Yugi stood on the front porch, absent-mindedly swinging a broom to and fro. Whether or not it ever touched the sidewalk he was meant to be sweeping, he couldn't have said. Today was the first day of the qualifying duels, and Atem—or Anat, as it were—had left to register. He should be back any minute now, Joey not far behind.
"Yugi!" he heard a voice call from the distance; his head snapped up, and he peered around. Téa jogged up to him, miniskirt swaying suggestively with each stride. "What?" she asked him, slightly winded. "Didn't go with Atem and Joey?"
"Atem was mad at me," Yugi said, grinning. "I made him pluck his eyebrows for his picture." Pinning him down had been like forcing a cat into an ice bath. Yugi had nearly taken out Atem's eyeball, the pharaoh had struggled so much.
Téa let out a guffaw. "He's letting you watch his duels, though, right?" she asked.
"I hope so. This stage of the tournament's always the most fun," Yugi said. Téa cocked her head at him. "Well, once you get to the finals, it usually ends up being the same few people—me, Seto, Joey, Mai," Yugi explained. "The duelists in the preliminaries may not be as talented, strictly speaking, but at least you get to see all the different strategies."
"All the crazy strategies, you mean," Téa scoffed. "Remember Bug Boy? Dino Brain? Fish Breath? That little psychic kid who turned out to be cheating? Or maybe the deformed, psychotic magician who tried to send you and Atem to the Shadow Realm?"
Yugi cringed. "Okay, maybe there are a few bad eggs, but—"
"A few bad eggs. Name one duelist you've picked off in the opening rounds that hasn't belonged in a mental institution," Téa said, crossing her arms.
"Uh." Yugi frowned in thought. "Uh…"
Téa raised an eyebrow. "Exactly," she said. "I just wonder what kind of crop we're going to get this year."
Yugi laughed faintly. "Yeah." Though he'd be on the sidelines, at arm's length from it all. He supposed he should have been happy about that.
"I cannot believe Atem's actually going through with this," Téa said. "He's got to be the most stubborn man on the planet. Going on international television as a girl."
"Well, you did set the price of forfeit kind of high," Yugi pointed out.
"It's a dance! It's one dance. How could it be worth all this?" Téa asked.
"Atem doesn't dance," Yugi said gravely, for what felt like the hundredth time.
Téa frowned. "He's actually going to make it, isn't he?" she asked, folding her arms. "I mean, a part of me always kind of knew he'd rather die than admit I beat him, but now… there's really nothing else that can happen to him, is there?" Her mouth tightened in worry.
Yugi set his broom aside, resting it against the store front. "Téa, if you can't afford the ice cream, you can just tell him. He might give you a little grieve, but I'm sure he'll understand," he told her. "He wasn't in it for the prize anyway; he just wanted to prove he was right."
"I know, I just feel bad. We made a deal," Téa lamented. "There has to be some other way to repay him, something that doesn't involve five hundred dollars of diabetes."
Yugi snorted. "You could buy his girl clothes," he suggested.
"Those white shorts were pretty cute, weren't they?" Téa murmured. She pensively rubbing her thumb across her lips. "Do you think they would fit me, though? He's a little on the curvy side."
"Curvy?" Téa flinched and spun around to discover Atem standing behind her. He set one hand on his full hips and narrowed his eyes. "And what, pray tell, do you mean by that?"
"Nothing bad. Just that your proportions have, um… a slightly higher standard deviation than mine," she explained quickly. Atem arched an eyebrow, but shrugged and brushed past them both into the game shop lobby. "Hey, hold on!" Téa called, hurrying after him. "I want to see your picture."
He removed it from the pockets of his jacket and held it out. Téa snatched it from him, beaming as she inspected the small photograph. "Hello, Mr. Muto," Atem said to Grandpa as they passed the elder man.
"You're not going to say hi to me?" Yugi asked in a tone of indignation, though he felt more amused than offended.
"I have nothing to say to traitors," Atem hissed. Yugi laughed. "Wrestle me to the floor when it's all fun and games, and I don't hear from you for days. But sitting on my chest and ripping the hairs out of my face, that's far more palatable, is it?"
"You know," Yugi said, cupping his chin pensively, "it looks like I missed a couple—"
"You keep your distance!" Atem barked, jerking back as Yugi reached out to touch him. "Don't think I won't remember this when I change back to my real form, Yugi. You have two weeks to convince me not to dangle you from the rooftop."
