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What Doesn't Kill You

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What Doesn't Kill You
Chapter 27: Adrift
A Yu-Gi-Oh Fanfiction
By:
Azurite - azurite AT seventh-star DOT net
Site: seventh-star DOT net
Conceptualized/First Written: 6/28/05
Completed/Final Edit: 8/6/16
Posted:
8/6/16

WDKY finally has its own website! Check out wdky [DOT] seventh-star [DOT] net for Review Replies, Changelogs, and more!

A note on Duel Monsters cards: For the most part, I've kept to the dub card names, effects, and attacks. I've only ever changed them when the dub/TCG name was just plain stupid (looking at you, Dark Hole). Spell Cards are Magic Cards, though in the past, I may have used both terms. I capitalized some dueling terms on purpose, e.g. Battle Position and Life Points. Hope it doesn't bug anyone.

Like last chapter, I use some of the original Japanese conventions, e.g. Doma instead of "Doom," etc.


 

Téa couldn't remember the name of the song. The words "topsy-turvy" kept floating in and out of her head, from her left ear to her right and back again.

Swish-swoosh, top-sy tur-vy.

Everything tilted side to side. She was in a garden of endless green. It was a sick sort of black-green color that could have swallowed Téa whole if she let it. She stumbled and tilted in just the right way, weaving among the melting gray statues of people within. Through and past, just missing some woman with a slipping face and some fat man with a flute of cement champagne in his gooey sausage fingers.

Suddenly she was in a maze of bushes, and while didn’t feel so crooked anymore, Téa still ran. She knew something was after her, loping and purposeful, wanting only her. What it wanted with her, Téa didn't know, but she knew she couldn't let it catch her. She wasn't some pretty bird destined for caging.

So she ran.

An oppressive black fog slithered after her. It leaked through the leaves and seeped through the soil. It would surround her, tie her up and gag her until she was silent forever. Téa dashed and danced ahead of it. She always found a path that wound around another corner and deeper into the labyrinth. As she rounded another hedge, she caught sight of a something bright and shiny. Téa approached it on steady feet. Then something in the air changed: a static electricity, a pulse, a wave or a wisp of clarity. Whatever it was, it blew the oppressive fog out of the way.

'Come closer.'

This was a dream. Téa knew that much. She knew she couldn't wake up until she escaped the fog, until she was safe from its–'his?'–chokehold and she bathed in the light.

Finally, Téa rounded one last corner and saw a brilliant blue-gold-green-silver-white light. It filled the whole pathway ahead of her. The fog couldn't come close. She was safe now. She reached out for the light…

…and with a tumble fell right out of her bed. Téa saw shapes that weren't quite stars dancing in and out of her line of sight. But the brilliance of her dream-light was still so bright that she couldn't focus enough to tell what they were. When her vision finally cleared, her other senses kicked in. Her mouth and throat protested a shocking dryness, while her ears rang with a shrill whine. The topsy-turviness of the boat seemed to have ceased, but Téa had yet to find her sea legs. She stumbled and tripped on her way to the suite bathroom.

Once there, she closed the small door and turned on the single fluorescent light. Téa found a small comfort in its dull buzz. After a few moments, she pushed herself away from the door and toward the tiny sink area. She splashed cold water from the pump faucet onto her face. The reflection she saw in the mirror didn't appear her own. The girl that looked back at her had red rings around her eyes. She looked gaunt, her cheekbones appearing to stick out thanks to the the shadows under them. Had that curly-haired girl's comments gotten to her so much?

"You're the little air-headed cheerleader who's always hanging around Yugi Moto and Joey Wheeler, like some kind of leech trying to suck off their fame."

Up until now, Téa Gardner's adventures with her friends had always been willing. So she hadn't known what she was getting herself into when she went to Duelist Kingdom. Or when she tagged along during Battle City. She thought that Seto dropped his rivalry with Yugi, so when Seto challenged him to a rematch, she had no idea why. She only realized what that chain of events meant when Anubis was seconds away from killing them all.

Then, someone stole the God cards and another adventure loomed on the horizon. But she'd opted out. She'd planned for this longer, wanted it for longer…wanted it for herself, for once.

'It's not selfish to do something for myself every once in a while, right? But…I am doing this for them, too. To get them to finally see me as more than just some "cheerleader."'

The curly-haired duelist was somewhat right. Her friends might not be gossips who thought she was just a pretty face with no Duel Monsters know-how. But they definitely took her for granted. It had taken years for the realization to sink in, and it shocked Téa's system.

But…

"And on top of that, the newspapers are calling you Seto Kaiba's girlfriend? They should get their stories straight—you're probably nothing more than a cheap accessory to him, if that."

It took her years to realize that her best friend was taking her for granted. How long would it be before she realized something just as painful about Seto? Hadn't they already been through enough heartache? Téa didn't think she could take any more heartache. Lies, the mistrust, the almost-everything but always-nothing imbalance of their relationship…it all added up.

'I need to call him.'

Téa flicked off the bathroom light and opened the door. She marched straight to the small bag where she'd stowed her cell phone and retrieved it with a swift yank. Her fingers were millimeters away from the button for sending a message to 'SETO CELL PVT.' This was the guy that had kissed her in front of a crowd of thousands, including all her best guy friends. And probably just to show off! This was the guy that had shoved fifteen cards into her hands for who-knows-what-reason. It didn't matter what she and Mai had theorized earlier. She wanted to hear the answer from his own lips: Why did you give me these cards?

"Ugh, what are you doing up, Téa?" Mai mumbled from her bed, smacking her lips together. She reached up to adjust her sleeping mask, but it caught in her hair and stayed there, while Mai’s arm flopped back to the bed.

"Calling Seto," Téa replied. She exited out of the messaging screen and immediately tried to call him. She had full signal strength, but the phone just clicked and went silent when she tried to call. She tried his other lines: the work line, the car line, the house line. Nothing. She tried messaging again, sending the simple message "Call me now," but minutes went by and there was no reply. The message appeared to have gone through. It sat there in her Sent folder, but there was no indicator that she was receiving –should have received– a message or not.

"Argh! Why isn't this working? Do I have signal strength or don't I?"

"We're in the middle of the open ocean, Téa. Try the boat's line. I think it's a satellite phone." Téa picked up the phone on the nightstand between their beds and dialed again.

"Didn't know you couldn't go a single night without exchanging mushy 'good nights' with your lover-boy. Yeesh," Mai grumbled. 

Téa shot Mai an irritated glance before turning back to the phone. She got the same click-silence as before. She set the phone on the base and then tried all the numbers for Seto she knew. Now all the numbers for the Turtle Game Shop. Joey's cell. Malik's line at the museum. All produced the same result: nothing.

"Come on, Téa, what's the deal here? Kaiba's a big boy now. You don't need to check up on him."

Téa put the phone back on the cradle and sighed. "I wasn't checking up on him," she said, but part of her knew that was a lie. It wasn’t as if she could ask to cuddle up with Mai because she felt a cold loneliness creeping in after that weird dream.

"I was calling him to find out what the heck is up with him giving me these cards," Téa said, pointing at the deck box on the end table.

Mai lifted her head from her pillows and glared at Téa. "I thought we went over this. You aren't just feeding me a line, right? You're forgetting we're not in this tournament to be clinging to the boys and giving them hourly updates!"

"No," Téa agreed as she bobbed her head once, her voice a whisper.

"Damn right!" Mai said, sitting up now. "We're here for ourselves, and we're here to win!"

Téa forced a smile onto her lips, but she couldn't help glance at her cell phone screen, dimmed to dark.

'Why hasn't Seto called me?'


"Okay, hold up," Mai said, stopping Téa in front of the dining hall the next morning. Thick swaths of clouds fragmented the morning light that streamed through the windows below-deck. Everything seemed bright and hazy. Téa blinked, but sleepiness still clung to her eyelids.

"Before we go in there, there's a few things you ought to know. Keep your eyes open, but don't look at anybody. We don't need to give anyone a reason to jump our backs. Keep your deck with you at all times, and make sure to check on it every so often. We don't know what kind of people we're dealing with yet, but after today we'll have a pretty good idea.

"If anyone mouths off to you, just ignore them," Mai continued, ticking off points on her fingers. "You are better than them, remember that! You don't have to let these people bait you. That doesn't mean you should be passive, though. Be assertive, but not aggressive, you know? And let your attitude show on the outside. Reveal some emotion, but only the right kind, and not too much. Show them you're not afraid, you're going to eat them for breakfast, you're meant to be here and they aren't.

"Oh, and remember to wear comfortable underwear because when you're up there and everyone's watching you it's not like you can fix it. Actually, better yet, got a thong? I mean hell, if they're going to be looking, might as well give them some nice goods–"

"Mai!" Téa exclaimed. "Did zombie Joey eat your brain last night or something? Really. I get it. Thanks for the information overload," she said, pulling her skirt down a bit further, just in case. "I think I'll be fine."

"I'm just trying to watch out for you, Téa," Mai said with a sigh. But she didn't give Téa a chance to reply. She strode off toward the dining hall, head held high. Téa followed shortly thereafter.

Bright daylight flooded through the windows surrounding the dining area. Girls of all shapes, sizes, and colors milled about, talking, eating, or examining their decks. A neat arrangement of tables, booths, and elongated tables prevented any congestion of foot traffic through the area. This meant the white-jacketed crew could assist anyone within a moment's notice. It almost seemed as if they were dancing between the tables and chairs.

"Good mornin' ladies," one such crew member said, tipping his navy-brimmed hat over a mass of brown hair.

"Good morning," Téa responded without thinking. She was still nice to people, strangers or otherwise. She remembered her manners, despite hanging around boys that thought "politeness" meant not calling people "fat cows" or "blithering idiots." Téa was sure it was what would get her through this tournament with her scalp intact. Téa stared after the crewman long after he'd threaded his way among the tables and into a crew-only area.

'Why was his voice so familiar?'

She was just imagining things.

Mai was already walking ahead. She seemed intent on grabbing a table that would allow them to see the action without other duelists seeing them. It was one of the few tables with soft-cushioned booths surrounding it. Other duelists seemed to shy away from the elevated accommodations.

A cold shiver slid down Téa's spine. She froze before following Mai up the short set of stairs to the upper level of the dining room. Was someone watching her?

Mai's words echoed in her head. "Keep your eyes open, but don't look at anybody." Téa opted to tilt her head, looking through the veil of her hair to see if anyone was staring at her. No one seemed to be, until she spotted a figure in all white, leaning against a wall at the other end of the room. It was the crewman from before! He didn't look familiar. A white hat with a shiny black brim hid most of his hair, and a pair of sleek sunglasses concealed the upper part of his face.

She kept her gaze steady for just a moment longer, hoping that no one would notice her just pretending to adjust her thigh's deck box. A glint of sunlight streamed in through the window. In the moment Téa looked away and finished her "adjustment," the crewman vanished.

Téa shook her head. 'Not off to a good start if I'm already getting the heebie-jeebies from one of the crew! Geez, relax!'

Of course, it was easier said than done –and easier done on a full stomach than an empty one. Téa wasted no more time following Mai up the short stairs to their luxurious booth.


"Still haven't been able to get a hold of Joey, huh?" Téa asked, leaning against the door frame of their suite.

Mai jolted from her place on her bed, stuffing her cell phone under a pillow. "No," she admitted. "This is the third time I've tried, actually, on the room phones, the sat phone out on deck, and my cell."

"Don't you think we should talk to the crew or ask someone else if we could borrow their phone?" Téa asked, pushing herself away from the door and drifting into the room. With one press of the wrist guard, she shucked her Duel Disk II and deck box onto the neatly-made bed. The second day of the tournament was now over, with both women having won all their matches without any losses to their names.

