GETTING OVER IT
A/N: Dub names. Frankly, this is a very Americanized plot, so I thought the names should match. Seto Kaiba may be a little bit OOC; I cast him as almost naïve, but then again I think he would be at least uncertain when it comes to dealing with relationships and love. Definitely Joey/Mai and Seto/Téa, although it doesn't start out that way.
Téa heard him coming long before he appeared. The downstairs door slammed open, and heavy, hurried footsteps pounded up two flights of stairs. So Téa was not surprised, but resigned, when Joey Wheeler flung open her apartment door.
"This is getting serious, Téa!" he yelled from the front entrance. She heard his footsteps again as he moved around her apartment, trying to find her. Now his voice was coming from the kitchen: "I think you'd better sleep with Kaiba before it's too late!"
Finally Joey appeared at the entrance to the living room, where Téa was sitting. "Oh. Hi."
Téa had been friends with Joey for a long time, long enough for her to be able to interpret his crazy talk. So she knew exactly why he'd run over to her apartment announcing that she should sleep with Seto Kaiba.
The other ten members of her book club, however, had no idea.
"I guess we'll talk about it later," Joey said, disappearing as fast as he'd entered. She heard the front door bang behind him and his footsteps retreated back down the stairwell. Téa gritted her teeth, then tried to paste on a smile.
"Sorry about that," she said, smiling broadly at the ten other wide-eyed women in the room. "What were you saying about the snobbery and classism of Austen's time, Hannah?"
"Forget Jane Austen," Hannah said bluntly. "What was that all about?"
She was going to kill Joey. "Just a little joke we have," she said lightly.
"I thought I heard Kaiba's name," Shelby said. "He did say Seto Kaiba, right? He said that you should sleep with him?"
"I didn't say it was a classy joke," Téa said, wrinkling her nose.
"Wasn't there something about him in the paper this morning?" Anya chimed in. "Didn't Kaiba propose to his girlfriend? What's her name again?"
"Mai Valentine," Deanna responded. "How can you not know that?"
"I don't pay attention to celebrity gossip," Anya defended. "But now that you mention it, I do recognize that name."
"Téa's friends with them both, right? Aren't you friends with them?"
"Yeah, I've known them both since my high school years," Téa responded, trying hard to keep her cool. "That's why Joey thinks it's funny to make jokes. But anyway, back to the book…"
"But why would he make a joke about you and Kaiba?" Bailey persisted.
Sometimes Téa felt like her whole life was a joke. She'd had a crush on Kaiba since those good old high school years she'd mentioned to the girls. Back then, she was ashamed to admit, she was a typical teenage girl who was attracted to powerful, handsome men. She'd had a little thing for Yugi's spirit… and, though she tried to help it because everyone else thought he was such a jerk, she'd had a huge, monster crush on Seto Kaiba. Obviously, nothing had come of that; for a while, she thought something might develop with Yugi's spirit, but then he'd left and she'd gone into a short period of mourning.
Later on, as she got older, her superficial desires lost their appeal. She started looking for more qualities in men than good looks, fame, and fortune. And she'd realized… that what she'd always needed had always been there. She wanted her best friend, Yugi, who had been in love with her for God knows how long. He was sweet and attentive, smart and funny, forever waiting, forever willing to support her. But she took too long to realize this. Because… by the time she finally noticed him… it was too late. He'd fallen out of love with her and was dating someone else.
Téa tried to be a supportive friend as his relationship with Sarah, whom he'd met at university, deepened. She must have been a better actress than she realized, because no one seemed to notice that her smiles were too strained, that her greetings to Sarah were a little forced. She perfected a mask and successfully hid the fact that she was in love with Yugi from the world. She even managed to beam her way through his wedding over a year ago. It was only during the reception that she cracked and, knowing that the tears were coming, dove for the closest shelter, which happened to be a coat closet.
Téa made it into the closet and shut the door behind her, sparing a moment to pray that no one noticed her entering before she collapsed against the back wall, her whole body wracking with sobs. She fumbled in her purse for tissues, just aware enough of the situation to worry about how this was going to ruin her makeup, then buried her face in the tissue and let out another heaving sob.
Too late, she thought miserably for the thousandth time. Yugi was in love with me for years, and I ignored him… looking for something a little more glamorous than my best friend… I was so stupid! I realized that he was perfect for me too late, and I lost him, and now I've lost him forever…
The door creaked open, and she inhaled sharply, scrambling to hide behind something, but it was too late. She peered up through eyes blurry with tears, and could barely see a tall man shutting the door behind him and walking over to stare down at her.
When he got close, she could see that it was Seto Kaiba. She hadn't noticed him during the wedding, but then she hadn't really been looking around. She wasn't surprised that Yugi invited him, just a little surprised that he turned up. She hadn't talked to him much since high school save for a few polite words when they ran into each other around town or at dueling tournaments. Seto had gotten more friendly since high school.
"I saw you duck in here, and I was afraid you weren't feeling well," Seto said, stuffing his hands into his jacket pocket. "You looked a little pale. But I guess I know what the problem is."
She'd been ready to choke out an excuse, but Kaiba's words stopped her in her tracks, and really, what was the point? It was funny that he figured out what was wrong while none of her friends had a clue.
"Want some company?" he asked, almost uncertainly, leaning against the wall looking down at her.
Did she want some company? Her first instinct was to say no, thanks, she'd rather be alone. After all, she and Kaiba had never particularly been friends, and any old crush she'd once harbored was long since gone. Her heart beat only for Yugi nowadays.
But she felt pretty pathetic, crying in the closet during her best friend's wedding, and someone was offering her a lifeline. She seized onto it and nodded, not looking up at Kaiba.
Seto eased himself down the wall until he was sitting next to Téa. She immediately burst back into tears, which caused her to start hiccupping, which caused her to cry more; now she was pathetic and sounded ridiculous. Seto didn't say anything right away, but after a few moments, he put a strong arm around her shoulders and pulled her firmly against his side. Téa cried some more; he rubbed her shoulder.
"You know what the worst part is?" Téa said, once her hiccups had died down. She hadn't meant to tell anyone this, much less Seto Kaiba, but he was here and offering a listening ear, and she couldn't help herself, all this had to come out. He looked at her attentively.
"Sarah works in advertising," Téa explained. Seto nodded. He'd actually known that anyway; Sarah had interned at KaibaCorp and done a fantastic job, but Téa didn't need to hear that right now. "She got this great job offer with an advertising agency… in New York City!" More tears trickled down Téa's face. "So she and Yugi are going to move to New York. It was always my dream to go to New York! I can't follow them there now, because how pathetic would that be? And it doesn't even matter because I'll never be a professional dancer, my body is all wrong and I'm not good enough anyway!" She subsided, turning her head to bury it in Seto's shoulder.
Seto, who had never seen Téa dance but who had seen professional ballerinas and knew exactly how talented you had to be, and who didn't believe in false comfort anyway, said nothing, but let Téa cry into his shoulder. He understood even better now why she was so upset that she'd escaped to the closet. It had to hurt, watching the boy she loved live her dream… with someone else.
"You know," she said a few minutes later, getting herself under control, and lifting her head to look at Seto. "I don't mean to be rude, but this is a pretty unexpected skill of yours. Comforting people, I mean."
Seto knew what she meant. "I take no offense," he responded, then after further consideration, elaborated. "Mokuba is old enough to have discovered girls," he said wryly. "He's had his heart broken three times so far this year."
Téa laughed through her tears, and the closet door swung open. The two of them blinked up, startled, at the intruder.
By her own startled face, it was clear that the first thing shooting through Mai Valentine's head was that Téa and Seto were having a tryst in the closet. Then Mai took a longer look at Téa's tear-streaked face. Since Mai herself had stomped around all morning, avoiding Joey gushing over his pretty new girlfriend Bianca, she understood the situation in a moment.
She turned around and shut the door again, closing herself in the closet with the two of them, and sunk to the floor on the other side of Téa. She put an arm of her own around Téa's shoulders, brushing against Seto's arm.
"Sarah's nice and all, but Yugi doesn't know what he's missing," she said after a pause. "But I think things will work out better for you in the long run. You're better off being free right now, not tied down to someone like Yugi. He's dependable and familiar, and he would hold you back without meaning to, because you'd get stuck in a comfortable zone. You, girlfriend, need a chance to spread your wings. I know it doesn't feel so hot right now, but just give things some time, Téa."
Téa's tears came back, and she leaned over to give Mai a hug, Seto's arm dropping off her shoulders in the process. And, though she didn't know it at the time, as Mai hugged her back, her brilliant purple eyes met with Seto's.
Téa didn't learn about Mai and Seto until a month after the wedding, or a month after the closet incident, as she couldn't help thinking about it. Yugi and Sarah had been gone for three weeks now, and he'd called her several times to chat cheerfully about New York City and Sarah. Yugi had already started begging Téa to come visit, although she supposed she could get away with putting that off for a few more months yet.
He wasn't making it easy for her to get over him, though she was thankful that he remained oblivious as always. But the distance was actually helping more than she expected, and Téa was already starting to feel better. In fact, she was even thinking of going on a date again, and she had a candidate in mind. She kept thinking of Seto Kaiba, and how he had been so charming to her at Yugi's wedding. He had seen that she was upset and comforted her, and after the three of them reemerged from the coat closet, he had danced with both her and Mai like a true gentleman. Seto had clearly matured from their high school days. Téa was shyly thinking of calling him up and delivering a much-deserved belated thank you… then asking him out to dinner, to show how grateful she was.
She thought that a large part of the reason she was ready to move on so fast was Mai. The blonde duelist had decided to stick around Domino for a while, and she and Téa had been spending a lot of time together, laughing and getting Téa's mind off things and generally enjoying life. Téa didn't know why the ambitious Mai Valentine had decided to settle down here, but she wasn't complaining. In fact, she had been apartment shopping with Mai that morning; the other girl had declared that she was ready to make a commitment and move out of the hotel.
"So, the second place we looked at was definitely your favorite?" Téa questioned as they slid into a booth at Cool Cat Coffee, clutching their drinks.
"Yeah, I liked it the most out of the ones we saw today," Mai responded. "But I think I still want to look around a bit more tomorrow. I know you have to work, but if I find a good place, I'll call and tell you all about it!"
"You do that," Téa said with a giggle. "You know, Mai… I don't know why you've decided to stay in Domino, of all places, but I'm glad that you'll be here for a while longer. For me, it's like rediscovering a best friend."
Mai was clearly touched, and she blinked away the mist in her eyes before reaching over to squeeze Téa's hand. "Well, a large part of the reason I decided to stay was that I missed everyone." There was a pause as they both thought of Joey, and how he was loudly considering asking Bianca to move in with him. "Mostly you," Mai clarified quickly.
"Although I suppose it's time to tell you… there is one more reason I decided to stay in Domino," Mai began, her eyes lighting up. "See, I- whoops, hold that thought."
Téa nodded as Mai fumbled for her ringing cell phone. Téa drank her coffee and tried not to listen in on Mai's side of the conversation, but it was impossible not to overhear.
"Hi to you too!" Mai said brightly. "I'm getting coffee with Téa.
"Mmmm… saw some okay places. Nothing that immediately captured my heart.
"I'm glad I'm staying too," she said, dropping her voice into a whisper. Téa instantly looked over. As far as she knew, a girl only used that tone of voice when talking with a very special someone. Did Mai have a boyfriend?
"Absolutely we're still on for dinner tonight!" Mai said brightly. "Pick me up at seven?" She valiantly tried to ignore Téa, who was now waggling her eyebrows at her, but a snort of laughter escaped her.
"It's just Téa making me laugh," she said into the phone, grinning and shaking a finger at Téa. "She's making funny faces.
"Sure, I'll tell her you said hi.
"See you tonight."
Mai hung up the phone and shook her head at Téa. "Very nice, thanks a lot, Téa. And Seto Kaiba says hi."
Téa's heart plummeted and sunk into her shoes, but she somehow managed to keep a smile plastered on. Probably thanks to all those years of practicing around Yugi and Sarah, she thought bitterly. "Seto Kaiba?" she asked casually.
"Yeah…" Mai actually blushed. "We met – well, we met again – at Yugi's wedding and he asked me out to dinner that week. We've sort of been seeing each other ever since… and I think it's starting to get serious!" She said that last part in a hushed voice, grinning expectantly at Téa.
The other girl felt slightly ill. All of a sudden, the colors in the room seemed slightly off, and everything was blurry, and other voices were too loud. Pull yourself together, she told herself sternly. This is Mai, and she's a lot more observant than Yugi, she's going to notice something is wrong!
Mai did, in fact, notice that Téa had gone paler than usual. Luckily, she misinterpreted it.
"Look, Téa, I really am staying in Domino because of you," she said, suddenly growing serious and grabbing Téa's hand once more. "I never expected things with Seto to go so far… well, I didn't even expect anything to start at all, but that's life for you. But hanging out with you again has been better than having a best friend. It's been like having a sister."
Téa didn't trust herself to speak. "Right," she said hoarsely.
Twelve months later, Téa sat in her living room surrounded by ten curious girls, and tried to feel happy for her 'sister'. "Joey was just being silly," she said firmly, and picked up Pride and Prejudice again. "So, about Austen's use of language…"
Joey knew nothing of her crush on Kaiba – at least, she didn't think so. But he wasn't just being silly, either. He had broken up with his girlfriend five months ago and fallen madly in love with Mai – who he'd carried a torch for back in their high school days, too – four months ago. Unlike Téa, he was very vocal about it, and constantly complained to her and Tristan that Mai shouldn't be with a guy like Kaiba. He bemoaned blowing a chance with Mai when they'd met again at Yugi's wedding ("Why was I with that dumb girl Bianca anyway?" he asked moodily. "If I'd been single then, I definitely would have asked Mai out right away.") and constantly wondered whether Mai and Seto would break up soon ("She can't stand him for much longer, I know it."). He had even gone so far as to suggest that Téa seduce Seto, causing him and Mai to break up.
That explained why he had barged into her living room a few minutes ago and suggested that Téa sleep with Seto Kaiba. But it's too late, Joey, Téa thought miserably. It's too late for both of us. That's getting to be the story of my life.
Mai lay on her back in Seto's bed, staring at the ceiling. He'd woken up before her that morning and slipped out of the bedroom, probably doing some work in his home office.
She tried again to convince herself that it had been a perfect proposal. They'd been dating for over a year and Mai had been feeling restless, stagnant, wondering what would happen next. Of course she'd wondered when he would propose… and in the darkest corners of her mind, wondered if she wanted him to. The very advice she'd given to Téa was coming back to haunt her.
You're better off being free right now… you need a chance to spread your wings.
But that was ridiculous; there was nothing wrong with being in a perfectly adult relationship with a perfectly compatible guy. And what was she doing, whining about wanting more space and more excitement? Seto gave her plenty of space, and how could life not be exciting when you were dating one of the richest, most eligible bachelors in the country?
"Will you marry me?" he'd asked last night, getting to one knee before her. He held an elegant midnight-blue velvet box, open to reveal a sparkling gold band loaded down with an enormous diamond. She sat on the couch, mouth open in surprise, not because she felt astonished and moved, but because she thought that was what was expected.
Most of the time, she was very happy with Seto. A little complacent, perhaps, but that was a good sign. It meant that they were settling into life together, getting used to having each other around all the time. While Mai still had her own apartment on the other end of town, she was spending more and more time at the Kaiba mansion lately. She and Mokuba liked each other; Seto's public relations team was thrilled; fans thought their relationship was dreamy and perfect. And it was perfect. At least, there was nothing bad she could think of. They never fought. But nevertheless, before Mai could answer his question, she had one of her own…
"Seto, do you love me?" she asked, barely aware of the question as it left her lips. After it came out, she inwardly scolded herself. Way to ruin the moment, Mai. But she was curious about what he would say anyway.
Seto looked surprised, then he paused to think about it. "I love us," he said, smiling, raising one hand to gently tuck a stray blonde curl behind her ear.
Us, Mai thought. The whole world loves us. Seto and Mai, the high-powered, driven, famous, gorgeous couple. We're both killer duelists. He's smart and rich, I'm witty and glamorous. We're perfect together. "I love us too," she said, allowing him to slip the ring onto her finger.
"Hey," Seto greeted her softly, reentering the bedroom and sitting on the edge of bed. She rolled over and met his eyes and smiled. It was a genuine smile; he was staring at her left hand, bearing the ring, so tenderly.
"It looks great on you," he said, picking up her hand and giving her left knuckle a kiss. His sensitive touch made goosebumps break out all over Mai's body. "I mean, you look great wearing anything…" he gave her a sexy smirk. "But I don't think you've ever looked better than when you're wearing my engagement ring, and nothing else."
Mai kicked off the sheet covering her body, confirming his suspicions that she was still wearing nothing but the ring. She rolled back over and beckoned to him enticingly.
Seto willingly stripped off his shirt and climbed back into bed with her. She embraced him; whatever ridiculous doubts she entertained about their relationship were always swept away in the bedroom. Seto was fantastic in bed, and her body was already responding to his touch. Definitely made the right choice, she thought hazily as his hands slipped down her body.
"Hey," he whispered again in her ear, and she shivered under him. Her hands went to his belt buckle, tugging impatiently. He chuckled and sat back, allowing her to undo the buckle and unzip his pants. "I know we didn't talk last night about setting a wedding date," he said, catching up her hands in his and pausing her activities for a moment. "But I remember you saying you'd like a fall wedding, so I was thinking maybe this October. Is six months long enough?"
