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Guys and Duels

Chapter Text

Author's Note and Disclaimer: Since this fic is a crossover between Yu-Gi-Oh! and  Guys and Dolls at times I have decided to incorporate dialogue from the 1955  Guys and Dolls  film into this fic where appropriate.  So... getting all that out of the way. If it's a clever line, I assure you,  I didn't write it. It's probably from the 1955 film.

I own nothing except my undying love of Trustshipping.

At the time, no one saw it coming. In hindsight, it was fairly obvious. Domino City had been reeling from the latest wave of destruction. The government, in the way that lifetime bureaucrats and politicians do, blamed the opposition for the problems and only stepped down amid protests.

First came the Zoning Ordinances, which spelled out exactly where plein air dueling was allowed to occur. Quite stringent ordinances restricting plein air dueling to the outskirts of Domino. The legislation was passed only months after the latest wave of chaos, when a foolhardy group of kids with too much money and too many powerful cards had leveled an entire neighborhood in the wealthy center of Domino, hospitalizing thirty citizens in the process and destroying a wing of the Domino Museum of Art and Artefacts. (Of course, many argued, now that the upper crust were feeling the pain that had plagued citizens of lower incomes for a decade, only now did the government act to "restore the greatness of our city.") Ishizu Ishtar, the recently hired Director of the Domino Museum, had campaigned passionately for the passage of the ordinances. She had been trapped for 34 hours under debris, and had begun meeting with officials while still in her hospital bed.

Next came the TDDMRs: the Temporary Duel Disk Manufactures Regulations. The move was greeted favorably, though less widely so. The restrictions prohibited the manufacture of new duel disks and made it harder for inexperienced players to get their hands on the technology, a move that many experienced duelists found satisfactory. There were murmurs of dissent, mostly buzzing around KaibaCorp, but those were soon drowned out by the public, scared and clamoring for more.

Next came the Card Acquisition Restrictions, a move that pained the creator of Duel Monsters, the eccentric recluse Maximillian Pegasus. But still, he acquiesced, and spread the word to Industrial Illusions that the Domino account was forever closed, that no duelists in Domino were permitted to purchase new cards. As expected, the black market for cards sprang up almost overnight while many venerable gaming shops roiled, but the duelists who had created strong decks in the years prior were not largely bothered. They resorted to playing their civilized games in the most private of clubs, where money and favors got them what they wanted.

Was it the idealistic new Mayor Devlin, working overtime? Had the anti-duelist lobby finally gotten its dollars into the pertinent pockets of Domino's legislature? At a greater and greater rate laws were being proposed and approved. Soon duel disks were banned outright from being sold. Soon possession became a misdemeanor, punishable by a hefty fine. Misdemeanors became felonies, requiring jail time. Soon only those duelists who were able to get money into the right pockets were able to keep their decks, which were pronounced illegal not long after. First fines, then mandatory jail time. The mayor appointed a special order of Regulators, led by Officer Bakura, who had the mayor's ear and was known for his …creative approaches to crime solving. A veritable exodus occurred shortly thereafter, and many famous duelists fled Domino, including the menacing, if slightly ridiculous, former champion Bandit Keith.

Next came the most heartbreaking move for many: all game shops that sold any Duel Monsters supplies, paraphernalia, or memorabilia, were closed abruptly, with no compensation from the city. It was a truly heartbreaking move for one Yugi Moto, who had grown up above his grandfather's game shop and from these humble beginnings had risen to the ranks of the top duelists worldwide. Honest, loyal, vertically challenged Yugi Moto watched his grandfather close up shop for the last time and burn every last card in the building and in that moment, Yugi broke.

When the city finally did the inevitable and banned all duels indefinitely, punishable with life in prison for any offenders and/or accomplices, many of the duelists who stayed in the city shrugged, sighed, hung up their hats, and found other work. Mai Valentine, the buxom blonde former champion, had split from town. The other duelists sank beneath the slick surface of the city streets and played their games wherever they could: in basements, in alleyways in the dead of night, in back rooms of seedy cafes where no one was looking, and in sewers (although that was a last resort). Yugi Moto soon found himself as the de facto head of the underground duels, and with the muscle provided by his lifelong friends Joey Wheeler and Tristan Taylor, both "ex"-duelists themselves, he soon became the go-to man a duelist looking for one of his "floating card games".

When Seto Kaiba suddenly announced he was taking a leave of absence from KaibaCorp and from Domino "explore new options in design and in investments", many suspected that it was politics that did him in. That a coalition of officials had banished him and his company, without whom the infamous duel disk would never have been created, from Domino. Soon Domino was without its most eligible bachelor and, more importantly, its chief innovator and job creator. Seto had put his precocious younger brother Mokuba in charge as interim CEO, but still stocks plummeted. Seto and his life soon became a myth, a legacy, with people remembering him as a mysterious, talented duelist, a martyr, a fallen angel.

Officer Bakura and his Regulators (some would say gang) began roving Domino, sniffing out any whiff of a duel. Yugi's floating games were the worst kept secret in Domino, but somehow Bakura was unable to pin anything on him. He prowled around restaurants, around cafes, around the now-deserted arenas and stadiums, and around the club where Yugi's girlfriend, Téa, worked as a dancer, but he'd been unlucky as of yet.

And so life in Domino went on. On the surface, it was gleaming and bright: the main source of the city's pain and misery had been successfully banned. Mayor Devlin was young, healthy, and popular, and, with a coalition of politicians behind him, pledged a renewal and rebuilding effort. He and Ishizu Ishtar spearheaded a new initiative, designed to turn duelists away from their destructive games and towards the arts. Office Bakura was brining in fewer and fewer violators every day. But if one were to chip away at the brightness with their fingernail, it crumbled and revealed its weakness, revealed the rotten flesh of Domino City beneath the polish, a festering sore that grew sicker daily.

But what of Yugi, the "King of Games", the innocent turned crimelord? What of Ishizu Ishtar, the piercingly intelligent art and artifact expert, whose efforts seemed more futile and more foolish each day? What of Seto Kaiba, the haughty billionaire genius, who had fled the city?

Chapter Text

"I'm sorry, Mr. Raptor, but I can't help it that your carelessness caused you to gamble away your rarest cards." The petite man with ridiculously spiky hair sat behind a small café table in the corner booth, his round violet eyes stony. He regarded the taller long-haired duelist, currently drunk and in his face, with a mixture of both pity and necessary condescension. He was not going to let this idiot, a once-proud former champion (with a penchant for dinosaur cards, if he was not mistaken), be a liability.

"Perhaps you should consider better games, like Go Fish. That should be right up your alley." He chuckled, then fixed his glare upon the man's companion, who wisely was keeping calm. "I cannot help you. Please turn in your duel disk to my men here, or find another circle of floating games to frequent. Good day."

Raptor, however, wasn't having any of it. He slammed his hands down on the café table and leaned in close. Something pungent permeated his breath. "That's bullshit, Moto! I'm not gonna let you and your fucking thugs cost me my deck! I'm going to Officer Bakura with your next location, and you, all of you, you're fuckin' goin' down!" He gesticulated wildly around the room, accusing all the other men in the room who averted their eyes out of embarrassment.

Yugi stood up and leaned in, narrowing his eyes. Standing up he was only about five feet, but he carried a gravitas that made men much larger than he feel threatened.

"I am not responsible for your failures, Mr. Raptor. Now, we had an agreement. All of us in my circle, we agree to a verbal contract. You do not talk about the locations. You do not make a fool of yourself. Raptor, I wish I could help you. You were a great duelist once, and this time is hard on all of us, isn't it, boys?" Yugi looked around the room at the other duelists, a weary, true smile playing on his lips. Nods and murmurs of assent.

He cut his eyes back to Raptor. Was it Raptor's imagination, or had Yugi's eyes bloodied through to a shade of crimson? "But you, my poor, poor fellow, you lost my sympathy. You dishonored the game with your incredibly stupid bet. And you broke another rule. You forget, we are civilized here. While under my roof, under my protection, in my circle, you do not fucking swear." He motioned to the tall blond and brunet by his side, who rose from their seats. The brunet grabbed ahold of Raptor, while the blond crushed Raptor's friend's shoulder with his grasp.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Underwood, but your rather ill-advised decision to accompany Mr. Raptor here today has consequences for you as well." Raptor's friend paled the same green as his bowl cut. "Perhaps choose a more intimidating backup next time you choose to threaten someone more powerful than you, Mr. Raptor."

"I am going to be a fucking knife in your back, Moto! You'll regret screwing me over, you son of a bitch!" Raptor continued screaming threats as he was dragged out the back door of the bar with Underwood in tow. Screams and blows soon could be heard inside the bar. Joey and Tristan doing what needed to be done. Just doing their jobs.

The rest of the duelists returned to their business, chatting briskly, while Yugi slumped in his seat and placed his head in his hands. Tears brimmed in his eyes as he heard Raptor and Underwood give out final cries of agony. This was all too exhausting, too much sometimes. Having to call upon that part of himself that was strong, that was commanding, that condoned this sort of violence in order to protect his illegal activities.

It was becoming increasingly difficult to keep a lid on that side of himself.

He could feel himself shivering, turning green. Stop. Get it together. These men look up to you. They need you, and yet they will welch on you at a moment's notice to save their own skin. Nothing is permanent. You are not safe. Get your act together. Stop it. Already he knew that the night would not end well, that alcohol and maybe something harsher would flood his body. Anything to take the edge off.

The door swung open and Joey and Tristan entered, sweaty, their knuckles dotted with blood. Tristan sauntered up to the register, ordered some stiff drinks. Joey quickly hurried to Yugi's side and placed a hand on his back comfortingly. Just like old times. Just like when they were kids, before shit had really gotten heavy.

"It's gonna be okay, Yug."

But empty promises are the most appealing kind.

Yugi flinched, took a shaky breath. "I just hate this part, that's all..."

He reached into his suit breast pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. He wiped the sweat dripping off the end of his nose and then passed it to Joey, who wiped his rosy knuckles clean. Tristan returned to the corner booth with a tray of glasses filled with ice and something alcoholic. Joey passed him the handkerchief and took a gulp from one of the glasses. Tristan wiped his face and hands. He swung down into the booth with Joey and Yugi. The three men were silent amidst the swirl, the murmur of the other duelists in the bar.

Ignoring the clock on the wall that said 4:15 am, Yugi downed the liquid in the glass as color flooded his cheeks. Still the anxiety piped in hot adrenaline through his veins. He grimaced at the taste of scotch as it roared in his ears. Tristan handed Yugi the handkerchief, who wiped the sweat off his brow with shaking hands.

The other duelists in the room had begun talking amongst themselves, leaning over one another's shoulder, discussing cards. They all consciously ignored the trio in the booth. They knew that during times like these it was best to just wait it out, to pretend nothing was wrong so that Yugi could recover, get back on his feet.

Times like these seemed to be happening more and more often these days. Recovery seemed to take longer.

It was a while before someone in the throng gathered up the audacity to ask:

"So, Moto, where's the next floating game going to be?"

Chapter Text

Several hours later, a few blocks away from the bar, Ishizu Ishtar was busy at work. She and several of her colleagues had to do some dirty work today; they had been assisting the building crew with the new wing of the Domino Museum of Art and Artefacts. Her staff members (who were practically her brothers) Odion and Marik, who had been transplanted along with Ishizu from Cairo, had donned workmen's clothes and were helping the hired crew dig the foundations. Ishizu herself, ever the tireless worker, was deep in the trenches laying steel and concrete with the best of them. Shirtsleeves rolled up, knee deep in dirt, sweat soaking her back, Ishizu Ishtar was not one to let any detail go to chance. Especially with the Museum. The new Devlin wing, named for a kind grant from the sympathetic new mayor, could not afford to go over budget, especially now when so much municipal funding had to go towards repairing other, more "essential" city services such as the ruined elevated trains and subways.

Ishizu had fought long and hard to secure the funding for the replacement wing as well as for the new Domino City Arts Reformation Program, or D-CARP. She'd been nearly killed several months earlier in the accident and had met, debated, cajoled city council members with two black eyes, several broken ribs, a cracked pelvis and tubes in her until, thanks to Mayor Devlin, they agreed to appoint her Domino Arts Representative and fund a pilot year of D-CARP.

The idea behind D-CARP was to lure the clandestine duelists from wherever they were hiding and carrying out their dangerous games not only to help beautify the city, but to invest time and effort by volunteering in the Museum. In exchange for their approved participation, along with mandatory check-ins and counseling sessions (along with potentially turning in their fellow duelists), the participants could re-enter civilized society and receive a lighter sentence for their crimes against the city.

Good works are good for the soul. Art is best for the soul. Ishizu knew this to be true in her heart. Now the hard part was getting the new wing off the ground, not to mention D-CARP. Ishizu hadn't slept more than three hours a night since she'd been allowed to leave the hospital. The Museum had been closed since the accident. The construction was supposed to finish within the year. The new modern, glass-paneled wing would house the museum's collection of Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan and Roman antiquities, an area in which Ishizu specialized.

So, then, D-CARP was the target for the time being. Unfortunately, the program lacked a lure. The fish weren't nibbling.

Marik came up behind Ishizu and tapped on her shoulder. "Ishizu, you'd better take a break from the site today." Marik, along with Odion, had trained with Ishizu back in Cairo. The yellow-haired former was a genius with hieroglyphs, spoke and read and wrote in them like a mother tongue. The hulking, tattooed latter was, among other functions, the most meticulous conservator and preparator Ishizu had ever seen.

Ishizu turned sharply. "Marik, if I don't stay on the site…"

"… it won't be done properly. Yada yada. Ishizu, we know how to do this. know how to do this. You don't need to micromanage every little detail…" A small smile quirked Marik's lips. He knew better than practically anyone. He could see the weariness behind Ishizu's coffee-colored skin and the bags beneath her eyes.

Ishizu knew as well. This was part of their routine: Marik playfully convincing Ishizu to take a break from the long hours, or at least take a catnap, Ishizu only half-jokingly relenting. "But if I don't micromanage, what am going to do?"

"Why don't you take some flyers from your office and go around town advertising the D-CARP event?"

Ishizu sighed. "Do you really think that will help, Marik?" So far, newspaper editorials and televised press conferences, including one from her hospital bed, had accomplished nothing. Were flyers really supposed to make up that loss?

Marik placed a hand on her shoulder. Ishizu knew she should feel irked at her junior colleague, but couldn't help feeling a bit comforted. "Well, Ishizu, you're certainly not a lot of help around here—I mean, how are the workmen supposed to pay attention when you're, y'know, all bending over… and sweating and groaning…" Marik winked, knowing that the only way to get Ishizu to take a break was to piss her off a bit.

"Not cool, Marik." Ishizu rolled her eyes. Marik hastily bowed his head in apology.

"Okay, okay, I get it." She pushed down her shirtsleeves and hiked up out of the trench. Marik stuck his tongue out at her and made his way down to where Odion was handling some kind of power tools, placing a hand on the small of his back when he thought no one was looking.

Ishizu dug her keychain out of her pocket and made her way to the stately Main Building of the Domino Museum. The galleries with their impeccably labeled works of art were dim and empty, and Ishizu's heart sank a bit. Her footsteps echoed over the hardwood floors as she made her way to the elevator, stuck in one of her keys, typed her passcode, and waited for the lurching cart to take her to the administrative floor where her office was.

In the darkened elevator, Ishizu couldn't help but feel nauseated and short of breath. She felt like she'd made a misstep somewhere in accepting her role as Director of D-CARP. Soon, she'd make a mistake, if she hadn't already. She already felt like a failure—six weeks and not a peep from the underground duelist networks. Despite Mayor Devlin's and Officer Bakura's best efforts, nothing much seemed to be changing. The cynical side of her wondered if art, of all things, could even help these debased, irresponsible criminals. The optimist in her, though, countered that if nothing else worked, why not try art?

Ding. She quickly made her way through the offices, ignoring the lump in her throat as she thought of all her poor employees, obligated during this process to take a leave of absence. Of course, it was paid leave, but having no family of her own in the area, let alone the country, Ishizu missed the camaraderie of her staff. The long hours stretching to what seemed like days in the galleries preparing a show, making sure every last detail was perfect

Ishizu threw open the door to her office. The clock on the wall read 9:00 am. She located and clipped the flyers for the D-CARP event into a neat pile. The plan was to open the museum for one night on the next Saturday night, where, with free food and drink and entertainment, hopefully the duelists would emerge and begin to see the error of their ways, sign up for the program and rejoin society.

Even in her head it sounded stupid.

Chapter Text

"No, honey, if you don't use tape, you're gonna be flashin' everyone in the audience."

Téa Gardner sighed and jumped up and down again, watching her chest threaten to explode out of the ridiculously skimpy top. She knew that in this business, double-sided tape was necessary, unless you wanted the guests to get a nipple in the face. And while some girls certainly had no qualms about that sort of thing (since it usually led to being invited to spend the night in some glamorous fiftieth-floor hotel), it wasn't exactly Téa's style.

"Maybe I want to flash everyone. D'you ever think about that?" Téa retorted sarcastically, throwing herself dramatically in her seat before the sparkly vanity mirror. She began dotting foundation on her face. "Maybe I want to get some rich guy's attention during the finale…"

The girl next to her rolled her eyes. "Like that's gonna happen. You've been datin' that Yugi Moto for what, fourteen years now?"

Téa blushed, threw down her powder puff. "God, do I look like I've been dating anyone for fourteen years?"

"Seems pretty serious is all." A few girls snorted as they adjusted their magnificent cleavage in the mirror.

While it hadn't been quite fourteen years, Téa and Yugi had been dating for what many considered to be an obscenely long amount of time once you factored in the lack of a ring. Téa and Yugi had discussed this situation many, many times over the course of their relationship, and had decided that until Yugi managed to sort his affairs out and establish himself legitimately, marriage was just going to have to wait.

Not that Téa was particularly overjoyed about that. It would be nice to quit her job at the House of Pegasus, or at least return to the kind of dancing she'd wanted to do her entire life. Not to knock the kind of shows she was in seven nights a week (plus Sunday matinees), but after years moving up the ranks from lowly coat-check girl to main attraction, Téa wanted to do something more… artistic, where her talent and performance would edge out her long peachy legs in terms of what drew audiences.

It had been hard on both of them when dueling—and Yugi's entire livelihood—had been banned from Domino. Yugi's winnings from various exhibition tournaments around the city had been their main source of income. Ah, those flush, golden, green years, where Téa had been able to accompany Yugi to all the glamorous premieres, clothed in the finest designer dresses. Quickly enough, they'd had to sell the nice brownstone with the prettily flowering backyard and move into a cramped studio above the bar where Yugi, Joey, and Tristan seemed to spend more and more of their time these days.

It had also been worse, Téa noted grimly, ever since Seto Kaiba took off. When that had happened, the layoffs around town had been even worse. Mokuba's best efforts, that brilliant but naïve kid, had failed to turn it around. Pegasus himself had had to find other ways of supplementing his wealth. Hence, the House of Pegasus. Dance clubs, it seemed, were all the rage these days.

When Yugi did come home, he came back at disgusting hours. He always smelled of drink, bandages wrapped around his arms, his petite body overwhelmed with sadness and rage. Téa had pretended to be asleep in their bed while he wept and fought with himself in equal measure. Sometimes his eyes would turn bloody crimson and his voice would grow dark and menacing, and Téa would jump out of bed and silently hold him in her arms until he fell asleep. Nights like this left Téa unable to do the same.

Nights like these seemed to be happening more and more often.

As the dancers waited for their cue call, the gossip mill restarted in full force. "You know what I heard? I heard he and those goons Wheeler and Taylor are still underground…"

"… Yeah, that's fuckin' old news now."

"I heard that they're going to try to schedule a game this weekend at Espa Roba's place… if they can pony up ten thousand dollars. Where's that money gonna come from huh, Téa?"

"You'd better work hard this week if Loverboy's gonna get his game on…" The girls preened and tittered, stealing glances at Téa's increasingly agitated attitude.

"Like your dumbass boyfriends are any better." Téa glared at the row of dancers. "At least my man was the King of Games while dueling was legit. And he's getting back on his feet, which is better than I can say for your fuckin' sorry excuses for cocks."

That part wasn't exactly true. But best to remind the chorus girls of their place.

Téa finished applying the last of her makeup. She stood and stuck some tape on her chest halfheartedly and reached around for her tall headpiece. How am I supposed to turn this all around? I wish Yugi could break out of this rut—go legitimate, maybe get counseling. I wish I could get out of here. I wish…

"And now announcing, for your partaking pleasure… the nubile, the nasty, the naughty Dark Magician Girl Revue!"

As Téa and the girls swarmed the stage, limbs loose and eyes twinkling, she wondered idly if she would find her Yugi in the crowd, smile on his face, violet eyes glowing with love, and if she wouldn't have to save the both of them this time.

Chapter Text

Yugi climbed to stand on the table, cleared his throat, and forced a smile. Just like that, he commanded the attention of the room. "Well, I have good news and I have bad news on that front, boys.

"The good news is, since my good friends Joey Wheeler and Tristan Taylor have, ahem, taken out the trash, we can now plan in earnest.

"The bad news is… well… we don't exactly have a spot for the next game. I'm opening up the floor to suggestions." The room was abuzz. Hands shot up in the air, clamoring for the attention of the King of Games.

"Well, Espa Roba's offering his garage up for our use next Saturday night… he'll clear out the space, pay off the neighborhood watch, everything!"

"What's the catch?" Yugi asked pointedly.

"Well… he wants ten thou for the night…" and the poor sucker was promptly laughed all the way to the john.

"Ten thousand? For one night?" Yugi was almost charmed by his former combatant's audacity. Where in hell were they supposed to get that kind of money? "What else have we got?"

Hands thrust into the air again. It seemed every idiot and his brother had an idea. The need for a duel was just that desperate.

Of course it was just their luck that at that moment, someone spotted Officer Bakura's spiky white hair floating down the block. That someone stuck two fingers in his mouth, blew a piercing double whistle, and the throng of duelists hastily split up among the room, making idle chat, smoking cigarettes. Yugi took this opportunity to promptly hop over the counter of the bar and hide under the wide oak barrier. Tristan and Joey jumped behind the bar, slinging on their aprons, and busied themselves with drinks and the like, all the while helping Yugi maintain his hiding place. This sort of thing was getting to be downright undignified, but what could Yugi do? Officer Bakura had it out for Yugi, and without Yugi's relative intelligence and iron-fisted control over the duelists, there were going to be no games. And that would simply not do.

The chimes by the door chimed gently in the ensuing murmur as the pointy figure of Officer Bakura, clad in a sharp tweed suit and clearly packing heat, entered the bar. His skin was dealthly pale and his hair that astounding white, though his rather pretty face was unlined. His light brown eyes seemed to shift to yellow when he leered, which was often.

Officer Bakura sidled up his way to the bar, past all the idiots, to where Yugi's right-hand men were mixing and serving drinks and putting out bowls of salted peanuts. He rolled his eyes as the blond with the ridiculously puffy hair and the brunet with the stupid spiked hair pretended to do a double take at his arrival.

"Ah! Officer Bakura! What brings you to our humble bar at this time of night?" Joey asked carefully, feigning an air of polite surprise.

"It's Detective Bakura now, Wheeler. And I'll take a rum and coke, no ice." There was a decidedly proud yet testy air to the newly christened Detective Bakura tonight. Evidently, the shiny promotion came with strings attached. With the new title came the demand for results.

"Congratulations, O Honorable Detective," said someone in the room, with a mock bow. The duelists all chuckled a bit. Beneath the bar, Yugi rolled his eyes.

Tristan wiped down a section of counter and slid Detective Bakura's drink towards him. The detective raised the glass to his lips and swirled it a bit perfunctorily.

His lips curled into a reptilian grin. "And where's our illustrious friend Yugi Moto this fine morning?" He placed the drink down on the bar and stood up abruptly, beginning to pace about the room. "Could our little King of Games be missing today?"

Joey shrugged, keeping Detective Bakura's gaze. "Why, we haven't seen Yug in… what is it now, boys? Three, four days?"

"I ain't seen him in at least a week," volunteering a duelist sitting at the far end of the bar. Several others murmured their assent.

Detective Bakura rolled his eyes. "Could he be with his lovely lady friend, Miss Gardner of the House of Pegasus?"

"It's possible," shrugged Joey, again taking the lead. "Just 'cause he's our friend don't mean we're loafing around him all the time. Man's got needs, ya know…" Here he winked at the ghostly detective, making his meaning clear.

The detective rolled his eyes again, exaggeratingly rolling his neck for emphasis. "Well, if you do happen to come across our little friend"—Yugi huffed silently at the repeated slight towards his size—"do let him know that with the fancy title comes expanded funding—courtesy of our lovely Mayor Devlin—and a whole other host of…other tools."

He strode up to the bar and leaned in close towards Joey and Tristan, his cold yellow-brown eyes positively glittering with spite. "Let Mr. Yugi Moto know, wherever he is, that Detective Bakura is breathing down everybody's neck. Let him know that he won't be able to get away with his floating card games for very much longer." A fleck of spittle ran down his chin, breaking his perfectly composed presence. He wiped his chin clean with the sleeve of his subtly expensive suit jacket.

Joey found his voice first. "… Thanks, Detective, we'll, uh, we'll sure let him know. Won't we, boys?" He managed to keep his composure as the Detective sneered, standing up straight.

Suddenly, without warning, Detective Bakura kicked at the counter right where Yugi happened to be hiding.

Yugi nearly gasped aloud at this unexpected move. He buried the lower half of his face in the crook of his elbow, willing himself to stay silent.

Clearly Detective Bakura had not produced the result he wanted. Instead he had managed to scuff his steel-toed shoe. Slightly irked now, he strutted to the door and threw it open not without a slight dramatic flair.

He whipped his head around. "I'm breathing down everyone's neck. Don't forget it!" And with that sinister proclamation, the white-haired detective was gone into the early morning sunrise.

You could have heard a card drop in the ensuing silence.

"Coast's clear!" a duelist at the window shouted, and slowly Yugi emerged from his hiding place, only the tips of his spiky hair visible at the top of the counter. He, Joey and Tristan retook their places at the corner bar, Yugi standing on the table, the other two flanking him, and a cacophony of voices rose once again.

"Why don't we just host it in the bar?" someone wondered.

Tristan stood up abruptly, his brow furrowing. "That's not going to happen. You think I'd put Serenity in danger like that?" Serenity was Tristan's fiancée and the owner of the bar, who tended it on weekend nights and served food during the day.

"Why don't we host it in the old KaibaLand?" someone else offered.

"Too unsafe. It was condemned two weeks ago and any day now they'll start dismantling it," replied Yugi. Mokuba Kaiba had regretfully had to shut down KaibaLand the previous year, as it had become prohibitively expensive to keep open and running.

"That reminds me… I saw Seto Kaiba at the airport yesterday!" exclaimed a voice near the back of the room.

The crowd immediately fell silent. Seto Kaiba is in town. Seto Kaiba is in town?

Yugi's eyes widened. "You saw Seto Kaiba yesterday? Are you sure of this information?"

The duelist who had spoken up nodded gravely. "I heard he's looking for some action. He's been traveling around but so far, no one has managed to give him a good match, let alone best him like you did, Yugi."

Well, fuck. Yugi's shoulders sagged ever so slightly. Of course Seto fucking Kaiba, Yugi's chief Duel Monsters rival, had to be back in town when things seemed to be getting impossible.

Somehow he was going to have to get ten thousand dollars for Espa Roba.

Yugi spoke abruptly, raising a single finger to quell any noise among the masses. "Gentlemen, it's been lovely partaking of your company this fine morning, Mr. Raptor and Mr. Underwood notwithstanding.

"Be assured, I will get in touch with Seto Kaiba. I will raise the funds for Espa Roba and his garage next Saturday night. Meet back here Saturday evening at seven-o-clock sharp. Wear a red carnation in your lapel as a signal. Yes, boys, that means you're to put on actual clothing.

"Meeting dismissed." And with that, the crowd began to disperse.

Yugi sat back down in the booth and buried his head in his hands. "Fuck, fuck, fuckity fuck…"

Tristan wordlessly got up and brought Yugi a bowl of salted peanuts. Yugi sniffed and promptly began stuffing his face out of sheer stress.

Joey patted Yugi on the back. "Well, you've kinda fucked yourself over there, Yug…"

"Don't you think I know that?" Yugi wiped salt off his chin and slouched down in the booth. He felt like kicking himself in the head with Detective Bakura's steel-toed shoes.

"It's too bad Kaiba hates your guts," piped up Tristan. "Otherwise you could just ask to borrow the ten thou from him."

"Kaiba'd never go for that. Doesn't involve enough humiliation from your end," cautioned Joey.

The three of them pondered in silence as Serenity, Tristan's demure, sweet fiancée, made her way down from her and Tristan's apartment (next to Yugi and Tea's studio) and began turning on the lights. "Rough night, boys?" she asked cheerily as she began to set up shop for the day. They grunted, lost in thought.

The clock on the wall read 9:30 am as people began sprinkling into the bar-turned-café. Serenity brought Yugi, Joey and Tristan each a steaming cup of black coffee, which they dutifully drank with crumpled, agonized faces.

Yugi sighed and rumpled his hair. "I didn't make it to see Téa's show last night… fuck, I didn't make it home last night…" His eyes welled up slightly, and he began itching for a rush in his veins.

Of course now Téa would appear in the doorway, pink-and-purple pea coat swirling around her tidy frame, clad in slacks and a leotard, fresh from a night of tips and sleep on her way to rehearsal at the House of Pegasus. She smiled and kissed Serenity's cheeks across the bar and made her way over to where Yugi, Joey and Tristan sat, mournfully staring into their empty mugs.

"Yugi?" Her voice was soft and clear, blue eyes shining. "Can we talk for a bit?"

Joey and Tristan rightfully took that as their cue to leave the booth.

Téa sat next to Yugi, who leaned over and kissed her on the cheek a bit wearily. "Hi, Téa."

"Yugi, we have to talk about your health. You haven't been eating right, haven't been sleeping, your arms are all…" Her eyes wide with concern, she brushed gently at the track marks on his arm, ignoring his wince.

"Oh Yugi, I wish you'd just come home.I love you. Please stop this.

Yugi nodded resignedly. "I promise I'll do better, Téa. Really. I'm just about to turn this whole thing around. I promise you."

"You don't need to come to my shows, Yugi. I can understand why you wouldn't want to see me like that with other men. I just wish you'd show up every once in a while—I don't even need a bouquet…" Téa pressed her lips to his forehead and encircled him with her arms.

"Well, I have some good news to share," Yugi said, keeping his voice light. Téa looked up in surprise.

"Seto Kaiba is back in town." As soon as the words left his mouth Yugi regretted it.

"And how on Earth is that good news?" Téa stood up abruptly, body coiled and tense.

"Um… well… perhaps he's… he's back to stay? Maybe he'll take over KaibaCorp again, start hiring… maybe he'd even hire me if he's feeling… charitable…" Yugi was clearly grasping at straws, and Téa knew it all too well.

"Yugi… please tell me he's not coming back in town to play that fucking card game with you." Téa's bell-like voice quivered a bit at the end. A few customers in the room turned their attention toward what was growing to be a genuine ruckus- a fight, even.

Neither Téa nor Yugi was particularly put off by the onlookers. Each in their own way commanded the attention of dozens nearly each night. His purple eyes pled silently while her cerulean ones turned cold. It was as if they were the only ones in the room, fighting a duel with no cards, no points and no words.

She broke the stalemate first. "I'm not going to talk about this with you right now, Yugi," Téa said flatly, bending over and kissing his forehead. "I'll see you at the apartment later. Promise." Her voice was all flint and sharp edges.

Yugi nodded sadly. Both of them knew he wouldn't be able to follow through. "Promise." His eyes dropped down to his pitifully empty coffee mug, anything to avoid her in her radiant fury, as Téa sighed, gathered her coat around herself and headed out of the room. The door swung closed after her with a delicate chime.

Yugi's eyes flashed scarlet for a moment. Perhaps not coming back home was the wiser, less painful option.

Around the corner, a sleek black limousine was stuck in a long row of cars behind an endless red light. Ever since a duel gone awry had destroyed over three-fourths of Domino's reliable light-rail system, street congestion had become quite the headache. The incredibly expensive stretch limo was like a shiny shark amongst chattering yellow cabs and pastel sedans.

It was not as if Seto Kaiba had learned subtlety or discretion in the years he'd been gone.

The pale brunet slouched in his seat, cell-phone in hand, looking at the window at his old city. Mokuba had been in a board meeting when he'd called, so he'd left a message suggesting they meet for dinner at the hotel sometime that weekend. Seto remembered when he'd been near unreachable when he'd been CEO, and smiled to himself as he thought of Mokuba's following in his footsteps. That KaibaCorp was on the decline was unfortunate, but he had little doubt in his younger brother's ability, so long as he stopped calling Seto and crying every time he got wind of a layoff or a dip in the stock index. That had gotten irritating quickly.

The car had passed run-down building after ruined road on the way back from the airport. Occasionally a block would be livened up by an ultra-modern concrete-and-glass structure amidst the rubble of older, once-proud buildings. He saw building crews at work, wielding bulldozers and saws. It seemed like things had indeed begun to change in Domino. He had to give the bastard Mayor Devlin credit—perhaps the city was better off without Duel Monsters.

He wondered, then, why Devlin had bothered to summon him in the first place. Seto had been shocked when the call had come in. He'd just come off the heels of a disappointing Duel Monsters Tournament—and a night that had more that compensated—in Las Vegas. Devlin had flattered and challenged him in equal measure, speaking in grand, vague terms about "industry" and "renewal" and business opportunity. How the mayor had managed to get ahold of his private cell number was another annoying mystery. He was to report to City Hall on Saturday afternoon and present his identification to the security guard with mother-of-pearl cufflinks, who would take him to a private elevator straight into the Mayor's sitting room. Of course it had to be set up like a fucking spy film, right?

The limo began to edge out and begin that tight right turn. Suddenly, the driver slammed on his brakes, accentuating the stop with a series of loud honks. Seto lost his breath for a second, caught by surprise. The limo, it seemed, had nearly run over a young woman in dirty khakis and a sweaty white button-down who was essentially in the street on the corner. The woman, whose black hair was pulled into a simple bun, was armed to the teeth with loose-leaf papers and a roll of gray duct tape. The woman, who was rightfully reeling from being almost run down, glared angrily at the tinted windows of the backseat. The driver waved his hands in apology, and the woman rolled her eyes and resumed what she had been doing, which was taping the papers to telephone poles and newspaper racks. Of course. Some useless do-gooder, no doubt. Seto almost wished the limo had nudged her.

As the limo finally completed the turn, near casualty notwithstanding, Seto leaned forward and opened the screen that separated him and his driver.

"Roland, pull over in front of that bar." The Baby Dragon Bar and Café. What a stupid name.

"Yes, sir."

As the limo shifted lanes (no easy feat on a street this crowded), Seto ruminated on the people he knew would be in that bar. Tristan Taylor, the pointy-haired loser who knew when to keep his mouth shut—or, rather, didn't ever have much of anything to say. Joey Wheeler, the blond idiot who, in contrast to Tristan, was prone to running his stupid mouth and whose devotion to Yugi was disgusting. And, of course, Yugi Moto. Seto's tiny, overrated one-time Duel Monsters rival, who had humiliated Seto over and over again in the arena yet who had once said he considered them friends… and whom Seto had come back to Domino City to challenge one last time, in defiance of the law… the planned meeting with Mayor Devlin notwithstanding, perhaps he could continue to pretend his motives were fueled purely by revenge.

Seto allowed himself a smirk. Utterly and completely hopeless, the lot of them. Like it or not, Seto Kaiba was back in Domino for the weekend, and the games would begin.

Chapter Text

Perhaps if the car had hit her, she wouldn't have to keep posting flyers all over town like some punk trying to draw a crowd for his awful band.

Ishizu chuckled ruefully to herself as she caught her breath. A few passersby looked at her in concern, while others continued to glare at the obnoxious stretch limousine with tinted windows working its way down the street. For her part, Ishizu continued taping flyers for the D-CARP meeting-cum-event with a righteous fervor, making sure each paper was taped straight and unwrinkled onto telephone poles and bus stops.

Are you tired of being on the run?

Are you ready to give up Duel Monsters, but don't know where to begin?

How about a REDUCED SENTENCE without the fuss of pleading guilty?

Do you want to REPAY the community and show you care?

The Domino City Arts Reformation Program is seeking EX-DUELISTS to participate in REBUILDING the city, VOLUNTEERING in the Domino Museum of Art and Artefacts, and making a COMMITMENT to Domino's growth.

JOIN TODAY and make art part of your healing process.


Call 1-800-555-DCARP


The flyer's language had not, for the record, been her idea. That had been the brainchild of the Domino City Press Office.

It was still a bit of a shock for her, all of this. She'd only been installed as Director of the Domino Museum for a year before the attack, having completed her interdisciplinary doctorate in Art History and Archeology the year prior. Some stupid, stupid children with cards whose power they didn't understand had been playing in the neighborhood one night when they had unleashed millions of dollars worth of damage upon the Museum. Ishizu had been working late that night, as she so often did, and had been in the wrong place at the wrong time—the gallery containing European Paintings from 1500-1800, to be exact.

As the roof started to plummet downwards, Ishizu had made a split-second decision. She hoisted a small Vermeer (on long-term loan from Amsterdam) off the wall and ducked under a wooden bench just as a beam broke through the floor where she had been standing.

She had been trapped under that bench, under ruin, for more than a day, breathing dust into her lungs as search-and-rescue teams tried to recover first the artwork, then her. Ishizu, for her part, had held onto that Vermeer as tightly as was safe for the painting; she did not begrudge them taking so long to find her. After all, museum directors came and went, but the works in that building had been made to last a lifetime.

As she lay in her hospital bed with tubes in her arms, Marik practically weeping by her side, Odion had meticulously undertaken the bulk of the restoration work. Miraculously, not too much was damaged—a lesser-known Rubens and a Rembrandt self-portrait had seen the worst of the damage, however, and had been sent to the Getty Center in America for more intensive repair.

As soon as she'd been able, Ishizu had been on the phone with the mayor's office, talking with elected officials, the news, anyone. Here was a near-martyr for the case against Duel Monsters. With her comely features and fiery, unceasing passion for her work, Ishizu was a perfect ally, and she had found a great supporter in the new Mayor. He had come to her hospital room every evening bearing a new bouquet of sunflowers every time, and there they had begun planning out what would soon become D-CARP.

Mayor Devlin had looked deeply into her eyes, taking her bandaged hand in his, and promised to help her rebuild if she would help him. Then and there, he had written her the check for the new Devlin wing, to replace the one that had been destroyed. It paid to be an independently wealthy businessman, she presumed. He'd struck it rich as a teen with some kind of tabletop game that had had support from Industrial Illusions, if she remembered correctly. Odd how a former game-creator was so adamantly against Duel Monsters, though he certainly had good reason to be against the card game. She certainly was in no position to refuse his support, and so Ishizu did what she so rarely did: She smiled, thanked him, and didn't ask questions.

Ishizu had been disappointed to have to close the Museum during construction, but city funds were city funds, and so she couldn't complain. Anyway, she still came in several days a week to work on paperwork and make calls to other museums. She'd been hoping to host a Domino Biennale in two years, but that effort sadly had to be taken off the top of her list and filed away in a corner cabinet with other delayed dreams. She often found herself working through the night and sleeping on the couch in her office.

The empty halls of the Museum were louder to her than any ruckus from visitors could have been.

The limo pulled over outside the Baby Dragon just as Téa was storming out. Seto took in the high-strung dancer with the nice legs, reminding himself of how she, like Yugi, had tried adamantly to befriend him. Like that was ever going to happen. And now that Yugi was living on peanuts, his income gone, she'd up and become a stripper. It was so clichéd that Seto could barely stand it.

Part of him believed against all logic that as Téa could see him behind the tinted windows, and the look on her face was positively violent. Then, as quick as she'd look, she turned her head sharply and walked down the street with a graceful, purposeful gait.

Roland opened the door and Seto straightened his impeccably tailored suit before leaving the car. "Don't bother waiting around, Roland. I'll call you."

"Yes, Mr. Kaiba."

Yugi's head snapped up sharply at the gentle tinkle of bells as the door to the Baby Dragon opened. Of course, it had to be this, right now.

Seto Kaiba, in all of his cold beauty and finery, with a mind that cut through equations like a knife through warm butter and a ruthless business sense, not to mention an extremely powerful deck, had indeed returned to Domino.

Yugi just felt sick, but rose anyway and strode over to where Seto was standing. Joey and Tristan's jaws dropped almost simultaneously. As Yugi reached Seto, an odd thought struck him. Though the two of them had never been friends in the remotest sense of the word, he couldn't help but feel a sense of warmth despite the desperation of the situation. He smiled and held out his hand. Seto hesitated before taking it, and Yugi was reminded of old times.

"How's it going, Kaiba?" Yugi chirped.

"Not badly, Moto. Not too badly at all." The words were characteristically sneered, yet up close, Seto seemed more relaxed than he'd ever been while Yugi knew him.

It wasn't a lie on Seto's part. Until he'd been called back rather unceremoniously, Seto had been enjoying the pleasures from which he'd abstained while in Domino, the certain sorts of pleasures a CEO of a multi-billion-dollar could hardly experience without drawing scrutiny. The only thing that had left him wanting was the lack of qualified duelists, though that issue was about to be resolved soon enough.

Yugi smiled. "That's great to hear, Kaiba. Please, come sit with me. Have you eaten yet?" The two of them walked towards a side booth while Joey and Tristan looked on not without a bit of jealousy.

They sat across from one another, Yugi taking the seat with the view of the street, as Serenity brought them each a menu. Yugi, pretending he didn't already owe the Baby Dragon an arm and a leg, ordered a slice of cheesecake. Seto scanned the menu and ordered a bowl of fruit and an ice water. Surely this dinky place wouldn't fuck up something that simple.

"So Kaiba, where've you been all this time? Man, things here sure have been different since you've gone…" Yugi chattered away.

"Not that it's any of your business, Moto, but I've been traveling around the world. I figure if I can't play Duel Monsters here without some moron arresting me, I'd try to find someone somewhere else who could give me a challenge."

Their orders arrived and Yugi took a big bite of cheesecake, packing in his cheeks like a chipmunk with sugar and cream. Seto picked at a piece of cantaloupe. "How'd that go for you, Kaiba? I bet you must have found at least one duelist who gave you a run for your money."

"On the contrary, Moto. I wasted a good deal of my time trying to find someone sentient enough to make me lose at least a thousand life points. So far, no dice. I'm beginning to think that the rest of the dueling world's gone soft and pathetic as your sidekick Wheeler used to be…" Seto couldn't help but throw in a cutting jab towards the blond idiot several booths away, who was watching the two of them with a furious intensity.

"Aw. That's too bad." Yugi sighed. "Things here have been getting really tense. Bakura's a detective now, and ever since the museum director got out of that hospital—you've got to remember what happened with her—it's been really, really hard to keep morale up among the duelists here."

Seto wasn't particularly surprised. He'd read the story in the Domino Herald when it had broken. The foolish accident caused by pathetic losers who should have known better. The stupid, "brave" curator who had thrown herself into playing politics she didn't understand. And how was art supposed to fix the dueling problem, anyway? When he'd heard that one, Seto had laughed for a good five minutes without stopping.

"I'm pretty sure I saw your little girlfriend heading out of here in a rush," remarked Seto coldly, spearing a chunk of pineapple. "Trouble in paradise? That Téa Gardner was always a bit of a b—"

"Oh, shut up, Kaiba," Yugi said, annoyance creeping into his voice and making it jump up an octave at the end.

Seto smirked and placed the fruit in his mouth. "You really should unload that silly girl before she drags you down. Don't mistake that for a compliment, Moto."

"Why would I ever unload Téa? I love her," Yugi declared, eyes shining, as Seto looked up at him quizzically. "She's kind-hearted and talented and I've loved her for years! What could you possibly know about a woman like that, Kaiba?"

"Believe me, Moto, I know women. I just spent the last week in Las Vegas and while the duelists there weren't quite up to scratch, let's say the women there… more than compensated. Agreeable, with nice teeth and no last names…" Seto trailed off as Yugi rolled his eyes. Of course Seto had to take his general unpleasantness and direct it towards women. Seto smirked and shrugged his shoulders.

"I'm just saying, Moto. All women are the same, and yours is nothing special."

Ishizu tore off a piece of tape and affixed it to another flyer, making sure her work was neat and stable. Neat, stable. Very Ishizu. Very how Ishizu wanted to see herself.

Ishizu didn't dare to take a look at herself in the shiny window of the bar she knew was adjacent to the telephone pole. She was sure she looked like an unprofessional mess, and took apart her bun, shook out her glorious mane of thick black hair, and put it back up again.

A bead of sweat trickled down her forehead as a few people passing by took a look at her project. They began to laugh rather unkindly.

"Dr. Ishtar, do you really think your stupid arts and crafts project is going to fix this city?" asked a man in a tracksuit. A few people heard him and began to bark similar questions at Ishizu.

"I felt sorry for you when you got injured, but now you're wasting taxpayer dollars on this flight of fancy!"

"I hate duelists as much as the next guy, but your proselytizing ain't much better!"

"Heck, I am a duelist, and I still think you're a bigger idiot than I am!"

Ishizu held her head up nobly and straightened her dwindling pile of flyers. In a calm voice, she began explaining the aims of D-CARP to the people who had addressed her so rudely. A small crowd was starting to gather around her, forcing her to stand with her back against the telephone pole. She suddenly felt quite small. She hoisted herself onto the small concrete base to get some fresh air, hanging onto the pole with one arm while clutching the flyers and tape with her free hand. Still she talked, confidently and eloquently, about what the project was to entail.

