You know how it's said that when you're dying, or about to die, you see your life flash before your eyes?
It's a load of crock.
Sorry, but it's true. And I know. I've been there.
See, I'm dead. Technically speaking, anyway. I know it doesn't make much sense right now, so I have to explain things to you—from the beginning. But before you assume that where I am now—being dead, I mean—is the end, I'll say you're wrong. In fact, you're so off base…
Because death is just the beginning.
There was something horribly wrong about all this.
Eyes glanced from person to person, examining the various emotions displayed on the present teenagers' faces.
Seto Kaiba. Yugi Moto. Joey Wheeler. Tristan Taylor. Duke Devlin. Serenity Wheeler. Téa Gardner.
They all went to the same school, and all knew each other. Most of them were even friends with one another, despite the heated rivalry between Seto Kaiba and Yugi Moto, as well as the jealousy-fueled feud between Tristan Taylor and Duke Devlin.
But what connected each of these teens at that precise moment had absolutely nothing to do with knowing one another, going to the same school, or liking the same girl.
It had everything to do with the past. It was something that had happened over a year ago, in an underwater fortress few knew about, near an island even fewer people would have deigned to visit, knowing what horrors awaited them there. Only the teenagers present knew what was in that fortress, near that island, knew what connected them at this moment…
Aside from the chafing ropes binding their wrists and ankles together, that is.
"What do you want?" Joey Wheeler growled out, struggling against his bonds. For all the good it did him—the ropes were tied expertly, the coarse material rubbing against his skin and causing it to redden and itch.
The sole man holding them all captive turned and fixed Joey with a manic gaze.
"What I want? I want what none of you can give me! I want my father back! I want you to all suffer, the way my father did—at your hands! You're just a bunch of impudent teenagers, and you killed him!"
"We didn't kill anybody!" Serenity defended her brother adamantly, glaring at the muscle-bound man as harshly as she could.
The stocky man with thinning hair turned toward the youngest of the two girls present, moving toward her with a lecherous grin crossing his lips.
"'We?' Maybe not you alone, dear, but you all had your part in it! You all were responsible!" The man gestured wildly, not caring when his hand slapped Téa Gardner's face to the side.
Her friends glanced toward her, checking to see if she was all right, but she remained silent. Ever since she'd been brought in—the last of the bunch—she'd been quiet.
All of them had been tricked, one way or another, into coming to this place…this abandoned building. It may have been a factory at one time, but the teenagers were locked away in one of the upstairs offices, cramped against one another and bound securely.
The psychotic man claiming they'd all killed his father was none other than Richard Leichter, the only son of the same Vice President of Kaiba Corporation—back when it had been run by Gozaburo Kaiba and his VP, Charles Leichter.
The same Charles Leichter that had trapped Seto Kaiba in his own VR world, and the same Leichter that had tried to get revenge by teaming up with the original Kaiba heir, Noah Kaiba. The same Leichter that had almost destroyed Seto back in the VR world…back on that island that no one had wanted to remember…
But Seto had come through. He'd won the duel, against all the odds…and destroyed Leichter. Destroyed the traitor's only chance at taking over his body, and left the VR world once and for all…
It felt like a long time ago, but with the past practically staring them in the face, it might as well have all happened yesterday.
"So you want revenge? You think that holding us all prisoner here is going to change things?" Tristan Taylor yelled, struggling against his own bonds.
"Revenge? Revenge is just the start! I want you all to suffer," Any trace of a grin or smile left Richard Leichter's face, as he withdrew a gun from his coat's left pocket, "and believe me, you all will."
The teenagers fell silent in the face of a weapon. While none of them could even be sure that the gun was loaded, they couldn't take the chance. After all, you could be alive and well one second, and the next…
Most preferred not to think about it.
"How much do you want?" Seto asked, his voice sounding oddly impassive. Though he rarely got emotional, one would have thought that where the Big Five were concerned, he would be just as vicious and ruthless as he had been when he'd dueled them.
"How much?" Richard turned toward Seto now, unlocking the safety on the gun and cocking it—the barrel pointed right between Seto Kaiba's eyes.
"If money could bring my father back…I'd have done it a year ago! Even though you ruined our lives when you took over Kaiba Corp., my father…" Leichter chuckled, "Well, he was a resourceful man. We always had money. But never…never the same access to technology. Had I been able to save my father…it would have been with YOUR damned tools! Your damned corporate logo emblazoned on everything!"
Seto Kaiba was silent, his face a mask of nonchalance.
"Do you think he'd want you to do this?"
Heads turned in surprise at the sound of Téa's voice—the first time she'd spoken in all the hours they'd been together.
"What?" Leichter strode over to her, using the cold metal of the firearm's barrel to lift her chin and force her to look him in the eye.
Brilliant, sky-blue eyes clashed with wild, emotional, brown ones.
For a moment, Richard Leichter felt scared. In these eyes, of this girl, this mere child, this whelp, this pup…there was no fear. She stared at him fully, her eyes fixed on his. Even though he could shoot her dead before she could blink…
"No matter what kind of a grudge he had against us," Téa spoke, her voice still a whisper, "I don't think any father would wish his child to put himself in danger like this."
