Author's notes: (May 20/05) Just more revisions and editing. Chapter 3 should be out sometime in June. Thanks everyone!
People are always saying that life is full of surprises. What they don't include is that death is full of surprises too. Not what happens after death – the living can't come to any valid conclusions regarding that – but every little piece of it left to be picked up by those who are around it.
I was never told about all the shrapnel that would be flung at me after you died, projectiles I couldn't avoid. Why wasn't I cautioned to duck? They still hit me, all these little moments of quick, sudden pain, heart twisting, stomach dropping out of nowhere.
Then you learn things about yourself, things that death tells you where life would have kept it a secret, things death brings along when it shows up without warning. It carries a beam to shed light on all the shadowed areas of life that you'd never think to explore, and you realize what you've been missing.
I've learned from life, and now I've learned from death too. Unexpectedly, these experiences all weave themselves into your existence, defining who you are and shaping how everything ultimately appears to you.
And then there are people. I think it's people who end up surprising you the most.
Téa had never realized how much she liked the color brown.
When referred to by name, it was a shade that always brought connotations that were dull and drab. Cardboard, for example, arguably the most boring substance on the planet was brown. Mud was brown.
Then there was Seto Kaiba. The rich brown of his hair, strands of chocolate, chestnut, and coffee interwoven to produce something entirely unique. Dusky brown made up his sleek office desk, dark and deep enough to fall only a few shades short of black. The leather couch in the corner on which she sat was warm brown, soft, safe cinnamon molding to her tired body.
She liked it here in his office, surrounded by all that was modern, expensive, and tasteful. State-of-the-art technology decorated the classic desk. The walls were the color of desert sand, the furniture mellow and inviting. It smelled of leather, coffee, and Kaiba's cologne, the lighting was even and natural.
And there was the activity. His voice, low, but sharp, stern, and commanding responded to the recurrent chiming of the phone. The occasional tapping of keys on the keyboard was heard, or clicking of the mouse at his computer.
His secretary, professional but with a sweet appearance raced in periodically with faxes, and messages, and energy, ticking heels muffled by the coal-colored carpet. Her voice would mingle with his, soft and lilting against his deep and solid.
Not a word passed between Téa and Kaiba, the former content to observe and absorb, keeping her promise to stay out of the way. The latter was too busy to engage her, and apparently determined to make his displeasure known; for while he didn't talk to her, he'd intermittently scowl in her general direction.
She watched him, taking in every action, every subtle nuance and remote act that collaborated to produce this complex man. Each motion was fluid and deliberate with him, there were no nervous ticks or absent movements.
He reminded her oddly of the ballet instructors she was around all day with each muscle under their control, moving with grace that was born of strength rather than delicacy. That she could see something of herself - the dancer - in him was strange but she knew their similarities were limited.
Dancers would fall and stumble from time to time; they'd go home, take down their hair and wash off their intricate make-up, and burn dinner. Kaiba seemed to have complete unfaltering control of every aspect of his life, from his muscles to his emotions to his associations with people.
How could he be so strong and in charge, so full of knowledge and strategy at not quite 20?
She wondered, and watched, and then let her attention drift to the book she'd found on his desk – a collection of scientific articles debunking so-called 'paranormal phenomenon.' It was interesting, but she couldn't get pulled in completely. While she read, Kaiba's presence lingered in the background like soft music, gently tugging at the edges of her consciousness.
Eventually, Téa set the journal aside and sank back into snug leather cushions, closing her eyes, listening, smelling and feeling everything around her. She let Kaiba, intimidating, arrogant, powerful Kaiba soothe her just by existing in the same space as her, steady and confident.
Lulled by the surroundings, her exhausted body, and worried, bereaved mind, finally succumbed to sleep.
It wasn't until shadows began to fall across his office, that Seto finally called it a day. His secretary and most of the other staff had already gone home, and Mokuba had at least hoped to have a late dessert with him tonight if he couldn't make dinner.
He rose from his chair in one fluid motion and packed up his laptop to take home with him. Then he looked over to the leather couch in the corner and the crumpled form of the girl who'd occupied the space for hours. He had noticed the exact moment when she fell asleep. In tune with the atmosphere of the room, it had seemed to almost shift when she drifted out of consciousness.
That had been four hours ago and she'd hardly moved since aside from the slightest adjustments of position and her even, shallow breathing.