"No!" Mai insisted. "We don't need the boys," she said, stabbing the "Off" button of her phone with her fingernail. "They’re just boys,” Mai spat, as if the word tasted foul. “We don’t need them,” she repeated, her voice a shuddering whisper this time.

Téa blinked. Since when was Mai so concerned with what others thought of her? 'Or maybe…' Téa realized, 'This is the real Mai Valentine, once and for all. No more playing the "Big Girl," no more faking that she doesn't need anyone…she really does care what everyone thinks about her!' Maybe too much, actually. Wasn't the whole point of this tournament –for Téa, at least– to prove that they could stand on their own two feet? They weren't "accessories" of the boys, but duelists in their own right!

"So uh–" Téa began. She thought about suggesting they try and call the boys (to brag about their spree of victories) when they arrived. Mai cut her off with a smooth slice of her hand.

"Let's check out your deck. According to the latest reports, you haven't used any of the cards you got from Kaiba, right?"

Téa sighed. If Mai wanted to change the topic, then fine. There wasn't much Téa could do to convince a stubborn woman like her, anyway.

"No need," Téa replied, pulling her deck out of her Duel Disk and the 15 cards she'd gotten from Kaiba out of her deck box. Was it her partial belief in the “Heart of the Cards,” or had all the duels she'd watched paid off?

Press members that kept hounding her. They said she was breaking all the records set by prior lower division female duelists. She completed all six rounds in less than half the time given. The tournament rules allotted matches a total of one hour. There was no time limit for each of three duels in each match. Téa had managed to win the first two duels she played with everyone she went up against –no need for a third duel. For better or for worse, this left Téa with a great deal of time between matches and rounds. She used that time to study her possible future opponents and their decks and strategies, plus assess her own deck.

"You too, huh?" Mai grinned. She leaned back on her palms, looking all the world like the cat that ate the canary. "I might not be beating any world records, but that's only 'cause I like to make 'em suffer."

Téa scoffed. "I know! Ever since day one…" Téa shook her head, a smile creeping across her lips as she remembered her first meeting with champion duelist Mai Valentine. Téa had taken an intense dislike to her immediately. Now, here they were, dueling partners and roommates aboard a cruise meant for female duelists. Time certainly changed the way she had thought about many people, Mai included.

"Me, I'm more of the 'Do it and get it over with' type…" Téa continued. Mai’s eyes narrowed and her lips curled into a smirk. Téa’s cheeks flamed red and she waved both her hands in front of her as she yelped, "For duels! Duels!"

"Even for that curly-haired witch?" Mai asked, twirling a finger near her ear.

"Alessa Marino?"

Mai rolled her eyes. "You bothered to find out her name? She's not worth the time."

"Hey, if there's one thing I've learned from dating Seto Kaiba, it's 'know thine enemy!' Besides, I'm not the one who has to worry about her," Téa said, handing a yellow printout to Mai. "You do. She's upper division, not lower."

"Ugh, you're kidding me!" Mai glanced over the sheet, the day's current standings in the tournament. With five days left in the tournament, it was anyone's game. Still…Marino was doing well, championship experience or no.

"Hey, what about the girl she registered with?" Mai asked, glancing over the sheet. "The one who just stood back and let Marino spout all that B.S. earlier?"

"Oh, I remember seeing her earlier," Téa recalled, taking the sheet from Mai. "I think her name was Serena C-something. Ah, here it is," she said, poking at the paper with a fingernail. "Serena Compagno. She's lower division like me, but I haven't faced her yet."

"Like I said–" Mai began, but Téa cut her off with a grin.

"'Keep your eyes open!' I know, I know. I'm not picking up these end-of-the-day reports for nothing, Mai. What do you think I've been doing with my leftover time between duels?"

"Getting a manicure?" Mai smirked, pointing at Téa's rose-colored nails.

Téa blushed as scarlet as her nails. "Well, all that talk from earlier about everyone's eyes being on you and needing good underwear on top of everything else–"

Mai threw her head back and laughed. "Funny, I would have thought the spotlight would be no big deal to you by now, dating Kaiba and all."

Téa's blush deepened. "It's not the same…. Anyway, between duels I've been watching other people. You know, observing trades and checking out whatever stats I can using the ship's database."

"Oh yeah, the tournament honchos made us register all cards in play didn't they?" Mai asked. "I had to scan my deck through this thing to ensure all the cards were legit. I'm betting someone brought in counterfeits to a previous tournament, so they had to think of something for this year."

Téa frowned and took out the side deck Kaiba had given her, glancing over the cards, including the Blue-Eyes White Dragons. The Blue-Eyes Ultimate Dragon was in her Fusion Deck, too, if she chose to use it. But not the Blue-Eyes Shining Dragon; Kaiba had kept that for himself, even though it was useless without the other dragon cards. It was a link back to him, Téa supposed. It was her only link back to him.

Mokuba had told her that Pegasus thought Kaiba had made the Pyramid of Light card himself. That the only card Pegasus himself had made to counter the God cards was the Blue-Eyes Shining Dragon. Fact was, they still didn't know just who had arranged for Anubis to come to Japan in the first place. Or why Kaiba found the Pyramid of Light card with the Blue-Eyes Shining Dragon after he'd defeated Pegasus. Kaiba had the ability to counterfeit cards if he wanted. He had the technology and even the willpower, but….

'There's no way. He doesn't fight that way anymore. Cheating isn't winning.'

But he had once, when he'd been ruthless enough to think that winning was everything, and any methods employed to win were just a means to an end. Still, Téa felt hesitant as she ran her fingers across the surface of the side deck Kaiba had given her. None of them were counterfeits. It was impossible. He wanted her to win, not humiliate her in front of a crowd of hundreds, right?

Téa stared at the Blue-Eyes White Dragon cards, hoping the answer would float into her brain from the cool eyes of the dragon. But no answer came, and the doubts within Téa's mind continued to churn and whirl.


"Stop it," Mai said in a crisp tone, continuing to shuffle her deck without looking at Téa. The two of them sat back out in the dueling area, and once again, Téa's mind wandered to Yugi, Joey, and her other friends…and Seto.

"Stop what?" Téa asked. A thin smile nudged at her cheeks. Her gaze flitted to Mai before it wandered again, seeking an uncertain point in the distance.

"Thinking about them. About him," Mai amended. "A little bit of your mooning was fine before, but now it's starting to get noticeable. And if I'm noticing it, it won't be long before your opponents –like that Serena chick– will, too." Mai finished looking at her cards and shot an icy stare at her dueling partner.

"I wasn't–" Téa began, but Mai interrupted her with a crisp wave of her hand.

"Don't. Just don't." Mai frowned and glanced about to see if anyone was looking their way. She maneuvered Téa into a nook where the ship stowed some of its supplies.

"You're freaking out, and it's showing," Mai said, pressing her hands against Téa's shoulders. "You're thinking Kaiba isn't contacting you because he used you for a publicity stunt. That all he wants still is to be number one, to be the most popular duelist, the most talked-about guy. You're thinking he's putting on a great show and you're just a prop in his act."

"How did you know–" Téa started, but again Mai cut her off.

"It's written on your face, plain as day," Mai stated in a low, firm voice. "I can tell, because I know you, and you're about as easy to read as those convenience store paperbacks."

Téa flushed and bowed her head. Sure, Mai was a friend and had known her for long enough to catch her quirks and see through her foibles, but…

Mai dropped her hands from Téa's shoulders and looked away. "It's not anything against you, honey. But I know heartbreak, so it's easy for me to spot."

"'Heartbreak'?" Téa echoed. Was that what this was: the slow, painful realization that someone you thought you loved wasn't who you thought they were?

"It is on your end," Mai said. "But to him? Come on. He trusts you. That's why he gave you the cards, that's why he acted so out of character and brought your guys' personal relationship into the spotlight. He wanted you to know how far he'll go for you."

"You're starting to sound like someone else I know," Téa smirked, her brows raised as she thumbed her collar up and out.

"I don't know why you won't own up to how much he needs you," Mai said with a sigh. "The more you keep thinking he's back to his old self, the more off your game you get."

"That's the thing, Mai!" Téa snapped, lowering her voice to a hiss when the shadow of a nearby duelist fell into the galley. "How do I – how do either of us – know that Seto or any of the others have grown up at all? We try and move on from the insanity that's followed us around for years. They seem to go after it, just traipsing on one adventure after another. So this time, I said no. I wanted to do my own thing for once, to stick to my own plans and not be anyone's 'cheerleader accessory'!"

Mai let out a long sigh and leaned against the galley wall. "That Alessa girl got to you bad. Damn, I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"She didn't 'get to me,' Mai! Everything she said–"

"Everything she said was bullshit!" Mai snapped, not bothering to lower her voice anymore. "Look, Kaiba's–he's a good guy…pretty much." Mai winced as she spoke.

"And as for the boys? If they want to go off on their own little adventures saving the world from monsters, let them! They should be able to handle their own problems, and now you're letting them prove it. Do you want them to need you so much that you can never live your own life?"

"No," Téa admitted finally, her voice a choked whisper. No, what she wanted was for her own friends to believe in her, to invest the kind of time and energy she had in them. Her encouragement had played no small role in helping both Yugi and Joey become champions… and changing Seto Kaiba for the better.

Was that asking too much from boys that seemed to have greater destinies than her own? They kept getting caught up in magic and mayhem that threatened to end the world. Was it even possible to hope for them to believe in her? After all, this was a duel tournament unlike anything any of them had participated in. They couldn't be there on the sidelines, cheering her on the way she did for them.

"No," Téa said, firmer this time. She raised her gaze to meet Mai's. It was time to grow up. That meant not wanting to be wanted so much, not by her friends and not by Seto. No, she didn't make it this far–in the tournament or in life–by playing second fiddle all the time. Téa Gardner was here to prove herself–to the world, but more importantly, to her own heart.


 

Téa ran her right index finger over the smooth edges of her Duel Monsters cards, back and forth. She listened with half an ear to the goings-on in the ship's arena below her. Alone in a loft-like space overlooking the arena, Téa's eyes weren't on the final duels taking place downstairs. Instead, she directed a vacant stare at the side deck in her hands–the cards that Kaiba had given her. Everyone else was too busy watching two of the last duels before the championship match. Duel one: Alessa Marino versus the third surviving upper division duelist. Duel two: Alessa's partner, Serena Compagno against the third lower division finalist.

In a matter of minutes, Téa knew how her fate would play out. Either she would be facing Serena with her unsettling calm smile and sparse words… or she would be facing someone else. After something like 18 duels, she had stopped paying attention to anyone but Alessa and Serena. Mai acted like she didn't care about Alessa, but duel after duel went by, and she hadn't lost a single one. Now, Mai was actually bothering to watch Alessa's match downstairs. The other duelists said that both Alessa and Serena were as unstoppable as Mai and Téa, but everyone knew that even one loss would do them in.

"AND THAT'S THE FINALS, LADIES!" a loud voice proclaimed, startling Téa out of her reverie.

'Wait, that's the finals? What about–' Téa stood up, about to head downstairs from the lounge when she caught sight of the crowd downstairs, murmuring to themselves in astonishment. In the center of the throng, a smug-looking Alessa looked down on her downcast opponent. Serena had left her duel ring and stood below Alessa, staring up at her partner with a haunted smile. It looked like she had won, too.

"I know, I know! You're shocked! Flabbergasted! Confused!" Duelists around the arena winced as the microphone squealed with feedback. The enthusiastic emcee had the grace to blush as bright pink as one of the multicolored streaks in her hair, but only for a moment.

"It's a surprise I've been ITCHING to share with you," the announcer continued. She pretended to scratch herself on the hip with the free hand that wasn't holding her microphone. "And now I've scratched that itch! The final duel will be nothing less than an all-out battle of brains, beauty, brawn! A tag-team duel of epic proportions!"

Téa headed downstairs as the announcement continued, trying to remain calm.