"You're wrong." The fury faded from Leichter's face, but a calm sort of anger remained there.
"H-he taught me everything. Made me everything that I am. Without him…I'm nothing…"
"'Dependence is weakness.'"
Leichter's gaze shot toward Seto Kaiba.
"Your father was right in saying that. You can't depend on anyone, you can't trust anyone. And the more you think you need someone, the more weakness you've exposed." Though Seto Kaiba's face didn't betray any emotion, Téa Gardner, tied up beside him, saw him gulp. Saw the thin bead of sweat on his brow…
Yugi and his friends exchanged a glance; they all knew that Seto Kaiba had had a rough childhood, what with his upbringing by the cruel and infamous Gozaburo Kaiba. But hadn't his thinking changed at all in the past year?
"Right now, you're depending on all of us—to satisfy whatever it is that you want, but we can't give to you freely," Kaiba added, forcing the sneer that almost crossed his face from showing.
"You don't need all of us." Téa's voice again, this time louder and clearer.
"No? All of you had your part in my father's murder…" Leichter's voice was laced with venom; it was clear that he wasn't about to let anyone just walk away.
"But if one of us suffers, then we all do. Even if dependence is weakness, it's also strength. We're friends," Téa said nothing to exclude Seto, "and we depend on one another when we're weak, and when we need to be strong."
Leichter stroked his chin thoughtfully; had he a beard he would have resembled his father even more so than he already did.
"You want me to let them go?" He gestured with his gun toward the others; Téa sat in the last of the chairs bound together, beside Seto, then Duke, Tristan, Joey, Serenity, and on the other end, Yugi.
Téa remained silent, her gaze dropping to the floor.
"If I let them go," Leichter leaned down toward her, "you're going to be stuck with me. A weak little girl like you," Leichter sneered, moving a hand up Téa's exposed thigh, "won't be able to hurt me."
Téa made no move to attempt to remove Leichter's hand from her leg, just below her skirt's hemline. It felt as though a million spiders were crawling all over her, but…
"I'm not afraid."
And she wasn't. Leichter could see that much in her eyes. And maybe…maybe that was all the reason in the world to listen to her.
Téa absently rubbed her wrists as she stood on wobbly ankles, refusing to look at her friends.
Richard Leichter had untied her, saying that he would take Téa elsewhere, and the others could try and escape, and do what they will. They would hear from him soon enough, he said, and they would all suffer…
Yugi Moto continued his futile struggle against his bonds, the ropes cutting through his skin. But he didn't care. He couldn't really feel it, anyway. All he could feel—all he could think about—was Téa. And how she was about to do something very brave…and very stupid. Something that would undoubtedly cost Téa her life.
He couldn't let that happen. Because he hadn't told her—
"Ready to go?" Leichter grinned at Téa, who nodded her silent affirmation, stepping forward.
"No last words for your friends, dear?" Richard turned in the doorway, casting a curious glance back at the girl.
She hesitated a moment before turning, finally raising her clear, blue eyes to meet the concerned gazes of her friends.
It came out as such a soft whisper, most of them weren't sure if they'd heard right. But it wasn't as if they could ask her to repeat herself, because she was already out the door and gone.
Téa glanced up when she and her captor stopped in front of another room further down the hallway. Her eyes asked the unspoken question, prompting Richard to answer for her.
"Just a quick detour, my dear."
Had Téa not already accepted her fate—what she believed inevitable for at least one person that day—then fear might have bubbled up. What could Leichter be planning for her, in that small room? Did he intend to shoot her right there…or make her suffer, as he said, maybe by raping her?
The very thought caused disgust, regret, and adrenaline, of all things, to surge up in Téa's blood. Once inside the room, Téa focused all her strength and darted behind Leichter, grabbing the arm that held the gun and attempting to twist it so that she could gain control.
But she'd underestimated Leichter's brute strength, as he used the same arm she'd twisted to bring her in front of him, her back pressed against his chest—the gun pressed right against her left breast.
"Not a wise idea, girl. Trying to hasten your death? They'll all suffer the same, you know…."
"Not as much as you," Téa whispered, grabbing Leichter's wrist and twisting it as hard as she could, forcing the gun a few inches higher. Only this time, she'd clasped her own hand over his bent one, her own finger sliding around the trigger…
"What do you think you're doing girl!? Are you insane?"
Téa's voice was unusually calm as she glanced back and up at Leichter, and she responded, "I'm not afraid."
All eyes glanced up abruptly when the unmistakable sound of a shot rang throughout the concrete halls of the abandoned building.
"Téa!" Yugi startled to struggle harder with his bonds, wishing he were able to reach his Millennium Puzzle, given that the pyramid's point would have been good for slicing the rope.
"AH! Got it!" Joey was the first to get free, and he quickly moved to free Yugi. The smaller boy was out of his bonds the moment they loosened, and he was darting toward the door, an expression of terror plain on his face.
"Yug'! Where ya goin'!?" Joey asked, freeing Serenity and Tristan now, "That psycho could still be around here somewhere!"