He remembered that she wanted a fall wedding. That was one of the many traits she adored about Seto (second only to his bedroom prowess, she thought with a smirk). He devoted his considerable brainpower towards remembering things about her, her likes and dislikes, important anniversaries and birthdays, things she mentioned casually in conversation.
"This October is wonderful," she whispered, leaning up to kiss him. This time he allowed her to push his pants down and fling them across the room.
Téa and Joey arrived together at the Kaiba mansion for the Sunday afternoon luncheon in honor of Seto and Mai's engagement. "You're going to be nice, right Joey?" she asked him as they walked around to the backyard.
"Of course I'll be nice!" he said, a little too vigorously for her to believe him.
Contrary to popular belief, Joey Wheeler knew exactly how stupid he was. Ever since he was young, he'd kept a careful mental catalogue of his mistakes, starting with his parent's divorce and his separation from his beloved sister Serenity. Although he had since come to terms with the fact that he hadn't caused their divorce, and he and Serenity were now happily reunited, he'd carried a lot of blame around for years. His early teenage years were fraught with mistakes, starting with how he had been such a dumb bully, though he'd started making up for that when he met Yugi.
His latest giant mistake was Mai Valentine.
They'd flirted heavily when they first met, and things had gotten serious (on Joey's end, at least) during Battle City, when she was knocked unconscious by Marik on that blimp. He was pretty sure she'd been crushing on him as well, but things had never really gotten going between them, not least due to Joey still being in high school and Mai leaving to tour Europe in another dueling tournament. Since she'd been out of his life, naturally he'd just moved on, and dated a few girls while in university. He'd met Bianca a few weeks after graduation; she was pretty and really funny, a real good time, and they'd started going steady. Joey took her as his date to Yugi's wedding, and that was when he'd run into Mai Valentine again, for the first time in years.
Things had immediately heated up between them, and they were laughing and flirting just like old times when Bianca sauntered up.
"Hey babe, introduce me to your friend," she said, wrapping her arms around Joey's waist and smiling at Mai.
"Bianca!" Joey immediately turned to her and kissed her deeply – he was crazy about her, and for a moment he forgot that Mai was still standing there. When he turned back to apologize and to introduce the girls, Mai was staring at him open-mouthed, her emotions for a split-second visible on her face. Although she had immediately wiped any signs of disappointment away and greeted Bianca cordially, Joey had recognized what was going on.
And – immature idiot that he'd been – he was actually pretty pleased with himself. Look at Joey Wheeler, breaking hearts everywhere he goes. He was devoted to Bianca, so he figured he would just let Mai down easily, and therefore ignored her for the rest of the night.
When he heard that she was dating Kaiba, he was surprised, though not necessarily upset. He thought about it and decided that they might be halfway decent with each other. They were both ambitious, proud, killer duelists… Joey wished them the best of luck. He and Kaiba had improved their relationship a little bit during their university years, and things got even better between them when Kaiba started dating Mai. They spent some time together, when Kaiba followed Mai to group outings with Téa and Tristan and other old friends (Man, he really must be head over heels for Mai, if he's hanging out with all of us! Joey thought at the time), and they were downright friendly by the time Joey began noticing Mai again.
She made him feel hot and itchy everywhere, just as she had back in his high school days. He liked that she was fun and flirty; she was smart and had a great sense of humor; and damn if she wasn't just as hot now as she'd been seven years ago. Joey wasn't the cheating type, but Mai definitely… distracted him, and things at home with Bianca began to suffer. They'd only been living together for a few weeks when they began to fight; within three weeks, Bianca had moved out. Joey was the one to finally end things; not because of Mai (or so he told himself), but because Bianca was… well, frankly, she was too boring. She had very little ambition or drive (or talent, if it came to that). She was sweet, and she was hilarious and fun to be with, but she'd never finished high school, and she was happy working in a clothing store. In the end, Joey had suffered through too much and had worked too hard to settle; he wanted more out of life, and he wanted to be with someone who wanted the same.
About one month after Bianca moved out, Joey was back in love with Mai, deeper and harder than ever. But… well, as Téa would say, by then it was too late.
"Congrats, Kaiba," Joey greeted now, and his voice was noticeably cooler than usual. Seto, who was no fool, narrowed his eyes back. "Mai and I are very happy together," he said, smiling widely.
"I bet you're happy with a girl like Mai!" Joey said, changing tactics and moving over to Mai, grabbing her hand and kissing it gently, his entire manner a little too suave. "You look gorgeous, as always, Mai."
"Well, thanks, Joey," Mai said, smiling back at him, clad in a purple dress with spaghetti straps that did wonderful things for her cleavage. Her smile was a little uncertain; after all this time, Joey Wheeler was a bit of a wild card. Was he just casually flirting with her? Was he trying to piss off Seto? Did he actually care for her at all?
Seto was keeping a wary eye on his one-time rival, but when he spotted Téa, he turned to greet her. "Thanks for coming out, Téa," he said, giving her his best genuine smile. "I know Mai appreciates it."
"You'd better, Mai!" Téa said teasingly, brushing right past him and inserting herself between Mai and Joey. Joey scowled at her back and stomped away. Mai looked flustered, but responded to Téa.
Seto, on the other hand, couldn't help but frown. Sure, Téa had done him a favor by getting that flirtatious mutt away from his fiancée. But this was one too many times that Téa had brushed past him. He'd always liked her the best out of Yugi's group of friends – of course, back in the Battle City days, that wasn't saying much – and after he and Mai comforted her during Yugi's wedding, he'd honestly thought that they were on their way towards friendship (and since when did Téa turn away from a possible friendship, anyway?). He wanted to be friends with her – after all, she was Mai's best friend and would probably serve as maid of honor. But while Téa was never anything less than perfectly cordial, she never quite seemed to want to talk with him. During group outings, whenever he finally got her to smile or laugh (and it had become a private mission of his to do so), she would collect herself after a moment and slip away. If he sat down next to her, she would find an excuse to wedge someone else, like Tristan, between them.
He had, of course, talked about the Téa problem with his beloved girlfriend, and Mai had a theory.
"That doesn't seem like Téa. I wonder if she's – well – jealous," Mai said, frowning.
"Of you," Mai clarified. "She and I have gotten to be good friends… best friends. I wonder if she's upset that I've been ditching her to spend time with you."
"I certainly hope not," Seto said, frowning. "I still want you two to be friends. I just want us all to get along. Can you invite her over for dinner sometime?"
Dinner had been lovely, but hadn't changed anything between them. Seto looked at Téa now as she burst out laughing over something Mai said. He couldn't help but compare Téa to Mai; he couldn't help but compare any woman to Mai, and they all fell short. Téa was pretty in her own way, but standing next to Mai, all others looked plain. Téa's hair was boring. She did have a great smile; it was all friendly and bubbly where Mai's smirk was sexy and sultry. Very pretty eyes, but then again, purple was more glamorous than blue. Her boobs were a little too big to be conducive to a dancing career but too small to give her a truly curvy figure. She had no butt but great legs.
Téa glanced over, caught him staring, and flushed and turned away again. Seto gave a guilty start, as if she could read his mind, and turned quickly to chat with a coworker who had come over to express his congratulations.
"What a catch, Seto," Jason said, shaking his hand and grinning. Jason Bartholomew was the youngest member on KaibaCorp's board of directors, although he was nearly a decade older than Seto himself.
"Don't I know it," Seto replied, shooting Mai a smile. She responded with a wink, and turned to hug Christine, Jason's wife. She really liked Christine.
"I'm so glad for you both," Christine said to Mai. "I think married life will suit you quite well."
Mai's smile never wavered, but on the inside, she was feeling antsy. This party was making everything feel so real. She glanced sideways at Seto; she'd agreed to be with him for forever! Jason and Christine were married and happy, but somehow, Mai couldn't see herself and Seto in the same position.
Get a grip, she told herself sternly. You already ARE in the same position. You and Seto are a committed couple, you're just going to make it official, that's all. Sheesh, I have to stop freaking out about this. I just have cold feet. At that moment, she happened to glance up and see another board member walk in with his wife. Ronnie and Susannah were both in their seventies, and Mai felt panic flood her again. Will Seto and I still be together in our seventies? Do I want that? Of course I do; I must; that's why I said yes when he proposed! There's no going back now…
On the other side of the lawn, Téa was helping herself to a cheese platter when Mokuba wandered over. "Try the brie, it's really good," he suggested.
"Definitely," Téa said, adding it to her plate. "Your brother sure knows how to throw a party. Every time I've come here, the food has been fantastic. So, Mokuba, how is university life treating you?"
Mokuba shrugged. "It's okay. I tried to talk Seto into letting me live off the inheritance, but no dice."
Téa laughed. "So instead you're getting an engineering degree, is that the deal?"
"It's my backup plan," Mokuba grinned. "I'm going into aerospace engineering – I want to design planes. Actually, I hope to work on the first commercial shuttles to the moon. I think that'd be pretty awesome."
"Good gosh," Téa said, shaking her head. "You Kaiba brothers don't set your standards very high, do you?"
Mokuba laughed. "So, is it weird to be here?" he asked, helping himself to a platter.
"Weird? Why?" Téa frowned.
"I mean at my brother's engagement party," Mokuba clarified. "Seeing as how you were his first crush and all."
Téa's first panicked thought was that Mokuba had discovered her secret, and she was about to plead for him not to tell Seto, when she realized he'd said that backwards. "I was his first crush?"
"Yeah." Mokuba paused with his cheese-topped cracker halfway to his mouth and looked at Téa's astonished face. "Uh… he didn't tell you?" He put the cracker down. "Actually, now that I think about it, there was no reason why he would have told you, is there?" He smacked himself on the head, spilling cheese all over the grassy lawn in the process. "Oops. Guess I spilled the beans."
Téa was silent. Being told that she'd once had a chance with Seto did not help her deal with being at his engagement party. What if I'd asked him out back then? she moaned to herself. What if I'd flirted a little bit more? What if I hadn't been so distracted by everything else going on with Yugi and the spirit…
"Don't worry," Mokuba assured her, seeing and misinterpreting Téa's crumpled face. "It's not like he still has a crush on you or anything! That's way in the past."
Téa forced a wan smile. "Thanks, Mokuba," she said. Then she stuffed cheese in her mouth so she didn't have to talk anymore.
"Glad we had nice weather for yesterday," Mai said, staring out the window at the pouring rain on Monday morning.
"The forecast says it's going to rain all week," Seto said, picking out a shirt. "Are you coming into work with me today?"
Mai shrugged. "Maybe later. I might have a lazy morning." She made part of her money from winning dueling competitions, but most of it came from sponsoring various products. She was a hot commodity because she was a talented duelist and model-gorgeous. She was currently the face of Viva Naturale, a makeup line; Essential Scents, a perfume line; Christina Y., a shoe line; an energy drink company; and several more products. Lately she'd also taken to freelancing for a few different magazines; she enjoyed it, and it was nice to know that she had a career she could fall back on if she ever needed the money – which, it now seemed, she never would. Since she didn't need an office for any of her work, she would sometimes head to KaibaCorp with Seto and do some writing in the small room adjoining his office.
"What stories are you working on?" he asked, adjusting his tie. Mai watched him. She had always secretly wanted to be the one doing his tie – it was an odd quirk, but she just enjoyed that small reminder that a guy needed her, that she was a part of what made his mornings go smoothly. But Seto was, alas, perfectly competent at knotting his own tie.
"Just need to polish my latest article about how your dueling deck reflects your personality, then I can send it in," she said, shifting her position on the window seat. "And Alyson – my editor at Girl Talk – wants me to do an article about being engaged to you."
Seto paused in the middle of shrugging his jacket on. "What do you think about that?" he said doubtfully.
Seto hated the press intruding on his personal life. Mai, who enjoyed the glamour, would normally have just dismissed the idea to make him happy, but she was in an oddly belligerent mood this morning. "I wouldn't mind," she said, staring back out the window at the rain.
"I think I do," Seto said slowly. "Our private life is just that – private."
"I figured that's what you would say," Mai said, still not looking at him. "It's fine. I'll just tell her I won't write it."
"Is that what you want?" he said, staring at her, trying to get her to make eye contact. She stubbornly ignored him.
"I really don't care," she said.
"Okay." Seto paused, sensing that something was wrong, but unable to tell what. Mai wasn't giving him any clues. Finally, he crossed the room and pressed a kiss to her forehead. "I'll see you later, then."
She finally tilted her head back and smiled at him. "Later."
Joey, against Téa's advice, called Mai up on Thursday morning to invite her out for drinks after his workday. It wasn't unusual for them to meet like this – they'd stayed close friends – although more typically they would go out in a larger group. Joey, however, had been careful not to mention this to Tristan or any of his other buddies, and Téa had understood that she wasn't invited.
"I'm so glad you suggested this, Joey," Mai said, flouncing into her seat at the bar. "I needed to get out of that house! It was so stifling!"
"You felt trapped, huh?" Joey said, immediately perking up. If this was how his evening started, it had to end on a good note.
But Mai seemed to realize her mistake. "It's just this rain," she said quickly. "I can't believe it's been pouring nonstop since Monday!"
"It's a bummer," Joey agreed glumly. "I hate the rain. I'd much rather be outside playing Frisbee or something. Can I order you something?"
"Wine would be nice," Mai said. "And I hate the rain too. I want to be wearing a short skirt and heels and walking outside with the sun shining down on me." She sighed. "Seto actually likes this kind of weather. He thinks its comfortable to be inside listening to the sound of the rain."
"Speaking of Kaiba, is he coming today?" Joey asked casually.
"He can't. He has a late meeting. He's taking tomorrow off to make up for it." Mai shrugged. "And since when are you back to calling him 'Kaiba' now, anyway? I thought you two had gotten on first name basis by now."
"Old habits die hard," Joey said weakly. And he'd known about Kaiba's meeting. Joey worked for a company that distributed electronics, and his boss in the marketing department was actually the one meeting with Seto.
Luckily, the bartender wandered over to take their drink order just then, and after he'd left, Joey changed the subject. He and Mai went through three beers and two glasses of wine during the next three hours. She was in the mood to reminisce, so they talked about old times, laughing about things they'd done when they were younger.
"I still can't believe I used to cheat at Duel Monsters," Mai said, shaking her head. "I suppose I ought to thank you for never telling anyone about that! It was a long time ago, but still. My reputation would be shot."
"Of course I'd never tell anyone," Joey said. "We all did dumb things when we were younger. And I have to admit that I am actually kind of impressed that you could cheat by smell! You must have a very talented nose."
"No more talented than the rest of me," Mai said snootily, sticking her nose up in the air, then bursting into laughter.
"Forget dueling," Joey grinned, poking her with his elbow. "You should have been one of those scent testers. You could smell the armpits of T-shirts that sweaty guys wear all day, and say which kind of deodorant is best."
"Yeah, if only I'd thought to dream big," she said, rolling her eyes. She turned to look at him, and noticed something that had evaded her attention all night. "Joey – is that a clip-on tie?"
He glanced down. "Yeah, I came right from work, so I didn't bother to take it off."
"No, I mean, you don't knot your own ties?" Mai persisted.
"Too complicated for a simple guy like me," Joey grinned. "I never quite got the hang of it. My ties always ended up lopsided."
"I can picture it," Mai mused. "You're a very lopsided guy."
"I'll take that as a compliment," Joey informed her, before picking up his beer and finishing the bottle.
Mai glanced around the room until she'd located the clock. "Whoa!" she exclaimed. "I didn't realize how late it had gotten!"
"Late? It's only nine," Joey said, looking around.
"Well, it's not that late, but we've been here for so long," Mai amended, picking up her purse. "I had no idea how much time had passed."
"Time flies when you're with people you care about," Joey said seriously, leaning in closer to her. Her pulse fluttered wildly.
"Well, I'd better get back to Seto's," Mai said. She slid off the stool. "Thanks for tonight. I had a good time."
"I had a great time," Joey said, following her, still unnaturally serious. "I've missed you."
"You just saw me," she said lightly, trying to laugh it out. "Last Sunday, remember? At my engagement party." She put a slight emphasis on engagement. Joey, as usual, ignored it.
"It hasn't been the same," he said earnestly. They paused right outside the bar door. "You know that. You and I used to have a different relationship. I think we used to be closer. I miss that, Mai."
"We'll have to do better at keeping in touch," she said, not really paying attention to the words coming out of her mouth, because the awful truth was that she knew exactly what he meant and she missed it too. It was just flirting! she reminded herself. And it's not right to flirt with him anymore, because I'm engaged.
"Do you need a ride home?" he asked, thankfully letting the matter drop.
"No," she said, glad that she'd driven. "I brought my own car. I figured I wouldn't want to walk back after dark."
"Good," he said, but she could tell that he was disappointed. But she definitely didn't want to picture Joey driving her back to Seto's place. No matter how innocent it actually was, that would probably look bad.
It would only look bad because it's not entirely innocent, a little voice whispered. Mai tried to ignore it, but she knew in her heart that it would probably be better if she avoided Joey Wheeler from now on.
The end of the week passed by just as drizzly as the beginning of the week. Everyone Téa knew was grumpy because of the weather, and it was with some relief that everyone in her office parted ways on Friday. On Saturday, Téa was curled up on her couch with a mug of tea, starting on her book club's latest selection and anticipating a restful weekend, when her phone rang. Lazily, without looking at the caller ID, she picked up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Hi there!" Yugi's voice chirped, and she winced and nearly spilled her drink. She was fairly sure that, at this point, her reaction to Yugi was just habit left over from her past affection, but it still gave her a jolt to be unexpectedly reminded of him.