She didn't know which was worse. Was it the possibility of getting defeated by a silent opponent with the perfect poker face? Or a snot-nosed, obnoxious, arrogant duelist who thought she knew everything about Téa's relationships? To have to deal with them both at the same time? A shudder rippled from her toes to her neck, prompting Téa to shake her head, her hair whipping in front of her face.

Mai moved her way through the throngs until she met Téa at the base of the stairs from the lounge. Just then, the announcer made a sweeping gesture, her rainbow locks arcing through the air. "Presenting the two teams that will battle against each other for the championship. Here we have Alessa 'The Conqueror' Marino and silent Serena Compagno from Italy… Up against Japan's 'Deadly Sweetheart' Mai Valentine and my favorite cuppa, Téa Gardner!"

Mai and Téa shared an incredulous look upon hearing their "nicknames." But their amusement was short-lived. The crowds thinned to make way for Alessa approaching them, her arms crossed over her ample chest. Serena followed behind her, her expression blank. She didn't seem all that surprised by the announcement. She also didn't seem pleased by her and her partner's recent victories.

"So, you managed to make it this far, leech," Alessa said, jutting her chin at Téa. "I'll take great pleasure in crushing you beneath my boot and showing the world what a sorry excuse for a duelist you are."

"Watch your mouth, brat," Mai snapped immediately, before Téa could even move her lips. "We didn't make it this far–together–because she's a sorry excuse for anything."

"Beginner's luck," Alessa sneered.

"Eighteen duels worth of 'beginner's luck'? You are crazy!" Mai exclaimed, twirling her finger beside her head.

Alessa glared at Mai. "Coming from the woman who cheated her way to Duelist Kingdom with perfume? And need I remind you of your pathetic loss to that impostor Malik Ishtar in Battle City?"

Mai reeled back from Alessa's words, one of her violet eyes beginning to twitch. Her manicured nails dug crescents into her palms, even through her fingerless gloves. Téa thought she heard at least one knucklebone crack, but the announcer intervened before Mai could wind up a punch.

"Whoa whoa whoa, them's fighting words indeed! But save the snappy battle patter for the battlefield, eh, ladies? After all, you have only…" the announcer made another grandiose gesture, this time whipping her left arm in a wide arc to reveal an oversized digital watch on her wrist. "THIRTY MINUTES TO DUEL!"

A gasp rippled throughout the crowd.

Though Téa had started out by beating most of her opponents in half the required time, the later duels had started to take longer. Her most recent duel only ended when her opponent surrendered, quite literally at the last minute.

The largest duel ring of the many scattered throughout the ship lit up. Glowing tracks of lights blinked toward the two dueling platforms. Each of the platforms hissed as hydraulics pushed out a doubling of the metal platform and the railing that surrounded it on three sides. The Life Point gauges on each of the platforms lit up with blood-red digits. The hanging television above the arena flashed a clock with its numerals in the same menacing shade. In moments, the countdown would begin.

"Shocking, I know, right, ladies?" the announcer spun from the duel arena in a 180-degree arc to face the crowd of duelists. "And this shock comes with a single new rule: if your partner goes down, you go down with her!"

Téa glanced at Mai. "So if one of us gets to zero Life Points–"

Mai continued staring at the arena, her gaze hard. "Then we're both out of a championship. I don't think either of us is going to let that happen."

Téa glanced at Alessa and Serena, briefly catching her lower division opponent's eye. Téa looked away, and then down at the side deck of 15 cards in her hand. She hadn't used a single one of cards Seto had given her in any of her duels up until now, but….

If there was anything she had learned as a witness to countless duels, it was that the cards didn’t make the duelist. Instead, it was the way a duelist used them. Yugi called his strategy "The Heart of the Cards," as if something from within the cards resonated with him. That didn't help him pick out what cards in his Grandpa's shop to use in the first place. Téa wasn't sure if she could believe in "The Heart of Cards." But she'd been putting everything she had into this tournament. It was the same way she did everything else. And that was why she would win.

The cards belonged to Seto, but they were in her deck now, and only she could use them to get what she wanted.

Téa strode up the stairs leading to the dueling platform. Yet another crew member waited with his own modified Duel Disk for validating the duelists' decks. With a single deep breath, Téa removed the top 15 cards she had sorted earlier from her deck and replaced them with those that had been in her side deck. She shuffled them in and lifted her head up as she replied to Mai: "You know it's not going to happen."

Téa pushed her new deck into the crewman's Duel Disk and turned away from him, a confident smile gracing her lips. This time, she met Serena Compagno's gaze without blinking. She watched with silent delight as Serena's own smile fell from her lips. Serena then attempted to catch up to Alessa, busy stomping her way to the platform on the other side of the arena.

"Deck validated," a robotic voice announced, and the crew member's Disk ejected Téa's deck.

"Good luck, Miss Gardner," he said. "Though you won't need it." Téa glanced at him, but she didn’t recognize him. She turned back from the thick crowds she’d glanced at to thank the crewman for his unexpected well-wishes, but the area was empty.

'What in the world did that mean?'

Mai approached her from behind, having validated her deck with a different crewman. "Let's go. It's time we ended this."

"Right," Téa said, taking a breath. She had experience, strategies, and an attitude that had gotten her through almost ten days of duels without a single loss to her name.

'I have all that I need.' Téa rubbed one finger across the top of her deck. It was silly, but she knew in her heart of hearts that the Blue-Eyes White Dragon was near the top, sending electrical pulses through her finger. With it, she would show them all.

"It's time to duel."

Mai cracked a grin at Téa's words and nodded at her partner's wide smile, and the two of them headed up the stairs to their dueling platform.


 

'I changed my mind, I hate the Greek myths,' Téa thought, watching as Mai swiftly drew a card from her deck. Fifteen minutes left. For every punishing blow Alessa's Greek warriors delivered, Mai's Harpies or Amazons countered. But Serena kept forcing them to discard with her Trojan princess Cassandra the Seer and her Prophetic Insight. Their options were getting few and far between.

Her fingers still tingled as she ran them over the edge of the one card she'd had in her hand since the first draw: one of the three Blue-Eyes White Dragons. She just knew it had been near the top of her deck, before the duel even started. She'd shuffled though. She'd validated her Light-based deck after adding Kaiba's Side Deck, and yet….

But she didn't want to rely on the Blue-Eyes. On him. But Téa knew it would have to come down to that. She had known that the moment she heard the final match would be a Tag Team duel. Besides, Alessa furiously targeted any monster Téa summoned. It didn't matter if it was in Defense Position (goodbye, Shining Friendship) or Attack Position (so long, Hysteric Fairy). She was never able to have enough possible Tributes to bring out anything even close in power to the Blue-Eyes. Until now. Now she had a Kaiser Sea-Horse on the field, which she could use for two Tributes to get a Light Monster on the field… a Light Monster like the Blue-Eyes.

Serena's Trojan-themed Denial deck seemed almost too perfect a fit with Alessa's powerful Greek heroes. She controlled the field by revealing the top cards of Mai's and Téa's deck with her Cassandra the Seer. Then she paid 500 Life Points to send them immediately to the Graveyard if she deemed them too powerful.

'Did they know about the Tag Team duel as the championship match? No, they couldn't have…'

But if the element of surprise factored into this duel, it wasn't working against Téa. In her third turn, as in the moments before the Duel had started, she knew that she would draw a Blue-Eyes White Dragon. And so she had.

She already held Polymerization, Mystical Elf, and Guardian Angel Joan in her hand. Lately, Alessa and Serena seemed to be ignoring her, targeting Mai's Harpies instead of anything Téa got out. As a result, she'd managed to get a Dunames Dark Witch along with the Kaiser Sea Horse on the field. She also had the Life Point-restoring Trap Solemn Wishes. Then there was Waboku for negating Battle Damage and protecting a single monster. Finally, the set White Dragon Ritual card. It was time for a choice. She could sacrifice her Kaiser Sea Horse on her next turn –if it survived until then– and bring out a single Blue-Eyes to try and do some damage of her own. Or, she could wait it out and see if she could get the Paladin of White Dragon and Special Summon the last Blue-Eyes in her deck. And if she did that, she could use Polymerization to fuse it with the two in her hand, and…

"You know the amazing thing about birds?" Mai asked, smirking as she fingered the card she'd just drawn. Serena had paid 500 Life Points so Mai had to discard her last draw. But Serena could only use the Cassandra combo once per turn.

"Oh, spare me the trivia," Alessa said with an eye roll.

'She's one to judge,' Téa thought, holding back  a growl. Mai was still at 3300 Life Points, and she wasn't far behind a 3000. For all the time they'd been wasting so far, Alessa and Serena had only done a small bit of damage to either Mai or Téa.

"They always return home!" And with that, Mai slapped the card onto one of the empty Monster slots of her Duel Disk II. "I summon Harpie Lady to the field! And you know what that means, I'm sure? Just for fun, let me remind you: it means my Harpie's Pet Dragon's attack goes up by 300 points!"

The collared Dragon roared mightily as its attack increased. Judging by the twitching smile on Mai's face, Téa knew her partner was far from done. "And I'll be activating this handy card here," Mai pressed a button on one of her Magic and Trap card slots, revealing her set card as Elegant Egotist.

"Thanks to this card, I can Special Summon Harpie Lady Sisters!" A golden light surrounded the Harpie Lady on the field. It spread to both sides, taking shape as two other Harpie Ladies with different hairstyles.

"I've been saving this little gem for a time like this," Mai added. "I activate Pot of Greed!" Serena had already used Cassandra's Insight this turn, so she couldn't see the cards Mai drew from her deck.

"I activate Mystical Space Typhoon! Say goodbye to your Prophetic Insight, Cassandra!" Mai jutted her chin in Serena's direction. Serena rewarded her with a momentary flicker of annoyance crossing her otherwise stoic face.

"And now… I think I'll attack your precious Legendary Warrior Achilles, Alessa darling! Go, Harpie's Pet Dragon! Saint Fire Giga!" The red and black dragon roared, its chainlink leash clanking as a massive ball of flame formed in its outstretched maw. Just as suddenly, the dragon released the ball, sending it rushing toward the armor-clad warrior on Alessa's side of the field.

There was a great explosion of light and sound, but when the Solid Vision special effects died down, the proud grin slipped off Mai's face. Achilles still stood on the field, even though Alessa's Life Points had dropped to 2600.

"Oh, did I forget to mention?" Alessa asked, a faux innocent grin distorting her face. "My Legendary Warrior Achilles is immortal! You can't destroy him in battle!"

Mai let out the growl Téa had suppressed. "I end my turn."

"Finally! I don't know about you, Serena, but that felt like one long slog!" Despite Alessa's wide-grinned confidence, she didn't so much as glance at her so-called partner in this Tag Team duel. Though she'd benefitted from Serena's Trojan defenses, she hadn't said much to her. Was their teamwork just that good?

Téa cast a worried glance at Mai, but her partner stared across the duel ring as Alessa drew a card.

"I'll discard Poseidon, God of the Sea from my hand to destroy your Dunames Dark Witch!" Alessa pointed at one of the two monsters Téa had remaining on the field. Moments later, the Witch exploded as if made of glass.

'So what? I can still tribute the Kaiser Sea-Horse to get out one of the Blue-Eyes. Or if I get the Paladin of White Dragon, I can use my Mystical Elf as Ritual Tribute to Special Summon the last Blue-Eyes…'

"And by discarding two Magic cards from my hand, I can Special Summon Athena, Goddess of Wisdom!" An armor-clad woman with an spear at least one and a half times her height appeared on the field with 2300 ATK. Even if Athena couldn't scratch Harpie's Pet Dragon, she could bring its ATK down by destroying one of the Harpie Lady Sisters!

"Your Harpie Ladies are real pests, Valentine! It's time I sent them flapping! Athena, attack one of those Harpie Ladies! Goddess Spear!"