"That psycho could have shot Téa!" Yugi yelled back, throwing the door open without a second thought. But no 'psycho' greeted his glance down the hallway; rather he saw a group of heavily armed policemen and firemen running down the hall.
Yugi paused, glancing toward the doorway as his companions emerged. Seto Kaiba was the one to offer an explanation, his face calm as he rubbed the raw skin on his wrists, "I text messaged Mokuba, and he called the police."
The officers were quick to reach the group of teens, some of them heading further down the hallway to find Leichter, should he still be in the building.
"Are all of you all right?" Sergeant Konami, the ranking policeman on the scene, asked. Most everyone looked shaken, but not too worse for the wear—save from their chafed wrists.
"O-Our friend! She—he took her!" Yugi stuttered. Every fiber in his being wanted to dart down that hallway and find Téa, make sure she was all right, because she had to be all right—she couldn't have gone and done anything stupid; she was a smart girl…
His thoughts were all a blur, a jumbled, fast-paced mess—but clearest of all were Téa's brilliant, unclouded blue eyes.
"I'm not afraid."
And she hadn't been. He'd known that the moment she'd said it…
"Sir!" A younger policeman briefly saluted Konami before approaching the sergeant.
"What is it?"
"We found him, sir. Leichter," the younger man explained, a bead of sweat appearing on his brow as his gaze shifted downward. Seto Kaiba's eyes narrowed; there was something else….
"Good. Get him in cuffs and make sure to—"
"Sir!" The younger policeman looked up again, swallowing hard. "He's dead, sir."
A pause, as the silence almost seemed to deafen all the teens present.
"They both are."
The paramedics had arrived barely five minutes later, rushing past the teens in a blur of white and red. After hearing the officer say 'They're both dead,' they'd known. The shot they'd heard, and what had happened to Téa….
It had been too much to hope for, that she'd somehow escaped, that she'd been the one to call the police….
Serenity was the first to burst into tears, when the paramedics had rushed into the room with two stretchers…and walked out, slowly, with two, both of them holding covered bodies. The first had larger proportions than the others; the teens knew without asking that it was Leichter's body being wheeled away. But the second-- the second had a smaller frame.
Heartbeats quickened, mouths dried of their saliva, and eyes watered.
Konami had one of the paramedics stop the second stretcher, right in front of their faces.
"I hate to have to do this to you, but…" He raked a hand through his hair, having removed the cap that policemen normally wore. But what had started out as a hostage situation had turned into a homicide, and now….
"I need to know if this girl is the one that was with you, and that Leichter didn't have anyone else held prisoner here. If you recognize her…"
"Oh God…" Duke swallowed, his gaze abruptly dropping to the floor. It hadn't even been that long ago, Téa had been sitting only a few seats from him. She hadn't exactly been acting as vibrant and lively as she usually was, but she'd been alive! And now…
The paramedic slowly unfolded one corner of the sheet draped over the body on the second stretcher.
"No!" Serenity was the first one to cry out, bursting into tears as she caught sight of Téa's face. Her friend's face. The girl that she'd spent so much time hanging around the past year, shadowing until spring had come, and Serenity had finally become a a high-schooler at Domino High. And now Téa was…!
The redhead's tears refused to stop, even as she buried herself in her brother's arms. Joey was trembling too, even as he wrapped his arms around Serenity in a vain attempt to comfort her. But how could he comfort her properly, when he himself felt like the ground was about to collapse underneath him?
"Téa…" His voice was barely a whisper, even as he swallowed, staring at her peaceful face. One might almost think she were sleeping, were it not for the crimson blood covering nearly a third of the left side of the sheet.
"No—no…" Yugi was mumbling as he shook his head in despair, his violet eyes wide with disbelief.
Their reactions were all Konami needed to know that the girl had been their friend, and that she'd done something very brave to save them all.
He waved the paramedic down the hallway, the doctor rushing past him as soon as he'd covered up Téa's face once more. Konami's gaze followed the doctor until he was gone, and only then did he notice Seto Kaiba.
Of all the teenagers, he was the only one who didn't appear to be that fazed by seeing one of his own friends—dead. But then, Konami had heard that Kaiba was somewhat of a recluse, preferring his games and his multimillion-yen company to any sort of relationship.
Barely a minute passed since Konami had glanced from the disappearing paramedic to Seto Kaiba, and it was at the tail end of that minute that he saw Seto Kaiba's head drop, and a trail of moisture make its way down his face.
Sweat? The young man had undoubtedly been in a tough situation, and it was normal to be terrified, to sweat.
But that was when Konami noticed where the droplets of moisture came from.
His eyes. Not sweat, but tears.
Maybe Seto Kaiba wasn't so much of a hermit after all.
It was cold.
A warm tingling slowly began to make its way down her limbs, and soon, Téa Gardner felt her strength return to her. But it felt as though her eyes were weighted down with lead lashes, and that whatever piercing whiteness lay on the other side of her lids would blind her permanently.
'I don't want to wake up…'
You must, Téa. You must wake up.
She wasn't sure whose voice it was, or why the imploring tone brought out such feelings of determination and resolve in her, but Téa tried…and through the stinging pain, managed to open her eyes.
