Chapter 18 – And So It Begins...


"Mokuba, you're a natural at dancing," Anzu exclaimed as the youngest Kaiba sent her twirling away before tugging gently on her hand to bring her back. She prepared herself for the next, natural move of the dance she was caught up in, hoping Mokuba knew what to do. She wasn't disappointed when she felt his opposite hand splay against her back as he dipped her as low as his height would allow to finish the song the holographic orchestra was playing.

"That was… amazing! You don't need my help at all, you sly little devil," she said before pausing to catch her breath. "The girls at the ball are going to swoon in delight when they find out what a 'twinkle-toes' you are."

The five holographic judges must have agreed with her since their dour faces now sported smiles and grins as they held up scorecards with 9.5 written on each one. Even Seto, usually the grim-faced sourpuss, wore a smile that actually touched his eyes. Watching Mokuba dance so well with Anzu had stirred something in him. He realized quickly that it was anticipation. Seto couldn't wait for his chance to touch Anzu so intimately, to see if the softness he'd felt in his dream was even close to the real thing.

"Okay, Seto, it's your turn," Mokuba piped up as he eyed the glazed look on his brother's face. It was much the same look he'd worn at breakfast this morning so he must have been thinking about Anzu. Again. Perfect.

"Of course." Seto recovered himself quickly and glanced over at Anzu. She wore a bright smile on her lips and her eyes flashed him a challenge.

"Are you ready to get your butt whooped into next week?" Anzu asked, crossing her arms over her chest and crooking an eyebrow at Seto.

Her pose and demeanour were so… so… Kaiba-like that Mokuba burst into laughter at the sight. Anzu remained calm, holding in her own laughter, and shifted the focus of her gaze to the youngest Kaiba. "And just what, may I ask, is so funny?"

"You look a lot like Seto when he used to stare down the Board of Directors til they did what he wanted," Mokuba replied. "They know better than to go against his wishes now. Maybe you'll do the same to him."

She couldn't hold it any longer. Her laughter twinkled across the grand ballroom, lighting every corner with its sparkling sound. Anzu could picture it all too easily. After all, Seto was a bear with a toothache on a good day.

Seto just sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. This was going to be a long afternoon if Mokuba stuck around…


"WHAT? What do you mean my name is no good here, Jii-chan? I'm here practically every day," Jounouchi exclaimed. He couldn't believe that the old man was turning him down for more credit. For the most part, he was pretty good at paying the old man back, it sometimes just took a little longer than expected especially when things like saving the world from madmen came up.

"Exactly what I said. You have yet to pay me for the last six booster packs you wanted and until you do, everything in the store is off limits to your grubby little fingers. If you want any more cards, you'll have to work for them just like the rest of us, unless of course, you have the money to pay for them handy." He gave Jounouchi a hard stare to dissuade him from any notion of arguing. Jii-chan hadn't brought success to his business by being a pushover. Seeing the look in Jounouchi's eyes, Jii-chan knew the money wasn't readily available. "You can help Yugi clean the front of the store to pay off your outstanding debts and then we'll talk about you getting more cards."

Jounouchi took one look at the expression on Jii-chan's face and he knew it would ultimately be a losing battle. It was time to suck up his pride, admit defeat and give in to the old man's demands.

"And, if you and Honda help out, lunch will be ready soon. I've been making a chicken curry since this morning and it's just about done." Like Pavlov's dogs, Jounouchi's 'bell' was curry. It was one of his favourite foods and Jii-chan knew it. He'd used Jounouchi's attachment to his stomach more than once in the past and would most likely use it mercilessly in the future.

"What do you mean by 'just about done'?" Jounouchi asked. His eyes had narrowed to small, golden slits and his nose flared softly in anticipation of a bargaining manoeuvre.