Kaiba supposed he'd have to wake her; it didn't seem as though she intended to rise any time soon and he couldn't just leave her here. Plus she'd probably need a ride home or somewhere equally as inconvenient to him, but then that's what he got for agreeing to such an outlandish request to begin with. He should have known better, he did know better but somehow, for some reason he couldn't even decipher himself, he'd relented.
This annoyed the young CEO to no end. He did everything for a reason, each move was calculated, actions planned, plotted, and smoothly executed. It was beyond disconcerting to find himself doing something he could provide no explanation for. To let himself be coerced and manipulated by the saddest pair of large blue eyes he'd ever seen. Eyes that every other time he'd seen them were sparkling, vivid, bright blue, and were now a still-lovely smoky shade resembling a stormy sky.
He wondered absently if she would ever reclaim that spark that used to make her eyes glitter so, that swing in her step, bounce in her hair. It was a thought that really had no emotional investment but was rather simple, almost clinical curiosity.
Seto approached her quietly and as he drew near, couldn't help but notice how vulnerable Téa looked at rest. She was positioned with her back against the sofa, arms wrapped around her stomach and long, lithe legs drawn in towards her as though she was scared and defensive.
Her brow was slightly creased and her parted pink lips turned downwards in a slight frown. She was so pale, ivory skin marred only by the black eyelashes brushing her cheeks. Silky brunette locks were spread out on the leather cushion she was using as a pillow, surrounding her face a dark halo.
She appeared oddly angelic; wistful, feminine beauty like a painting in a cathedral, and it felt almost… sacrilegious to disturb such a picture.
He finally stood before her, throwing a shadow over her serene form. Téa's frown deepened in her sleep, an unconscious response as though she knew what was coming and didn't want to return to the waking world just yet.
She shifted so she was pressed more firmly against the couch, a soft, almost inaudible whimper escaping her lips. The sound grabbed hold of something inside him, and for one fleeting moment Seto felt an overwhelming need to protect her.
It sent him reeling. Where the hell had that come from? How could the simple sight of a sleeping girl trigger such a strong emotional response in the young man who was defined by his tightly reigned emotions? He barely knew the girl, didn't even like her, and yet something about her in this exact moment, frail and asleep, and alone, got to him.
He didn't like this. Too many questions he could find no answers for, too many moments of weakness, and all because of her. Seto brushed off the feeling, temporary as it was now that his brain had resumed functioning properly. It was ridiculous he knew; she was not an angel or a work of art, but a young, flawed, peculiar 19-year-old girl who drew contentment of some sort just from being near him. Who'd pathetically begged just to be in the same room as him.
With a scowl that was almost trademark, Kaiba kneeled before the couch and shook Téa's shoulder in a gentle, but decidedly businesslike manner.
"Wake up Gardener."
"Yugi…" she murmured softly as she roused.
He was prepared for the twinge of sympathy and protectiveness this time, but he still didn't like it. In fact, it bothered him that much more.
Her eyes opened, blinking rapidly to chase away the lingering visions of her dreams.
"Kaiba?" her voice was quiet, raspy perplexity, "What time is it?"
"A little after six," he crisply informed her, "You've been asleep since two."
"Oh," she sat up, stretching smoothly, "I was so tired."
"Yes, I noticed."
"I can't believe I skipped all my afternoon classes," she continued groggily. Then she looked up at him, meeting his gaze with eyes that were clearer now, bluer, and less dull than they'd been earlier that afternoon, "Thank you, Kaiba. I can't tell you how much I needed this."
"Sleep?" he raised an eyebrow, "I'd think you could have just as easily gotten that at home."
"You'd think," she agreed. "But lately it's been kind of absent. I think maybe Joey stole it."
Her smile was wan and lifeless as though the inside joke she was sharing with herself wasn't the 'ha-ha' kind of funny. She looked sad, still tired – an emotional fatigue that no amount of sleep could cure.
Lately, she'd said that sleep had abandoned her. It didn't take a genius (which Seto incidentally was) to crack that code and realize the generalization encompassed all the time since Yugi passed away.
It wasn't hard, even for someone like him, to feel sorry for her. He had always respected Yugi Mouto, even grown to like him at some point, and was genuinely sorry when the boy had died. But Kaiba hadn't shared the intense connection, unbreakable friendship, and unconditional love he'd had with Téa and the other two guys that formed the core of their often-changing group.
To Téa the loss was great and he imagined she must feel something akin to what he would feel if he lost Mokuba. He didn't even like to think about such a devastating tragedy.
