Disclaimer: (which Seto refused to let me post this chapter without): Seto Kaiba (cold, severe, unsmiling bastard that he is) is in no way responsible for the severe mushiness DSF forces him to exhibit in this epilogue. He especially despises the ending and will deny this whole thing ever happened should you ask him tomorrow.
And, since at least one person asked- I did think about a sequel to this, dealing with Bakura's possession of the Millennium Rod, the link that still exists between the Rod and Serenity ('member that? :P), and Seto and Téa's fragile relationship. But… even after outlining all that for you, I'm going to pass on this one. It's partly due to a lack of real interest on my part, partly due to severe time and energy constraints this year. If anyone else wants to do it, feel free to as long as you tell me beforehand. I'm not trying to get anyone to do it- I've just had previous experiences with people wanting to write my sequels. Like I said, fine by me if that's something that interests you.
Seto waited all day to approach Téa. His reason was obvious: This was the first day in two months she'd come to school without a cast, and everyone was crowded around her, wishing her luck. He stayed away from the throngs of people, for the most part. Yugi and most of their friends had been pushed to the edge of the crowd as well, taking it with a grin. After all, it had been they who had been by her side the most, and they had faith that they'd be spending a lot of time with her in the future.
Seto, on the other hand, had barely spoken to Téa since she got discharged from the hospital four days after him. He'd visited her twice; once while she was asleep. He'd sat by her bed for an hour, ignoring the grateful thanks of her parents, before quietly standing up and exiting without any fanfare. He'd passed by Yugi and Wheeler on his way out, but the three of them reached some form of mutual understanding and ignored each other.
The second time, he'd hovered around the hospital until all her friends were gone, then slipped in after hours. She'd sensed his need to not be praised for all his brave deeds- he'd had quite enough of that from Mokuba and Serenity- and they'd carried on a quiet, inane conversation on all the homework they'd been assigned in the week they'd been absent. Seto slipped out before long, avoiding all the nurses who'd come to recognize him. He'd gone straight home and slept for ten hours.
But once they were both back at school, things returned to normal, except that they each had half the class hanging over their shoulder at any given moment. Seto had dispersed of his admirers soon enough, after vowing to decapitate whoever had gone around gushing about his bravado. Téa had been her perpetual cheerful self, with a smile for everyone and a gift for turning the conversation away from herself. Sometimes he wondered about her. How could she stand it all?
He was pretty sure he was the only one, aside from Yugi, Joey, and Tristan, who saw how her eyes glazed over and her thoughts drifted after putting up with the rest of the goons in their class for long enough.
At lunch on the first day Téa came back without a cast, Seto was sitting in his usual isolated spot in the cafeteria. The table Téa usually sat at with Yugi, Joey, Tristan, and Duke was swamped with students. He couldn't catch a glimpse of any of them, least of all Téa, so he wasn't really aware of Yugi's absence until the boy came up and sat across from him.
Seto glanced up slowly, raising an eyebrow. Yugi simply beamed back at him, as if this was the most natural thing in the world.
"Hey, are we sitting here today?" an infamous voice- at least in Seto's book- sounded, and Wheeler swung a leg over the chair and plopped down next to Yugi. Tristan soon joined them, sitting next to Joey and putting his feet up on the next chair over; and Duke took the seat on the other side of Yugi.
The four boys began talking happily about the newest cards in Duel Monsters, and then Duke mentioned Dungeon Dice Monsters, and their conversation shifted to that for a little while. Seto ate in silence, listening to them talking. It didn't hit upon him that he was listening to them for a few minutes- and the thought didn't bother him as much as it should have. It wasn't like he was doing it intentionally, after all. And it was kind of nice (but he'd die before saying that aloud).
"Hey," Tristan said, switching conversation topics abruptly. "Whatever happened to the Millennium Rod?"
Everyone at the table, Seto included, stiffened varying degrees. And everyone, even Seto, leaned in unconsciously to form a circle, so no one else could listen in.
"I went back to the forest to look for it the next day," Yugi said solemnly. "But it was gone. I couldn't even remember where it was thrown, but I trampled everything in a circle for at least fifty feet around the tower. Nothing."
"The growth is really thick in that area," Duke said dubiously. "Mai and I got separated because I got stuck in a patch of thorns. The Rod could be tangled up in some bush or tree, and you'll never find it."
"Maybe," Yugi said grimly. "You'd think my Puzzle could sense it, though…"
"Maybe you can get Ryou Bakura to help you," Tristan offered.
"Yeah, his Ring is supposed to be able to find the other items, right?" Joey chimed in.
Slowly, everyone's gazes turned to Ryou. He was eating across the room with a small group of other students renowned for their quiet personalities; they were all spread out slightly so they weren't too close. Some were doing homework; Ryou was reading a book.
"I'll ask him later," Yugi said slowly, something flickering in his eyes.
Seto shrugged, then realized what a bad move it was. He just called attention to himself. Joey looked directly at him, then moved his gaze around the table. Everyone realized at once that they were in such a small, tight circle.