Not that it did any good. The hubbub of people was half laughter and mocking, half annoyance and scorn. They began to raise their voices, and Ishizu felt the cold hand of fear grab her stomach. She began to curl inwardly, feeling her shoulders go slack and concave—a defensive position, an acquiescing pose if there ever was one.

Seto, having had his bit of fun at Yugi's expense, tried to change the subject. "So, I hear there's talk of you trying to find a location for the next floating card game?"

Yugi wasn't having it. He shook his head vehemently. "You have no idea, Kaiba… what it's like to have a woman you love by your side… a partner…"

The crowd grew louder and louder until Ishizu, trying to force shuddering breaths of air into her lungs to calm herself, couldn't control herself any longer.

"Well, at least I'm doing something to help!" she cried, her voice cracking. A blaze of fury shot through her; she snapped her head up and stood, throwing down her supplies. Her eyes shone as she jumped down from the base.

"I am trying to help this city! Don't you think I've suffered at the hands of the duelists as much as you have?" Her voice grew louder and clearer, and the people at the front of the mob began to retreat, their faces slightly awestruck at the beauty and fire of this raggedy woman.

"I want them stopped just as much as you do! Please! Let me help you!"

Seto shrugged. "I'm going to be taking a trip to Manila tomorrow evening, anyway—I don't exactly have time for you to get some stupid matchmaker fantasy in your head while I'm here, Moto."

Yugi's eyes widened. "And you're going to Manila without a date?"

"It's a matter of personal choice, Moto. I choose to travel alone, but believe me, if I wanted to bring a woman with me, I would have no trouble at all."

At the very top of his vision, Yugi noticed the commotion outside. The crowd, the woman yelling…

Suddenly, he saw ten thousand dollars.

"For how much, Kaiba?" Yugi countered, trying to keep a lid on his excitement. His hands trembled with what surely could not be premature glee.

Seto nearly spit out his water. Yugi Moto, making a bet? What had this city done to the little idiot? "Excuse me, Moto?"

Yugi held firm, sensing victory at hand. "Ten thousand dollars?"

"I'm sorry?"

"You really think you can get any woman in this city I pick to go to Manila with you tomorrow night?"

Seto snorted. "Child's play, Moto. Any woman, all women—next time, give me a real challenge."

"So we have a bet?"

"Absolutely," sneered Seto. Ten thousand dollars was a pittance to him, but it wasn't as if he was concerned in the slightest. Good looks and nearly unlimited cash flow had made no woman loath to resist him. He also prided himself, occasionally, on having that essentiall combination of charm and cruelty that he had found made women jump into his bed faster than he could draw a card from a Duel Disk.

Yugi reached across the table, offering his small hand once again. A small smile curved his lips upwards. Seto smirked at Yugi and accepted his hand. They shook.

As Joey and Tristan watched from several booths away, Yugi rose and beckoned Seto to follow him to the window, where the woman was addressing the crowd, seeming full of ceaseless energy.

Yugi positively grinned. "I name her." He pointed towards the window.

Seto squinted. "Her?"

"Doctor Ishizu Ishtar of the Domino Museum of Art and Artefacts." Yugi could practically feel the crisp cheque in his hands.

"I promise you, I will help Mayor Devlin end this plague of duelists in Domino once and for all! You have my word!" Ishizu held out her hands to the crowd, who finally seemed swayed by her clear devotion.

Seto took one look at Ishizu through the glass, heard her words, and, feeling a pang of anxiety in the pit of his stomach, saw ten thousand dollars fly away from his bank account, taking his pride with it.

Chapter Text

Author's Note: Thanks for reading and bearing with me! Here's where it (hopefully) gets a little steamy.

Again, since this fic is a crossover between Yu-Gi-Oh! and  Guys and Dolls I decided to incorporate dialogue from the 1955  Guys and Dolls  film into this scene where appropriate; I hope it helps to strengthen the parallels I'm trying to draw with the way I've characterized Seto and Ishizu.

If it's a clever line, I assure you, I didn't write it. It's probably from the 1955 film.

I also gave Ishizu Sarah's quirk of playing with her buttons so it would resonate more deeply with readers familiar with the film.

I also did a lot of work trying to find an appropriate "Proverbs v. Isaiah" parallel that would also be feasible.

Also, since Domino City is in Japan (but using dollars... because why not) for this story, I've subbed in Manila for Havana since the time from Japan to Manila is similar to that of New York to Havana and because Manila's National Museum would hold appeal for Ishizu as an art historian and archeologist where Havana's missions held appeal for Sarah Brown.


"I still can't believe you stood in front of that crowd and gave a freakin' sermon," Marik teased from across the desk, his disembodied voice emanating from behind a massive stack of grant proposals. He smirked toothily, knowing that his boss couldn't see his face.

Ishizu blushed and stood up abruptly, her back tense and perfectly straight. "For the last time, Marik, I was provoked. What would you have done in that situation? People were coming up to and airing their grievances, and it's my job to set the record straight when so much is depending on me!" She excitedly, subconsciously began fiddling with the top button of her white button-down, betraying her growing embarrassment. What a mess that whole ordeal yesterday had been—cornered and left to lash out like some caged animal in the face of scorn and apathy. Fully aware that she sounded a bit like a martyr, she lowered herself into her chair and pretended to busy herself with typing.

Marik leaned out of his chair at a ninety-degree angle to catch her eye from around the rather extravagant desk. "No, no, I hear you—it's just not every day your boss makes the evening news as the 'crazy curator'. That's gonna be doggin' you for a long time," he replied, grinning evilly. If Ishizu was going to call him in to the office at 7:00 am on a Friday morning, he reasoned, he deserved the right to have a bit of fun.

For Ishizu's part, once the crowd had begun to disperse, mortified hadn't begun to cover how she'd felt. The mental image she had of herself as a dirty, sweaty, half-crazed woman yelling about art and duelists was enough to make her want to shut herself away in her apartment for a good year or two. Once the fit of passion had cooled, Ishizu had silently continued flyering the street until she ran out of papers. Then she'd promptly gone back to her apartment and collapsed into bed, waking up to the sound of her name on the local news anchors' lips. She was positively humiliated, so she'd decided to hole herself up in her office for the duration of the day where only Marik would be able to make fun of her.

The elegant analog clock on the wall now read 10:13. The two of them had been working furiously on drafting proposals to local foundations, corporations and generous individuals, hoping to raise money for the Museum's upcoming capital campaign. Marik sighed, not for the first or twelfth time, and returned to his laptop, tapping away errantly.

"Don't we have, like, interns for this sort of thing?"

"Now, Marik. You know that you can't guarantee something's going to get done properly unless you do it yourself. This isn't exactly something we can afford to delegate," Ishizu chastened him.

Suddenly and uncharacteristically, overcome by a needling frustration, Ishizu emitted a loud moan and pitched over onto her desk, burying her face in her hands. Marik nearly knocked the computer out of his lap as he rose quickly to see what was wrong.

"Ishizu, are you all right?"

"Oh, Marik. I just… I don't know what I'm supposed to do. D-CARP hasn't managed to attract any duelists and I'm… I just feel like I should be out there, talking to the people and convincing them, rather than hiding in this office… I just… I can't help but feel that I'm a failure." Ishizu's eyes grew moist, her shoulders shaking as she drew in shallow, shuddering breaths.

Marik walked around and placed a hand on her should comfortingly. "Ishizu…"

"It's not the fault of the Museum, it's not the fault of the program—it's my fault," Ishizu nearly wailed. "I should never have left Cairo…"

"Aw Ishizu, don't say that! You've been great for the Museum, and Mayor Devlin surely didn't screw up in giving you this responsibility!" exclaimed Marik. While he had seen her in various forms of frustration and stress over the course of their time as friends, he'd never quite known how to respond, to banish the fears of failure and regret that his friend-turned-boss kept so tidily hidden.

"It's not your fault that those stupid duelists don't know what's good for 'em…"

"The job has to be done, Marik, and it's clear that it shouldn't be done by me. After all this hard work, we still have an empty program!" Her voice broke almost inaudibly. She could already see the packed cardboard boxes in her apartment, the humiliating letter of resignation, the view of Cairo through the airplane window.

"Ishizu, if you, of all people, can't convince people that art is important, then nobody can!" Marik held firm. He wanted to shake her, snap her out of this scary funk, but instead settled on squeezing her shoulder supportively. Even while she was recovering in the hospital, she'd never seemed to lose hope or her vivacity, her drive. Now this?

The phone on Ishizu's desk, buried somewhere under mounds of paperwork, cut through the tension by ringing. Surprised, Marik and Ishizu both commenced rooting around on her desk trying to answer it.

Marik got there first. "Domino Museum, Marik speaking, how can I help you?" As the voice on the other end spoke, his eyes grew wide, his expression curious.

"What? What is it?" Ishizu mouthed futilely at her colleague. Clearly it wasn't someone calling with a mundane query about what time the Museum was supposed to open that day (it was closed) or where the Museum was located (238 Domino Parkway), so who could it be?

Marik looked at Ishizu meaningfully. "Okay, we'll buzz you right in," he said into the phone, before pressing END.

"Whom exactly are we buzzing in?" Ishizu demanded as Marik tossed the phone back down onto the messy desk and briskly walked out of the room. Ishizu got up from behind the desk and chased after him, holding her calf-length skirt out of the way.

Marik didn't respond. "Marik, what the hell is going on?" Ishizu panted as she trailed him down the corridor and into the special-access elevator.

Marik pressed the button for the lobby and grinned irrepressibly. "Oh, Ishizu, you're gonna love this."

"I seriously doubt that. Please stop playing games, Marik; you know I'm not well at the moment and certainly in no state to be meeting with anyone right now…" The elevator stopped and the doors slid open. Marik giggled and jogged into the lobby towards the ornately carved, ten-foot high front doors, Ishizu frustrated and hot on his heels.

Marik turned the handle and opened the door to reveal a tall, slender man standing on the front steps of the Museum. Ishizu looked over Marik's shoulder quizzically, trying to figure out what exactly was going on.

Marik threw the door open wider and the man entered the building. He was young, with dark brown hair and an expensive, perfectly tailored gray suit. His skin was that off-white color of poured cream. His posture was graceful, his eyes ice-blue. His lips curved into a slight sneer as he took in Marik and Ishizu.

"Do you take duelists here?" His voice was husky and deep. He looked directly at Ishizu with a challenging air. She could only stare back at him dumbly, failing to comprehend his question.

Marik spoke first. "Yes, of course we do—don't we, Ishizu? She's quite happy to have you; please, come on up to the office." His voice quickened as his eyes darted back and forth between Ishizu and the stranger.

The three of them walked over to the special access elevator and rode up to the offices in silence. The space was cramped, so Ishizu found herself standing quite close to the stranger, her nose filling with his subtle, clean scent. She resisted looking at his face, feeling his eyes boring into the side of hers with a calculated intensity and judgement.

This is the woman? Well, she's definitely no eyesore. Could have been worse, I guess. He knew he made quite the first impression—he had genetics to thank for his good looks, and his own ingenuity to thank for the means to buy clothing tailor-made to fit him.

Marik pulled a chair into Ishizu's office and the three seated themselves around the massive desk. Ishizu prim, upright and firm, with her ankles crossed, Marik slouching, practically hanging off the seat, and the stranger crossing his legs and his arms, his eyes gleaming with a hint of arrogance.

"Well, Ishizu, why don't you see what this gentleman wants from us?" Marik looked pointedly at Ishizu, willing her to do something, anything productive.

"My name is Seto Kaiba," the stranger said smoothly, standing and reaching out an elegant manicured hand towards Marik and Ishizu.

"Seto Kaiba… of KaibaCorp?" Ishizu found her voice, shaking Seto's hand firmly.

"Well, formerly. My brother Mokuba runs the company now; I've been away for some time now. I was busy with… other pursuits," replied Seto, that smirk playing at the corner of his lips. He took in the small office with one sweep of his eyes; the wood-paneled walls, the crown moldings between the wall and ceiling, the hideous fluorescent lamp, the overstuffed couch that an office this size had no business having, the framed drawings and inspirational quotations affixed to the walls, and that magnificent desk, piled high with papers.

"Well, I'm Marik Namu, junior curator and specialist in hieroglyphs and ancient texts, and this is Doctor Ishizu Ishtar, director of the Museum and head of the D-CARP Program," Marik cut in. "But you can call us Marik and Ishizu if you want."

"How do you do, Mr. Kaiba?" asked Ishizu, remembering her manners.

"Please call me Seto, Ishizu," returned Seto, savoring the texture of her name on his lips.

"Mr. Kaiba, you mentioned something about duelists, if I'm not mistaken?" Ishizu wasn't one to address mere acquaintances by name.

"Seto…" interrupted Seto, with a slight tsk-ing note in his voice. Marik looked back and forth between the two, trying to coax a smile out of his boss.

"Se—Seto, then." Ishizu swallowed hard. Grace under pressure, she reminded herself.

"Well, I am deeply, deeply troubled, Ishizu," said Seto, fixing those eyes on hers. He allowed his gaze to travel down her fine neck and rest briefly, for a moment, on the glimpse of collarbone peeking from beneath her white button-down. He snapped his eyes back up to her face, which was impassive, polite. "You see, I'm a duelist—well, a former duelist, and I'm looking to be reformed. I heard you were the person to see about such things."

Ishizu was positively taken aback, and struggled to hide it. Marik grinned at her, reaching forward and lifting his arm for a high-five. Ishizu widened her eyes at him, mortified. Marik dropped his hand.

"I see," murmured Ishizu, looking Seto over. "Well, I'm pleased that you've heard about D-CARP…"

"I was a former champion back in my Domino Days—near world champion, too," continued Seto, layering an artificial air of nostalgia into his voice. "Of course, those were the days—that was before you arrived, Ishizu, if I have it correctly."

"Yes; Marik and I arrived shortly after the laws and ordinances began to take effect."

"After all that happened, my work as CEO of KaibaCorp just felt so… empty. I felt so used up creatively, like all the fun had"—sniff—"gone out of my life without Duel Monsters. That's why I left town all those years ago, to get away from it all. But while I was somewhere else, I fell into that awful way again—I began registering for tournaments all over the world, trying to recapture those glory days, drowning my sorrows with women and pleasure…" Well, it wasn't untrue. Not in the barest sense of it, anyway. Seto had to fight to keep from rolling his eyes. While the duels had been pathetically disappointing, the sheer number of nubile women clamoring to take home a champion was practically solace enough. Until, of course, it wasn't.

Marik lapped up every word. "We understand, Seto—that's why we're psyched you came in. Now, you just stay here and talk to Ishizu—she's super great at this. D-CARP was practically her brainchild! I got no doubt that she'll be able to help you out with this Duel Monsters problem—with any problem you have, really," he said, his face becoming fairly beatific. "She's great at solving other peoples' problems!"

Ishizu wasn't quite so taken in. As Marik rose and left the office, presumably to let Ishizu do her art-healy-magic thing (which involved, among other things, the passionately and persuasively delivered equivalent of several Art History 101 lectures), Ishizu looked at him frantically, attempting mental telepathy to get him not to leave her with this strangely magnetic ex-duelist. She'd planned all aspects of the program, gone over it again and again in her mind, but now found herself at a loss for words. What was she supposed to say? She had a potential member for D-CARP right here in her office; why did she feel so paralyzed with nerves?

What if she failed?

Her silent pleas went unheeded. Marik's stomach growled rudely as he closed the door, and soon his voice could be heard on the other line as he ordered a litany of foods—on the Museum's dime, of course.

Seto turned back to look at Ishizu, uncrossing and re-crossing his legs as that smirk returned to his face. Ishizu swallowed audibly, her hand going up to play with a shirt button. She was growing fairly certain that Seto's face was just naturally like that, but it didn't mean she trusted him—that he didn't make her feel strange.

She moved the piles of paperwork onto the floor behind her desk, sat back up in her seat, and smoothed her long black skirt over her knees.

"What did Marik mean by that?" asked Seto, leaning in towards her. "You're good at solving other people's problems?" He could find an in here, surely… play up the sensitive, charming angle…

"Haven't we changed the subject, Mr. Kaiba?" Ishizu countered, feeling her cheeks grow warm.

Seto grinned toothily, rising from his seat to stand over her. "Why do you have such trouble calling me Seto, Ishizu?"

Ishizu found her legs and stood up, thankful for the desk between them. Their height difference was not that significant at all, she thought. "Mr. Kaiba. If you are truly serious about reforming your life, I have some lectures prepared that will help you see why D-CARP is the ideal program for you. Art, after all, is good for the soul—it's what brings light and love into the world—it's learning how to understand the world around you and let it inspire you—" Her voice grew confident and impassioned as she remembered the introductory speech she had planned out as part of the therapeutic program. She yanked open a drawer in her desk and pulled out several colorfully rendered D-CARP brochures, which she pushed across the desk towards Seto.

A muscle twitched in Seto's face, his smugness dropping for a second, revealing a slightly annoyed interior. Ishizu almost wasn't sure if she'd seen the façade slip. "See, I don't need a boiler-plate lecture, Ishizu. I was thinking of a more—" and here he lavished his most seductive smirk on her, looking deeply into her eyes—"personal help."

Depsite herself, Ishizu bit back a laugh. Did he think she was a fool? "Well, we're having a D-CARP recruitment event tomorrow, if you're truly interested."

Seto's face twitched again, almost imperceptibly. "But Saturday's tomorrow, Ishizu. Who's going to help me get away from that duelist life today?" It was almost too cheesy to bear. Yet changing tactics now would be a disgusting show of weakness—of desperation. He'd come to the Museum with one goal and one goal only—and he sure as hell wasn't letting this art nut, let alone Moto, make a fool of him.

"Well, D-CARP is open to any duelist," Ishizu said firmly. "When you're actually ready for us to help you, you know just where to find me." And with that she walked around her desk and opened the door for Seto, waiting for him to leave. How naïve—how desperate—did he think she was? "Personal help"—did he think for a second he was being clever, even cute?

Seto gritted his teeth. He turned and sidled over to the door, placing his hand atop hers and guiding it closed. He met her stern eyes with his own challenging gaze before dropping his gaze back to that collarbone and to that unbuttoned button.

"Ishizu, Ishizu, Ishizu."

Despite herself, she noticed, once again, how appealingly husky his voice was. And his hand—it was soft, but not overly so, and felt firm and strong.

"For some reason, I think you don't believe me. I think that you don't trust me."

"Unfortunately, that is true, Mr. Kaiba," replied Ishizu. "I don't think you're looking for help leaving the duelist life," she continued, narrowing her eyes at him.

Seto didn't bother to correct her address. Instead, he allowed his thumb to glide over her hand on the doorknob while stepping in closer to her, close enough that he could smell her faint jasmine perfume and hear her sharp intake of breath. His lips curled into a teasing smile.

Ishizu once again felt flustered, and removed her hand from the handle like it was made of fire. She turned her back on him and walked over to behind her desk. She needed that barrier, if only for a moment.

Seto had scored a point. He walked back over to his seat, fixing his eyes on Ishizu's sensible black bun and tense shoulders. His eyes then traveled the room once more, settling on a framed quotation directly to the left of Ishizu.

" 'I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it', from Picasso—oh Ishizu, this is incorrect." Seto read aloud, his voice growing smug.

Ishizu whirled around him. "What?"

"That quote you've got on the wall, attributed to Picasso? You're wrong."

"Excuse me?" Ishizu asked incredulously, her brow furrowing.

"It's not actually clear who said that quote; it's been attributed to both Picasso and Van Gogh. For shame, Ishizu." Seto could hardly hide his glee, pronouncing "Van Gogh" with the more esoteric Dutch phlegm-filled pronunciation. While he had no love for art, he had been schooled in it as a child. His lack of interest in art as anything other than a commodity didn't mean he was ignorant of so-called quotes by recognized geniuses.

Ishizu's cheeks were burning. "And how would you know this, exactly?" She removed the offending quotation from the wall and placed it on the desk, hands shaking slightly.

"I was fortunate enough to be raised rich and educated. Of course, I've also bought and sold enough paintings to have my own museum named after me," replied Seto silkily.

Ishizu cursed to herself and looked down at her feet, trying to regain her placid exterior. Seto took this as an opportunity to walk over towards her and perch on the edge of her desk. He crossed his arms and appraised Ishizu like a businessman, his eyes flickering up and down her frame. The tightness of her face, the balled fists, that tensely arched back… Her skirt was unnecessarily—criminally—long, he decided.

"Doctor Ishtar, while I'm sure you're qualified in your own way in the museum world, your D-CARP project is, at this moment, an abject failure. Am I wrong?" His voice contained a challenge. Ishizu wished she could correct him in honesty. Or at least kick him in the shin.

"You have no way of knowing—" she began weakly.

"Oh, I have plenty of ways of knowing," interrupted he, his words coming out faster and lightning-sharp. "You're thinking that you're out of your depth here, Doctor Ishtar. You wish you'd never heard of Mayor Devlin, let alone Duel Monsters. The only thing stopping you from hopping a plane to Cairo right is your sense of duty to the city, to your colleagues, and your admirable pride; am I correct?" He'd hit the jackpot.

Ishizu didn't reply, pretending that if she didn't look at him, he didn't exist. Uncharacteristically childish.

"Is that an accurate rundown, Ishizu?" The informal address had returned.

"I wouldn't know; I've never had a rundown," Ishizu murmured. She felt pathetically naked. Her hand reached, unbidden, back up to her shirt buttons. Pretty soon the poor abused top button was going to fall off.

Seto adjusted his position on her desk so that he faced her directly. He uncrossed his arms, spread out his legs and leaned back on the heels of his hands. He looked up at her teasingly. "Would you be open to a proposition?"

Before she could stop it, she rolled her eyes. "I've had those. No."

"Don't flatter yourself; I'm talking strictly business." Well, that wasn't necessarily true; all work and no play seemed very dull indeed, but he wasn't going to mention that outright.

Ishizu raised her head, her eyes doubtful.

"I am in a position to supply your floundering D-CARP program with the raw material you need for your work: duelists." That part was true. His reputation still commanded enough respect that, barring Moto's interference, he no doubt could round up some of the stupider, unhappier duelists and deliver them into her hands.

"How?" Ishizu asked suspiciously. What exactly was the full proposition?

"That's my work. I know duelists, and I know Domino." Seto pulled a marker from the cup next to the desktop computer and plopped the framed quote into his lap. "Now, when is this D-CARP recruitment event? Tomorrow night?" He uncapped the pen and wrote on the Plexiglass, covering the quote in a rapid, neat hand. "I promise that I can supply you, at that time, with at least one dozen duelists. Whether they join D-CARP and make amends is up to you." He signed this makeshift business contract with a flourish, and pushed it and the marker towards Ishizu, who looked fairly thunderstruck.

Against her better judgment, relief washed over Ishizu in a comfortably cool wave. Perhaps she would be able to do something good for the city after all. She wasn't even irked about the ruined Plexiglass or the humiliation over the quote.

She treated Seto to a small, real, grateful smile, her eyes softer than they'd been the entire meeting. "Thank you, Mr. Kaiba. That seems like a fair rundown—can I get you a cup of coffee before you leave?" She began to escort him out of her office.

"Hold on now, Ishizu," replied Seto, his features settling back into that smirk. "This is no charity contribution I'm making. I deal strictly business. Always have, and always will. In this case, something you want for something I want." He rose from his position on her desk, enjoying the way her cheeks reddened when he moved near her.

"And what is that?" Ishizu shot back testily, tilting her head up slightly to meet his eyes.

Seto took his time responding, nakedly moving his eyes from Ishizu's face to her neck again. It was her neck he addressed when he spoke: "Have dinner with me later tonight."

Ishizu choked on her breath, her entire spine bristling with electricity. She took a large step back from Seto, willing her pulse to slow. "Wh-why would that be something you want, Mr. Kaiba?" Why was she hyperventilating? Why did she feel a sudden flutter below her belly?

"Well," Seto said, holding back a laugh, "I think I'm going to be hungry this evening…" He relished the clear effect his words had on her—good looks and that combination of scorn and charm never seemed to hurt. He imagined pressing her further, teasing her, making her even more flustered as her challenges became less and less combative and clever…

He walked back over to the desk and picked up the framed quote and marker. "Keep this; it's the contract. I did say this was a business transaction, after all—here's my guarantee that, if you keep your end, I'll bring no fewer than one dozen duelists to your D-CARP meeting tomorrow night."

Ishizu accepted the quote and read Seto's script on the Plexiglass. She nodded to herself dumbly.

"Go home and take a shower; get yourself dolled up. I'll be back here at one o'clock to pick you up." Oh, Seto did hope she knew how to turn herself out well. Surely she must.

"At one o'clock? To go to dinner?" asked Ishizu, her eyes widening in surprise.

"It takes time to get there, Ishizu. We'll be having dinner at my favorite restaurant, El Café Tagalog—I called in the reservation before I arrived here."

"El Café Tagalog—where's that?" Never mind that he had scheduled a reservation before he had met here—did he think she was going to be so easy?

"Manila," replied Seto, enjoying the shock that appeared on her face as she gained understanding.

"Manila, in the Philippines?" cried Ishizu. Oh, how she hated that smug arrogance on his face.

"How many Manilas are there, Doctor Ishtar?" teased Seto.

"You want to take me to dinner in Manila, the Philippines?" Ishizu was aghast. Quickly, thought, her surprise turned back to anger. "Mr. Kaiba, what the hell do you take me for—a fool?"

"Isn't it worth it to you, Doctor Ishtar?" Seto asked, with a false air of plaintiveness. "Am I really so awful that having the opportunity to help this city isn't worth this to you? What—did you think I would take you for Buffalo wings and a cheap beer?"

Ishizu glared at him, striding angrily back to the door and flinging it open. Her breath came out in shallow bursts of fury. She was verging on being appalled—at his proposition, at her behavior, and, worst of all, at her inability to control her thoughts at this time.

Seto crossed over to her and leaned his weight on the other side of the open door. His delight at her reaction was slowly turning sour. "Now, Doctor Ishtar, I don't want to walk out of here today, leaving you ruminating on that cold, horrible man who made improper advances at you. Any impolite thoughts in this room are coming from you, Doctor, not me." Not quite true, but…

Ishizu blushed. "If you think this is supposed to get me to admit anything, then you're wrong—you're not the first man to try this sort of approach on me."

Seto raised an eyebrow. "Oh really—I wonder what kind of approach would work on you, Doctor Ishtar."

"That's something you'd have no way of understanding." Part of Ishizu couldn't believe she was allowing Seto to pursue this line of inquiry. It was incredibly unprofessional of her to even allow this brief, nasty sort of flirtation in the workplace. It would have felt like an abuse of power on her part had Seto not come equipped with his own strange power.

Seto rolled his eyes and crossed his arms. "God help the bastard who winds up with you—surely he'll be some boring museum stiff with a bowtie and bifocals and a perfect pocket square and you'll live happily ever after with him in some quaint little house with a white picket fence." His tone was mocking, veering on the scornful.

"I don't see what's wrong in wanting someone who's respectable and hardworking and on the right side of the law." Ishizu noticed the change in his voice, and suddenly felt the need to defend herself. While she'd not exactly thought about love, or marriage, concretely for quite a while, it stood to reason that she, as a successful intellectual professional, deserved someone with the same sort of values. Didn't she?

Seto guided the door closed again, letting his hand brush against hers. "Oh—oh, of course not. However, if I were inclined to find a woman who made me want to stick around, I wouldn't put her in some neat little box like you have with the hypothetical Mr. Ishtar." He advanced towards Ishizu, standing over her as a smile returned to his face. Ishizu inhaled quickly as she smelled his scent again.

Seto changed his orientation carefully but insistently, guiding Ishizu without touch until her back was pressed against the wall, with him standing across from her, with one hand placed against the wall.

They were almost close enough for their chests and hips to touch. Ishizu went bright red, every neuron in her skin all too aware of his closeness, feeling that insistent flutter return to her lower belly. Seto grinned almost triumphantly as he nakedly swept his gaze over her, from her furrowed brow, to her fluttering black lashes, to her faintly trembling lips, to the delicate veins pulsing in her neck. He almost wished that they hadn't met under the circumstances of a business transaction.

He leaned in, placing his lips above her ear. "You see, Doctor Ishtar, I'm more partial to… chemistry." She could feel his warm breath travel down her neck. She thought she would either throw herself at him or faint dead on the floor, and she wasn't quite sure which would be worse. Breathe in, breathe out…

Seto continued, savoring every moment of his impending victory. His voice turned soft and low. "You know… that electric, tactile feeling between two people…" He allowed his free hand to graze hers, and nearly crowed in delight as she clutched it, digging in her nails, as if he were the only thing on earth that was real. Every inch of her skin erupted in gooseflesh. She couldn't look up at him, into those eyes that would surely see how dilated her pupils were and give the whole thing away, if she hadn't already.

"It's something that just can't be described. Isn't that right, Ishizu? It has to be felt."

Suddenly, with a low moan rising somewhere from the back of her throat, Ishizu grabbed that hand and placed it on her waist, feeling his heated flesh on hers through the thin blouse. Part of her was humiliated at the impropriety of her behavior, but slowly and surely, the id-part of her brain was taking over. And the id won often as it tried.

Seto, almost astonished, moved his hips towards hers and bent his head downwards, allowing his smirking lips to brush against the underside of her chin.

Ishizu lifted her neck almost reflexively, feeling sparks sizzle against the parts of her neck he'd nearly kissed.

Suddenly, and without warning, Ishizu pulled his head into her hands, ground her hips against him, and pressed her lips on his.

Seto was pleasantly surprised on an intellectual level, but the rest of him lacked such detachment. Back in home territory. He still had it, after all. He returned her kiss with equal measure, sucking at her lips gently, pressing her back against the wall hard. He felt a groan of pleasure from her, quite enjoying the feeling of her nails trailing down the back of his neck. He moved his hands onto her waist, and then further downwards, curling around her until they settled onto her rear.

Ishizu thought she had died and been reborn in fire. Every nerve ending, from the tips of her fingers to the soles of her feet, practically whirred with energy as Seto's hands cupped her rear, his groin pressed flush against hers; the friction was so, so delicious and oh, god, he bent his head down and grazed his teeth against her neck, alternating kissing and sucking back down towards her collarbone, and then back upwards again. Ishizu could hardly stop a tremulous moan from dislodging itself out of her mouth. He knew exactly what he was doing. She a felt a rush of air against her calves; Seto's hands were hiking up her skirt, tugging at it gently but definitively, so that his intention was obvious. She continued dragging her nails down his neck, sliding her hands forward towards his chest, dipping them gently under his collar.

Seto's hands were on her thighs; her skirt was bunched around her waist. Ishizu nearly whined in protest as he moved them upwards, caressing her waist and coming to settle on her chest. Oh, how she wanted him to rip off her skirt, to feel him so completely against her. She could feel Seto's smirk against her neck as his thumb made a practiced, gentle circle on her breast.

At that moment, Ishizu's pride and her professional side got the best of her, and with an almost angry gasp, she pushed Seto away from her. While Seto looked at her with a mixture of surprise and what was definitely lust, Ishizu sagged against the wall and tried to catch her breath. A fine sheen of sweat seemed to cover her entire body.

Seto recovered first. Straightening his suit jacket, his now-swollen lips curled into that oh-so-familiar smirk. While Ishizu could only look at him frustratedly, he leaned over and opened the door to the office. "I'll be picking you up from here at one o'clock. If you'd like to try that again, by all means, go ahead." With that wry comment, Seto Kaiba bowed his head slightly towards her and exited the room, closing the door behind him.

Ishizu let out a huge sigh and slid down the wall until she was seated like a rag doll. Right now, Marik was showing Seto Kaiba out of the Museum, hopefully none the wiser. That makeshift contract lay uncompromisingly on her desk. And as for her… well, she definitely needed a shower. And a raise.

Chapter Text

As soon as Téa left the Baby Dragon, she immediately regretted her actions. The last thing Yugi needed now was for her to lose her cool, to cease to be his support. Yet as stubborn as she could be at times like these, the last thing she was going to do was go back in there and apologize.

Undoubtedly, being Yugi's rock, his sole lifeline to the world of legitimacy (however dubious), was becoming harder and harder as she saw him become more and more worn down. The long nights out, the crying spells, the track marks on his arms from when he'd tried to give himself a bit of relief… it even sounded horribly trite in her head, but her boyfriend's transformation from naïve, confident champion to morose, drug-abusing crime-lord was taking its toll on her.

She just couldn't understand why he wouldn't want to give up that life. It clearly brought him no joy. Yes, it's one thing to miss the glory days, but nothing that's perfect, or even good, can last forever. We just have to keep trying, is all. This she pondered as she stood on the bus, packed in like sardines. The ride from the apartment to the House of Pegasus was not overly long; the House was to be just enough on the perimeter of Domino City that the Mayor could disavow it when politically convenient, but close enough within the limits that the city could tax it heavily and enjoy the fruits of the dancers' sweat.

Téa shook her head emphatically, her chestnut bob swinging, as if shaking her head physically would clear the unpleasant thoughts from her mind like an Etch-a-Sketch. Téa had always had a keen, visceral connection between her body and her mind—it's why, back when times were good, she'd shown promise as a dancer, excelling in contemporary, Fosse-style jazz, even dabbling in a bit of Graham technique here and there. When things had turned sour, however, and after all the funds from the brownstone sale had dried up, she'd had to make do with moving up the chain of command at the House of Pegasus. On account of her good looks and ability, she'd quickly been promoted to chorus girl, then featured dancer, where the tips were better. When Pegasus had decided to make her a star attraction, with an exclusive five-year contract (with dental), Téa had been overcome by a sinking feeling. It surely hadn't factored into her plans to do "exotic dancing" as a career. Pasting a white-toothed smile on her face, she'd graciously thanked Pegasus in his office, then taken the paperwork home with her and cried.

Her life was such a fucking cliché. It almost made her sick.

The swollen bus lurched and groaned. Téa held her purse and dance bag against her with one hand while bundling her pea coat around her, feeling the crush of bodies pressing against her and falling away. She tilted her head upwards, hoping for a breath of air that wasn't contaminated with someone's aftershave or body odor. From where she stood, she could make out bits and pieces of the people surrounding her: here, a tracksuit; there, a brightly-colored Mohawk; here, a light blue summer dress; there, a shiny pair of black pumps.

She wondered idly where everyone on this bus was headed. Some of the faces she picked out were familiar to her; she realized that even though she took this same bus every morning for the same commute, she had failed to make more than an "excuse me, coming through" connection with anyone on this bus. For Téa, who thrived on her friendships and relationships with others, soaked up the positive energies from touching people's lives and having them do the same, this thought was rather bitter.

When the bus next pulled over, Téa donned her brightest smile and pushed her way through the throng. It was only ten blocks from her bus stop to the House of Pegasus, which occupied a once-grand old theater at 8500 Cecelia Lane.

As Téa pushed open the wooden doors of the House of Pegasus and entered the building's grand foyer, with its soaring ceilings, gilded marble banisters, and plush red carpeting, she could almost pretend for a moment that she wasn't here to take her clothes off.

In the corner of the lobby by the ticket office, she saw Maximillian Pegasus, white hair flowing, clad in his usual ostentatious red suit, speaking with some businessmen or other, who were the lifeblood of the organization and kept the cash flowing. The city of Domino was still abuzz with gossip about the House of Pegasus, how the fabulously wealthy head of Industrial Illusions, the creator of Duel Monsters, had decided to throw himself into operating a series of Houses of Pegasus within the region. As far as career changes went, it still boggled the mind. Yet Téa knew that, in the absence of being able to sell Duel Monsters cards in Industrial Illusions' formerly-largest market, the theatricality and glamour of owning a club appealed to him. He could have used his position of power over the girls to be a cruel or threatening boss, she reasoned, but he hadn't. The pay was good, and Pegasus treated them with respect.

He noticed her walking through the lobby and excused himself, practically floating over toward her. How was he always in such a perpetually cheerful mood?

"Ah! The lovely Miss Gardner! And how's my star dancer this fine morning?" His words were exaggerated, but his tone was kind. His one good eye peered out from his face; the other hid behind a curtain of well-groomed pearly hair.

Téa rolled her eyes and returned his smile, reaching out her hand to shake his. "Not bad, Mr. Pegasus, not bad."

"That's good to hear—thought I'd have been positively tickled if you were better than that!" Pegasus took her hand in his manicured ones. He'd never had children of his own; his wife had died when they were newlyweds, and he'd never remarried. In a strange, perverse way, he thought of his dancers as a sort of surrogate family. Albeit one that you clothed in skimpy outfits and hired to dance in a highly sexualized manner for paying customers.

...Best not get into that metaphor any further. Téa, with her hardworking nature and magnetic stage presence, was one of his favorites. He enjoyed making her laugh, and enjoyed the nurturing, stabilizing influence she seemed to have on some of the younger girls.

Recently, though, over the past few weeks, Pegasus was sure she'd been keeping up a façade around him, and around everyone else in the theater. To some extent, that was to be expected; he could hardly expect all of his dancers to be thrilled with their jobs. But Téa, effervescent, strong Téa, had managed to keep her head up and her mettle about her—until recently.

He supposed it was something to do with that Yugi Moto, the former champion of Duel Monsters. While Pegasus operated legitimate businesses in Domino, it didn't mean he was unaware of the underground floating card games. He was no fool; never had been one. Stalwart Téa had made her decision to stand by her man, as it were, and he commended what seemed to be her powerful capacity to love. Yet he noticed, day in and day out, how her smooth and dewy face had turned slightly haggard; stress seemed to be making her chest and hips shrink in size, causing extra work for the tailors.

Téa allowed herself to chuckle. "Can I go to warm-up now, Mr. Pegasus?"

"Yes, by all means, Miss Gardner, please do. It would hardly do for my jolie étoile to pull a muscle this afternoon." Today was Thursday; the girls had both a matinee and an evening show to prepare for.

"Notes in the dressing room?" Téa inquired, beginning to make her way towards the green room and rehearsal spaces behind the stage. In addition to serving as the proprietor, Pegasus reserved the right to make changes to the choreography, often at the last minute.

"Yes, and there's coffee and sandwiches in the green room." Pegasus watched her leave. "Don't forget to eat, dear!"

Téa flipped on the light switch, which came to life with a dull buzz. The green room, located at the back of the House, held a small television, a few worn-down couches, and a table stacked high with deli sandwiches and a few paper coffee carriers, as promised. Adjacent to the green room was the dressing room, where each dancer had her own lighted mirror and vanity table. Téa walked over to the dressing room and dropped off her bags onto her chair. Sure enough, each table had a typed page of individual notes and critiques. She'd look through hers later.

She hadn't eaten yet, so she wrapped a turkey-mustard on wheat in a napkin and climbed up the rickety staircase in the corner of the green room to the rather well-appointed rehearsal space.

It was here, in the facsimile of a dance studio, where Téa felt more at home than anywhere else. The floors were a nicely sprung black marley (Pegasus did not want his dancers to injure themselves on poor flooring), the mirrors that lined one of the walls were not particularly distorting, and several portable barres and folding chairs lingered in the corner by the table with the cd player.

It was no Paris Opera House or New York's Lincoln Center, but it was the best Téa was going to get. She checked her watch for the time—10:34 am—and placed her sandwich and coat on a chair. She had about an hour before the rest of the girls would show up.

Téa did a few basic stretches to limber herself up, then took her place in front of the mirror. Her warm-up combined aspects of modern and jazz, with a little ballet thrown in, and she liked to do it alone, every morning, without fail. So what if the positions she used to get warm had no place on the House of Pegasus stage? It was nice for her to dream this way.

She began with trots, rocking back and forth from foot to foot, pushing her feet through the joints until they were pointed. Then she placed her feet at a bit wider than hip distance and bent them rhythmically, raising her arms above her head and pulling them downward. She needed no music—her sense of timing had always been well-tuned. As she worked through the rest of her routine—legs swings, lunges, splits, turns—her movements became graceful and fluid. Her heart rate picked up and steadied at a higher rate. A bit of sweat beaded on her forehead, and her muscles grew warm and pliable and deliciously gummy.

It was just her and the girl in the mirror. During this short period of time each day, Téa was able to push her troubles towards the back of her mind. The job at the House was no longer real; she was rehearsing for the troupe she had joined several years ago; if she kept up the good work, she would be made a choreographer. Yugi and his suffering were no longer real; instead, he was working hard somewhere he enjoyed, and later showing up to the dressing room with a bouquet of flowers, his eyes shining with love.

Here was where she was able to forget. And forget she did, for that golden hour before the other dancers arrived. In that hour, on that day, Téa was more than an unhappy exotic dancer at an old creaky theater on the outskirts of town. She was a true étoile, glittering gold and silver high above the earth, where the pain and tears that had weighed her down would never reach her.

Chapter Text

Yugi had spent the rest of that Thursday in relatively good spirits. Here was a chance to once again best his rival, though truthfully he would have preferred to defeat Seto Kaiba the old-fashioned way. There was no chance in hell, he reckoned, that Seto and all his smug charm and ice-prince looks, was going to be able to successfully take woo the Museum Director. For one, Seto was a duelist. A successful duelist. And as Doctor Ishizu Ishtar had made abundantly clear, both in word and in deed, she held no love in her heart for people who participated in that life. For another, the good Doctor would only value Seto if she believed he could be reformed, and Seto would never consent to joining her D-CARP program. Furthermore, while she had a certain comeliness in her face, she was far from being what Yugi thought comprised Seto's "type".

And he, while charming in that assholeish way (and pretty in that obnoxious way), was arrogant and cold. A smart woman like Ishizu, one who (rather like Seto had been) was basically addicted to her work, would not fall for the kind of crap Yugi assumed Seto pulled on women.

And so, in celebration of his impending victory, he, Joey, and Tristan had begun a bar crawl around Domino on the following day at 5 pm, going from fruity drinks at Happy Hours to beer and hard liquor as the evening wore on. One margarita and he felt more upbeat than he had in months. Another, and nothing had ever been wrong with his life. A beer later, and his heart was full, his eyes bubbling over with tears of infatuation, gushing with love towards everyone in the bar. Another, and the unmitigated joy he felt had somehow begun to turn sour in his belly, his skin turning cold.

While Joey and Tristan were tall and muscularly built, and could thus handle pounding drink after drink into their systems, Yugi was about two-thirds their height and weighed about half of what either of them did, and thus he barely lasted two hours. At that point, Joey had signaled to the bartender of whatever place they were at—who could honestly remember?—to start giving Yugi water instead of alcohol, since his friend was currently dozing on the counter, half of his chin covered in drool.

Joey rolled his eyes, sighed, and hoisted his friend's limp body into his arms while Tristan paid the tab. They left the sour-smelling bar then, and took to the city streets on the way back to the Baby Dragon. It was around 11 pm then; soon enough Seto would have to come pay up.

"You ever think…" began Tristan.

Joey looked towards his more laconic friend. "Yeah, Tristan?"

The words came slowly, unsure. "You ever think about how sick it is, the way that women and men in this town have to be at each other's throats so often?"

"What do ya mean? You got Serenity—are things okay with her?"

Tristan nodded. "I just meant… with this whole Kaiba and Ishizu thing, and then with Yugi and Téa… like, why does there have to be a big deal over this? Why can't Yugi and Téa just work it out? Why are they making it so complicated?"

Joey shrugged. "I mean, if I'm gonna be honest here, she's got a point. Our buddy over here ain't exactly in the best shape, and Téa's sure as hell not gettin' any younger. I'd have thought they'd have sealed the deal by now…"

Tristan continued, his philosophical line of thought having come seemingly from out of nowhere. "And with Kaiba and Ishizu—why'd Yugi put her on the hook like this? We don't even know the woman, and neither does Kaiba. And I mean, with what happened with you…"

Joey glared at Tristan sharply, who immediately ceased his train of thought.

The two men and their charge reached the bar, poured Yugi's knocked-out frame into the corner booth, their booth. Tristan kissed Serenity on the cheek, who upon their arrival took off her apron and handed it to her fiancé. The Baby Dragon was hardly popular on a Friday night (there were flashier joints in the city, to be sure) but there was still a fair amount of patrons (mainly ex- and current duelists) lingering about, trying to sneak a smoke or stirring their hard drinks with straws. Serenity blew a kiss to Joey and Yugi in the booth and exited through the back door, a delicate tinkle heralding her departure.

Tristan rolled up his sleeves and hopped behind the bar. Soon he re-emerged, carrying a lukewarm bottle of Gatorade and a bowl of salted nuts.

"Yugi?" Joey gently poked his friend in the arm. Yugi groaned unconsciously in response, and then his large violet eyes flickered open, his vision hazy and filmy, his ears filled with fuzzy drums. Joey unscrewed the cap off the Gatorade and tipped it gently to his friend's mouth.

Yugi swallowed, and then spat out a mouthful of phlegm onto the wooden table almost reflexively. "Remind me never to do that again, Joey. I mean it this time…"

Joey rolled his eyes; they had played this game before. "Sure, Yug. Sure."

He poured some of the salted nuts into Yugi's hand. Yugi's mouth wrinkled and his stomach flipped unpleasantly, but he placed one into his mouth delicately.

"You know, after everything I've gone through recently, I deserved to have a little fun," Yugi began, before his stomach began the spin cycle.

Joey reached into the napkin dispenser and slid a pile towards his friend. "Yug, does your version of fun involve puking your guts out? 'Cause that's about to happen in about three…two…" And Yugi retched into the pile of thin paper, right on cue.

"Shut up," he coughed.

Joey grinned despite himself, pushing the Gatorade back towards his friend.