Athena whirled her spear in the air before she leapt up and disappeared. Then she reappeared in mid-air, the spear lodged in one of the Harpie Lady's chests. The Harpie Lady's claw grasped the spear and seemed like she might shatter any moment…

"I activate my Trap! Waboku!" Téa called, pressing a button on her Duel Disk.

Three robe-clad emissaries of reconciliation appeared on the field, clutching tiny olive branches. Athena glanced down at them and nodded before retracting her spear and once again vanishing to Alessa's side of the field.

"I negate all the damage your precious Athena would have dealt, and my monsters are safe!

Alessa turned a furious glare on Téa, but instead of it intimidating her, she grinned, feeling strangely giddy.

'Don't you dare forget about me! I'm going to be the one to take you down, Alessa!' Téa didn't dare vocalize those thoughts, though; she'd learned from watching Seto, Joey, and even Yugi in their countless duels: boasting was the fastest way to tell your opponent what you had planned for them, and Téa wanted to see Alessa's face go ash-white with shock. She'd splutter, blush, complain, maybe even swear up a storm, but she wouldn't be able to do a damn thing about it.

Téa had never been so excited.

"My turn!" With a sweep of her wrist, Téa drew the top card from her deck. There was no way Serena would risk another 500 of her Life Points without Cassandra the Seer's Prophetic Insight. She'd have to guess which card Téa had just drawn.

But she jutted her chin at Serena anyway and raised an eyebrow in questioning. Serena's cool gaze wavered almost imperceptibly. Her eyebrows furrowed downward for a split second before she directed her gaze to some distant point.

Téa couldn't suppress the grin that crossed her face. Once again, somehow, someway, she knew.

"Thanks to my Solemn Wishes, I get another 500 Life Points. Another turn and it'll be like we're right back at the beginning, won't it?" And right now, that would mean she and Mai would win. But no, she wouldn't be content with stalling and winning just by having more Life Points at the end of the duel. No, she would make sure they both hit rock bottom before that timer got anywhere close to zero.

She added Paladin of White Dragon to her hand with only a glance at the blue-tinged card. Her fingers were tingling again. The beginnings of a simultaneously odd and pleasurable cold sweat built at the base of her neck.

'What is this sensation?' She couldn't recall any of the boys –or even Mai– talking about it. Was it some well-kept Duelist secret? Some sort of near-victory high that Duelists only got when they were teetering on the edge of a momentous victory?

Téa wasn't arrogant; she didn't think she had gotten to this point on her own. No, she'd gotten to this stage, to this duel with the help of Mai and yes, Seto, Yugi, Joey, Pegasus, Malik, and all the others. But she wouldn't be thanking them in her victory speech.

After all, anyone could have a deck of cards. Only she could combine the strength from the cards Kaiba had given her with her own. Only she could use the strategies she'd seen and adapted from duels with Yugi, Joey, Pegasus, Malik, and others. She was the one standing here now. Not them.

"I activate White Dragon Ritual by tributing Mystical Elf from my hand– and I summon the Paladin of White Dragon!"

A murmur went through the crowd; Téa could hear them asking “why does she have a Paladin of White Dragon? What is she thinking?” While it wasn’t as rare as the legendary Blue-Eyes White Dragon, the cards were pretty intimately connected.

They hissed about her having made a mistake, switching out 15 cards she’d been dueling fine with. They whispered about the Paladin of White Dragon. It was little more than a substitute collectible for a Blue-Eyes; didn’t she know that? Was Alessa right all along; had Téa somehow skated through the tournament on pure luck?

That last murmur threatened to snap the growing smirk curling Téa’s lips. But she clenched her jaw and continued staring straight ahead at Alessa.

‘Let her think that she’s right, that the crowd’s on her side. She’ll never know what hit her.’

Téa’s smile only widened when Alessa glanced back at her from the crowd with a trimphant look on her face. The Italian duelist didn’t expect Téa to look even more confident after having played what appeared to be a simple Level 4 card.

Téa favored Mai with a laughing smile. The blonde returned the look with wide, joyous eyes and a Cheshire grin.

The paladin, wearing gold-trimmed white armor, sat atop a beast. Téa supposed it was some sort of Blue-Eyes White Dragon chick, if such a fearsome creature had ever existed as a hatchling.

It sat on the field for only moments before Téa took another deep breath. She made sure that not only Alessa and Serena heard her, but the entire crowd –all the cameras, all the crew, everyone on the ship and beyond. "I Tribute the Paladin of White Dragon and Special Summon a Blue-Eyes White Dragon from my Deck!"

In seconds, her Duel Disk shifted the last remaining Blue-Eyes not already in her hand to the top of her deck. Téa placed two fingers on her deck, tucking her thumb under the top card. She pulled her elbow back in a rapid arc, her fingers barely gripping the card with its back facing her opponents. She smirked and paused for a brief moment before thrusting the Blue-Eyes White Dragon card onto an open slot on her Duel Disk.

The Blue-Eyes had just materialized on the field when Téa saw Alessa trying to form words. She kept failing, repeating a series of exasperated “Buh…wha…ah…ha…” Alessa squeezed her eyes shut before trying again. This time she managed a stuttering “Th-That's not– she's not– I–"

"I tried to warn you, Alessa!" Serena snapped, her voice rising above the murmurs of the crowd. The emcee snapped her head around from where she’d been looking at Téa. Her eyes were wide as she clutched her microphone in both hands, like it might slip away at any moment. Within seconds, all eyes were on Serena.

"But no, you refused to listen to me! Instead, you barged on up here and started the Duel without stopping to think! She exchanged out almost half her deck, and every single one of her cards passed the validation test!"

Alessa finally gained some color in her face, but it was a brilliant shade of red coloring her cheeks. "I– She's just some nobody cheerleader…" The words came out, but as a mere whisper. Alessa fixed her gaze on the Blue-Eyes White Dragon towering over her Monsters on the side of the field.

"Obviously not!" Serena actually looked like she had more to say, but she clenched her teeth and remained silent.

"I would thank you," Téa started, but she shook her head, still smiling. "But instead, I'll just play this: Polymerization! I fuse the Blue-Eyes White Dragon on the field with the other two in my hand and Summon the Blue-Eyes Ultimate Dragon!"

Her heart was pounding in her chest now, threatening to burst out of her rib cage. She could feel a strange pressure behind her eyes, and an intense coldness sliding down the length of her spine. This was way different from all the other duels. It was way different from that dizzying feeling when she'd dueled Mai, back when she'd been trying to convince Téa to go on this insane cruise.

And now, here she was –blazing lights all around her, the crowd murmuring in shock and awe: she had all three Blue-Eyes White Dragons? Everyone had seen Seto Kaiba kiss her before she'd boarded. A guy like that didn't let his most precious cards get "stolen" from some nobody cheerleader. That meant he'd given them to her, of his own free will… and here she was, using them like the champion no one thought she could be.

"Alessa, I just want to remind you of one thing: you started this. You don't know me at all. And you dismissed me, even when I got here, to the same stage as you. You treated me like a nuisance, and then you ignored me. And now…" Téa closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

This was what Dueling was all about, right? Not saving anyone's souls, not saving the world. Not getting revenge. Just this…

And yet, it didn't quite match with the feeling Téa associated with "fun." She tried to remember the last time she'd felt this way. But the feeling she was having now, whatever it was, was too strong. Any memories of the past –of a friendly game with Mokuba or Seto or Yugi or any of the other guys– flickered away like a candle snuffed by the wind.

Téa opened her eyes and stared at Alessa, her blue eyes blazing like twin fires. "Now you're going to pay."

"Blue-Eyes Ultimate Dragon, attack her Legendary Hero Achilles! Neutron Blast!"

"Not so fast!"

Téa turned her startled gaze to the source of the voice… Serena?

"I activate Chasm of Spikes! Your Dragon is dust!" A massive pit with gleaming spikes opened up under the Ultimate Dragon. Within seconds, there was a shriek and then an explosion of bright shards bursting forth from the chasm. Téa knew her Life Points had gone down. The Chasm had the unfortunate side effect of taking half the attacking Monster's ATK value and dealing it as damage. But she wasn't looking at the counter on her Duel Disk, or even at the screens looming above her head with those same numbers shining blood red.

She felt as though a vice was squeezing her chest, tighter, tighter… The world had almost blanked out to white before the emcee's voice split into Téa's mind.

"Whoa, talk about a sudden turn! What will Téa do now…?"

Téa glanced up and let her hand fall from her chest. Her entire body shuddered, her spine revealing it wasn’t cold steel, but fragile human bone, brittle and weak. Cold sweat streaked down and pooled in the small of her back, giving her the disgusting sensation that she’d like to crawl out of her own skin.

‘No. Not yet.’

This wasn't over.

Far from it.

Alessa glanced at Serena. The look on the former's face was unlike anything she'd worn on her face the entire time Téa had seen her during the cruise: gratitude. She didn't say anything; she just bobbed her head.

Téa frowned. Despite their similarly-themed decks, up until now, Alessa and Serena seemed to be each doing their own thing. Alessa focused on beating down any of Téa or Mai's monsters. Serena created a near-impenetrable wall of defense. Paired with her deck-revealing Seer that could scrap named cards with a cost of 500 Life Points, Serena alone was formidable. If they started working in tandem…

'That would be a problem.'

"I'll Tribute my Kaiser Sea Horse to count for the two Tributes needed to summon Guardian Angel Joan to the field," Téa gritted her teeth. It felt like the next words she spoke were not of her own volition, but forced out. "And I end my turn."

All she had was Joan, now. The Blue-Eyes were in her Graveyard, along with the Paladin of White Dragon. Solemn Wishes was still in play. But if Serena was willing to use a Chasm of Spikes to save Alessa, who knew what other dangerous traps she could be hiding behind her massive Walls of Troy?

"It's my turn!" Serena announced. She was down to just 1900 Life Points, but Téa had seen duels turn around with fewer points than that. It was too dangerous counting her out.

"I'll play Magical Stone Excavation and discard two cards from my hand to add a Magic Card in my Graveyard back to my hand!"

Serena's Magic Cards ejected from her Graveyard. She ran her fingers over the choices, seeming to deliberate with purposeful slowness.

"Oh, get on with it already! We all know what card you're going to pick, so hurry it up already!" Mai snapped from across the arena.

Where Alessa would have made some sort of snappy comeback, Serena just tilted her head to the side and smiled. For a Duelist known for being stoic, the look was downright chilling.

"I'll choose Prophetic Insight and play it from my hand with Cassandra the Seer!"

"And now, I'll activate a Trap! Spellbinding Circle– seal Harpie's Pet Dragon!"

A circle bordered with arcane symbols rose from the arena floor and swirled until it encircled Harpie's Pet Dragon's neck. The Circle reduced the Dragon's ATK by 700 points and preventing it from attacking or changing its Battle Position.

Téa didn't like seeing her friend and partner's strongest Monster on the field bound. But something about all this made her own throat tighten.

'No way am I going to go down like this. No way…'

"And now… Ares, God of War, attack Harpie's Pet Dragon!" The only Attack Position Monster on Serena's side of the field charged forward. Ares gripped a bloodstained sword in one hand and a battered shield in the other. Their weight meaningless, he jumped into the air and vanished. Ares then reappeared with his sword pressed against the Dragon's neck. Ares beheaded it in one swift stroke before the rest of the Dragon exploded into fading shards.

Mai's Life Points dropped from 3300 to 2750, but her grimace was momentary.

"So fine, you got rid of my Pet Dragon. I've still got my Harpie Lady Sisters on the field!"

"You mean your Harpies that aren’t even twice as strong as another one of your bird brains? Please! They couldn't even scratch Serena's Wall, much less my immortal hero Achilles!" Alessa laughed.

"Just you wait, Alessa," Mai said, her tone mysterious. "Just you wait."