"It should be done in an hour or so. The chicken just needs a little longer to simmer in those wonderful, aromatic spices. You should be able to smell it down here by now," Jii-chan countered as he folded his arms over his chest and inhaled deeply. Reflexively, Jounouchi and Honda both took a whiff of the air and they could indeed smell the curry. Jii-chan widened his stance and smiled broadly. Honda could only sigh dejectedly and lean back against the front counter. What was coming could take a few minutes.

"So, you're saying that if I work for that hour, what I owe you for those booster packs is cleared and I get lunch too?" Jounouchi asked, simply wanting to clarify the current terms of this arrangement.

"Yes." It really wasn't that bad a deal at all. And Jii-chan did have something of a soft spot when it came to Yugi's friends.

"Do I get anything else?" Jounouchi was a born opportunist, Honda decided as he watched the two barter back and forth. Trying to get as much as he could for as little as possible was a way of life for the blonde-haired duellist.

Jii-chan pretended to think about Jounouchi's words. If he played his cards right, he might be able to get a whole afternoon's worth of work out of Yugi's two best friends for the price of lunch and few more booster packs. "Depends on how hard you two work and for how long. If you both stay after lunch and help clean out the stockroom, I'll make it worth your while."

Honda could almost see Jii-chan's eyes glitter with victory as the grey eyebrows waggled up and down suggestively. Jounouchi wasn't even going to think about the offer. In fact, Honda knew his best friend's thought processes well enough to predict that in…

Three…

Two…

One…

"Done!" Jounouchi exclaimed as he thrust out his hand to seal the deal. Jii-chan's smile had reached beatific proportions and Honda could only sigh at being condemned to work inside the stuffy store for the afternoon.

Kaiba was going to owe him huge…


Kaiba glanced again at Anzu as she stood there at the edge of the dance floor, still trying to catch her breath from her dance with Mokuba and subsequent laughter. Her features had taken on a faint flush and a drop or two of sweat had beaded at the edges of her forehead, matting her hair down just a bit. He had never seen her look so appealing before.

"Seto?" Mokuba asked, waving a hand in front of his brother's face to try and get his attention. Lost in La-La Land again. What was it about Anzu that made Seto so distracted? She was breathing hard and looked all sweaty. Was that supposed to be attractive? "Seto? Are you going to dance with Anzu or just stare at her all afternoon with that goofy grin on your face?"

"Well, the longer he stands there, the longer he prolongs his defeat," Anzu quipped, her smile becoming infectious throughout the room.

"Are you so sure that you want Seto to cook a meal for you?" Mokuba asked, "The only thing he's really good at cooking is ramen noodles. In fact, if it wasn't for Cook, I don't think he'd ever eat at home."

"And if I could teach her to lay off the heavy, creamy dishes, I might just be able to stay awake past 10 pm." The notion that he worked all night, every night for his company was quite the mistake. True, there were a few, a very few, really late nights at the office during the course of the month and often Mokuba was in bed by the time Seto came home from those nights but he wasn't an idiot. Seto made sure to take care of himself by getting enough sleep each night – who would take care of Mokuba if something happened to him?

"She only feeds you that because she thinks you're too skinny," Mokuba replied, remembering the chat he'd had with Cook while they had prepared lunch together. She'd almost been in tears when Mokuba had asked her to put the cream back in the fridge and get out the skim milk for the macaroni and cheese.

"If she keeps it up, I'll die of a heart attack before I have a chance to gain any weight," Seto countered wryly.

Anzu had been right – Seto did have a sense of humour that didn't involve his caustic wit. She and her friends had been on the receiving end of his bitter sarcasm for years – it was nice to know that he wasn't that way with just them.

"All right, you two, if you're ready…" Mokuba said, trying to get back to the contest at hand.

"I'm ready if he is," Anzu replied, re-crossing her arms over her chest and staring pointedly at Seto.

Seto crossed his arms over his own chest and stared challengingly at Anzu. "Just remember, I'm used to winning."

"So am I."