"What time is it?" Seto should be coming by within the next several hours.

"Around 11:30. Why?"

Yugi's eyes widened and his brow furrowed. He slumped into his seat and buried his balloon head into his hands. "I was planning on going to see Téa's show tonight…"

He let out a sigh. Yet another way he was a failure. He couldn't get a legitimate job, he was an incredible lightweight, and he was a shitty boyfriend. Téa was surely going to leave him sooner or later, and then what would he have left?

I should just end things now. Everything.

He balled his fists, burying his nails until they drew blood. His eyes briefly brightened to scarlet. Joey stiffened and placed a hand on Yugi's arm.

One of the duelists in the other booths walked over towards them. "Hey, uh, Yugi. Hey, Joey."

Yugi snapped his head up, his lips curling in a blatantly false and painful smile. "Hello?"

The duelist leaned in conspiratorially. "I just wanted to let you guys know—there's a rumor going around today that Mai Valentine is gonna be back this weekend as well…"

At that Joey froze. He could hear his heartbeat in his ears. His back was sweaty, and his blood felt cold in his veins. "Are you sure about this?"

"Well, I did say it was a rumor… but this guy I know, his brother was on a cruise ship and ended up losing a duel to this incredibly hot chick—she took his room, his money, his rarest card, everythin'. That's been her M.O. before, ain't it?" The duelist's voice grew excited as the three men considered the former top-ranked duelist and her many assets: her confidence in her abilities, her strategy in duels, her incredible body that she loved showing off (as part of her strategy, no doubt)…

Joey's heart throbbed painfully in his chest. When he'd last seen Mai, it had been during the strictest legislative wave. They'd been close to dating at the time. Mai had insisted on leaving—she didn't have or need friends in Domino, and Duel Monsters was her livelihood. There'd been nothing to keep her in Domino City.

Joey hadn't been enough, as it turned out.

They'd fought. He'd asked her to move in with him. She'd declined. He'd asked to go with her. She'd refused to take him. He'd nearly begged. What was he supposed to do with her gone?

Her voice had been flatly cruel when she'd replied:

"Forget me, Joey."

He still thought of her often. Of her flashing eyes and conceited laugh. Of the way she playfully mocked him at every turn, of her soft lips and apple-red cheeks. He still slept on one side of the bed, as if waiting for her to materialize on the other side. Of course, Joey had been keeping busy looking after Yugi, and so he hadn't had time to devote to pining. He'd just assumed she was done with Domino and with him.

Drunk as Yugi was, he noticed the change in Joey's posture and quietly moved his hand to his friend's. "Thank you," he murmured to the duelist, who bowed his head and retreated to where he'd come.

"Are you going to be all right, Joey?" Yugi's voice was quiet but steely.

Joey took in a shuddering breath, feeling the torn flesh in his chest bleed anew against his rib cage. He nodded gravely. "Yeah, Yug. I got this. Don't worry about me." He reached out a hand to tousle Yugi's ridiculous hair. "Drink your damn Gatorade. Kaiba should be here any minute with your money. Ya don't wanna look like shit when he shows up."

Yugi dutifully drank.

The phone at the bar rang, and Tristan excused himself from a customer to go answer it. "Baby Dragon?"

As the person on the other end spoke, Tristan's normally placid face grew pale. "Uh huh. Thanks. I'll tell him." He hung up, his hand shaking slightly, and made his way over to Yugi and Joey.

"So, Mako went over to where Kaiba's staying… and he's not there."

Yugi narrowed his eyes. "That doesn't mean anything, Tristan. He could be out and about on a Friday night. God knows there's enough entertainment to go around."

"That's just it—no one has seen Seto Kaiba for hours. Someone saw him leaving the hotel at around noon dressed in some fancy suit, and then another person saw him on the Parkway, and they told Mako, who told me."

"But…but that's where the museum is," Yugi said dumbly, his voice growing faint with realization.

Tristan grimaced. "And then another buddy of Mako's said that they saw Kaiba's fancy jet on the runway at the airport—and Kaiba was getting on it—but he wasn't alone. The museum lady—she was getting on the jet with him." Tristan's face looked genuinely regretful.

Joey immediately looked to Yugi, who had by now broken into an icy cold sweat. His heart beat erratically as he thought of what ten thousand dollars looked like. His stomach flipped upon flip. His breath grew shallow.

"Yugi…" Joey began, caution giving way to alarm. As he and Tristan looked on, Yugi's tiny body crumpled into a faint.

Chapter Text

Ishizu buttoned up the top button of her prim black blouse and slid on her low black kitten heels. She regarded herself in the tall mirror leaning against her exposed-brick bedroom wall. Silky black blouse, knee-length white-and-black patterned pencil skirt, pristine black tights, and the low shoes. She'd French-braided her hair and put in some gold posts in her ears that found a match in the delicate gold bangle on her left wrist. She'd done up her face tastefully and minimally—a bit of black kohl to make her eyes pop, and some clear gloss on her lips.

It was surely not what Seto would likely be hoping for, but she felt safe in this attire, wrapped up in sleeves and tiny buttons and hose. It was just dinner (in a foreign country, something Ishizu still couldn't get out of her mind, even after having had a few hours to digest the information); a purely business transaction, like any ordinary meeting she had had with a potential museum donor. Yes. She could think of it that way, at least intellectually. Once Seto arrived to pick her up was another matter entirely.

After he'd left her a puddle of frustration in her office, she'd had a few seconds to recover—and seethe—until Marik would return, wanting to know what had happened? Ishizu wanted to believe that he was none the wiser as to what had transpired in her office during an official, business-related meeting, but neither she nor he was particularly naïve—As a rule, Marik was much more perceptive than he let on. He'd also been in his corner cubicle down the hall the entire time, and had at least picked up something during all the door openings and closings. Marik had not asked about how her meeting with Seto had gone, because he didn't need to. Ishizu had managed to pour herself into her seat, her white shirt clinging to her sweaty back, and had told Marik very calmly (she hoped) that she would be giving him the rest of the day off, beginning at 12:45. She'd be giving herself the rest of the day off at that time as well, she told him; she had a meeting with a potential donor in the afternoon, and so she'd be taking a break to get ready but would hurry back to the office as soon as she was ready. There was no need for him to see Seto coming to pick her up at one; she'd already suffered enough humiliation over the last day or two and did not need extra fodder for Marik to tease her with.

Marik had looked surprised initially, since Ishizu was not one to leave the Museum in the middle of the day, even for a donor, but had quickly brightened. He'd run back to his cubicle and promptly called Odion on his cell phone, telling his partner (who had arisen at 5 am to do his strength training and was only now getting himself breakfast) that he would be coming back to the apartment soon.

"Did you actually get any work done?" Odion's deep, stoic voice held a hint of sarcasm.

"Yes, we did, Odion. It's like you don't even have any faith in me," Marik practically whined. "Besides, you'll never believe who came in to see Ishizu today…"

Ishizu took one last look at herself, feeling ambivalent about the woman reflected in her mirror, and checked her phone for the time. 12:15. Good. Enough time to walk the two blocks to the Museum from her apartment (the low heels were sensible, indeed) and to get Marik out the door before Seto would arrive and make a ruin of her composure.

She checked the contents of her patent-leather black purse, and then checked it again. She went through the rooms in her apartment, making sure all the lights were off, the coffeemaker unplugged, the sinks completely turned off. She made sure her jewelry box was hidden beneath perfectly folded clothing in her chest of drawers. The mindless routine that she completed each time she left her apartment made her feel a little calmer, though it did nothing to stop her stomach batting about her insides with a combination of anticipation and what felt like nausea.

Once last glance in the bedroom mirror. She decided she looked professional, if a little flustered. This was a business transaction. Nothing more. And yet…

She couldn't tell what made her do it. She crossed over to her nightstand and, before she could convince herself otherwise, threw a few condoms into her purse.

Before she could change her mind, she fled her bedroom, grabbed a soft black shawl from off of a hook by the door, wrapped it around herself, and left her apartment.

As she walked out of the building and towards the museum, she ruminated on how overdressed she was for that time of day. The sun peeked out from behind some clouds; the sky was a timid blue. She wondered what the weather in Manila was. She wondered if she was overdressed. Or underdressed.

Ishizu unlocked the door to the museum, closed it behind her, and rode in the elevator to the administrative offices. It was now 12:30. She expected to see Marik packing up his things. Perhaps he would even have taken off fifteen minutes early, the rascal. She exited the elevator and walked briskly towards her office.

Her stomach dropped as she saw not only Marik, not only Seto, but Mayor Devlin, of all people, seated around her desk, talking furiously. Well, two of them talking furiously They didn't even seem to notice her—Marik leaning forward, gesticulating wildly, his voice verging on that whine, Mayor Devlin's brow wrinkled, his green eyes regretful, and Seto sitting upright in his chair, arms crossed, lips pressed together.

"Excuse me?" Ishizu began, a sinking feeling pulling at the base of her stomach.

The three men flicked their eyes over to her. Mayor Devlin stood up first, always solicitous and straightforward, and bowed his head respectfully. If he found her clothing odd, nothing about his countenance indicated it. "Hello, Doctor Ishtar. I'm so sorry I didn't get a chance to call you; I was in a council meeting earlier this morning and I simply couldn't wait to get over here." His suit was navy, his tie the color of his eyes. Somehow the ensemble worked.

Ishizu stepped into the threshold of her office. Marik's glance towards her was quizzical—his colleague was all gussied up for some reason. His breath was heavy, chest heaving.

Seto, on the other hand, looked at her like he wanted to eat her. His lips curled into a slight smirk, his icy eyes glimmering. Ishizu was sure he could somehow see her naked under her clothing, and had to bite the inside of her cheek to stop from trembling.

"Is everything all right, Mr. Mayor?" Ishizu found her voice, folding her hands together delicately.

Marik deflated. The Mayor's face looked infinitely sadder. Seto reverted to looking bored.

"I'm afraid I have some rather regrettable news, Doctor," began the Mayor, walking towards her. Ishizu's heart dropped into her stomach. Marik buried his face in his hands.

Mayor Devlin took Ishizu's hand in his gently. "You see, the city council has voted overwhelmingly to stop supporting the D-CARP pilot. I'm so, so sorry." His eyes matched his somber voice.

Ishizu felt slapped, pulling her hand away. "Was—was this because of the business yesterday? Mr. Mayor, I was being harassed, and I lost my temper…" Calm, cool, collected. Calm, cool, collected.

The Mayor shook his head. "It's a matter of perceived results. The council is concerned with the lack thereof—your efforts, as good as they have surely been, haven't brought about anything. And with the contribution I gave to the museum construction—it just looks bad for me to push this issue with the council. I hope you understand." His shoulders slumped ever so slightly, his lips pressed tightly together sympathetically.

Ishizu clenched her fists reactively. "It's only a matter of time, Mayor—please! There has to be something—perhaps if I stepped down from the initiative and you appointed someone else…" In, out, in, out. Her breath was coming shallower. She couldn't have a panic attack here—it would be completely unprofessional and humiliating. As if she hadn't displayed both of those behaviors of late. No use dwelling on that now.

"Doctor Ishtar, if you can't attract duelists to this program, nobody can." At this, Seto smiled to himself. Ishizu blushed briefly at the Mayor's comment. The Mayor continued. "There are so many other places where municipal funding is needed… where your talents are needed…"

Here Seto saw an opportunity. He gently cleared his throat, drawing all eyes into the room to him. Ishizu froze upon seeing his expression—she couldn't for the life of her read the arrangement of his features. In this moment, he was a wildcard, and she did not like that one bit. Marik could only look on helplessly. The Mayor, for his part, looked confused as to what Seto had been doing in the room in the first place.

"Yes, Mr. Kaiba?"

Seto struck an earnest tone. "Mr. Mayor, on behalf of all future reformed duelists, I strongly protest the closing of the D-CARP program."

At this, Marik brightened and sat up, watching with interest. Ishizu could barely sputter out, "Mr. Mayor, I think I should explain—"

Marik cut her off. "Doctor Ishtar, this man has a right to be heard!" If she didn't jinx this, he figured, Seto might just save the project by some satanical measure. "Continue, Seto."

Ishizu gritted her teeth, stomach churning, but said nothing.

Seto took Marik's cue, giving an almost imperceptible conspiratorial nod. He rose and took a step towards the Mayor, who looked upon the taller man quizzically. "Mr. Mayor," Seto began, his lips settling into a smirk, "would you be open to a proposition?"

Ishizu rolled her eyes before she could stop herself. "Mr. Kaiba, the Mayor has a full schedule, I'm sure, and will not be available for dinner tonight!" What on Earth was Seto playing at with such high, precarious stakes?

Here the Mayor looked even more confused, regarding Ishizu with alarm. "Doctor Ishtar, what are you talking about?" He cut his gaze back to Seto, who looked as unflappable as ever. "What did you have in mind, Mr. Kaiba?"

"Faith in Doctor Ishtar, Mr. Mayor. I ask you to give her 32 hours to show that the D-CARP pilot will pay off!" Seto could hardly believe he was doing this for her stupid project. He didn't trust the Mayor—people who lie and manipulate recognize this trait in others. Best not to consider his own motives now when his pride was on the line.

The Mayor narrowed his eyes. "Why 32 hours?"

Here Marik piped up: "Because he knows the big D-CARP recruitment event is in 32 hours, roughly! Here at the Museum, tomorrow night at 8:00 pm!" His face broke out into a grin.

Ishizu's jaw dropped. "Marik…" she began weakly.

"But how can you guarantee that, Mr. Kaiba?" the Mayor persisted, refusing to let Seto off the hook.

Seto chuckled to himself as he thought back to the events of earlier that day. He remembered the meeting with Ishizu and how she had practically melted under his touch. "Let's just say, Mr. Mayor, that I have a feeling about it…" Seto cast his eyes about the room, looking for the makeshift contract on the misattributed quotation. His gaze landed on the indignant Ishizu, who was doing her best to remain calm. She looked magnificent, all tense and majestic; he wanted to make her warble his name from the back of her throat.

Seto took a step towards her. Ishizu felt her heart stammer obnoxiously. "Doctor Ishtar, where are our good friends Van Gogh and Picasso?" he asked coyly.

Ishizu bit her lip, knowing exactly what he was getting at. "Top right-hand drawer," she murmured sourly.

Seto nodded briefly, and crossed to behind the massively ornate desk. He busied himself finding the framed quotation while the Mayor cut in: "Before we continue with the added expense of the recruitment event, Mr. Kaiba, I daresay I'd like more assurance than a feeling." Here the last word was emphasized, highlighting how absurd the Mayor found the concept at this juncture.

"It's a very strong feeling, Mr. Mayor." Having found the framed quote, Seto brandished it, looked pointedly at Ishizu, and read: "'I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it'. Lovely, isn't it, Doctor Ishtar?"

His smirk showed teeth. She wanted to scream at him.

Seto turned back to the Mayor, who was still not quite following. Marik had been lost ages ago, and was merely turning his head to and fro as if at a tennis match. "Mr. Mayor, my proposition is this: why don't you come to the recruitment event and see for yourself?"

The Mayor crossed his arms, charmed at Seto's persistence. "Well, if I thought there was a chance of finding definite progress… and a sizable turnout…"

Seto picked up the framed quotation and walked closer to Ishizu, holding it out before him like a peace offering, contract side up. He titled his head mockingly, pursing his lips, his eyes twinkling impishly, arrogantly. Ishizu's stomach fluttered, her skin soaking up his impending nearness like a dry sponge in an ocean.

"Well…" Seto's voice was husky and disgustingly intimate. "What do you think, Doctor Ishtar?" He proffered the quotation. "Don't you honestly believe this program could be saved?"

If Ishizu had had any hope of getting out of the bargain, it disappeared in a flash. She dropped her gaze to the contract written in marker on the frame, reading the words aloud under her breath. Seto moved his eyes from hers down to her unceasingly elegant neck and collarbone, not caring how the two of them must have looked to the Mayor and to Marik.

Ishizu sighed, and took the quotation from Seto. "Mr. Mayor," she began quietly, "I am in a position to guarantee you personally at least one dozen duelists at the recruitment event tomorrow night." And she would be damned, but for Ishizu the work had to come first. Even if it came with appallingly tempting strings attached. Seto's lips curled up into something almost resembling an actual smile, so quickly that Ishizu thought she missed it.

The Mayor and Marik both broke out into huge smiles. "That's fantastic!" crowed the former, while the latter rose from his seat, hands clasped and eyes shining.

"Isn't it fantastic?" Seto quipped, watching Ishizu struggle with her emotions behind the tight controlled expression. The Mayor turned to Marik and shook his hand, the two men practically beaming.

"Yes. Fantastic." Ishizu sat then, contract in her lap, her entire body flush with not entirely unpleasant gooseflesh. Seto stood over her, crossing his arms, knowing he had won.

The clock on the wall now read a quarter to one. Just in time for the two of them to make their plane. The thought of Seto's proposition, his hands, his voice, how his lips had felt against hers—it was nearly enough to make Ishizu scream with frustration. She thought of the contraband in her purse, feeling utterly foolish. How she wanted to wipe that smirk off his face—by any means necessary.

Chapter Text

"Téa, dear, could you please come to my office?" Pegasus stuck his head into the dressing room, where Téa and a few stragglers were packing up their purses after the show had ended on Friday night—nearly Saturday morning, at that rate. Several of the other girls were a bit disappointed that they weren't going home, say, with a rich businessman, but Téa obviously didn't mind. Yugi aside, she didn't particularly like how they looked on her and her fellow dancers—ignoring the complex movements and downright artistry of some of the routines, hoping to see a flash of nipple, coming up to them after the show, faces clouded with cigarette smoke, the so-called lucky girls clinging onto their arms as the pair dipped into growling limousines.

She supposed Yugi, Joey and Tristan were at the Baby Dragon, as they so often were, doing whatever it is was they did. The thought turned her stomach.

"Of course, sir!" Téa grabbed her purse and threw on her coat, following her boss down the narrow, drafty backstage hallways and up a flight of stairs to his office. The other girls ran to the doorway, sticking their heads out with curiosity and chattering amongst themselves.

Though the stairs leading were creaky and undoubtedly in need of repair, Pegasus' office was unquestionably the nicest one Téa had ever been in. It fit the theater—and him—perfectly, all high windows with velvet drapes, gold accents on the walls and prints of famous artworks on the walls. As she looked over her surroundings, a pang of envy struck her, catching her off-balance. She and Yugi had once had nice things—not quite so nice as these, of course—but Pegasus' office was a reminder that luxury and wealth did exist. Just not for her anymore.

"Please, sit down." Pegasus smiled solicitously and took his seat behind his desk and motioned for her to sit in one of the ornate chairs on the other side of the desk.

Téa sank into an overstuffed Rococo chair; she couldn't help feeling a little apprehensive. Her usually unflappable, overly-charming boss had a slight tension about him that evening, which revealed itself in the twitching corner of his mouth. What was going on? Téa jiggled her right leg almost subconsciously as she studied her boss' choreographed mannerisms.

"My dear Téa," Pegasus began slowly, lacing his hands underneath his chin, "something has… come up, shall we say. Something quite important for me and for Industrial Illusions." When he'd gotten the call earlier that day, he'd been as surprised as any—his company hadn't been called on for this project in about a decade, and he'd almost forgotten its existence. Still, with the absence of the old games, one must turn to the new to fill the void, he supposed…

He'd been requested to make a quick decision, and though it had not been a difficult one, he'd thought immediately of the girls, and then his thoughts had turned to Téa as successor. And why should it not have? Who knew the organization as well as he did? Who else choreographed the dances, was close with the girls, and was hardworking and down-to-earth to boot?

Téa's eyes widened, her brow furrowing. "Sir?"

Pegasus offered her a gentle smile and continued. "You see, my dear girl, I've been given an offer. A very generous offer from a private company that I once had ties to, briefly, to return to my design work at Industrial Illusions. Full-time." The offer had been obscene. He would have been a fool not to take it, and Pegasus hadn't gotten where he was in life by being a fool. Politics aside, the money would be a boon, and he couldn't plan on being a club proprietor forever, now, could he?

Téa forgot how to breathe. Her body broke out in gooseflesh as her pulse started to race. "I don't understand—what happens to the House? To us?" Her voice cracked at the end. Already the bills were piling up in her mind—electricity, water, Internet, groceries, medical—and with Yugi contributing nothing as usual, Téa's heart dropped into her stomach as it lurched with anxiety.

Here Pegasus smiled a bit larger, showing perfectly white teeth. "Well, Miss Gardner, with me working at Industrial Illusions full-time, there would be no one to manage the House of Pegasus brand regionally." He withdrew his hands from underneath his chin, and reached into the gilded top drawer of his desk and withdrew an ecru-colored cheque, pushing it towards Téa with graceful hands.

Téa cast her eyes down at the small piece of paper in front of her, breath coming in short gasps. Card stock, the finest paper she'd ever seen. It even had a watermark. It probably felt like parchment. It must have cost more for one ream than she made in a week. Leave it to Pegasus to have it all, fineness and taste, down to the last detail. "I don't understand, sir…"

"My dear girl, you've gone above and beyond for me during your tenure here. You've proven yourself to be steadfast, loyal, disciplined, and able to accept criticism. Clearly working here was not your first choice, but you've managed to take it in stride." He leaned forward towards her. His smile was positively beatific. Téa needed this. She needed something more than what she had been doing, something with a future attached to it, and what was Pegasus if not generous?

"Téa, what I'm giving you is a cheque for one hundred thousand dollars. Once I leave the day-to-day operations of the House of Pegasus, I want you to replace me."

You could have knocked Téa over with a feather. "I… I…"

"While you have promise and creativity, what you lack is a business sense. Thus, my dear, the money is not a free gift. You will use it to enroll in a year of business courses at Domino City College. Then, once you are ready, I will resume my old post at Industrial Illusions, and you will succeed me as the manager and proprietor of the House. While I will be on the leases and paperwork and will have final say over any major change, you will be in charge of the run—not just of the House at this location, but of the other three in the region." Pegasus stood behind his desk and extended his hand.

Téa looked from his face down to the cheque and back again. Was this a trap? How could this be?

If she accepted the offer, would she be bound to the House of Pegasus forever? Could she ever leave the operation? She'd be forever in Pegasus' debt if she accepted.

On the one hand, it would be nice to have a steadier source of income for her and for Yugi—assuming he ever proposed, assuming he found himself able to stay with her and out of trouble.

Yet what about five years down the line? What about the girls? Could she command their respect and loyalty like Pegasus could? Could she manage choreographic and managerial duties? And what about the sleazy patrons—could she command their respect and enforce their distance?

Was she becoming, in essence, a madam of sorts?

What about dancing?

Téa somehow found her tongue. "T-thank you, sir… I… I…" It fled her as quickly as it had arrived.

Pegasus withdrew his hand and nudged the cheque. "I understand that you might like some time to think about this, and that's fine, darling. Just know that I believe you can do this. I believe that you would do me proud."

Téa bowed her head, cheeks flushed, eyes welling up against her better judgment. She could hear her heart pounding in her ears, the thin slickness of her blood in her veins. How could she dream of refusing this responsibility? How could she not?

Pegasus reached inside his desk drawer again, withdrawing another slim piece of fine paper. He walked around the desk towards Téa and placed a fatherly hand on her shoulder. "As a measure of good faith, please accept this." In his other hand he brandished a cheque.

Téa took the cheque and looked at Pegasus curiously before scanning the cheque. Ten thousand dollars… once again, her breath escaped in a shallow hiccup-puff. What she and Yugi could do with ten thousand dollars…

She forced herself to demur. "Please, sir, I can't accept this. It's too much." Yet her fingers gripped the slip of paper as tightly as anything.

Pegasus' eyes grew warm, and he leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. He really did consider himself a father-type to her. He could see how his offer had affected her, and how dearly she wanted to take the cheque. "Please, dear, I insist. You have been invaluable to me."

Téa's eyes grew moist again, and she bit her lip to stop herself from crying, from throwing herself into Pegasus' arms and getting snot all over his finely cut white suit. "Thank you," she murmured, willing her voice to be steady. With this cheque, she and Yugi were safe for a few months. She still needed to think about the offer, but Pegasus' generosity made her feel like a much-loved daughter.

Her hand drifted up to his shoulder, and she squeezed it appreciatively. "Thank you, sir," she repeated, her voice slightly stronger.

Téa placed the cheque in her purse and wrapped herself up in her coat. It was only in this office that she noticed how threadbare it looked, how cheap the buttons were, how threads danced along the seams like hair.

She was tempted to curtsey, but refrained out of sheer pride.

As she walked towards the door to Pegasus' office, he called after her: "Please take a week or so to think about this, lovely!"

Téa whipped her head around. "I will, sir!"

"Another thing, my dear," Pegasus began. "Please, call me Maximillian. You've more than earned the right."

Téa was glad that her back was to him, as that was finally what brought the tears out, and the snot. As she left the House and walked to the bus stop, her face dribbling with salt and goo, she could hardly do much else but silently weep, against her pride and her better judgement.

After Yugi had been revived from his brief faint, he, Joey, and Tristan had set to the phone lines, calling up every duelist they could think of to come to the Baby Dragon now, with their red carnations, because who knows when the next game would be once Kaiba came to collect his money.

Mako Tsunami, who had delivered the bad news, showed up first, face utterly apologetic. He approached Yugi and Joey's booth practically on his knees, like a henchman approaching his don, and promised to do whatever he could to help.

Yugi managed to roll his eyes, half-tempted to have Mako kiss his ring. That is, if he had a ring. Joey raised an eyebrow at Mako, who bowed his head and took his place by the bar, where Tristan had whipped up Mako's standard poison—margarita, no ice, extra salt on the rim.

As is the way with such nightcrawlers, the vast majority—some twenty duelists or so— shuffled in through the door, chimes tingling incessantly, decked out in suits or jeans and accessorized with a red carnation. That silly little old-fashioned quirk did more for others than it did for some.

Amidst the dull rumble of duelists, Yugi found his legs and climbed to stand on top of the table, willing himself to not fall over.

"Gentlemen, gentlemen!" The crowd fell silent immediately. Some part of Yugi relished his strange power over the others. Having been bullied for being small and weak as a child, it was immensely satisfying to have such large, strong men look to him as a leader and not as a target.

Yugi wondered how best to phrase his next words. "Thank you for coming on such short notice. As you can see, the floating card game situation has grown tense, my friends. Seto Kaiba is indeed out tonight, and will not be returning until the morning." This bit was met with a few scoffs. "At this point, we lack the proper funding to secure Espa Roba's spot…"

The door chimes emitted a melody to announce a new entrant into the Baby Dragon. Yugi's voice trailed off as he saw who had arrived.

She emerged from behind the throng of duelists, spike heels first. Then came an expanse of perfectly peach-colored bare legs, capped off with garters that peeked out from under a dark purple skirt.

The other duelists broke out in whispers, clearing a path for her, their eyes eating up every curve of her body.

Sensuality radiated from her like perfume. Her long hair was golden-yellow and curled about her shoulders like a finely wrought cloak. Her eyes were dark violet and flirtatious, her lips pursed as they so often were. Her exquisite body was poured into a white bustier that looked it like was molded on her. Nearly every man in the room wanted to push her up against a wall and do ridiculous things to her, to make her throw back that beautiful head in pleasure, her mouth rounded in a perfect, small O. And didn't she know it.

"Now, is there going to be a game or what, Yugi?" came the sing-song voice that everyone in the Baby Dragon recognized.

"Mai…" Joey's cheeks flushed and his heart skipped wildly, dangerously, careening about his chest with no sign of stopping. The time that had passed had not changed a thing. He clenched his fists, burying his head in his chest, as memories of her laughing in his arms flooded his minds' eye without warning.

If Mai Valentine noticed her former lover's reaction, she did not acknowledge it. She trained her eyes on Yugi, who had amusingly become the alpha-dog while she'd been gone. How positively absurd. How adorable.

She crossed her arms and cocked her hip. The duelists behind her dissected her clothing, wishing with all their hearts for x-ray glasses. Surely Yugi Moto's floating games would make coming back to this hellhole of a city worthwhile.

Yugi coughed to clear his throat, fully aware of how silly he looked standing on the table. He climbed down and walked towards Mai, extending his hand. "It's been a while, Mai! I'm delighted to see you around Domino!"

Mai rolled her eyes at Yugi's chirpy tone, but shook his hand anyway, letting her long, manicured nails graze his wrist. "Well, I do hope you're going to make it worth my time, Yugi…"

"How was your flight? I mean—did you fly? Did you get a cab? How was your trip?" Yugi prattled on. Where have you been? Why did you leave? Why are you back now? He was keenly aware of Joey slumped in the booth behind him, failing to hide his reaction to Mai's return, and he felt nothing but pity towards his friend, and confusion towards the woman who had left him half-broken in her wake.

"That's not really important," Mai replied airily, withdrawing her hand and examining her immaculate nails. Her already short patience for these idiots starting to wear thin.

She walked towards the counter, and the crowd of duelists recalibrated itself around her. "I came here to duel. Let's duel." She raised a single finger and beckoned Tristan over. "I'll have a glass of milk, please."

"…Milk?" Tristan responded. Mai hardly seemed like the type of woman who liked fruity drinks, to be sure, but milk?

"Skim, please. This figure isn't going to take care of itself," Mai said tartly. She whipped her glossy head back over to Yugi. "Well?"

"I-I was just working on getting to that, Mai," Yugi said dully as Mai reached for the drink in front of her, placing the straw into her mouth rather suggestively.

Yugi walked back to the booth and climbed up to stand on the table. "So… as I was saying…"

"Bakura!" Someone towards the back of the room shouted, having seen the sinister white-haired Detective slinking down the street towards the Baby Dragon. The duelists immediately assumed their positions, splitting up amongst themselves in booths, tables, by the bar.

Yugi felt his blood run cold. Of course—this was just what he needed on today of all days. Just his luck…

He plopped down into the booth and tried to rouse Joey, who had essentially gone comatose at Mai's arrival. Mai seemed unperturbed, choosing instead to sit herself down at a bar stool and linger over her glass of milk. She crossed her legs innocently, showing even more leg. Joey thought he was going to die.

Detective Bakura's entrance was accompanied by the chiming, which took on a minor key. His hair looked greasy, his suit rumpled. Dark circles traced under his eyes. "Well, well, well… what have we here…" He leered at the duelists scattered about the room, sharp eyes noting each and every red carnation. His gaze passed over Yugi and Joey in the back booth before settling on Mai's chest, then flicking upwards to her face.

"Why, Mai Valentine. What a pleasure," Detective Bakura murmured, moving over to where the blonde was nursing her drink. He took a seat across from her and placed a hand on her thigh, uninvited. Mai bristled imperceptibly, quickly covering it up by glancing up at Bakura under long black lashes. That usually seemed to do the trick.

"Hello, yourself, Ryou," Mai winked at him, setting all of the duelists in the room on edge. What in the hell was she doing?

"It's Detective Bakura now," Detective Bakura responded silkily, squeezing Mai's knee. Her presence alone in this bar was practically all the proof he needed. Yugi was indeed trying to hold a game—why else would Mai be back in Domino, and in this hole in the wall, of all places? He could feel the handcuffs clicking together on his belt, and anticipated leading Yugi to prison in shackles with relish.

Detective Bakura withdrew his hand and turned his attention to the men in the room. "What lovely red carnations. Just the touch of class that this place could use. Am I right, Tristan?" It was a rhetorical question.

Pantherlike, he rose from his stool and sauntered over to where Yugi and Joey were sitting. "I've been looking for you for a long time, Mr. Moto," he practically hissed.

Yugi returned Detective Bakura's fierce gaze with stern composure. "To what do I owe the pleasure, Detective?" Calm. Cool. Collected. He had to do this. He could not risk even a moment of weakness.

"Well, well, well. It seems like you've gone Domino's finest all gathered in this lovely establishment. Might I inquire what for?" His tone was predatory, hushed. Yugi fought a shiver from dripping down his spine. Of all the things in this world that frightened him, Bakura was near the top of that list.

"Well… you see…" Yugi began.

"It's a party!" Tristan shouted from behind the bar.

Everyone in the room turned in surprise at this outburst from their laconic friend. Yugi caught up the thread where Tristan had left it. "Yes, Detective, it's a party. That's why everyone's all dressed up like this…" He prayed to God he wasn't as shitty a liar as he felt.

Detective Bakura lifted an eyebrow, his smile growing wide. "A party? But what for, Mr. Moto?" His words hung in the air between them, accumulating tension like fine dust.

Out of the blue, Tristan boomed again: "It's an engagement party—for Yugi and for Téa! He's going to propose to her tonight!"

Yugi felt his jaw drop, but snapped it up as Bakura narrowed his eyes at him. "Yes, Detective—I am planning on, um, settling down with Téa. We have been together for years, and I love her dearly. It seems only right that I, to put it one way, seal the deal." What the ever-loving fuck had Tristan gotten him into?

Not that he hadn't planned on proposing at some point, but his finances weren't exactly on the path to a ring, let alone a wedding and honeymoon.

His breath came in spruts. His fingers twitched. A bead of sweat threatened to spill onto his forehead. Don't panic. Don't panic.

Joey, suddenly alert, looked at Yugi with huge, baleful eyes. How was Yugi going to get out of this one? Mai's delicate mouth twisted into a small smile as she bent her head for another sip of milk.

Detective Bakura rolled his eyes. Did they think he was stupid, or merely naïve? He hadn't made it to Detective in record time without some level of savvy. "Congratulations to you, Mr. Moto. But I must ask—where is the lovely Miss Gardner now? Some engagement party without the fiancée…" Let's see them get out of this one, those pathetic fools.

And of course Téa had to come through the door at that moment, cheeks flushed and blue eyes wild. She panted for breath as she took in everyone in the room. Her heart sank as she saw Detective Bakura and the duelists lingering around the bar. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled. Were she and Yugi to get no peace?

As her eyes fixed on Mai, however, she couldn't contain the pure joy that bubbled up inside her heart. "Mai?" She dashed over to where the blonde was sitting, throwing her arms around her. "Oh, Mai, I've missed you so much! Why are you here—what brings you back to Domino?" The words somersaulted over one another. When Mai had left, Joey had taken it hardest, of course, but Téa had also lost a dear friend and confidante.

Mai allowed herself a small smile, for she was genuinely happy to see Téa again. She pressed a quick kiss to Téa's cheek, somehow leaving no lipstick.

Tristan, sensing Detective Bakura's growing suspicion and waning patience for what was, patently, a farce, coughed loudly. "Y-Yugi! Don't you have something you'd like to, um, say?"

Yugi blushed crimson as he fixed his eyes on Téa. Even after all this time, after the messes he'd gotten them in, seeing her face now was like seeing her for the first time—infinitely new and fascinating and almost painful to look at, like staring at a glittering silver star.

Téa's eyes widened in confusion. "Yugi? What's going on?" She released Mai and walked over to where Yugi was perched in the back booth.

Ignoring the eyes of everyone else in the room, she dropped to her knees, so that Yugi's seated form was closer to her face, and leaned in tenderly towards him, worry spreading from her chest out through her limbs. "Is everything all right? What's going on—"

Yugi closed his eyes for a moment and swore silently that if this worked out, he would give up the floating card games after tonight. By God, he would.

Suddenly, he leapt out of the booth, startling Téa, who snapped up straight. Yugi sighed almost imperceptibly and sank down onto one knee while Téa's hands quivered up towards her face.

"Téa Gardner," began Yugi, whose confidence in what he was doing grew the more he looked at Téa's beautiful, kind face, "I know we've been through so much recently. I don't have the money for a ring, and I can only promise you myself. Will you make me the happiest man alive?" Well, if he was going to hell…

Téa hadn't believed that it would be possible to be more shocked than she had been that night, but this took the cake. She hadn't anticipated this in her wildest dreams. Sure, she had hoped for it, idly, as one hopes to win the lottery or be bumped up from coach to first class…

She quickly became aware of how silent the room was, save for the sound of her own breath. She could feel Detective Bakura's eyes burning a hole into her back, and what felt like every duelist in the room holding their breath. Her skin erupted in gooseflesh. Her knees felt weak. She looked into Yugi's eyes. While his shoulders shook slightly, his eyes were shining with hope.

"Yes. Yes!" she heard herself choke out. Yugi sagged with relief, rising from his kneeling position and taking Téa's hand in his. He peripherally registered Bakura's evident shock with a glimmer of pride as he pulled Téa in for a triumphant kiss.

The duelists in the room began clapping and singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" (which hardly anyone ever sang anymore). Mai rose from her seat and clasped her hands in apparent glee, eyes glittering with evident pleasure at her friend's success.

Téa sighed between kisses as Yugi moved his hands to her waist, bending her knees slightly to lessen the height difference between them. His breath grew ragged; his pulse raced beneath his skin. Téa slid her hands up Yugi's ruined arms and clutched at his shoulders. A moan sounded from the back of her throat, stirring the both of them. She pressed her hips against his; Yugi moved his lips to the spot at the base of her throat that she so loved. Every cell in Téa's skin felt shiveringly bright and alive.

It was Yugi who eventually remembered where they were, and gently lifted his lips from her, noting with pride the scarlet blush on Téa's cheeks and her swollen lips. "Ahem."

Mai released a peal of laughter, clear and melodic. Even Joey guffawed at the spectacle. Bakura gritted his teeth. "Well, then, I must once again offer my congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Moto." He spat out the last few words with plenty of phlegm, mentally kicking himself for failing to catch these idiots doing something illegal. No matter—he would merely wait for the next opportunity. It surely could not be that far off.

Téa beamed at Detective Bakura. "Thank you, Officer—I mean, Detective." While her tone was light, her eyes were stern, and Bakura saw in her an unquestioning love for her now-fiancé as well as a loathing of Detective Bakura himself. He cast his glance back to Mai, who dipped her head towards her nearly empty glass of milk.

He knew he had lost this round. It was all he could do to leave the Baby Dragon without first wrapping his hands around that fucker Yugi Moto's throat.

The chimes announced that the coast was clear, and everyone in the room let out a collective sigh.

Téa turned back to Yugi, who was still holding her hand, cheeks ablaze. "Um… Yugi…"

Yugi smiled and cut his gaze up back to her. Crisis averted for now. "Yes, Téa?" As he moved his eyes up her figure almost hungrily, it took everything he had to send the duelists home and go back to the apartment with her.

"I have some news I'd like to share with you tomorrow morning, all right?" Téa pressed a kiss to Yugi's forehead, remembering the cheque in her bag and the opportunity she'd been offered by Pegasus. It felt like a world away, and she was beyond worn out.

Eventually Yugi would give up the game, go legit like she hoped, but she was too tired—and frankly, too happy—to fight with him about this. Yugi loved her. She knew this now. And even without a ring glistening on her finger, it was all she really needed right then.

Téa made her way out the back door of the Baby Dragon, limbs made heavy with the anticipation of sleep. Despite herself, her heart skittered like a leaf on the wind. There would be infinite tomorrow mornings.

Yugi watched Téa go, wishing that he could join her in their bed and continue what had so promisingly begun. He let out a small, contented sigh as he realized that everyone in the room had their eyes trained on him. Some of the duelists had mirth in their eyes, while others were more charitable and just looked happy for him. Rather than talking amongst themselves, they had chosen this moment of moments to train all their attention on him, at a time when it was neither wanted nor requested.

As Yugi fumbled through what exactly to say in this moment, Mai took her cue to stand up from her seat and strutted over to him, her legs like running silk. She pecked him on the cheek and threw him a saucy wink. He felt inwardly grateful to her in this moment for cutting through the tension. "Congratulations, Yugi. Now let's get back to business, shall we?"

Chapter Text

Long-ass chapter ahoy!

I actually did research for this- the Fort, the foods, and the Manila Sunrise are all actual, real things. Yay internet!



Ishizu crossed her legs again, fairly thrumming with tension, and then adjusted her position on the elegant Italian leather seat for the tenth or eleventh time. Despite the craftsmanship of the plane seat, by far the finest she'd ever been in, she couldn't get quite comfortable, couldn't calm her nerves.

The cabin was full of that stale, low humming sound that meant the pilot was doing a smooth job. The air smelled new and crisp and faintly fruity, like she was forgetting a more powerful scent every time she inhaled. Just past her knees was a low table, and then across from her was a subject upon which she refused to linger. The interior was done up in tan and black leather, silver accents making the whole affair feel quite extravagant.

She laced her hands together in her lap; unable to stay put, one hand drifted upwards to worry at the buttons on her blouse. Since the plane was devoid of actual noise, she could hear every unappealing slap of her legs moving against one another, the lumpy, wet gulp of her swallowing. It was enough to drive one mad, and that was not taking into account the roughly six feet of disgusting temptation seated across the table, his frank blue gaze directed on her.

She turned her gaze outside the window of the plane, noting how textured and wispy the clouds below the plane looked. She wondered how long they'd been in the air.

Once the Mayor had left, with Marik trailing behind him to go back home to Odion, Seto and Ishizu had taken the elevator down to the lobby and gotten into the limousine Seto had waiting. She'd hoped to God that no one saw Seto open the door for her and help her duck into the sleek monster of a car. While part of her had been surprised by the display of chivalry, she knew better than to think of it further.

From the Museum it had been a quick drive to the airport and then fast up the steps to Seto's private plane. During the car ride, Ishizu had kept her eyes firmly trained out the tinted window, attempting to ignore Seto's subtle grin of triumph playing at the edge of his mouth. As they had embarked the plane, Ishizu had nearly cried out in protest at the mere expense and waste of having a private jet, let alone taking it on such a frivolous errand, but she had decided to hold her tongue.

Or, rather, Seto coming up behind her, unheard, on the staircase and guiding her into the plane with his hand rudely on the small of her back had made her swallow her tongue. Either way. His hand had not lingered, and as he took his seat and motioned for her to do the same, she had silently mourned its loss. Ishizu had buckled in, of course, and accepted a glass of ice water, hold the lemon, from a solicitous flight attendant. Seto had not fastened his seat belt, which didn't surprise Ishizu.

And so here they were, flying high above the ocean, a certain tension curtaining between them with no sign of thinning.

Seto, to his perturbation, found himself unable to get bored of looking at her. While she'd looked pretty in the museum—pretty enough to nearly fuck, anyway—the care she'd put into her clothing for the trip delighted him. Her clothing was still simple and modest. He supposed that it was his mind's eye filling in the luscious details of their kissing in her office, the heat and vigor of her thighs, the fullness of her breasts, the smoothness of her neck. Yet he swept his eyes over her form again and again, as if he had forgotten the gentle curves of her body each time, seemingly unable to quench his thirst.

After he'd left her office the first time, he'd found himself rendered incapable of going about his business as usual. Luckily he'd not had much; he'd gone back to his hotel and showered—cold shower, naturally—glossed over some forms Devlin had sent him earlier, pretended to function as he would have otherwise.

Yet he kept flashing his eyes to the clock, willing it to go faster; he took great care in choosing a tie to go with his suit, ignoring the loop of Ishizu's wanton moan playing in his mind.

Seto supposed it was because they hadn't actually fucked. He didn't have much experience with prolonged sexual frustration, given that he was Seto Kaiba and the fine cut of his coat was enough to get most women to latch onto him like leeches, let alone actual physical contact. He got what he wanted, generally.

He wasn't sure if he actually wanted Ishizu or merely wanted to figure out why she was so interesting to him. She was so incredibly stubborn, like him—it had been such a pleasure for him to white-knight his way into saving her stupid D-CARP program; the look of shock and anger on Ishizu's face alone had nearly made him laugh aloud. Of course he was going to win Yugi's pathetic bet—if logic or seduction failed (though the latter only marginally, he noted), cold, hard, business would always do the trick. That was why he was still rich and successful, while Yugi and his friends were left scrounging around the wasted city.

Seto moved his eyes back to the top of her head and let them begin their hungry journey back down Ishizu's form: thick black hair, perfectly plaited, bronzed face, those long lashes and blue eyes, bow-shaped lips, tender neck and marbled collarbone, chest heavy and poorly hidden by the blouse…

"It's a lovely plane," Ishizu began, just to break the long silence. She turned her gaze towards Seto, felt him lazily trail back up her neck to meet her eyes.

"I know," came the smug reply. Of course. He couldn't even take a compliment, because he knew full well everything he had was the best, objectively.

Ishizu couldn't stop herself from saying drily, "is this how you entertain all your guests?" As soon as the words left her mouth and Seto smirked suggestively at her, making her blush, she regretted it. The water had been polite, but there was nothing much to do on the plane—no magazines tucked somewhere, no screens in view…

Seto laughed inwardly, relishing Ishizu's embarrassment. "Well, Ishizu, there happens to be a full-size bed towards the back of the plane. Newly installed since the last one broke down… If you'd care to christen it." It was implied that he would dutifully help her break in the new furniture—he'd had to resort to entertaining women with the plane seat leaned back since a particularly athletic encounter had made quick work of the old bed. Left him wonderfully sated for days, though…

As if. The offer itself was tempting to both of them, and they both knew it. Ishizu rolled her eyes. "Thank you, Mr. Kaiba, but no thank you. I was thinking of something along the lines of some reading material?" That bastard.

"Ah, yes, of course," he replied smoothly, raising a hand and beckoning the earlier flight attendant, who approached the pair with a small, colorful book. Seto took it and leaned forward, presenting it to Ishizu, who watched the whole silent affair with mild confusion.

Guidebook to Manila. "I thought you'd like to do a little research on where we're going—the scenery and archeology is supposed to be lovely." Ishizu accepted the book, strangely flattered by the gesture. Seto had had Roland pick it up from a bookstore on the way to retrieve Ishizu, and he relished the delicate smile that curved on her lips, dimples pushing into her cheeks cautiously.