Along with her sight, the rest of her senses immediately kicked into overdrive, the thick scent of freshly overturned earth penetrating her nose. There was a soft sound coming from a distance—something like a mix of leaves crunching and people whispering. The breeze that previously only brushed lightly against her arms and legs became a full-fledged gale, whipping about her and twisting her hair into knots and spirals.
She didn't recognize anything.
'Where am I?'
She knew she'd only thought those words, because her mouth was still too dry, her lips caked shut. But nonetheless, the same voice from before—a woman's voice, clear but low—sounded in reply.
Look closer, Téa.
All she had to do was think about being closer to the source of the strange noises, to the strong smell, and in a more familiar place. And then, quite suddenly, Téa found herself staring down at a young boy wearing a dark suit, hunched over a brightly polished stone.
Despite the fog, with that head of hair, it simply couldn't be anyone but…
But he didn't look up. If he'd even heard Téa's words, he didn't register them. He just kept kneeling in front of the strange stone, his forehead almost touching his knees. A slip of bright, golden sunflowers peeked out from between his knees.
But none of it made any sense.
"Téa…" Yugi began in a cracked whisper, "I wanted to tell you for so long…"
"Yugi! It's me, I'm here! What? What did you want to tell me? I'm listening!"
But Yugi couldn't seem to hear her. Confusion and upset washed over Téa, unable to comprehend what was happening.
"And now you're gone. Forever, Téa. I had so many chances, but—I never told you…"
"He cannot hear you." This time, the voice that Téa had heard in her mind echoed quite clearly right next to her—and when Téa turned to look, she was astonished to see a beautiful older woman, likely in her early thirties, dressed in a flowing ivory-colored robe—her back adorned with a pair of massive, pearly-white wings.
"Below you," the woman stated calmly, and it was then that Téa looked down—and realized with a start that she too, like the angelic woman beside her, was floating. Suddenly, Téa plummeted to the ground like a rock, and everything became frighteningly clear.
Where she was.
Where the sounds and smells had come from.
What strange stone Yugi knelt before…
"And it is not just any graveyard," the woman murmured smoothly, not even acknowledging that she'd just read Téa's thoughts. "Look at the gravestone."
Somehow, Téa didn't need to see the letters etched on the stone to know for sure what they'd spell out. But for confirmation's sake—or perhaps a strange urge inside her, borne of fear—she looked. Her eyes suddenly filled with tears, her whole body becoming numb and heavy.
"Here lies Téa Gardner. Cherished friend, and a true savior."
"…I love you, Téa," Yugi whispered.
Feeling slowly crept back into Téa's limbs as she willed herself to reach out to Yugi, to touch him. But as her palm met with the space that should have been occupied by Yugi's cheek, her body slid forward, her hand slipping right through him.
"You are no longer of this world, Téa. People of the living realm can not hear, see, nor feel you, any more than you can touch them."
The older angel looked away momentarily, appearing almost ashamed to deliver this truth. "Yes."
"I-I don't understand. What's going on? Is this some sort of a dream? Why am I here? Why would Yugi say—"
"He said what he feels, Téa. He said what he was unable to tell you while you lived."
"I wanted to tell you…so many times before, Téa," Yugi continued brokenly, clutching the sunflowers in his hands tighter, to the point where the stems bent at odd, disfigured angles. "But I was afraid. Afraid that you wouldn't feel the same. And now…I guess I'll never know, will I? And…I don't think I'll ever love anyone like I loved you Téa. No, not anyone at all. I can't…"
At that point, Yugi broke into quiet sobs, his salty tears mixing with a thick, wet mist forming in the cemetery.
Téa slowly grew used to the smell of the soil, packed and mounded before her own grave.
'My own grave.' It made sense to still be disturbed by that, right?
The mist and fog finally receded, giving way to a deep, star-studded sky. The moon hung high in the abyss, a great pearl etched with a lone rabbit—or perhaps a sad man, eternally looking down upon those passed.
She didn't understand why she was still here, still on Earth at all if what the angel said was true, and she were dead. But where else could she go? What else could she do? The angel seemed to come and go as she pleased, and Téa found herself unable—or perhaps unwilling—to move from her own grave.
As sacrilegious as it might be to some, she sat upon her own gravestone, staring hollowly at the flowers her friends left for her. Over the course of the day, she'd seen them all come: Serenity. Duke. Tristan. Joey. Mai. Even those that Téa never thought too highly of—people like Rex Raptor and Weevil Underwood. Even Mako Tsunami and Espa Roba, the latter boy accompanied by his whole slew of siblings, came to extend their condolences to Téa's closest friends. Yugi and the others just stood silently by Téa's grave, accepting their wishes with slow nods and heavy hearts.
But there was one face she hadn't seen during the course of the day. Funny how she remembered him so distinctly, and, the moment she searched her mind to see if, in fact, he truly had come, he appeared from behind a grove of trees.