"Come on," he rose from his kneeling position and indicated with his eyes that she should do the same, "I'll take you home."
"Actually, my car is a lot closer," she told him, "If you could just take me to it, I can drive home."
"Fine," turning on his heel he moved towards his office door prompting her to follow.
Téa struggled to keep up with his brisk pace while he walked quickly towards the elevator, her limbs clearly still boneless after being at rest for so long. But she recovered quickly and was already by his side once he stopped to hit the down button.
In spite of the 72 floors they had to pass on the way down it didn't take long for them to reach the main lobby and the limo waiting outside immediately after. Seto informed the driver of the detour they'd be taking on the way to the mansion and Téa politely gave him directions to her college campus where she'd parked her car in the student lot.
Once they were on the road, she fixed her eyes on him like she had so many times throughout the day when she thought he hadn't noticed. He didn't know why he should be an object of such interest to the girl, why she gravitated towards him.
All the times he'd encountered her before she was courteous at best and outright insulting on other occasions. There was never any real camaraderie between them and she'd never expressed any desire to change that.
But today was different, she was different. Pale, tired, and sad-eyed, oddly… resigned for somebody so young. Like she'd seen a terrible vision of her future and had accepted it without protest. But her eyes had brightened slightly, demeanor relaxed subtly when she had seen him. It wasn't even that she was fixated on him out of attraction or desire; that was something he dealt with all the time from various women and could understand.
This, on the other hand, was something else entirely. She did not look at him with lust; there was no flirting, seduction attempts, or nervous blushing. She didn't try to engage him in idle banter, or initiate physical contact of any kind, or drop hints. He wasn't expected to entertain her, or talk to her, or even look at her. She wanted nothing from him but his presence, and in it found some kind of solace.
Seto Kaiba was not accustomed to people other than Mokuba feeling comfortable with him; his vibe was one that set people on edge. He preferred it that way. Why now after all this time should he be a source of… was it safety for her?
"You're watching me," he said finally when his confusion had reached its peak. He did not like feeling confused.
"Does that bother you?"
He turned to meet her eyes, "Why do you do it?"
She glanced over his shoulder while she considered it, then met his gaze again, "I suppose it's because everything else is transparent."
"Everything else," Kaiba noted, familiar with being looked at separately but not for these reasons whatever they were.
"Except you," she said with a nod. "I can't see through you."
He was silent for a moment, absorbing this before he decided the explanation wasn't adequate enough. Yes, he understood what she was saying, but it was too vague. He needed specifics.
Not that he would ask for them of course lest she start asking questions of her own. But if he did ask she would tell him, he was sure of it. The girl was guileless, had no apparent reasons or inclinations to lie. She really was quite peculiar.
"I was wondering…" she began in a voice he might classify as timid, had he thought Téa was capable of such an emotion.
But if there was anything she was and had always been it was brave. Even if she didn't know it.
"Why did you let me stay with you all afternoon?" she asked steadily, eyes probing his.
"You asked me."
She smiled at that, "Since when does Seto Kaiba do something just because it was asked of him?"
"I have my reasons," he said curtly indicating the end of the interrogation. He wasn't used to having to explain his actions and he didn't appreciate it. Especially since he didn't even have a logical answer. "Does it matter?"
"No," she finally took her eyes off of him and fixed them somewhere out the window, her expression wistful, "I suppose it doesn't."
It was silent for a moment, Téa watching the world pass by out the window, Seto watching her. He didn't even realize until she glanced back at him that he'd been staring, their recent roles so quickly reversed. He'd been studying her waiting for a glimpse into her motivations, some clue to why she was here.
"Have you ever noticed how busy it is out there?" she asked suddenly, but in the same quiet tone she'd employed since she woke so the interruption wasn't jarring. "Not just literally but… I mean, every single person you pass in a crowd, or buy coffee from, or wait with for the bus. Each of them exists in their very own world, they live because of these intricate threads crisscrossed together, intertwined with every loved one, every passion, and it just holds your existence. These thin little threads…"
"No," Kaiba was deadpan after such a speech, "I haven't noticed."
"Neither did I," she admitted wistful smile intact, "I never used to obsessively analyze all these things. But you'd be amazed what you can come up with when you're up all night with no company but your own thoughts."
"Hmm," he looked away.
Why did she feel the need to share all of this with him?
"I'm bothering you again," she observed. "Sorry for getting all 'doctor/patient' with you, I know you couldn't possibly care."