"Yugi!" she said cheerfully, a few seconds too late, but he doubtless attributed her pause to the long-distance connection. "How's it going?"
"Great, everything's great. My job is okay… it's interesting being a consultant to the game shops in the area, but I don't get to play as much as I used to. Sarah's job is going even better. She worked on a couple of radio spots recently that went over really well. There's apparently office gossip that she'll get a promotion soon, so we're keeping our fingers crossed!"
"I'll keep mine crossed too!" Téa responded lightly, noticing how her heart only gave a slight throb at a mention of Sarah.
"How are things in Domino?" Yugi asked.
"Mmm… right now, awfully rainy. It hasn't let up for the past four days, which is unusual." She sighed.
"Bummer," Yugi sympathized. "But then, you always liked the rain, didn't you?"
Téa couldn't suppress a smile. Good old Yugi… he had always been so sweet about remembering little things like that. "Yeah," she replied. "There's just something so… comfortable about listening and watching the rain when I am nice and dry inside. Whether I'm in my car, at work, or at home, it's like I'm in a protected little cocoon. Very cozy. And the world never looks prettier than right after a rainstorm!"
Yugi responded, but she barely heard him. Something had been weighing on her mind lately, and the very fact that she appeared to be getting over Yugi emboldened her to voice it.
"Hey… can I ask you something?" Téa played with the fringe on the blanket draped over her legs.
"Yeah, of course," came the surprise response.
"Do you remember… back in high school…" Téa laughed a little. "Well, I think you had a bit of a crush on me back then." There was silence from his end, but Téa boldly decided to interpret it as mild embarrassment and forged onwards. "Actually, I think it's safe to say you were sort of in love with me. I was just wondering… whatever happened to that? I mean, I guess I know what happened, but do you ever have any regrets?" This seemed too strong, so she elaborated: "That is, do you ever wonder what things would have been like if we'd ended up together?"
"Hey, Téa, actually, you know what?" Yugi interrupted, and only then did she realize how she'd been babbling. "I'm sorry, I should have mentioned this earlier, but I have you on speaker phone. Sarah and I are cooking dinner."
Téa winced horribly and, because that didn't seem like enough, smacked herself on the head. Now she could hear Sarah's voice in the background: "Yugi, if you want to take over stirring this, I'll step out for a minute…"
"No, no, there's no need for you to leave," Yugi protested. There was silence from their end, then Sarah said firmly, "It's okay. I need to check my e-mail anyway. I'll be back in a few minutes."
Yugi apparently put his hand over the receiver, because now their dialogue was muffled. Téa, despite herself, strained to hear what they were saying but couldn't make out any words until there was a click and Yugi came ruefully back on the line. "I took you off speakerphone. Sarah's in the office."
"I'm so sorry," Téa said meekly. "I didn't make her uncomfortable, did I?"
"No, I don't see why you should have," Yugi said. "She knew that I had a crush on you a few years ago."
"Right." Téa swallowed. "So, um…"
"So I guess I might as well answer your question," Yugi said, and now he sounded amused. "Of course I wondered about what life would be like if we ended up together. We've been friends for a long time, and I liked you for a long time too."
"What did you think? What did you picture?"
Téa could almost hear Yugi's shrug. "I don't know. Nothing dramatic. I guess we'd have had a pretty typical married life. I think we'd have gotten along okay."
"But…" Téa's voice trailed off, but Yugi seemed to know what she was asking anyway.
"You do realize that's not what either of us deserved though, right?" he asked. "We shouldn't settle for 'okay'. I found an amazing relationship with Sarah, and you deserve the same with some guy."
"Why wouldn't it have been great with us?"
There was a thoughtful pause as Yugi apparently searched for words. "We're a lot alike," Téa said to fill the silence.
"We're almost too much alike," Yugi agreed. "That's why I thought we were compatible for a long time. But, I dunno, in the end we almost had too much in common. I think we'd have gotten… stagnant."
"Oh," said Téa, although she didn't understand. The old frustration was welling up in her again; why had Yugi changed his mind about her?
"For example," Yugi said, as if understanding her confusion. "During high school you always said you wanted to be a professional dancer."
"Yeah," Téa said with a sigh. Just like her friend Hannah had wanted to be an actress, and Juliet wanted to be a singer. It was true that Téa did have a lot of dancing talent, and enough drive to pursue her dreams, but in the end she just hadn't been good enough to launch a real career out of it.
"And I always took that at face value," Yugi continued. "I just assumed it would happen that way, and I'd always be there to support you. So when you realized that maybe dancing wouldn't be a good career for you, and you started thinking about other options, I was taken by surprise. It just never occurred to me that life would be different than we blindly planned it."
"I guess I get it," Téa said. It made some sense, but on the other hand… "You know, lots of couples are exactly alike. It works for them."
"Yes," Yugi agreed. "But I don't think it would have worked for you and me. Do you?"
"I hadn't really thought about it that way," Téa said, still fiddling with the blanket.
Yugi chuckled into the receiver. "No, I guess you wouldn't have. What brought this up, anyway?"
Téa thanked her lucky stars that he still didn't know. "I don't know… just thinking about Joey and Mai and Seto Kaiba, I guess."
"Mmm," Yugi said thoughtfully. "Joey's been talking to me about that… I get the feeling that he's not happy about their engagement."
"Understatement of the year," Téa said wryly.
Yugi sighed. "I'm sorry for him, I just hope he doesn't do anything drastic."
Téa gulped. That made two of them.
"Mai and Seto are a lot alike," Yugi said thoughtfully. "I guess they are one of those couples that it works for, huh?"
"I'm sure they have their differences," Téa said, more sharply than she'd intended. "But yes, they have a lot of similarities. It's good for them."
"Right." There was a pause, then Yugi asked hesitantly, "Téa, how do you feel about Seto Kaiba?"
She almost groaned into the phone. After months of being oblivious about Téa's feelings for him, had Yugi seriously picked up on her crush on Seto? "I think he's good for Mai," she responded lightly.
"And you're happy with that?" Yugi pressed.
"Of course I'm happy that my girlfriend is in love with a great guy," Téa said half-heartedly, not much into protesting.
Yugi sighed. "It's just that Joey seems to think that you might have wanted to date Seto yourself, if he wasn't with Mai."
That surprised her even more. "Joey picked up on that?" she said without thinking.
"I noticed it too," Yugi admitted. "There's just something different about you when you talk about him. Your voice changes. It's like you're looking at something far away… something that you can't have."
She wasn't quite sure what he meant by that, but it was probably bad news. "Do you think anyone else knows?" she asked, mildly panicked.
"Probably not," Yugi said hastily. "I mean, Joey and I have known you the longest."
"It's not a big deal," Téa lied. "He's a nice guy, that's all, and that caught my attention. I'm still happy for Mai."
"I'm sure that you are," Yugi said with a sigh. "You've always put your friends first. I just hope you aren't letting yourself suffer. It's okay to be selfish once in a while."
"I'm not suffering," Téa lied again, thinking of how ironic it was that Yugi was giving her this advice. "So when Joey's been hatching these diabolical plans to have me seduce Seto away from Mai, he's known all along that I'm tempted?" she asked, changing the subject.
Yugi laughed. "Joey can be pretty diabolical. But I think Joey thinks it's just a little thing. A little crush."
"That's all it is," Téa said, knowing that Yugi wouldn't be convinced.
"Anyway, Joey would never hurt you, so I'm sure he's not going to take advantage of your crush," Yugi explained. "Anyway, I hate to cut this conversation short, but it's time to start cooking the vegetables for dinner tonight, so I've got to hang up and get Sarah back in here. I originally called to ask if you were excited for your work trip – you leave this week, right?"
"Thursday," Téa confirmed. "If I don't get a chance to talk to you before then, I'll definitely call you when I get back and tell you all about it."
"Sounds good," Yugi said.
"Well, bye, then… Tell Sarah I said hi. And… um, sorry again."
"Not a problem," Yugi said sincerely. "It was good talking with you."
"Good talking with you too," she said, and hung up.
Seto had warned Mai in advance that he had a Sunday morning meeting ("I don't like meeting on Sundays either, but these are some important visitors from England, and they're leaving in the afternoon," he explained), so she woke up on Sunday alone. As had been her habit for the last week, Mai immediately rolled over and peeked out the window; but unlike the last week, it wasn't raining. Finally, she exulted. True, the skies were still gray and dreary, but at least it wasn't drizzling.
She escaped the mansion as soon as she could –
Hold that thought, Mai told herself mentally as she trudged down the road in rainboots and a waterproof jacket. What do I mean, 'escaped'?
She sighed. I definitely mean 'escaped'. I feel trapped, and I don't even know why.
She told herself she was being silly. She certainly had no reason to feel trapped in a wonderful relationship with a caring man who complimented her so well. She was so deep in thought that she didn't even realize she wasn't headed to her own apartment until she was standing outside the house that Joey Wheeler rented with his friends.
"Oh, great," she said aloud. "Thank you, subconscious, for leading me here. It's like I want to ruin my own life."
Going inside would be a very bad idea, she knew. Not that she planned to cheat on Seto; she was confident that she could never be that callous. But still, to go over the house of his past (and, she feared, current) rival… a rival whom Mai had a romantic history with, and who still persisted on flirting with her…
She was on the porch and pressing the doorbell before she even realized it.
No! she exclaimed, then took it back. What's the harm in spending a few hours with an old friend? she reasoned. Nothing. Nothing at all.
As long as he always remains just a friend.
No one answered the door. She clutched her jacket around her, feeling more miserable than she had when it was still raining, and started to walk away. She had just made it off the porch when she heard a male yelp – not Joey – from the backyard.
Curious, she walked around the house and ducked just in time to avoid being hit by a flying ball of mud.
Two wide amber eyes stared guiltily back at her. "Uhh… sorry, Mai. I thought you were Tristan."
"Think fast!" Tristan yelled, popping out from the side of the house behind Mai. She leapt aside, startled, as Tristan heaved a glob of mud right into Joey's chest.
"Hey!" Joey yelled, but he didn't retaliate right away. He seemed unable to pry his eyes away from Mai. She stared back at him, vaguely noticing that he was perfectly filthy from head to toe; she wanted to ask him what was going on but was afraid to open her mouth.
"Hey – hey, Joey," a girl said, running up and screeching to a halt beside Joey. Mai's pulse picked up – another girlfriend? – before she recognized the girl underneath the thick layer of dirt covering her.
"Hello, Serenity," she said, finally regaining her voice and smiling faintly. "You look a bit different than last time I saw you."
Serenity looked down at herself and burst out laughing. "Unbathed, you mean? Or all grown up?"
"Both," Mai clarified with a grin.
"Got you!" A man – the same man who she'd heard yelp before – appeared behind Serenity and rubbed more mud into her hair. She squealed and turned around, wrestling with him, trying to shove him to the ground, before the man got the better of her. He subdued Serenity, grinning down at her, then leaned over and kissed her.
"Gross! Brian, Brian! You'll get mud in both our mouths!" Serenity laughed, letting him kiss her anyway.
"Hey, welcome over, Mai," Joey said, finally regaining his manners. "You remember Serenity – and you know Tristan, of course – this here is Brian, Serenity's boyfriend, and over there is my roommate Tony." He waved to a corner of the yard where Tristan and another man were pelting each other with mud balls loaded into slingshots. "The fourth roommate – I think he was here last time you came over, remember Chris? Anyway, he's visiting his parents for the weekend, so he's not around."
"You're having a mud fight?" Mai asked the obvious.
"Huh? Er, yeah," Joey grinned sheepishly. "Well, we've been stuck inside all week, and Serenity's visiting today, so we really wanted to get out of the house… and we saw the state that the yard was in, and Tristan slipped trying to walk through the backyard and, well, the rest is history." He waved his dirty fingers around.
"How have you been, Mai? I'd hug you," Serenity said, coming up for air and breaking away from Brian, "But I don't want to get you dirty too!"
"I don't know," Mai said, looking at the mud with a spark in her eye. "I've been cooped up inside all weekend, too. I could use a little…" she never finished her sentence. Instead, lightning-quick, she bent down and scooped up a handful of mud, slinging it with good aim at Serenity.
The redhead squealed again, trying to squirm away from Brian to retaliate, but he burst out laughing and grabbed both her arms again. "Hit her again!" he called to Mai.
"No!" Serenity laughed. Mai grinned, scooped up another handful and pelted Serenity. Without pausing, she slung another gob at Joey. "Hey!" he yelped; Serenity broke free and launched an assault on both Brian and Mai; and the war began.
"Wheelers against intruders!" Joey called, laughing, as he and Serenity stood back to back launching mud at Mai and Brian. Tristan and Tony came charging in, grinning, and teamed up to tackle Joey down into the dirt. Serenity, laughing so hard that she couldn't stand upright, abandoned her brother and joined forces with Mai to cover Brian from head to toe.
About halfway through the mud fight, Mai realized that this was the most exhilarated that she'd felt in a long time. The closest she'd come to feeling like this before was when Seto took her up in his private jet for the first time, and she'd seen the tiny town of Domino spread out before them, the twinkling blue ocean in the distance. But that had been mingled with a sense of awe and privilege. This was… this was a crazy flashback to her childhood, a casting off of all social expectations, a chance to let loose at a wild, base level. She let out a war scream as she charged at Joey, intending to push him back down into a puddle. And down he went – splash! – but his hands flew out and he took her with him.
She laughed hysterically, rolling over and feeling her head sink into the standing water, knowing that her hair was getting disgusting but not caring. Joey was grinning too, and he struggled to sit up. He looked over at her, and she suddenly went quiet at the look in his eye. He started to lean towards her, and she froze. She didn't know what might have happened next, but Tony ran up and jumped squarely between them in the puddle, spraying them both with water once again.
"Hey!" Mai yelped, grateful for the distraction. She scrambled to her feet, grabbed a handful of mud, and began chasing Tony around the yard.
Later, when they were all exhausted and were indistinguishable underneath a coat of mud, they trooped into the house to get cleaned up. Mai paused at the back door: "I don't want to get your house dirty!", but Tristan laughed and said "What do you think we are, the royal family of England? Anyway, it's Joey's week to clean."
"So watch your step," Joey warned, but in a joking tone of voice, and he shoved at her back so that she stumbled into the house.
"I'll wash up down here, you guys can use the upstairs bathrooms," Tony offered. "And I'll put on a pot of water for hot chocolate or tea, whichever suits you, sound good?"
"Sounds great!" Serenity chirped.
"Thanks," Mai added. The five of them headed upstairs; Brian and Serenity followed Joey into his bathroom. Mai, watching the couple clutching dirty hands, was reminded of something that she wanted to ask Tristan. She discreetly followed him into his bathroom. "Here," he said, slinging a towel at her. "You can wipe down with this, then, I dunno, do you want to borrow something to wear so you can wash your clothes? I think an ex-girlfriend of mine left one of her shirts here, but you'd have to borrow someone's sweatpants."
Mai looked down at her jeans, or what was visible of them underneath a layer of mud. Her rain jacket had protected her shirt from most of the damage, although she could feel that some had slid down her neck. A thought occurred to her: The fiancée of Seto Kaiba shouldn't be seen in this state.
"Nah, that's okay, my apartment isn't too far from here," Mai said. Stupid! I feel like I'm rebelling… and I don't even know what I'm rebelling against! "I'll just get my face washed off." She ran the towel under warm water from the faucet; Tristan did the same.
"So, Tristan," Mai said casually, and as softly as she could, scrubbing her face clean. "Didn't you… sort of used to have a thing for Serenity?"
Tristan chuckled, splashing some water across his face. "Yeah, I did… you don't have to worry about hiding it from Brian, he knows. We joke about it sometimes. I threaten to steal Serenity away and ride into the sunset with her on the back of my motorcycle."
Mai stared at him open-mouthed. "But how did you… I mean, what happened?"
Tristan wiped his face dry and shrugged. "I dunno… people just move on, I guess. Hey, I'm going to go change in my room, Mai. You sure you don't want any clothes? Although, come to think of it, Joey's pants might fit you better, he's more your height."
"Maybe I'll ask him," she said, avoiding his eyes.
Tristan wandered out of the bathroom. Mai stared at her own reflection for a while, absently trying to comb the mud out of her hair, but it was a lost cause. She walked out of the bathroom to see Serenity and Brian emerging from Joey's bedroom.
"Here you go," Joey was saying, handing Brian a clean set of clothes. "You can change in Chris's room since he's not here. Last door on the left."
"Haven't you learned your lesson by now, Brian?" Serenity asked, laughing, as she entered the bathroom to change into a clean outfit of her own. "Always bring a spare pair of clothes when you visit my brother Joey!"
They both laughed, two pairs of doors slammed, and then Joey and Mai were standing in the hallway alone. Their eyes met.
"Um, Tristan said maybe I could borrow a pair of pants?" Mai blurted, eager to break the silence.
"Sure. Come on in," Joey said, jerking his head. She followed him into his bedroom. Joey rummaged in a drawer and pulled out a pair of jeans.
"They'll probably be too big on you," he said softly, coming over and holding the jeans up to her waist as if to check. Mai's heart gave a giant thump as he pressed his body close – too close – to hers. "Do you have a belt?" He dropped the jeans and slowly hooked his fingers through the belt loops of her own muddy jeans, running his thumbs across the waistband of her pants and then up, under her shirt, onto the smooth skin of her stomach. Mai gave an involuntary shudder and stared, wide-eyed, astonished at Joey's sudden boldness (and, oh God, who had guessed that Joey Wheeler could be so seductive?).