He didn't bother with a suit—instead, he wore his usual trench coat attire, complete with snug-fitting slacks and a dress shirt with the collar errantly sticking up, stubborn as the shirt's wearer. The only strikingly noticeable thing about his whole ensemble was that instead of a flowing navy or indigo coat, or even that bizarre sleeveless white one he'd donned during Battle City, this trench coat was a simple black, stretching to the middle of his knees. It almost made him look…
'Normal.' The tiniest of smiles snuck past Téa's lips, but it vanished as quickly as it had come.
The night lacked any more strong winds, so there was no way for anything to flap elegantly behind or around him. He was just Seto Kaiba, standing amidst endless rows of tombstones, a single white rose clutched in his hands. He stopped a good meter away from the grave, staring at it with a scrutinizing eye. It was as though he didn't truly believe that Téa was dead, that she truly lay under those flowers, that soil, in a coffin two meters below ground level. Then again, neither did Téa herself. She still felt alive. But what did that even mean anymore?
"I hate this." Kaiba mumbled, his brows furrowing at the center of his forehead. "I hate graveyards, Gardner. You should know that."
"Why-why is he talking to me?" Téa yelled her query, though no one could hear. "You and Yugi both! You're both crazy! Or maybe it's just me…" Téa sank back to the cold ground once more, wishing that everything she was seeing and hearing and smelling didn't seem so real. Nothing made sense anymore.
So. She was dead. What now?
"But…you couldn't know." Kaiba spoke again, as if he were conversing with Téa though she was only half-listening, numb from the realization that, if she was seeing angels and her own gravestone, feeling fine despite having been shot, and hearing words from friends that would never say these things otherwise…surely then, she was dead.
"Right? Still, somehow…I think you're not like them. Even if you hang around those losers, you've always been—always were—" Kaiba corrected himself, and swallowed before continuing, "different. You just might have known me better than anyone else. Better than I thought, even."
"Yeah, right," Téa murmured under her breath. What she knew about Kaiba was simply public knowledge: he was a world-class duelist with an ego the size of a blimp, and devotion and loyalty to his brother like nothing else. He was the president and CEO of his own massive and wildly-successful gaming company, and as a rich, spoiled child, he stopped at nothing when it came to getting what he wanted.
That was all.
"But you've always been incredibly stupid!" Kaiba exclaimed, his voice strikingly loud in the quiet graveyard. His words surprised Téa, though she knew by now that Kaiba couldn't hear her no matter what she said in reply.
"What happened to not speaking ill of the dead?" Téa groused, crossing her arms over her chest. Earlier, she noted that unlike the older angel she'd seen, she wasn't wearing any special attire—just the same clothes she'd died in. Only now, they weren't bloodstained, torn, or soiled in any way. They were pristine, and remained as such, even as the hours passed and Téa continued to sit on dirt and stone, wandering in and out of the maze of her thoughts.
"I know, I know, I shouldn't be talking like you like that, not when you're…gone. But—" Suddenly, his voice dropped, and Téa wondered what was wrong with him. Why was he even there? It was obvious he didn't think of her as a friend, so why…?
Téa's eyes widened; the moonlight glistened off of what could only be a trail of tears, slip-sliding down Seto Kaiba's face. But Seto Kaiba didn't cry! Especially over her!
"You never should have gotten involved in my messes, Gardner! Not during Duelist Kingdom, not during that freak RPG accident, not during Noah's idiotic stunt on that fortress, and not during Battle City. Maybe if you hadn't been there, maybe…"
"Maybes are kind of useless at this point, Kaiba," Téa mumbled. For the second time that day, she felt like bursting into tears herself. But somehow, they wouldn't come. They couldn't. She was dead, and dead people couldn't cry.
"I should have convinced Leichter to take me instead," Kaiba bit out, squeezing his eyes shut.
"You idiot! You have someone left to live for—your brother! He's the only family you've got left, and you would have thrown that away for me? Don't be stupid, Kaiba!"
"He cannot hear you, Téa. You know this, yet you still continue to speak to him. Why?" The angel had returned, her voice as calm and impassive as ever. Yet when Téa glanced up at the angel suspended in mid-air, the older woman's gaze seemed drawn not to Téa herself, but Kaiba, who was now kneeling before Téa's grave, his expression a mask of anger and upset.
"I guess…I'm just venting in my own way. I don't know. I'm crazy. Just leave it at that," Téa grumbled and frowned.
The angel said no more, still gazing at Kaiba.
"You'd say I'm being stupid, Gardner. That I have Mokuba. I know that. I know—but…"
"But nothing! My friends are my family, and that's why I—"
Before, she thought she'd acted on impulse. But suddenly, it became clear that there was more to it than that. She'd known all along what she was doing—what choice she made, and what would become of her. She knew.
"Somehow it's just not the same without you," Kaiba murmured, shaking his head. Finally, he dropped the lone white rose in his hand to the ground, pausing to stare at it momentarily against the dark backdrop of the earth.
"I tried to convince myself for a while that it was some stupid dream, and that you'd be back to nag me, to lecture me, not that long from now. I'd see your face, your eyes…"
"Kaiba…?" It didn't sound like him. Since when did he even take notice of her? They rarely ever spoke, and when they did, it was almost always in the form of a heated argument or disagreement. Sure, sometimes she'd stuck up for him, but that was because Kaiba did the right thing—well, every now and then…
"I think—no, I know—" Suddenly, Kaiba's gaze shifted directly upward, so that he was looking right at Téa. Startled by the clarity and seriousness in his eyes, Téa stilled, wondering if maybe the angel was wrong, and Kaiba truly could sense her.