"Thank you, Mr. Kaiba," Ishizu began, stopping when Seto raised an eyebrow.

"I think we're well-acquainted enough for you to call me Seto, Ishizu. Don't you?" Ishizu blushed again as she remembered in painful, tender detail just how acquainted they were.

"Thank you, Seto," she amended, quickly burying her nose in the guidebook, trying to banish the memories of earlier from creeping up on her again. Seto nodded his head, apparently satisfied, and resumed to taking inventory of her.

The whole affair had been so unlike Ishizu that thinking about it hours after the back brought back the immediate sensations in graphic detail, mingled with acute shame. It wasn't that Ishizu was inexperienced, unable to keep it in her pants, as it were, but something about Seto Kaiba had her wanting both to humiliate him, make him acquiesce to her superior stubbornness, or have him groaning under her touch between her legs. Both would suffice, she reasoned, as the flutter trembled below her belly.

She crossed her legs again, much more gingerly this time, which did not escape Seto's gaze. He could sense his impending victory wafting from her and oh, was it satisfying. The things he would do to her.

He crossed his legs as well, mentally kicking himself for dwelling on such things. She was probably one of those sad-sack women who would fancy herself in love with him the instant he laid a carefully oriented finger on her.

All women are the same, he reminded himself—good for one, maybe two nights, tops. Part of him knew this to be true, anyway. And so what if he could not take his eyes off her her? She was no more beautiful than any other woman he had bedded before, or would bed after her.

He almost wanted to fuck her, right then and there, if only to end the growing fixation.

The two of them sat in silence for the rest of the short flight, Ishizu soaking up details about Manila's history and architecture, Seto trying to ignore how damned appealing she looked while she was reading. The intercom crackled in, announcing the plane's imminent landing. Then it was out of the plane, into a handsome town car, and off to El Café Tagalog.

It was just around 5 when they arrived at the restaurant, a small establishment located in a courtyard near some lovely old buildings and what looked like a park. The sky overheard was growing dim, sighing from cloudless blue into a darker hue. Ishizu clutched her purse and the guidebook, the warm air wrapping around her like another shawl, as the town car sped off into the haze.

She and Seto Kaiba were alone. In a foreign country. She swallowed a sudden fear that he might turn out to be an axe murderer.

"Our reservation is not until 6. I thought you might like to have a look around. The park here is lovely, and the sky is light enough to read your guidebook by," came Seto's husky voice as he placed his hand on the small of her back.

Ishizu shivered at his touch and once again found herself feeling pleased that he seemed to be thinking of her in such a way. Stop it. Not this. Not with him.

"Where are we, precisely?" Ishizu found her voice and opened her guidebook expectantly.

"We're at Fort Santiago, an old citadel built in the sixteenth century," replied Seto, reaching over Ishizu's shoulder and leafing through her book to the relevant entry. "Shall we?"

The two of them made their way to the beautiful old ruins, Seto's hand never leaving her back. Part of Ishizu was annoyed at his consistent need to guide her around, like she was some high-strung girl. Yet his hand was warm and steadying and caused her back to tingle through her blouse, so she did not say anything.

They walked through the main gate, Ishizu taking in the ornate architecture of the gray stone, a small smile of contentment curling on her lips. Seto watched her analyzing everything she saw, her eyes blazing. What things must she be thinking in that brain of hers—probably what kind of art had once graced the walls, done up in fresco, perhaps, or some such artistic nonsense. For all of Ishizu's foolish attempts at politicking, art and archeology was what she knew best, and it was apparent in her shallow breaths of awe.

They came to a bench located across the old bridge. Seto removed his hand from Ishizu's back and sat down, contenting himself with watching her walk about, her head whipping from the architecture to the guidebook with increasing joy. The way her eyes alighted on something that interested her, the muscles in her calves flexing as she walked from sight to sight, the generous curve of her rear in that black-and-white skirt…

Ishizu, for her part, was quite pleased. Even with this ridiculous proposition looming over her head like a blade, she could still take in the crumbling old walls and delight in what she saw. It was as if Seto was no longer there in the citadel with her; everything melted away as she stepped closer to inspect a bas-relief garland carved into a rock.

The sky gave up all pretense of lightness as the minutes flew by, blushing into an immodest deep blue.

"Take you out of the museum, and you'd still be a curator." Seto approached Ishizu from behind, a faint chuckle in his voice, snapping her out of her reverie. "It's nearly time—I'd like us not to be late," he continued, watching Ishizu come back to Earth.

She flushed. Could an hour already have passed? "Ah—yes, right," she stammered. She closed the book and tucked it into her purse. Seto began to lead her out of the fort and to the café, his dark hair and dark suit almost blending into the night.

Ishizu had to admit to herself that she now felt the absence of his hand on her back. Fool of fools. Calm down.

The two of them were seated immediately, the host greeting Seto like an old friend and kissing Ishizu's hand with joy. The wrought-iron table was adjacent to a heating lamp and a lovely trellis. The picture was rather charming, and rather unexpected.

Seto watched Ishizu sit down and clasp her hands on the table; she seemed occupied by that nervous energy again that sent her fingers twitching gently. The waiter approached and bowed his head, and Seto lifted two fingers lazily. Ishizu watched him work his silent command over the waiter just as he had the flight attendant, and noted the careless sense of royalty and power wealth had clearly brought him.

"It's quite lovely," she murmured under her breath. In the dim lighting, the table setting was indeed lovely and almost romantic. Had she not known Seto for who he was, she would have thought it so.

Seto sat up in his seat and crossed his legs, rendered off-balance by the gentle smile of appreciation across from him in the dusky glow of evening. "Yes… it's not bad," he offered haughtily, finding something to criticize—in this case, the weeds on the trellis by the table were far too wild and overgrown for his tastes.

Ishizu heard the note of arrogance in his voice and rolled her eyes. She cleared her throat. "Are they going to bring us menus, Seto?" she asked, fixing her eyes on him curiously.

"No need," he replied breezily, "I always get the same thing here, and I daresay you'll find it quite to your liking." A smirk curled on his lips as he met her gaze, emphasizing his challenge.

As if his arrogance couldn't have reared its devilish head again. "You don't even know what I like," Ishizu hissed back at him.

"Don't I, though?" Seto shot back, raising an eyebrow to make his meaning clear. He did always enjoy playing with his food, and relished the faint blush that popped onto the apples of Ishizu's cheeks, accompanied by her slight squirm in her seat.

"All right, then." Ishizu accepted her defeat this round, rolling her eyes again, and redirected her attention away from that pale, handsome face tempting her in the deepening night. She leaned to her right, towards the trellis, and examined a small bud growing on the vines. Nascent and cream-colored, it struggled into being from its tight green cocoon; evidently it was not quite the season for this flower.

The silence was soon broken by the waiter's return, accompanied by two cut-glass flutes and a chilled bottle of something expensive-looking, a fine mist condensing on the outside of the bottle. He smiled in a grandfatherly way at Seto and Ishizu, eyes twinkling above a neat gray mustache, and expertly whisked the glasses down and filled them with the yellowish liquid.

"Oh, I couldn't—" Ishizu began. She rarely drank, except for formal museum events, where it was near-mandatory, and certainly tonight, with her judgment already compromised, was not going to be an exception.

The waiter began to take away her glass, offering his apologies, when Seto cut him off. "Ishizu, please. You're in a foreign country—don't be rude." He was surprised at her gaucheness—didn't the woman have enough sense to just enjoy a glass of champagne on a night out, or at least let the waiter do his job?

Ishizu glared at him. "I don't drink, Seto. Especially not during the course of a business transaction, which is what you're so aptly calling whatever this is."

Touché. Seto raised his hand and waved it elegantly; the waiter bowed his head and left their table. Ishizu resumed studying the plants on the trellis with all the seriousness of a botanist while Seto swirled the champagne in his glass and took a sip. It tasted expensive, as well it should. He had a moderate alcohol tolerance, nothing to be particularly proud of, but not too shabby.

The sight of Ishizu sitting before him, all prim and proper and buttoned up—he couldn't decide whether he wanted to incur her anger or climb on top of her and make her babble—was enough to drive him to polish off that first glass in record time.

Ishizu noticed Seto's eager drinking out of the corner of her eye. Her curiosity piqued, she turned her gaze on him and reached a hand out for her flute of champagne. It was bubbly and sweet, but not too sweet—it was undercut with the slightest element of richness that made it go down smoothly. She supposed that sip alone had cost a small fortune—maybe there were flakes of pure gold at the bottom of the bottle, or something. The niceties obscene wealth could buy…

"There… isn't that better?" came the husky voice across the table.

Ishizu ducked her head in acknowledgement. "It's quite delicious, yes." She found herself raising the glass to her lips and taking another, larger swallow, accompanied by a faint cough as the champagne went down her throat a little too thickly. She licked her lips to get the last of the champagne on her tongue, and once again caught Seto staring at her.

He badly wanted to lick those lips for her, so he poured himself another glass. She followed suit.

The waiter brought the pair their meal, a collection of small dishes that smelled fresh and a little spicy, all presented on patterned china on a tray and garnished with a small white flower in the center of the tray. A more mature cousin of the plants on the trellis, Ishizu supposed.

Seto brandished a fork and pointed out the different dishes to Ishizu with the assurance of a parent explaining something simple to a child. There was a plate of Laing, or taro leaves with bits of meat and chili cooked in coconut milk, with a side of rice ("it can be a bit spicy," he informed her); pinkabet, a dish comprised of okra, squash, tomatoes, and gourd with shrimp paste; kuhol sa gata, or snails cooked in coconut milk with leafy greens; pancit habhab, a noodle dish with carrots served on a banana leaf. Seto immediately began taking a bit of each dish onto an empty plate while Ishizu studied the foods in front of her, then followed suit.

It was probably the most delicious meal she'd had in her life. While the champagne seemed an odd compliment for most of the dishes, she found herself draining her second glass and pouring a third between bites. The snails were particularly intriguing to her, if a bit difficult to eat.

Perhaps it was the champagne going to her head, but she found herself catching Seto's eyes over the plates of food and feeling herself soften a bit. At least, that's what her story was.

Seto ate with gusto, content in his impeccable taste in food, as in everything else, and enjoyed the look of pure ecstasy that crossed Ishizu's face as she sampled each dish, seemingly more delighting than the prior one. He scolded himself mentally for getting carried away; the champagne was making him feel utterly ridiculous.

Yet with the deep blue night air wrapping them up in its gentle but firm grasp, with every inch of his skin seemingly on edge with the very nearness of her, how was he to react? He became acutely aware of Ishizu's leg, tucked under that slim skirt, pressed against his own under the table, and, much to his chagrin, felt himself stir in response. Get it together, you idiot. She's just the same as any woman.

He finished his second glass, and upon pouring himself a third, emptied the bottle, prompting Ishizu to raise an eyebrow. Could it be she held her alcohol better than he? It was an absurd prospect.

The two of them finished their meal. Seto pulled his finely stitched wallet out of his pocket and placed his blue-and-silver credit card on the tray without looking at the bill-typical, Ishizu thought, reaching for her own purse to pay for her share.

Seto rolled his eyes at her as she placed her own personal card on the tray next to his. "Now, now, Ishizu… you don't want to insult me, do you?"

"should be insulted if you didn't let me pay my share." Her response was suitably firm. After all, this was neither a date, nor was this a charity case. Despite the way he treated her, she could handle herself and conduct herself in an appropriately businesslike way. And business colleagues could go Dutch, now, couldn't they?

Just as the waiter came to clear the table, Seto found himself reaching onto the tray and withdrawing the tiny flower, proffering it to Ishizu. Fuck. It must be the champagne. It had to be the champagne. He arranged his features in a particularly scornful look to combat the stupidity of the gesture he was making, as if it was some great hardship on his part to be offering the woman this worthless plant.

Ishizu's eyes widened, her brow furrowing and her lips pressing together in confusing. With one hand, she nervously began playing with her shirt button. With the other, she tentatively reached out to accept the flower, counting the moments until Seto inevitably would pull it away and laugh at her, maybe crush the flower beneath his finely made shoes.

Yet Seto's hand remained extended towards her. Ishizu was careful to avoid accidentally touching his hand as she plucked the flower from his grasp, murmuring a quiet thanks.

On a whim, her head suddenly light and airy from the champagne and god knows what else, she placed it behind her ear, tucking it into the pulled-back hair and patting it into place.

"It suits you." Seto immediately wanted to die of humiliation. Yet the pale flower shone against Ishizu's thick black hair, her limpid features rather like the delicate petals. Oh, god. He must be drunker than he thought. "I mean, if you're going to make a spectacle of yourself," he amended. There. That should save face. Assholeish behavior to wipe away any memory of that disgusting show of… affection. Perish the thought.

Ishizu's eyes darkened in annoyance. It was he who'd given her the damned flower in the first place, not to mention the fine champagne—who was he to judge? "Suit yourself," she muttered in reply, gathering her purse on her lap, thankful for the return of the waiter.

The pair both signed their receipts and with one last mutual glare over the table, the pair rose and began to walk away.

"But of course, you will move to the dance floor? It is such a lovely evening, and the dancing will be splendid," interjected the waiter, his tone imploring. "The band is playing tonight—surely the lovely couple will not want to miss it."

Did they really seem like a couple? Both Ishizu and Seto inwardly grimaced at the address. Seto caught her eyes and smirked. "You want to call it quits now, Ishizu?" he queried almost teasingly. "The night is young—I've got you on the clock for more than that bite, now, don't I?" He placed a hand on the small of her back and resumed memorizing her form as it bristled under his touch. It was not altogether unpleasant.

Ishizu gritted her teeth and allowed the waiter and Seto to guide her to another section of the café, this area more crowded with patrons and stocked with booths and a shiny wooden floor. In a corner of the floor a band was playing something zesty and melodic; several couples had their hands all over one another, making a pretense of dancing, but essentially fucking on the dance floor with their clothes on.

Seto guided Ishizu into a booth just off the dance floor and slid in after her. He brushed his thigh against hers; his hand took its sweet time leaving her back. His lips shifted into a satisfied half-smile as he slid his hand from her back to the top of her rear, then along the outside of her thigh and back up onto the table, wherein he beckoned the waiter in closer and whispered something in his ear.

Ishizu tried to ignore the flames that licked the skin he'd touched over her clothing, and nervously returned to the blouse button again, this time with a frenzy bordering on violence.

The air in this part of the café was thicker than it had been elsewhere, the atmosphere warmer and looser, more informal. It was downright muggy; Ishizu found her underarms beginning to bead out in sweat, so she removed the black shawl from around her shoulders and placed it on the seat next to her.

The waiter appeared with a tray with two tall glasses of something orangey-yellow, which he set before them with another smile. Clearly someone was working on commission this evening.

"Manila Sunrise—official cocktail of Manila," the waiter offered with another smile, before leaving. Seto reached for his glass and took a swig of the sweet mixture of rum, mango juice, triple sec, and coconut wine, lightheadedness be damned.

Ishizu paused before taking a sip of her own drink. She turned her head to look at Seto, inhaling a slow, shuddering breath. "Mr. Kaiba," she began quietly, soberly, "you must think so little of me, don't you." Did she seem easy? Prudish? Rude? Too serious about her work? Too unprofessional? Suddenly the desire to know exactly what Seto Kaiba thought of her made her chest flutter dangerously.

"I don't know what I think of you," came the response, his tone unnaturally serious. He'd seen so many sides of her in the few hours he'd known her—she'd unintentionally painted him a most perplexing picture of herself. The same woman who had seen through his stupid repentant act, who had not only fallen prey to his charms as expected, but had managed to surprise him with the ferocity of her desire for him… who simultaneously withdrew from him and challenged him, often in the same sentence… who seemed dull and dedicated in one moment, but passionate and curious in the next—what did he think of her? Seto swept his eyes over Ishizu again, tracing the same path down her body that he may well have memorized at this point, coming to the realization that while, yes, he wanted to both anger her and to fuck her senseless, he found himself genuinely confused by what lay beneath the tempting exterior.

"You must think I'm something," Ishizu blurted out, cheeks reddening under Seto's careful assessment. She threw back a thick gulp of the cocktail, feeling her pulse begin to race.

Seto snorted quietly. "You're something, all right—all buttoned up, save that one button," he drawled, drawing his hand up to the dangerously loose button of her blouse, allowing the tips of his fingers to graze her collarbone, the heel of his hand resting gently on her breast.

Ishizu blushed again, hand reflexively moving upwards to said button and knocking ungracefully into Seto's. "Ah—yes. It's a nervous habit, I suppose. I do suppose it's better than other vices…" her voice trailed off as she felt Seto's hand move slightly down until his palm was flush against her breast over her blouse; her breath caught on itself briefly. Seto noted the change in her expression with silent glee.

Ishizu felt that same flutter in her lower belly and turned to face Seto more fully, twisting in the booth and moving her legs so that her calves tangled with his under the table. It was a reckless, foolish move, one that made that same stupid, appealing smirk tease the corner of Seto's mouth, his eyes shining with that same predatory look that she felt tickle the base of her spine.

She took another drink and accepted the soothing haze it brought; she leaned in slightly towards Seto. "How much do you know about life?" she mumbled brokenly, feeling a small, sad ache growing in her chest.

"What do you mean, Ishizu?" came the response, Seto's face registering a moment of curiosity at this line of questioning. While Seto was well schooled in things fine and not quite so fine, of things pure and impure, the alcohol made him a bit slower on the uptake. What was she doing? Why hadn't she either moved his hand from her chest or escalated things? Why the sudden detour into psychoanalysis?

Ishizu cast her eyes down, embarrassed. "I mean—doing what you want, saying what you want, having what you want, being what you want…" Where the hell was she going with this? Especially with Seto Kaiba, of all people—the man who had everything and yet seemed so scornful of it all, lavished in the trappings of wealth and influence but who seemed to be so alone in the world, save his younger brother?

This line of questioning—and the blurred swirl of emotions that drove it—was beyond stupid; she couldn't believe he was dignifying her with a response. Unless this was all part of some heartless game to make her look foolish again.

The hand resting still on her breast notwithstanding, she steeled herself and clasped her hands on the table, willing herself to drop the whole silly subject. Perhaps then they would leave the restaurant and begin the journey back to Domino City, where things tended to make more sense.

She felt his legs shift against hers as he turned to face her, his patrician features clouded in what appeared to be deep thought. "I daresay those sorts of things come naturally to me; I grew up wealthy enough for people to hardly dream of refusing me in most cases. I do tend to get what I want, regardless of what it may be," he said pointedly, almost wickedly, dropping his eyes down to her trembling lips, rotating his the tip of his thumb against her in a deliberate circle.

Ishizu bit the inside of her cheek in response, to force herself not to respond audibly to his not entirely unwelcome advances. "I-I never really learned to think about the things that I wanted other than m-my career," she began, willing her voice to steady as Seto's fingers began to reach gently into the gap between the buttons on her blouse, "… it was school, then university, th-then the doctorate program and the work on the d-dig sites, then the assignment to Domino and the wh-whole affair with Duel Monsters." While she'd managed to squeeze in short floating attachments to various classmates and colleagues, that sort of thing that not particularly been at the forefront of her concentration. Doctorate at twenty-five, assistant curator and her own research projects at twenty-six, then the Domino move a few days shy of her twenty-ninth birthday…

The probing fingers stroking her flesh inside her shirt reminded her of the needs and wants she'd succumbed to in the past; let it be said that despite—or rather, because of—her slavish, single-minded devotion to her academics and her work, Doctor Ishizu Ishtar was a woman with a certain capacity for desire.

"Why is this all so important to you?" Seto suddenly blurted out, ceasing the motions his hand was making, causing Ishizu to huff out a breath in frustration.

"What do you mean? My work?" Ishizu inquired, wishing he'd start up again.

"Why do you even care about paintings on walls? Why do you care about some ridiculous waste of funds to help those stupid duelists?" Seto pressed further. He didn't understand why anyone could find art so entirely engrossing, let alone why Ishizu would bother with what seemed like a colossal waste of time.

Ishizu frowned in thought. Her love of art had always seemed a part of her as soon as she could point her little baby fingers at things she thought were pretty. Everything about works of art, both ancient and modern, had always seemed to be a small bit of proof that humans could create things that would transcend time and space and retain meaning even after the maker had died. Art was proof of humankind's infinite capability. It seemed only natural for her to want to transmit that same appreciation for what made the best of the efforts of all humankind.

"I guess... I've always thought of art as the reason, if you will. People are always doing things: designing things, building things, engineering, technologies that make our lives easier and more pleasant, things that extend our longevity. For me... art is the reason why people want to have longer lives. I believe the same principle could generally apply to beauty... but art is the reason why life is worth living; it's proof that even the most downtrodden and misunderstood of us can ascend beyond ourselves, in a way..." Her voice picked up speed and confidence, her shoulders shaking with conviction. "You know, like our friend Van Gogh."

Seto watched this woman trembling, coming undone before him and found that it affected him—yes, she was still ridiculously tempting, but the brief flash of emotional vulnerability in her eyes and in the quiet passion in her voice made him feel like the foolhardy moth entranced by the flame—the thing of beauty that would prove his undoing. He briskly unbuttoned the second button on Ishizu's blouse to distract himself from this dangerous line of thought and extended his fingers in further until they met lace.

Ishizu inhaled sharply at Seto's ministrations against her bra. How ridiculous and inappropriate must they look right now, like a couple of uninhibited teenagers mucking about in public, no less. The pressure of his thumbnail alone was making her forget her manners, let alone all the alcohol she had consumed.

"Well, unless you're me, no one can really have everything they want," Seto murmured sardonically, his lips radiating heat so close to her own. The texture of the lace felt sublime under his fingertips, and Ishizu's tight, overly-controlled breaths and the way she squeezed her thighs together were a keenly felt bonus.

Ishizu blushed, nodding her head drunkenly. "Well…"

"You tell me about life, Ishizu," Seto breathed, resting his lips on her heated temple and punctuating his words with a calculated circle of his finger on her breast. God, she smelled ridiculously tempting, like jasmine perfume mixed with alcohol and a pinch of sweat.

Her scent alone shot heat to his face and to his groin.

Ishizu pulled her face away from his, features arranging themselves into a drunken squint. "What, you don't think I could? believe I could. After all, it was you who came to me for help earlier, was it not? Because you were unhappy." She swallowed dryly and regarded Seto almost sternly.

"…what were you unhappy about?" The days events felt now like a colorful blur punctured with the memories of how she had pounced on him, how wrongly right his hands had felt on her thighs, the spark of something deep and abyss-like in his eyes as he had offered her the small white flower across the table…

Seto chuckled, charmed by Ishizu's rather adorable confusion. "I—I can't quite remember," he said almost confidingly, his fingers pausing as he wracked his hazy brain. Had he been unhappy?

Had he been happy at all?

Wait, what? Get a grip. You are not on a date with this ridiculous woman. The reminder was like an ice cube dropped down his spine.

Yet the self-posed question precipitated a nauseated, sinking feeling in his chest. Had he been happy? Even when he had been a champion of industry and of Duel Monsters, commanding admiration and respect in Domino City and the world over, had he been truly happy? His free hand clenched reflexively; he dug his nails into his palm, willing himself to stop going down this chimerical road. Either he had had far too much to drink, or not even remotely enough.

"But you do remember that I failed you." Ishizu pressed her lips together, remembering how cold and flippant she had been towards him in her office. Suppose he had actually come, sincerely needing her help, hat in hand? Would she have treated him with such suspicion? She hadn't even been able to begin her introductory speech or take down his information—not only had she not treated him with the respect and care due a weak-minded, repentant duelist, she had given into her entirely inappropriate lust for him, so unexpected in its inception but impossible for her to ignore.

She hung her head in momentary shame. Her head was clearing after all of the drinks she had consumed; her vision and mind were growing sharper, more normal. The blurred edges of her thoughts were melting away like fog on the periphery of a cold, bracing ocean. She keenly felt Seto's hand on her breast like it was a new sensation, but somehow she did not mind its continued presence.

"I intend to make it up to you." Her eyelids felt weighed down. She gazed up at him from beneath her thick lashes, unaware of how utterly seductive she looked.

Seto bristled slightly in response to her sensuous, parted lips. Make it up… how? Oh, he could hardly count the ways he would like her to make "it" up to him, and nearly all of them involved her spread-eagled beneath him, nails digging into his back, screaming his name until her level voice went hoarse, her carefully curated poise reduced to wanton, trembling need. Best not to think of that now.

Ishizu pressed on, heart fairly thrumming in her chest. What was going on? Why was she feeling this way? What had brought on this sudden wash of affection towards the icy, difficult man across from her? "You said you wanted a more…personal help." She pressed her lips to his jaw in a burst of inspiration, feeling a small triumph when she felt him squirm in his seat.

Seto's scent smelled so clean and familiar; as she traced her way from his hairline by his ear to the underside of his jaw and back, she reveled in how the tables seemed to have turned in her favor. His breath came in near-pants as he licked his lips. His eyelids fluttered precariously. She had to resist from crowing in delight, any drunkenness and unsteadiness in her mind replaced with a directed, focused desire radiating from her chest outward, bathing her skin in liquid fire.

"Ishizu…" came the throaty groan, sending shivers through her body.

She smiled slightly against his jaw and felt him react. "I intend to give you all the help you will ever require," she murmured, layering her voice in tones of velvet, hoping to ignore the wild careening of her heart in her chest. Would he accept her offer? Would it be another business transaction to him? Would he be sober enough to understand the meaning behind her words?

She pulled his face into her hands, her eyes meeting his. Something awful was fighting its way to her lips. Her irregular heartbeat was batting stupid words into her brain; she felt like she would internally combust from shame.

What was this feeling she found herself in thrall to every time she looked at Seto Kaiba's stupid face?

Would kissing him now help her sort it out?

Seto's eyes widened at her intimate closeness, at the seriousness in her dark eyes. His heart skipped a beat. What was the strange power this ridiculous, stubborn woman held over him? He felt as through he'd been thrown in a pond of ice water. His skin was breaking out in gooseflesh; he could feel his heartbeat hammering in his ears, drowning out the melodic sounds of the band. He felt disgustingly naked and vulnerable with his head in her hands, feeling her fingers shake slightly against him, as if she was under attack from the same weakness of heart and pulse as he.

Perhaps kissing her now would help him figure out what the hell this sorcery was.

Their lips met halfway in a chaste kiss that left both of them in tatters.

They pulled away from one another like perfect mirror images, both wearing the same look of resignation and dismay on their faces.

Their eyes met tentatively. Ice met seawater and both drowned. They knew they were goners, and so when Seto leaned forward first, moving his hands to her waist, Ishizu pulled him in to hasten the kiss, her hands on his shoulders.

Ishizu had thought that their kiss in his office was impossible for him to beat, and while this kiss could not match the earlier one's raw carnality, this interaction was like a most wonderful conversation between equals that she could not bear to end. She shivered in the night air as Seto moved his hands to cradle her head with infinite care.

To hell with propriety. To hell with pride. Seto felt his eyes prickling, his cheeks growing warm. She positively melted under his touch. Seto wanted more, tangling his hands in her hair until her neat plait came undone, her breath coming in needy gasps as he pulled her onto his lap and slid his hands to her rear. Her thighs hugged him, her arms moved to encircle his head.

There was only the two of them in this gentlest and most intimate of caresses; the café and the dance floor faded away. The music sounded through them, resonating in their chests.

Ishizu broke the kiss first, looking down at Seto's face. She was sure that the appealing look of confusion and desire on his face found a twin on her own. Remembering some remnant of polite behavior, she eased herself off his lap, feeling a small twinge of pride as she felt Seto stir beneath her, him gritting his teeth to suppress a groan. Her lips felt swollen and chapped, her skin completely covered in gooseflesh.

Seto immediately missed her absence, the feel of her body pressed up against his. A slow building wave of need began to wash over him as he took in her disheveled state by his hand and lips. Her eyes were heavy with undeniable lust, her skin blazingly hot to the touch.

By some way, shape, or form, Seto and Ishizu paid for the Manila Sunrises and stumbled out of El Café Tagalog like a pair of stupid kids. He couldn't keep his eyes off of her, and she felt a shiver coil around her upper thighs whenever she caught him looking. It was now around 10 pm. Seto called for a town car, and in short time the two made their way to where Seto's plane was waiting for them, ready to return them to Domino at a moments' notice.

They quietly settled into their previous seats and buckled their seatbelts, uncharacteristically for Seto, but absolutely essential for Ishizu. Back in the sterile environment of the plane, where things made slightly more sense, Ishizu felt a blush creep up her neck, a slight cloud of embarrassment at her behavior descend.

Seto looked merely bored and lustful, as he so often did, crossing his legs and letting his eyes roam over her body as they had before. It was as if nothing had changed.

The plane rumbled down the runway. The wheels hid themselves away and the plane lifted off, Manila receding below them like an increasingly distant memory. Ishizu pressed her fingers against the frosted plane windows and felt a small ache come over her, as if she had lost something that she couldn't put her finger on, something she would never quite get back.

"Ishizu," came the husky voice from across the low-lying table. The plane having steadied some, Seto was unbuckling his seatbelt and making his way to standing. The way Ishizu looked right then, slightly flushed and almost expectant, sent flutters to his lower belly and to his chest. He walked around the table and came to stand next to where she was seated, feeling need and heat emit from her skin.

Plastering a charming smirk on his face, he extended a hand to her. Ishizu looked up at him, surprised. What was he doing?

Then she noticed the door left ajar behind Seto. Leading to the bedroom he had mentioned earlier. Ishizu blushed crimson, remembering the condoms she had packed in her purse. This was happening. Already she could feel herself loosening and growing warm in anticipating what Seto had in mind. His hungry eyes made no effort to hide his intentions, and Ishizu returned his wry smile, making her response quite clear.

She quickly reached for her purse and pulled the three foil-wrapped packets into her hand, hoping she was quick enough to evade Seto's eyes and his judgment.

She was quick, but not quick enough. Seto's sarcastic smile showed teeth; his eyes narrowed in understanding of what she had brought with her, what she had known—or at least hoped—would happen during their excursion.

Could he consider this a win?

As Ishizu unbuckled her seatbelt and stood demurely, patting her clothing into place, Seto couldn't resist drawling lazily, "well, well, well, Ishizu… what have you got there? If only you'd have said something sooner, I'd have been more than happy to… relieve you of them."

His voice was teasing; Ishizu found herself rolling her eyes, cheeks reddening in response to his implications. "Oh, shut up," she muttered thickly, smiling inwardly.

"Make me," Seto challenged, placing his hand on the small of her back as the pair walked over to the small room holding that brand-new bed and closed the door behind them.

"Are you sure?" Seto found himself asking soon after as he was poised over her. Was she drunk? Was that why they found themselves in this position?

Ishizu's head had never felt clearer, her aim more direct. Any stars that burst inside of her came from him, this, what they were doing, and not from any alcohol. She nodded and shifted beneath him, her eyelids fluttering.

Seto smirked and ran a hand down her chest, skimming her navel, and curling around to hoist her rear off the bed, giving him a better angle of access.

He bent down and nipped at her neck, gently brushing himself against her teasingly.

"You know," he said against her heated flesh, "maybe I should just stop right here and let you, ahem, collect yourself..." Ha. Of course he had no intention of doing so, but the whine of protest the idea tore from Ishizu's throat was immensely amusing.

"Shut up," she said again with a smile, and pulled him to her.

"Make me," came the sing-songy reply.

Over the course of the rest of the flight, she proved herself more than capable of that task. And then some.

Chapter Text

They hadn't had much time, but they managed to make good use of Ishizu's "preparations" during the relatively short flight. Seto was not one to make a night of things and sleep over, and neither, for that matter, was Ishizu. They merely drowsed in the abundantly comfortable bed, catching their breaths and waiting for the plane to begin its descent back to Domino City.

They must look a bizarre picture, Seto thought, their bodies tangled sweetly in the thousand thread-count sheets, Ishizu's delightfully warm and supple form nestled against his. In a moment that would have seemed utterly and disgustingly saccharine had it been with any other woman, Seto traced his fingers down Ishizu's spine almost tenderly, savoring the quiet shiver of contentment that issued from her lips.

Ishizu brushed a stray lock of hair out of Seto's eyes and smiled at him, her face lighting up dewily as he cracked what seemed to be the most genuine smile she'd seen from him yet. Her heart thudded in her chest like it was the first time she'd seen him.

Neither of them had spoken since they entered the small cabin; that is, they hadn't had what one would call a proper conversation. There'd been oh-my-gods and fuck!s and incoherent moans and groans that surely must have made their way to the cockpit, not to mention to the entire flight crew. Ishizu knew she should be at least slightly embarrassed at her naked desire being broadcast to everyone on the plane, but it hadn't mattered then, as Seto had teased her mercilessly, working her up roughly and passionately with his fingers, his tongue, before consummating that painful tension between them and spiraling down to earth with her, and so, she resolved, it shouldn't matter now in that post-coital bliss.

Seto watched Ishizu press her lips together and remembered the taste of her lips, the glorious heat of her, the intoxicating scent of her skin, the incredible rush of triumph he'd felt as the poised woman came apart for him, by him, with him. He felt his chest rattle erratically at the thought.

He suddenly pulled out of her grasp, eliciting a moan of confusion, and then mischievously ducked under the sheet. "Do you make a habit of seducing all your museum patrons, Doctor Ishtar?" he teased, sliding down her body and pressing his lips to her hipbone.

"I think that's making quite the generalization there, Mr. Kaiba," returned Ishizu tartly. She propped herself up on her elbows and studied his muscular legs peeking out from under the sheets. "If I recall correctly, you were the one who came on to me." Even after what the pair had just done in this magnificent bed, remembering how Seto had wrapped her around his finger so completely in her office earlier that day gave her an electric thrill.

"True, true," came the slightly muffled reply from under the sheets. Ishizu could feel the beginnings of stubble on his chin against her thigh. Seto lowered his legs until his knees met the carpeted floor. His hands grasped her waist, sliding her body gently down the bed until her legs dangled off the edge.

"What's this scar?" he asked, suddenly curious, words vibrating against her skin as his fingers outlined a small fissure on the outside of her leg.

Ishizu found herself giggling, wincing slightly at the buried memories surrounding that scar. "I can't tell you everything about me, Seto—I'll hardly hold any interest for you after we get off this plane," she replied, a chuckle in her voice.

Seto brushed his lips upward along her inner thigh. Ishizu's hands found his head and clutched at his hair. "Now, now, Ishizu," he began in that mocking tone she now knew so well, a smirk curling on his mouth as Ishizu rolled her eyes and gritted her teeth. "You have to know that I've already figured out what makes you tick." On the last word, he brought his hands up the backs of her legs and hoisted her rear off the bed. He could feel her panting in anticipation, her tender skin growing flushed and ready for him.

"Attention, Mr. Kaiba and Miss Ishtar. We have begun our final descent." The controlled voice of the pilot crackled through the intercom, utterly killing the moment.

Seto rolled out from under the sheets and scowled at the small speaker on the wall. Damn that efficient pilot. "That's Doctor Ishtar to you," he said sourly. Ishizu suppressed a groan of disappointment as she sat up on the bed and stretched, catlike. The downward glide of the plane created a small hiccup in her stomach.

"My apologies, Doctor Ishtar. We will be landing within ten minutes."

She stood up and began hunting down her clothing. Her shoes were by the door, laid rather neatly. The rest had been less carefully shed; her tights were under some fluffy silky pillows on the floor, yes, her blouse rumpled into a ball in a corner, her skirt practically a rag by the foot of the bed…

Seto watched her with amusement for a moment. What surprised him was that even with rather hilarious bedhead, her eye makeup smudged, the slight cellulite on her thighs visible as she bent over—he still counted her, her body, its gentle and precise movements, among the most beautiful things he'd seen. Damn it if he wasn't going soft in the head for this peculiar woman.

Ishizu handed him his discarded button-down, blushing as she noticed the stray thread caused by when she'd eagerly ripped off one of the buttons in an attempt to get him naked. She supposed that the shirt cost more than her monthly rent. Seto met her eyes; she knew that he knew exactly what she was remembering, damn him.

Seto calmly dressed himself as Ishizu sought to tidy up her hair, which had forsaken its braid back in Manila. As he pulled on his socks, he found the slightly crumpled flower he'd given Ishizu back at the café. He walked around the bed towards where Ishizu had given up on her hair and proffered it with a small smile. Ishizu bowed her head in thanks and placed it behind her ear.

Domino was bathed in night when they touched down. The air was pleasantly chilly, a faint rain-dampness coating the pavement. The streetlights emitted a soft yellow glow, creating small haloes of light that touched but did not converge. It was nearly 2 am on Saturday morning.

Dawn was a long way off. The city was quiet; the nightlifers had abandoned the bars about an hour ago; the shops had largely all closed up for the night. The only noise came from the gentle rumble of an occasional car lumbering around the city; cops making routine patrols, a few young kids out for a drive.

Much to Ishizu's surprise, Seto sent away the limo. "I'd like to show you Domino City how I think of it best," he told her haltingly, praying he didn't sound stupid and corny. Even though he'd left the city in a huff, he still thought of Domino City at night with an uncharacteristic nostalgia. Growing up, he'd often stolen away from his oppressive father and taken walks around the city under the cover of night, moving from the nice area where the Kaiba manor sat, surrounded by perfectly clipped hedges and wandering through the neighborhoods as they grew ever more crowded and seedy. The gentle puffs of steam as they floated from street grates, the squelchy mess of runoff ruining his shoes as he crossed street after streets—Domino City at night still claimed part of his (largely nonexistent) heart.

Ishizu wrapped her shawl around herself and looped her arm through his. They must have looked like a perfect picture, she thought, as they made their way from the airport to the center of the city.

The streets of Domino had clearly seen better days. Large swaths of avenues were boarded up, covered in ugly pro-Duelist graffiti and advertisements. Entire sections of buildings were covered up in plastic and steel, hinting at rebuilding, but their negligence being given away by the oxidized red rust of the metal.

Seto ticked off all the ways he could have helped out—money, influence, industry—had he not left, feeling a small lump rise in this throat. It was easy to ignore the dilapidated parts of his city through tinted limousine windows. Ishizu watched his mouth press into a firm line, noting with surprise a kind of deep emptiness in his eyes.

His feet seemed to move of their own accord along increasingly familiar roads until he realized with a sinking feeling where he was walking. Why was he doing this? Should he even be taking her there after their total acquaintance of one day?

What if she was disgusted by what he showed her?

Still they strolled along, Seto gently guiding them through increasingly neglected neighborhoods of Domino. Soon they came to an alleyway closed off by a chain-link fence where the majority of streetlights were broken.

Seto tilted his head up towards a tall ruined building next to the rusty fence. Ishizu followed his gaze and nearly gasped in shock. Nearly all of this building's windows gaped empty, several partially covered with boards like rotting teeth. Weeds sprouted along the pavement out front; vines slithered up the sides of the abandoned structure. The front porch sagged precariously, the front door hanging off its hinges.

Seto's face was obscured with shadows as he said flatly:

"This is the orphanage where I grew up, Ishizu."

Ishizu's eyes widened as she realized the gravity of what he'd just told her. She imagined a younger version of the powerful Seto Kaiba, forced to live without parents in this depressing destroyed shack.

"I thought you grew up wealthy," she murmured, remembering his knowledge of art that he'd demonstrated so cruelly earlier.

"I was adopted—me and my brother were adopted by a wealthy man when I was eleven," came the stoic reply. Ishizu remembered seeing Seto's charming, effusive brother on television giving a press conference. It was a shame that KaibaCorp was proving too much for him to handle.

Seto cast his eyes from the old orphanage to Ishizu, who returned his cold gaze with compassion in hers. Her hand found his and squeezed it gently; Seto had to fight off a scoff as he accepted that some part of him did appreciate the gesture.

"I've never shown this place to anyone before," he said softly, the words almost inaudible as he willed his voice not to quaver. Why was he even bothering revealing something about himself that was so painful and personal—where he'd lived as a young child without parental love and guidance, having to protect his brother and scrape by his wits alone.

Ishizu felt her heart swell in her chest at his words. Her free hand reached up towards the button on her blouse. Why did his honesty fill her with such terror? Did she want to know something so intimate about him, something he'd clearly taken pains to hide from nearly everyone else he'd known?

Ishizu tilted her head up and planted a gentle kiss on his cheek in thanks. Seto found his hands cradling her face as he pressed his lips against hers, and he knew exactly why he had brought Ishizu Ishtar here tonight.

"The scar is from when I was a teenager," he felt her whisper shyly. "I was...not well. Nervous, sad... It's...from a razor blade."

As his heart fluttered dangerously in his chest at her intimate admission, Seto knew then that he was utterly fucking doomed.

Chapter Text

The question lingered in the air like smoke. Mai threw Yugi a cutting glance and strutted back to her bar seat. She hoisted herself up, revealing expensive-looking thigh garters, crossed her mile-long legs and asked:

"Well, Yugi? Where's the game? I didn't come back to Domino to sit around in a bar and talk about your feelings." Several of the duelists in the crowd murmured their assent. The wave of relief that had washed over everyone in the room had quickly dissipated, replaced with a growing tension.

Where was their leader's quick thinking now? What were they all supposed to do?

Yugi swallowed hard, acutely aware of a bead of sweat drip down the back of his neck. He had never wanted to run as much as he did now. Upstairs, where Téa likely slept a peaceful, carefree sleep; out the door and onto the street, to become the laughingstock of the town? The pressure to perform, to not let down his friends, his colleagues, had once felt like a lofty crown for the King of Games.

It now felt like a yoke.

Tristan, sensing the precariousness of the room's tone, cleared his throat. "Next round's on the house, gentlemen!" Anything to buy Yugi some time to think of a location. At Mai's raised eyebrow he amended, "and lady." A few duelists, not one to miss out on free booze, shuffled over to the counter.

Mai and the rest of the crowd weren't fooled. She swept her sharp gaze over the room, carefully avoiding Joey, who was pointedly avoiding looking at her, and setting her eyes on Yugi. She narrowed them. What was this little twerp even thinking, and why had she bothered to come back to Domino if this was all she was going to get?

The plan with Espa Roba was a moot point; where in the fuck could they go that wasn't too dangerous, where they wouldn't get caught by Detective Bakura and his licensed thugs? Yugi was already out ten thousand dollars that he didn't even have; god, he hoped Téa's news was not that she was pregnant. Where the fuck did that thought come from? Each point of stress in his life—his unemployment, his actions of questionable legality, his continued lying to Téa, his face-saving engagement, his sudden debt to that fucking asshole Seto Kaiba, his responsibilities to his fellow duelists—was compounding, interlocking into a hard, sad, poisonous mass in the pit of his stomach. He needed a drink. He needed to throw up. He wished he hadn't promised to stay clean in that moment; by god would a rush of smack feel good right now, even necessary. His mouth was dry. Every ounce of water in his body was collecting in the small of his back, soaking through his thin undershirt, white button-down and frayed dark suit jacket. His hands began to shake. His eyes blurred; everything in the bar became fleshy points of light. Steady. Steady. Please, steady. God, I need this. Please.

Let it be said that in his times of acute trouble Yugi could not, in all honesty, call himself an irreligious man.

"Gentlemen—and lady—a moment, please," he found himself stammering, lips quivering as if to hold back his words. His tongue felt like a useless slug in his mouth, his voice slurred and quavering most unmanfully.

Every pair of eyes turned on him, the chatter falling silent. Joey, still slightly catatonic, helped Yugi hoist himself onto the table of the booth, his usual throne. Yugi had no idea what he intended to do. His knees knocked together as he lifted himself from a squat to standing. He could feel the fluid in his ears, the low growl of his stomach protesting everything he'd ever put into it.

His mind drifted away. Wager. Gamble. Faith. How many times had he been in a similar position in a duel? How many times had he been thousands of life points in the hole, with everything on the line, only to draw the precise card he needed to take back the upper hand and his victory? He hadn't always been the illustrious King of Games; he'd once been an underdog, the ultimate underdog, a kid who lived in a game shop, a nobody taking on the likes of Seto Kaiba and Maximillian Pegasus and winning. Where was the Heart of the Cards, that pithy, childish term for blind faith in something outside his control, his faith in the randomness and chaos that governed all lives? Where was this lucky underdog Yugi Moto now?

Had he forgotten how to be that Yugi? Did that Yugi even exist anymore, or was he destroyed by drink and drug and stress and misery?

His eyes glazed over scarlet, causing several people in the crowd to gasp. It felt like hours that he frantically searched the recesses of his puzzle-like mind for a solution, any solution, the solution that would save his skin in this moment and allow him to retain his position of authority and respect. In reality, it was only a few seconds that he seemed to disappear from the Baby Dragon entirely.

For what purpose? Part of him asked peevishly, naively. The voice of reason. How inappropriate at this time.

Yet the voice, as annoying and frivolous as it seemed, had a point.

When had being the King of Games stopped feeling like an honor but a guillotine of responsibility, and why did he even want to continue holding that dreadfully heavy burden?

Yugi closed his eyes, purplish lids fluttering, frail body swaying where he stood. His fists clenched, his nails cutting his palms open and drawing blood.

I swear, he prayed to someone, anyone who could be listening, if I can do this, now, I will quit the floating games and go straight. I promise. I promise. He had suffered at the hands of this game, this obsession that was eating him raw and alive, for long enough.

It was like a response from above. A round peg snapped into its hole in Yugi's mind, and his eyes flew open, his blurred vision shaking into crystal clear tunnel vision.

Of course. It was all so simple, dammit. If he was going to go home after this last floating game, he may as well go big. Bigger than big, even. He'd show that smug Seto Kaiba that he deserved to be King of Games, and even stick it to that self-righteous museum curator who had cost him his livelihood.