He nodded in agreement ignoring the small, insignificant part of him that protested.
Seconds later, the limo smoothly stopped in a large, empty parking lot next to a small, worse-for-the-wear red car which was apparently Téa's. This was where she got off, her next stop unknown, but for Kaiba a definite relief.
Once she was gone the aberrant portion of his day would leave too. It was this hazy, surreal quality she carried with her, sifting into his mind as though he was awake and dreaming. It provoked actions and feelings that would have otherwise remained dormant, tapped into things reserved only for Mokuba, and other things that weren't. He hoped whatever this… atmosphere was would dissipate when she stepped out of his car, that things would return to normal.
"Kaiba," she caught his attention once more, holding out her hand as a silent invitation for him to shake it.
It was a weird gesture, as though they were about to close a deal or agree to a bet of some sort, but he found himself reaching out anyway.
When his hand clasped hers however, she didn't shake it choosing to instead hold it. Her grip was light and delicate, pale fingers caressing his palm, cradling the firm digits that dwarfed hers. It was rather intimate actually.
"I won't forget this," she told him softly, "Thank you."
He didn't know what to say, staring back at this girl who acted like he'd just given her some precious gift by simply letting her be around him. He didn't even do anything, wasn't even attentive, or nice, or engaging. What was with her?
She didn't even expect anything now it seemed. No "You're welcome," or "Goodnight," required. She accepted his silence and smiled gratefully one more time before she finally left the car. Subtly, quietly, she just slipped into the waning daylight and approached her vehicle with faint footfalls.
Seto watched while the limo gained distance, until Téa and the red car disappeared from his sight before settling back into his seat. She was finally, mercifully gone.
But things would not return to normal and her presence, like sweet perfume, lingered in her wake.
There are moments when I am hollow and voiceless. My whole being feels transparent, weightless; anyone could walk right through me and continue on their way unhindered. I could stand in the middle of the street and scream as loud as my lungs would allow, and it wouldn't make the slightest dent on the overpowering noise. I blow kisses, and they wander aimlessly in the air around me before falling to the ground.
Then there are the times when I am the only one who is solid, everyone and everything else, an elaborate mirage. Vivid, but false, they exist but I can't touch them, I reach out and they disappear. Solitary, I wander, letting the muffled sounds echo around me while people drift by like fog.
I'm alone either way, powerless, unnoticed, can you exist if nobody else sees you?
Of course sometimes, just when you think you could fall away, simply disappear from the world, someone does see you. It's only one set of eyes, one hand extended to pull you out of the water. But the grip is solid, it saves you, carries you back into life, and it's enough.
It's not everything, not even close, but it's enough.
The first coherent thought Téa remembered in the swirl of chaotic emotion when she was delivered the news was a sudden flash of overwhelming concern.
Death was singular, something everybody had to go through alone. You couldn't take your friends with you for encouragement and support; there was no room for company. Poor Yugi, so small and sweet having to face it all alone, she'd realized. Somewhere she couldn't reach him and with nobody to look after him.
It wasn't until much later that she started feeling afraid for herself living in a world he wasn't a part of anymore. She had Tristan and Joey still and they had her, but they weren't complete anymore. Things they'd always been to her, that she still needed them to be had left, ran away to an unseen graveyard of their own.
Her parents were a phone-call away, arms wide open, loving and solid. But the physical distance took time to bridge; they'd moved to another city after Téa left for college. They weren't around to look after her anymore, the role falling to herself now that she was an adult.
She filled it well enough, paying for her own one-bedroom little apartment with tips from her serving job. She budgeted well, conserved electricity, and even had enough to afford her rickety car. She went to her classes, practiced diligently, paid the bills on time, looked after her friends, never missed a shift at work. She was responsible, together, and it had never been a burden before.
Until she finally discovered just how scary life really was.
But tonight was different. Kaiba had given her a gift whether he knew it or not, he was a reservoir she drank from. He was life that did not fall apart and control that did not slip away.
Téa wasn't about to waste it, she decided when she got into her own car. She would not go home to her empty little apartment and bed she couldn't sleep in. She couldn't spend this currency on herself and practice her routines or work out at the gym. It had to be spread around, shared with those she loved.
It didn't take long to reach Tristan and Joey's apartment; rush hour was over and she could navigate her way there with her eyes closed.
The place was still a mess when she arrived, slightly cleaner from her efforts that morning, but there was still a lot left to do to have it looking presentable. She was determined to take care of that the second she got a chance but for now it could wait.