"No belt," he breathed, now running the palms of his hand all around her waist as if to confirm, then sliding his hands up her back. Her skin was chilly, but his hands were somehow warm, and it felt as if he was lighting a fire in her flesh. He pressed his hands flat on her back and held her firmly against his body. She could feel the heat seeping from his chest into her own. She was still staring at him, and now he stared back and leaned in, slowly.
She waited until his lips were barely ghosting hers before she kicked her brain into gear. "I am engaged!" she breathed.
"What?" Joey murmured before moving forward and kissing her more firmly.
"I said I am engaged!" she practically shouted against his mouth, startling him with her sudden intensity. She shoved him away from her, breaking his embrace, and stumbled backwards. "I am happily engaged, Joseph Wheeler, and you have no right to be hitting on me."
"Mai," he said, his voice so yearning that she nearly took back everything she'd just said and leapt into his arms. "Don't you know?"
"Don't I know what?" she asked despite herself, nevertheless taking another step back.
"Don't you know that I love you?" he asked, his gaze locked onto hers, and she lost her breath. Her vision went strangely dark around the edges.
Keep it together, girl, she warned herself. Don't go falling for some fancy words – you're too smart for that. You'll get hurt; you're safe with Seto.
And another, deeper voice: Joey would never hurt me.
"Why now?" she asked him, close to tears. "You had years and years to be in love with me! You decide to tell me this now? Are you trying to hurt me, yourself, Seto? Stop it, Joey, just stop!" And she repeated what she'd said before: "I am engaged! You shouldn't be hitting on me – now leave me ALONE!"
With that, she turned and hurried from the bedroom, nearly colliding with Tristan in her haste to reach the stairs. "Whoa, what's the hurry?" he asked, but she pushed him aside and clattered down the staircase, stumbling through the kitchen where a surprised Tony was making hot chocolate, and finally out the front door. She dashed away down the street, and behind her she heard the door bang open again and Joey ran out calling "Wait, Mai!", and she just screamed over her shoulder again "Leave me alone!" and cut through someone's yard to get to the street on the other side, and finally paused, out of breath, behind a tree and listened.
Nothing. Joey had either lost her trail or had decided not to follow her.
She slumped to the ground, sitting with her face buried in her knees. It started to drizzle again.
Joey dejectedly reentered the house and walked into the kitchen, where four wide eyes stared at him.
"Got anything stronger than that?" he asked when Tony pushed a large mug of hot chocolate at him.
"No," Tony said firmly. "But you can have as much whipped cream as you want."
"A lot, then," Joey said. Serenity passed it to him.
There was a very long moment of silence while Joey slurped at his hot chocolate, burning his tongue but not caring, while the others exchanged uncomfortable glances and wondered who would speak first. Finally, Tristan did.
"So… I take it Mai was upset about something?"
"Ya think?" Joey asked sarcastically, slamming his mug down.
"Well, she could have had a train to catch," Tristan said, unphased by his friend's temper. "But somehow, I didn't think that was it."
"No," Joey said, still angrily, then his temper seemed to drain out of him. "I tried to kiss her," he mumbled into his mug.
His friends weren't necessarily surprised, but seemed distressed anyway. Serenity looked down at the floor.
"And she didn't kiss back?" Tony ventured a guess.
"Nah." Joey stared at the floor too. "I don't get it… I thought she wanted me to. There's always been…well, something between us. I know she's felt it before… and I thought she felt it today too. When we were fooling around in the mud… and then in my room, she was just letting me touch her… but when I went in for the kiss, she freaked out. She yelled at me for hitting on her, since she's engaged and all. I told her how much I liked her, and she didn't even care."
Tristan sighed. "I know this sucks for you, man. I know you've liked her for a while, and I'm not going to lie, I always sort of thought she liked you too. But she was right," he concluded sympathetically but firmly. "It's not right to be hitting on another guy's girl, no matter how much you want her."
"I know it's hard, Joey," Tony said quietly.
Joey, as usual, listened to their advice and then turned to his little sister for her opinion. Serenity was staring at him, gnawing on her lower lip, and when she saw that he wanted her to speak, she flushed.
"I agree," she said in barely a whisper, knowing that her brother wanted to hear something different, but unable to speak anything but the truth. "I'm so sorry, Joey. But Mai wants to marry Seto and that's her choice. You told her how you feel, and now you have to let her be. If she wants you – well – she'll come to you. But it's not right to try to force her into anything."
Joey gave a harsh laugh and looked back at his hot chocolate. "Well, there's not much chance of that happening anymore anyway," he muttered. "I'll be lucky if she ever talks to me again. And maybe… maybe that'd be for the best."
After leaving Joey's, Mai wandered aimlessly around Domino for a few hours. First she headed to her own apartment, but then decided that she really didn't want to be alone right now. So she switched directions and headed for Téa's, but on second thought, decided that she wasn't ready to talk about what had happened yet, and anyway it wouldn't be fair to dump this on Téa because she was Joey's friend too. She headed for a nice coffee shop to get a hot drink and take her mind off of that morning's events before realizing that she was still covered, head-to-toe, in mud. So in the end she walked back to the Kaiba mansion. It'll be good to see Seto, she told herself. It'll help me reaffirm our relationship.
It had stopped drizzling just a few minutes after it started, so Mai was fairly dry by the time she made it back, but she was still filthy and didn't want to track dirt through the house. So instead she walked around to the back, where a glass door overlooked the lawn and led into the living room. Just as she had hoped, Seto was sitting in the living room with a newspaper. Mokuba, who had arrived home for spring break the previous night, was also there, lying on his stomach doing the crossword puzzle on the floor.
She knocked on the glass door, and both boys looked up. Seto clearly didn't recognize her at first, and when he did, his mouth fell open in astonishment. Mokuba burst out laughing, then bounded to his feet and pulled the door open for her. "What happened to you?"
"Umm… mud fight," she responded sheepishly.
"Mud fight?" Seto asked, his eyebrows raised so far that they disappeared into his hairline.
"Yeah, it was fun," she said trying for a smile. "Actually… it was a lot of fun," she said with more enthusiasm. "I don't suppose you want to try it?"
"Try having a mud fight?" Seto asked skeptically.
"I'll do it!" Mokuba jumped in excitedly. "Sounds awesome!"
Mai looked expectantly at Seto. He looked back for a while, to make sure she was serious, and when he saw that she was, he laughed a little and shook his head.
"Really, Mai? I wouldn't have expected you to want a mud fight, of all things. No thanks for me, but you and Mokuba have fun… just leave a towel or a change of clothes in the garage or something, so you don't get the house dirty."
Mokuba opened his mouth to beg his older brother to join them, but Mai beat him into speech. "You wouldn't have expected it from me?" she demanded shrilly. "And just what is that supposed to mean?"
Both Kaiba brothers, quite naturally, looked stunned at this little outburst, but Mai wasn't finished. "What do you know about me, anyway?" she asked, jabbing a finger in Seto's direction. Since he actually knew quite a lot about her, both of them knew the question was ridiculous, but Seto couldn't think of anything to say and Mai ignored it in favor of continuing. "For all you know, I could have played in the mud every day before I met you! And I think it's just unfair that you won't join me now." She slammed the sliding glass door so hard that it ricocheted open again, but Mai ignored it and stomped away. Guess she'd go back to her own apartment after all.
Seto and Mokuba stared open-mouthed at the backyard long after Mai had exited it. "What was that all about?" Seto finally asked.
"Beats me." Mokuba got up and shut the door again. "That was really bizarre."
"Should I go after her?" Seto asked, half-rising.
"Nah," Mokuba said, shaking his head. "Something must have happened to her this morning, cause she's really off her rocker. That wasn't like Mai at all. Give her a while to calm down before you try to talk to her again."
"I'll call her in an hour or so to make sure she gets home safely," Seto said, glancing at his watch with a furrowed brow, then flopping back on the couch again. "What a day… first that stupid meeting this morning, then my girlfriend picks a fight with me for no reason. Mokuba, I think I need to get away."
Mokuba looked cautiously at his older brother. This wasn't the first time Seto had broached the idea of a trip to him – although it was the first time since Seto and Mai had started seriously dating – but this time, Seto sounded much more desperate than before. "Aah… do you want to talk about it, big brother?"
"What's 'it'?" Seto asked rhetorically.
"Um… life? Any problems? Something bugging you?"
"Something's bugging me, all right," Seto said with a sigh. "It's just hard to figure out what it is. I mean… my life is pretty much perfect, isn't it? Mai was a little strange back then, and I guess she's been tense this last week – she really hates the rain, you know – but other than that, I have nothing to complain about. Nothing I should complain about," he added.
"I dunno…" Mokuba shrugged. "Maybe you have too much perfect? I mean… perfect can get boring after a while."
Téa grit her teeth. Standing outside the Kaiba mansion was pretty much the last place on earth she wanted to be right now – especially after that awkward conversation with Yugi; she just needed to get away from all the boys she'd liked right now. But Joey had called her last night, explaining what had happened between him and Mai, and begging her to apologize to Mai on his behalf. He'd sounded perfectly miserable, so she'd caved almost immediately.
Despite all the trouble Joey had caused her, Téa couldn't bring herself to be angry with him, because she knew exactly how he felt. Joey just handled things differently than her – he had always been too eager and pushy – and the mess he had made of things made her even more certain that she had to keep her distance from Seto Kaiba and never, never let her true feelings for him show.
She rung the doorbell, praying that it would be Mai who answered, but in the end no one did. Guess I'll have to call her after all, Téa thought, reaching for her cell phone. She had wanted to make her visit a surprise, in case Mai was suspicious that Joey sent her – no point in raising Mai's guard before the two girls even saw each other.
Before she took her cell phone out of her purse, a figure came cautiously around the side of the house. She groaned quietly when she saw that it was Seto. Why, when she had so many good reasons to avoid him, did she have to run into him? For a second, she thought about pulling her cell phone out in a hurry and pretend to be taking a call, so she wouldn't have to speak to him, but then he saw her. His head jerked up in surprise and he stared at her.
"Hi," Téa said, leaving her purse on the front steps and walking across the lawn to join him. "I was just looking for Mai. Is she around?"
Seto's head drooped. "No," he said after a pause. "I think she's at her apartment."
Téa didn't want to push the subject, but immediately she was curious. She could tell from Seto's body language that all was not well between the couple. Had Mai told Seto about Joey and he'd gotten angry? Or was there something else going on? If it turned out to be the first case, Téa would be tempted to thank Joey. No, she told herself firmly. You have to be a better person than that.
The best thing to do, of course, would be to thank Seto and hurry away. But Téa felt herself drawing closer. "What are you doing out here?" she asked, pausing when her foot sank into the squishy grass. "It's really muddy!"
Seto, despite himself, grinned. "Yeah, it's muddiest right in this spot. I had to search to find a muddy place… I think my gardeners do too good a job."
"Why were you looking for a muddy spot?" Téa asked, stepping closer to him and feeling the mud squish up around her sneakers.
Seto ignored her question. "Have you ever been in a mud fight?" he asked her with a half-smile.
He'd been out here, pondering the exchange between him and Mai from the previous night. She had asked him to have a mud fight with her… he'd said no, but if she'd begged, or if he'd known that she really wanted it, he would have given in. She had to know that; he had a history of giving in to her. He could never resist her anything, no matter how frivolous. But… she hadn't asked him again, for some reason; she'd barely tried to convince him before flying into a rage.
Joey hadn't mentioned the specific game that he and Mai had been playing, so Téa had no idea that mud fights were connected with Mai. She shrugged in response to Seto's question. "Yeah… not recently, though."
"Maybe that's a shame," Seto mused. "Maybe we should be getting in touch with that side of ourselves."
"Which side is that?" she asked with her eyebrows raised. "The messy side?"
"Exactly," he said. A breeze stirred the leaves of the trees on the other side of the lawn, and he looked over, momentarily distracted.
Téa pondered for a moment, then kicked out quickly with her foot. The mud that had oozed on top of her sneaker flew in a glob to spatter all across Seto's knees.
He looked down at his messy black pants with a look of pure shock so comical that Téa couldn't help but laugh. "Whatever you want, Seto," she said sweetly.
Slow to react, Kaiba was not. Before Téa could even blink, he'd bent down and grabbed a handful of mud, slinging it right at her. She gasped as her stomach and arms were spattered.
"Seto Kaiba, this is one game you won't win," she threatened before kicking at him again. He retaliated with more handfuls of mud, which she quickly realized was more efficient, so she too bent down and scooped up mud.
As it turned out, her threat was empty.
"Say I'm the king of mud games!" Seto said, pinning her down by stepping on her shoulder.
"Never!" she giggled hysterically, trying to wiggle away, not caring that she was practically bathing in mud. "You may have beat me in mud fighting, but I'd definitely win in a mud pie baking contest."
Seto laughed, but refused to let up. "You'd better watch your challenges, Gardner! I could make a better mud pie than you with one hand tied behind my back."
"Could not!" Téa said indignantly, squirming harder. She managed to slip out from under him and started to crawl away, but Seto quickly dropped to his knees and grabbed her around the middle again.
"Say I'm the king of mud games," he coaxed.
"You're the king of mud!" Téa crowed.
Seto paused, taking that in. "Was that an insult?"
Téa was silent, knowing that she was in dangerous territory. Seto looked down at her, eyes glittering. It was only then that it hit her that she was literally lying in his arms. Dirt or no dirt, Téa was immediately so turned on that she thought she might pass out. Bad move coming here! she thought frantically, lying perfectly still.
Seto shifted so that he was holding onto her with just one arm. This also meant that Téa was cradled up next to him even more closely. Struggle, or he'll realize that something's wrong! she thought frantically, and tried to squirm again, but she was pressed up against his beautiful strong body, and when she squirmed, he just held her closer. Oh God oh God oh God…
Seto dipped his free hand in the mud, and brought it close to her face. "This is what happens to bad girls who don't respect the king of mud games," he informed her, before smearing a handprint on her hitherto almost clean cheek. Téa started laughing despite herself, and she might have done something as stupid as Joey had not Mai come back at that exact moment.
"What are you two doing?" she asked coldly.
They both looked over, Téa still trapped in Seto's arms.
"Mai! You're back!" Seto exclaimed.
"So, you'll have a mud fight with her, but not with me?" Mai asked him, her eyes glimmering brightly.
"What?" Seto dropped Téa and hurried to his feet. Téa sat up slowly, cold in the mud now that Seto's warm body was no longer wrapped around hers, knowing how absolutely ridiculous she looked, feeling alone and humiliated. "Mai, I would have a mud fight with you… it's just, you didn't really try to talk me into it…" he trailed off, knowing how silly he sounded, and abruptly remembering Téa. He turned back to her and extended a hand. She looked at it slowly, then grasped it, letting Seto pull her to her feet.
Seto let go of Téa again and looked pleadingly at Mai. "It's really not a big deal, sweetie," he said soothingly. "Why don't we talk? I just need you to explain why you're upset, that's all, and then we'll make it better."
"What if I don't want to explain?" Mai's eyes were glimmering, not with anger as Téa had first suspected, but with tears. Immediately Téa was swamped with guilt. You idiot! she chided herself furiously. This is EXACTLY what you wanted to avoid – getting between your best friend and her fiancé! Better say something, fast.
"At least let me explain," Seto said, stepping forward, closer to Mai.
"As if I want to hear about your mud fight with Téa!" Mai snapped, then turned and flounced away.
"Mai!" Seto started to chase after her, but she turned back. "Don't you dare follow me," she warned.
Seto paused, then undaunted, started after her again. "I mean it, Seto Kaiba," she reiterated, and now her voice was so hysterical that he did stop. He and Téa both watched as she hurried down the long driveway and out of sight.
Seto turned back to Téa, who looked miserable. "I feel awful," she told him.
"Don't," he said firmly. "Mai and I were fighting before this. You had nothing to do with it – and I'm sure Mai knows that," he added. "I know that she's your best friend."
"What's the matter?" he asked a few moments later, after Téa did nothing but stare at him with the oddest expression.
Since she had no desire to confess that she was repressing an urge to jump him, she blurted out the next thing on her mind. "It's amazing how much you've changed since Duelist Kingdom."
Seto looked startled, and because Téa was apparently determined to prove what an idiot she was, she continued. "You were such a jerk back then. Look at you now! What happened?"
"Well," Seto said, stuffing his dirty hands into his pockets. "I mean, back in Duelist Kingdom, we were still in high school. I was a teenager. Worse, I was a smart teenager who had recently gained a lot of money and power and who accordingly had a huge ego." He laughed self-deprecatingly. "A really huge ego."
"I didn't mean to ask that," Téa whispered, mortified. "I'm sorry."
"No, I think you have a perfect right to ask that," Seto said, shaking his head. "I'm actually surprised that I haven't been called out sooner. I thought that at least Joey'd wonder what happened to me."
His casual reference to Joey threw Téa for a loop, and she guessed that Mai hadn't told her fiancé a thing about what happened with Joey Wheeler. I'll have to try not to let on, Téa thought. I owe Mai that much, at least. I haven't exactly been a great friend otherwise.
"No, I think Joey grew up a lot too," she said. "Once he realized he didn't have so much to prove to the world…"
Seto nodded. "The same thing happened to me. Part of it was just getting older. Maturing. It helped that Mokuba totally hated it when I got too big for my britches, so he kept me in line."
Téa laughed. Seto paused and studied her. "You've changed since high school too."
"Have I?" Téa asked, looking away.
"You're…" Seto searched for the right words. "You're less naïve," he finally said. "In some ways, I'm sorry for that. I was always the one who wanted you to face the world for what it really was, to stop pretending that life was always good and fair and to stop relying on friends who could prove to be fickle. But in most ways, you were right."