"Gentlemen," Yugi began, his voice growing steady and strong with each increasingly even breath. Tristan and Joey turned their gazes onto him. The room's silence changed from frustration and anger to anticipation and curiosity. Yugi felt this current change, and a small smile graced his pale lips.

Like the king he was, he surveyed his loyal, sheeplike subjects with a haughty air. How had none of them thought of this? His eyes flared a bright blood red, his voice seeming to deepen with each word.

"I know precisely where we are going to hold this game."

Upstairs, in the tiny studio she and Yugi shared, Téa hummed to herself as she rinsed out her hair, massaging the stress of the day out of her body through her fingers.

It was stupid of her to feel so elated, she reasoned, but she couldn't help it. Despite his faults, despite his troubles, Yugi had finally proposed to her. He wanted to make things work. Maybe he would even give up the floating card games for real this time. It was lovely to see Mai again, she noted cheerfully to herself—perhaps if she and Yugi managed to schedule a wedding soon, Mai wouldn't mind being her maid of honor?

And, she reasoned, she had an opportunity waiting in her purse that would prove she was also ready to make a change, handwritten on a parchment-like cheque. With ten thousand dollars they could move out of this pit with a stove, a futon and a bathroom, put a down payment on an apartment in a part of town not drenched with drunkenness and despair.

What about Pegasus' offer?

Could she accept the mantle of responsibility for the House of Pegasus?

Did she even want to?

It would be nice to create the choreography for the girls rather than shimmy in a sheer costume in front of leering strangers. It would be beyond nice to have a steadier, higher paycheck. It would be positively heavenly, she told herself, to recline in that gilded office Pegasus had in his opulent office.

She would pick up the business side of things easily enough, she reasoned, toweling off and noting with a pang how threadbare the terry-cloth was. Pegasus obviously wouldn't have given her this opportunity if he didn't have faith in her intelligence, her drive, her leadership potential…

Yet did she want to be in Pegasus' place night after night, all dressed up, watching her fellow dancers making money for her with their bodies? Could she handle the murky morality of profiting from them practically selling themselves to men who did not care a whit for the brains behind their immaculately groomed heads?

But perhaps it was rude of her to presume, to think this way. Did the other girls like their jobs? She'd never really asked what the other girls would rather be doing instead of dancing at the House. She had always assumed that they'd been down-on-their luck "serious" dancers like her, forced by circumstance to turn their talents to expressions of coy flirtation, a facsimile of sexuality. Perhaps some of the other girls didn't view dancing at the House in the same way…?

Téa dressed herself in a pair of sweatpants and an old KaibaLand, her stomach delicately clenching and unclenching as she crawled into the futon she and Yugi shared. The linoleum tiles of the apartment floor were icy cold; the light rain misting from the sky was getting in through a crack in the small amber-glass window by the futon, leaving a fine film of dampness.

Téa chewed on a fingernail as she looked out the window onto the street. The view wasn't entirely awful, she reasoned; she could see the entire street from where she sat, propped up by a pillow, bundled up in an embroidered comforter she'd kept when she and Yugi had moved. The façades of the buildings across the street were not entirely ugly. Slightly worn down, but what building on the street wasn't a bit worse for wear? Only a few windows that she could see on the street were boarded up; there were people milling about in the streets; fluorescent liquor store lights flickered on and off, bathing the asphalt of the road in ruby-and-emerald hues.

The crack in the window was hair-thin. Each puff of wind that made it through that crack into the apartment made Téa shiver, her toes curl.

She tore her eyes from the street and swept them over the tiny apartment. The front door needed a good sanding and oiling, the handle nearly black with grime, but that wasn't so bad.

The stove worked, and so did the mini-fridge, which was a plus. The sink wasn't particularly attractive, but the stainless steel wasn't rusting.

The toilet was often backed up, but there wasn't really anything Téa or Yugi could do about that. A little hot water in the shower would be nice, but didn't cold showers do wonders for the body?

She didn't need to accept Pegasus' offer, she told herself. She certainly did not.

While their living situation was certainly was far from ideal, there were so many she'd seen in Domino who had it worse—who didn't even have electricity or a roof over their heads. Ten thousand dollars would settle the rent for a few months, maybe allow Téa to put curtains in the windows and a pretty rug on the tiles to make things a bit more homey. The thought of being on the other side of the curtain, reaping the benefits of the girls dancing for rich men's enjoyment left a nauseating feeling in her stomach. Self-righteousness and judgmental thinking be damned; she was not going to accept an opportunity that the other girls had not been given.

She wished Pegasus hadn't felt the need to leave the House. While she bore little love for her job, Pegasus was a good man, and a good employer.

She wondered who'd made the offer to call him back to his profitable work at Industrial Illusions, and was reminded of how poor and cold she felt, wrapped up on a futon in a 300-square foot studio apartment, when she had once lived in a brownstone with her own garden in the backyard.

Why did things have to change?

Things as they were now certainly weren't ideal, but Téa's fear was that change was like a dice roll—changing the status quo could prove fortuitous, or it could lead to unmitigated disaster. She shivered to think at what disaster would look like from her vantage point: Yugi being caught by Detective Bakura and thrown in jail; Téa losing her job; the pair losing the apartment—why couldn't Pegasus have just refused the offer and stayed on at the House of Pegasus?

It was selfish of her to deny Pegasus the enjoyment of making money, though, she reasoned, curling up in a fetal position on her side and pressing her nose against the yellow window-glass. She let out a sigh, feeling the muscles in her upper back uncurl and her vision grow dim. Yugi would be back soon. He'd come to bed, they'd fool around a bit as a newly engaged couple, and then she'd show him the cheque, tell him about Pegasus' offer, and they'd discuss it. Like a proper committed couple.

Her lids felt heavy and she succumbed to their weight.

"All-right!" came a loud voice from below. Téa's eyes snapped open, round with surprise, and she craned her neck to look down over the Baby Dragon's tattered awning. What was going on?

Before her eyes, a wave of men in suits spilled out of the Baby Dragon and into the glittering street. She saw a long curly tangle of blonde and recognized Mai, with a drop of dismay in her stomach. What was going on? Why was everyone leaving the Baby Dragon in such good spirits?

Where was Yugi?

Her heart began to race as she saw Yugi, Joey and Tristan appear from beneath the awning. She couldn't make out Yugi's face, but his body language was all tense and wild.

"Come on, gentlemen!" she heard him call out, causing her to lose her breath. "Follow me to the location of the next floating card game!"

God, she hoped no one walking around the neighborhood could hear him or the boozy cheer of the duelists as they filed onto the sidewalk, one at a time, and began to follow Yugi down the street and around the corner to where Téa could not see them. Her stomach was filled with ice. Yugi was being foolishly and recklessly loud; she hoped again to god that Detective Bakura and his thugs were well out of earshot.

Just where the hell were they going?

Téa felt a burbling panic rise in her chest and set her heart keening, refusing to settle down. A chill entered her bones as she realized that she couldn't think of where the floating card game was taking place. She ticked off all of the old locations in her head—the high school, the university parking lot, the airport tarmac…

It dawned on her with a note of panic that if things went south, she would have no way of reaching Yugi. No way of saving him, no way of getting to him if he needed her—or if she needed him! God forbid he ever put her needs first before his own or before those of the irresponsible throng of duelists that kept him chained to his unhappiness and to crime.

She curled up in the quilt again, stomach churning, struggling to keep the tears of rage out of her eyes. Happy engagement to me, she thought witlessly. Happy fucking engagement.

Yugi had always suspected that he had a reckless, suicidal streak in him. His actions that soon proved to him that in full measure, but he didn't even care.

He stood at 238 Domino Parkway, hands on hips, facing the crowd of duelists, some forty or fifty in all. Red carnations in their buttonholes, duel disks on their arms, and dazed expressions on their upturned faces. Joey and Tristan looked positively shell-shocked. What the fuck is Yugi thinking? Even the confident and unflappable Mai darted her eyes from duelist to fellow duelist, registering their apprehension on her own lovely features.

Yugi smiled widely. "Well, gentlemen. We're here. Why don't we begin the coin flips and decide who will be facing off?" He gestured behind him to the massive hollow of unfinished steel and concrete looming behind him, cordoned off by yellow tape.

Not one duelist responded. Their eyes were fixed on the banners hanging on the unfinished structure behind Yugi and the old Beaux-Arts building just to his right reading:


Yugi had to be suicidal if he thought he could bring them here. The duelists began to count on their fingers, adding up all the years in jail time they would accrue if they were caught. It was coming out to be a number that none of them really wished to consider.

Joey shook out of his stupor and walked over to Yugi, who registered his reaction with a mite of annoyance.

Joey bent down and placed his hand on Yugi's shoulder and whispered into Yugi's ear, words tripping over themselves urgently. "Yug, are you insane? Can't ya tell that even for you, this is fuckin' nuts? It ain't like public opinion's on our side, here, and especially with what Ishizu's been workin' on for the city? Have you lost it?"

Yugi regarded Joey coldly, feeling a million miles away. "What's the matter, Joey? Afraid of the stakes?" He smiled carelessly at Joey's thunderstruck expression.

"Well?" he called out to the crowd, hair standing straight on end. He broke away from Joey's grasp and ran towards the new Devlin Wing of the Domino Museum. It was six massive stories high of nearly hollow concrete walls and steel frame, with an unfinished ceiling and a tall center atrium. Plenty of space of the floating games.

"What do you say?" Yugi cried out, throwing his hands behind him. His charismatic, slightly ragged voice rang out in the street, causing a few roosting birds to flutter away.

"What do you say we stick it to the new Mayor Devlin, with all his meddling and money-grubbing, and to Doctor Ishizu Ishtar, who thinks she can fucking reform us?" His voice ran over the names like he was spitting out bitter poison, feeling a sense of righteous anger wash over him followed by a carefree grin that Joey found downright frightening.

The crowd began to warm to the idea, their mutters of agreement converging into a wave of approval. Tristan's eyes widened and he looked to Joey, who swallowed audibly, his eyes mirroring Tristan's logical apprehension.

Mai smirked and strutted over to where Yugi stood, silky and seductive as ever. "I don't give two cents about your city politics, boys, but I'm sure happy to see you haven't forgotten to how do things around here!" she called out, crossing her arms and cocking her hips coyly. The crowd roared in agreement and ran past Yugi and Mai into the hollow mass of construction, splitting off into pairs and foursomes and shuffling their decks in anticipation.

"After you?" murmured Yugi to Mai, gesturing to the hole in the wall with a mock bow.

Mai pulled her deck from some obscure pocket and placed it into her duel disk. "I look forward to dueling you, Yugi," she responded smoothly, her hips swaying as she entered the hollow building, making stepping over rubble in heels look utterly easy.

Yugi surveyed the street with an air of superiority. "Are you guys coming or what?" He ducked into the construction site, disappearing into the darkness.

Tristan ran over to where Joey stood, frozen with shock and alarm. "What even…" he began, panting for breath.

"I don't know," moaned Joey, throwing his palms onto his knees, bent over with confusion and worry. "I just don't know what to do now."

Seto and Ishizu stood in front of the abandoned orphanage for what felt like years, her head nestled gently on his shoulder, her hands wrapped in his. He stood over her, body pressed against hers, in a way that was warm and intimate but not at all sexual.

He pressed his lips to the side of her neck, grateful for her immediate stability. He wasn't used to being so close to another person, both literally and figuratively; her feet, planted firmly on the ground, kept him from disappearing into the ether of his memories. The loneliness he had shifted the axis of his earth around, the beatings at his stepfather's hand, his regretful failure to protect Mokuba from the same, the hours upon hours of examinations and essays, the days without sleep or food…

"Shall we go?" he felt her ask him quietly, her voice a million miles away.

He nodded briskly, snapping out of his brief reverie, and steered them out of the alley. The pair crossed the street, taking care to avoid a small flood gathering at the curb, and resumed walking arm in arm down the darkened streets and out of the looming shadow of the past.

The silence between them ceased to be tense; instead, it felt utterly companionable to walk like this. Seto's reading of Ishizu's body language told him all he needed to know—that somehow she managed to trust him despite his cruelty, his arrogance, his wantonness. Against all odds he found himself relieved he had shown her the orphanage—he had been afraid that she had attributed how he was to innate, and not acquired, assholeishness.

Well, the assholeishness was only partially acquired. He had to be honest with himself on that count.

Still, there was nothing particularly awful about walking along with this woman, enjoying her nearness. It was unexpected that he could even look at her and find things that caught his eye. He had never before noticed the way her forehead wrinkled when she looked upwards, the way her nose crinkled when she yawned—all the little details that he had never learned from watching her in her office, or in his plane, or in the ruins, or at the café, or in his bed. Her features shifted and reorganized themselves, ideas cutting across her wise face in ways he found endlessly enthralling.

Ishizu, for her part, had accepted Seto's confession with the gravity it deserved. In a strange, perverse way, it seemed to make sense to her—his coldness, his aloofness, his projection of confidence and superiority. Of course, she was no psychologist.

Truth begets truth. When he revealed to her the truth of his early past—or at least, some small fraction of the workings of the man who seemed to have everything—she'd felt compelled to give him the gift of something painful and intimate about herself as a symbol of the trust she now felt comfortable placing in him.

She hadn't cut herself like that in nearly a decade—she'd been lucky that she'd had parents who understood, parents of enough means to give her their support when she needed it. She'd gone through a course of medication, and found her own kind of peace in the images of grief and suffering in her high school art history textbooks. So many of the artists she loved had felt the clutching grip of despair in their own lives and had succeeded valiantly nonetheless in creating things of transcendent value. Why couldn't she do the same?

"Did you know," Seto began, cutting off her train of thought, "that my stepfather gave me ten million dollars on my fifteenth birthday and told me to return ten times that amount within the year, as a test of my business acumen?" His lips curled in a wry smile as he thought of how his stepfather's foolishness had led to his own downfall.

Ishizu gaped at him. "I had no idea—however did you do that?" What a bizarre birthday gift—how the rich must live!

"Well, that's the part of the story that is less palatable, I'm afraid," Seto responded smoothly, a hand moving to Ishizu's back to guide her around a corner.

Ishizu quirked an eyebrow in curiosity.

"It… involved me buying out the majority of stocks of several smaller companies and then selling it back to them at a premium," Seto continued. "It was either that, or the companies would have been forced into massive layoffs."

"Ah." Ishizu grew quiet, thinking of the hurt the hand at her back had caused to so many others.

"Well, I ended up ousting my stepfather that year with the help of the board, having gained their confidence as a result of my father's birthday exam. I turned KaibaCorp from a weapons manufacturer into the gaming company it used to be."

To give children all over the world a wonderful, magical childhood like the one he'd never had. Ishizu bowed her head in understanding, eyes gleaming with warmth and appreciation for what Seto had done without expectations and without demanding something in return.

Perhaps he had a heart after all.

The pair continued along their way as the streets grew progressively nicer and more well-light, Seto's hand at Ishizu's back causing a shiver of excitement. She found herself overwhelmed with the desire to take him back to her apartment and cause him to lose himself in her, to come completely apart the way she had on his plane. A thrill ran through her; her cheeks flushed at the prospect. Seto sensed the change in Ishizu's body language. His hand moved from her back to her rear, causing her breath to hitch pleasingly.

Both of their bodies anticipated round two with conspiratorial smiles on their faces as the two of them made their way up to the Domino Parkway, practically giggling and teasing one another like a pair of teenage lovers.

A siren's roar cut through the air.

"Fuck! It's the cops! Abort! Abort!" came a cry as the pair crossed the shadow of the Domino Museum.

Ishizu's heart stopped. Icy cold terror ran through her veins; she clutched her hands reflexively as she saw what appeared to be dozens of men filing out of the new, unfinished wing of the Museum and running for their lives down the road.

Seto's eyes narrowed. What in the hell was going on here? This couldn't be—

Ishizu broke out of his grip and ran to the construction lot, hoping to catch a straggler. Yet they left her all behind in the dust, even what appeared to be the silhouette of a woman running in heels away from the site.

"Hey, boys! Where are you going?! I'm out ten grand!" the woman called petulantly, disappearing with the crowd into the early morning.

The siren's roar grew closer; a police car pulled over to the museum and Detective Bakura leapt out, his eyes gleaming with a fiendish sort of bloodlust. He ran over to the construction site and stuck his head in through the hole in the wall where the duelists had emerged from. "Fuck!" he muttered under his breath, white hair flowing around his sallow face like a halo.

What just happened? Ishizu bent over to catch her breath. She'd never been much of a runner, so of course she'd managed to lose even the woman in heels. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. Did they break into the museum? Did they take anything? Why didn't the alarm go off?

Detective Bakura whipped a cigarette out of his pocket and lit it, turning on her with intensity and striding over to her. "It's no use. They were tipped off... I suppose you can explain all this, Doctor Ishtar," he hissed, standing over her wheezing form.

"E-explain what?" Ishizu struggled to get the words out, waiting for her lungs to calm down.

Detective Bakura took a long drag of the cigarette and cruelly blew it in Ishizu's face, causing her to cough painfully. "Why, I suppose it's just a coincidence that the museum was left unattended while you gave your employees the evening off?"

He cut his eyes over to Seto, who was walking over to where he and Ishizu stood by the museum. "Ah. Seto Kaiba," he began, his voice coiling around the syllables with disgust and a tinge of disbelief. "I had you in my big-time book, Seto Kaiba."

Seto returned Detective Bakura's hostile glare with one equally as adept. Detective Bakura tsked. "I suppose I'll have to re-classify you under shills and decoys." He took in the museum site with a sweep of his eyes, stubbed out his cigarette on Seto's jacket sleeve, and ducked back into the police car.

Amidst the pieces of rubble half-buried in the dirt, a small brown piece of paper caught Ishizu's eyes. Hands shaking, she reached down and picked it up.

Comprehension dawned on her face just as Seto understood. "No—"

Ishizu's face went gray as the Duel Monsters card slipped from her fingers. Seto felt his heart race and pulse stutter erratically. "Ishizu—"

"H-how could you?" Her voice was forlorn, tinged with a seething rage. She struggled to keep her calm. Poise. Collected. Even now. Please. She couldn't afford to let Seto see her like this, after what had just happened.

"What?" Seto's eyes widened, voice husky with confusion and—was it fear?

Why did he feel like he'd just lost something inescapably precious?

"Is this why you took me to Manila, Mr. Kaiba?" Her voice dripped with pain. "So that your duelist friends could use my museum to hold their games?" Her mouth filled with a bitter taste. Sweat beaded along her forehead as her stomach twisted into a hard knot. Her veins filled with searing regret for everything she had said to him, for every kiss she'd given him, for every moment of want she'd spent with him—he could have them all, the fucker.

"Just answer me one question, Ishizu," Seto began.

"Is this why you kissed me, why you seduced me and fucked me, so that you could ensure I wouldn't be able to stop your friends and their destructive card game?"

"Do you really think I had anything to do with his?" Seto moved to face her, his voice coming out hoarse.

"It's practically proven, Mr. Kaiba—I should have known that this was your endgame," Ishizu responded, feeling the words knot themselves around her tongue. "If I hadn't gone with you, if I had been here doing my job, this never would have happened!" She had failed. Oh god, she had failed. If only the Earth would swallow her up.

"You went with me to help your little D-CARP project and this museum!" retorted Seto, resenting the blame being laid upon his shoulders.

"Did I?" Ishizu took in a deep, ragged breath. Had she? Had she really gone with him to Manila for business, for D-CARP and her mission, or to satisfy that wicked part of herself that had longed for his touch, his nearness, him, himself?

She reached a shaking hand up to her face; she couldn't bear to look at him, his luminous blue eyes and figure all cut up in that fine suit, hair tousled, cheeks and lips red from where she'd been kissing him. She closed her eyes, feeling hot bubbling tears threaten to ruin her resolve.

"Oh, Ishizu," Seto murmured, reaching out a hand to her shoulder in uncharacteristic sympathy. Fuck. She couldn't possibly be pinning this on him, could she? Was she thatnaive, to believe that the great Seto Kaiba would be caught dead involved in some amateurish game like this?

A needling spark tickled her thoughts. She snapped up her head, looking directly into his eyes. "Why did you take me?" Why did you ever come to my door? You certainly didn't want to be reformed.

Seto let out a heavy breath. Well, fuck.

"I took you out to win a bet." If I'm going to hell...

"I'm s-sorry?" Ishizu stuttered, eyes growing round as she fought to make the connections in her mind.

"I was bet ten thousand dollars by one Yugi Moto that I could not take you out on a date tonight." Seto's voice sounded a million miles away. Ishizu felt her skin crawl as she thought back to the moonlight, the drinks, the cafe, Seto's eyes, the flower, the plane, his bed. Oh, his bed.

"Was that all of the bet, Kaiba, to get me out of the way?" Ishizu's voice rose in pitch and volume, her throat closing on the last words. Regret and shame were such feeble words to begin to describe the complete shambles she found herself in. She nervously began picking at her blouse button, holding her other arm around herself to hold herself together. She might come apart at any moment. Control had long been lost over her emotions, which tumbled over themselves, half-articulated, as if rolling down a rocky ravine.

"What the hell do you take me for?" hissed Seto, beginning to get angry. Why couldn't this stupid woman see that it had gone beyond the bet for him?

Had it, though? He found himself thinking. Was it only the way she had looked at him and seen through him, lips trembling, her god-send moans, that made him think she was any different from any other woman on Earth?

"Or was there more, much more?" Ishizu wailed, remembering the delicate, painful details the two had shared earlier that night, not to mention how he'd been given leave to touch her, to make her forget herself?

Was she acting too rashly, or was he nothing more than a parasite?

I took you out to win a bet. Crueler words had never resonated in her ears in all her life.

Seto's breath was uncharacteristically uneven. "What do you take yourself for?"

His voice came out colder than he'd intended. Typical Seto—a slight sneer to mask the dangerous faintness of his heartbeat and the sense of anxiety now wrapping its wings around him. He watched the same woman whom he'd kissed just minutes ago turn to stone.

She held herself straight with immaculate control. Her eyes, now guarded and impenetrable, flickered up to meet his.

"Leave, Seto Kaiba. I do not care to hear any excuse. I wish never to see you again." A hint of venom salted the last few words as Ishizu struggled to hold her heart into one piece. She withdrew the tiny white flower from where it laid above her ear, held it out towards him, then dropped it to the pavement and crushed it beneath her shoe.

Seto gritted his teeth, both disappointed in her quickness to judge but understanding of her natural inclination to do so. "As you wish, Doctor Ishtar."

He straightened his suit jacket so that it looked crisp and immaculate, like it wasn't hiding gaping remains inside his chest, and walked away from her.

As soon as he was out of sight, Ishizu felt herself crumple and break.

Chapter Text

Yugi slammed the door behind him, drenched in sweat, and sagged against the solid frame as he sought to catch his breath. It came in spurts, wheezes and puffs; the adrenaline still tickled the edges of his vision and made the hair on his skin stand up on edge. His worn-out suit felt oppressive; he reached with a shaking hand up to his throat and loosened his tie, blinking as drops of perspiration curled off his eyelashes.

He hoped Joey and Tristan and Mai and the rest of them had made it out okay; hopefully the police hadn't made it to the museum before the duelists had escaped the area. The idea of his friends sitting in chains behind bars as Detective Bakura leered over them made his stomach flip dangerously.

Perhaps it was for the best that his career as King of Games ended this way— he could easily make the argument going forward that continuing the floating card games was too difficult logistically and hope that some other idiot would take up the reigns, if at all. He sighed to himself, catching his breath. Good riddance. He'd been toying with Mako when the alarm had been sounded, anyway; he'd drawn a short straw, as it were, and had been forced to deal with his Duelist Kingdom opponent's ridiculous overreliance on water monsters. Frankly, abandoning the duel had been a bit of a relief.

He righted his posture and slid the Duel Disk off his arm, wincing as it snagged on an old patch of scar tissue, and dropped it to the ground with a faint clatter.

It was then that he noticed Téa's round eyes peering out at him through the darkness of their apartment, her agitated pose on their bed, the balls of her fists and sharply arched back. Oh dear.

"Hello, Téa," he said weakly, wiping his brow with his sleeve, willing his breath to slow down. He limped unsteadily towards where his fiancée sat, collapsing onto his side of the futon and burying his face in the pillow, inhaling its clean, pleasantly nondescript scent that smelled like home and sanity. His limbs felt like heavy bundles of useless cloth all trussed up with string.

Téa tried to inject some happiness into her voice, some of her old cheer. "Hello, Yugi," she murmured, brushing a bit of hair off of his neck. God only knows where he had been; she sure as hell didn't need to hear it right now. He had proposed, they were engaged—perhaps she could just compartmentalize and share in the good news waiting in her purse.

"It's nearly three AM, but I'm glad you're home," she tried again, planting a kiss onto his shoulder. Yugi felt his stomach sink. If only she knew what he'd been up to. If she knew, she'd surely leave him where he lay, find someone else who wasn't a total waste of time and energy, a total fucking waste of space.

Téa sighed almost inaudibly. "Let's get you out of these dirty clothes," she burbled, pulling Yugi up to a sitting position and helping him shrug out of his worn suit jacket. She tried not to look at it; the fraying seams and mismatched elbow patches made her remember how dismally poor she felt.

Yugi silently began unbuttoning his shirt as Téa rose from the bed and walked over to the kitchenette. She tugged on the center overhead lighting cord a few times, getting the fluorescent bulb to flicker into yellowish brightness after the third try. "Coffee?" she offered, pulling out the instant coffee powder and two plastic cups. "Settle your stomach…" she continued, trying to hide the tension in her voice.

Yugi finished undressing, folded his clothes with shaking hands and groped around on the floor for a t-shirt. "Thank you, honey," he replied, trying to match her pleasant tone. Of course, they could always just not talk about it. That could be for the best.

He ran his hands through his ridiculously unkempt, spiky hair and walked over to the rusted sink, where Téa was stirring the powder with warm water. She wished the hot water worked, not for the first, second, or tenth time that month.

Yugi washed his face and arms at the sink, wincing as the water seeped into the ruined parts of his arms. Playing domestic seemed to be working. Pretty soon he'd go into full nuclear family mode—"Gee whiz, darling!" "Oh golly, doll!"

Téa set the cups down on the counter and, noticing Yugi's discomfort, walked over to where he stood. She pressed a kiss to his forehead and lathered up her hands in the warm water and soap, rubbing his arms gently to clean out any reopened wounds. Yugi gritted his teeth, thanking Téa silently with a peck on the cheek.

Téa rinsed off her hands and passed one of the coffee cups to him. "So, Yugi," she began brightly, feeling a genuine bit of excitement come over her. Even if she still wasn't sure about taking Pegasus up on his offer, ten thousand dollars was a godsend to them both. Already she could picture what the apartment would look like with just a few simple decorative changes—less like a cell and more like a home.

Yugi swirled the coffee around and took a sip, eyes wide and focused on her. He leaned against the counter, feeling the chilly linoleum press against his back through the t-shirt.

"I-I got some really good news," Téa continued, her voice picking up, sounding all high and girlish, as she spoke. "So, Pegasus got an offer to go back to Industrial Illusions, and so he wants to turn over the House of Pegasus management… to me." Her heart thrummed in her chest; it was still a bit hard to believe even now.

Yugi nearly spit out his coffee in shock. "Why is Pegasus returning to Industrial Illusions?" he wondered aloud. Why, indeed? With Duel Monsters no longer making any legitimate business in Domino City, what could provide enough incentive for him to return? Was there a new game he was developing? His last venture outside the foray of Duel Monsters had fizzled; tabletop games were not exactly huge sellers when Duel Monsters had be around…

Téa pressed her lips together briefly. This is what he takes away? "Yugi, that's not exactly the point, honey," she said, voice coming out clipped and tense. "I didn't exactly ask him about his future business plans…"

Couldn't he just find it in himself to congratulate her before worrying about what Pegasus was up to? Was that really too much to ask?

Yugi saw Téa's expression shift and swallowed hard. Fuck. "I mean, I had no doubt that he'd see your potential for leadership soon enough—that's hardly surprising to me!" There. That should definitely nail it.

Téa rolled her eyes, utterly unconvinced. "Yeah… I'm not sure if I can really do it, though…"

Yugi furrowed his brow. "Why not, Téa? This is, like… I don't know, managing your own dance company, which is what you've always wanted to do!" Besides, the pay would surely be better…

"I don't know… I mean, I don't really have management experience, but Pegasus said he would pay for me to attend some business courses to pick up the basic skill set, and then he'd, I guess, mentor me until he knew I was ready…" Téa chewed on a fingernail, swaying where she stood.

"Then why aren't you sure, Téa?" Yugi asked quizzically. What was holding her back? Surely she didn't want to be a dancer at the House of Pegasus forever, and it wasn't exactly like she had very many business offers pounding on the door…

Téa crossed her arms, feeling her shoulders sag. "I don't know, Yugi… I mean, it's an honor to be asked, but I just don't think it would feel right." It wouldn't feel right to have to stand by and watch her friends be treated like pretty baubles, to watch them dance practically nude and to demean themselves so that they wouldn't have to go home hungry, to have a roof over their heads… how could she condone being lifted out of having to live that way, while the other girls she danced alongside didn't have the same opportunity?

Would Yugi understand? Could he understand that reason for her saying no—that she would rather suffer in silence with the dancers onstage at the House than reap the rewards in Pegasus' plush and ornate office?

Yugi watched her expression grow dark. He took a sip of lukewarm coffee and waited silently, hoping that she would find the words to tell him why she couldn't do what he could not—get a legitimate job and pay the bills that way, instead of doing things with her body and in sheer clothing that made both of them feel a mite uncomfortable.

"But Pegasus did give me something to, I guess, 'sweeten the deal', as they say," said Téa, remembering the generous check in her purse. She crossed over to the bed and pulled her purse off the floor on her side, ruffling through it until she found that slim piece of paper that bespoke more wealth than she'd held in years.

"What's that you've got there?" queried Yugi, setting down his coffee mug, watching his fiancée practically beaming with joy.

Téa returned to where he stood and brandished the check. Yugi gaped at the amount written on the check, and realized that he was, by god, saved.

That if he could just get his hands on that check and get it to Kaiba, he could finally leave the whole damned card game behind. Pay off his debts, end his obligations, and finally go straight, marry Téa like a good fiancé, and be able to sleep at night.

It was all right there in Téa's hands—his freedom from the pain he'd caused the pair of them for the past several years. He could practically taste the thick parchment, smell how damned blessed it was. He felt himself start to shake in anticipation, his palms grow damp.

"Th-that's great, Téa!" Yugi's voice came out too high. I hope you will forgive me for this.

Téa continued gaily, unperturbed by Yugi's strangeness. "Isn't it? It's too kind of him—but it's so lucky he thought to do this. I mean, we can buy curtains, a rug, maybe a new mattress, some pretty things to put around the apartment, pay off the rent for a few months…" Téa began compiling a list in her head of things she could go out and buy when—or rather, if—she could take an afternoon off from rehearsals or from dancing…

She turned to Yugi and clasped his hand in her free one. "Yugi, maybe… maybe we could make this place a home. Maybe… maybe we could… I don't know…" Get married? Actually get married? Maybe? One day? Sooner than she'd planned, because of Pegasus' generosity? She had no need for the whole white dress and diamonds and flower affair—just her, Yugi, Joey, Tristan, Serenity and maybe Mai in a nice reception hall. Even in her most romantic and foolish of fantasies, she'd never needed more than that.

Wasn't that what love was about, after all? Being able to share it with the ones you love?

Yugi gulped and smiled guiltily, struggled to meet Téa's nakedly happy gaze. "Absolutely, Téa. I promise that when we're good and ready, when we're a bit more stable, I promise we can finally get married." He wasn't lying about that part—he'd never had any doubt that Téa was the girl—no, woman—for him, always had been and always would be. And wouldn't she look even more beautiful than she always did with a ring on her finger?

Surely the apartment would look nicer, less shack-like and sad, once Téa was able to make it seem more homey, somewhere they could feasibly want to live in. At least, until he someday got steady work, legal work, and they could leave the veritable hovel above the bar, move to a nicer part of Domino City… the domestic bliss felt so real to him, just teasing his fingertips with its promise of happiness.

He could even see their someday children running around their someday home, brown hair and violet eyes, yellow hair and red eyes, with the best of both of them—Téa's warm, kind heart and passion, and his creativity and love of friendship and teamwork. The tantalizing idea made his heart hammer in his chest with how much he wanted it.

Just… not now. Not until he'd paid off his debts. Not until then could he finally leave this damaging, stressful, illegal life behind him, and be a good partner for Téa. He shrugged his shoulders, hoping to get the roiling preemptive guilt to slide off his shoulders like oil on water.

Téa smiled, glad to be on the same page as Yugi for once. She could find it in her heart to let whatever he had done the previous night—let bygones be bygones. In fact, it didn't even bother her at all!

Nope. It definitely did not. Not even a bit. It definitely was not gnawing at her insides, tainting every thought that crossed her mind in cold acid.

She closed her eyes briefly, willing herself to be able to focus, for once, on something positive. Something in her own hands, something she could do to bring the both of them some facsimile of happiness. Now, if only she had time to actually go shopping for those little niceties…

The sun had finally begun to rise in the sky, simmering low over the buildings of the city. It was nearly four in the morning. Crap. Téa needed to be at rehearsal by ten, then call time for the afternoon show was one, and call time for the evening show at five… when the hell was she going to make time to get to a furnishings store? It's not as if the House of Pegasus was particularly well-situated within the city limits; the bus only ran in its vicinity a few times a day, and she didn't exactly relish walking to and fro those outlying neighborhoods more than she needed to.

Yugi set his cup in the sink and yawned, feeling the tiredness at last set in his bones. The rumpled bed looked so damn inviting right now, and Téa's supple limbs and sweet face looked so damn appealing. He buried his nose in her shoulder, rising on tiptoes and relishing the scent of her soap on her skin.

He lifted the check out of Téa's hands and placed it on the counter. "You know, Téa, if you don't have time tomorrow, I'd be happy to pick out a few simple things for the apartment tomorrow—nothing that requires your expertise in these matters, of course…" Téa giggled, imagining Yugi picking out curtains. He brushed his lips up along her neck, trying to quell the rising shame at his impending deception, before pressing his lips to hers, moving his hands to her rear. Téa shivered in pleasure, feeling herself grow warm and ready, as Yugi carefully guided them over to the futon.

He nipped at her neck, allowing his hands to drift up her back on onto her chest as she released a quiet moan and pulled her on top of him. Yugi proceeded to tug Téa's sweatpants down her hips, sliding his body off the edge of the futon and moving his lips downwards in tandem as he was rewarded with a sharp intake of breath, coupled with another moan that shot delightful heat throughout his body.

This made sense, always had, even when things between them had not. Their breathing grew ragged and labored, and sleep was blissfully delayed for just a bit as the sun rose higher in the blueing sky.

Yugi rose before she did, slipping out of her sleepy embrace like a remorseful lover before digging his other ratty suit out of their tiny dresser. The sleeves were too short, and the pants too loose around the waist, but it would have to do.

He dressed, brushed his teeth, shaved the faint stubble on his cheeks, and ran a comb through his impossible hair before deciding that it was useless. He cast a glance back onto the futon, where Téa lay sound asleep, looking for all the world like an angel. Her alarm wouldn't go off for another hour; then it was off to the House of Pegasus, where she would make herself miserable trying to forget the kind of dancing she would rather be doing.

The check lay on the counter where he'd left it. Ten thousand dollars. What a windfall for him; what a lifesaver. Yugi closed his eyes briefly, praying that Téa would forgive him for this last act of cruelty, and placed the check in his suit pocket.

Téa woke up at eight to the buzzing of her alarm. The sunlight streamed through the window by her side of the futon. She sat up and raised her arms of her back, arching her back, catlike, and began to go through her morning stretch routine.

Yugi was gone for the day, his other suit gone from the dresser, the check gone from the counter. She hoped to god that he didn't pick out a gross sink or too-soft mattress. Surely he wouldn't screw up that non-aesthetic part, now, could he?

She went about the rest of her morning routine: packing her dance bag, donning her tights, leotard, yoga pants and violet peacoat, grabbing a quick breakfast at the Baby Dragon and giving sweet Serenity a kiss on the cheek, then onto the bus and down the poorly-tended streets to the House of Pegasus.

Warm-up, rehearsal, water break, lunch of sandwiches in the green room: the naturalness of her daily activities was at times stultifying, at other times soothing. The number the Dark Magician Girl revue was working on was replete with ball gowns, mink shrugs and old-school glamour, something Téa appreciated more than she let on, so much so that she didn't notice the suited stranger sitting in the back of the theater, nonchalantly reading a newspaper and waiting for the girls' run-through to end.

The clock on the wall now read noon. Téa found a place on one of the worn velveteen couches, plopped her feet up onto a low-lying coffee table, wrapped herself up in her pink dressing-gown (on loan to all the dancers) and began to nibble at the ham and spinach on wheat.

A shadow crossed over her; she looked up to see—

"Kaiba!" Of all the people she expected to see here—this standoffish fellow, something between friend and enemy—Seto Kaiba stood in the House of Pegasus dressing room, immaculately clad in a blacker-than-black suit with a blue tie that matched his eyes. His silver and sapphire cufflinks glinted in the indoor lighting.

"Téa Gardner." Seto's face was characteristically scornful and mocking at the same time; Téa felt keenly aware of her state of undress and stood abruptly, securing the robe around her and tying the sash over it.

"What brings you here?" Téa chirped gaily, knowing how much that sort of behavior pissed him off, and reveling in it. She bounded over to the tray of sandwiches. "Can I get you something? Coffee? Sandwich?"

"No, thank you. Would you happen to know where your failed champion of a boyfriend is?" His voice was curt. He hardly had time for pleasantries with this exhaustingly cheerful woman. Some people just didn't know when to quit; this was all too apparent, as evidenced by her continued relationship with the increasingly pathetic Yugi.

"No, I haven't seen him all morning. That's no way to talk to me in my workplace, Seto Kaiba," Téa replied tartly, crossing her arms. She didn't have to put up with his attitude—would it kill him to be nice, like a human being? For once?

"Well, next time, tell your boyfriend to pay up his debts promptly," Seto replied icily. He hadn't seen Yugi at the Baby Dragon when he'd swung by an hour or so ago, and Tristan and Joey had fed him some line about Yugi looking for him—as if. Yugi didn't have ten thousand dollars, not in a million years, and Seto would so enjoy humiliating Yugi in this way, if not in the dueling arena.

"I'm sorry?" Téa queried, sinking down onto another chair as Seto took the seat opposite her. What had Yugi gotten himself into this time? Debts?

Did Yugi owe Seto Kaiba money? The mere thought of it sent a shiver down Téa's spine. Seto could only have grown more cold and ruthless while he'd been away; surely Yugi had known better. Right?

Seto observed the swirl of emotions on her face and cracked a leer. "What, your loverboy is hiding things from you? Poor girl." Perhaps that was pushing it a bit far, judging by the panic that set in on Téa's face, her cheeks abandoning all color.

"Yugi Moto made a foolish bet with me earlier this week. He thought that I wouldn't be able to get a woman to go out with me—clearly, he underestimated my appeal to others of your sex. He owes me ten thousand dollars." Seto crossed his legs and his arms, arranging a bored look onto his face. It was not an issue of the money at all—he was more interested in the suffering it would cause his former opponent. He just didn't want to be chasing Yugi around town, not when he had the meeting in the Mayor's office later that day.

And of course, he still had his bet towards Ishizu to pay, whether that headstrong woman liked it or not. One dozen duelists, to be served up to the museum like a human sacrifice at 8pm that night. He did not anticipate a problem rounding up some idiotic members of the floating card games and leaving them at the museum's doorstep, before leaving Domino and not returning for a long time. Good riddance.

"…Oh." Ten thousand dollars. Where would Yugi be able to round up that kind of—

Oh. Oh, no.

Téa slumped in her seat, wrapping her arms around herself. No. Not this. Please, please, please don't let Yugi have taken her check from Pegasus to give to this bastard. Fuck. No. Please.

"This is related to that stupid floating card game, isn't it," she murmured, feeling her eyes cloud with tears. She lowered her gaze and focused on the bit of fuzz on her knee. She could not, would not cry in front of Seto Kaiba. Not today and not ever. That would be the ultimate humiliation.

"You know your boyfriend as well as I do, Téa," replied Seto, feeling a bit embarrassed at this silly woman's emotional reaction. As if he hadn't had enough waterworks over the past few hours to last the rest of his life. God, other people were such soft, fragile idiots.

"But he promised to change," Téa stammered, before she could stop herself, cradling her forehead in her hands. Don't cry. Don't cry.

Seto rolled his eyes. "Change, change—what, Gardner, do you love Yugi, or do you love some fixed up, bland-ass version of him?" Well, accepting the existence of love as a premise, anyway…

"I just want to be happy, and live a normal life with Yugi, with a home and a family, with-with wallpaper, and curtains, like normal happy people!" cried Téa, her cheeks reddening in anger as she narrowed her eyes at Seto. Why was she even dignifying Seto's coldness, his open mockery of her misery, with a response?

"Then don't fall in love with duelists." You stupid girl. Seto nearly spat on the word "love". Of all the ridiculous reactions this woman could have had. What a stupid domestic fantasy—though Yugi as henpecked house-husband was an infinitely amusing concept.

Against her better judgment, Téa felt a single hot tear drip down her cheek. Fuck. She pawed at her face furiously, hoping Seto didn't notice.

Seto wordlessly withdrew a handkerchief from his breast pocket and waved it at her listlessly, feeling rather annoyed at this woman's inability to have a conversation.

Téa accepted the white square of cloth and dabbed at her eyes. Her voice was bitter. "Just wait until you fall in love with somebody you shouldn't, Seto Kaiba. Then you'll understand…" She felt more tears emerge to replace the first, and swiped at her eyes uselessly. "Wait until it h-happens to you."

Seto bristled, feeling her words stir up a bad taste in his mouth. Why, oh why did his thoughts immediately turn to Ishizu and her stupid buttoning habit?

Why did this flash of memory come with a pang in his chest?

He gritted his teeth and stood up, towering over Téa's huddled, openly weeping form. He supposed the handkerchief was a lost cause, as it was now covered in Téa's snot.

He made his way to the door of the green room to leave, until something caused him to look back one last time.

"Yeah," he said quietly, evenly, before he could stop himself. "Must be tough to take."

Chapter Text

Ishizu sat once again at the ornate desk in the office that couldn't accommodate it, head buried in paperwork. Security forms, insurance forms, damange forms—it was all very necessary, and very soothing. Mindless busy work that kept the dutiful, methodical part of her brain hard at work.

Unfortunately her speed-reading skills, honed in graduate school, meant that she would need to re-read the same document over and over again in order to distract the rest of her brain, and to give her an excuse to ignore Marik's pointed look at her from across the desk, where he sat, Polaroids in his lap.

The words swam before her eyes, her carefully scripted signatures and initials drifting off the page. It was now 4 am, and she could feel it in the weariness of her joints, the tender bags blooming under her eyes.

"Coffee," she ordered Marik, hand outstretched, who rolled his eyes, rose from his seat, and returned with a mug of crappy instant coffee. Ishizu took a sip of the grainy drink; the steam filled her nostrils and she sighed. The smell was like bitter salvation, chasing away all scent memories of flowers, champagne and musky cologne.

She ignored the tightening of her throat, murmured in thanks, readjusted her posture and resumed the monotonous work.

Marik cleared his throat, looking over his colleague with concern. When he'd gotten the tearful, panicked call, he'd been at home with Odion, all holed up in front of the Monster Trucks channel like an old married couple. Seeing as how Odion was more of an early bird and Marik, a night owl, he was the one to waste no time in running to Ishizu's side to help take care of the damage.

He had found her in a puddle on the street, shoulders shaking from within, face burning with a fury and self-hatred the likes of which he'd never seen in his exacting boss. Her clothes were slightly rumpled, lips swollen, the smell of expensive men's aftershave reeking from her. Her face was dry, palms bloodied with fingernail slits. He'd feared the worst until Ishizu held out the single Duel Monster's card, and then he had understood.

Luckily there had been no damage; the foundations of the construction were sound, and while there were a few scuffs and scrapes on some the inner concrete walls, he doubted that they'd be able to get any of those idiotic duelists on the hook for it. He was just glad she was safe, that the museum was safe, and barely minded when she'd insisted on spending the rest of the wee hours of the morning filling out any potential paperwork, just in case unintended damages should appear.

He didn't mind being her gopher, he didn't mind taking photographs of the site for her to scrutinize and catalogue; he didn't even mind being her coffee barista, such that the drink could be called coffee.

He'd recognized the cologne and the wealth it bespoke not long after the two had holed up in her office. Recognition (with a side of amusement) had dawned on him—that rich ex-Duelist Seto Kaiba had somehow gotten her, his boss, to go out with him.

He'd assumed that their earlier behavior had been bravado, or pure antagonism, a kind of sparring; as he remembered what he'd seen pass between them, Marik was struck by how obvious their sexual chemistry had been. How Seto had looked at Ishizu, and how she'd looked back at him, as if trying to deny the deepest and foulest desires lingering within…

Well, it looked like she'd given up denying, and good for her! He couldn't remember the last time Ishizu had been on a date, let alone one so successful.

Well, successful except for this whole business with the duelists and the museum.

Marik sighed heavily, flopping the stack of photos on the desk. "Ishizu, I don't believe—I can't believe—that Seto Kaiba had anything to do with this awful business. I just can't…" Marik hardly thought himself naïve, but whatever Seto's motives had been regarding Ishizu, for it was only dawning on him now to doubt the veracity of Seto's repentance act, he just didn't think Seto, the world-famous duelist, would have stooped quite this low.