A moment later, she flipped her hair over her shoulder and glanced at Serena. "Are you quite finished?" Neither of Serena's Defense Position monsters had enough Attack Points to take Mai's Harpie Lady Sisters on. It didn't seem like the Italian duelist had any other tricks up her sleeve.

"I end my turn."

"Finally!" Mai said with a grin. "Let's get this over with, shall we? I draw!"

"I activate Cassandra the Seer's Prophetic Insight– reveal your top card!"

Mai frowned, remembering the pesky card that Serena had just brought back from her Graveyard. Now everyone had to play with the top card of their deck revealed. 

"Shadow of Eyes. Now what are you going to do?"

"I'll pay 500 Life Points and have you send that annoying Trap Card right to the Graveyard!" Serena shot back.

"Fine. It's not like I need that card, anyway," Mai said, drawing once more. Because Serena could only use Prophetic Insight once per turn, tournament rules dictated Mai got another Draw Phase. This time, Serena couldn't deny it and send it to the Graveyard.

Mai glanced at her new card and her eyes widened with something akin to glee.

"Oh Serena, dear, you shouldn't have. Really, you shouldn't have."

Mai shoved the new card into one of her Magic and Trap Card slots on her Duel Disk and activated it immediately. "Monster Reborn! I Special Summon my Harpie's Pet Dragon back to the field!"

For once, Alessa and Serena seemed to have identical expressions on their face: frustration. No doubt it was from seeing the hard work of their last turns negated by a chance draw of a powerful card.

"I'll set one card, switch my Harpie Lady Sisters to Defense Position, and… oh…" Mai tapped a manicured finger to her lips. "I think I'll attack your precious Achilles, Alessa! Go, Harpie's Pet Dragon– Saint Fire Giga!"

The dragon roared, sending forth a volley of flame at the Legendary Warrior Achilles. Once again he survived the burst, though Alessa's Life Points still dropped 900 points.

"Ugh, finally! My turn– I draw!"

"Don't forget, Cassandra's Prophetic Insight applies to you, too!" Téa reminded Alessa.

"Unlike some people here, I'm not some third-rate Duelist! I know how the card works!" Alessa flipped over the card in her hand and revealed it in a semi-circle, first to Serena, then to Mai, and finally to Téa. She flicked the card into her hand after a split second of revealing the card to Téa.

Serena, of course, didn't bother paying 500 Life Points to deny Serena's card–whatever it was; Téa hadn't caught the name. It was some sort of Magic Card, but beyond that, she couldn't tell. She chanced a look at Mai to see if she had seen the card, but Mai wasn't facing her. Instead, she looked uncomfortable and  tense. Her gaze was hard and pointed straight at Alessa's Legendary Hero Achilles. She didn't seem all that worried about Athena, who stood beside and slightly above Achilles, still holding her spear aloft.

The Duelist with the most Life Points changed with each passing turn: first Téa, then Mai, then Alessa.

‘We’ve got to get Achilles off the field before he gets strong enough to handle Mai’s dragon for good. But how?’

"I'll set a card… and play this!"

With a flourish, Alessa played the card she'd just drawn. The arena's big screen revealed it as Nectar and Ambrosia, a one-turn, immortality-granting Magic card. With it, Achilles powered up to 2300 ATK points. Since the card immediately went to the Graveyard, Athena powered up another 100 ATK points as well. Thanks to the Nectar and Ambrosia, no card effects would be able to destroy either card for one turn.

"Even third-rate duelists can do math, Marino! Or did you forget that my Pet Dragon has 2900 ATK points?" Mai snickered.

"Who said I was going to target your stupid pet, anyway?" Alessa shot back.

"I'll Summon The Trojan Horse to the field in Defense Position. Then, I'll attack– Athena, destroy her Harpie Lady Sisters!"

Mai's Harpie Lady Sisters were still in Defense Mode, so the attack didn't do any harm to Mai's Life Points. Unfortunately, it did a whammy on Harpie's Pet Dragon. Its masters removed from the field, the leashed dragon's ATK plummeted 900 points, now weak enough for Achilles to destroy.

"I'm sure you know what's coming next, Valentine," Alessa sneered. "Legendary Hero Achilles, destroy that infernal Pet Dragon!"

"No!"

But Alessa dealt her damage– though it wasn't much. Mai's Life Points dropped to 2450– still ahead of Alessa, but just barely.

"And now…" Alessa revealed her teeth in a nauseating display of false sweetness, "I end my turn."

"My turn– I draw!" Téa now had the lowest Life Points among them all– a dangerous place to be. But with one draw and Solemn Wishes in effect, she shot up to 1750. It wasn't enough to put her ahead of Serena, but close enough to make a difference.

"De-Fusion," Téa announced. Per the effect of Cassandra the Seer's Prophetic Insight, she had to reveal the card to her fellow Duelists. "Worth tossing another 500 Life Points away, Serena?" Téa imitated Alessa's false smile. Serena, in turn, glared at Téa before shaking her head in the negative.

"Didn't think so."

"Guardian Angel Joan!" Téa called, thrusting a finger at the battle angel draped in white and gold, "Attack Ares, God of War!"

Their difference in ATK was only 50 points, but that 50 points was plenty for Téa. A successful attack with Joan meant she could restore her Life Points equal to the ATK of the destroyed monster. It would be enough of a boost to take her from last place to first in Life Point ranking.

Joan brought her arms together, a white-hot ball of holy light forming between her palms. A beam shot out from the ball, illuminating Ares' torso. It spread to his extremities and finally exploded the former "God of War" into thousands of glass-like pieces.

Serena frowned; she was now the last place Duelist, with 1850 Life Points.

"This ends! My turn– I draw Spirit Sword of Sealing!" Serena called. "And I play it… on Cassandra the Seer!"

Téa fingers twitched against the cards in her hand; why in the world would Serena seal her own card? She tried to run through the possibilities in her head. It seemed like her brain was working in slow motion reverse. First the shocked crowd, then the dwindling feeling of triumph from minutes before.

‘People thought I was crazy for playing the Paladin of White Dragon. They didn’t know about the Blue-Eyes… what’s she–” But before Téa could finish her thought, Serena continued her play.

"And now, I play Black Hole!" Serena pressed a button on her Duel Disk. A sudden emptiness filled the field, sucking away her own Priam, King of Troy. Then Téa's Guardian Angel Joan. Then Alessa's Athena, Goddess of Wisdom and The Trojan Horse.

"No! You fool!" Alessa snarled at Serena. But when the spatial anomaly disappeared, Alessa's Achilles remained. He remained untouched due to his immunity to both Magic and Trap Card effects.

Serena didn't respond to the insult. "And now because of the monsters sent from my field to the Graveyard, Cassandra the Seer returns!"

The Spirit Sword of Sealing disappeared in a slow burn of blue light. The pierced card behind it burst forth. Again, the Trojan princess stood on Alessa's side of the field, protected by The Walls of Troy.

"And now I summon Trojan Hero Hector to the field! He gains 500 ATK when The Walls of Troy are in play!" The already-muscular warrior grunted and flexed. A blue-tinted battle aura flickered around him, his strength rising to 2100 ATK points.

"Hector! Attack Mai directly!"

Mai's violet eyes widened as the Trojan Hero lunged toward her, a spear headed straight for her chest. The spear tip got as far as the edge of her vest collar. The Solid Vision System vibrated through the Duel Disk, sending a shudder coursing through Mai's body.

Mai coughed, the sensation having startled the breath out of her. It had been a long time since felt like this –challenged, stimulated, but not afraid. "350 points left. You might have gotten me down a few points, but I'm far from out."

"You talk big, Valentine. Why don't you hurry up and make the most of your last turn?" Alessa snapped.

Mai crossed her arms, her Duel Disk tilting downward. "Look who's talking now. You weren't even the one who did the most damage! And didn't anyone ever teach you ladies history?" Mai uncrossed her arms and flicked her hands open. "Newsflash: the Greeks and the Trojans were on opposite sides of the battlefield. And all you two have done lately is make it that much easier for me and Téa to take you down."

"Enough of your lecturing! Draw already!" Serena bit out.

Mai only smiled.

"I draw– The Unfriendly Amazon." She raised an eyebrow at Serena, who frowned. "I pay 500 Life Points to discard your Amazon to the Graveyard with my Cassandra the Seer!"

"Fine, fine," Mai said, waving a hand. She rolled her eyes and then drew another card in The Unfriendly Amazon's place. "My goodness Serena, I really ought to be thanking you– these second Draw Phases are doing me good!"

"Harpie's Feather Duster! Destroy all Serena's Magic and Trap Cards!" A giant feather appeared on the field. With a single flap, a massive whirlwind appeared, and blew both Cassandra's Prophetic Insight and The Walls of Troy into clouds of dust.

"Oh… one more thing," Mai added. "I summon Cyber Harpie Lady in Attack Position and equip her with the Rose Whip!" An armored Harpie appeared on the field, brandishing a thorny vine with tiny rose blossoms on it. The already-strong Level 4 Harpie Lady went from 1800 ATK points to 2100. It was more than enough to destroy Serena's Cassandra the Seer, once and for all.

"Cyber Harpie Lady, attack Cassandra the Seer! Red Hell Whipper!"

"Not enough to get rid of that pesky Hector… but I'm sure his body'll get dragged around the field sooner or later… won't it, Alessa?" Mai smiled sweetly at her opponent and gestured with her chin. "Your turn, darling."

"I activate my Trap Card– Powerful Rebirth! This card lets me Special Summon one Level 4 or lower Monster from my Graveyard and increase its Level by one and its ATK and DEF by 100 points! I summon The Trojan Horse!"

"Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, Serena," Téa said in a stage whisper, eliciting several chuckles from the audience.

"And now, thanks to my Trojan Horse's effect, I can Tribute summon it and bring the Invincible Heracles to the field!"

A large warrior appeared on the field, perhaps even more brawny than Serena's Hector. A lion's pelt dangled over his shoulders. Dirt and blood caked his arms and legs. And with the massive club in his hands, he looked even more god-like than Achilles or Hector.

Without any preamble, Alessa yelled "Heracles, attack Téa directly!"

The massive warrior leapt with far more speed and grace than seemed possible for a Monster of his size. Within moments, his club swung down. It would have hit Téa smack in the stomach, but instead the Solid Vision System did its work. It sent a massive vibration and pulsing shock through her as her Life Points fell to 2100.

"Now, Achilles– attack her again!" Alessa's eyes blazed with delight as her armored warrior hurtled his spear at Téa. This time the attack knocked her Life Points down to a precarious hundred.

The second blow had almost knocked the wind out of her. Almost.

"Heh. Glad to see you decided to woman up and Duel me after all, Alessa," Téa smiled. "But I'm not done yet. This is the last turn!" Téa was no Seeress; she didn't know why the words came from her mouth with such confidence. Maybe it was her time with Seto talking. Maybe it was her experience watching Yugi and Joey's duels, how they always managed to pull out of situations just like these and turn them around.

If they could make miracles, so could she.

She had no monsters on the field, and only Solemn Wishes to give her a mere 500-point boost.

Everything was riding on this next draw.

Téa squeezed her eyes shut and tried to drown out all the thoughts swirling through her head. Thoughts of Seto, of Yugi, of Joey and all the others. She tried to think of what it would be like, for once, for her to be the victor, for her to be the one others cheered for.

Astonishment crept into her head as the silence faded. She heard the crowd chanting her name over and over: at first quiet and then louder, louder.

"Téa! Téa! Téa!"

The other duelists in the audience were cheering. Even the ones she'd faced and forced into surrender or pummeled into submission with her Light Deck and its powerful array of Magic and Trap Cards. One after another, the duelists chanted, growing louder and louder.