"I'm in love with you, Téa. I just…I could never figure out what that feeling was until now. And it's too late and I…" Kaiba abruptly rose to his feet and walked away, not looking back once. Téa remained sitting on her own gravestone, utterly shell-shocked. Minutes passed before she could find her voice to speak.
"W-what? How…? I don't understand!"
"Is it that surprising that you affected so many lives around you, Téa? That you meant so much to so many people?"
'Yes. I thought I only had my circle of friends, but it turns out I didn't know them at all! First Yugi, now Kaiba? I-I've left a world I don't even recognize anymore!'
"Do you still believe that Seto has forgotten what it means to be human?" the angel asked, her gaze shifting to the distance, where Kaiba's shadow disappeared among the trees. Her words echoed from a time long since passed, of a time when Téa told Kaiba that there was nothing left of him, that he'd spent too much time with his machines to understand real people any longer.
"Though he may not always act it, Téa," the angel continued softly, "Seto Kaiba is indeed human, and as such, he has human emotions. Love is something that he has not been able—perhaps, not allowed—himself to experience for a very long time. As is the way with human emotions, they encroach upon you unexpectedly, and then reveal themselves with full force."
Téa remained silent in the face of this explanation. She knew it all to be true—if this wasn't some twisted dream, that is. Besides, why would Seto Kaiba ever be so sincere, so open, so…emotional? No, it had to be real, simply because it was too unbelievable.
"What difference does it make?" Téa finally mumbled quietly. "I'm dead."
The angel allowed for a moment of silence before speaking. "But you can change that."
Her query hung in the air for an undeterminable amount of time before the angel glided forward, tilting Téa's face to look up in the angel's eyes.
"What you did for your friends was a selfless and brave act, Téa. There are very few that truly do such things, especially in this day and age. You are unlike many other humans in that respect. You have a pure heart, Téa, and for that, you will receive a second chance."
"Yes. But you must know, you are no longer the girl you once were. You are…of a higher calling, a higher power, if you will. An angel."
At these words, a pair of wings, as pearl-white as the older angel's own, sprung from Téa's back, the feathers small but fluffy. Her span wasn't nearly as great as the older woman's, but they were, nonetheless, angel wings.
'Well okay.' If she was dead and able to see and hear people, but not interact with them in any way, then why not be an angel, too? In the grand scale of impossibilities, this didn't seem like that much of a stretch. If Téa could accept death, what was so difficult about accepting angel wings?
"You must return to the point in time when destiny first wove this course for you. Go back to that time, and change your fate. The only condition is that you must not, under any circumstances, reveal your heavenly powers—in the form of your wings—to anyone."
"I don't understand! I can't just blink and make them go away!" Téa cried in frustration, whirling about. The wings stayed fixed to her back, as part of her as her arms or legs.
The angel glanced at Téa with amusement sparkling in her dark eyes. "You just did."
To Téa's acute astonishment, the angel was right. In the moment that she'd blinked, her wings vanished from existence. But she could still feel them—light, and soft, and hovering like a shield around her body. Their power remained—inside her.
"Will you accept this chance, and return to a time since passed?"
"I love you, Téa."
Somehow, hearing it from Yugi hadn't been as much of a shock as hearing it from Kaiba. Téa had spent so long pining after the other half of Yugi—for Yami, the enigmatic pharaoh with a greater purpose—that she'd allowed herself to forget even the slightest possibility of Yugi—in any form—returning her feelings. Yugi, her best friend, Yugi, her savior, Yugi…not Yami.
They were two different people; Téa knew that now. She knew that the boy she'd seen crying at her grave wasn't the strange man that appeared with the glow of the Millennium Puzzle. And somehow, that made all the difference in the world.
It meant that while Yugi could confess his feelings, Téa would feel nothing in return: only remorse, regret, and guilt. Her heart didn't lift at Yugi's words, nor did warmth spread from her fingers to her toes. Her cheeks didn't color red, and her head didn't spin in dizzy circles—but maybe that could all be attributed to being dead. Still, when Kaiba had uttered his true feelings, Téa's reaction had been quite different.
There'd been a slightly overwhelming period of shock and detachment from the world. Colors somehow seemed brighter, smells stronger, sounds clearer. And for the briefest moment, she had felt warm—absolutely so—all over.
'Could it be I might actually care for Kaiba in return?'
Well, of course she cared for him. Even if before, she'd thought he didn't even think of her as a friend, she'd always regarded him as such—sort of. But…
"Love?" The word slipped past her lips, audible to her own perhaps-lying senses and the perhaps-impossible angel beside her.
"I shall be here until the moon sets. Until then, you may go where you please. You are not confined by this earthly realm, so imagine yourself where you wish to be, and there you shall appear."
'Go,' the angel was saying, 'go and decide whether you wish to follow your heart on this matter.'
