheeks burning a brilliant-red upon catching sight of his smirk.
Oh, yes, the payoff would be huge.
Wow. This chapter was over a year in the making. I've never taken so long to write a chapter, and for that, I do apologize. But I'd never want to put out anything I wasn't completely satisfied with, and with the help of numerous people, most especially Aelibia, I'm finally happy with this chapter.
I've had a few people say that WDKY's gotten to the point where it's too long to read; this fic isn't and has never been for them. I realize that with lengthy chapters and long spans of time between updates, it's a harder read, but my hope is that the story itself will compel you to read and enjoy again and again, and discover more to the universe with each re-read.
That said, there are only (!) 10 chapters to go! I hope you'll stay with me, as it's been a heck of a ride so far and will only get more exciting from here.
Thank you, reader, for coming this far with me. Let's go the rest of the way together!