Téa thought of unrequited love and tried to smile.
"Do you want a shower?" he asked suddenly, coming back to his senses. "We both should probably get clean."
Téa half-wanted to decline, to get far away from him and back to her nice safe apartment, but climbing back into her car this muddy was so ludicrously impractical that there was no way she could pull off declining his invitation. "If it's not too much inconvenience," she said apologetically.
"Not at all!" Seto shook his head then walked back across the lawn towards her and put a hand on the small of her back. She started with the unexpectedness of having him so close, and an expression of hurt flicked briefly across his face. His hand wavered, but in the end Seto left it there. Téa found it hard to breathe. He ushered her inside; she paused to gingerly pick up her purse, trying not to get mud on it.
"I'm so sorry, I'm tracking mud," Téa apologized.
"It's okay. There's nothing we can do about it. I'm tracking mud too," Seto said.
"I don't want to walk on the carpet, if I can help it," Téa said, assuming that the upstairs hallway that led to the bathroom would be carpeted, even if the foyer they were currently standing in wasn't. "What if we got plastic trash bags from the kitchen and put them on our feet?"
"Brilliant," Seto said. They carried out her plan and Téa was shown to the guest bathroom. "I'll leave some of Mai's clothes outside the door for you," Seto said, and disappeared.
She carefully undressed and stepped into the steaming hot shower, relaxing for the first time all day. She slowly combed the mud from her hair as the room fogged up, staring at the opposite wall.
She was getting in over her head here. The best thing to do, Téa resolved, was to keep Seto Kaiba out of her life altogether.
"Ms. Gardner?" The office secretary knocked on her door Monday morning. "There's a Mr. Kaiba here to see you."
Téa had been bent over her desk doing paperwork. She froze, and looked up slowly. "Mr… Seto Kaiba?"
"He didn't say, but I recognized his pictures from the paper," Hamilton said apologetically.
Téa carefully laid down her pen and stared at it for a while. Hamilton was just about to clear his throat and ask if he should let him in when Téa spoke. "You can show him in. Thanks, Hamilton."
Hamilton nodded and disappeared. A moment later, there was a short rap at the door, and Seto entered Téa's office.
"I hope you don't mind my showing up at work like this," he said apologetically, taking the seat opposite hers.
Téa swallowed. "Not at all," she said cheerfully. "What brings you here today?"
"I wanted to apologize for the debacle yesterday," Seto said earnestly, leaning forward. "Mai and I talked it over and we both agree that we never should have dragged you into our problems as a couple." He frowned for a moment, disliking the idea that they as a couple had problems. "Mai is sorry too – I think she left you a message on your home phone."
"But you felt compelled to come down here?" Téa asked curiously. She was a little frustrated, to be honest, that he kept showing up in her life.
"I wanted to see you in person," he explained, leaning back again. "I… had fun yesterday. I don't think you and I have ever talked enough."
Just what I need, Téa thought. She was tempted to explain that she was at work right now and very busy – which wasn't far from the truth, either; she was trying to finish planning a work trip that would leave on Thursday – but the look in his eyes stopped her. Seto Kaiba looked almost vulnerable, and she hadn't seen him looking anything like that since Mokuba was threatened at Duelist Kingdom. And she really hated disappointing people. "Well," she said brightly, pushing her paperwork off to the side. "What do you want to talk about?"
Seto, although he had just gotten his way, looked uncertain. "I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask," he told her awkwardly. "I just can't remember any of them right now."
"Oh," Téa said, laughing, wondering if that meant she was off the hook.
"So what do you do here?" Seto asked, apparently determined to have a conversation.
"Well," she said, mentally sighing. "I don't know if Mai's mentioned this, but I'm a motivational counselor."
Seto nodded. "She told me some things about your work. But I want to hear it from you now."
"Okay," Téa said slowly. "Well, it's pretty straightforward. I meet with people who are feeling depressed or lost and try to give them some direction in their lives."
"You work with, what kind of client base?" Seto asked, leaning forward again. "People who are down on their luck? Mentally ill?"
"Well, this company deals with all sorts of clients, including those with mental health problems," Téa replied. "I personally actually end up working with high-income clients. Rich folk like you," she said with a grin. "I don't know if you can relate, but a lot of times, very privileged people feel displaced or like something is lacking from their lives."
Seto's attentive look slowly gave way to a frown. Téa watched him silently as he mulled something over in his head. Suddenly he looked up.
"I can relate exactly," he announced. It took her slightly by surprise, but not completely; after all, she did deal with a lot of clients like Seto. In fact, some of his business partners were clients of hers, although a confidentiality agreement kept her from telling him that.
"Téa," he asked seriously. "Could I ask you for some professional advice?"
This surprised her more. Don't know why it should, she thought wryly. The universe seems determined to torture me by throwing me into close proximity with him, even though I'll never have him. And here's one more reason we can't be together: I'm not allowed to date a client.
"Sure," she said, clearing her throat and sitting up a little straighter. "Fire away."
Seto didn't immediately respond, looking lost in thought for a few minutes. Téa waited patiently.
"I have it all," he said slowly. "I have a great job that I really love… I have power, money… I have a great little brother and an amazing girl…" Téa winced. "But, I don't know. It's like you said before – something's just missing. I feel like there's something else I'm supposed to be doing. But then I feel ungrateful," he continued. "I get so much from life. Why can't I just enjoy it?"
"It's not unusual to feel that way," Téa said gently. "I think that a lot of times, people who have been blessed with so much can feel overwhelmed – especially when they have a lot of material wealth." She paused. "Do you donate to charity?"
Seto immediately nodded. "I have several charities that I donate to monthly, and KaibaCorp has set up a foundation to fund the education of underpriviledged children who show promise in the mathematical or scientific field."
"That's great. Now, do you do any volunteer work yourself? Go to a soup kitchen, hospital, anything?" Téa prompted.
Seto hesitated. "Well… no," he said reluctantly. "I usually just write a check."
"Well, maybe that's one solution," Téa suggested. "Maybe if you get yourself active in the community – actively helping others – it'll give you a sense of perspective."
"That's a good idea," Seto said, with a sense of relief. "I'll try that. Where do you think I should start volunteering? Maybe at the hospital?"
"Well…" Téa paused. Professionally, she knew what advice she would give Seto, but the part of her that was torn between her attraction to him and her loyalty to Mai hesitated. Professionalism won out… probably helped along by her internal desire to see Seto. "That's definitely a start. There's another option, although it is pretty short notice. I'm leading a mission trip for several other clients… we'll leave later this week and we'll be gone for about a week and a half. I don't know if you can get away, leave your company for that long on so little notice… but this is a chance to really step back and reevaluate your life."
Seto, unexpectedly, had started nodding before she even finished. "I would like that," he said with enthusiasm. "I would like that a lot. Mokuba has been telling me the same thing – he said I had too much perfect in my life. It would be good to get away from everything, to see how others live, and to do something active. Something good."
"Well," Téa said, a bit bemused by the sudden turn of events. "Well, if you want to come, you are welcome. I can't sign you up as part of the group since you're not an official client, but that hardly matters. You can just book your own plane ticket on the same flight as us, and I'm sure we'll be able to find a host family to put you up…"
"Okay," Seto said, visibly perking up. "I'll make the plane reservations right now, if you let me borrow your computer."
She willingly spun the monitor around to face him. "No first class," she warned. This gave him pause.
"I've never travelled economy class before," he said.
"You cannot arrive for a mission trip in first class," she informed him, restraining herself from rolling her eyes. "What kind of message is that?" He still hesitated, so with a grin, she challenged: "Backing out already, Kaiba?"
To her relief, he grinned back. "Never," he said, his own voice full of determination. He started to type, then abruptly stopped.
"Aaah… so where are we going?"
"Uganda?" Mai asked in disbelief. "You're taking off for Uganda, just like that? For two weeks?"
"For a week and a half," Seto corrected absently, disappearing into his closet to grab a handful of clothes. He came out frowning. "What do you suppose the weather in Uganda is like at this time of year?"
"How on earth should I know?" she demanded. "Why on earth are you going to Uganda?"
"Never mind, I know, it'll be hot." Seto looked down at his clothes and dumped them on the floor. "I haven't worn shorts in a long time. I guess they're at the back of the closet." He disappeared again, but shouted from the interior of the closet, "We're going to help build a school and a hospital in a district called Maloto. They have even higher rates of illiteracy and child mortality than the rest of the country, which is unfortunately high."
Mai had another snappish remark ready, but she stopped short of saying something critical about the country. Instead she asked "Who's 'we'?"
"Téa is leading a mission group there, and I'm tagging along," Seto said, emerging with several old pairs of shorts. He tossed them in the open suitcase on his bed.
Mai felt her blood begin to boil – which, considering what was going on between her and Joey, was pretty hypocritical, but she didn't care. "Oh, you're going with Téa, are you? Going to have more mud fights?"
Seto finally stopped packing and stared at her for a long time. "Mai," he said gently, picking his way through clothes scattered across the floor. "There's nothing happening between me and Téa, okay? It's not like we're going to Uganda alone. This is her job. She's bringing clients."
"Can't I come too?" Mai whispered. She didn't particularly want to go – as far as she was concerned, there was nothing wrong with just writing a check – and maybe doing something at a local hospital or local fundraiser wouldn't be too bad – it was just crazy that he thought he had to go somewhere as far away as Uganda to do volunteer work – but she didn't want Seto to go without her. I made my choice, she thought stubbornly, and I'm going to stick with it. Then she realized that Seto was taking too long to respond.
"See," he said beseechingly, gathering her hands in his. "I really need some time away from everyone and everything I know. I have to reevaluate my life. Not you," he said hastily when he saw her eyes widen. "I know that you're one of the best things I have going for me right now. But…" he heaved a sigh. "I've been feeling disoriented lately. This is my chance to straighten my life out."
"So I'm not in your life," Mai said resentfully, pulling her hands away.
"That's not true! You're just not the part I need to straighten out!" Seto protested. "I still want to be with you, and after this trip, I'll be able to focus on our life together – Mai!" She stormed out and slammed the bedroom door, and Seto was left reasoning with an empty room.
Téa came home from work and dropped her keys on the kitchen counter, heading straight for the refrigerator to get a tall glass of juice. She'd had a long day contacting her clients and preparing for the trip, not to mention leaving the office ready for her ten day departure, and she wanted something sugary.
While she chugged her orange juice, she wandered over to her answering machine. The blinking numeral told her that she had two new messages.
Hey, Téa, this is Mai. Her friend's subdued voice floated into the kitchen. It's a little before ten am so I know you're at work right now, but I just wanted to call and apologize for my behavior yesterday. Mai sighed heavily. I went off at you two for absolutely no good reason – I know there was nothing wrong with you and Seto hanging out, and in fact I'm glad that you two are getting to be friends. The truth is… there was a pause. Don't tell Seto this – not that it's a secret or I did anything wrong, just, let's avoid mentioning it – I wasn't so much upset that he had a mud fight with you… I was upset and freaked out that I had a mud fight with Joey and not Seto. Does that make sense? It was just wrong and backwards. For me. Mai paused. Hope that made sense. Anyway, hope you're not too mad at me. Call me this afternoon and we'll chat. I still have to see you again before your work trip – where are you going again?
Beep. The second message played.
Téa, it's Mai again. Now the voice sounded angry – furious, even. I guess you're not home from work yet but Seto got back this afternoon and announced that he was going to Uganda with you. I guess I just wanted to say, thanks a LOT for whisking my fiancé away to AFRICA right when I decide that I have to work things out with him! As if you couldn't tell that we were having problems! What made you think it was a good idea to invite Seto to Africa with you, NOW of all times? Please don't call me. I hope your plane crashes into the ocean.
Téa winced and erased both messages quickly. What a mess, she thought to herself. She started to pick up the phone again when it rang in her hand. "Hello?"
"Téa, it's Seto Kaiba," came the voice from the other end. Téa pressed a hand to her forehead, then took it away.
"Hi, Seto," she said, biting her lip. "I was just thinking of calling you. I just got a message from Mai and she's not too happy about you going away." At least Mai didn't know how Téa felt about Seto – then she would undoubtedly be even less happy.
"No, she's not," he said glumly.
"Look, Seto," Téa took a deep breath. "As your friend, can I make a suggestion? Maybe you should stay at home and sort things out with Mai."
He paused, and she was certain that he would agree with her, but then he spoke again. "And as my counselor? What would you tell me, the client, to do?"
Téa shut her eyes. Detach yourself from the situation, she told herself. Pretend you're not Mai's friend, and pretend that you're not in love with Seto. What, as his motivational counselor, would you advise him to do?
"Téa?" Seto asked.
She couldn't detach herself from the situation.
"You should come," she told him.
Mai had gathered herself together enough to bid farewell – albeit a cold one – to Seto on Thursday morning. After all, she didn't want him going to some foreign country thinking she was mad at him. But she was mad at him, and being alone in the Kaiba mansion made her resentment boil over, and so on Friday night she placed a call to Joey Wheeler.
"Mai?" he asked, amazed, after she identified herself.
"Of course it's me," she said sweetly, completely ignoring the awkwardness of the situation and the bad terms they'd parted on last time. "Look, Seto randomly decided to take off for Uganda – don't ask me why, I don't get it either – so I'm all alone in this big mansion this weekend. Want to come over and play video games? Mokuba has an awesome collection that he left here," she said. Although they were on opposite lines of the phone line, she crossed her legs and tossed her hair like she always did when she was flirting.
There was a long silence, and then Joey sighed heavily. "Look, Mai," he said, and she could hear him gulp at the other end of the line. "I'm tempted – you know that – you've always tempted me. But you're right. I shouldn't hit on an engaged woman – and if I came over, that's exactly what would happen. So I can't. I can't be around you right now."
She opened her mouth to respond, then she heard a click. He'd hung up on her.
Téa lathered more sunscreen on in preparation for their fifth day in Uganda. She'd already gotten quite a tan and she had no intentions of getting sunburned. She had enough problems as it was… she was, by now, completely and irreversibly in love with Seto Kaiba. Yugi Moto seemed like a distant memory. Anyway, Yugi had always been sweet and comfortable; Seto was sweeter and more comfortable than she'd ever imagined but he also lit a spark in her. He made her see the world in different ways. Whenever he was near, everything seemed brighter, more charming. The air was fresher. She was lighter. In fact, she was flying. It had become impossible to ground herself, and she dreaded the inevitable wake-up call, where she would come crashing down to earth. It would happen any day now – how could Seto not see her love for him, practically oozing out of her pores? She was convinced that the other fourteen men and women on the trip could tell, not to mention half the town of Maloto. She couldn't help smiling when he was near, couldn't help that he made her laugh easily and think deeply.
This is all his fault, she thought miserably. If he'd just kept his distance… But he'd been determined not to do that.
The group's sixteen seats for the flight had been booked at various intervals, so they were scattered across the plane. Téa and one of her favorite clients, a warm chatty woman named Rita Henry had booked seats next to each other. They were just buckling in for the twelve hour flight to Morocco, where they would change planes, when a shadow fell over Rita and she looked up.
"I'm awfully sorry to impose," Seto said apologetically. "I was just wondering if by any chance you would consider switching seats with me? I'd like to sit next to Téa, if I could."
Rita craned her neck and saw the seat that Seto had just vacated – a window seat next to an attractive man in his fifties, probably just a few years older than her. "It's yours," she said, grabbing her bag and disappearing without a backward glance.
Téa raised her eyebrows at Rita's receding back as Seto sat down next to her. "You don't mind, do you?" he asked her, sounding shy for the first time ever.
"Not at all," she lied, and looked at her watch. Only twelve hours to go. Maybe she could pretend to sleep the whole time.
But she couldn't resist being drawn into conversation with Seto, and the time flew. He asked her about her job, and how she'd decided on this career – "I started out as a sociology major, then I took a few psychology classes and picked that up as a second major," she said. "At the time, I didn't really know what I wanted to do – I considered a few things like being a social worker or being a psychologist, but I was still feeling aimless until one day in my third year I job-shadowed a motivational counselor that my professor introduced me to." Seto asked about her psychology courses – "I've always found it fascinating myself," he admitted. "Maybe I just liked the idea of manipulating people." She laughed. "One of the things I've learned was that Mokuba was a master of manipulation, and I didn't even know it," he grinned, and she laughed again.
Later she asked him about becoming CEO of KaibaCorp, and he confided in how pressured he'd felt at such a young age. "I had the skills to pull off running a company," he said, half-heartedly picking at the in-flight meal. "But it really took a mental toll on me. I mean, you know the state I was in back when we first met." The conversation grew deeper, and he unburdened himself to her: "I told myself I was doing it all for Mokuba," he said emotionally. "To build him a better life. It didn't occur to me until much later that Mokuba would have been perfectly happy, if not happier, just living a normal life. I think I subconsciously did a lot of it for me. I do like having power over people… maybe I enjoy it too much."
"Mokuba adores you, and knows how hard you've worked for him," Téa consoled him. "And if he lived a normal life, he might never have reached his current potential. I mean, he's going to be an aerospace engineer, wow! You've pushed him to be his best, and he's certainly going to make a name for himself."
He smiled at that, then looked at her and asked frankly, "Do you think I'm power hungry?"
"I think you used to be," she replied honestly, and he nodded and didn't push the matter further.
Seto had brought along a half-read book about Uganda history, and she shared things she had learned from her pre-trip research, and they both wondered about the new culture they would soon experience. And seven hours into the flight, she did in fact fall asleep, and woke up with her head on his shoulder. She blushed furiously and was prepared to stammer out apologies until she noticed that he too was dozing. Ignoring her better instincts, Téa laid her head back down on his shoulder and shut her eyes.