"I'll—I'll be back."
Her thoughts and her wings drew Téa to a place she hadn't seen in ages—the Kaiba Mansion. She'd only been there once, a very long time ago, back when she was convinced Seto Kaiba was a few wires short of a fuse box.
But he'd changed. They'd all changed, and now…
"And now here I am, wondering what to do. This is surreal. I'm dead, flying, and outside Kaiba's house. What is wrong with me?"
She didn't really know how to answer her own question. She wrenched her gaze from her clenched fists and trembling legs, daring to glance up at the sole window lit in the Kaiba mansion. There, amongst the soft gold light, was a lone, dark silhouette that couldn't be anyone but Seto Kaiba. He just stood there, gazing out the window, staring at nothing.
"Augh…darn you, Kaiba. For making things so complicated!" And with one firm push of her wings, Téa soared up into the air, straight toward him.
Once she reached the window—easily two stories high—a slight nausea swept over Téa's senses as she examined the dizzying mass of black and green below her. Somehow, it looked as though a fierce wind were whipping through the Kaiba mansion's front gardens, causing the hedges and rose bushes to look like a menacing sea of thorns and briars.
When she dared to glance back to her destination, she found herself staring right at Seto Kaiba—through a pane of glass.
"Great, so the window's closed. Now what?"
Well, she obviously wasn't human anymore. And the other angel could come and go, appear and disappear as she pleased. Who knew what other rules and laws they as angels could break?
Seeing Kaiba's eyes so clouded, his face an unusual mask of sadness, Téa dared to move closer to the glass. Hesitantly, she reached a hand out to the panel just off to the side of Kaiba's face; were the window open, she would be stroking his cheek.
Suddenly, Téa tumbled forward, as though the glass were not there at all, her body sliding not just through the glass but through Kaiba as well. With a decidedly painful thump, she found herself sprawled out on the floor, now inside the mansion and right behind Kaiba.
"What the—?" Kaiba turned away from the window abruptly, his expression fierce. He'd just felt a strong burst of cold air, but the windows were sealed. Then, that sourceless breeze ripped through him, as though his insides turned to ice. What had just happened?
"Ow ow ow…this makes no sense. I can walk through walls and windows and people, but I end up butt-first on a hard marble floor? This is crazy."
"This is crazy," Kaiba echoed. "I've got to stop thinking about her."
Téa stared up at him, surprised. It was obvious he still couldn't see her, but maybe the older angel from before was wrong. Maybe somehow Kaiba could sense her in other ways. It would be ironic, really. The elder Kaiba never put much stock in things like magic and ancient pasts, even when they stared him straight in the face. And now, the one time when magic surrounded him utterly, but remained unseen, it seemed as though he truly could feel it…
Seto Kaiba straightened his posture, closing his eyes for a moment and walking—right through Téa. It felt as though her whole body turned to jelly as he stepped through her, her body left with a quivering, oddly warm feeling.
What was she, anyway? Some sort of angel-ghost?
Kaiba paused, only steps away. There it was again—that same cool, tingling feeling that spread through his insides, yet vanished as quickly as it had come. All the windows were sealed, and the air conditioning was off. Why was it that he felt such strange bursts of cold in certain places? Was he really going crazy—from losing her?
As much as he hated giving into his impulses, in that moment, sheer desperation and sadness washed over Seto Kaiba like a tidal wave. He made his way to a mahogany bar with a glass-framed cabinet underneath, bright brass locks gleaming out at Kaiba. The bar held what was once Gozaburo Kaiba's expensive collection of fine alcoholic drinks from around the world—sake, wine, whiskey, and others. Kaiba never touched the stuff, but he'd never found the time to get rid of it, either. The key was always within his reach, and now…
He reached into the cabinet once he'd fumbled with the lock, drawing out an unopened bottle of sake. He didn't bother reaching for a glass or decanter; he just opened the bottle and took a long swig. Almost as immediately, he choked on the strong, bitter flavor of the sake—it tasted horrible! But there was no way it was bad sake—Gozaburo Kaiba didn't own anything that wasn't of the highest quality. So why…?
'The sake reacts to the presence of spirits. Ever since its creation, priests and priestesses have used it as a cleansing drink. That's why it tastes bad…' It was an old superstition, really, but it certainly seemed to hold true right now: he was being haunted by Téa. Her annoying goodness was surrounding him so wholly, she wouldn't even allow him to numb away the hurt of having lost her before ever having had her at all.
Kaiba quickly sealed the sake, shoving it into the darkest, furthest reaches of the cabinet before locking it shut once more. He remained crouching at the base of the cabinet though—his face reflected in the glass of the cabinet doors, a mask of anguish that had nothing to do with the bad flavoring of the sake.
"Kaiba…" Téa murmured sadly. She couldn't stand the expression on his face. Even if she was still in a state of shock and disbelief over his earlier words, she still felt bad. She was causing her friends so much pain.
"I don't need this. I don't need—" Kaiba rose to his feet, but trailed off as he dared to look up at the mirror on the wall above the bar.
It was just a slip of white and brown—probably just a distorted reflection of the floor and his desk….