Téa blinked, startled where Alessa seemed furious and Serena suspicious. She chanced a look at Mai, whose close-lipped smile seemed almost gentle. The blonde mouthed the word "Go" and urged Téa to finish drawing her card.

With one wide arc of her arm, Téa withdrew the top card from her deck.

There was another tingling in her arm this time. It felt different –like a distant buzzing, or the feeling of a limb woken from a numb sleep. Téa –not Cassandra, whose prophecies everyone believed were false– knew the card she just drew.

‘I shouldn’t know this. But I do, and… and I’m not afraid. Not anymore.’

"I play Monster Reborn!" Without sparing a glance at the card, she pushed it into an empty Magic and Trap Card slot on her Duel Disk. "Return to me, Blue-Eyes Ultimate Dragon!"

"Serena, you did me a favor when you let me keep this card. I'm sure at the time, you thought it was useless. But just like your so-called partner, you couldn't be more wrong! I activate De-Fusion!"

A vortex of swirling light appeared and encircled the Blue-Eyes Ultimate Dragon. It split from one massive three-headed beast into three separate Blue-Eyes White Dragons.

"And now, Blue-Eyes White Dragons– attack Alessa's Legendary Warrior and Serena's Trojan Hero Hector! White Lightning!" One of the three dragons opened its maw. A sphere of bright electric energy formed, and pulsed once before shooting out at Hector. Though Battle couldn't destroy Hector, Tea couldn't say the same for Alessa.

Her Life Points dropped 1000 points thanks to the difference in strength between the Blue-Eyes and Achilles. There was nothing that she could do to stop it from happening again. Another stream of lightning burst forth from another dragon's maw. This time, Alessa's points dropped to zero. At the same moment, the third and final dragon finished off Hector, taking the last of Serena's Life Points with him.

It was over. Finished.

'Finally.'


"So uh…where's San Francisco?" Téa joked as she looked over the ship's railing with Mai. She still felt a little like she wasn't actually standing on the ship's private balcony. It was more like she was floating over the polished boards, flecks of glitter and paper bits strewn here and there.

'Must have dragged it in here from when they exploded that silly confetti ball after…' She still couldn't quite process it. Even though she'd dreamed of it. She'd hoped for it. Maybe she sort of even planned for it with the way she'd arranged her deck. And she'd eventually made use of the cards Seto had given her….

Seto… and Malik. And Pegasus.

Mai wasn't staring out at the fog-obscured city skyline. She handled their crystal trophy like a kaleidoscope, looking through it at varying distances.

"What, can't believe it's real?"

Téa shook her head and gripped the railing tighter. Maybe she could will the pangs of uncertainty to fly out of her head and disappear into the night. Her hands slipped nonetheless, clammy and smeared with something dark. She wiped them off on her skirt and reached for the award.

"You either?" Mai sighed, leaning on the railing after she handed the trophy off to Téa.

"No, I still feel… weird about it all, I guess. I figure once I get my feet on actual, solid ground again it'll start to sink in."

"I'm sure it's out there somewhere," Mai said with a half-grin. She gestured to the pier, a shadow in the dense fog.

She glanced at the watch that had replaced her Duel Disk ever since the tournament completed. For some reason, Mai had taken hers off almost immediately.

True, the Disk did have a weight to it. There was something heavy and hot Téa felt creeping up her own arm each time she dueled with one; did Mai get the same feeling?

The Solid Vision System provided tactile feedback from the loss of Life Points, but it was just supposed to be a vibration here, a shock there. Nothing serious. And nothing like the Dark Games Téa saw.

'And that Mai was actually in,' Téa remembered.

Téa opened her mouth, about to ask Mai if she was okay. Did she ever felt like the Duel Disk was too much to handle? That was when the emcee bounced onto the private deck.

"Hey champions! It's time! We're just about to dock. I wanted to be the first to welcome you to the U.S. of A!"

"Guess that means we better get our stuff," Mai said. Téa couldn't quite tell what her tone of voice indicated. Mai seemed… flat. Actually, the first word that came to Téa's mind was "defeated," but that made no sense.

'Right?'


Getting through customs took a while. On top of that, the press had stopped both Mai and Téa to ask them questions and haggle them for pictures– with their Duel Disks on, of course.

By the time they made it down the hall from the pier to the outside world, crowds of other Duelists, friends, family, and press ambled ahead of them.

"How'd that happen?" Mai frowned, gesturing with her chin at the duelists ahead of them. Her extra-large purple suitcase with wheels kept one hand full. The other gripped their championship trophy in a white-knuckled fist. Téa hefted a duffel bag and the luggage cart one of the crewman had loaded their other suitcases onto.

"I thought the whole point of being champions was that we got off the ship first and got priority treatment at customs."

"Well, we did have a lot more bags…" Téa said with a wry chuckle. She glanced back at the luggage cart to make sure everything was still in place. When she discovered her nose scraping against Mai’s back, she screeched to a halt. She shoved her hands against the cart to avoid an avalanche of luggage.

"Mai, what's up?"

Mai halted right before the hallway turned a corner, her bags set down before her.

"Alessa, you were so cool in the championship match!" a voice gushed.

"Yeah, you and Serena both! Talk about a powerhouse combo!" Another voice.

"Who were they playing again?" Someone older this time. Téa glanced around the corner and made out a gaggle of people surrounding Alessa and Serena. They meandered down the hallway like they didn't have a care in the world. Behind them, a drooping crewman dragged an overloaded luggage cart.

"Uh…I think it was somebody Valentine? And a gardener? That doesn't make any sense, though."

"Haha, seriously, like some gardener could be a champion-level duelist! Get real!" Téa frowned and pulled back from the corner. She took a deep breath, but Mai pressed a hand over Téa's mouth before she could utter a word.

"You mean Mai Valentine," said a girl's voice matter-of-factly. "She made it to the semi-finals in Duelist Kingdom and was Top Eight in Battle City." There was a pause and a pointed clearing-of-the-throat that Téa guessed was Alessa. She was likely staring daggers at the girl who'd spoken.

"Uh… but those are the only qualifications she had for entering the tournament," the voice continued after a moment. "And I mean, sure, she's pretty strong, but what about the champion of Battle City, Yugi Moto?"

Téa's eyes widened in surprise when she heard Alessa's voice next. "Ah yes, Yugi Moto. Holder of the God cards, he who defeated the creator of Duel Monsters! The King of Games himself! He's the true Duelist every proper champion wants to face!"

'Mai and I fought more duels on this ship than Yugi ever fought in Duelist Kingdom and Battle City combined! How dare she!'

Both Duelist Kingdom and Battle City had been 48-hour events. Invitation-only participants with prior Duel Monsters knowledge and experience dominated both of them. They were infamous tournaments, forever engraved in Duel Monsters history. Yes, they had been grueling, but they were also short

The cruise consisted of several duels in a match. Enough matches, and it constituted more work days than vacation days.    

"Joey Wheeler also made it into the Best Four of Battle City, and he didn't even have a God card," Serena added.

"Ah yes, don't let me forget dear Joey," Alessa said.

Téa could just picture Alessa licking her lips lasciviously at the thought of dueling Yugi and Joey. She wanted to gag. Mai had dropped her hand from Téa's mouth and instead had it balled at her side in a white-knuckled fist.

"I would much have preferred to duel them," Alessa continued. "Wouldn't you agree, Serena?"

Despite the anger and tension that had built up between them during the championship duel, Alessa and Serena seemed to be back on good terms. That is, if Alessa doing the majority of the talking and leading Serena by the nose was "good terms."

'What a doormat,' Téa thought. ‘She made herself out to be some calculating genius duelist, but she’s just a meek mouse, letting Alessa bully her like that.’

'Maybe a rat,' Téa amended. After all, rats sometimes bit.

"Definitely."

"This whole duelist cruise was just the most prolonged waste of time–" Alessa continued. Then her voice faded, along with the sound of their footsteps and the scraping of the cart on concrete.

"That stupid little–"

Mai's hand holding the championship trophy was up in the air before Téa could grab it.

In one split second, the trophy lay shattered on the ground, splintered into hundreds of tiny pieces.

A distant "hah!" met Téa's ears as she bent down to inspect the remains of the trophy. If she squinted, she could make out Alessa's silhouette down the hallway leading outside.

The silhouette nodded in what Téa presumed was self-satisfaction. Alessa whipped her head back to the street before disappearing into the night.

"Mai–" Téa began, rising to her feet. There was no way to recover the trophy. It was too broken to even read their names engraved on it. She shoved what she could off to the side of the hallway so no one would step on it. At least it wouldn't hurt anyone else that way.

"Don't. Just–" Mai pursed her lips and raised a hand. "I'm sorry. Let's just go."

Mai didn't wait for a response; she just grabbed her suitcase and took off down the hallway at a brisk pace.

Téa glanced at the crushed trophy, consigned now to the shadows. 

She adjusted the duffel bag on her shoulder and hauled the luggage cart behind her as fast as it could go.


"Mai, can you slow down?"

After leaving the pier, they hadn't found any sort of limousine waiting for them to take them to a hotel. As far as the championship went, the cruise was over –and now Téa and Mai were on their own. On impulse, Mai decided that they would walk to their hotel. The only problem was that neither of them had a map of San Francisco on hand. They'd neglected to get one from the plastic slots full of them at the pier.

Worse, Mai seemed determined not to ask anyone for help –for anything. That meant that between the two of them, they hefted two duffel bags and three wheeling suitcases, a backpack, a large purse, and their Duel Disks.

"Mai, I don't think this is the way–"

"Then fine, we'll go back the way we came and go down that other street until we get there!" Mai snapped, striding past Téa.

"Hey!" Téa's hand shot out and grabbed Mai's arm as she passed, halting the blonde in her tracks. "Look, I get that you're mad at what Alessa and Serena said, but who cares? We won that tournament!"

"No!" Mai yelled, yanking her arm back. "YOU won that tournament. You pulled that same 'Heart of the Cards' draw of destiny stuff, and you managed to completely destroy both of our opponents. And… and I invited you to this. You were the one with no tournament experience." Her voice softened. "They were right. About me. I'm barely qualified to duel."

"Are you listening to yourself?" Téa whirled on her feet and put her hands on Mai's shoulders. "These are not the words of Mai Valentine, champion duelist!"

"Téa, they are! This is… this is how I've felt since Battle City. I've just been…" Mai swallowed. As her own eyes widened in astonishment, Téa saw tears start to slide down her friend's face. "I've just been hiding it."

Téa's eyes widened. "'Hiding it?' Are you kidding me? You should get a Japan Academy Prize if that's the kind of acting you're capable of!"

"Ha, ha," Mai deadpanned, sensing Téa's sarcasm. "It's the truth."

"It's bullshit is what it is–" Téa began, but then there was a loud rumble.

"Great. We're stuck in some alley in the middle of the night, in a city neither of us are familiar with. We're surrounded by a ton of luggage, and it's going to rain. Can we please argue when we get to our hotel room?" Téa pleaded.

Mai's head dropped to her chest. Never before had Téa seen her look so…

The word Téa had denied earlier seemed all too apt now.

'Defeated.'

Téa found herself at a loss for words. She couldn't think of anything that she could say to convince Mai that she was more than a worthy Duelist. She was what Yugi called a "True Duelist," a believer in her deck and her own strength. But if she said those things now, she would just be parroting Yugi. She'd be reminding Mai that they had come this far to escape the shadows of the famous Duelists that surrounded them.

The rain started to fall, a windswept spittle pelting onto the gum-stained concrete. Then it lanced down harder, sharper, a fiercer wind sending bullets of water onto their arms and faces. It didn't feel right to Téa to try and find shelter, to move her bags out of the way and leave Mai and her things in the rain.

'She's my friend. And I'm going to stay with her.'

And so they both stayed out there, their clothes getting progressively soaked as they both stared, empty-eyed into the night.

Minutes later, a brilliant light from one end of the alleyway nearly blinded them.