Seto emerged from the small house belonging to his host family and stretched, enjoying the feeling of the hot sun beating down on his back. He felt more alive than he had in years. He was an early riser – though most of the town was too, and already the streets were filled with men and women wandering to their day's work. Most of his fellow group members were still sleeping… except for one.
Seto caught sight of Téa standing across the dirt road, lathering her arms and legs with sunscreen. He smiled as he watched her. He'd never seen her looking better. The sun had brought out freckles on her cheeks and arms that somehow made her look younger. Her skin was tanned and radiant; her body was fit from the exercise. He wondered briefly how he'd ever considered her plain.
Of course, there had been a time when he'd recognized her beauty. Seto laughed quietly as he remembered his adolescent crush on her. She was the first girl he'd ever been really attracted to, probably because she was the first girl to stand out from the crowd. At Duelist Kingdom-
Wait, Seto realized with a slight frown. Wasn't Mai at Duelist Kingdom too? Well, of course she had been. She'd made it to the semi-finals, he remembered that. Had she been there during his duel with Pegasus? …and what about before that, when he'd run into Yugi and Téa and the others in the forest, when he'd dueled Joey?
He couldn't quite remember.
In any case, Téa had definitely stood out. He still vividly recalled her yelling at him on top of the roof of Pegasus's castle. He hadn't quite been in the mood for girls then, but he definitely remembered her, and continued to take notice during Battle City. Being an awkward, scowling adolescent, he had buried any signs of attraction beneath insults and studied indifference.
Anyway, that crush had faded – he didn't know when, exactly, it had disappeared, but he was sure it had. She was still a nice, interesting person though, and that was why he'd followed her into the coat closet when she'd gotten upset at Yugi's wedding.
Seto continued to watch Téa, bright in the morning sun. Yugi really missed out on that one, he thought to himself. True, Sarah was a good person, but who could measure up to Téa?
Téa finished smearing sunscreen on, spritzed herself down with bug spray, and looked up to find Seto watching her from across the street. When they made eye contact, he momentarily looked guilty – making her wonder just how long he'd been standing there watching her – then trotted over to join her.
"Morning," he said with an easy grin. "What's on the agenda for today?"
She offered him the bug spray and the sunscreen, both of which he accepted. Since he tended to work shirtless in the heat, he stripped off his shirt so that he could apply sunscreen to his chest. "Téa, could I get you to do my back?" he asked.
She wasn't sure what would be more torturous, watching him lather up that muscular chest or having to rub the sunscreen into his back. She silently accepted the sunscreen and tentatively swept her hands across his back, closing her eyes at the feeling of his hot skin under her hands.
"We'll hopefully finish the frame of the buildings today," she told him, doing her best to control the tremble in her voice. "If we're lucky, we can start on the interior tomorrow." Their group's mission was to construct the buildings for the new school and hospital. Later, other nonprofit organizations would send over teachers and doctors to help get the education and health care programs started.
Seto dipped his head down in agreement. He was enjoying the feel of her hands roaming across his back, massaging the lotion into his skin.
Téa continued kneading his back long after all the lotion had soaked in. It was only when her hands started wandering around to his chest that she forced herself to pull back. "All done!" she said brightly, hoping he hadn't noticed that anything was off.
"Thanks, babe," Seto said, turning around and smiling warmly. He reached out and took her by the shoulders, then brought his face down to hers and–
"Oh," Seto said, blinking, his face inches from hers. "Oh, you're…" Téa blinked back.
"I'm so sorry!" Seto said, releasing her hurriedly. "I can't believe I just… I think I forgot who you were." He shook his head. He'd been in the moment, enjoying her caresses, and he'd instinctively turned around to kiss her as a thank-you. He'd thought she was his girlfriend or something! Not that he had been thinking of her as Mai… he'd just gotten confused…
Already flustered, Seto blanched when he reminded himself of Mai. He'd nearly forgotten completely about her! He'd only called her once since he'd gotten to Uganda.
"I'm really sorry," he apologized again.
"Um… don't be," Téa said, her face pink. She stepped away from him anyway.
"No, really, I-" Seto said, stepping towards her and closing the distance between them again. "I hope you can forgive my momentary brain lapse," he concluded, biting his lip when she looked away.
"Of course," Téa said, still not making eye contact with him.
Seto swallowed. "I've got to go call Mai… I'll be back in a little bit."
"No rush," she said, starting to turn away. "We're not starting for another hour or so."
"Okay," Seto said. He didn't want to leave things like this between them, so he asked, "Breakfast when I get back?"
She finally looked back at him, apparently surprised. "Don't you have to call Mai?"
"It should only take a few minutes," he said. "We can find something when I get back, okay?"
"Okay," she finally agreed, not sounding very eager. He hated when she was distant with him like this. As he hurried off to grab his satellite phone, he vowed to make her smile again before the end of breakfast.
The ten days passed quickly for the group in Uganda – too quickly, all sixteen of them agreed, although they each had their different reasons for thinking so.
It's about time for me to come crashing back to reality, Téa thought miserably. I'll get to go back to Domino and help Mai plan her dream wedding to my dream guy.
This was like a vacation, Seto thought to himself with surprise. It was supposed to be a work trip… and I've worked harder than I ever have in my life – physically, at least. He grinned. It's probably because Téa's such a great boss. It's amazing that she can keep up enthusiasm and group morale, even in tough conditions. This really is the perfect job for her.
Back in Domino, however, time had positively crawled for Mai.
She'd stubbornly stayed in the Kaiba mansion the whole time, feeling that if she went back to her apartment, it would be like she was quitting on Seto and their relationship. Not that he was working very hard to maintain it, she thought resentfully. He'd called her all of four times during the last ten days, each call a short exaltation of how wonderful Uganda was, how he was making good friends with the other volunteers, how interesting and funny the local citizens were. He always ended his calls with "I miss you a ton, I can't wait to get back and see you again," but to her ears, the words sounded perfunctory and flat. She doubted that Seto realized this – he probably thought that he meant it. He was still convinced that the two of them were a perfect couple, and that they would get hitched and head into a blissful married life.
But Mai was finally ready to admit to herself that she had serious doubts.
She'd been turning things over in her head the past week and a half, and consequentially been listless and distracted. She'd missed an article deadline for the first time in her freelancing history. She tried to put Joey Wheeler out of her head, and found that she couldn't. So she'd psyched herself up to break up with Seto… but she couldn't quite go that far, either. She just couldn't think of a logical reason to expel such a perfectly amazing man from her life!
She blew out a breath impatiently. She was so wound up, she could practically anticipate an argument coming when Seto returned in… she checked her watch… about eight hours. He'd be landing around midnight, so he should be back home around one a.m.
Then again, maybe it would be good if we had a shouting match and blew off steam, she thought wryly. Clear the air a little bit. I always did love a good fight. She smiled to herself. That was something Seto had never really gotten; he wasn't much into bickering and he preferred to settle conflicts quickly and quietly. But she was one of those people who got a thrill from arguing.
That's it! She sucked her breath in. That's a reason why Seto and I aren't compatible! She'd known there were reasons, she'd known it somewhere deep down inside, but they had never seemed important or obvious, and she'd enjoyed the fantasy that their relationship was perfect. But now that she'd thought of one reason, the rest kept coming.
He was a morning person; she was a night owl. He liked rainy days and wintertime; she liked sunshine and summer. At parties, she wanted to be wild and dance; he preferred to sip a glass of wine with dignity. She liked amusement parks; he preferred art museums. She got angry easily but fleetingly; he was slower to rouse and slower to forgive. He was neat and meticulous, she preferred to be messy and spontaneous.
All those reasons were trivial, really – nothing that they couldn't surmount, and nothing that other couples hadn't worked out. But the biggest reason, one that she could no longer overlook, was that she wasn't in love with him.
Given that, her next step seemed obvious.
When Mai needed assistance when Seto was gone, she usually had his staff help her out. But something felt very wrong about asking his own staff to help her move out of Seto's mansion and life, so instead she called Serenity.
"I'm sorry to ask this of you… I wouldn't blame you for being mad at me for how I treated your brother," she had said miserably into the phone. "But I don't suppose you are free tonight?"
"Brian and I were just going to catch a movie, we can do that anytime," Serenity had responded immediately. "And of course I'm not mad at you. I admire you for standing up for your principles. I just hope that Joey didn't ruin things between you and Seto…"
"There wasn't much left to ruin," Mai told her honestly. "At least, not on my end."
Serenity showed up with Brian in one car and Tristan, who also drove his pickup truck, so in the end, moving her things out only took one trip. All that remained in the Kaiba mansion was Mai herself, standing in the foyer with the keys to the mansion in one hand. When Seto walked in a few hours later at one-thirty in the morning, looking a little dazed with jet lag, this was how he found her.
"Hey!" he beamed, not immediately noticing her somber face. "How was your week? My trip was amazing. I feel so charged. Wait until I tell you about it…" he trailed off as Mai held up a hand to stop him.
"I'm sorry to do this when you've just gotten back," Mai said quietly. "But you'd have noticed that something was wrong pretty quickly. I've moved out, Seto. You and I have come to the end of… us." She swallowed.
Seto didn't move, just stood in the front door and blinked at her. He really was feeling quite jet-lagged and not entirely sure what was going on. "Are you breaking up with me?" he finally asked.
"You must have noticed that things were strained between us even before you left," Mai said, looking away. "It wasn't your fault, I was just… feeling off-balance, upset, angry at the world. Something just wasn't right." She blinked back tears; she hadn't expected to be the one crying during this confrontation. "I didn't understand what was wrong, because you're perfect, you really are. But I think I finally get it. You're perfect… but you're not perfect for me. But everyone told me that you were, so I believed it. All my life, I've tried to live up to other people's expectations for me."
"Your parents," Seto murmured, still in a daze.
"Yeah, they definitely started it." Mai sniffled. "And I've tried to live up to the world's expectations or standards. I wanted to seem like I wasn't lonely, even when I didn't have any friends… I tried to prove myself a good duelist, even by dirty tactics…" She wiped a tear away, and it was so unfair that she was crying and he wasn't. "And then I met you, and I like you, I do like you a lot, and you wanted me to be the right girlfriend, the right wife, and the world wanted us to be a perfect couple, and there was no reason we shouldn't be, so I tried… I tried, but I'm not, I'm not the right girl for you and you're not the right guy for me. I know you'll see that in time," Mai added desperately.
"I'm not so sure," Seto said, and even though he wasn't crying his voice was hoarse. He took a step towards her. "Mai… I've never asked you to change, have I?" She shook her head. "I don't want you to change. I like you just the way you are. You're the first girl I've gotten this serious with, and it works for us, doesn't it? You work for me. Don't I work for you?" When she hesitated, he plunged on: "If I'm doing something wrong, please, tell me – we can try to fix things – I can make it better-"
"It's not that you're doing anything wrong," Mai interrupted gently. Now that he was protesting, strangely, she felt more confident. She was finally making the right decision. "It's that you're wrong for me."
Seto was never one to back down. "But-" he began, and she once again stopped him by holding up a hand.
"I've really made my decision," she said quietly. "Maybe we can talk more about it later. For now, I'm tired and I need to get out of here. You need to think on this too. Maybe you'll see things my way."
She held out the keys to his house, and after a moment, he took them. Then she held out the box containing the engagement ring that was no longer on his finger. This Seto looked like he would outright refuse to take, so after a moment, Mai put it down on a side table.
Then she was gone.
Mai drove directly from Seto's house to Joey's, tears streaming down her cheeks and a huge, wild smile on her face. Serenity apparently hadn't tipped off her older brother (which Mai decided that she was grateful for), so she pounded on the door of his house until a sleepy and confused Tony answered the door. Mai ran upstairs to Joey's room and flicked on the lights, but he slept like the dead, and didn't wake up until she had prodded at his arm for a few moments. Then he rolled over, hair tousled and sweaty, shirtless and bleary-eyed, and looked up at her.
The look in his eyes when he recognized Mai standing over him was enough to drive any lingering doubts from her mind. "I love you too," she said.
Téa took Monday off from work to rest and recover from her jet lag. She had intended to sleep in, but the ringing phone woke her up at 9am. It was Mai, filling Téa in about all the events of the previous day; she was babbling and half-incoherent, but sounded more animated and alive than Téa had heard her in months.
"No, I don't think any less of you," Téa said, wide-awake now and sitting up in bed. "Are you happy with Joey?"
Mai gave a muffled laugh. "How on earth would I know? I've been here less than eight hours." She paused. "I suppose the honorable thing to do would have been to wait a while before rushing over here."
"It sounds like you've waited long enough," Téa said, still trying to wrap her brain around the fact that Seto and Mai were no longer a couple. "You and Joey have been waiting years to get together… from a certain point of view, anyway."
"That's true." Mai paused. "The other thing I wanted to say was that I am so sorry for being such a jerk to you before you left for Uganda. I practically accused you of coming between me and Seto, and that wasn't true at all. I was pulling away from him entirely on my own."
"I'm sure Joey helped," Téa said. Mai laughed again.
"Maybe a little. Thank you so much for forgiving me for that. I was so stressed out that I was acting like a total brat and you didn't deserve any of the things I said to you."
"It's fine, Mai," Téa told her. "I understand now how you must have felt. You were lashing out. I'm just glad that you're happy now."
"Well, we'll see." Mai paused. "I just realized that you're not at work."
"No. I took the day off," Téa said. "Recover from jet lag and all."
"I'm so sorry!" Mai exclaimed. "Did I wake you up?"
Téa hesitated, trying to think of a tactful way to reply, but Mai plunged on. "I hope I didn't disturb you too much! I'll go now and let you get back to sleep! We'll have to get together later this week and talk, okay?"
"Okay, definitely," Téa said. "Good luck."
"I'll need it!" But Mai said that with a smile in her voice. Téa hung up thoughtfully, but she didn't lie back down. Instead she rolled out of bed and got dressed.
"Téa! What are you doing in?" Hamilton exclaimed when Téa walked into work an hour later. "Didn't your plane land late last night?"
"I got a few hours of sleep," Téa replied evasively. "I technically have the day off, so don't make any appointments for me, okay Hamilton? But if someone shows up to see me, you can let him in."
Her hunch proved accurate. Not half an hour after she sat down in her office did Seto Kaiba show up, entering the room after a brief knock.
Téa looked up and took in his pale face, dark smears under his eyes, and red-rimmed eyes. Wordlessly, she stood up and crossed the room. She opened the closet door wide and, with a half-smile, gestured at him to enter.
Seto actually managed a half-laugh. He shut the office door behind him and crossed the room, walking into the closet and slumping against the back wall. Téa also sat down in the space that she had cleared earlier that morning, although she didn't yet dare to put her arm around him.
"I knew, after the very first week of dating her, that I wanted Mai," Seto said thickly. "I guess I always assumed she wanted me too." Téa was silent. "So… I went after her." Seto sighed. "And I thought I had her. How could I have been so wrong? I never had her. And then last night, I got back and she was already packed and moved out."
He trailed off after that. Téa hesitated, worrying over her words, before finally deciding to speak her mind. She owed Seto a little bit of truth after all.
"You're used to going after the things you want, aren't you?" she asked gently.
"I guess that's true," he muttered, not quite following her.
"I think sometimes you go after things without exactly knowing why you want them so badly," Téa said carefully. When he looked like he was about to protest, she continued: "For years, you were obsessed with being the number one duelist in the world. I can't count how many times you challenged Yugi to a duel! You came up with so many crazy schemes to beat him, including the whole Battle City thing, and your visit to Pegasus…" Seto winced, clearly not wanting to be reminded of that. "When you finally beat him, how did it feel?" she asked looking directly into his eyes.
He stared back. He had finally defeated Yugi in a duel five years after their very first match. True, Yugi had just started dating Sarah and was acting a little dizzy and moonstruck, but Seto had won fair and square. Yugi defeated him in a rematch a few weeks later, but for a while, Seto was the number one duelist in the world.
"It felt great," he said defiantly, and almost immediately regretted it. He, too, felt that he owed Téa some honesty. "Actually, it wasn't that big a deal," he mumbled.
Téa nodded. "The title was meaningless in the end, wasn't it? You pursued it for so long but you never really knew why you wanted it in the first place."
"Is this a metaphor for my relationship with Mai?" Seto asked, and he sounded a little annoyed.
Téa chose her words carefully. "I think… maybe you were too focused on the idea of Mai and you lost sight of her as a person. In theory, it sounds like you two would have been perfect together, right?" He nodded instinctively. "But it couldn't really have been that wonderful, because, well…" Téa chickened out from saying 'because she left,' and instead concluded "Because she didn't feel right about the relationship.
"Things couldn't have been perfect on your end either," she continued thoughtfully. "If they had been, you never would have left for Uganda after barely consulting with her."
"That was on your advice!" Seto said indignantly.
"I won't let you blame me," Téa said firmly. "You said it yourself: that was advice, not an order. If you'd really been committed to Mai, you would have protested or argued with me."
"I was committed," Seto said, now looking away. He was a little taken aback by Téa's confidence, but he could hardly protest it. As a general rule, he approved when people stood up for themselves, and he had to admit that she had a point.
Téa, though she knew that she'd been right to say that, felt guilty about it anyway, and it was guilt that eventually drove her to put her arm around Seto's shoulders.
"I'm not saying that you two didn't have a great thing going on, and I'm sorry for your loss," she said quietly. "I won't lie – this will hurt for a while. Let it out, Seto."