"Well, if that's going to be my reward for the all the help I've given you over the past few weeks, I don't see a good reason why I should change you back at all," Yugi said airily, folding his hands behind his back. Atem's face went red. "After all, it's been kind of nice having another girl in the group. What do you think, Téa?"
"Mm, yes," Téa agreed, nodding, her grin devilish.
Atem glowered at them both. "That isn't something to joke about," he said, and he sounded genuinely unnerved. Yugi gave Atem an apologetic grimace.
"You know I'd never do that," he said.
"Yes, of course, I know," Atem replied. "It's just that the idea of being stuck like this forever, it's…" He stiffened suddenly, glancing in Téa's direction. "It would certainly take some getting used to," he said with a bracing sniff.
Téa smiled and shook her head in disbelief. "You never skip a beat, do you?" she asked. "I guess it was stupid of me to expect anything less from the king of games."
"And what should I expect from you? Some last barrage of nastiness before I cross the finish line?" Atem asked.
"Please," Téa chuckled. "You'd be so wrapped up in the tournament you would barely even notice me."
"Then are you admitting defeat?" Atem asked, sounding hopeful but deeply wary. Letting out a heavy sigh, Téa shrugged.
"I guess so. You made it, congratulations," she replied, bobbing her head in a diplomatic nod. "But after everything you've been through over the past few days, are you really going to stand there and try to tell me that being a girl is just as easy as being a guy?"
Atem's mouth twitched. Yugi could almost see the struggle playing out in his brain. "Masculinity isn't without its own challenges," he said. "But." His jaw clenched. "Based on my very limited experience—and given my complete lack of knowledge—I will concede that being female was marginally more difficult than being a man. Marginally. Infinitesimally."
"You'd better take it, Téa that's as good as it's going to get," Yugi laughed.
"I know. I can practically see the beads of sweat running down his face," Téa said, grinning. "But since you do agree with me, even a tiny bit—may we can consider lightening the penalty a little?"
Atem's eyes went stone cold. "Lightening the penalty," he repeated.
"Like ice cream every week. Or a great big gallon, all at once," Téa proposed, clapping her hands together.
Atem stared at her. "I spend three hundred dollars on clothing," he said, "and you want to cut my reward down to a fifth of what you promised me? A fifth, when all you had to do was sit back and watch me suffer? Where exactly is the justice in this?"
"Come on, who needs all those calories, right?" Téa said. "I could cook for you! Man the store. I could help you guys clean out your attic. Oh!" She poked Atem in the arm. "I can make sure you look nice for the tournament. You know, hair, makeup, nails…"
"Is this a prize or a punishment?" Atem asked incredulously.
"Atem!" Téa whined. "There must be something you want that doesn't cost half a grand!"
Atem sighed. "You really can't afford it?" he asked. With a slight pout, she shook her head. "You're not going to show up a week from now sporting a new one of those wretched lizard-skin bags or something?"
"I'm on a clothing fast, I swear," she told him, making a decisive motion with her hand.
"Very well." He folded his arms. "From what little I've seen of modern mathematical techniques, they differ greatly from what I was taught as a child," he said. "The upcoming school year might be easier if I managed to find a tutor."
"I can tutor! I can totally tutor," Téa chirped, bounding from foot to foot. "Thank you!" She threw her arms around him, and Yugi saw him flush as their chests pressed up against each other.
"Yes," Atem said, his voice tight, and he gingerly pried himself free. He turned his eyes to Yugi. "Joey and I are scheduled to arrive fairly soon. We should go get ready."
"Sure," Yugi agreed. "Téa, you going to stick around, or…?"
"Nah, I'll catch up with you guys as the park. I'll be the one holding the giant cotton candy and wearing the Dark Magician Girl hat—oh, don't give me that look!" she said, as Atem's expression turned sour. "It's for my niece, not for me. And if you want one, I'd be more than happy to pick it up, no judging guaranteed."
Atem chuckled. "If you'd going to saddle anyone with that monster of a headpiece, I think it ought to be Yugi. He's the one whose female form is a blonde," he said.
Yugi recoiled as Téa's face lit up. "Who wants to bet girl Yugi would make the best DMG cosplay this side of the Pacific?" she asked.
"Not me," Atem said with a faint smile. He turned to climb the stairs. "I've learned my lesson."