"Hey, what's a pair of beautiful ladies doin' out here in the pourin' rain?" The accented voice –Australian, Téa guessed– belonged to a brawny silhouette. He swung one his leg over a motorcycle, even as its headlamp bore down on them.

"Great," Téa grumbled under her breath. It was a good thing she hadn't taken her Duel Disk off–

Suddenly Mai was walking past her and stopped just a few meters shy of the motorcyclist. He removed his helmet and goggles –'Wait, goggles? Have I seen those–' and revealed a fluffy head of auburn hair.

"Hey, I know you! You two are Mai Valentine and Téa Gardner– the dueling world's latest champions! Congratulations!"

Téa's eyes widened as she shuffled closer to Mai's side.

"That's us," Mai said, her voice cracking ever-so-slightly. She didn't acknowledge the fact that this guy had recognized them on-sight. This despite the fact that they were soaking wet and who-knows-where in relation where the Arielle had docked. Were they that famous already, even in another country?

"Well what are you two doin' out here? I can give you a lift if you want…?" He trailed off and gestured magnanimously to a sidecar attached to his motorcycle, a pair of helmets dangling off a hook on the side of his seat.

Téa furrowed her brows at the suspicious convenience of it all. They’d managed to get lost downtown without a soul recognizing them. How likely would it be for some Good Samaritan with two extra motorcycle helmets to show up just as they turn down a garbage-strewn alley?

The guy caught Téa's suspicious gaze and explained. "My buddies have their own cycles, but they got into an accident and one had to go into the hospital. Other's got his bike in the shop and he won't let some bodgy mechanic put his mitts on his bike without undergoing some grueling questions, right? I just took the helmets back for 'em until they're both ace again."

He shifted his weight from one leg to another. "Look, you don't trust me. I get it. Strange guy, pouring rain, dark alley, knows your names already. Sounds totally shonky."

Téa had no idea what "shonky" meant, but she figured it was something close to "suspicious," which she definitely was.

"My name's Valon," the motorcyclist said, thrusting out a hand. He wore fingerless, padded gloves. One of his fingers had a silvery-looking ring with a green stone set into it on. Despite the weather, he wore a sleeveless vest with straps on it in odd places. It reminded Téa of Seto for a brief moment, and her heart clenched.

Mai grasped Valon's hand. "Mai Valentine. But you knew that. And this is–"

"Téa Gardner," she spoke for herself, but did not offer up her hand. After a moment, Valon dropped his hand. If Téa's lack of congeniality disappointed him, he didn't show it.

"Heard you won using the Blue-Eyes," Valon said carefully. "Got one powerhouse of a deck to bring those guys out."

He didn't mention the fact that the cards weren't actually hers, or that she had spent the entire tournament up to that point not using them. Or that they rightfully–'technically?'– belonged to Seto Kaiba. Téa could almost hear the next words out of Valon's lips: "Got it from your boyfriend, right?" That's all she was– not a champion, not a true duelist, just a girlfriend. An accessory.

It didn't take long for the tears to start to sting her lash line, too.

"Listen, neither of you are stupid ladies," Valon began. "And I know you don't want to be stuck out here in the dark, in the rain, in this place. So hear me out, okay? I can get you both out of this– take you to someone who can change all this."

Téa wanted to say something witty, about Valon taking them to see a meteorologist or something, but the sarcastic joke died on her lips as Mai spoke.

"Someone who can change our fate?"

'Fate? What, does Mai think this championship was some sort of botched destiny of hers? She –we– won!'

"Not just your fate," Valon said, his voice somewhat softer despite the increasing roar of the wind and the rain. "The whole world, if you want to be part of it. What do you say?"

Again, Valon offered his hand out.

Téa glanced at Mai wide-eyed.

Téa's heart pounded in her chest. The more she looked at this Valon guy, the more the details added up. This guy wasn't some stranger– he'd been on the cruise ship, she was sure of it.

'And those motorcyclists who stole the God cards–' 

Mai placed her hand in Valon's. "Show me." She didn't look back at Téa, but Valon did.

In the heartbeats between his glance and Téa opening her dry lips, a torrent of thoughts flooded Téa's mind.

'This guy has one of the God cards! But… does he not recognize me?' She'd been at that duel between Yami and Gurimo, one of the henchmen of the organization known only as "Doma." She'd seen the devastating power of the Orichalcos.

'I left Japan to get away from all the craziness and fate of the world-dependent duels, and this guy followed us – me! – all the way here to the States? Why?'

He'd said something about changing fate.

If it was her fate to keep getting tangled up in Yugi's messes… so be it.

If it wasn't enough to win more duels than Yugi had in Duelist Kingdom and Battle City… If it wasn't enough to become a champion using her own strategies… If it wasn't enough to stand by her friends in a strange place, in the middle of the night, in the pouring rain…

Maybe she did need to change her fate.

She could get the God cards back. She could – no, would! – show everyone.

"I'm in."


"If you haven't heard the news yet, you must be living under a rock. The Pan-Pacific Ladies' Duelist Tournament Cruise champions are none other than Japan's own Téa Gardner and Mai Valentine–"

Kaiba sighed. He had already heard the news in fact. As a champion-level duelist, he had plenty of contacts affiliated with the cruise. He'd received a text alert as soon as the championship ended. He had expected Téa to call him shortly thereafter, but she hadn't.

Enough time had passed that the Arielle had definitely made port in San Francisco. Even if Téa and Mai had gone into the city to celebrate, shouldn't she have at least texted him by now?

'I'm being paranoid.' 

The fear of Téa leaving and never coming back hovered just below Kaiba's self-control. 

But fear in its early stages is just anxiety. Kaiba definitely appeared anxious. He paced back and forth, flipping through various Duel Monsters TV stations. He checked different websites for anything new. He kept watching the same footage over and over again. Téa and her spectacular finishing blow with the Blue-Eyes. It decimating her and Mai's opponents' last shrapnel of Life Points.

After that, Téa's eyes widened, seeming surprised for some odd reason, but then a wide, genuine smile spread across her lips. With a triumphant laugh, she hugged Mai. Téa blushed, no doubt embarrassed by the thunderous applause from Duelists in the surrounding crowd. Then she and Mai started to leave the duel arena, and the clip ended.

That was all.

Though he had watched the clip several times now, Kaiba couldn’t find a single clue. Where had the ship had been in its journey when they’d won? He had no way of knowing what was going on in Téa’s head in those minutes after her victory. He knew her –he was in love with her, after all– but he couldn't come up with any reason why she wouldn't call him after winning.

'Téa, where are you?'


Unbeknownst to Kaiba, Yugi thought the same thing.

As soon as he'd heard the news of Téa and Mai's win, he'd immediately rushed to his house phone and attempted to call Téa's cell. During the taxi ride to the harbor, Téa mentioned investing in an international plan for her phone so that she could use it abroad without any issue. Yugi didn’t own a cell phone, but he figured he'd be able to call Téa. Regardless of what time it was in San Francisco, Téa had to be awake and buzzing from her win, right? He needed to talk to her.

The phone rang. Once, twice, three times.

'Maybe she's out partying and can't hear her phone ring?'

Or perhaps she was sleeping by now. It was late there, wasn't it? Or was it the other way around–and it was early? Could someone get jet lag on a boat? Yugi didn't know.

Ring. Ring.

"Hey!"

Yugi grinned and started to talk, but the voice interrupted him.

"You've reached Téa Gardner. I can't get to my phone right now–"

Yugi moved the receiver away from his face, glancing at it in confusion. 'Her voice mail?' Yugi hung up before the beep. His congratulations wouldn't be appropriate delivered as some recorded message. He wanted to talk to her, not a recording of her. It was all he could think of to say to her, anyway. It wasn't as if he had any good news about the search for the missing God Cards, or the mysterious monster sightings.

It had been ten days since Téa's departure, but the so-called "Three Swordsmen of Doma" had yet to reappear. Yugi surmised that all three God Cards were still with them –wherever they were. Until he could piece together some clues, they would remain beyond his reach.

Is this what that “phantom limb” syndrome is like?’ Yugi wondered. He could never tell anyone that missing a trio of collectible trading cards felt as though a wind tunnel gaped inside him, hollow and cold.  

That, and he didn't like the idea of the God Cards in the hands of anyone who could make it rain monsters or suck souls from people.

Pegasus was the one who made the cards…' Pegasus hadn't made it "rain monsters," but soul-sucking was definitely a talent of his.

The thought gave Yugi pause. Pegasus was still alive–he'd revealed as much when he showed up at the Duel Dome earlier this year, during the Anubis incident. Even if he was "retired" from Industrial Illusions, Yugi knew that Pegasus still had to be keeping an active eye on current events. Especially if they related to his precious Duel Monsters franchise.

Who cared if it was late in the United States? Yugi picked up the phone's receiver from its cradle once more and started to dial.


"I know you said you were going to take us to see someone, but I didn’t picture a place like this!" Mai shouted over the growl of Valon’s winding-down motorcycle as she disembarked. Téa gingerly lifted herself out of the sidecar, grabbing as much as she could from the surrounding mess of luggage.

A massive gray building loomed before them, wide and blocky. There was nothing particularly unique about it, except for the large logo hanging above the cavernous doors. Mai didn't even spare a glance at it as she walked in. Téa wondered what this place had to do with a caduceus with a circular snake instead of the usual pair of snakes twined around a single rod. A streetlight flickered and then she saw it, just as Mai and Valon started to disappear into the doorway.

'That symbol!' Without a doubt, it was the Seal of Orichalcos imposed over the snakes, its points stretching past a perfect circle. And was that a third snake, its maw open to reveal monstrous fangs, instead of a winged rod?

There was no doubt now: Valon was definitely the same guy who'd stolen one of the God Cards, one of the "three swordsmen of Doma." And this place…

Téa stared up at the building, its doorway a cavernous mouth with shadowed fangs, a dank humidity bubbling from the darkness.

"You coming, kid?" Mai called from the pitch-black doorway. She looked weary.

Valon schooled his own expression into something neutral, unreadable.

‘Does he know that I know?

It was a risk she would have to take. No way she’d let Mai walk into a place like this alone.

Téa trotted after them, hefting some of their bags. Valon obligingly grabbed the two largest. He lifted them over his shoulders without so much as a grunt, despite Mai’s wide eyes and Téa’s short-lived verbal protest.

“Come on. This place looks way worse on the outside than it does in. There’s a reason for its name, see?”

“What is this place called, anyway?” Téa asked, speaking to Valon directly.

“Paradias,” Valon said with a chuckle. “Trust me, you’ll get it once we get inside more."

They walked through the dim hallway, while the smallest noises echoed off stone walls. They couldn't see much. Still, the hairs on Téa’s forearms rose, faint stalks peppered with goosebumps beneath. Maybe it was the smell. It was the smell of old, dusty things interspersed with the humidity. It seemed so out of place from a building so huge—and the path that seemed to be leading them further down, not up.

This was doubtless some vestigial memory from her first trip to a haunted house as a kid. Téa shook her head. Maybe that way she could clear out the prickling sensation. It had started on her arms and worked its way up her torso until it wrapped around her neck like a suffocating scarf.

‘I’m being stupid.’

"Seen one dark, dank hallway, seen them all?" Téa muttered under her breath.

"Say something, Princess?" Valon glanced over the hefty bags he carried over his shoulder like they were no more than pillows.

Téa blushed at the unexpected nickname, and bit the inside of her lip when she realized how hot her cheeks had gotten. "No, nothing." She kept her eyes downward until Valon stopped at the entryway to a massive chamber –one humming with life.