And he did.
Seto looked remarkably composed by the time they finally left the closet – perhaps even better than he had when they entered. He had smoothed his hair down and his eyes were no longer red; he had wiped away all traces of the tears that he shed inside the closet. He was, however, still very pale with prominent dark circles under his eyes.
"You should go home and get some sleep," Téa said, studying him. "Your body really needs the rest, especially since you're dealing with this mental burden."
"That's a tactful way of saying I got dumped," Seto said wryly. She took it as a good sign that he could talk about it.
"Hey, so… can I come back later this week?" Seto asked, fidgeting with the paperweight on her desk. "I can make a real appointment this time. No more bursting in unannounced."
Téa sat in her chair heavily. "Look, Seto…" she began slowly. "If you'd like to make an appointment, I can certainly schedule one for you… but perhaps it ought to be with someone else."
"Why?" he asked, looking hurt.
"Because I can't get personally involved with a client, and I want to be your friend," she said, looking directly at him. "Frankly, since we had so much history together, I shouldn't have met with you professionally in the first place, but…"
Smiling, Seto finished her sentence. "But you could never turn away someone in need."
"Well, Téa, if the choice is between being your client and your friend, I guess I'd rather be your friend," he said, smirking a little at her. All of a sudden, he did not look like a man who had just been dumped. "So can I take you out to dinner tomorrow?"
She blinked in surprise. A moment later, Seto realized what he had just said, and looked surprised at himself too. "As a friend," he clarified awkwardly. "I think we should go out to dinner… the way that friends do… and talk."
There was really only one response to that. "Of course," she said, smiling warmly.
"Joey," Mai said, rolling over in bed.
"Mmm?" He also rolled over to face her, smiling as had become his habit whenever seeing her. He leaned in to give her a brief kiss on the lips, then pulled away again, respectfully keeping his distance. She hadn't slept with him yet, both of them understanding without talking about it that it would be tactless so soon after she broke her engagement.
"Seto doesn't exactly know I'm here with you," she said hesitantly. "In fact, I don't think he has any idea that there's something going on between you and me. And I think I'd rather not let him know right away. I don't want to rub our relationship in his nose, you know? I think it'd be rude."
Joey stared at her. "What?" she asked, fidgeting uncomfortably.
"We're in a relationship?" he asked, grinning widely.
Because she was embarrassed, she rolled her eyes. "Well, you better be in a relationship with me, Joseph," she told him sternly. "You love me, after all."
"Well, that's true," he acknowledged, propping himself up on one elbow. "But, I dunno, Mai, I'm not exactly a one-woman kind of guy. I'd hate to break up with all my other girlfriends just for you…"
She laughed and shoved him, knocking him over and nearly off the bed. He regained his balance and climbed on top of her, grinning. She could feel his hardness pressing against her inner leg, and oh how she ached for him, but she wasn't ready to sleep with him. Not here, not now, she thought to herself.
"That's fine," she said sweetly, rocking against him anyway, just to tease him. His eyes immediately grew dark and he let out a small groan. "Invite all your other girlfriends over. I love a good party."
"Mai," he said, half-laughing at her joke and half gasping because she was driving him crazy. "So what do you want to do?" he asked in an endeavor to keep serious. "Keep this relationship a secret?"
She stopped rocking, and he rolled off of her, partly relieved. "Actually…" she bit her lip. "I was thinking about maybe going away."
"The both of us?" Joey asked to clarify.
"Well… yes. I mean, can you get the time off work?" She looked at him anxiously.
"Yeah," Joey said without a moment's hesitation. "I have vacation time, sure."
"You can take it on such short notice?"
Joey shrugged. "If I can't, I'll quit. I can find a new job." He grinned at her so charmingly that she couldn't help but laugh.
"Joey Wheeler, that's not a very responsible attitude," she scolded, but she was smiling.
"I think I'm being very responsible," he said, reaching out and cupping her head, bringing her closer to him. "I'm prioritizing. And right now, my priority is you."
She kissed him, breathless, wanting to pounce on him and feel him sink inside of her. Get out of the country first, she told herself. It'll feel like a new start that way. She swallowed. At this rate, she might drag him into the tiny airplane bathroom and attack him mid-ride.
Joey did get his time off – although it entailed a lot of wheedling to his boss, and making lots of promises to take on boring projects in the upcoming months – and they caught a flight out of Domino that evening. Mai managed to keep her hands off of him until they were in the hotel room – barely – but once the door was shut and locked behind them, all bets were off.
A week later, Téa left work and went to Cool Cat Coffee, the small coffee shop that she and Mai loved, and the place that she'd been meeting Seto Kaiba for a coffee at 6:00 for the past four days. She made it as far as sliding into the booth before she remembered that they actually hadn't said anything about getting together today.
Oh for pete's sake, she thought, annoyed at herself. I can't believe I just came here and we didn't make plans or anything. I just fell into a routine and walked over here without thinking!
She was wondering whether she should get a drink as long as she was here, or just leave and go home (she'd have to avoid meeting the eyes of the young boy and girl behind the counter; how embarrassing) when Seto slid in across from her.
"Today was better at work than it has been," he said, shaking his head. "Finally my secretary Esther stopped telling me how sorry she was about Mai, and I think I'm starting to catch up on the work that piled up while I was away."
"I can't believe that," Téa said automatically. "I won't be caught up for another month, and I planned to be away from the office. How are you already caught up?"
"I said almost," he reminded her with that smirk that left her breathless. "But I won't lie…" he paused. "I'm very efficient."
His studied modesty made her laugh, and of course he'd done it on purpose. Seto really had developed quite a sense of humor since high school.
"I also have great people working for me," he said.
"You hire only the best, huh?" she teased.
He grinned at her. "You didn't get coffee yet? I'll order. What do you want, a vanilla latte or caramel cappuccino?"
Téa blinked, surprised that he remembered her two favorite drinks. "I hadn't decided yet, actually," she said, craning her neck to look at the counter. "Any daily special flavors that sound good?"
"Gingerbread," Seto said, reading the menu.
"In April?" Téa asked, raising her eyebrows.
Seto shrugged. "Want it?"
"Sure," she agreed.
"Me too. I'll be right back."
Téa slumped in her seat, holding her breath to keep from running up and telling Seto how much she adored him (he's so wonderful, I can't stand it, how can he be so wonderful). This was getting bad – friendship was good, friendship with Seto was good, but it was so hard when she loved him so much and what was wrong with men, were they all completely blind, how could he not see it?
"Are you okay?" he asked with concern, sitting back down and sliding her the coffee. "Your face is flushed."
"How did you know I'd be here?" she blurted, clutching onto her coffee with a death grip.
Seto paused. "The thought actually did cross my mind that we didn't make any plans for today," he said, flashing her that smirk again. Her heart raced. "I came anyway, hoping you'd be here." He took a sip of coffee. "I thought you would be," he concluded. "You tried your best to resist me, Gardner, but I did it. We're friends, and now I know you." That smirk again.
Téa took a huge slug of coffee to stop herself from saying anything stupid, or overreacting to that statement. Finally when she had calmed down she said, "So how are you dealing with Mai?" It was almost cruel to bring that up – and she really hated cruel – but she didn't want to get into a conversation with Seto about their friendship, and she didn't want to declare her passionate love for him across the coffee table, and talking about Mai was a surefire way to cool her libido.
As she had expected (I know you too, she thought), Seto's smile died immediately.
"I'm dealing," he said shortly, then took in a deep breath and exhaled. "It's still really hard," he confided. "Everyone at the office looks at me with sympathy because they all loved Mai, and my coworkers can't stop talking about it – 'She was stupid to have left you', 'I just don't know what could have gone wrong' – and they're trying to be nice but it sucks that they are rubbing it in. I hate coming home to an empty house, but at least Mokuba will be on break from university in a few weeks."
"You miss her, right?" Téa asked just to clarify.
"Of course I miss her," Seto said automatically, and she looked him in the eye, and he wasn't lying. But he doesn't miss her as much as he thinks he does, Téa thought. Her instinct from a week before had been right; Seto hadn't loved Mai as deeply as he protested he did. That was good news for him, because it would make a miserable recovery process marginally easier – although there was no doubt that he had loved her, in his own way. But it's lousy news for me, she thought. Because if Seto had never been truly in love with Mai, and he didn't care about Téa then, there was no reason for him to start caring about her now.
She forced a sympathetic smile. "It'll get better over time," she said. "I know that sounds dumb and pointless and completely unreassuring, but I swear it will."
"I know," Seto said slowly. "It helps that I'm busy with other things… that things are hectic with work. My plans to start volunteering in the hospital. Being with my friends. Being with you especially. You help me take my mind off of things." He forced a half-hearted smile.
Knew there was a reason to keep torturing myself, Téa thought.
"Well hello there," someone greeted Téa as she came home from work on Thursday afternoon.
"Mai!" Téa dropped her purse and rushed forward. Mai had been sitting against Téa's front door, and now she pushed herself to her feet and returned Téa's embrace.
"I missed you," Téa said, her voice muffled against Mai's hair. "How was your trip?"
"It was amazing," Mai beamed. She and Téa let go and Téa picked up her purse again, pulled out her keys, and unlocked her apartment. "Come on in and tell me everything," she said over her shoulder. Mai followed her inside and flopped on the sofa. Téa went into the kitchen and came out with a pitcher of lemonade and a bag of pretzels.
"Thanks," Mai said, helping herself to a pretzel while Téa poured the lemonade.
"Where did you go?" Téa asked.
Mai grinned. "Where didn't we go? We flew into Austria and rented a car and drove from Vienna into the Czech Republic to Prague to Bratislava, then flew from Budapest to New York to spend a few days with Yugi and Sarah."
"Really?" Téa was surprised. She hadn't spoken to Yugi in a while.
"Yeah, it was sort of a last-minute thing. Both of us decided after Budapest that we weren't quite ready to return to Domino yet. Anyway, Europe was fantastic."
"Haven't you been to some of those places before?" Téa asked.
"Just Vienna," Mai said, grabbing another handful of pretzels. "Seto's business took him there once or twice. I've been to plenty of other cool places… France, Italy, Spain, Russia… but I was always either by myself or with Seto. And, believe it or not, Seto's not really a city person," she added. "It's why he's never moved out of Domino. Whenever I went with him, we would stay on the outskirts of the city, maybe do some sight-seeing in town, but mostly tour the countryside. Wine-tasting in France, things like that. It was fun, don't get me wrong, but this time Joey and I were actually in the city! We stayed at tiny little hotels and went out walking late at night and met local people…" Mai's face was glowing. "It was the best trip I've ever taken."
"Wow," said Téa, grinning. "Pictures?"
"They're on my laptop," Mai said, indicating her bag. "I'll show you them in a minute, but I have a question first."
"Shoot," Téa said, refilling her lemonade.
Mai leaned forward. "How long have you been in love with my former fiancé?"
Téa froze. The lemonade kept coming out. Mai gently reached over and righted the pitcher before it could spill out onto the floor. She removed it from Téa's hands and put it on the table. This seemed to snap Téa back to reality, and she looked away from Mai, wringing her hands.
"I'm so sorry, I didn't mean anything by it," she started to babble, but Mai put her hand up and shook her head.
"Oh, shush, we'll have none of that. I'm not upset at all, so don't think I am. I'm just surprised. You hid it really well."
"How did you find out?" Téa asked, picking up her lemonade to have something to keep her hands busy.
"It accidentally came out while Joey and I were staying with Yugi," Mai admitted. "Please don't be upset with them. It was late at night and we were all up talking and Joey said something about how things would work out good for you too, and I asked him what he meant, and I could tell by the really guilty look on Yugi's face that something was up… I can't believe you never told me." Téa started to respond, but Mai interrupted: "Scratch that, of course I can believe you never told me. You, Téa Gardner, are undoubtedly the most selfless person I have ever known."
"I'm not selfless," Téa defended, knowing that she sounded silly. She put down her lemonade and brought up her knees to her chest, wrapping her arms around them. "I was protecting myself, too. Why would I want to mess up my best friend's relationship just so I could get rejected?"
"Well," Mai said, brushing over the past. "There's no relationship now."
"I'd still get rejected," Téa said, almost sourly. "Seto has no interest in me."
"Well now, how do you know that?" Mai asked, leaning back and crossing her arms challengingly.
Téa frowned at her. "Well, for one, he's still getting over you." Mai looked a little guilty about that, but shook her head. "Seto obsesses over the past," she told Téa, "but he's never let other people hold him down for too long. He'll get over me, just you wait and see."
"Well, I think he will." Téa hugged herself tighter. "Him being single doesn't automatically mean that he'll fall for me, though. Had he ever said anything to make you think he might be interested?"
Mai hesitated. "Well, he wouldn't have," she avoided. "Why would he have said anything to me?" Téa snorted. Mai thought about it for a moment, and picked up steam: "Well, he always thought you disliked him," she said. "We figured you were mad at him for stealing me… but it was the other way around, wasn't it? You were mad at me for stealing him."
"I wasn't mad at you," Téa said to her knees.
Mai rolled her eyes. "Of course you weren't. Yugi could have chopped off your arm and you wouldn't be mad at him. You know, if things had gone the other direction, I wouldn't have been so forgiving. If it was you and Joey, I would have clawed your eyes out."
"It would never be me and Joey, and no you wouldn't," Téa said, picking her head up. "You're too dignified for that."
"No, I guess I wouldn't," Mai agreed. "But you're wrong about my dignity. I would have spared you because I like you. Any other girl, I would have clawed."
This had the desired reaction of making Téa laugh.
"Seto did talk about you a lot, though," Mai said with a creased brow. "He didn't like how you avoided him. I wrote it off as part ego – he doesn't take being ignored well – and part generosity, wanting to befriend my friend, you know. But – who knows?" she shrugged. "There could be something more."
"There isn't," Téa said firmly. "I've been seeing him as a friend, and there isn't."
"You were just the one to say that he's recovering from a breakup," Mai pointed out. "Give him some time."
"I've been waiting all my life," Téa said with unusual pessimism. "First for Yugi, then for Seto. I should probably readjust my standards."
"Never," Mai said firmly.
Téa could sense that Mai wanted to keep talking about it, but things were awkward enough without asking for advice on how to hit on her best friend's former fiancé, and she didn't really need to be worked up into thinking that she had a chance with Seto when she didn't really, so she asked, "Pictures?"
Mai clearly wanted to press the issue, but she recognized how uncomfortable the situation was for Téa, so she just nodded.
And so, time passed. Téa and Mai looked through the pictures, and Téa exclaimed, and Mai slipped into a dreamy state of remembrance, then went home and kissed Joey. The next day, Mai was still kissing Joey and Téa was having platonic coffee with Seto, and the week passed, and then another week passed in much the same way. In early May, Mokuba came home from university, so Téa saw less of Seto, though he still made time to have lunch or dinner with her every few days. His little brother finally led Seto to completely unburden himself, and after a few days of relaxing, and midnight snacks, and talking, Seto felt like he was well on the way to recovering from his breakup with Mai.
"Thanks to you and Téa, I think that I am finally over Mai," Seto announced over breakfast one Saturday with a lazy smile.
Mokuba looked up and, much to Seto's surprise, was frowning. "Seto, it's only been a month."
"It's been a little longer than that," Seto defended, trying to count back. Funny, it felt like much longer. "I mean, really, things were over before I left with Téa for Uganda, so I had time to adjust to life without her…"
Now Mokuba was smirking. "Right. Uganda with Téa."
"I don't like how you said that," Seto said, frowning back. "Don't you imply anything illicit. My relationship with Téa is purely platonic."
"Right," Mokuba said again. "Completely aside from me making any insinuations, I think it's interesting that you stole Mai's best friend."
"I didn't steal her!" Seto said indignantly. "Téa and I are friends in our own right, just like she and Mai are friends."
"She and Mai were friends first," Mokuba pointed out. "It's got to be kind of hard for her to be juggling the both of you, considering that you just ended an engagement."
"Téa says she doesn't mind," Seto said weakly, feeling bad because he'd thought of this and then ignored it. He needed Téa, he needed to be selfish and keep her with him, even if it was hard for her, so if she said she could handle it, then…
"It makes me wonder a few things," Mokuba said casually, biting into his toast. "It makes me wonder why you want Téa around so badly that you'll ignore her own feelings… and it makes me wonder why she decided to stick around, even though it can't be easy."
"That's obvious," Seto said. "She's a caring person and she'll do anything for friendship."
"She's doing a lot," Mokuba agreed. "I can't believe she's helped you get over Mai already."
"You've helped too," Seto pointed out. "Besides…" he grimaced. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but maybe Mai was right. Maybe she and I were never meant to be together."
Mokuba sat up straighter. "That is new," he agreed. "I can't believe you're saying this either. I mean, I always thought you two were right for each other…" his voice trailed off as he studied Seto's face, but his older brother didn't appear annoyed, so he continued. "It shocked me when you broke up."
"It shocked everyone," Seto said, and he still looked a little grim, and Mokuba thought that maybe Seto wasn't completely over Mai after all. That was some relief; his older brother was human, he still had to be feeling the effects of getting dumped. But if he wasn't completely broken-hearted, all for the better.
Mokuba still wanted to know more about Téa – because he had become aware of a very funny, dreamy look in his older brother's eyes whenever he talked about his new friend – so he zeroed in for the kill. "Did Téa ever mention what I told her?" he asked casually, slathering more jam on her toast.
"What?" Seto asked absently.
"Oh, at the party a few months ago," Mokuba said with feigned innocence. "I accidentally mentioned how you'd had a crush on her back in Battle City."