Ishizu's voice was low, even, perfectly controlled. "Whether he had anything to do with it or not—"

Marik rolled his eyes, cutting her off, and rising to face her over the stack of paperwork. "Do you believe it, Ishizu?" He placed his hands on his hips. Surely she couldn't be that blinded by fury…

"They used our museum for their filthy card game, Marik." Ishizu cut her eyes up to Marik, her tone hardening, unforgiving.

"But if Seto had nothing to do with it—" began Marik tentatively.

Ishizu stood up abruptly, sending several sheets of paper off of her lap. Her sea-blue eyes burned with anger, her intake of breath trembling painfully. "Don't you understand?" she cried out, voice colored with anguish as she thought back to the events of the previous hours.

Her voice succumbed to the choking feeling in her throat, letting only a whisper emerge. "All I could see was him running down that street from the police with the rest of that trash, Marik… All I could see is that he was… one of them." She turned away from Marik quickly, eyes filling with tears. She crossed her arms against her chest, willing herself to hold together.

Marik's eyes widened as he understood. Of course. It had to be—just her luck. Still, though, a tiny knowing smile tweaked Marik's mouth as he walked around the desk and laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. "And I never saw until now, Ishizu, how much in love with him you are." On love he squeezed gently, feeling a tiny sob catch in Ishizu's throat.

"I'll get over it," Ishizu murmured, trying to compose her features. Her hand slipped up to her blouse button. This was certainly not something she wanted to discuss right now.

Yet she'd made her mistake in accepting Marik's premise, and both of them knew it. Marik cocked his head. "Aww, Ishizu, why would you want to get over the one thing you hope for from the minute you're born and remember until the day you die?" He was fully aware that he sounded like a Hallmark Card.

Ishizu sniffed. "I'll get over it," she repeated sternly.

"Aw, Ishizu, how can you?" Marik responded, his tone taking on a brotherly air.

Suddenly her concentration on her perfect composure was distrurbed by a click against the one small window in the office.

Was someone throwing rocks—one of the duelists returned to wreak more havoc on her poor museum? She broke out in a cold sweat as she and Marik ran towards the window above the couch.

Marik cranked it open and Ishizu stuck her head out into the brisk early morning air, preparing to scold whatever idiot was scratching her windowpane.

Her knees buckled when she saw that it was Seto just a story below her office. Still in the same suit from earlier, small rock in hand—quite the aim there.

"I just want to remind you that you hold my contract for twelve or more duelists by eight pm tonight," he called up huskily, his voice betraying no affection. God, she looked radiant, inky hair streaming over her shoulders, face backlit by the warm yellow light of her office. He narrowed his eyes at her coldly in response to his own sentimentality.

Ishizu bristled. How dare he speak to her after what he had done? "Forget about that," she replied icily, matching him cut for cut.

"I do not forget a contract, Doctor Ishtar," sneered Seto, remembering his cold businessman's mask, grateful that he still had the wherewithal to don it in front of her.

"Well, earlier this morning the museum was filled with your—your friends," snapped Ishizu, noting with sick pleasure the look of annoyance on Seto's face at this remark. She glared at him, modulating her voice so that it was perfectly even and businesslike. He could not know that even after all he had done, he could still get under her skin. "Let's say we're even." And with that, she closed the window shut defiantly and strode out of the room to dig through the hallway fridge.

Marik waited until the coast was clear, then quickly opened the window and ducked his head out. He called out towards Seto's retreating form: "Hey! Seto!"

Seto whipped his head around and up to face him. "Yes, Mr. Namu?"

Marik thought of the pained look of recognition on Ishizu's face when he'd brought up that maybe, just maybe, that she was in love. He owed it to her to help see this through, didn't he?

"If you don't make good on that contract, I'm going to tell everyone in Domino City that you're a crook and a coward!" cackled Marik, practically buzzing with glee. Surely Seto would get this all back together, help Ishizu save the D-CARP program, maybe even win his way back into her good graces?

Seto quirked at eyebrow at the strange museum official. A smirk crossed his face as he realized that despite his words, Marik was somehow on his side. The fleeting thought did not discomfit him as he turned on his heel and walked back into the night.

Seto returned to his hotel shortly after, taking the private elevator all the way up to the penthouse (as if Seto Kaiba would ever stay in a room that was not the best, or most expensive, that any hotel had to offer). It was a several-room suite, all contemporary clean lines, wall-to-wall tinted windows with a panoramic Domino City view, slate floors, square sinks and enormous walk-in shower with endless hot water, the works. It was pricey—five thousand dollars a night—and rather worth it.

He pressed the button to open the door into his suite, loosening his restrictive tie with the other hand, and froze when he saw Mokuba sitting at the desk in the foyer.

"Hello, brother." Mokuba had certainly grown since Seto had been gone. The long black hair was still here, but it was tied into a slim braid at the nape of his neck. Also while he'd been gone, Mokuba had learned to dress like an executive. The gray suit and silver cufflinks suited him quite well. Though perhaps the burnt orange tie was slightly overdoing it. His face was clean-shaven, though the lines around his mouth revealed the continual stress the struggling CEO of KaibaCorp was under on a nearly 24-hour schedule. His nails were bitten to the quick.

"What are you doing here?" Seto began, feeling the efforts of the past day and night finally catch up to him. Not that he was particularly lacking for stamina, but all of the walking and talking, not to mention the—ahem—excellent three rounds on the plane. Even though thinking of those moments of bliss still sent a shiver down his spine, they gave him an empty feeling in his chest that he did not much care to understand.

He found himself collapsing into a reclining leather chair across from where Mokuba sat, limbs weighty like rubber tubes. The bed was too damned far away, he groused to himself. Make a note to complain to the concierge about that.

"Well, I did stop by earlier, but one of your people said you'd taken the jet," Mokuba returned, rising to stand over Seto's prostrate form, hands on hips. "They said you had gone to the museum earlier and were taking that director lady—Doctor Ishtar, was it?—somewhere special." He ended on a slightly teasing note, hoping to get a rise out of his worn-out big brother.

Seto on what sounded like a date? It was definitely worth the five or so hours he'd spent waiting in the penthouse.

Damn his employees. Seto wanted to fire them all. His head was killing him.

"How long have you been here?" He cracked open an eye, wondering where the ibuprofen was in this damned grandiose suite.

Mokuba chuckled, his cheeks growing childishly round. "Um… long enough to have prepared a dissertation on the meager quality of pornography available on the television network?"

"Please tell me you're joking." Seto rolled his eyes, then his head on his neck. Still the dull ache continued.

Mokuba swayed back and forth like a child with a secret. "Well, big brother, you take a look at the hotel bill and you tell me. I'm sure you can afford it."

Seto flopped back into the chair, trying to get comfortable. "Can you at least bring me something? My head's aching." It was slowly spreading down his neck and into his chest. Damn, he needed sleep.

"Right-o!" Mokuba sped off into the adjacent bathroom and began rifling through the medicine cabinet with all the care of a puppy digging for a bone. Seto could hear things getting thrown about, his annoyance at his good-natured younger brother increasing by the second.

"Sorry, bro! No can do!" came Mokuba's voice, followed soon by his panting form. He took his seat again. Seto emitted a groan and reached for the room's phone in vain. Mokuba noticed his struggle and rose to his feet, plucking the receiver off the nightstand.

"Hi, is this concierge?" Mokuba began, his voice picking up in excitement. "Yes, can I order some coffee—like, say, a pitcher of the strongest stuff you've got? Yeah…" he looked at Seto devilishly. "Yeah, what's the most expensive thing on the menu? The Waygu Beef burger with gilded truffles and a side of caviar fries?"

Seto rolled his eyes at his brother's antics, his amusement growing despite himself. He pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers. Gilded truffles. Dear god. My brother eats like Marie Antoinette.

"Yeah, can you send that up as soon as possible? Thanks!" Mokuba slammed the receiver down and smiled impishly at Seto.

"Remind me exactly why I named you my successor?" groaned Seto. Those caviar fries did sound pretty good right now, though…

"Because I'm a great businessman, obviously!" replied Mokuba, plopping down in his chair across from Seto.

His face turned thoughtful. "But in all seriousness, big brother, I do need to talk to you. About the business. Things are…" he gulped, feeling the weight of his brother's expectations and hopes for him drape over him like a heavy cloak.

Seto noted the shift in the tone of Mokuba's voice with a quiet alarm. Despite the pain in his head, he sat up and fixed his eyes on his brother, who had buried his head in his hands, his black hair falling out of its short braid, his shoulders heaving quietly.

"The stock's going down, brother. I've had to fire people. I hate firing people…" Mokuba sighed. This was an area where he and his elder brother clearly differed. "I mean, we've had offers from other companies to buy us out—even the Mayor offered to help with a small stimulus package so that we could keep some mid-level managers and hourly workers on…"

Seto's eyes narrowed at the mention of the Mayor. Huh. That Mayor Devlin sure was busy. He'd managed to preside over the criminalization of Duel Monsters, help fund an entire new in-progress Domino Renewal, expand the police force, and fund Ishizu's asinine D-CARP program, all in the course of a few years.

And now he wanted to help out KaibaCorp. Seto was remembered the appointment he was expected to keep later that day with the very same Mayor Devlin.

Something about this whole Devlin situation didn't feel quite right. Seto shook his head to ignore the sinking feeling of suspicion in the pit of his stomach. He was just tired. He was just exhausted. That had to be it.

"Did you take the deal?" Seto found himself asking, his voice coming from far away.

Mokuba shook his head. "The board was pushing for it, but… it just didn't feel right to have to ask for something—to have to ask for help. I mean, you made KaibaCorp what it is today, and… I dunno… it felt like it would be dishonoring you."

Part of Seto was pleased—the sentimental part, anyway. "I'm not dead, Mokuba; I just don't live here anymore. But I do have to say, that does show some nerve. Well done. Did you take a symbolic pay cut?" That tack always worked, at least as far as public opinion was concerned.

"Of course," Mokuba replied. While Mokuba still made millions per year (and so did Seto) from the dividends KaibaCorp reaped from other investments, he'd insisted on the perfunctory one-dollar salary to keep up appearances. If only he could do more than appease the naysayers. Yet taking the money from Mayor Devlin didn't feel quite right, for a reason he could not bring himself to express to his brother.

Mayor Devlin and his crusade against Duel Monsters is what had made Seto take off for greener pastures and leave Mokuba behind, shocked and unprepared, to run KaibaCorp in his stead.

Let it be said that the Kaibas were poor at forgiveness.

Mokuba shook his head as if to clear his mind. His mouth quirked up in that snarky Kaiba grin as he regarded his older brother.

"So… Doctor Ishtar, huh?" He practically had hearts coming out of his mouth, cartoon-style.

Seto's response was reflexive: combination of the cold eye roll, voice husky and dismissive when he responded: "Really, Mokuba?"

Mokuba went on, unflappable. "I mean, I've seen her on television, Seto. Bit weird with her whole D-CARP art crusade, if you ask me, but she's really pretty. I mean, if I had your looks and I were older…?" He let his voice trail off, his implication clear.

Seto's mouth hardened as he remembered exactly how exquisite Ishizu was—had been. Perhaps it helped to think of her in the past tense. Sitting, standing, talking, blushing, moaning underneath him in just that perfect way…

Mokuba regarded his brother's sudden change in demeanor. Did Seto's eyes look… sad? Somehow? He didn't often see this sort of emotion in his brother's eyes.

"Seto?" He reached out a hand and laid it on Seto's knee. Seto winced at this tenderness.

"Big brother? Is everything okay? What happened with Doctor Ishtar?"

What had happened indeed. One moment they were holding hands, a perfect example of nauseating but strangely right romantic companionship, and the next, she pushed him away, looking at him with such disdain as the duelists he had associated himself with had made a mockery of her work. Those idiots. How he wanted to hurt them as they had hurt Ishizu.

It couldn't have been something he'd said, could it?

For once, Seto began to doubt himself. No. Stop. It cannot be—god knows why, but that woman liked me, and I…

As Seto's mind tripped over the thought of how he felt about Doctor Ishizu Ishtar, he felt utterly ill.

Mokuba noticed the warring thoughts playing out Seto's face with growing concern. "Seto—is... are you…?" He struggled to find the words.

He took the leap, thinking he'd find solid ground in his query. "Are you in love with Doctor Ishtar?"

The words ignited Seto's fury. Headache forgotten, he flew up from his reclining chair in a heated passion, striding with purpose towards the thick glass panes of the hotel suite. The morning light coming in through the window washed everything in a blue-gold color as he pounded his fist against the glass, just once.

Mokuba jumped up, eyes wide with fear. "Seto—I didn't mean—"

"I… I don't know," came Seto's voice, strangely mellow and somber.

For once in his life, Seto had stumbled across something that he couldn't play, couldn't judge, couldn't quantify and manipulate and control.

Is this what breaking felt like?

Seto stumbled backwards, a hand rising to run through his hair with an uncharacteristic shaking. Get it together. It doesn't matter. She doesn't love you. She doesn't give a shit about you anymore. Stop. This foolishness means nothing. She means nothing. She is just a woman. Just like every other woman who had shared his bed. No difference. None. Stop.

Why did he feel like he was in mourning?

It doesn't matter. Soon I'll be gone and I'll never have to return to this godforsaken city as long as I live. Just one meeting with Devlin, just one delivery of stupid duelists to the Museum—one last sighting of her —and then he could go on with his life, with the planes and hotels and casinos and arenas, and pretend she never even existed.

Oh, her.

Mokuba walked over to him slowly, marveling at how weak and frail his big brother seemed, and wrapped his arms around him gently.

All of his life, whenever Mokuba had felt weak and upset, Seto had been stoic and dependable, refusing to let Mokuba wallow in negative unproductive feelings. Underneath it all he'd cared for his little brother, which had always been obvious to Mokuba, if to no-one else.

Now, it was his turn to be the big brother.

They stood there in silence, Mokuba's nose pressed against Seto's shoulder, until a gentle ding from the elevator rang through the thick air. "Room service!"

Mokuba didn't move, refusing to let go of his brother. It felt like it could be the last time he would get to hold his brother like his, to have his brother need him as much as he'd needed Seto in the past. Mustn't spoil the moment.

Seto's stomach ended up spoiling the moment. The smell of those fries and coffee was enough to snap him out of that humiliating moment of utter weakness and failure. Two words that had no place in a Kaiba's vocabulary.

He sniffed almost inaudibly and untangled himself from Mokuba's grasp. Mokuba gritted his teeth, but his stomach too gave away other intentions.

"Come along, Mokuba," he called out hoarsely as he walked over to the elevator. "We don't have all day."

Chapter Text

Stomach full on prohibitively expensive food, Seto at last found a few hours of sleep. If he'd known he'd passed out in front of his little brother, who managed to lug his lanky frame into the adjacent bedroom and tucked him in like a child he may well have died of humiliation. Best that he didn't know.

He woke up at eight on Saturday in a funk as the floor-to-ceiling windows let in gallons of annoyingly cheerful orange-gold light. After he'd gotten whatever weakness he'd succumbed to the previous night off of his chest—thank god it was only Mokuba and not someone he despised who had witnessed his loss of perfect control, the ruthlessly icy veneer that felt at times like a glove grafted to his skin—he'd woken up in the blissful comfort of the hotel king-size bed.

He wondered idly if he looked as shit as he felt—hungover, but almost emotionally hungover, if such a thing even made a whit of sense. A note from Mokuba rested on his nightstand—call me before you leave Domino! He assumed Mokuba must have sent it earlier that morning (if only he knew!).

Rubbing the rheum out of his eyes, Seto allowed himself one yawn before shuffling into the foyer of the penthouse. Where was that weak-ass coffee? Seto Kaiba had never been much of a morning person.

As he went about the laborious process of getting ready for the day—showering, shaving, picking out a smart suit and appropriately subtly expensive tie—it occurred to him that all rubbish with that woman aside, he had won the bet against that poor sap Yugi after all.

He couldn't stop a sneer from curling onto his face as he pictured the blond, spiky haired former rival, the man who hadn't learned to quit while he was ahead and was now saddled with a pathetic criminal empire he had no business trying to run. Using Joey and Tristan as the half-wit muscle must have seemed like quite the coup; he was surprised that Mai Valentine, of all people, had given Yugi's "floating card games" the time of day. Guess she, much like Seto, had found dueling outside of Domino unsatisfactory.

Seto was sure Yugi hadn't seen ten thousand dollars in one place in all his life; the bet and its setup had surely been designed as a sucker, meant to trick Seto into boasting about his prowess with the female sex before roping him into what must have seemed to Yugi an impossible task. Seto was a duelist, and unrepentantly so; the woman was the museum director and was committed to making duelists a relic of the past, just like Mayor Devlin…

What kind of fool must Yugi be, and how cruel and thoughtless had he become, that he had thought to use the museum's construction site, of all places, for the game that night? Was it a giant fuck-you to the museum and to Ishizu, who sought so desperately to change him and his ilk?

Or was it a move of a man who had lost the bet and therefore had nothing to lose? A last stab at glory to flame out in a final blaze before being snuffed out forever?

Did that mean Yugi had realized, somehow, that he'd lost the bet?

Oh, the look on that idiot Yugi's face when Seto demanded—no, not demanded, just smugly requested—his payment—it would nearly be worth it all.

No, no it wouldn't. Best not to think of that, the lump in his throat—it could not exist for what he had to do.

Visions of blue eyes and bronze skin, inky black hair and trembling hands danced in his mind. He wished for a lobotomy. Or something.

He finished tying his tie, the silvery blue matching his eyes.

Now, where to find Yugi Moto?

He rode down in the elevator, nodded at Roland, who was waiting out front with the sleek limo (and had been for nearly two hours without complaint. Roland was nothing if not loyal), and ducked inside. "Baby Dragon—you know, that hole we went to yesterday."

"Yes, sir." Roland closed the door after him, gave a slight bow, and moved to the driver's seat. The limo purred to life and glided into the oncoming traffic, a shark among clownfish and guppies.

Her fucking perfume. The car smells like her, Seto realized with a growing anxiety. With shaking hands, he reached up and loosened his tie, feeling gooseflesh prickle on the backs of his arms.

Was that a bead of sweat rolling down his forehead? His vision narrowed and his chest throbbed painfully as the sweet smell that still lingered flooded his nostrils.

He darted out his hand and pressed the button to roll down the window, wincing at the loud noise, the rush of Domino City and all her foot and auto traffic, that leaked in through the small gap.

The limo pulled up behind a forest green garbage truck, receiving a (somewhat welcome) bath of fumes. Well, he was going to die of car fumes, but at least the car no longer smelled like jasmine perfume.

Get a grip. Stop it. This foolishness will bring you nothing.

The second the Baby Dragon's tattered awning came into view around the corner, Seto sprang out of the car, taking himself quite by surprise. "Sir ––" He ignored the honks of the cars he crossed in front of to reach the sidewalk, striding as if in a trance towards the bar and café.

The bells tinkled as he threw open the door. Eyes adjusting from the brightness of the outside with the dimly lit interior, he growled at no-one in particular, "where's Yugi Moto?"

Any chatter in the Baby Dragon vanished at the appearance of his wraithlike form. Dark suit, pale skin, glowing eyes—he must have cut quite a sinister figure. Good.

Seto swept his eyes around the room. While he recognized a few stragglers lingering in the booths littering the dusty interior, slumping as to escape his penetrating gaze, he didn't see Yugi anywhere. He squinted. No ridiculously spiky blond and black hair in sight.

Come to think of it, where were Yugi's goons, Joey and Tristan? They had failed to make an appearance here as well.

Seto grew keenly aware of the silence hanging in the air of the Baby Dragon, and found himself gritting his teeth in frustration.

"Um––excuse me? Mr. Kaiba?" came a quiet female voice. Seto whipped his head to see a waifish girl with long light brown hair, a white apron on over a tea-length dress, leaning toward him from the other side of the counter. She held a tray of dirty plates in one hand and a stack of menus in the other.

Something about her was familiar. Serenity Wheeler never made it out either, huh?

"I don't know where Yugi is—but I can get you in touch with Téa—she might know," continued Serenity, trying to set the rest of the room at ease with a gentle smile that Seto knew he hadn't earned.

He strode over to Serenity and rested his palms on the bar, towering over her. "Yeah? I'd appreciate that—otherwise your precious Yugi will have truly disgraced himself for the last time." This last bit was addressed towards everyone in the bar, some of some whom turned towards him with a bit of interest.

"You see, when one loses a bet, the honorable thing to do is own up to it and pay up, like a man, rather than hiding," Seto said in a lazy, oily tone.

Serenity had worked the Baby Dragon for several years now and had become virtually unflappable—working in the food industry had that effect on a person. Seto Kaiba didn't scare her and wouldn't, unless he decided to become a particularly difficult and hostile customer. Her smile still in place, she withdrew a napkin from a shelf beneath the bar and pulled a pen out from the top pocket of her apron.

"If I'm not mistaken, you can find Téa at the House of Pegasus. I think she gets off work for her lunch break at noon. They're in rehearsal till then, so you won't be able to get a hold of her until after that." Serenity drew him a little map.

Seto could hardly hide his glee. "The House of Pegasus? That old theater by the end of town—" he nearly broke out in a fit of cold, heartless laughter. So Téa Gardner had become a stripper. Excellent. Poetic, even. That silly girl had wanted to be a dancer, and now she was forced to debase herself in this way. Not to mention Pegasus of all people operating a strip club—that was yet another cherry on top. Of course, with Industrial Illusions rendered toothless by the new legislation and restrictions, what else was a consummate entrepreneur to do?

Serenity's façade cracked, her smile souring. "Mr. Kaiba, there's no need to be rude."

Seto rolled his eyes and took the napkin she proffered. "What, Yugi doesn't have a cell phone? Téa doesn't have a cell phone?"

Serenity's eyes widened. "Um…" she leaned forward towards him to whisper, "I'm not sure their budget allows for that."

Huh. Imagine that. Perhaps things were worse for his former rival than he'd dared to think. The last time he'd seen Yugi, before he'd left, Seto could have sworn the two were all cozied up in a nice brownstone. Funny how things can change so quickly. Seto straightened his posture, adjusted his perfect suit jacket and folded the napkin into his breast pocket.

Without saying thanks, he pulled out his wallet and withdrew a five-dollar bill and dropped it onto the counter. He then turned on his heel and left, stopping for an instant to grab a copy of the Domino Herald on his way out.

"Come again!"

Mai woke up on carpet. Carpet she didn't recognize, its rough texture grating against her cheek.

Her eyes flew open in silent alarm as she clutched at herself, head swinging around wildly as she took in her unfamiliar surroundings. She shivered. There was a blanket on her legs. Her shoes were gone, her jacket folded by her head. There was a heavy weight on her back—a man's arm.

She turned her head and remembered. Joey Wheeler was the owner of the arm, and he was gazing at her through half-closed eyes, mouth serene. After the bust at the museum, she'd made it out (in her heels, no less), before the cops could catch her.

She'd caught up with Joey at some bar on some shitty corner of Domino. He'd not seemed in much of a mood to drink, and she'd been annoyed at the interruption of her duel—she'd been this close to being able to summon her Harpy's Pet Dragon, for crying out loud—and so rather than drink and crawl back to fuck as they had once done, the two had merely sat at a rickety table in companionable near-silence until closing time.

He was worried about Yugi. She knew this much—that while to her it seemed little Yugi Moto had finally grown a pair, so to speak, and grown up, his reckless behavior was cause for alarm. Joey had spoken haltingly of drugs, of how Yugi had tried to get over losing his livelihood by any means necessary, before he'd settled on taking responsibility for the game into his own hands. How Téa, angelic, limited Téa had stood by him, with weakening resolve, even though Yugi's fuck-ups seemed to escalate in peril. Officer Bakura—sorry, Detective Bakura—had grown in power and menace, and had come so close to catching Yugi and locking him up several times. This last time had been perilously close—and Joey didn't understand quite why Yugi had insisted on holding the game in the construction site—usually dangerous locations were out of the question.

Something was happening to Yugi. It was like he had an honest-to-god death wish—like this game, something that had once given him life and joy, was now hollowing him out bit by bit, and leaving the rest to wither.

Mai had listened with uncharacteristic seriousness, and somehow the two of them had made it back to his place.

They hadn't fucked—Joey had turned down her effort, surprising her, and the two of them had fallen asleep on his floor. They hadn't been drunk, and Joey had always respected that. The wariness cooling his warm brown eyes had thrown her off, given her pause. Could it be he was still hung up on her sorry ass?

"Hey." Joey's voice cracked in the quietude of the room.

Mai moved his hand off her back and wrapped herself up in her violet jacket. She rolled over onto her side to face him. "Hey, yourself, Wheeler." His hair was all poufy and out of control, his chin dotted with light brown stubble. Sleep still clung to his eyelashes—she had never noticed that before, even though she'd woken up in bed with him. She fought the urge to wipe the little gross blobs away. What a silly affectionate gesture—one that wouldn't change anything.

"Listen, Mai," Joey began haltingly. God, she was so beautiful, all mussed and sleepy in the morning. Her makeup was gone. The years had been good to her, though; she clearly still took care of her skin, which was smooth except for a few lines between her brows. The color in her violet eyes hadn't faded; she watched him intently beneath lush lashes.

"I… just don't know why ya left, and… why did ya come back?" Mai sighed heavily and rolled over onto her back. She tried to make out the patterns on the ceiling—stucco popcorn swirls. Lovely.

Why had she left? Thinking back to how Yugi had fared, doing what he was doing outside of the law—how holding on to what he loved was literally destroying him, his body, his sanity—why wouldn't she have left? She had never had much of a stomach for taking on the sort of responsibility that Yugi had stupidly taken onto his tiny shoulders. What possible reason could there be to stay?

What indeed?

Joey looked at her expectantly, trying to parse out her shifting facial expressions. She bit her lip.

"Look, Joey, while we've had good fun in the past, you have to admit that—that it never would have worked out between us," she murmured, swallowing the hollow bubble of the lie in her throat. Joey's face crumpled slightly.


Mai sat up abruptly, hair flying over her shoulders. "When things change, Joey, when—when situations have to change, people change—people get hury because others change. Stressful situations—Joey, you know me, I try to get by on living as easily as I can—and you said it yourself last night—you talked about… about Yugi and, and how he is now and what that's doing to poor Téa… I just…"

I didn't want that to ever happen to us—now that I know that's what happened. When Dueling was outlawed, it wasn't going to be able to stay the same.

Joey sighed, hoisting himself up onto the heels of his hands. Mai felt herself trembling as Joey reached forward and took her shaking hand in his.

"I understand, Mai. I just—I wish you'd'a told me—we could have tried to work things out. I could'a gone with ya! I mean…" and here he raked his free hand through his hair.

Mai's skin broke out in a cold sweat. "Don't say it, Joey." Don't tell me you love me. Oh god, please don't. That's the last thing I need to hear from you. At the thought of a confession, her heart pounded painfully in her chest, in her ears.

She couldn't afford to think about love. She just couldn't. Not even for Joey—this kid who was several years her junior, who had dueled against her (in several circumstances—ha!) for years, only for her to break things off.

The last time they'd slept together before she'd left, she'd seen a hint of something dangerous and thrilling in his eyes.

She saw it again now as he leaned over and planted a gentle kiss at her hairline. She felt him squeeze her hand gently.

"I understand," he muttered against her soft skin. If it wasn't what she could hear, could never hear, not from him, then he swore he would never say it. He couldn't stop it from imbuing every touch he gave her, every glance he had to fight himself from throwing her way—for something like love to permeate his every thought of her.

Yes, it was love.

Fuck that.

Mai closed her eyes for a moment, brow furrowing. Joey drew back reflexively. Had he done something wrong? Pressed too far, despite himself?

She yawned. "What time is it, Wheeler?" Her arched posture was like a work of art—exquisitely carved, yet alive and tense and moving.

"Um…" Joey squinted in the dark, searching for the small digital clock he had hung on the wall at some point. 11:10 am.

"Ten after eleven," he replied. He yawned. Probably time to get up.

Mai covered her mouth as it swelled into another, deeper yawn. Instead of getting up, as the time would imply was appropriate behavior, she swept her hair behind her shoulders, folded her jacket into a pillow, and curled up into a ball under the blanket.

"Um… Mai? Time to get up?" Joey tentatively reached over and tapped Mai's bare shoulder. God, she was so soft.

Mai didn't respond for one terrible moment. Then:

"Joey… will you hold me?"

It was something that in that instant, for some reason that dared not speak its name, that blossomed in her chest, unbidden and wormed its way past her lips.

Joey was silent. Mai turned her head to look at him, but in the dark, his face was impenetrable, his expression stony.

He took a deep breath, something painful and too sweet running through his mind, then curled up around her through the blanket.

Ishizu buried her head in her hands, finally sick to death of the endless paperwork strewn across her desk. Although it all had to be done at some point, and, knowing Ishizu, it would be done, and done properly, she couldn't find it in herself to keep on with it. Her head throbbed, the blinding white of the reams of pages making her wince.

It all hurt too much––everything was all tied around itself and skinning her raw: the museum, the duelists, him... Oh, god.

Ishizu Ishtar had not gotten to where she was at a relatively young age by dwelling on personal matters to the detriment of her personal life. She had known what she wanted to do, and she had spared no effort, no tears, no soft, foolish tender feelings in order to become a museum director shy of thirty.

Yet despite her best efforts to remove the sight, the sound, taste, scent, feel of him from her mind and body, she still felt in thrall to Seto Kaiba and his mysterious combination of passion and icy arrogance. God, she could still feel him pressed against her, his impossibly delicate, throaty groans as she'd moved beneath him, and with him in ways that brought both of them to their ends.

It had felt like a true meeting, a true synthesis, a true moment of compatibility. Not only was he intelligent and arrogant in that way she couldn't help but like, but he had truly been fantastic––as cold and domineering as he was during daylight hours, he managed to be more cocky and receptive in more intimate settings; the memory of him, them, stirred Ishizu's flesh, making tears of frustration and desire prickle at the inner corners of her eyes.

She rose suddenly, hoping to clear her head, feeling her office swirl around her in a pattern of bright and dim lights. Her ankles nearly gave out, out of pure exhaustion, as she walked over to the window and opened it. The cool breeze brushed against her heated skin in a way that was both welcome and sobering.

If she could have pretended it was a mere physical attraction to Seto Kaiba, surely the pain in her chest, that sharpening ache spreading throughout her body, would subside. If only, if only.

If only he hadn't cast some sort of spell on me to make me feel, even for a moment, that I might love him.

She could only imagine the scoffing that would ensue, the humiliating mockery that would burst forth from him, if he knew. Love was evidently not a word in Seto Kaiba's vocabulary.

The fact alone that she had been a mere pawn in some scheme of his cut her open.

They had just been more drunk than either had realized. That must have been it, an explanation for the stars and the closeness. She crossed her arms and leaned on the windowsill, trying not to think.

And yet... and yet, hadn't he given her signs, that he, in his own peculiar way...?

How cruel of him.

Seto took a deep breath, trying to ignore the sound of Téa's helpless tears reverberating in his ears. They sounded all too much like that woman's tears, like the tiny sobs that felt like hiccups in his own chest.

Well, strike two for Yugi. He found his way out of the narrow passageways at the back of the theater and back into the unflinching sunlight. The impeccably clean windows of the limo glinted almost blindingly as it pulled towards him.

He ducked inside and closed the door after him a bit harder than was really necessary.

"Where to, Mr. Kaiba?" came the voice in the front seat.

Seto pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. It read 12:23 pm.

The good mayor surely wouldn't have a problem with a slightly early visit, now would he?

"To City Hall, Roland," Seto responded firmly, and readjusted his body in the plush black leather as the limo swerved gracefully, pantherlike, towards the new destination. He was half tempted to put on sunglasses (from where, he didn't know) and strut into City Hall like a badass.

It was such a ridiculous, childish thought that almost made him chuckle under his breath. He watched the outskirts of Domino grow denser as the car moved into the center of the city, watched rickety old buildings turn into fine marble-and-glass structures and façades as Roland drove him through increasingly rich neighborhoods. It was almost shocking to see the difference in care paid to this part of town compared to where he'd walked with Ishizu only the night before—for all his talk of fixing up Domino City, it seemed, Mayor Devlin had a rather narrow purview.

The City Hall, a Romanesque building wholly out of place in its setting amongst more modern constructions and gleaming office towers, loomed behind a wrought-iron fence and immaculate green lawns. Roland pulled the limo up to the entrance gate, mentioned the famous Kaiba name that seemed to open an infinite number of doors, and pulled around the lawn in front of the building proper.

Seto rebuttoned his suit jacket, straightened his tie, and walked into the building. He was to report to the security guard with the mother-of-pearl cufflinks, as the Mayor had directed him to do. He scanned the airy lobby of City Hall, taking in the large number of huge men in black suits and blacker sunglasses patrolling the area.

He spotted his mark—the guard's comically ornate mother-of-pearl cufflinks cast a milky reflection in the sunlight—and walked over.

The guard gave no recognition, his eyes unreadable and obscured by the ridiculous sunglasses. Seto really did feel like he was in a damned spy film. "Seto Kaiba—Mayor Devlin is expecting me," he said smoothly.

The guard raised a hand, beckoning him to an elevator around the corner. The doors opened like parting lips, revealing a slightly tinted, mirrored interior with a fingerprint scanner. "Please," the guard said, gesturing to the device.

"You have got to be kidding me," Seto hissed, rolling his eyes. What was this circus?

The guard remained immobile. Seto rolled his eyes once again for effect and walked inside the elevator, guard in tow, and held out his thumb to the scanner.

"Seto Kaiba. Welcome," came a robotic female voice that reverberated off the walls of the tiny elevator. The gears whirred to life and the elevator began its journey to the mayor's office.

"Okay, what the fuck?" Seto blurted, despite his resolution to stay stoic.

The guard once again failed to react.

A bead of sweat rolled down Seto's forehead, unbidden. What was this fuckery? Why had Mayor Devlin installed this robotic elevator system to recognize his fingerprints?

Come to think of it, why in hell did Mayor Devlin have his fingerprints in the first place? Seto had never been arrested, never been a damned Boy Scout, so how—why? Seto narrowed his eyes, thoughts swirling in his head in a tightly furled furor. Nothing about this felt right; everything felt suspicious. Like he was walking into a trap.

The door opened with a gentle click onto a softly lit hallway, leading to an ornate door.

As Seto took a step out of the elevator, the door opened and Mayor Devlin himself burst out, black hair pulled into a high ponytail and jade-green eyes alight.

"Seto Kaiba! So glad you could come and see me," said the mayor solicitously, jogging down the rest of the way down the hall, hand extended. Seto reached out his hand cautiously; the mayor smiled charmingly and took his hand, shaking it vigorously. "I do hope you've had a nice stay in Domino."

"Yes. Enchanting," Seto replied drily. He allowed himself to be led down the hall to the mayor's office as the elevator doors shut behind him with a hiss.

The Mayor strode around his glass desk and gestured for Seto to sit across from him before taking his own seat in a high-backed wooden chair. On his desk rested a sleek silver computer and a small glass bowl filled with marbles and little cubes. The Mayor had replaced the wall behind him with impossibly clear glass, giving him a view of the prettily made rooftops and well-tended yards of the homes of Domino's elite.

Seto sat stiffly, feet planted firmly on the floor. Why did he feel like he would need to escape this honeyed trap?

Mayor Devlin laced his hands under his chin and smiled brightly. "Would you like coffee? Water? Tea?"

"No, thank you." Seto's voice was as cool and detached as the Mayor's was warm and engaged.

"Well, then, let's get down to business, shall we?" The Mayor leaned forward and swiped a few times on the computer screen.

"Yes, let's." Seto crossed his arms, not liking where this was going.

"So, Seto—may I call you Seto?—since I was elected, I've been actively pursuing a multi-pronged approach to crime in Domino, as well as ameliorative renewal measures to improve quality of life here for all our citizens," began the Mayor, turning the screen to face Seto. Some brightly colored scatter plots and bar graphs blinked on the screen.

Seto was sure that if he tried to read them he would find them to be bullshit.

Mayor Devlin continued, "I've been very careful about forming alliances with several prominent organizations within the community—you remember the Museum, I'm sure. Well, aside from funding the D-CARP program I'm sure you know all about, the new wing of the museum was made possible through several personal grants. I really do care about the arts in Domino, as you can see—I'm honored that you agreed to help out Ishizu—I mean, Doctor Ishtar—" Seto narrowed his eyes almost venemously at the mayor's intimate address of Ishizu—"with the program. I understand she's had some trouble with enrollment."

"Yes. Well, it was the least I could do," replied Seto coldly, remembering his promise, and Marik's comical threat.

The mayor swiped at the screen again. "I'm constantly looking for ways to make alliances with some of the most significant businesses and entrepreneurial leaders of Domino. I believe your brother could tell you a bit about that." He smiled almost apologetically. "I believe I was a bit insistent with your brother—I managed to impress upon the board the significance of a partnership with KaibaCorp, but I don't think he was quite convinced. Oh well."

Something didn't feel right. Seto could feel it in the whirring of his palms, how his skin was breaking out in gooseflesh.

"Fortunately, I've been able to make overtures to several other local business leaders in an attempt to prove to you, Seto, that KaibaCorp should reconsider its position."

"I see…" Seto began. A bitter taste filled his mouth.

Mayor Devlin swiped at the screen. Seto couldn't stop a gasp from leaving his mouth.

"You see, I've been able to convince dear old Pegasus to come back to Industrial Illusions to do some work for us—licensing, rights, design, all that. We made a very generous offer," continued the mayor, pointing to some charts on the screen. "I understand he's been responsible for slightly…shall we say…seedier business since he left Industrial Illusions."

What the hell does Mayor Devlin need with Industrial Illusions?

"I see," repeated Seto. He leaned forward, a kernel of a thought struggling to unfurl and present itself in his mind. Something about this…

"So where does KaibaCorp come in, if I may ask?" he continued.

The mayor looked at him, eyes wide. A trace of annoyance slipped across his face before a smile, charming and gentle as ever, chased it away.

"Why, Seto, KaibaCorp would be positively invaluable for its hologram technology." Here Mayor Devlin leaned back in his seat and reached for the glass bowl. He rummaged around inside and withdrew a small white cube.

No, not a cube—one of a pair of dice.

The pieces clicked together in Seto's mind. Trying to stop his mind from reeling, he stalled. "Hmmm…"

"You see," Mayor Devlin went on, seemingly oblivious to the shift in tone, the change in the tension of the room, "when I was younger, I was heavily involved in the design and manufacture of a dice game—you may have heard of it…"

"Dungeon Dice Monsters," finished Seto, before he could stop himself. No… what was this fuckery? What was the mayor doing?

This all felt highly illegal—not to mention a good bit immoral.

The mayor clapped his hands together in surprised pleasure. "So you have heard of it!"

"Vaguely," said Seto evenly. "I do remember that it went under—that you'd partnered with Industrial Illusions and still, it hadn't done as well as you'd have liked…"

"Yes, well, that was regrettable. I had Industrial Illusions for the licensing of the monsters, spells and magic from Duel Monsters, as well as my own unique dice-spin on playing. Yet it never sold as well as it should have."

Here Mayor Devlin stood and walked over to the window, gazing out over the beautifully manicured landscape. "Do you know why it never sold as well as it ought to have, Seto?" He fixed his luminous eyes on Seto, who narrowed his in response, understanding everything.

"The market was too competitive."

"Exactly. There's that businessman brain thinking! Something that I didn't realize the first time around… I'm afraid your brother, as hardworking as he is, just couldn't see it this way at the time…"

"So you're going to me to see if I'll play along in your little game—give you the funding you want to give Dungeon Dice Monsters another go?" Seto sputtered, heartbeat fluttering erratically. He continued, trying to hide the shaking in his voice, "you do realize I'm no longer the CEO."

"Well, I would like to get you on board, Seto, but if not, as I said, I did manage to convince the Board of KaibaCorp of how valuable this project is…" Mayor Devlin strode back towards his desk, smile as bright as ever.

"Yeah, but it wouldn't be as valuable a project if…" began Seto in a growl.

"If Duel Monsters was still legal? Well, that would be a problem, but since Duel Monsters has been decreed illegal due to its safety and public health issues—such a shame, that—I'm afraid that the best option for KaibaCorp financially would be to, ahem, get on board." The mayor sat back down in his chair and laced his hands under his chin, as serene and polite as ever.

Seto lost his breath. So that was his endgame, this whole time.

This was why Duel Monsters had been outlawed under the guiding steady hand of the beloved Mayor Devlin. Why duelists had been chased off the streets and forced underground, why former champion Yugi Moto had been reduced to a useless, pathetic pile of skin and bones.

Because Mayor Duke Devlin really, really wanted to sell his cheap-ass knock-off dice game.

While the ruthless businessman side of himself was almost impressed with the sheer amount of calculation and careful planning this whole endeavor had taken, Seto still couldn't stop his face from twisting itself into a sneer of disgust.

The Mayor's placid expression dropped at Seto's look of loathing.

"I would have thought you'd approve," he snarled, standing up abruptly and leaning forward into Seto's face. "The great Seto Kaiba, the most ruthless businessman Domino has ever seen—what, you suddenly think you have a high horse, a moral high ground to stand on?"

Seto rose from his chair, meeting the mayor's glare with equal intensity and loathing. A smirk curled at the edge of his lips.

"Ah, but Mr. Mayor, you forgot one thing. I never had to stoop this low in order to have a successful product. My products sold because they were the best."

Seto chuckled cruelly under his breath at the sheer look of rage on the mayor's face, such a surprise after all the times he'd looked perfectly kind and wonderful, after how well he'd hidden behind the mask of selfless, tireless municipal leader. Seto straightened his tie, then his spine, rebuttoned his coat, and walked out of the office.

"You'll pay for this, Seto Kaiba…" began the mayor, his voice choked and rendered quiet with fury.

"Oh, I highly doubt that," came the cocky reply. "You really think you'll have a leg to stand on once I go public with this?"

Seto turned to face the mayor one last time, gleeful grin nearly splitting his face in two. "And 'you'll pay for this'? The elevator, the bodyguard, the fingerprint scanner?—what are you, some second-rate Bond villain?"


And with that, Seto Kaiba strode down the hall, rode the elevator down, and strode out into the sunlight, feeling a hundred times lighter, a hundred times more right.

Chapter Text

One would not expect to find Yugi hiding out in Domino City's reputable jewelry district, Téa's check burning a hole in his pocket, looking at rows upon rows of engagement rings. Since he hadn't managed to find Seto in his hotel, Yugi figured it could not possibly hurt to tantalize himself with visions of the future while he waited to humiliate himself at his former rival's feet.

Sooner or later he'd take up his post at the Baby Dragon, but ought he deny himself of a moment of genuine pleasure?

Diamonds, emeralds, rubies—ah, that sapphire ring would look just perfect on Téa's finger. Yugi pressed his palm against the glass like a small child, his breath forming bursts of smudgy fog on the slick surface. A nice round one, platinum band, with small oval-shaped milky pearls along the sides…

And of course, the ring's price tag was obscured from where he stood outside the store. Which meant that he likely wouldn't be able to afford it anyway.

Yugi took a deep breath, shakily feeling his delicate lungs expand from the perfumed storefront air, feeling abruptly self-conscious about his shabby appearance. The threads hanging from his too-short coat sleeves seemed to stretch for miles; the cigarette burns on the pant legs seemed like giant coal-black splotches on the rumpled once-navy blue fabric. He was sure his hair looked completely out of the question; thank god he had shaved.

He uselessly adjusted the sweat-stained collar of his button-down and pushed open the door of the jewelry shop, a gold-paneled oak menace that seemed to say: you do not belong here.

The woman behind the counter, a stout figure with a lacework of wrinkles on her face, barely registered his appearance. He wasn't even worth serving. Yugi let out a quiet sigh of resignation. The store was chintzy and old-fashioned; well-lit too, none of this awful glass-and fluorescent business of the cheaper set. Lamps with attached magnifying class chains anchored each floating counter. The floor was carpeted with something cream-colored and plush; walking upon it made Yugi conscious of his normally heavy tread. Rings were arranged by stone and color; each exquisite band rested in its own little cushion of velvet or silk.

Yugi swept his eyes over the collection of engagement rings until he recognized the one he had admired in the window. It was only then how ridiculous and out of his league he felt—he had no business taking the money belonging not only to someone who was not him, but, by rights, two people who were not him, and shopping for expensive fever dreams. While he and Téa were engaged, Yugi was sure she wasn't exactly expecting a ring anytime soon. If she knew what he was doing, she'd scold him for sure for the waste of good money that could be used for more practical ends—that is, if she was inclined to overlook how he'd lied in the first place.

God, he hoped she never found out about the bet. Granted, he hadn't planned that far in advance, but if Téa knew about the stupid, stupid, reckless thing he had done—bet Seto money he didn't have on the matter regarding Seto's charm and sexual prowess—she would leave him in an instant.

The sapphire and pearl ring glinted seductively from its perch in burgundy-dyed silk. Yugi inched closed, craning his neck to see if he could catch a peek at a price tag. No luck.

He turned to face the proprietor, who by now was watching him intently. Did he look like he was going to steal something? Yugi cleared his throat and walked over to her.

"Excuse me, ma'am," he began politely, hoping it would make up for his state of disarray, "may I inquire about the price of one of the engagement rings?"