Mai and Téa dropped their respective bags at the doorway. They found themselves staring down a staircase at a bustling room full of people. They were all acting as though they were waiting for something… or someone.  Thanks to some intermittent torches lining the wall, Tea could make out a dais sitting at the far end of the room. She thought she could make out the faint traces of that same Orichalcos logo on the wall behind it. Though everyone stood and looked toward the empty dais, nothing was there: no podium, no table, not even a chair. Nothing… and no one.

'What–or who–are they all waiting for?' Téa wondered. There had to be at least two hundred people in the chamber, if not more. Some sat on long stone benches, but many others just stood, murmuring –leaning against the walls, shifting in the aisle way.

"I must have left my conference badge in my other purse," Mai quipped, casting an inquisitive glance at Valon. He had just handed off Mai and Téa's largest bags to a black-clad attendant. The attendant nodded in response to Valon said. Then he and another attendant, formed from the shadows themselves, took Mai and Téa's other belongings. They sank back into the darkness of a side hall Téa hadn't noticed was there before.

"They're going to bring your things to your room. But in the meantime, I thought you might want to join us. Get a chance to meet the guy who's going to help you change your fate."

Téa swallowed. 'Forget Valon being part of some weird magical gang that stole the God Cards! This guy's a total cultist!'

"Come on!" He waved with one hand and started trotting down the stairs, offering a jaunty wave to someone near the bottom. Mai glanced around. Her face was expressionless, but still she followed him, keeping a slow, observational pace.

Téa hadn't realized that the idea of Valon, Paradias place, and Doma group being some sort of creepy cult made her step back. But then she noticed Mai looking back at her from midway down the stairs, but she didn't say anything.

Okay, so her bags were somewhere in Hotel Mystery. Maybe somewhere here in Weird Headquarters. After their motorcycle ride in the pouring rain and dark.

Mai was going to hear this guy out –whoever he was, with his promises of changing the fate. All because Valon offered her a hand to hold and a sweet smile?

'No, she's smarter than that. We both are.'

And that meant running away wasn't an option.

Téa sucked in a deep breath, surprised that despite the cold, greenish atmosphere of the place, the air didn't actually feel all that humid. She had expected it to smell like mildew, but instead, the air in this place was…

'Fresh?'

She squared her shoulders, shook off the déjà vu that permeated her senses, and wandered after Mai and Valon down the stairs.

Valon squirmed his way through one of the side aisles to near the dais. He stood next to a shadowy form a good amount taller than him and another, centimeters taller than Valon, but not as sinewy. Valon seemed to be chatting like they were his old friends, but the other two had their arms across their chests. They looked like statues.

"Can't see much from here," Téa commented as she approached Mai. She squeezed past a taller man with olive skin and muscles layered on muscles. She popped out of the line of people between him and a lanky woman with hair down to her waist and high cheekbones illuminated by the flickering light. She'd only been able to spy Valon chatting it up with the other two guys.

'They're probably the guys who have Ra and Obelisk,' Téa realized when she was on the last step of the staircase.

Mai had her lips open as if to reply, when a whooshing sound filled the chamber. Torches that Téa hadn't noticed before flared to life. Before, only a third of the torches had been lit. Now, every single one of them bloomed in flame, casting the chamber in a play of dancing light and shadow.

Téa's gaze swung around the room. When her eyes finally met the dais, she saw a man there –one who hadn't been there before, and who most assuredly would have stood out among the crowd.

Clad in white robes lined in turquoise, he had an impressive head of bright hair. It was almost a bright white, but it had a hint of green in it. Thick strands flowed over his shoulders, past his waist– and gathered into a low-hanging tail that almost brushed the backs of his knees.

Even from this great distance, Téa could make out the large green pendant hanging from his neck. Even though hundreds of people separated them, Téa felt as though he were staring straight at her.

She shivered. He wasn't imposing, but…

He had no microphone, but when the strange man spoke, the whole room quieted.

"Good evening."

He let that greeting hang in the air for a moment before continuing. "I am Dartz. I'm sure many of you are wondering why you are here. I'll be brief. Each of you has a unique skill, trait, or ability that sets you apart from the others you have chosen to surround yourself with until this moment. Until this moment, you have not had the chance to use those abilities to their fullest," Dartz added. He started to stride across the dais, "to make a difference in the world, to make it a truly better place!"

Dartz stopped at one end of the dais and glanced at the crowd, his face set with a stern frown. "The pace at which this world changes for the better of all is far too slow. But here –together!– we can change the world within a matter of months!"

A murmur rippled throughout the crowd. Téa could make out some of the snippets of conversation. There were voices young and old, some speaking in English while others spoke other languages Téa could only guess at identifying.

"I ask you –my chosen ones, only the finest and most skilled of all humanity– will you envision a better world with me? Imagine a world where there is no war!" The lanterns flared again, the flames seeming to lick the walls higher and higher.

"No poverty!"

Again– the whooshing of flames, the light continuing to crawl up the wall. Would the darkness swallow the torches, or would they chase the darkness away?

"No hunger!" The flames danced higher still, almost converging as they approached the invisible ceiling.

No one else seemed startled by the flames growing ever higher. It wasn't as if some sort of pipes linked the torches together– at least, none that Téa could see. Who knew what was lurking behind the walls of this weird place, aside from black-clad bag ninjas?

"No sickness!"

Higher still, and this time, Téa thought she could almost make out a shape in the center of the chamber ceiling.

"I come from that world," Dartz said, and the torches shot up their tallest burst of fire yet. They united on what seemed to be an especially large disc of some sort hanging from the ceiling. In a split second, that curved disc flared with light. It illuminated the whole chamber, much to the astonishment of almost everyone inside.

Brilliant light bathed what Téa at first thought was a dank chamber with dark walls, light enough to rival the largest of chandeliers. The walls were not dark, but bright white marble laced with veins of faint green and gold. It was no dark pit.

The place looked finer than any ballroom Téa had ever been in. Sumptuous cushions piled on the floor in various places. Rich, colorful carvings stretched along the walls. A velvety scarlet carpet lined the dais.

When the murmuring died down, Dartz spoke once more.

"There are those among you who are the elite. You are all the best of the best that humanity has to offer. But who among you can shed their worldly limitations? Who among you has no fear? Who," Dartz continued, his gaze sweeping across the room. Once again, Téa felt as though he was staring right at her, "has infinite imagination?"

Dartz opened his palm, and a brilliant pillar of light rose from it, the faintest of shadows hovering within. It was lumpy and small –about the size of an apricot, Téa thought– and somehow just floating there.

'It's gotta be some sort of trick.' That was how all cults worked, right? All this was just some sort of elaborate stage trick. The torches were probably rigged to some sort of butane system or something. And the curved disc at the top of the ceiling was likely filled with some sort of oil.

And the pillar of his light emerging from his palm?

Téa glanced up to see if she could spot some sort of spotlight, but there was nothing. Nothing but the giant disc with its own flames licking out like forked snake tongues.

"Those of you who believe you are among the elite, I ask you: prove yourselves. Approach this stage and grasp the Light of the Orichalcos!"

'Well, that clinches it.'

If there was any tiny, infinitesimal chance that Valon wasn't the same guy who'd stolen one of the God cards… If that the symbol of this "Paradias" place had nothing to do with the Seal of the Orichalcos…  Téa had felt that power shudder underneath her hands. That chance flickered away like a candle flame in the presence of a roaring wind.

‘Where are the exits in this place?’ Téa glanced about, hoping to spy one of those illuminated signs, but all she saw was wall. Walls of marble and walls of people.

Suddenly she saw Mai brush past her, walking toward the center aisle.

"I'll do it." Mai's voice was loud and clear, and all eyes swiveled to watch her approach the front of the chamber.

Téa almost reached out to grasp Mai's arm, to pull her back. She had to remind Mai of what she'd said back on the Arielle - the three weird swordsmen, the theft of the God Cards, and monsters coming to life to terrorize the city!

Her hand fell back as Mai stepped forward. This was a decision Mai made on her own. She had plenty of fears, though. And…

She didn't know what they intended to do with the God Cards, but she sure as hell wasn't going to let Mai find out alone.

Téa bent her head low and followed after Mai.

They made it to the dais, within punching distance of the guys that Téa knew now stole the God Cards and messed up everything back home. Dartz regarded Mai coolly as he continued to hold the pillar of light in his palm.

"You believe yourself capable, Mai Valentine?" Dartz asked. Mai didn't blink, even though Dartz knew her name without having asked. She nodded once, the movement sharp and firm. "You believe yourself elite?" His tongue pushed against his teeth with that word, and Téa wondered if he actually had a forked tongue.

"There is a fine line between confidence and arrogance, child," Dartz said, withdrawing his hand from the pillar of light. Téa's eyes widened as the pillar continued to shine, the light now reaching to the floor. The shadowy shape continued to hover within, taunting those from outside the beam of light to try, just try and grasp it.

"Arrogance is claiming I have no fear. Confidence is recognizing the fact that it will never again control me," Mai replied, her voice soft. Not broken, not cracking or hoarse… just soft. Not resigned, either, Téa decided. No, ever since she'd put her hand in Valon's, Mai had not once sounded "defeated."

"This is how I've felt since Battle City. I've just been… I've just been hiding it."

In the almost-white light, Téa could make out the red rims of her friend's eyes. The eyes they surrounded were bright and clear. There was nothing hiding in there anymore –nothing fearful or angry, but also nothing joyful or proud.

"Good answer," Valon stage-whispered from the side of the dais. Téa glanced at him and the two men beside him. The taller, bulkier man was a stoic blond with long sideburns and a trench coat that almost hit the floor. The other was a more slight man, with an odd crop top underneath a greenish-gray jacket festooned with buckles.

Mai didn't look at Valon or even crack a smile at his "approval." Instead she just thrust a hand into the light.

Her fingers closed around the shadow while the light surrounding it seemed to crackle and flare as if alive, furious at the intrusion.

Moments later, Mai withdrew her hand. The fire that had appeared searing left her unscathed. In her palm lay a long, teardrop-shaped pendant. Mai tilted her head back and cracked her neck, and for a brief moment, Téa thought she saw the Seal of Orichalcos fade from her friend's brow.

"You have surrendered your weakness to the light, Mai Valentine. You now serve the Orichalcos." Dartz nodded, and Valon walked forward, a strip of black cloth with two small chains on the ends in his hand. He handed it to Mai, who affixed the pendant onto a tiny ring stitched into the bottom of the choker. She lifted her hair and allowed Valon to clasp the chains together. When her hair fell down and she faced Téa, right behind and below her on the dais, her eyes seemed… different.

The pendant fell just above her breasts. It glistened with a light alike that of the pillar. It still had a slow-moving shadow inside of it, tempting the next brave soul to plunge his or her hand within to see what would happen.

"Téa Gardner. It is your turn."

Téa cast a glance at her friend departing the dais to stand beside Valon, but this time, Mai didn't look back. When she turned around to face the center of the dais, her eyes were only on the light, not on Téa.

Téa swallowed. Cult or not… real magic or not…

"Change the fate of the whole world. What do you say?"

Yugi believed in some sort of fate– a destiny, a Heart of the Cards, even. Seto… He didn’t believe in fate. He believed in forging his own road. There was no higher power, no guiding hand. You always wound up alone.

‘I make my own fate. No one else. Me.’

It wasn't like what Yugi believed, but it wasn't Seto's stubborn anti-belief, either.

Téa stared at the shadow rotating in the beam of light, challenging it with her eyes. Let it tempt her. Let it try and change her. Let it try and seal her away from everything she stood for.

So what if the pillar looked as though someone had forged it into white-hot flame?

So what if it was no parlor trick, not now, standing right in front of it and seeing it for herself?

So what if Yugi and the others would tell her she was being crazy, brainwashed by some crazy cultist guy with a bad wardrobe and worse hair?

So what if Seto told her she was being foolish, a desperate cheerleader out to prove herself?

'So what?'

Téa plunged her hand into the beam of light and let it swallow her whole.



Take that, TV Tropes!