Seto pulled back, embarrassed, but Joey dove into his backpack. "Hold on, I've got a marker," he said, his voice muffled from under the table.
Seto raised an eyebrow at Yugi. Yugi and Tristan were rolling their eyes and grinning. "Hands out," Yugi said cheerfully, putting his right hand out. Tristan stuck his out to join him. Realization struck Duke, and his eyes abruptly turned grateful and happy. He finally felt like he belonged somewhere. Slowly, he put his hand out to join his friends'.
Joey emerged from rummaging around his backpack, clutching a permanent marker and grinning with triumph. "Okay," he said, sticking his hand out and nearly completing the circle. "Come on, Kaiba. This stuff might not wash off, but you'll lose the top layer of your skin eventually, so no worries."
"What?" Seto asked, highly doubtful, and stubbornly crossing his arms.
"Come on, Kaiba," Yugi encouraged as well. "Put your hand in the circle."
"The circle of friendship," Tristan added, ignoring Kaiba's snort.
"I'm gonna mark us with a special sign," Joey quipped, sounding like he was quoting someone. Yugi grinned, and Duke hadn't lost his sappy, glazed-over look. Seto rolled his eyes at Devlin. He was not going to act like that. He wasn't grateful that Yugi and Joey and Tristan had decided to take him in, or whatever. He didn't need friends.
"Palm down, Kaiba," Joey said cheerfully.
"Any day now," Tristan added, bobbing his own hand up and down vigorously.
Without his consent, Seto's right hand snaked out to join the other four. 'Come back here!' he commanded it, but it didn't listen. 'Stupid hand! Traitor! No, no, NO!'
The second Seto's hand bumped sides with Tristan and Duke's, Joey started scribbling across the five of them. "There!" he said proudly.
Seto stared at the mess on the back of his own hand, then the drawing as a whole. "What's that supposed to be?"
"It's a lock," Joey declared, looking injured.
Seto snickered despite himself. "A lock?"
"I'm with Kaiba on that one," Tristan said, shaking his head. "It looks more like a Kuriboh after it's been mauled by one of his Blue-Eyes."
"Hey!" Yugi and Joey protested at the same time.
"I think it looks like a lock," Yugi said loyally. Joey grinned.
"Mauled by a Blue-Eyes," Tristan repeated quietly. He, Duke, and Kaiba all shook with quiet laughter.
And then Seto realized he'd just laughed.
At a joke told by Tristan.
What was this world coming to? What was wrong with him?
His eyes abruptly came into contact with Téa. She was staring at their group longingly from across the room. They met gazes briefly before more of her friends closed in around her and she was cut off from his sight.
Yugi must have seen Téa as well, because he piped up. "Oh, but Joey! What about Téa? She deserves to be marked, too!"
'Branded, more like,' Seto thought wryly. 'I've been branded as one of them. Good grief, what will Mokuba do?'
'Cheer, most probably. And eat cake. And make me eat cake.'
"No worries, buddy," Joey assured Yugi. "You know I'd never forget about Téa."
"What are you going to do?" Duke asked skeptically.
"On her hand?" Joey grinned in self-satisfaction. "She's gonna get the key."
They took a moment to appreciate Joey's profoundness, then Duke broke the silence. "I'll draw it," he said, snatching the marker from Joey and sliding back his chair. "You can't draw for anything."
"Hey!" Joey protested, but Duke was already crossing the room. Tristan snickered a little, and hurried after Duke. Joey heaved a sigh, and plunked his elbows down on the table. "I'm not appreciated," he muttered.
"No, I think you're appreciated for about all you're worth," Seto said with a sly grin. It took Joey a moment to catch on.
"Guys," Yugi sighed, reprimanding them lightly. "Quit fooling around."
A voice in the back of Seto's head was screeching in protest. 'Fool around? I don't fool around! Particularly not with Wheeler!' He ignored it.
"Anyway, it was a good idea, Joey," Yugi continued. "We've all been through a lot with- and for- Téa." Seto and Joey both nodded lightly in agreement.
"You know," Yugi said, leaning back in his chair and deliberately not looking at Kaiba, "I've heard a lot about people in stressful situations. How it tends to throw them together."
"Yeah, that's true," Joey said agreeably, not noticing how Seto had stiffened slightly. "I never thought I'd be friends with- ah, never mind."
Yugi rolled his eyes. "Yeah, it can get people to be friends, and sometimes more. When people share a common life-threatening experience- even risk their lives for one another- it brings out new emotions. It's even caused people to fall in love before." Satisfied, he took a bite of his sandwich.
Joey looked like someone had dumped a bucket of water on his head as he tried to work out what Yugi meant. "…Huh? Are you talking about you and Ishizu?"
Yugi choked on his food. "Ishizu? What? Since when-? Jo-ey!" he said in frustration. "You are so dense!" He shoved his chair back and stomped out of the room. "Bell's going to ring in a few," he shot back over his shoulder, throwing the remainder of his lunch in the trashcan forcibly.