Téa realized that Kaiba had gone suddenly quiet, and was staring mutely at a mirror. She knew he was an egomaniac, but a narcissist, too? No, there was something odd….
'I can see myself. I-I have a reflection.'
She didn't have a physical form in this world, but she had a reflection?
That was what Kaiba was staring at. Her.
"Kaiba! I-I don't think you can hear me," Téa struggled to stand, daring to step closer, until she was only a meter behind him. His eyes widened fractionally the closer she got, his body taking on a slight quiver. "But if you can at least—somehow—sense me, then please…"
She wanted him to be able to hear her, to see her, to hold her, because that meant things weren't as desperate and hopeless as they seemed, and maybe she wasn't really dead, and this was all some sort of surreal dream!
"T…" Her name was on the tip of his tongue. But if he said it, then it would affirm to his mind that he was seeing something impossible. He was going crazy, delusional. And that meant that someone would exploit that weakness, and take away everything that he had left—the company, his home…Mokuba.
He couldn't let that happen.
"Kaiba! I know you can see me! Try to read my lips or something—"
Instead, Kaiba whirled around, tearing his gaze from the mirror and staring at the space Téa occupied. But he wasn't looking directly at her—he was looking through her. He couldn't see…He didn't want to see.
Kaiba seemed utterly frustrated for a moment, just staring at his office—the window where he'd first felt that chill, and then the space just beyond, where it returned, only to vanish seconds later. And, out of the corner of his eye, the mirror that dared to play tricks on him. She wasn't there…she couldn't be.
She was dead.
"I hate you, Téa," Kaiba growled under his breath, unaware that he'd referred to her by her given name rather than her family one, as was his usual custom with her. "I hate you for making me fall in love with you."
With that, Kaiba turned around stiffly, flicking off the lights to his office and disappearing into the darkened hallway. Téa, left standing there in the sparse moonlight that made its way through the curtains, wasn't sure if she wanted to follow. She wasn't sure if she even had the willpower to try.
"Have you decided then?"
The older angel hovered in the air, in the same place as before, looking as perfectly composed and calm as ever.
"Y-Yes," Téa murmured. She was still trying to catch her breath. After Kaiba, she'd gone to everyone else's house. First Joey's, where Serenity was also staying, then to Tristan's, Duke's, and finally, Yugi's.
It all seemed so surreal.
None of them could quite sense Téa the way Kaiba did. None of them even tried.
And yet, she knew it wasn't because they didn't miss her. She could tell they did, as strange as the thought made her feel. Sad, because of the pain she was causing them, but oddly happy as well—that they hadn't just forgotten her and moved on with their lives.
She felt worst at Yugi's house. He was unlike the usual chipper boy she was used to being friends with; he wasn't even the brooding, solitary pharaoh. He was a shell of his former self—either self!—just wandering about his house, listless and lethargic.
His grandfather tried everything to cheer Yugi up, but nothing worked. Not Yugi's favorite dinner, a delicious ice cream, a new story about rare cards and legendary duels…nothing. Solomon eventually snapped at Yugi, asking the young boy if he thought Téa would be happy to see him like this. Yugi had glanced up at his grandfather for just a brief second before sighing and staring at his hands once more.
The only other time anyone had ever seen Yugi so remotely upset was back at Duelist Kingdom—when Kaiba had threatened suicide if Yugi dared defeat him.
But this wasn't the same. Lives hadn't been lost back then. But now….
Téa snapped from her reverie, willing the memories of her grave, of Yugi's confession, and Kaiba's astonishing admission. She willed the red-rimmed, tear-filled eyes of her friends out of her memory, the smell of the flowers they'd left behind, and the strange tingling that swept through her whenever someone she should have been able to touch walked right through her.
"I'm going back."
"Very well then." The angel raised her arms, a small sparkle steadily building until it became too bright to see; a blinding white light overtook everything, the light and shadows contrasting starkly, creating pillars of dark that circled Téa before she slipped into unconsciousness.
"Hey, Téa! Téa come on, wake up! We're almost there!"
'Who? Wh…is someone calling my name? What's going on?'
For a moment, she was dazed and confused. Where was she? Who was calling her name? Was she waking up from some sort of dream?
Quite abruptly, a rough shove brought her from the haze of sleep into the waking world, Tristan Taylor's handsome face hovering over her, his expression a mask of excitement.
She was about to ask 'you can see me?' but halted. Instead of the thick, suffocating smell of freshly overturned, moist earth, the aroma of the sea—tinged with salt and crisp breezes swept around her, filling her nostrils.
They were on a boat, and that could only mean one thing….
She bolted upright. "Yugi's cards!"
Tristan's smile disappeared, and he shook his head ruefully. "Sorry Téa, you missed out. Joey was floundering in the water for near ten minutes looking for those cards. If we hadn't pulled him in when we did, he would have either gotten hypothermia or left behind. Weevil's such a jerk for doing what he did to Yugi's Exodia, but we all know he'll beat Pegasus anyway…."
So it wasn't a dream. She was back—"to the time when destiny first wove this course" for her. On the boat heading toward the pier…
Toward Duelist Kingdom.