Mokuba looked at the two of them and simply rolled his eyes. One was as stubborn and pig-headed as the other was when it came to competition. But if they were finally ready to start, it was time to bring in his 'surprise'. With a clap of his hands, a sixth desk appeared next to the holographic judges already present.

That got Seto's attention immediately.

"What's that about, Mokuba?" Seto asked, pointing at the newly appeared furniture. He didn't like the sneaky look in his little brother's eyes. It was much the same look he'd had when Seto had come home to find his brother and Yami in his private office, grinning like Cheshire cats.

"You'll see," was Mokuba's cryptic reply as he headed for the doors to the ballroom. Opening them only a crack, he whispered something to someone and waited patiently for a reply. With a mischievous smile, he turned back to his waiting audience. "May I present to you our guest judge, here for this one competition only, our faithful friend, Isono!"

The door opened a little more widely to allow Seto's head of security and personal safety to enter the ballroom. With his hands clasped in front of him and his head bowed down, he almost looked embarrassed to be there. What no one but Mokuba could see was the grin he was hiding under his caterpillar moustache.

Anzu simply looked confused as Isono took another step into the room and closed the door. He was the Kaiba's faithful friend, making sure they were both safe from harm but he was more than that as well. He was the announcer at Duel Tournaments, the referee during important matches, the driver of limos and the pilot of helicopters and planes. What the hell was he doing here?

Seto must have read her mind. "What the hell is he doing here?"

"I'll let him explain that," Mokuba replied. With a wink, Mokuba stepped back towards the water fountain and tried to blend into the background. This was going to be awesome. He was becoming as devious, if not more devious, than his older brother was. Seto hadn't even seen this coming, not a sniff or a whiff of it at all.

Seto rounded his blue steel gaze on Isono. "Explain."

At the terse command, Isono straightened his shoulders, as well as his mouth, and looked squarely at the elder Kaiba. His heart was racing a mile a minute but nothing showed on his face. He'd never stepped out of his assigned role so completely. "Well, Master Kaiba, before I began to work for you some five years ago, I used to be a dance instructor."

The proverbial pin could have been heard across the hologram-laden room. Anzu's mouth had dropped at the soft-mellow, casual tones of Seto's bodyguard. She'd never really heard him speak before without a microphone in front of his mouth or a note of abject terror in his voice. And at his final pronouncement, her jaw had almost hit the floor. He really was a jack-of-all-trades.

Seto, on the other hand, stood in silent disbelief. His quiet, unassuming bodyguard had always just… existed. He'd never really given a thought to what he might have done prior to being in the Kaiba's employment. Add to that the fact that he'd been a dance instructor and Seto was hard-pressed to find anything to say about it.

Isono stood his ground stolidly, awaiting the backlash of laughter that usually accompanied this particular detail of his life. Not many people knew about it, certainly none of the men working under him to protect the Kaiba brothers did, as it called his 'manliness' into question. When Master Mokuba had asked him to judge this contest, he'd been delighted to do it. Isono had known about Master Kaiba's crush on Mazaki Anzu for quite some time. His employer had a tendency to nap in the back of the limo and once in a while, he spoke softly in his sleep. Isono was never one to intentionally eavesdrop but sometimes the privacy window between the front and back of the limo wasn't always in the most private of positions.

Seto nodded to Isono, "Take your position, then. Let's see how Mokuba's holograms stand up to reality."

Isono sighed inside, his face remaining stoic and impassable. There'd been a 50/50 chance of him getting fired or worse, demoted, but Master Kaiba seemed to be in a jovial mood especially with Mazaki Anzu present. Walking slowly to the waiting desk, he gingerly pulled the 'chair' out and warily began to sit down, making sure to keep his weight in his knees and ankles in case anything untoward happened. Gently, he eased his backside a little more onto the chair's crimson cushioned seat and found that it was holding his weight firmly. "Amazing," he whispered.

Disbelief almost coloured Seto's features when he saw how careful Isono was being about sitting down on something that wasn't really there. But the chair held, held so well in fact, that Isono leaned back and visibly relaxed before putting his hands on the desk and possibly muttering a small prayer of relief. "Amazing," Seto whispered.