The patchwork of wrinkles stirred. The woman frowned and hoisted herself off of her stool, eyes perpetually narrowed in suspicion. Yugi bit back a "I'm not going to steal anything, ma'am, I promise"—but that is what someone who was going to steal something would say…

"Which one?" came her gruff voice. Yugi led the woman to where he'd seen that perfect ring and pointed it out to her. The woman pulled some latex gloves out of her pocket, slicked them on, and withdrew the delicate piece of jewelry. She positioned it under one of the side lamps and fumbled with the magnifying glass chain.

"Genuine blue sapphire, unblemished pearls, filigree setting in the platinum—oh, this is lovely," the woman almost cooed in appreciation, suddenly seeming to appreciate Yugi's apparently good taste in engagement rings. "Vintage, too… I'd say this'll run you about nine thousand dollars, before taxes."

Yugi nearly choked. Nine thousand dollars for a piece of jewelry. And then—

"I'll take it." The fuck am I doing? He must surely be going mad, absolutely, no doubt about it. Bonkers, gone off the deep end, digging himself into an ever-deeper hole.

But wouldn't Téa love it as it glowed and threw blue light on her finger? Wouldn't she be able to put aside any worry and concern for just a moment and revel in this tangible token of Yugi's love and commitment?

"Very nice, sir." The woman's demeanor changed entirely; she fixed Yugi with something resembling a friendly smile. It didn't particularly look natural on that endlessly lined and saggy face, but Yugi tried to return it, upper lip catching on his teeth. His palms began to sweat; conversely, his mouth and throat went dry. "She'll love it. Will you be bringing her in for the fitting before or after?"

"Um…" Yugi thought quickly. Hadn't thought that far. "I'll be bringing her in after, I guess." He felt for the check in his suit pocket, leaving oily tracks on the fine parchment paper. He withdrew it just as the proprietor asked, "and how will you be paying, sir? Payment plan, or…?" Her eyes grew round as she noticed the expensive-looking check Yugi now held.

"Would you like me to cash this?" Yugi inquired, handing it to the woman, who placed the ring on the counter in order to accept the check. As the piece of paper left his hands, he felt his fingers tremble, a slight ringing in his ear. Why did he feel so nervous?

Well, he knew why. Why couldn't he stop? Why couldn't he just stick to one thing and try to get it right, instead of fucking up everyone who expected something of him?

She noticed Pegasus' watermark and ostentatious signature and folded it into her pocket. "No need, sir—Pegasus has been here in the past, buying little trinkets and the like—we know he's good for his word." She dug out a little velvet-lined box under the counter and gently placed the ring inside it. She then scooted off her stool and pushed some buttons on a cash register. A receipt printed; Yugi signed it, and then she presented him with his change—nearly nine hundred dollars, all in twenties and fifties.

Yugi placed the ring in his breast pocket gently, head light as if he was in a fever dream, and walked out of the store, folding the stack of bills into a wad and sticking it into his front pocket.

He made his way into progressively shittier areas of the city until he found the familiar sight of the Baby Dragon. The contrasts he saw still struck him every time he moved between the two worlds of Domino. The gulf between those worlds, the world of the hotel where Seto was staying, of the fine jewelry shop and the Museum, and the world Yugi inhabited, with its seedy bars and tenements, seemed like two entirely different cities—impossibly separate, yet bound together if not by any commonalities but by governmental decree. Had it always been like this?

Buying that ring had done more of a number on him than it really should have; he found himself desperately needing a drink. Or coffee; depending on the time. The sun was still high in the sky, and while it was always five-o-clock somewhere, Yugi didn't exactly want to add day-drinking and alcoholism to his ever-growing laundry list of self-destructive tendencies. He already had enough of those.

He pushed open the door, the faint tinkle of bells greeting him. A quick glance at the clock on the wall told him it was roughly one pm, so he decided to forego the whiskey for bitter black coffee.

"Hey, Yugi!" came a tinkling, coy female voice from the back booth. Yugi squinted and saw Mai, Joey and Tristan all lingering in Yugi's usual spot. Joey and Tristan interrupted what must have been a heated discussion to follow Mai's interjection. One of Mai's manicured hands was posed into a wave; the other was draped around Joey's shoulders. Now that was a surprise.

Yugi slid into the booth next to Tristan. When Serenity came, sweet and gentle as always, he ordered coffee. On a whim, he scoured the menu and ordered a Belgian waffle with whipped cream and strawberries, surprising everyone at the booth. Hey, why not celebrate his slow descent into hell?

He exchanged pleasantries with the others until his food arrived; he then proceeded to stuff his tiny face with pure sugar until Mai asked, voice full of pouty syrup:

"So, Yugi, when's the next game happening?"

Yugi swallowed his mouthful of waffle carefully, eyes nearly bulging with the effort. He coughed. "Mai…" he began tentatively. I'm done with that whole scene now. I promised myself.

"Yugi, I came all the way back to Domino to play some Duel Monsters with the actual pros, and all I get is one lame-ass abandoned game in a Museum?" Mai pursed her lips, lashes fluttering, face crinkling attractively. She crossed her legs, revealing the garters under her skirt. Despite himself, Yugi went pink.

Joey narrowed his eyes at Mai, shooting her a warning glance. Didn't we just talk about Yugi and this whole problem? What gives? Mai ignored his failed telepathic message.

"Mai, I'm sorry, but I'm not that guy anymore," Yugi replied shakily, reaching for his mug of coffee. He took a gulp, the scalding hot liquid bringing steamy tears to his eyes.

He sighed, refusing to meet Mai's disappointed, petulant eyes. "After all the problems with the last one, you know, last night, when we all nearly got arrested? It's just not worth it anymore, Mai. Please respect that," he finished, hoping against hope that his voice was even and controlled, that his own ambivalence didn't manage to escape out of his lips and into Mai's keen ears.

Mai pushed on, despite Joey's warning hand on her bare shoulder. "But Yugi, honey, I'm leaving tomorrow night. I can't exactly just take off without having had a duel worthy of your reputation—it would make me look bad when I try to enter tournaments and such…" She was lying through her teeth, but she hadn't exactly planned to sit around watching people get engaged and talk about their damned feelings when she'd decided to come back to Domino. So far, the Mai Valentine Domino City Farewell Tour hadn't exactly been going as planned.

Yugi sipped his coffee. Mai pressed further, a note of annoyance at Yugi's refusal to budge creeping into her voice. "Yugi, you're being a ridiculous little coward," she nearly snarled, throwing her hair over one shoulder. "I came here to actually have a real duel with someone who's remotely in my league, and I will not stand for being jerked around like a silly little girl."

She stood up quickly, hands flying up to rest on her hips. Yugi glanced up at her, a bead of sweat trickling down the back of his neck.

Joey gritted his teeth, rifling a hand through his hair in agitation. Tristan tried not to notice what was going on, burying his face in a cheap plastic menu.

Mai sneered at Yugi, leaning in, her voice deadly soft, all traces of girlish affect vanished. "What are you, Yugi? You certainly are no King of Games. You are completely embarrassing, to me, to the duelists of Domino, and to yourself as well. Come on, Yugi—just one more time. Prove to me you're not the stupid little boy you used to be, that everyone still thinks you are." Joey's face turned ashen. Even Tristan lowered the menu, prepared to say something.

Yugi's shoulders rose without his willing them to do so; he swallowed loudly, feeling his eyes swim with repressed tears. How dare she? How dare she speak to him that way?

Already precarious and weak in his resolve, he slipped off the edge. His fear and anguish turned murky; submerging deep within himself, into that place deep inside his soul where he dared not venture willingly, and came out as raw, red anger mingled with pride, struggling for air and for life. His eyes glowed scarlet, alarming Joey and Tristan, who sprang to their feet, prepared for the worst.

He looked up towards Mai, his face twisting in a cold leer. "Fine," he said. He was in control. He could do this one last time—he had to. There was no other way. "You're on, Mai Valentine. But don't you ever speak to me that way again." His voice grew soft and confident.

Mai met his hard glare with a characteristic coy smile, either ignoring or failing to understand how far she and her taunts had pushed him. She extended her hand; Yugi took it, and they both sat down. Neither seemed to notice the tension coiled around the back booth, the tension that made both Joey and Tristan sit in their seats stiffly.

Joey met Mai's flirtatious gaze. He shook his head sadly, veins in his neck tense. You got no idea how bad ya just fucked up—you just enabled the worst sort of addict.

Mai rolled her eyes, fighting a rising feeling of unease, and turned back to Yugi. "So, Yugi, where are we holding the game?"

Where indeed?

Where was fitting for the scum of the city, for that is what they were—unable to stop playing these awful, destructive games, risking their lives and livelihoods for the high of victory, forced to run from the law like trash?

Where else would befit this one last time, this one last descent into hellish misery and endless need?

Where else?

Yugi studied his coffee mug. He took a swig and pushed it and the plate of wilting waffle away from him. A tiny sad smile curled on his lips; he laced his fingers together, laying his hands on the table purposefully.

"Why, the sewers, of course."

"I'm so glad you're helping us out, Mr. Mayor," Ishizu gushed again, taking the mayor's hand for what must have been the eighth time within the last hour. Clad in a long black skirt and simple blue blouse, she was perfectly attired for both the set-up and reception proper, and was not one to shy away from the endless lifting of dusty boxes of plates and tablecloths, not one to leave the retrieval of tables and chairs from the dank basement to underlings.

She'd managed to grab a few winks of sleep on her couch at Marik's insistence; she'd as good as cried herself to sleep sometime around six am. When she'd awoken, she'd found the clothes laid out on her desk on top of the piles of paperwork. Marik, who had a key to her apartment, had clearly thought of everything.

Marik and Odion, each holding a clipboard, were stationed at different areas of the museum lobby, each directing a group of volunteers who were putting up the tapestries and banners with donor names and D-CARP logos, who were arranging flowers and getting in touch with the caterers. It was all bustling and busy; the air fairly reeked of hard work and efficiency. Everyone doing their part in service of the ultimate whole: art. Just as Ishizu liked it.

She hadn't exactly expected Mayor Devlin himself to arrive on the Museum's doorstep, dressed in jeans and a polo. She could never have planned in her wildest dreams that he would have arrived ready to get down to business and to help out with the D-CARP reception. With his help, the workers were working what seemed to be twice as quickly; after all, Mayor Devlin was beloved and popular, and everyone wanted to impress him.

Ishizu was no exception. She was all too aware of how disheveled she must have looked, and she would have been a fool not to notice the bachelor Mayor's lean, tanned muscles and flashing, friendly emerald eyes, his ease with directing museum workers and the charm with which he did so, making everyone truly feel useful and not like grunt workers. She marveled at this skill, for she truly envied it. It was what separated strivers like her, how she felt often, from true leadership like what Mayor Devlin seemed to emit naturally.

Yet aside from her admiration of him, the academic appreciation that he was indeed a conventionally attractive human, she felt nothing to stir her.

She cleared her throat, almost blushing under his gaze, his easy grin. "I cannot thank you enough, Mr. Mayor—for everything."

Mayor Devlin leaned in and planted a chaste kiss on her cheek, surprising her. "Please, I think we're good enough friends for you to call me Duke," he offered, pulling back and rifling through his clipboard of paperwork.

"Oh, I couldn't, Mr. Mayor," Ishizu replied politely, face surely pink and flustered. She looked down at her hands, feeling the need to be doing something productive with them.

Ishizu didn't notice the look of annoyance that flicked across the Mayor's face at her refusal. "Well, may I call you Ishizu?" She looked back up and was caught off guard by his blindingly white teeth.

"Yes, yes you may," she replied, a small modest smile curling on her lips.

It was getting awkward, this manufactured tension between the two of them, so Ishizu excused herself and jogged over to where Marik was sneaking bites of hors d'oeuvres.

"Marik, those are for the duelists, not for us," she chided, glad to be out of the Mayor's proximity if only for a moment.

Marik stuck out his tongue at her, putting a cheese-laden cracker onto the tray where it belonged. "don't eat this well, and I'm a law-abiding citizen," he whined, much to Ishizu's quiet amusement.

"Neither do I, Marik—it's about making a good impression on these people who will hopefully be coming to us for help," Ishizu hissed back. She cast her eyes about the room, signaling for Odion to come take over the food setup.

Marik sulked, "oh come, on, Ishizu… I haven't eaten all day…" Ishizu and Odion looked at him, unrelenting, their arms crossed.

Marik tried another tack, playing the wounded hero. "Geez, Ishizu, you don't have to have Odion take over this responsibility. What do you think I am, some kind of unprofessional, some sort of amateurish glutton?"

Odion laughed, his voice gravelly and deep. "Isn't that why you joined the museum business in the first place, Marik?"

Ishizu chimed in, "yes, for the food, and because the pay's just so good, isn't that right, Marik?" The two of them shared a quick laugh at Marik's expense, who stuck out his tongue again in response. Odion patted Ishizu on the shoulder and departed to resume supervising his volunteers, who were busy setting up the long buffet and smaller round tables and chairs, draping them with an array of white and black cotton tablecloths.

Ishizu's eyes flickered over to where the Mayor was helping a few volunteers to help set up the projector and screen for Ishizu's lecture. Despite herself, she took in his muscular form, trying to appreciate the view of him hard at work. Somehow, it did nothing for her.

Marik noticed her unsubtle gaze and looked at her pointedly, his voice suddenly serious. "Ishizu…"

Ishizu met Marik's eyes, with their understanding and judgment, and felt the pain of the previous evening return tenfold, flooding her chest and eyes with the sheer rush of anguished emotion and confusion that still stewed deep within her. She was afraid to touch that cauldron brewing, afraid of what it might unleash.

"Did you ever think…" she began quietly, her voice choking on the bitterness of the words.

Marik's lavender eyes flickered with concern; his heart throbbed painfully to see his coworker—his de facto sister—so visibly hurt and upset like this.

"Did you ever think that it would have been better if I'd played it safe and… oh, I don't know… fallen for the Mayor instead?" Ishizu's hand made its way to her shirt button, playing with it nervously.

"Ishizu…" Marik began.

"I mean, Marik, what's wrong with me? I've been working with Mayor Devlin for so many months on this project so closely, the long nights in the hospital planning every step—don't you think I should have begun to feel something in all that time? He is an attractive, successful, legitimate, kind and respectful man, and he clearly finds me attractive and appealing and yet… and yet, after only one day with—with Seto, I…"

Her throat closed up, dry; she wrapped her arms around herself in an attempt from letting the memories cleave her in half.

Marik squeezed her forearm in an attempt to comfort her. "Ishizu, the heart wants what it wants. You know just as well as anyone that it can't be controlled."

Ishizu bowed her head and sighed, willing her eyes to stay dry, please, for the love of god.

"If only…" she began quietly.

"If wishes were horses, beggars would ride," remarked Marik in a rare burst of wisdom. "Honestly, Ishizu, maybe this is for the best."

Téa wiped her eyes almost violently, her cheeks unappealingly pink. She wrapped the robe around her shoulders tighter and huddled on the couch, trying to get herself to stop crying. It was bad enough that Seto fucking Kaiba, of all people, had seen her cry—as if he'd respected her a whit in the first place, he now surely had another reason to mock her if he ever saw her again.

As the tears on her face rolled down and dripped off her chin, one thought burned through the dark corners of her mind, screaming and demanding that she listen for once.

I have to end things with Yugi.

At this moment of finality, Téa felt the weight of the world lift off of her shoulders. Alarmed, part of her wished for it back.

I have to end things with Yugi. This, this, of all things, had to be the last straw, the one that broke the proverbial camel's back. The thought was painful—and how could it not be? She'd been with Yugi for years, through thick and thin, since he'd been a small, shy high-schooler and she a classmate. Although she'd never really gotten much into Duel Monsters to the same extent, she'd supported him through every duel he'd been in, cheered him on, helped him snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

And then it all happened. When Duel Monsters was outlawed, Téa had had to make adjustments in her own life as well. Yet Yugi hadn't been able to handle it. The drugs had been hard to deal with, but he'd managed to managed himself away.

But this.

This—he'd thrown everything away for some stupid bet, for this asinine game. How could he have thought it a remotely good idea? What sort of desperation preyed on him in the places where Téa couldn't reach, couldn't try to make them better?

But I love him.

Is that enough?

There had never been any doubt that Téa wouldn't want to be with anyone but Yugi.

But what if she couldn't be? What if she couldn't stand by after this last betrayal of trust? It seemed so petty in her mind, so insignificant compared to all of the other times Yugi had lied, managed to let her down—and yet she couldn't let it go. Not this time.

Her mind filled with an equal mixture of steely resolve and molten anger, torn all throughout with that hollow-breathed feeling that comes from these sorts of little moments of breaking.

I'm going to leave him.

It's over.

I can't do this anymore.

With each resolution, she felt herself grow a little bit stronger, a little bit sadder. The tears on her cheeks ran their course; no new ones followed in their tracks.

She darted into the dressing room, praying that there would be no one there—no one to observe this ultimate moment of weakness hiding what was really a moment of strength, of resolve. Wasn't it?

Her face was all splotchy from crying; her eyes gleamed with a strange fire that she didn't quite recognize there. It wasn't as if she was particularly meek, yet she could swear that people looking at her would be able to smell the change on her, or something.

I am enough by myself.

I deserve better. And she did, she knew it. She deserved more than a man who would continually succumb to his failings with no effort at actual change or recovery.

I cannot love someone anymore who cannot find it in himself to change.

She knew that until Yugi managed to finally get clean, get away from Domino City, with its lonely streets and rickety routines, and from Duel Monsters, and into a place where he could finally focus on rebuilding himself from the slapdash mess of flesh and muscle and errant thoughts into someone who could be an equal among equals.

She threw on her peacoat and yoga pants over her leotard and tights and pinched some proper color into her cheeks. She wondered if she would find Pegasus in his office.

I have to take him up on his offer.

If Yugi was out of the question, Téa would need to move out. Move out before Yugi and his large adoring eyes tried to change her mind. And if she was going to move out, to set out all on her own, she would need a job—a better one that would mean financial independence for herself…

… and maybe enough left over to help Yugi.

Téa was independent and resolute, but she could never be called selfish. Not even now.

She tried to make herself look normal and not like her heart was bleeding, sore; surely it must be visible on her back, through her ribs, all exposed for the world to see. For isn't that how freshly broken hearts feel?

What does a single person look like—one who has just realized she should be single after years of togetherness, or one who realizes that she has been single and alone this entire time? How would single Téa exist? Who would she cry to? Who would she confide in?

Who is single me going to become?

Téa finger-combed her brown bob, smoothed her clothes over her frame, and made her way through the dim, narrow hallways of the House to Pegasus's office.

She could hear him humming to himself idly through the ornate door to his office.

Swallowing hard, searching for her courage, for her steadfastness, she closed her eyes briefly, waiting for her heart to settle out of her stomach and back into her chest where it belonged.

She knocked three times.

"Come in!" trilled the voice on the other side. Téa pushed the door open to find Pegasus standing in front of his large portrait of a lovely blond woman—his deceased wife, thought Téa, not for the first time. He turned away from the image, his eyes lingering just a moment too long.

"Ah, Téa, my star, my darling." He walked over to her and kissed her on both cheeks. "Come, come." He ushered her to one of the plush chairs in front of his desk and took the seat across from her.

"Have you thought—"

"I'm accepting your offer," said Téa, entirely accidentally at the same time. She blushed slightly at this faux pas.

Pegasus beamed, his white gleaming smile complimenting his silvery flowing hair. His one visible eye twinkled in delight. "I'm absolutely delighted to hear that, my dear girl! I knew that when I picked you for this opportunity that you would not let me down. I have no doubt in my mind that you will perform most admirably, once given the requisite training."

His enthusiasm was contagious; Téa felt herself grin a bit sheepishly in response. It was good to be praised, and by someone Téa had grown to respect during her time as his employee.

She realized with a pang that she would miss this kindly, eccentric boss when he left.

She took a deep breath, refocused.

"May I ask a favor?"

"Of course, Téa. Anything I can do for you, I shall with aplomb." Pegasus leaned forward, perching his chin in his hands.

Téa swallowed hard. "May I please ask for another advance against the business class money? I'm… I'm looking for a new place to live." She hoped he wouldn't inquire what had happened to the previous ten thousand dollars he had given her, or why she would need to move. Please don't inquire any further. I do not want to have to lie to you.

Pegasus's face drifted into a look of fatherly concern. "Is everything quite all right, my dear?"

Fuck. "Yes, everything is all right—I'm just looking at other apartments, since mine's not in as nice a neighborhood as I'd totally like…" Téa prattled on, monitoring Pegasus's face for continual signs of worry.

"You and Yugi Moto—things are all right between you two?"

The lie felt like acid leaking out from between her teeth. "Yes—fine," she said, as gaily as possible. She then added, almost conspiratorially, "I don't think he really likes where we're living right now either." In, out, breathe. In, out… don't let him see that you just told a bald-faced lie…

"You do realize, my star, that if there's anything wrong, you can always tell me, right?" Pegasus reached for one of Téa's hands. She tried to stop it from shaking nervously as she let Pegasus take it. His penetrating gaze would not leave her face. She felt like a child.

Téa always was a crummy liar. Yet Pegasus, perhaps sensing that he was on the verge of overstepping, decided to take her words at face value. It was not his duty to be paternalistic towards her.

Pegasus smiled again, a bit less sincerely this time, and moved his hand from Téa's. He reached into the inside breast pocket of his elegant red suit—red suit, by god, with a flowing white cravat—and withdrew his checkbook, the smell of money fairly wafting from the fine paper. Téa held her breath.

He reached for one of the elegant, hundred-dollar fountain pens lying like paperclips on his desk.

"How much, my dear?"

Seto practically expected heavy rocker bass to accompany his exit in a blaze of glory from City Hall. Yet as soon as he returned to the limousine and was cruelly reminded that Ishizu Ishtar was a real person and not some awful, tantalizing, mesmerizing figment of his imagination, he remembered that Yugi Moto fucking owed him ten thousand dollars. He would be damned if he didn't collect. It wasn't like Seto Kaiba needed the money—as if Seto Kaiba viewed ten thousand dollars as anything other than chump change. It just would be so satisfying to humiliate Yugi in this way.

That was all well said and done. Now, how the fuck was he going to find Yugi Moto in this godforsaken mess of a city?

Something Serenity had said to him earlier decided to replay in his head, unbidden:

"I'm not sure their budget allows for that."

This about Yugi's and Téa's inability to afford cell phones. Seto narrowed his eyes in thought as he buckled his seatbelt and settled into the black leather.

So they couldn't afford cell phones. Not even burners?

Damn, they really must not be doing well.

That did explain Yugi's threadbare suit, Téa's cheap-looking clothes… could this be?

Perhaps if Yugi had been smart and had established a life outside of the game, like, say, a job as the CEO of an internationally successful gaming company—ahem —then perhaps he and his silly weepy girlfriend wouldn't find themselves in this mess.

What did ten thousand dollars in isolation even buy? Seto puzzled as Roland rolled down the screen and asked, "where to, sir?"

"Hmmm…" Seto checked his cell phone for the time. It was now a bit past one. He had time before he had to assemble a dozen idiot weakling duelists—how best to kill the time?

His head suddenly jerked up on the seat next to him. There was a wet patch on his face—drool or tears? Oh god, please not tears, he thought dazedly, realizing that he had somehow dozed off in the seat of his limousine since he'd left City Hall.

The sky was dark outside, its pregnant blue promising richer black and indigo; the limousine was pulled over and parked on a narrow, quiet side street.

How utterly embarrassing. Seto's hair was half-stuck to his face; his side ached from being suspended in a seatbelt for—

He dug his cell phone out of his pants pocket. 8:09 pm…

Well, fuck. Ishizu's stupid little art pity party had already begun, and Seto had yet to make good on his end of the bargain.

And failing to deliver would simply not do.

"Roland, why didn't you wake me up?" Seto raked his hand through his hair, aware of how disgustingly petulant he sounded.

From the front seat, Roland's voice sounded almost amused. "Well sir, your brother did mention you hadn't had much sleep last night…"

Seto scoffed. Remind me to order a horse head for Mokuba's bed. He rubbed his eyes and tried to make himself look like a former CEO and not a sloppy teenager. His mouth tasted fuzzy—this often happened when he napped.

"Well, Roland, it's good to know whose orders you value more," he said drily. "We don't have any time to waste—take me to the Baby Dragon."

"Yes, sir." And away the car swam through the sea of streets.

Joey checked his watch and gestured to Serenity for another scotch. He stretched his arms above his head, his back stiff from the past several hours spent sitting, telling drifting duelists where to go for the latest game.

Just thinking about Yugi in that sewer made him sick to his stomach. What was Mai playing at? Hadn't he managed to impress upon her last night just how precarious things were? Or had her competitive nature gotten the best of her—would it be the thing to pull Yugi down for good?

He drained his glass as soon as Serenity placed it on the table, giving her a disgusting belch in thanks. Serenity would have giggled in response, but the mood was far too tense tonight—stretched too thin, not enough goodwill to go around.

The chimes by the door tinkled as Seto Kaiba walked into the Baby Dragon. Joey stood up woozily, reminded of how much he disliked Seto Kaiba, and how Yugi had fallen into the regrettable position of owing him money. Ten thousand dollars—what a difference in any of their lives ten thousand dollars would make. Fuck.

Seto took in the dark, sweaty bar interior and fixed his eyes on Joey.

"Where's Yugi?" Seto sneered, injecting an extra dose of ice into his voice as he regarded the blond fool in front of him.

Joey recoiled. "What makes ya think I'd tell ya?" He crossed his arms and did his best to appear menacing. It was difficult, given that Seto was taller, but Joey could have sworn his biceps were at least a bit larger in circumference. What indeed—this guy had it in for Yugi. I gotta protect him.

Seto swallowed hard, wondering why he was even bothering with this farce. "I owe him money, idiot—I lost the bet." He gritted his teeth over the lie, hoping the darkness of the room would suitably hide any trace of dishonesty.

Luckily for Seto, Joey only knew Seto to have two or three variations of the same smug, bored expression, and thus the lie caused no change that Joey could discern.

"But wait," Joey began, rightfully confused. "I thought you'd'a taken out Doctor Ishtar—someone saw ya!"

"Honestly, Wheeler, do you think I'd be here, telling you I'd lost, if I hadn't actually lost? Give me a break," hissed Seto. Could there have been a worse time for this half-wit blond to develop a working brain?

If this idiot is the reason I fail to deliver…

Joey regarded Seto with suspicion, then let out a sigh. "Whatever, man. Whatever ya want." Joey supposed that if Seto did try any funny business, he and Tristan combined would be enough to take out this rich asshole. Seto didn't even seem armed or guarded, so what could ultimately go wrong that the team couldn't handle?

"Follow me." He led Seto out of the Baby Dragon into the deepening night. The sky had made its gentle switch from blue to black, the streetlights extending ever further into the darkness like starry points of light.

Seto followed Joey around the corner and into an alleyway where Joey stopped in front of a manhole cover.

"So?" Seto pressed Joey. "Where's the game?" What the fuck is going on? Is Wheeler seriously going to try to mug or kill me?

Here Joey looked almost sheepish at how ridiculous this all was. He bent down and loosened the circular cover off the manhole, wincing at how damned heavy the thing was. A plume of steam hissed from the hole in the ground, making Seto's eyes water.

He fought the urge to cough. "Wheeler..." What the fuck? He doesn't think…

"Yeah, I know, Kaiba," began Joey, fully aware that he was expecting Seto to follow him into a hole in the ground.

When Yugi had suggested the sewers, he hadn't been being grandiose; he also hadn't been joking. It hadn't taken long to find a former duelist who was working in construction. One perk of being the King of Games, even in these tense times, Joey supposed, was the seemingly endless network of duelists lying in wait around the city.

"You have got to be joking." Seto's mouth twitched into a grimace. There was trash and garbage in the sewer, and his suit had cost more money than Wheeler had likely ever seen. Besides, what business did former KaibaCorp CEO Seto Kaiba have crawling into a manhole and into Domino's sewer system?

"Hey, it's ya loss, Kaiba." Here Joey grinned at Seto's obvious distaste. He prodded further. "What, ya can talk the big game, but when push comes to shove ya can't get down and dirty with the rest of us, huh, Kaiba?"

"Shut up." With that, Seto pushed Joey out of the way and, after allowing one last shudder of utter nausea to run through him, squeezed himself through the manhole and climbed down the ladder under the surface of the street.

Joey shook his head, still amused, and followed him down.

He led Seto down a maze of tunnels. "Now, what ya gotta realize, is that they've been playing for hours, and they're tired as fuck. Mai's been beating all their asses—Mako, Espa, everyone, except Yugi of course, and she won't let any of them leave until she gets all their money…"

Indeed, Mai's lust for competition had bloomed in full display that night, much to the chagrin of everyone involved in this whole sordid affair.

Mai Valentine? That admittedly attractive yet decidedly lucky and mediocre duelist? How the hell is that happening? Seto thought. Clearly the world was spinning in reverse if Joey Wheeler was helping him, if Mai Valentine was legitimately kicking ass at Duel Monsters, and Seto was actually considering doing a—gulp—kind thing for another person. Christ. Remind me to visit a shrink as soon as I get out of this godforsaken city.

Joey took in Seto's thoughtful silence. What was this spoiled brat thinking now? I gotta be on my guard. He stopped in front of a narrow steel door that was half rusted shut. Rolling up his shirtsleeves, he wrapped his hands around a protruding piece of metal and pulled with all his might until the door creaked open. The opening groaned in protest as Seto peeked over Joey's shoulder, his draw fairly dropping at the spectacle inside.

Yugi wished he'd kept his head cool enough to avoid something like this. In this literal pit in the ground, a good forty duelists sulked or ranted to one another, some smoking cigarettes, others sneaking sips from hip flasks. The entire room had a heavy air of defeat, and that wasn't just because they were all literally in a sewer.

Mai sat atop a pile of the duelist's jackets, the rumpled fabric serving to separate her nearly-bare legs from the filthy ground. Her arms were crossed in front of her ample chest, her duel disk gleaming on her arm. Her eyes glittered with a wolfish triumph; his red lipstick was immaculate as usual, even as her forehead was shiny with a hint of perspiration.

"Come on, losers!" she sing-songed, taking in the clusters of depressed vanquished duelists around her. "Doesn't anyone want their money back?" She reached inside her white bustier and pulled out a stack of bills, which she kissed flirtatiously.

No one responded to her. Her voice clattered in the echoing silence. Even Yugi sat in a corner, curled up into a ball of exhaustion, feeling no better than the rest of them. Even though he hadn't lost to Mai this evening, he still felt like utter shit. I do suppose I deserve this, he thought, feeling the ring box in his breast pocket.

Mai rose and began walking around petulantly, her voice growing increasingly less coy, less controlled. "Isn't anyone going to challenge me?" Her boots clacked over to where a few duelists had literally passed out in a corner of the increasingly humid room; she gently kicked one of the men in the shoulder.

Joey and Seto dashed into the room. What the fuck is going on here? Seto thought, not for the first time that day. He swept his eyes about the room and regarded Yugi, prostrate on the ground and struggling to breathe, with nothing short of horror.

He walked briskly over to where Yugi lay and bent down, kicking himself for this display of conspiratorial—was it respect? Affection? Sympathy? Pity?

"Come on, Yugi," he whispered into Yugi's ear, trying to maintain his usual cold, detached tone, but somehow failing in that regard. Pathetic. And yet —

Yugi's bruised-looking eyelids fluttered in response. "K-Kaiba?" he murmured, struggling to sit up. "What's going on? Oh—" and here a wave of anxiety rattled through his bones. Seto Kaiba had chased him down into the sewers of Domino to force him to pay, to collect, and here Yugi had no escape. His back went damp, and he began to shiver as the walls of the tiny hellhole of a room began to press in on him.

Seto pressed his lips together into a tense thin line, wondering why he even bothered. Why indeed. I must have gone completely soft in the head. First Ishizu, now this—kindness. Ugh. "Yugi—since I don't say this kind of thing lightly, please pay attention," he sneered, reaching for his wallet. He pulled a slip of paper off his checkbook and dug in his pocket for a pen.

Yugi's violet eyes widened. "Kaiba, what—"

Seto cut him off coldly. "Yugi, you won the bet. Don't make me say it again." He wrote out the amount—that blessed, cursed ten thousand dollars—and signed his name briskly and neatly. He palmed the check into Yugi's trembling hand and growled, "now get the fuck up on your feet."

He stood and surveyed the room with a keen eye as Yugi, completely thunderstruck, fought to get his bearings. Seto fixed his icy stare on Mai, who had watched the whole exchange with a rising level of annoyance.

"Ah, Seto Kaiba. So good to see you," she purred, cocking her hip and strutting over to him.

Seto rolled his eyes at this cheap attempt at distraction, at seduction. Surely she didn't think she was going to sneak off with his wallet, of all people—Seto Kaiba was far too clever for such low-level attempts at swindling.

"Mai, what have we here?" he quipped, crossing his arms.

Mai twirled a strand of blonde curls around her finger and let out a sigh through perfectly rounded lips. "It looks like the duelists of Domino just aren't quite as good as we remembered."

"They're boring? Stultifying, dull in their ability and strategy?"

"Oh, like you wouldn't believe. We've only been down here for a few hours, and everyone wants to go home…"

"What's stopping them?" queried Seto, giving her the once-over she so desperately craved.

"Well, if they try to leave they know I'll kick their asses," responded Mai coyly. "That and their reputations would be ruined if people knew they'd lost to me—to a girl, of all things."

Seto stroked his chin with his hand. "I see…"

Suddenly, it hit him. Exactly how he would be able to get the duelists out of this sewer and into the Domino Museum of Art and Artefacts. How he would be able to hold up his end of that blasted bargain with that woman and be able to leave Domino once and for all, free of any outstanding obligations or burdens.

His lips curled into a smile before he could stop them.

"Well, then, Mai," he began, taking his deck out of his pants pocket and beginning to shuffle the cards deftly as curiosity dawned on Mai's pert face. "Why don't we make things… interesting."

"How so?" volleyed Mai, eyes darting around the room. "You hear that, boys? Seto Kaiba says he's going to make things interesting in this shithole. Finally!"

"Why don't you and I make a bet, Mai Valentine?" Seto finished shuffling his cards and proffered them for Mai to cut.

"For what, Kaiba?" Mai replied, accepting Seto's deck with confusion.

I hope to god this works. Fuck. "You're going to draw a card from your deck. I'm going to draw a card from mine. The best card wins."

"Yeah, but what do I win?" Mai smiled smugly.

"If you win, I give everyone in this room a check for one thousand dollars—and you'll get a cool five grand," said Seto smoothly, crossing his arms as Mai began to cut his cards.

"What if you win?" Mai handed Seto back his deck and removed her own from her duel disk, sending the device to the ground with a careless clatter of plastic and metal. She began shuffling her own deck.

Aha. Herein lies the rub. If Seto had said he was not at least a bit—nay, utterly—nervous at this point, this claim would have been a falsehood.

"Why, if I win, you all have to go with me to the D-CARP recruitment event."

This mention of the infamous art program caused everyone in the room to groan, including Yugi, Joey and Tristan. What the fuck was Seto Kaiba playing at?

"Excuse me?" Mai said tartly, handing Seto her own deck for him to cut. "What the fuck is D-CARP?"

Everyone in the room looked at her with a hint of amusement. They'd forgotten that she was not one of them.

Seto laughed, a bit unkindly. "It's a museum thing—hardly worth being afraid of, Mai…" He cut her cards and handed them back, crossing his arms in a challenge. Come on. Take the bait.

He turned to the rest of the duelists in the room, who were repulsed by the notion of even giving Doctor Ishtar and her D-CARP efforts the time of day. Confusing cause and effect, many of them believed that her efforts to bolster the museum were what had caused all this damned trouble with Duel Monsters in Domino City in the first place. That stupid, arrogant woman, thinking she knew what was best for duelists. Art? The fuck was that going to change?

"Come now, gentlemen," Seto said huskily, "isn't it worth it? One thousand dollars for your artistic soul?" He chuckled to himself, thinking of how like a missionary he sounded.

The duelists murmured amongst themselves, and soon came to the consensus that one thousand dollars was not much to sneeze at. Plus, the museum event would have free food…

"Excellent," said Seto. Well. This is it. Here goes. Here goes everything- out of the window. No use of skill, strategy—it's all up to chance here. He took a deep breath, hoping none of the duelists noticed the stressed twitch of his hand.

Yugi did notice, and had to clap his hand over his mouth to refrain from ruining Seto's failing concentration, his slipping mask. While he had no desire to go to the museum, part of him did want to see Seto win, if only because Yugi knew that for some reason Seto had lied to help him. Yugi did not think poorly of that kind of behavior.

The tension between Mai and Seto was impossibly thick, almost suffocating. It simmered throughout the room, leaving no one untouched, letting no one ignore the importance of just what was happening in this tiny, cramped pit deep underground beneath the city streets.

Mai smirked and drew her card. Her voice triumphant, she held it aloft. "Harpie's Pet Dragon! Take that, Seto Kaiba!"

The duelists in the room immediately went agog. While, of course, Seto had cards that could easily beat Harpie's Pet Dragon—in fact, he had three of them—the odds that Seto would be able to draw it right now, at this critical moment of moments, were not at all good.

Seto closed his eyes briefly and took a breath, willing himself to maintain his façade regardless of the outcome.

Yet even cynical Seto Kaiba could not deny just how necessary a win was—not only for his immediate honor among thieves, among this pathetic bunch of duelists, and not only for being able to make good on his end of the bet and not have to deal with Marik Namu attempting to smear his name.

No—and here Seto took another, shakier breath—if he was being entirely honest with himself, which Seto rarely found he could do with any certainty—he had to admit that something a bit more rare, a bit more precious, a bit more vital was on the line. Something that involved the warm blue eyes and soft lips of a certain museum director, to put rather too fine a point on it.

Just one card. That's all I have. That is all that is between me and failure.

I will not accept failure.

Seto reached his hand down and plucked the top card from his deck. He looked at it, and couldn't stop a flash of genuine joy, even relief, from crossing his face, covering it with his typical sneer.

"Blue-Eyes White Dragon!" he cried, his voice suddenly hoarse. Amid the groans of nearly everyone else in the room, save Yugi, Seto Kaiba felt light-headed and ascendant. The buzzing anger of the duelists didn't matter—after all, a bet is a bet, and they had signed over their night to him and to his cause. No, he mused, the world around him starting to blur, he had won something he couldn't quite name.

If Seto Kaiba had been a naïve man (and he surely was not), he would have called it hope.

Ishizu Ishtar fought back tears as she took in the pristine museum lobby. Three hours and not one duelist had made an appearance. None.

Any faith she had had in Seto Kaiba had vanished the previous night, but some part of her had still clung onto the kernel of hope that he would have at least delivered on the part of the bargain that he still owed her—if not out of respect, then at least out of duty to his word.

She sighed as Marik ran over to her, face ashen. "Um… Ishizu? The television crews aren't leaving…"

Oh, that's right. The local news had been eager to follow up on the story of the "crazy curator" and had been perched outside of the museum starting an hour before the damned D-CARP recruitment event was supposed to start. They were a group of people who would make their livelihoods that night on Ishizu's back, without her consent—succeeding in their job of providing tabloid-style news because of her imminent failure.

"Marik, please try to hold them off for a bit longer," she said to her beleaguered colleage, who wiped sweat off of his forehead and returned to his post at front door, where he was swarmed by teams of reporters and camera operators.

Ishizu smoothed her skirt and turned to face Mayor Devlin, who, of course, had been present during this whole ordeal to witness this most abject failure on Ishizu's part. "Mr. Mayor, I am so, so sorry," she muttered brokenly, noting with a pang of humiliation the sadness in the Mayor's green eyes.

The Mayor reached a hand to Ishizu's shoulder and patted it. Ishizu fought herself from recoiling at this unwanted (though surely innocent) gesture, struggling to meet his eyes.

"Ishizu," the Mayor began, stepping in closer towards her until she could smell his too-sweet aftershave. "I'm afraid that after this, well, fiasco, there's really not much hope for further D-CARP funding. I mean, if we had even one duelist, then we could talk…"

"I'm sorry, did someone mention a duelist?" came a drawl from the direction of the front door, accompanied by the sounds of dozens of pairs of shoes on squeaky-clean marble floor.

Ishizu lost her breath. Her cheeks bright red, she turned abruptly toward the direction of the voice and saw Seto Kaiba, a bit sweaty, his eyes wild with victory, mouth in that ever-present smirk, leading a coterie of what looked like—ten, twenty, thirty-one duelists, all in suits of varying quality, many with duel disks on their arms, behind him. Behind this strange group followed the news teams, eager for the story, shouting into their microphones, snapping photos of Ishizu's shocked face.

These photos, once developed, would surely catch the sure fury on Mayor Devlin's face, seeming so out of place on his normally benevolent features.

Seto gestured for the duelists to spread out in the room, which they did. He walked towards where Ishizu and the mayor were standing, several reporters in tow. He raised an eyebrow at Ishizu, who blushed heavily and shamefully, overcome with surprise and surprise.

At her reaction, Seto felt that all-to familiar heat shoot throughout his body. Nothing's changed, then. He allowed Ishizu a small, private smile before she bowed her head in thanks and ran over to a group of duelists, welcoming them with an increasingly confident and cheery voice.

Seto turned his gaze onto the mayor. It was like being cut with ice. "Well, Mr. Mayor," he hissed at the fairly seething public leader.

"Well, Mr. Kaiba," said Mayor Devlin in a staccato tone, crossing his arms defensively.

"It looks as if D-CARP's funding is not going to be cut, in contrast to your earlier claim." It was not a question. Was this blackmail, or merely a warning?

The mayor narrowed his eyes. "Yes," he muttered unpleasantly. "I do suppose you're right."

"Perhaps you'd best leave," prompted Seto, injected as much false courtesy into his voice as he could manage. The mayor's eyes widened briefly, accompanied by a gritting of the teeth.

"I do believe I have some merger-related business to take care of, yes," responded Mayor Devlin nastily, beginning to walk away.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you," Seto called after him in a sing-songy voice that caught the attention of a few floating reporters and cameramen. He allowed a small chuckle under his breath at the wave of pure hatred on the mayor's face that was fortuitously caught by several cameras.

Immediately the Mayor was swarmed by a dozen members of the press as he tried to make his way through the museum lobby unhindered. "Mr. Mayor, what is Seto Kaiba talking about? What merger do you mean? Why do you look so angry when this event is so successful?"

And as Ishizu, Marik and Odion each took on a group of the duelists for the pre-orientation lecture, the Mayor tried in vain to fight off the tireless reporters, god bless them, as they grew more and more insistent, practically carrying him out of the museum with their endless questions of increasing frequency and unceasing urgency.

Chapter Text

Of all the duelists who shuffled into the Domino Museum of Art and Artefacts as if in chains, Yugi Moto, the King of Games and the leader of the duelists, was not among them. As soon as the metaphorical dust had settled after Seto's one-card victory over Mai, Joey and Tristan had resignedly begun bullying the whining, sighing, put-upon duelists into some form of orderly line and led them, single-file (for that was all the narrow sewer tunnels allowed) out onto the streets.

Seto had merely crossed his arms and regarded the whole spectacle smugly, yet Mai had taken it rather well and had joined the line with only a few muttered obscenities and hair-tossing. The idea of Mai Valentine, let alone any of these duelists, sitting quietly in a museum listening to a curator drone on about line and shadow was a laughable thought, but Seto's job was only to get the duelists to the museum, noting more. He was not responsible if they laughed Ishizu all the way back to her office.

Still, though, the thought of anyone failing to pay respect to Ishizu left him feeling sour. Only he was allowed to sass Ishizu like that—all right, maybe him and that spunky Marik Namu fellow, the one who had comically tried to threaten him. Still.

Yugi made motions toward joining the back of the procession, only to cut away at the last second and approach Seto with halting voice and shaking hands, swallowing for air futilely, mouth fluttering like a beached fish on sand.

"Kaiba—what you did—I can't—" Yugi's throat twisted around the word thanks with emotion, his nose itching, preventing him from finishing his thought. His former rival, who was under no obligation to help him, had swallowed his unending pride, his notorious ego, and lied about something this crucial, this important in order to help him… Yugi was almost concerned for Seto's health, if this sort of strange behavior were to go on for much longer.

Seto rolled his eyes, refusing to succumb to this sentimentality. For some reason, after all the battles the two had fought and despite Seto's best attempts to explain otherwise, Yugi clearly still operated under the delusion that he and Seto were friends—or at least, could be.

"Please, Yugi. Spare us both," Seto muttered, crossing his arms and turning his head away from Yugi and towards the line of duelists shuffling out of the sewer. Best to nip this silly notion of Yugi's in the bud for what had to be at least the eighty-ninth time. When would he learn to quit?

The space around the two former champions emptied out as the last footsteps of the duelists echoed throughout the metal walls; between them, it felt infinite and pregnant.

Yugi fixed his violet gaze on Seto, noticing an unfamiliar delicacy about his mouth and eyes, as if Seto were consciously trying to hold his features in that usual cold, haughty way, as if something in him had changed enough recently to the extent that Seto Kaiba had to perform being Seto Kaiba.

Why had he done this? Why had he helped Yugi when there was no obligation whatsoever?

And why was he taking everyone to the Museum, for crying out loud? What connection could there be, since, despite what Seto said, he had won the bet after all? What could possibly draw—

What indeed?

Yugi understood suddenly, a full, toothy grin appearing on his face, making it seem as though a ray of sunlight were shining on him where he stood.

He's got it bad for Ishizu Ishtar. A chuckle escaped his lips under his breath, making Seto whip his head around to glare at him. Oh yes. Indeed.

"What, Moto?" Seto turned the force of his icy blue eyes on Yugi's increasingly mischievous grin, seeing something almost like schadenfreude, but in a more positive sense—if that made any sense. Pleasure at what Seto would surely call a lapse of judgment, pleasure that Seto Kaiba was capable of such emotional attachment to another human being (who wasn't Mokuba).