A shirtless Tristan greeted her when she walked in, apparently fresh from the shower if his wet hair and glowing skin was any indication. His coveralls were draped over the couch she noticed, stained with grease from a day at the Auto-Body shop he worked at.
"Short shift today?" she asked casually. He'd been sleeping when she left that morning, so he probably only worked for a few hours that afternoon.
"I took a half day," he replied mildly slipping a pale blue shirt over his broad shoulders, but not before Téa could spot something on his back.
"Hey, wait." She stepped forward to grab his hands before he could start working on the buttons, "Take the shirt off."
"Wow," he raised his eyebrows, "I can't say I'm not tempted, Téa but don't you think there are some lines friends should never cross?"
There was something in his tone, that flirty, teasing note she hadn't heard for what felt like way too long. A bit of the old Tristan rekindled for one moment of wonderful, familiar, normalcy. It made her smile.
"You wish I'd cross lines with you," she teased back, "Now come on. Shirt."
"So bossy," he muttered but pulled the material away from his well-sculpted torso once more, "Happy?"
"We'll see," she circled around him to study whatever it was that marred the skin of his back, "Oh."
A tattoo the size of her fist rested between his shoulder blades, intricately designed and significant. It was a perfect replica of The Dark Magician from the Duel Monsters deck, the card that had always been Yugi's favorite. The sight immediately extinguished the good mood between them, water poured on fire.
"Oh Tristan," she said sadly, brushing her fingers over the permanent tribute to their friend, "When did you get this?"
"A couple of weeks ago," he muttered, despondent tone mirroring her own.
Téa fought back the sudden ambush of tears, fresh mourning for the departed and the happiness that seemed to be so out of reach. Did she actually just forget for a moment, a single, normal moment that he was gone?
"It's perfect," she told the friend that was here, alive and real. Putting her arms around him, she pulled him close, burying her face in the shoulder she just barely reached, "Just perfect."
"I miss him," Tristan whispered against her hair. She felt his heart beating - comforting evidence that he still existed, warm and breathing, within her reach.
"So do I," Téa told him, visions of shy smiles, hopeful violet eyes, and hair that defied gravity filling her mind. She could still hear his laughter, his soft, caring voice. She wished he was here.
After what felt like an eternity of stillness, sorrow, and missing him together, they let go of each other. It was a different kind of normal settling around them now, the post-Yugi melancholy normal that made everything colorless and empty.
Tristan reached for his shirt, Téa surreptitiously wiped at her eyes. He was going to go somewhere she knew, he was always going somewhere these days, out and about where she couldn't see him, couldn't protect him. What if he didn't come home? Something could happen and she'd never see him again.
"Don't go out tonight," she blurted, watching him with wide, pleading eyes. "I mean, not alone. I actually did come here to get you guys to go out somewhere, but with me."
Tristan hesitated at the last button of his shirt, studying her, golden-brown eyes contemplating, "Just us, huh?"
"Just us," she confirmed, "As soon as I wake Joey of course."
"I'm awake," a groggy, disheveled figure appeared suddenly in the doorway of one of the bedrooms, beckoned by their steady voices. "But I don't really want to go anywhere."
"You're coming anyway," Téa was firm while she snatched a clean shirt from the laundry basket Tristan had retrieved his from and tossed it at her other friend. "We're all going to abandon our fear and reticence and wildness to mingle with the mainstream. We're going to let life go on for a little while and we're going to do it together because we're all we have."
"Téa," Joey stared at the shirt as though he didn't know what to do with it, "It's too soon."
"No," she disagreed, "It's too late. We can't change what happened, there's no way to fix it. But we can try to be okay, we can lean on each other."
She stared them down, pinning each argument to the floor with her determined blue eyes. There was no way she would lose this match, resolved as she was to keep Tristan from his recklessness and Joey from his bed. She wanted them out of this dismal, dirty apartment and with her in the fresh, open air. She wanted them all to get better.
"I'm in," Tristan said quietly, the first to crumble under her steadfast and earnest silent pleading.
Téa smiled at him, relieved, before turning back to the young man in the doorway.
He put the shirt on.
The scariest part about losing the sun is the darkness that takes its place. You walk under a black sky and innocence becomes threatening, intentions are obscured, danger lurks. Warmth doesn't exist long in the night; it brings a chill that chases it all away.
But there is never absolute darkness, we are not completely abandoned. If you just look to the murky sky and wait… the stars come out.