Silence.

"Are we done being amazed?" Mokuba asked a moment or two later, looking at his brother and Anzu with a slightly impatient look. No answer at all, not even an acknowledgement that he had said something. Both of them had been staring incessantly at the chair Isono had sat in as if it would magically turn into a rabid pumpkin and swallow him. Mokuba had tested the codes himself and this was nothing compared to what he was about to do.

So absorbed in staring at the wonder of nothing turned something, that neither of the 'contestants' noticed Mokuba pull a small remote control out of his pocket. Obviously they were still in shock over that little bit of nothing that he was determined to show them what his program could really do just so he could get the contest started. With a few practiced clicks, everything changed.

Wow.


Jounouchi was the first to notice Yugi's arrival at the front of the store. His honey-brown eyes widened in concern. "You okay, Yugi? You got a big red welt across your forehead."

Honda turned to stare at his other best friend and noticed that, yes, Yugi's forehead had a slight discolouration to it. It took a lot of willpower to keep from laughing out loud. There was no reason for concern seeing as the welt was about the right length and shape for a bro…

"I'm fine, Jounouchi. And Jii-chan? I found the broom," Yugi replied, brandishing his grandfather's 'always lost' broom. Silence reigned for a single scintilla of time before the room dissolved into peals of laughter. Even Yami began laughing once more, much to the agitation of his host. Yugi waited patiently for a couple of minutes for the giggles to go away and then gave up as he began to smile a little sheepishly. At least it hadn't been a battle to save the world, unless it was against the relentless forces of the dust bunnies.

"Exc…ell…ent, Yugi," Jii-chan started before stopping to catch his breath. Laughing was serious business and some days, it seemed to knock the wind right out of him. "And you'll have your friends here for at least part of this afternoon to help you out. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go check on our late lunch." Jii-chan gave Yugi a sly little wink as he walked to the back of the shop and upstairs.

Yugi could only sigh and roll his eyes skyward. His grandfather was a wily, old fox who'd yet again manipulated Jounouchi with his stomach. A quick glance at his blonde-haired friend, who was only drooling slightly, confirmed it. Catching Honda's eye, Yugi shrugged his shoulders as Honda looked at him dejectedly and took the broom out of his hands.

"One of these days, Jounouchi, I'm going to make a deal with Jii-chan that you're going to regret," Honda stated, his eyes boring into Jounouchi's forehead.

"It's not that bad a deal. A couple hours of work and some free lunch? That's an awesome deal," Jounouchi retorted. "The money I owe is paid off and I may even get a few extra cards out of this."

"I don't consider it a fair deal at all since I have to work to pay off your debts. And who paid for breakfast this morning, on top of that?" Honda's indignation was almost palpable. Yugi and Yami were both wondering if there was a chance they'd have to step in and break up a brewing fight.

Much as Jii-chan knew Jounouchi's weakness was his stomach, so Jounouchi knew Honda's. "Oh and did I mention that Shizuka's coming to town sometime this week? If you're nice to me, I might just let you take her to the park for some ice cream. Unsupervised."

"Shi… Shizuka? Here? Soon? Unsupervised?" Honda couldn't help the stammering. There was something about Jounouchi's little sister that just made him go all weak in the knees. And the head apparently. Yugi relaxed completely. Leave it to Jounouchi to find a way to ease his best friend's troubles.

"Yup, she called me on Friday to let me know the good news and I thought I'd surprise you with it. But if you're going to balk at a little hard work, I may just have to call Otogi…" Jounouchi said, grinning his most devilish grin and noticing that the red on Honda's cheeks was growing.

"Don't you dare call that self-absorbed, dice-throwing freak! He doesn't know how to treat a girl right. He'd be putting the moves on her the second she was out of your sight." Honda couldn't help his outburst – Shizuka had held a special place in his heart since the first time he'd met her. Hell, he'd sacrificed himself in the virtual world just to make sure she'd stayed safe.