"You what?" Seto sat bolt-upright, suddenly entirely at attention, and Mokuba jumped. He hadn't anticipated quite this strong a reaction.
"It just came out in conversation," he said, endeavoring to remain calm even when Seto wasn't. "I laughed about it and she shrugged it off."
"I wish she had never known that," Seto said mournfully, still tense. "I don't want it to ruin everything between us."
Mokuba rolled his eyes. "Seto? Hello? I just said that I told her that a few months ago. So she's known this whole time you were friends. If it didn't bother her then, it's not bothering her now."
"Oh," Seto said, and fell quiet. Mokuba was in semi-shock; it was unlike his brother to be so… irrational.
"I hope you're not mad," he said timidly, not sure what Seto was thinking.
"Of course I'm not mad," Seto said. "I just…" he swallowed. "I wouldn't want to make her feel uncomfortable, that's all."
"Do you like her?" Mokuba asked finally. It would explain Seto's odd behavior.
"Of course I like her," Seto said, avoiding the question. It was such a pathetic display that Mokuba was silent and waited for Seto to really answer the question, but he never did. "More toast?" he offered, holding up the platter.
The same Saturday that Mokuba and Seto had their talk, Mai and Joey slept in late – well, Mai thought with a smirk, we woke up early… we just stayed in bed late, and by the time they dragged themselves downstairs, Serenity and Brian were already there, chatting with Tristan at the kitchen table.
"Morning!" Serenity chirped cheerfully. Joey walked around the table to give her a kiss. "Sorry, sis, didn't realize you were here already."
"It's fine," she said. "Tristan made us… breakfast."
Mai looked at the kitchen table and started to laugh. Tristan had set out boxes of cereal next to a heaping platter of freshly cooked bacon and sausage.
"I don't know how to make pancakes or omelets or anything fancy," he admitted, grinning along.
"What? I see nothing wrong with this delicious breakfast!" Joey pulled a chair out for Mai and sat himself down between her and his sister.
"Tristan and Serenity and I were just talking about Yugi's visit," Brian said, snagging a slice of bacon. "Apparently he's coming back for a few days?"
"Yeah," Joey said excitedly. "He said that he and Sarah really missed Domino and all their friends, so they'll come up and stay with Grandpa for a few days. And it just so happens that they'll be up here for Yugi's birthday on June 4. Yugi doesn't know it, but Sarah and I are throwing him a surprise party here."
"It'll be a barbecue," Tristan added. "I may not be able to make pancakes, but I'm mean with a grill."
"And it'll be a momentous occasion for us too," Joey said, exchanging grins with Mai.
"Oh yeah? Why's that?" Serenity asked, raising an eyebrow.
Joey grabbed Mai's hand and squeezed it. "It'll be Mai's and my last event at this place. We're going to get our own condo together!"
This caused a momentary disruption in the conversation as everyone cheered for them and offered their congratulations. They were so noisy that Tony and Chris, the other two roommates, peeked in on their way out.
"Aw, Joey, you're moving out?" Chris exclaimed. "Well, I'm happy for you two, but it'll be hard to find a roommate to replace you."
"Don't worry," Joey said, grabbing another slice of bacon. "I'll have to come back often for Tristan's famous weekend brunches."
They laughed, then Tony and Chris headed out for a morning bike ride, and the conversation eventually returned to the barbecue.
"I got in touch with Duke Devlin," Tristan said, stabbing himself a sausage. "He thinks that he'll be able to make it too." Duke had moved to Las Vegas, where he managed a whole chain of game shops, but he still paid visits to his original store in Domino a few times a year.
"Oh, it'll be good to see Duke again," Serenity said, perking up.
"So… elephant in the room, but are you gonna invite Kaiba?" Tristan asked.
There was a pause. Joey and Mai exchanged glances.
"Of course we are," she said at the same time that he said "No way!"
"What do you mean?" they demanded in unison.
"Look, Joey, he was an important part of my life for a long time," she said, frowning. "I still like him and I think it's time that we all tried to be friends again. Besides, Yugi would want him here."
"I'm sure he still hates my guts," Joey said defiantly. "Why would I want to invite him over here? He probably wouldn't come anyway!"
Brian, who was among them the least used to Joey and Mai's squabbles, looked nervous. Serenity turned to him with a grin.
"They're not really mad," she explained.
"Yeah, they argue all the time just to blow off steam," Tristan said with a shrug. "They like it, I guess! It's not the lifestyle for everyone, but…"
"It works for them," Serenity finished.
Brian looked from Joey and Mai back to Serenity, then got a wicked gleam in his eye. "Well maybe it doesn't actually work for them," he challenged, making a goofy face. "Maybe you're totally wrong in thinking that!"
"Man, you can't even pick a fake fight with her," Tristan said, shaking his head.
Serenity giggled. "It might work for my brother and Mai, but it doesn't work for us, Brian. Sorry."
The three of them tuned back to Mai and Joey's argument in time to hear Joey yelling, "Look, it's about time that I made amends with Kaiba, okay? We worked hard enough to become friends, no sense in letting all that go to waste! And that's exactly what Yugi would say!"
"I'm not saying you and Kaiba can't be friends, I just don't want him at the barbecue making things awkward!" argued Mai.
"Wait a second, did you two just switch sides?" Tristan asked, blinking. "I could have sworn you were taking the opposite positions before…"
Joey grinned sheepishly. "Well, Mai talked me into it…"
"Joey made a good point," she muttered.
Seto offered to drive Téa to the barbecue/surprise party for Yugi, but since the day dawned so beautifully and since it was getting harder to be in his presence without pouncing on him, Téa turned down the offer and walked to Joey and Tristan's place, mulling things over in her head. She'd had dinner with Seto and Mokuba earlier that week, and it had been wonderful, except for the platonic part of the evening. More and more time was passing since Seto and Mai's breakup – it felt like forever ago to Téa, and Mai and Joey were practically engaged, and Seto had declared a while ago that he was over Mai and was certainly acting like it – but he still didn't love her any more than he had ever loved her, and he never would. If a single Seto Kaiba doesn't even want me, I should really get over this, Téa thought, walking up to Joey's door. Maybe I can ask Joey's roommate Chris to set me up with one of his friends. That guy Dave was really cute. Maybe Dave will be here today. Time to be a big girl and move on.
The front door flung open and someone grabbed Téa's wrist and dragged her inside, slamming the door quickly. "You're almost late!" Mai hissed. "Yugi and Sarah will be here any moment, you don't want him to see you at the door!"
"I'm late?" Téa asked as Mai steered her towards the back door. She craned her head and caught a glimpse of the wall clock; she was late. She had been so lost in thought that she'd taken forever to get here. "Sorry! I thought I left with enough time to spare, I guess I just-"
Mai was about to interrupt her babbling apologies, but the doorbell did it for her. "Go outside," Mai said, opening the door to the porch and shoving her into the backyard. "We'll bring Yugi in." Joey appeared from the kitchen – "Hey, Téa, nice of you to join us. Ready, Mai?" She smoothed down her skirt and joined Joey and Tristan in opening the front door and welcoming Yugi to the house. Téa heard Yugi's excited voice, and Sarah's sweet one.
She backed out of the middle of the yard to where everyone else was standing in a circle, waiting for Joey to bring Yugi out. Téa noted absently that they'd done a really nice job of decorating the yard – there were balloons and streamers and a big sign over the grill that said Happy Birthday, Yugi!
She made eye contact with Seto Kaiba – he was standing on the other side of the semi-circle, whispering with Serenity and her boyfriend Brian – he had been eyeing her since she entered and now favored her with a warm smile. Téa smiled back wanly. Should probably avoid him during the party, she told herself, and looked around. Where's Dave?
She found Dave after a moment, and was just about to go over and say hi, when the back door was flung open and Yugi walked out, still chattering – "The plane was delayed, so poor Grandpa had to pick us up at almost midni-" – then he stopped short as everyone in the yard yelled "Surprise!"
"Whoa," Yugi said, so shocked that he almost sat down on the door frame. Sarah came up behind him and caught his elbow, laughing merrily and saying "Happy birthday, sweetie," and Joey and Mai and Tristan appeared beaming behind him, and Téa clapped along with everyone else.
With that, the party was in full swing. Yugi gave Téa a big bear hug, but then had to go greet all the other guests. Téa tracked down Dave and chatted with him for a while, and although he was clearly willing to give her a try, her heart wasn't in it. She saw Seto trying to approach her, but both times she stonewalled him, moving away with Dave to get a drink the first time, and then later escaping the both of them into the relative peace of Joey's living room.
"Téa?" She tensed, but it was just Yugi, Seto either hadn't seen her come in here or hadn't followed.
"Yugi," she said, beaming with sincerity for the first time that day. "I'm so glad you're back! I missed you!"
"I missed you too," he said, laughing, giving her a hug for the second time that day. "How are you? You look great! How's the job, how's life?"
"The job's great," she said, sitting down on the couch beside him. "I told you about the mission trip… I can show you pictures when you and Sarah come over for dinner later this week. We're planning to do another one next year because this one went so well, and my boss is really happy with me."
"That's great," Yugi grinned. "I hear Mai and Joey are happy."
Téa smiled. "Idyllically so. No, wait, that's not the right way to say it, because they express their great happiness with exuberant screaming matches. But they're happy, have no doubt."
"I don't," Yugi laughed. "And what about you? Are you happy?"
Téa's smile slipped away. "Of course," she said, but it was obvious that she was lying.
Yugi looked at her worriedly. "What about Seto Kaiba?" he asked tentatively. "How are things with him? You said that you guys have been spending time together…"
"As friends," Téa said shortly, to her horror feeling a lump grow in her throat. "We're just friends," she continued, and that made it worse. "Nothing's going to happen between us…" Watery eyes. "And I'm fine with that." Her nose started dripping. "Excuse me for a moment."
She leapt out of her seat and made a beeline for the bathroom, knowing that she was going to cry, and wanting to be out of sight when she did so. She grabbed the handle and rattled, and a polite voice said "I'll be out in a second," and Téa whirled around and dived for the nearest shelter.
It was a coat closet.
"Great," she sobbed, and then the tears came, followed by the hiccups, and she'd left her purse outside and didn't even have any tissues. She buried her head in her hands and sank to the floor and cried her heart out.
Until the door opened.
Téa looked up quickly, and Seto quickly shut the door again, shutting himself in the coat closet with her just like last time, stuffing his hands in his pockets just like last time.
"Are you crying over Yugi?" he asked grumpily – not like last time.
She stared up at him, wondering how best to proceed, and realized that she was sick of hiding in coat closets. It wasn't the closet part that bothered her, it was the hiding, and so she said, sniffling, "No. I'm crying over the other boy that I love."
Seto stared at her for a long moment and then finally removed his hands from his pockets and walked over and crouched before her. She tensed, and he grabbed her shoulders and hauled her to her feet. "No more crying over stupid boys," he said firmly. "If they can't see what an amazing woman you are, then they don't deserve you." Then, just as she was forming a coherent reply, he kissed her on the mouth, as firmly as he'd just spoken, at once pushing her into the mass of coats behind her and pressing her more closely to him.
Téa's tears stopped at once, which was good, because Seto was kissing her and she didn't want her face to be any more gross than it already was. She pushed him away for a moment, long enough to make his heart pound with uncertainty, long enough to wipe a sleeve across her face and then grab him and return to the all-important task of kissing him.
Eventually they parted, breathless. "At what point did you realize that you were talking about yourself?" Téa asked, leaning her forehead against his. Seto leaned down so that he could be close to her. "Was I talking about myself?" he asked dazedly, then tried to collect his thoughts. "That's not good. I called myself a stupid boy." Then, with greater certainty: "No, it's good. You like me."
"I love you," Téa corrected him, throwing all her self-protection out the window, not that there were any windows in a coat closet. "Remember, I said that?"
"You love me," he repeated, closing his eyes and letting a smile creep onto his face. "You love me."
"I have for a while," she admitted. In for a penny, in for a pound. This might end with her heart broken and irreparably shattered, but she was beginning to hope that it could end well.
"You love me," he said for a third time, then opened his eyes. In the light that was trickling in from the crack in the door, Téa could see that they were wild with happiness. "And I love you, Téa. I love you more than I've ever loved anyone like this before, more than I thought it was possible to love another person."
Téa's breath caught in her throat, and he bent down to kiss her again, and she figured, Who needs oxygen anyway? She grabbed at him, pulling him closer and closer, drowning in the sensation of Seto Kaiba, as wonderful as he'd always been, kissing her and loving her-
The closet door opened. "You can just throw that in here," Mai said cheerfully to someone, then took a better look. Téa and Seto broke off the kiss but refused to jump apart, clinging to each other and blinking owl-like in the sudden light that flooded in.
"Well, well," Mai tapped her foot and pursed her lips to hide a smile. "You two in a coat closet again. I guess this time I won't join you."
She slammed the door again. "Actually, you can put your jacket upstairs," she said brightly to the guest, and there was the sound of footsteps moving away.
Téa stayed frozen, but Seto recovered quickly and bent to kiss her again.
"We just got caught!" she said, trying to duck away.
"So there's nothing to hide," he pointed out reasonably, which stopped her squirming and allowed him to kiss her again.
"Maybe we should leave," Téa said breathlessly when she finally pulled back a few minutes later.
"Good idea," Seto said, looking much less in control than he usually did. "My place?"
Téa hesitated – that hadn't been what she meant – no, it hadn't been what she thought she meant, but it was what she wanted. She was confusing herself, but the bottom line was that she wanted to be with Seto and he knew what she wanted and he wanted the same thing. Still confusing, she told herself. Here's what I want. I want to be at his place.
"Okay," she said, watching him stride over to the door and yank it open, one hand still around her waist. She belatedly patted down her hair as the door opened and they were greeted with clapping.
They both jumped a mile as they caught sight of the room, now full of people, staring at them and grinning and clapping. Joey stood in the front, clearly the ringleader, beaming mischievously. Yugi and Sarah were blushing for Téa's sake but clapping anyway. Serenity looked delighted, Tristan a little bemused, and Mai was coming back down the stairs, surprised at Joey's scheme but unable to keep from laughing.
Téa was so embarrassed that she wanted to sink into the ground and never come back except to kiss Seto and kill Joey. Seto looked just as unamused, but at least he knew how to handle unwanted attention. He bent down and swept Téa into his arms – causing her to gasp and reflexively wrap her arms around his neck – and strode towards the front door. People parted before him, still grinning good-naturedly, and Téa
buried her head in his neck so she wouldn't have to look at anyone.
"Happy birthday, Yugi," Seto called as they left the house.
"Joey," Mai said, trying to sound as disapproving as she could, which wasn't very. It had been pretty funny. "Was that your idea?"
"That depends," he said cautiously, looking from her to Yugi. "Did you guys appreciate it?"
Mai rolled her eyes. Yugi laughed. "I think Téa was really, really embarrassed," he told Joey. "But it was funny."
"Téa'll get over it," Joey dismissed. "Besides, she and Kaiba should be grateful to me. It was an expression of solidarity. You know, that we're all behind this relationship."
"Yeah, I'm sure she's grateful," Mai said, shaking her head. "You know, she's not like me. She doesn't appreciate the attention as much."
"At least you admit you're an attention hog," Joey smirked. It was completely different from Seto's smirk – it was good humor and a good time, and it inflamed Mai's body and mind and heart.
"You know it," she said, which didn't make sense and wasn't the right response, but she lost her mind when it came to Joey Wheeler.
Joey tugged her closer and Yugi laughed and wandered away. She wrapped her arms around him and rested her head on his neck, just smiling and loving the way he felt.
Joey patted his pocket to make sure the ring was still there. He'd actually gathered everyone in the room to witness his proposal to Mai, but he wasn't at all displeased about the turn of events.
It's the universe telling me I need to do something even better for Mai, he thought. We were all going to go to that baseball game tomorrow… Dave said his brother works there. I bet I can talk with him and get him to do something…
Joey had always been ridiculously lucky, so he wasn't even surprised when Mai caught a foul ball before the fourth inning, when his surprise was planned. She was still clutching it between innings, when the giant scoreboard changed and flashed his message: WILL YOU MARRY ME, MAI VALENTINE?
It was also lucky that Téa and Seto were there together, because Seto merely looked at the board and smiled, clutching Téa's hand, while Mai burst into tears and accidentally clobbered Joey in the head with her baseball as she flung her arms around him.
"Um, are you okay?" Téa whispered to Seto, trying to be tactful. "I know this probably isn't exactly easy…"
Seto looked down at her. "I know, who would ever want that many people staring at them?" Joey and Mai, kissing, were now up on the scoreboard. Joey hadn't even gotten around to taking the ring out of his pocket yet. "When I propose to you, it'll be in private."
Téa swallowed. "Oh. So I guess you're okay."
"I'm great," Seto said, leaning forward to kiss her. "I'm in love."
Joey Wheeler and Mai Valentine exchanged vows on September 20. "I always wanted a fall wedding, so I thought we'd hurry it up and have it this fall," Mai explained to anyone who wondered at the short engagement period.
"You know it's still summer," Joey laughed.
"Shut up and marry me," Mai snapped.
About two weeks after their wedding, Mai discovered that she was pregnant. "Because Joey forgot a condom," she explained. "Because Mai was careless with her birth control pills!" he retorted. They argued about whether it would be a boy or girl, which names were best, and what color they should paint the baby's room, and were completely, blissfully happy.
Seto Kaiba proposed to Téa Gardner on October 15, and she tearfully accepted.
In a coat closet.