After four years, seventeen top ten wins, and second place three times, Joey was beginning to think he’d never make it. That his time on the professional circuit was going to be remembered as the ‘Fan-Favourite Underdog, Joey Wheeler’. Which had a nice ring to it.
But so did ‘Champion, Joseph Wheeler’.
Yeah, he got the full name treatment. Like a real celebrity.
It didn’t hit him right away. From the moment the national tournament was over, giving him an automatic entry into the international tournament, he was slaphappy. Words couldn’t form fast enough. He blathered to a few reporters who gave him squeamish looks but smiled and nodded. Some fan gave him flowers. He got to hug a kids in the stands and answer questions at an post-tournament interview where he was sure he sweat and giggled more than he actually answered questions.
The audience was into it, he guessed.
By the time that he woke up, he wasn’t anywhere near the stadium. He was in a car talking to Yugi and Tristan. “Hey, turn up the radio. I like this song,” he asked, and he leaned between the front seats. “The hell we goin’ anyways?”
Tristan snorted. “He really did black out.”
“That’s alright,” Yugi said. “We’re going to grab drinks. That’s how you said you wanted to celebrate.”
Joey blinked. “I did?”
Joey fell back in his seat and chuckled to himself. Surreal. This was so damn surreal.
Because he’d beaten a Mr. Seto Kaiba, as one of the reporters had so graciously referred to the CEO as. As if there was a lofty and graceful air to Kaiba, even in loss. Joey did see Kaiba float away from the arena looking a little fragmented. He could have been having a stroke for all Joey knew. He hadn’t asked, a little too caught up in himself because he’d finally done it. He hadn’t just won; he’d beaten Kaiba.
Soon, they arrived at the bar and ordered their first round of drinks.
“Shots first!” Tristan declared, and set them down.
And they drank. One round, two rounds. He was on three or four when he started to think that everyone he’d ever met was crammed into the bar. They were all talking a million miles a minute, and he tried reliving the moment to them even though he didn’t know how he’d won, exactly. But no one was correcting him as he regaled the story.
“An’ his face! Holy crap, like...I don’t know if I’d ever seen Kaib’ look so like—,”
“Someone ordered you a drink, Joey!” Téa said, and she spread the some ten or fifteen people to let the waitress some through and set down not a single glass of anything, but an entire bottle of champagne.
Joey leaned the bottle back. “Who the hell bought the schmancy stuff?” he asked, covering his mouth in surprise. He didn’t even need to look at the know to know it was expensive. Gold foil around the neck, filigree the label. “Duke, if this was you...!”
“Wasn’t me,” Duke said, his hands up in surrender.
Yugi shook his head. “Nope. Though I was thinking something like it.”
Joey’s heart pounded. Okay, maybe this celebrity thing was a little weird. In the sea of faces, he couldn’t even begin to imagine who among them was buying him an entire bottle of the good stuff. Except, he kind of knew, also.
He kind of wanted to puke.
“I uh...I gotta take a leak,” he said, setting the bottle down. “Don’t open it without me, guys.”
“No promises,” Tristan said.
Joey flipped Tristan off as he staggered to the bathroom. He roved over all the faces, nodded to the people would stop their conversations to congratulate him. But he wasn’t who they were looking for. Without a shadow of a doubt, he knew that Kaiba was in the crowd. Somewhere. How a giant like Kaiba was hiding, he didn’t know, but his gut wasn’t wrong.
Relieving himself, Joey stepped back out on the floor and leaned in the doorframe. Somewhere. Anywhere. Unless Kaiba had called in the order, just to be tastelessly contrite.
“Why do I care?” he asked aloud.
All these years, Kaiba had been his biggest adversary. With Yugi stepping down to focus on college, Kaiba was the only one to really play against. Everyone was a challenge, but Kaiba was like Everest. If he could climb that and come out alive on the other side...
Joey snickered to himself.
Three shots and a beer deep, and he couldn’t contain himself to the thought of climbing Kaiba, however metaphorically.
“I’ve been workin’ too much around him,” Joey muttered.
He staggered back towards the table, but somewhere along the way, he thought he saw Kaiba. Orbiting around his table and friends, he made a beeline for a corner booth next to the door. A tight little spot that was easy to miss in the low light.
In the distance he heard, “Where you goin’, Joe?” from Tristan he thought. Or maybe Bakura. And he half-muttered, half-thought, “just talkin’ to Kaib’, here.”
But when he stood before Kaiba, he shook.
The very elegance Kaiba exuded, holding tight to a long-stemmed glass of something bubbly while he half-hung out of the booth with his ankles crossed, made Joey’s mouth go dry.
The hell was he going to say?
Kaiba raised a brow.
“I...didn’t get t’ be all sportsman with ya. Ya kinda walked off,” Joey said.
Kaiba sipped from his glass. “Did I?”
“Mm. So, what, you want to shake hands or something?”
Joey shrugged. “Dunno.”
That meant touching each other. Which they didn’t do. Whenever Kaiba had beat him in the past, they had given each other a mutual look that said ‘next time’. And that was the end of that. They went their separate ways, and Joey found himself thinking about Kaiba for too long, out of contempt, out of curiosity.
The curiosity—of what, he didn’t quite understand—always made him want to scream into his pillow.
Three shots in and being a champion seemed to make that curiosity a little more okay. Plus the way Kaiba cocked his head to the side and parted his lips while waiting for Joey to find words.
“What do you really want, Wheeler?” Kaiba asked.
“I jus’...don’t know why yer here.”
“Hmph. Get a little more drunk then; perhaps your brain will comprehend it that way.”
Joey opened his mouth to protest, but before he could, he jumped to something popping behind him.
A wave of champagne poured over his head, shaken to a perfect froth. It coated his hair, his cheeks, and the semi-sweet tang infiltrated his nose. Tristan or Yugi had gotten impatient. But that was less important.
Through the frothy, golden mist of champagne, he was sure that he saw Kaiba smiling. Not a small smile. Not a smug smile. But a real one, a wide one that reached his eyes. It made him look human. Moreover, it made him look very good.
It was probably a trick of the light (and the shots) because the chances of Kaiba smiling were nigh impossible. Just like it was impossible that he was seeing rainbows in the remainders of the misty champagne. But while he could deny the smile, there was one thing he couldn’t deny:
Kaiba toasting him. Just a small raise of his glass.
“Congratulations,” Kaiba said. The cheering around him made it almost inaudible.
Kaiba stood, his half-full glass discarded, and went to leave.
Joey grabbed his wrist. He didn’t know what to do with it once he had it, though his thumb pressed into the indent just below, like he would somehow feel Kaiba’s heartbeat and it would be just as quick and threaded as Joey’s was.
He could dream.
“What?” Kaiba asked.
“Ya...ain’t gonna stay?”
“No, I have more important things to do than celebrate with the dweeb patrol,” he said, and he pulled his arm away. Joey deflated, and he looked back to his friends who had happily poured drinks for themselves and had begun singing something off-tune.
A kiss was planted on his cheek.
His attention snapped back to Kaiba, who was already heading out the door, though he looked back and caught Joey’s eye while licking his lips. Probably tasting the champagne.
“Until next match, Joseph?”
Joey touched his cheek. It was warm and wet, but not from the kiss. The champagne had made his skin sticky. When he pulled it away, he licked his fingertips to taste it.
He nodded, resolute and shouted: “Yeah, til next match!” as the door swung closed.