"Huh? What'd I say?" Joey also pushed back his chair and followed him.
The bell rung then, an ear-splitting and highly irritating sound. Seto rose slowly, lost in his own thoughts. Through the crowd, he saw Téa again. Again, she was staring right at him. When their gazes locked, she shot him a small smile and held up her hand to display the key. His heart clenching, he slowly lifted his hand to show her the scribbled lines.
Maybe Yugi knew more than he'd given him credit for.
And Wheeler wasn't full of bad ideas all the time. Just 99 of it.
After school, as Seto was walking out the door, he distinctly heard Téa's voice. "No, you guys don't need to walk me home," she was telling her friends. "I'll be fine on my own. I could use a peaceful walk."
Amid the chorus of good-byes, Seto's pace doubled. He made it out to his car in record time, threw his briefcase in ahead of him, and gave the driver very new and very specific directions.
When Téa rounded the bend two blocks from her street, she found Seto waiting for her, just as she'd known he would be. He was alone, and somehow changed out of his school uniform. He was standing with his back to her, a light breeze ruffling his hair and wrapping his stark-white trenchcoat around his legs.
Approaching him steadily, the warm feeling in Téa's chest grew until she was standing directly behind him. She waited, not saying anything. After a minute, Seto turned around.
"Hi," she said softly, grateful she spit the word out without stuttering. But she was blushing, she could feel it.
"Hi." They held gazes, for much longer this time. Then Seto slowly held an arm out. "May I carry your bag?"
Her face tomato-red, she handed it over without thought. "Where's your stuff?"
"In the car." He didn't elaborate. They began walking again, very slowly, not exchanging any words for a while.
"We haven't really talked for two months," Téa said quietly.
"I know…" Seto's voice trailed off, and she snuck a quick peek at his eyes. Was that guilt she was seeing there? Surely not.
"I wanted…" Once again, his voice trailed off, and he blew out an exasperated breath. Why couldn't he just say what he meant?
"I wanted to give you some space," he said finally. "You went through one hell of a nightmare. I didn't want to just… I thought you needed some time to heal."
'Does that mean…'
"You were probably right," Téa admitted to herself. "I couldn't have handled starting… anything."
"Time to heal," Seto repeated quietly to himself. Inside, his heart was soaring. 'Does she mean…'
"Do you think two months is time enough?" she asked rhetorically, stopping in her tracks. He turned to face her.
"That's up to you," he said quietly.
For the first time, she thought about it. Moments passed, the late afternoon sky etched in perfect blue, with lazily drifting plumes of white. The sun was in Seto's eyes, and he bowed his head down to escape its blinding rays.
"Two months is time enough to start the healing process," she answered finally. "But I don't think I'll heal alone."
"You'd never have to," he replied automatically. "You have all your friends."
She nodded slowly, tentatively putting her hand out. "I have my friends to guard my soul. Will you…"
"Will I what?" he asked in a whisper, taking her hand oh-so-gently.
She started to say something, then thought better of it. Carefully rephrasing her words, she asked quietly, "Will you help keep my heart safe?"
Seto took a deep breath, rubbing his thumb over the key scribbled on her pale flesh.
"As long as I can."
They started walking again, Seto holding Téa's hand as carefully as he would hold something made of spun glass. But her grip tightened on its own, and so he grasped it more firmly.
When they said good-bye at her doorstep, Seto leaned down slightly, as if preparing to kiss her. But there was something in her eyes, something small, frightened, and insecure. So instead he lifted her hand and brushed his lips against it, then released her quickly. He didn't miss the relief in her eyes.
But neither did he miss the faint traces of longing as she leaned against the frame of the door, watching him make his way out of her driveway and down the street. Then the door swung open behind her and her parents stepped out, and Seto stopped his progress to watch them embrace. Téa laughed at something, her clean shiny hair swinging around her porcelain face. Her crystal blue eyes were alive again.
Seto continued on his way; birds were singing off in the distance and he felt ridiculously happy. Téa was starting to heal. Physically, she was 100 better, as the removal of the cast and the regaining of her outer beauty had symbolized.
Emotionally and mentally, she had been scarred. Marik's twisted playing with her mind- both figuratively and literally- had left scars on her. But that was something they had in common. Seto had scars too, scars from his past, that he'd tried countless times to destroy. But he was finally starting to understand something about healing, and that was that it didn't happen all at once. You needed time to heal; you couldn't jump into new things right away. And maybe two battered people could find each other, and that would help the healing.
He had Mokuba. Mokuba had Serenity. Serenity had her older brother. Wheeler had Yugi. Yugi had Téa. Téa had… him.
Most importantly, they all had each other.
He was accustomed to patience. He could wait for Téa to heal. And he would be there every step of the way, to guide her, just as her other friends would be.
Nightmares didn't last forever. Eventually, you would wake up, and there would be the clean air and the beautiful sky and the sweet grass and the friends that were real.
And that did last forever.