"All right, all right. I promise not to call him if you quit whining about helping to clean Jii-chan's store. We'll work out the rest of the details later." Jounouchi gave Honda a pointed look and saw the defeat in his friend's eyes. Honda would do anything to spend some time with Shizuka, alone, and Jounouchi knew that his sister couldn't possibly be in safer company.

"Okay," Honda agreed dreamily and headed for the front of the store. Jii-chan liked to clean from front to back, from outside to inside. The first step then was to clean the sidewalk in front of the store and shake out the Welcome mat he kept there. No doubt thoughts of Shizuka would keep him out there for a while. Yugi would have to make sure to check on him once in a while to make sure he hadn't fallen into some daydream world where he and Shizuka were alone and no chance of Jounouchi showing up to spoil the fun.

As Honda wandered away, goofy grin and all, Yugi reached under the front counter and threw a cloth at Jounouchi. With a little bit of Yami's help, Yugi's throw landed squarely across his friend's place.

"Hey! What was that for?" Jounouchi asked, staring daggers at Yugi. The cloth smelled like old cheese, sausage and sweat socks and he hurriedly pulled it off his face.

"That was for making a deal with Jii-chan," Yugi replied, "and getting Honda caught up in it."

"He didn't seem to mind once I brought up Shizuka. And Jii-chan? He knows my most favourite thing in the world is food. His chicken curry is to die for!" Drool started to trickle once more from the corner of his mouth and he hurriedly used the reeking cloth to wipe it away – a mistake he would try not to repeat in the future. The cloth smelled even worse now.

"You may experience that one day should Honda ever truly balk at paying your debts. One day, you won't have Shizuka around to use as bait for Honda," Yami stated, taking over for just a moment to let Jounouchi have a piece of his mind. He was starting to get tired of seeing Honda get 'the short end of the stick' from his best friend. Yugi nodded in agreement even though Jounouchi would never be able to see it.

Jounouchi took one look at the Pharaoh's crimson-tinted eyes and gulped faintly. They were right, of course. He had manipulated his friend a lot over the course of the last few days. "I know. It's just so easy to get him to do what I want right now. It seems like he wants to keep me busy for some reason. I promise, though, that I'll make it up to him in the future. Today is the last day that I'll take advantage of his niceness. I swear!"

"Good, see that it is or I may be forced to make a deal that you really won't like," Yami replied, reinforcing his words with a hard look at Jounouchi. He saw him start to sweat at his words and smiled gently. "No, it won't be a trip to the Shadow Realm. That is reserved for really bad guys."

"Good. You had me worried there for a second." Jounouchi wiped his brow, again with the fetid cloth, and shuddered. How something so smelly could be used to clean the store was beyond him but he would endure a million of those cloths to keep the Pharaoh from looking at him like that again. And he owed it to Honda to clean as much inside the store as possible so he could daydream outside all he wanted. That seemed fair enough to him. He might even tell Shizuka that it would be okay to hold Honda's hand when they went for ice cream. Maybe even a peck on the cheek… no, that was going too far. She was his little sister, after all.

"Now let's get started. The faster we clean the front, the faster we get to eat that amazing curry," Yugi said, hoping that would both soothe and motivate Jounouchi into action. Yugi would also make sure to be extra nice to Honda in the future since he was at Jounouchi's beck and call to keep him from questioning too deeply about Anzu's whereabouts. That much sacrifice deserved a very special reward.

Yugi would make sure that Honda got one. Even if it killed Jounouchi. :)


Thank you so much for reading this far and for putting up with my insane craziness. And I apologize again for taking so long to upload this chapter. And yes, it's taking me some time to get back into the swing of writing. I hope to have the finale for the dance contest written some time in the near future and I promise it won't take over a year come out.

Leave reviews if you like it and as always, I am

Aphrael21;)