Seto Kaiba, the man to whom all women were the same disposable bodies for bedding and leaving, who proudly flaunted his solitude and his cruelty like a glittering banner overhead, was in loooove.

Seto's eyes widened at Yugi's expression, face blanching, his mouth falling open before he could stop it. Oh, shit. He knows. He knows.

This minute lapse of control failed to escape Yugi's notice. He fought the urge to completely channel the behavior of a small child and dance around singing and teasing Seto—that was more Joey and Tristan's field of expertise, to be perfectly frank. Instead he placed his hands on his tips and looked up at the taller duelist smartly, the look in his eyes revealing that yes, in fact, he did know. It was plain as day on Seto's face.

God help Seto Kaiba. God help us all.

"Oh, nothing," Yugi responded in a loaded, cheeky tone, enjoying how the tables seemed to have turned just slightly in this instance. He resisted the urge to wink at the taller duelist, knowing that Seto might actually tear him apart with his bare hands if Yugi were to engage him in some sense of longed-for camaraderie.

What a shame. Even though Yugi now essentially knew Seto's most painful secret, there would be no stab at friendship.

Seto gritted his teeth in frustration. "Don't you have somewhere to be, Yugi?" Anything to end this extremely peculiar dressing-down by the King of Games, who by some miracle seemed to have stumbled upon the truth. Oh god, the truth. That dangling blade of truth. He felt his stomach flip queasily.

If all this, what he was doing for the Museum, and for her, didn't work…

…what would?

Seto swallowed thickly, trying not to think of what would happen then.

He would, of course, leave Domino as planned, he supposed, and in about a week or two, send a conveniently anonymous tip to the Domino Herald about Mayor Devlin's unsavory financial activities, along with a few choice financial records (providing his hacking skills were still up to par), leading to the inevitable investigation and ousting of the calculating, two-faced mayor. He at least owed this rotting city that much.

And he supposed after he resumed his usual tactic of winning Duel Monsters tournaments and celebrating by impressing and bedding beautiful, more-than-eager women, that that disgustingly acute ache in his chest when he thought of the exquisite, brilliant curator would eventually fade.

Wouldn't it? Wouldn't it have to, in order for Seto to regain his damned sanity?

"Don't you?" Yugi replied cheerfully, feeling for the ring box and Seto's check in his breast pocket. Still there, thank god. He began to walk towards the narrow entrance to the sewer, calling behind him, "don't you have some work of art to, ahem, study?"

Not particularly clever, but it was enough to make Seto scoff aloud, face resettling into its bored, annoyed expression, as Yugi jogged down the narrow tunnel towards the ladder, giggling all the while.

Seto and the duelists went off in one direction, towards the parkway and the Domino Museum of Art and Artefacts, where Seto's destiny waited, Yugi thought with an internal guffaw. He watched the ragtag group, led by Seto, with Tristan and Joey playing the usual roles of enforcers, trail off into the darkness of the city, and offered a quick prayer to no-one in particular that Seto would be able to get what he wanted—what he so clearly needed.

He straightened his worn clothing and made his way home the streets of Domino, his steps picking up with increased frequency as his surroundings grew more familiar, as he grew closer to the Baby Dragon and to his apartment. Surely Téa wouldn't be home at this late hour—he could hide the ring in the apartment, tidy up a bit, go to the bank, cash the check and bring home a nice takeout dinner… set the mood from when she got back from her performance at the House of Pegasus?

The July wind blew across Yugi's face, stinging in the cracks in his lips and making his eyes water, as he reached the Baby Dragon. Yet Yugi didn't much notice; he felt a lightness in his walk and a soaring quietude in his chest. It's going to be all right. It's going to be all right now.

He couldn't remember the last time he had thought it and truly believed it.

And why wouldn't it be? He and Téa were going to be married soon, no doubt; the pair were ten thousand dollars richer through the stunning occurrence of Seto Kaiba's generosity (and missing heart—who, indeed, knew he even had one?); and as Yugi thought back briefly over his career outside the law as the King of the floating card games, he knew that those days were finally over. Téa even had a magnificent job offer—surely he could make the case for her to take it.

He pulled open the grimy plastic door next to the entrance of the bar and took the steps up to his and Téa's apartment two at a time.

When he unlocked the door, he was greeted by Téa bustling around the tiny, depressing space, grabbing various things of hers from shelves and inside cupboards, seeming not to notice his presence.

He noticed a well-worn suitcase on the messy bed, half-full with Téa's clothing, and felt sick. What is going on—what? I don't understand?

Yet didn't he, though? Didn't he sense the shifting ground he was treading upon?

"Téa?" he called out, stepping inside their apartment cautiously and closing the door, heart feeling both heavy and impossibly frail in his chest.

Téa stopped in her tracks to look at him, face flushed, hair flying about her face. She looked for all the world like a seraph, her beauty not of this world. Her blue eyes grew stony as she turned away from him and resumed her industrious packing.

No—she hadn't even looked at him, Yugi realized with increasing panic. She'd looked through him with those sky-cerulean eyes, registering his presence in the loosest of terms, but not actually seeing him, heart in his throat.

Yugi could see her elbows shaking erratically, her shoulder blades kneading tensely through the material of her leotard, as she lifted and folded each garment with utmost care.

"D-don't you have a show tonight?" Yugi tried again, leaning against the counter in the kitchenette. He felt his brow dampen at Téa's consistent motions. Why was she packing? Why wouldn't she acknowledge him?

"I left after my afternoon rehearsal. Took the night off," came Téa's voice, perfectly even and cold, from on the bed. Seeing him looking all beleaguered and tragic by the sink was doing nothing to strengthen her resolve—she wanted to drop the suitcase, soften, and hold him in her arms before going to bed like they normally did.

But she knew she couldn't. Not this time, and not anymore.

"Ah. I see," Yugi replied, trying to keep his voice light even as his stomach sank. He walked over to where Téa knelt on the bed, taking in all of the trappings of her life laid out neatly before here, just waiting to be squirreled away in the battered suitcase.

He laid a tentative hand on her shoulder, feeling her bristle at his touch. Her reaction made him let out a sigh, bite his lip in worry. He removed his hand and moved it to his face. His breathing grew uneven as Téa refused to cease packing. Is she…? Oh god, she can't be…

It would be so easy to give up, Téa thought bitterly as boiling tears threatened to spill out of her eyes. She shoved a pile of dance clothes into the suitcase with a bit more force than necessary. And yet…

She couldn't meet his eyes, couldn't bear to face his gaze.

Oh, how she wanted to call it all off—all of this leaving and ensuing sadness. They had been happy enough, hadn't they? Yugi had proposed, for crying out loud—just like she had wanted.

Yet the thought of going through this same routine—the facsimile of an ideal relationship, with all the trappings of intimacy, but undeniably and inescapably hollow at its core—twisted at her stomach. No longer could Téa Gardner mindlessly and emptily go through the motions of what a healthy relationship should be.

He had lied to her, hidden things from her. He had taken money from her, and he had lied to her again.

Téa deserved better. And Yugi deserved to get better. And if this was the only way…

"Yugi," she began haltingly, making him jump slightly. She turned over on the bed to look up at him, her eyes shining with tears. Yugi saw her pained facial expression and grew pale.

"I'm moving out, and—and I'm calling it off. Our engagement," Téa clarified, her voice wobbling with uncertainty and preemptive remorse. What am I doing? Is this the right thing? Yet in her heart she knew it could be no other way—until she did this, until she was able to carve out her own space and Yugi was able to get better and carve out his, that the two of them being together like they'd planned would never work out.

Yugi sank down onto the bed next to her and buried his face in his hands. Don't cry. Oh god, don't cry. Still his shoulders shook with repressed sobs.

It took Téa everything she had to refrain from throwing her arms around him and kissing away his tears, yet once Téa Gardner had made up her mind, she wasn't particularly inclined to change it.

She saw it now, as she ought to have seen it before: Yugi, the way he was now, was nothing more than a shackle chaining her down. He was like a drug, keeping her in the dark and unable to change her life—she had given him chance after chance after chance, but so it went.

Yugi asked thickly as tears spilled out of his violet eyes, "is there anything I can do to change your mind?" He wrapped his arms around himself, feeling the despair cloak him, absorb his lungs and his brain and his heart in a muggy, impenetrable haze. He took one shuddering break, then another, as his hands and forehead broke out in a cold sweat; the droplets ran down his forehead and mingled with the salty tears sinking into the cracks in his lips, dripping off of his chin.

He was useless, worthless, impossibly so. He had lost it all. Even as she sat before him, looking just as haggard and miserable and empty as he, Téa was already gone.

Téa pressed her lips together in an attempt to stop the cruel, angry words from flowing out. "You lied to me. You made a foolish bet with Seto Kaiba, of all people—and you took the money that earned, not you, earned and tried to pay off the bet—god know what else you've done that I don't know about."

At each bitingly truthful accusation, Yugi winced and curled up into a tighter and tighter ball. Maybe I should just end it. End it all. Inject, smoke, pills, whatever. What's the fucking point?

Téa took another breath, trying to steady her voice. She laid a hand on Yugi's back, causing him to let out a piteous sob.

"Yugi—I think you n-need help." She exhaled quickly, thankful to have gotten the admission off her chest. Of all the things she was doing tonight, this was what she was surest of—Yugi needed help, more than she could ever hope to provide, to conquer the demons that threatened to rent him apart.

Yugi's shaking ceased, sending a chill through Téa's veins. What is he doing? What am I even doing?

She went on, bravely as she could. "Yugi—I got an advance again today. From Pegasus. I-I told him it was so that I could find a new place to live… but… but Yugi, I think you need to get professional help."

The personal help she had sought to provide throughout the years had proven inadequate. She alone was not enough—could never be enough. It had been wishful thinking and mere selfishness and vanity on her part to have even tried.

The truth of her words stung at him again, sending his stomach into endless twists and nauseated sloshing, his heart racing. Yet he knew it to be true—everything she was saying, that he needed mental and physical treatment in order to get better, to conquer his problems, his demons, to be deserving of her…

A wild hope suddenly gripped him, prompting him to ask: "But when I get clean, you'll come back, right?"

As soon as he said it he regretted it; Téa hung her head, biting at her lip. She didn't respond, yet she didn't need to. Best not to make promises of this sort when everything seemed perilously uncertain. Best not to say things that could one day fail to be true.

Yugi attempted to regroup. I can't give up—not like this. He reached out a hand and tapped Téa's chin gently, lightly, causing her to lift her head and sit up straight, back like an iron pole. "Téa, I love you…"

Téa looked impossibly wretched. "Yugi, you know I love you too—but we can't…"

Yugi went on, almost blithely. "…And—and I know that things have been hard for us lately, but… but look, I…" and here dug the ring box out of his breast pocket, fumbling slightly, and sank to one knee, opening it for her.

This was emotional manipulation of the purest, vilest sort, and both of them knew it.

Téa said nothing, instead closing the ring box and motioning for Yugi to stand up, which he did with some reluctance.

"It… it was worth a shot," Yugi said shakily, trying to make things lighter, as if the world as he knew it were not crashing around him where he stood. Téa merely turned back to her packing, a mite of anger seething in her eyes like a burning coal. How incredibly… did he really think I would…?

Yugi cleared his throat and sniffed. "You have no idea how awkward it's going to be to have to return this…" He chuckled unsteadily, wiping the remaining tears from his cheeks, failing to notice how Téa's body language was failing at concealing her growing frustration.

"Yugi…" and here Téa snapped her suitcase shut, satisfied with what she had managed to cobble together. She stood it up on the bed and rose, running to fetch her peacoat as Yugi struggled to catch his breath. This is real. This is happening. Téa is walking out, and she might never come back.

I need to change.

Another tear escaped his eyes, and Téa saw him swipe at it futilely, the wetness in her eyes revealing her own weakness, but the firm set of her lips conveying her resolve. She would do this. She had to—for both of them, or both would surely drown in this muck with no sign of recovery.

"Yugi, I'm going to leave the last ten thousand dollars for you. I'm going to sleep on Tristan and Serenity's couch until I can find a more permanent place to stay," Téa began, pulling the newest check, courtesy of Pegasus, out of her pocket and placing it gently on the bed where Yugi had been sitting. He followed her motions dumbly, as if struggling to grapple with the fact that, yes, this was happening, really, truly happening, and that nothing he could do would ever change this.

"Tomorrow morning, Serenity will come pick you up and take you to a place I've arranged for you to stay at. It's a rehabilitation center in the suburbs. I'm going to be taking Pegasus's job offer, so I'll be able to help pay for your care after I'm settled in my own apartment."

Yugi's face crumpled again. This was all too real and painful, having to hear Téa say words like rehabilitation center—like the worst of an awful dream thrown into stark relief. He buried his face in his hands again as Téa buttoned her coat and lifted her suitcase. She tried not to notice the very real pain with which he moved—couldn't help feeling that it was because of her. Because of her own selfishness, now, that she was leaving him when she was at his lowest…

No. No. Stop it. This is what he needs.

And for once, why not do what I need as well?

"But if I… I promise… I promise I'll ch-change, Téa…" Yugi sniffed as another tear ran down his cheek.

Téa wiped it away delicately, stomach tangling into knots at Yugi's increasingly pitiful behavior. "Yugi, you've made me so many promises, and broken nearly all of them. I—I love you, but I am not enough to fix you. And it's cruel of you to expect me to try anymore." She could feel the flush of his skin bloom under her touch, her own heartbeat thudding in her ears.

Yugi clutched at her hand, pressing her palm against his cheek, kissing the heel of her hand with a groan. This is it. If I let go…

Téa extricated her hand from his, wincing at how permanent this letting go felt.

… I might never hold her, never touch her like this again.

Téa surveyed their shabby apartment one last time before shaking her head, reinforcing her will, a rueful, sad little smile curling on her lips.

That smile just about broke Yugi's heart, but he merely responded with a quiet bow of his head.

"Well." Téa hoisted the suitcase off of their bed—his bed now, Yugi thought listlessly—and, despite herself, planted one last kiss on his cheek as a goodbye. Yugi shivered uncontrollably at this gentleness, this last act of love, before Téa slipped on her shoes and walked over to the door.

She fought down a dry sob as she grasped the handle. Yugi sank back down onto the bed, staring uselessly at a dirty patch of linoleum flooring.

"Goodbye, Yugi. I'll call you in a few months." She cast one look back towards the man who had destroyed what they'd had for long enough, who loved her and whom she loved, and whom she now had to save in this cruelest of ways.

Then she was gone.

Is this what freedom feels like? Despite the heaviness of the suitcase, Téa felt nothing but lightness, a heavy weight drifting off of her back and chest and floating into nothingness, as she made her way upstairs to Serenity's and Tristan's apartment.

This is where I begin.

Yugi felt the emptiness of the tiny apartment threaten to swallow him whole as her footsteps grew quieter and quieter, then completely inaudible. She had truly left him, for good.

He rose quickly, agitatedly, as if in a daze, and wiped away a fresh wave of tears as he took in that sordid check on the counter.

With that, plus Seto Kaiba's unheard-of generosity sitting in his pocket, not to mention the return he would get on the ring, he actually might have enough money to begin the treatment program Téa had spoken of. Huh.

He would give anything to change—anything to rid himself of his pain, his sorrow, his crushing doubt, and that ruthless side of himself that seemed to emerge in moments of trouble and take over his body, that part of himself that seemed even colder and more proud than Seto Kaiba—that part of himself that was the King of Games. The part of himself that would risk everything for the game.

That part that would not, could not go away with love alone. He knew this now.

Yugi rubbed his eyes, feeling the tender, puffy bags beneath them.

Idly, he wondered if he could get to the museum before the director had gotten her lecture too far underway.

Ordinarily, in as acute a moment of crisis as this, he would have chosen to get drunk in some seedy bar in an unsavory part of Domino City until Joey and Tristan recovered him and took him home to vomit out his mistakes.

But hadn't he promised to get better? Didn't he owe that, if not to himself, then to her?

He straightened his rumpled suit, ran a hand through his hair, and trudged out into the unforgiving night towards the parkway.

Chapter Text

"If I could please direct your attention to the screen, the D-CARP lecture is about to begin!" called Marik brightly from somewhere in the back of the lobby, his voice rising above the dull buzz of duelists quickly growing bored in their clusters of orientation groups.

The time was now around midnight, and the vivacious museum staff had displayed no signs of showing down. After Ishizu, Marik, and Odion discussed (in no great detail, of course) some of the basic theories and methods of analyzing paintings, drawings, and sculpture (several of the duelists nearly fell asleep where they stood during the discussion of semiotics and signifiers), now the time was coming for Ishizu's keynote speech—her eleventh-hour pitch, upon which the success of the D-CARP program clutched to, dragging its nails in and holding on for dear life.

Seto had watched the whole affair with no shortage of amusement. Did Ishizu choose to ignore the blatant lack of interest wafting like fumes from her audience, or was she merely more naïve about art than he had previously observed? He gazed upon her, how animatedly and passionately she addressed her little group of duelists, her hands gesturing purposefully and firmly to illustrate her points, the little breaths she had to take in between long flowing paragraph-length speeches, the determined glint in her eyes, the flush blooming on her cheeks…

Ishizu did notice that the duelists' interest, if there had been any to begin with, was severely, dangerously flagging—they started to adjust their suits, stopped bothering to cover their increasingly frequent yawns—and their fingernails had become extremely interesting of late. She bit back a sigh and made eye contact with Marik, who cleared his throat and bade everyone to direct their gaze to the screen set up by the grand marble staircase.

Mai, who was having none of this, leaned in towards Joey and hissed: "if it gets around town that I went to the D-CARP meeting, I'm never speaking to you again. Got that, pal?"

Ishizu replaced her bright smile just as it began to drop, eyes scanning the room as the duelists found folding chairs and took their seats, the chatter beginning to subside, their movements echoing and clacking in the high-ceilinged room.

As her gaze fell upon Seto Kaiba, who had taken a seat at the very back of the rows of seat, her breath caught on itself and her skin prickled. Her hand flew up to her button nervously before she could stop the weak gesture.

As if he knew what merely looking at him was doing to her, Seto rewarded her with a characteristic smirk, crossing his arms and legs and staring at her once again like he knew all of her secrets.

Ishizu smoothed her skirt and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. Odion walked over to her and handed her the remote for the projector, patting her on the shoulder supportively. Ishizu shut her eyes briefly, grateful for the gesture—her nervousness had begun to take ahold of her, in front of not only these miscreant duelists, waiting for her to fail, but in front of him, that bastard, that glorious asshole disturbing her peace in the back of the lobby. Her stomach clenched and unclenched; her back grew slightly damp as she tried to control her breathing.

Wasn't she supposed to be good at this?

The bored chatter grew louder until it sharpened into a noisy racket, threatening to pierce through her skull, through the ceiling, through the roof.

She opened her eyes. Suddenly, she heard a shift of bodies, and a husky voice from the back of the room call out:

"I would like to remind you, gentlemen and ladies, that you are no longer flipping playing cards in a sewer, but sitting in a museum. I trust that there will be no further unpleasantness or misbehavior," Seto drawled, sweeping his eyes over the duelists, who quickly fell silent at Seto's unexpected outburst. He looked at Ishizu meaningfully, who bowed her head quietly in thanks, before taking his seat.

There they sat—the five rows of duelists, with Marik and Odion flanking the seats like sentinels, smiling encouragingly.

Marik threw her a thumbs-up, making Ishizu break out into a small smile. She cleared her throat.

"Thank you for coming, ladies and—"

A pair of shoes squeaked on the marble floor as a short, spiky-haired duelist, forehead drenched in sweat, made his way to the back of the rows of seated duelists, his face ashen and slightly embarrassed at his outburst.

Seto's, Joey's and Tristan's eyes all slid to Yugi as he apologetically took his seat. A goofy grin nearly split Joey's exhausted-looking face in half as he met his best friend's violet eyes across the room. Yugi returned the smile quickly, his face growing appropriately serious and penitent as he turned his focus to Ishizu.

Seto registered Yugi's appearance with the smallest of smirks. He rose again, ignoring Ishizu's wide-eyed, slightly irritated stare at his continued uninvited speeches.

"And now that Yugi Moto, your beloved King of Games is here, I'm taking my leave," he announced, brushing invisible dust off of his suit jacket. He walked over to where Yugi sat, as tightly wound as a spindle, and looked down at him, crossing his arms.

Ishizu looked dumbstruck. What…? Where is he going?

The thought of him there, watching her attempt to change these duelists' lives, was difficult enough to bear. But the thought of him gone?

"I expect you will keep these duelists in line," Seto said icily. Yugi rose and looked up into those steely blue eyes, that cheeky smile appearing on his lips as he understood why Seto was doing all of this—the reason stood, clothed simply and elegantly, by the screen at the front of the room, her nerves beginning to fray.

Seto walked towards the double doors of the museum, fine shoes tapping musically on the floor. "Anyone who misbehaves will answer to Seto Kaiba personally," he hissed over his shoulder.

Then he was gone.

You could have knocked Ishizu over with a feather. Quickly, under Marik's watchful, fearful gaze, she recollected herself, willing her eyes not to drift to Seto's empty seat. Her throat felt abysmally dry.

She cleared her throat again and clicked the remote, causing a series of photographs of the museum to slide on the screen.

"Thank you all for coming to the Domino Museum of Art and Artefacts. As you are all well aware by now, my name is Doctor Ishizu Ishtar—" and here some duelists chuckled, for they had been fortunate enough to see her outburst on the street of Domino merely two days ago. A woman like that was not forgotten easily.

Ishizu blushed and continued, grateful that she didn't need notecards, that her memory of her presentation would not abandon her along with her confidence and stage presence, "I am the director of the museum. To your right is Doctor Marik Namu, an expert on ancient artifacts and hieroglyphs—" and here Marik waved cheerfully at the crowd—"and to your left is Mr. Odion Rishid, our chief preparator and conservator." Odion nodded his head in acknowledgement.

"When you first arrived, you were grouped with either one of my colleagues or with myself for a brief introduction to some of the methods and theories of examining, analyzing, and discussing art. I hope you have found our mini-lectures enlightening."

The room fell silent, unsure if she was joking.

Ishizu breathed in thinly and went on bravely. "In addition to my duties as the director of this museum, I, along with Mayor Devlin, who it seems had to leave suddenly earlier tonight, am in charge of the Domino City Arts Reformation Program. You might know of it as D-CARP."

The acronym was met with groans. Yugi, Joey, and Tristan responded to the dissenters with death glares, for which Ishizu was inexorably grateful.

"Duel Monsters has, without fail, proven to be more destructive for this city than its creator, Maximillian Pegasus, could ever have anticipated. Within the last several years before the Ordinances were passed, there had been repeated incidents in several already struggling neighborhoods that had caused Duel Monsters to fall out of favor."

She clicked the remote again, and the screen changed to show photographs taken of the original destruction of the museum wing that had led to all of this. The photographs were graphic and shocking, to say the least, and caused a few scattered duelists to gasp.

Clearly, while they had heard of the incident that had outlawed their precious game, not all of the duelists had had to deal with it personally the way Ishizu had.

She seized the moment, capitalizing on their stunned horror at the images. "On March 19, 2012, the Domino Museum of Art and Artefacts was dealt a terrible blow by a Duel Monsters game gone awry. The perpetrators were inexperienced and unprepared for the cards they had been using, causing millions of dollars worth of destruction to this very museum."

She surveyed the crowd, meeting Yugi's eyes. She narrowed hers firmly, causing his to widen. "I am sure you are all more than familiar with the replacement wing that is currently under construction?"

Here the duelists began to feel a mite of guilt clawing at their feet, working its way up their legs. Yugi in particular felt a bit ill, and dropped his gaze to his hands. It's funny. I never had to think about that until now… as if he could feel any more shameful in that moment. He considered darting up and bolting before the feelings of guilt overtook him, swallowed him whole in with its too-warm, feverish grasp…

But isn't that what Yugi normally would do—run away from his problems at the slightest sign of pain?

Wasn't he trying to change?

Yugi realized he was half-way between sitting and standing, and quickly adjusted his seat before too many people noticed.

Here came the much-debated guilt trip, one that Mayor Devlin, in all of their meetings of planning, had insisted upon including in the D-CARP presentation. Ishizu had felt it slightly exploitative and wholly manipulative, but still the mayor, charismatic and charming as ever, had convinced her that it could do no more harm than good for these depraved criminals.

She clicked the remote, and a highly disturbing photo of Ishizu sitting barely conscious in a hospital bed, buried under mounds of blankets and bandages, flickered onto the screen.

Here came the real gasps from nearly every duelist in the room. Yugi, for his part, thought he would cry at the image of this poor battered woman—nearly killed during her job, because of a game he had championed for so long.

Ishizu tried not to meet Marik's and Odion's eyes. They hadn't been particularly in favor of using this image to sell the program. "Shouldn't the merits of the program sell themselves, without all this propaganda?" they had asked.

The mayor had merely responded, teeth white and smile broad, "and which one of us is an elected official, with more than eighty percent of the popular vote, may I add?"

Still, they weren't especially pleased with Ishizu's acquiescence to the mayor's insistence.

"I'm sure several of you are familiar with this from the evening news," Ishizu said quietly, her voice almost falling silent. She forced herself to look past the duelists, past Marik and Odion looking annoyed at this trite gesture. "As a result of the events of March 19, 2012, I suffered a number of painful injuries, including several broken ribs and a pelvic fracture."

The room was deathly silent except for the breathing of the inhabitants.

"Additionally, over thirty people were hospitalized briefly due to the wave of destruction caused by this dangerous duel. Buildings were leveled for over a block. Luckily, there were no deaths.

"Need I go on?" She clicked the remote again, internally wincing at her necessary cruelty, to a close-up of both of the black eyes she had suffered as the debris from the incident had piled upon her and she hadn't moved for nearly two days, desperately trying to protect that painting she'd grabbed off the wall.

Ishizu smiled, only slightly unkindly, and clicked the remote again. "Luckily, the mayor is a merciful man, and does not want to punish those duelists who wish to be reformed more than they deserve." A series of photographs appeared on the screen of people painting city murals, leading museum tours, and building new picket fences in front of clapboard nuclear family homes—fairly lousy stock photography, but nonetheless properly illustrative of the kind of work that D-CARP championed. Several of the duelists began to murmur amongst themselves, pointing towards the images on the screen.

Whether with interest or with scorn, Ishizu couldn't tell.

"Dear duelists of Domino City, you are being offered a chance," she continued, her voice cracking on the end of the sentence. "Participate in the Domino City Arts Reformation Program, and you will not only be able to be actively involved in your community and help improve the city, but you will be able to apply for a greatly reduced jail sentence."

At greatly reduced jail sentence some of the more sympathetic, less successful duelists began to sit up straight and uncross their arms, attempting to look like worthy candidates. Hey, who wouldn't mind fewer years in jail for committing what was surely by now a grave felony?

Even Yugi seemed cautiously hopeful at this prospect. The last thing he needed was to suffer in a jail cell. Good god.

For her part, Mai Valentine scoffed, crossing her legs and barely covering a rude yawn. Why am I even here? I don't live in Domino anymore, and I can get away any damn time I please. They wouldn't put me in jail, anyway…

Ishizu noticed the spark catch with a tiny bit of hope bubbling in her chest. "Why suffer underground, playing card games that only erode your happiness and make you men and women on the run?" she called out, her voice speeding up and tripping on itself in a heat of passion, of excitement at getting out her long-suffering message.

Marik drew his hand across his throat wildly, mouthing "slow down, slow down"…

Ishizu blushed slightly, noticing some of the duelists looking askance at this sudden outburst from her and softened her tone reproachfully in response.

Oh god, please tell me this will work. If anything I do goes right, please let it be this.

"As a member of D-CARP, each of you will be responsible for performing arts- and infrastructure-related community service works around the city. Some of you might be museum volunteers here, while others of you could help paint murals or help paint and fix up homes in some of the more impoverished neighborhoods of Domino City. The possibilities for each and every one of you to give back to this city are nearly endless," she went on, a modest smile curling on her lips.

"Additionally, each of you ex-duelists will be assigned a counselor to help with the transition back to society and will be evaluated until it has been determined by the Mayor, your counselor, the city council, and by me, that you are ready to join the legitimate part of Domino City."

The duelists didn't seem much pleased at the idea of the evaluations or the counseling, registering their complaint with a collection of groans until Yugi, Joey and Tristan once again surveyed the scene with additional angry looks in order to restore the peace.

Ishizu clicked the remote one last time, fading the screen to black, and walked over to Odion, handing him the remote. She was rewarded with a cautious smile—Odion was not one for loud displays of emotion.

She made her way back in front of the rows of seats, but stood closer this time. He voice was low and melodic, as convincing and gentle as she could make it. The hard part was over—the tough sell was over, and whether it had worked was out of her hands. Now for the soft touch.

"I think now is a good time for each of you to share your stories about your lives as duelists, and why you wish to change your ways. Let's begin with…" and here her eyes darted among the seated duelists for some grasp at solidarity, and (perhaps in the most foolish move of her life) settled upon Mai Valentine, who pouted petulantly in the second row.

"Miss, do you have anything to share?" Ishizu asked Mai, who promptly broke out laughing at Ishizu's earnestness. She stood and cocked her hip, causing the men sitting next to her to swoon.

"The name's Mai Valentine, and honey, I don't live in Domino, and I'm not responsible for this. I just came here to play Duel Monsters with some actual contenders, not be recruited for the artsy-fartsy do-gooder squad. I'm sorry about your injuries, honey, but you shouldn't try to punish all of us duelists who happen to live here—just the stupid ones who have no clue what they're doing." Mai rolled her eyes and batted her lashes, wishing she'd sat on the edge of a row so that she could leave this childish scene now. As it was she was afloat, along with Ishizu, heads looming above a sea of men, most of whom were staring at Mai's exposed legs beneath her violet skirt.

Ishizu smiled patiently. This kind of resistance she was used to. "I find your sympathy refreshing, but please, Miss. Valentine…"

"And for another thing: don't act like this isn't the biggest joke this pathetic, piece of crap city has ever seen. I mean, you really think we duelists are some kind of pesky problem that you can fix by putting us to work? I hate to break it to you, honey, but you wouldn't catch me dead working construction or painting some fuddy-duddy mural, and I'm never setting foot in a museum again after this pathetic attempt at reformation," Mai taunted, crossing her arms over her cleavage and sitting back down.

Ishizu swallowed hard, trying to fight her annoyance. Hadn't anything she'd said gotten through? Was everyone going to be this apathetic—didn't the idea of reduced jail time mean anything?

Didn't the idea of trying to change for the better mean anything, or were these poor duelists too caught up in their ways to see that there could be a better way of living—living without fear from the law, and helping others with art?

She looked at her hands and sighed for a moment, hoping the endless worry wouldn't reveal itself on her face.

Yugi saw her distress and cleared his throat, drawing everyone's attention. He narrowed his eyes in Tristan's direction. "Tristan Taylor, if you would?"

Tristan sighed and stood, accepting his role as guinea pig with characteristic stoicism. "Well, I'm not much of a duelist myself—I've not played professionally for several years, just mainly do enforcements for Yugi's floating games. But hey, when Seto Kaiba bet us all a thousand dollars against Mai Valentine that she couldn't beat him in one-card draw…"

Here Ishizu bristled at the mention of Seto Kaiba, forgetting herself, her mouth dropping open in surprise. "I-I'm sorry?" She clasped her hands together tightly and tilted her head at the short-haired duelists standing above the fray.

Tristan went on blithely. "Yeah, well, you see, we were playing in the sewers when…"

Marik cracked under his breath to no one in particular, "that explains the smell."

"… Mai Valentine here had everyone nearly beat, and then Joey brings down Seto Kaiba and he bets us all a thousand dollars, and Mai five thousand, that he'll draw a card, and she'll draw a card, and his card would be stronger—if he loses, he pays, and if he wins…"

"I see…" Ishizu's cheeks colored, her voice growing low with resignation and a hint of disappointment. Had none of these duelists come of their own volition?

"So… they're only here because Seto Kaiba won them in a children's card game?" asked Odion in his deep, solemn voice. (He'd never thought much of Duel Monsters anyway—never seen the point, never seen the appeal for those players over twelve or so years of age.)

"So it would seem." Ishizu let out a sad, tense breath, nearly wringing her hands as she looked over the gaggle of duelists one last time, looking for a friendly, even open-minded, face in the crowd—someone waiting to listen?

Odion smiled and walked over to her, laying a large, firm hand on her shoulder. "You do realize, Ishizu, that this meeting, then, only came about because of Duel Monsters?"

"The irony is not lost on me, no," Ishizu responded almost drily, catching Odion's meaning, causing a few titters in the audience.

Marik piped up, walking over to where his colleagues stood, "well, then, I think Doctor Ishizu Ishtar is to be congratulated for her efforts, is she not?"

Ishizu blushed as the duelists began a half-hearted, mocking round of applause, even as her colleagues were trying to help lift her spirits. She rather wished she could sink into the floor, once again ruing the day she had agreed to take on this foolish, impossible project.

Tears threatened behind her eyes; she lifted a hand to her shirt button, not caring how utterly vulnerable she must have looked to the duelists in the audience who would never hear her.

Not one of them wanted to change. Not one—not even a lowly one. She had failed. She couldn't reach them—not with art, not with guilt, not with opportunity…

Well, what good was she, really?

Ishizu bowed her head towards her colleagues, unsure of whether they were encouraging her or mocking her along with the rest of them.

Suddenly, Joey Wheeler stood up abruptly, his blond, voluminous hair standing out from the sea of seated duelists. His face was rosy, almost beatific as he fumbled for the words to begin. It hadn't been the art, hadn't been the guilt-tripping, though that had arguably tipped it in the right direction—no, he thought, t had been Mai Valentine's coldness and flippancy, combined with Seto Kaiba's strange behavior towards this whole affair—his unexplained kindness towards both the director and towards Yugi, that had somehow sparked for Joey Wheeler an interest in the Domino City Arts Reformation Program.

If the program means so much to the city, and somehow got Seto Kaiba to act like less of a self-centered prick, then perhaps, surely, it did have some minute trace of merit? Could it? Couldn't it be so?

He shoved his hands into his pocket, looking down at the floor in front of him almost bashfully. Ishizu gazed at Joey's odd body language and ran over to him, smiling encouragingly, almost in shock at this man's almost violent need to stand up and speak, and praying that he wasn't another one in the vein of Mai Valentine's harsh words. I can only hope… "Yes, Mr…"

"The name's Joey…Joey Wheeler," Joey began, taking Ishizu's hand and placing his hand on her shoulder, thoughts whirring around in his mind and making him feel weak.

Should he? What would be the easy way out—play it off as a joke, make the director feel like a failure, and make every one of these suckers here feel like he was still one of their own?

Or did he say what was tumbling around wildly inside his mind, his heart, even if it could mean facing down some embarrassment at having been so easily sold?

He had to admit, the offer of reduced jail time certainly sweetened the deal. And carpentry? Well, he could certainly learn, and maybe he'd even enjoy building and fixing houses for kids like him, kids who'd had nothing growing up all their lives…?

The heavy doors to the museum flew open and in burst Detective Bakura, looking positively like the Angel of Death, eyes glowing yellow and hungry in their search, his crooked grin triumphant in his discovery of the spiky-haired King of Games. All eyes in the room flew to him; Yugi finally felt the urge to vomit out of sheer fright.

"Yugi Moto! You are under arrest for facilitating and abetting the unlawful playing of Duel Monsters…"

"If you please," cut in Ishizu coldly, not quite sure why she was compelled to stop this incredibly impolite member of law enforcement. "Can this wait? We are having a private meeting…"

Dective Bakura looked like he wanted to strangle her. "Fine, fine," he rasped, rummaging in his pocket for a cigarette.

He began to light one until Odion cried out, finally roused to emotion, "this is a museum, damn it! Please, show some respect. You can have your man as soon as we are done."

He walked over to the pale detective, his muscular bulk completely outstripping the scrawny, sticklike detective, who reproachfully replaced the cigarette back into his pocket.

Joey looked back at Ishizu's warm eyes begging him to speak, to say something helpful, anything at all to spur on support for this program.

He cleared his throat, praying for the right words to come into his head. "I just… I don't know, ya guys… I think that this has gone on long enough." He scratched his head, looking around the room at the glassy faces of his fellow duelists, until he met Yugi's eyes.

Yugi gave him a small smile of encouragement, for Joey was infinitely braver than he, to say the things that Yugi would never have the courage—or rashness—to say. That was something that Joey had always had over Yugi, his one advantage: while Yugi had always been predisposed to think, to measure each word he said to the point of suppressing his own thoughts, Joey essentially lacked such a filter, and thus any good idea Joey ever had came from his brain through his mouth in a pure, unadulterated fashion.

Joey continued. "C'mon guys—don't we owe this city something? We've lived here all our lives—we've worked here, grew up here, went to school here… ya guys, it's like I've had an epiphany or somethin'—what we've been doin' is harming Domino." The words, coming out of his mouth all jumbled and in a rush, managed to somehow ring true for a few amongst the duelists.

Perhaps it was one of their own saying them that gave them such power.

"I mean, have ya been to where I live lately? Domino used to be a great town, a great place to live—but now look at us, look at our city. Look at all problems we've caused by trashin' this town-you saw what Ishizu said. And honestly, you guys, I ain't never dueling in a sewer again—that was the last straw, and I ain't afraid to say it. And I know times are hard-nobody's got money, nobody's got jobs since Duel Monsters went underground, but ain't it time to try and go legit?"

He licked his lips and took a deep breath, aware he was treading on thin ice. "I mean, look at Yugi over here… he's the King of Games, for crying out loud, and holding his floating games so that all of you can try to reclaim those glory days is hurtin' him real bad. I've seen it," and here he looked at his old friend, memories of Yugi using and abusing, of his endless insecurities and tears and self-hatred clutching at his heart with a cold iron grip. "I know. The Yugi Moto that we all know is in trouble, folks—and if we can't change, how is he gonna?"

Yugi blushed, knowing that every word Joey said, however painful to hear, was true.

"And I mean, look at what Seto Kaiba's been doing! We all know that he won the bet, but I saw him give Yugi here ten thousand dollars in 'payment' like Yugi had won! Because we all know––" and here he looked meaningfully at Yugi again––"that Yugi ain't much of a friend of Seto Kaiba, and that Seto Kaiba would normally laugh in Yugi's face about beatin' him at anything… I mean, ya gotta think, what's gotten into this guy? Why would he do that, and why would he make such a crazy-ass bet against Mai over here just to get us to come to this dumb little meeting? No offense—" he nodded towards Ishizu, wishing he had a bit more of a verbal filter—"but come on, we all know that this D-CARP is gonna be important."

Just think of it. This could be the new legacy of a new Domino. Joey's face broke out once again in a beatific smile, one that began to catch on slowly amongst the other duelists—Yugi returning the smile with tears brimming in his eyes, then Tristan nodding his head in agreement, then Mako Tsunami several rows away snapping in agreement, and so on…

"Doctor Ishtar," continued Joey, extending his hand towards Ishizu, who looked at him, completely astounded that this rather rough-around-the-edges duelist had seemed to have an effect where she had had none. "Sign me up as ex-duelist number one."

She took his hand and shook it, a jubilant smile sneaking onto her face and breaking her façade of professionalism, her control. She took a deep, shaky breath, still in shock—even if no other duelist signed up, Joey Wheeler here had surely, somehow managed to plant a seed in their minds, something that they would think of often…

And she had her first member of D-CARP. Thank god, she had done something right. She whispered into Joey's ear, "Thank you, Mr. Wheeler… thank you so very much!" as she let go of his hand.

Detective Bakura's oily voice cut through the brief moment of celebration in the museum lobby unpleasantly. "Well, that's all very well and good, Mr. Wheeler, but that doesn't change the fact that Yugi Moto here held one of his floating card games in this very museum last night!"

He strode over to Ishizu forcefully, a wicked leer stretching his face in two. "Doctor Ishtar, I believe you saw these duelists here when they were running away scared, did you not?"

Ishizu looked into Detective Bakura's faithless, predatory yellow-brown eyes and steeled herself. She allowed herself one last sweep over the duelists, who largely looked crestfallen and afraid.

So this is what they fear. This man, this man of the law, is their monster under the bed.

He leaned in close towards Ishizu, who reeled internally from his foul breath. "Aren't these the men and lady you saw last night?"

Ishizu couldn't believe she was doing this. And yet…

She fixed Detective Bakura with a cold stare. "I've never seen these duelists before in my life."

The lie, contrary to her expectations, failed to cause even the slightest pang of guilt in her.

The duelists in the crowd looked at her, at this crazy curator, their ashen faces lighting up with gratitude.

Odion, who had clearly had enough of Detective Bakura, cut in. "If you'll excuse me, we would like to get back to our recruitment meeting," he intoned, making the detective both furious and visibly discomfited.

He scratched at his elbow, looking suddenly rather lost, and made his way around the rows of chairs, stopping by where Yugi Moto sat at the back. "Tell me something, Yugi Moto," Detective Bakura muttered, "is my name Bakura?"

"When last seen," Yugi responded evenly, rejoicing in how utterly shattered the cruel, feckless detective now looked.

Detective Bakura swallowed hard. "Thanks," he whispered, beginning to walk towards the doors of the museum, "I was beginning to wonder…"

Yugi waited until the detective had left the museum before rising to his feet, hands shaking slightly, and walking over to where Ishizu stood, looking for all the world like a radiant queen. He almost felt the urge to bow in her presence, before her magnanimity and majesty.

"On behalf of everyone here, Doctor Ishtar—thank you," he stuttered out haltingly, resulting in the duelists behind him beginning a true, rousing round of applause—applause and approval for Ishizu Ishtar, who had saved them all from Detective Bakura's unfathomable wrath.

Ishizu bowed her head in response, blushing brightly now.

Yugi took at deep breath, flooding in guilt before his last admission.

He met Ishizu's eyes. "And now, Doctor Ishtar, I must apologize to you. You see, like Joey said, I made a bet with Seto Kaiba that he could not take a certain woman with him to Manila. It was a stupid, foolish bet, and one that I very much regret making—though," he added perkily, "since Seto said he lost the bet, it didn't seem to do much harm…"

Here was the part where Ishizu was confused. Had Seto made the same bet about another woman, or…? No, that can't be possible…

But why would he lie about such a thing?

"I see." And here Ishizu blushed again at the memory of their date, and with a quiet smile lurking on her face.

Could it be that Seto Kaiba, as cold and ruthless as he was, had a heart after all?

Could it be that for him, the bet had become more than it had started out—that that feeling that had lingered between them on the plane, in the café, in his bed, was not entirely one-sided, not entirely a figment of her imagination—could it be that it was not a lie?

Had she judged him wrongly?

Ishizu snapped back out of her reverie as nearly every duelist in the room—those who had not spoken—raised their hands eagerly, waiting for her to call upon them to share their stories.

After the meeting ended and the last of the duelists, save Yugi, had trickled out of the museum (Joey had inspired five others to sign up that evening with his passionate words of support for D-CARP), and Marik and Odion had begun cleaning up the lobby—folding chairs, stacking plates, et cetera—Ishizu glanced around to make sure no one was looking, tapped Yugi on the shoulder bashfully, and whispered a question in his ear.

Yugi smiled, impossibly happily so, and whispered a response back.

The elevator to Seto Kaiba's penthouse emitted a clear, sharp ping, disrupting his packing.

After all, he had thought on the limousine ride back to the hotel, he was not one to stick around after his work had been done, after his welcome had been worn out. The jet was ready for whenever he needed to leave, and, since he had put the whole mess with Ishizu to bed with as much finality as he could muster, evidently the time to leave was the next morning.

Seto frowned at himself as he pictured her in the museum, surely giving a sermon to a group of uninterested duelists, her careful posture and façade fading quicker than she could handle—that was not something that he particularly needed to see.

"What is it, Roland?" he called out towards the foyer.

There was no response.

"Mokuba?" he tried again, dropping an armful of clothing onto the floor of the bedroom and walking into the foyer, the soles of his feet transitioning from the soft carpet to the slick, cold linoleum with some discomfort.

The door to the private elevator was open, and inside—

Ishizu Ishtar looked up at him, her eyes shy, beckoning, tempestuous—a whole world, constellations of layers of emotions flickered on her face as she took him in—unbuttoned white shirt, suit pants cast aside in favor of boxers…

Seto Kaiba felt himself blush, and shamefully so. "Ishizu—what are you—"

She stepped towards him, closing the gap between them entirely. "Shut up," she whispered, and pressed her lips to his.

Chapter Text

Seto inhaled Ishizu's intoxicating, heady scent and could think no more. His hands flew to her rear, pulling her hips against his as hers slid inside his shirt, curling up around his back.

She must clearly trust me again… at least enough for this.

Ishizu pulled back for a quick breath, and thought she would combust as Seto saw his opportunity to dip his lips to her neck, sending shivers throughout her body. Her breath came out in bursts, in gasps as Seto clenched handfuls of her skirt in his fists, dragging his hands to her thighs. Her skirt rode up her legs as he brushed his fingers under her skirt, trailing his nails inward and upward, making her practically whimper.

Hoping to maintain some semblance of control in this most delicate of situations, and feeling more than a bit irked by the faint chuckle she heard him utter at just how damned easy she was tonight, Ishizu drew one hand down from his back and ran it below his navel, dipping just below the waistband of those completely unnecessary boxers. She felt him sigh deeply, a certain satisfaction at his delicious reactions blooming in her chest.

God. This all felt so natural, so right, so integral to both of them—his groaning his need against her neck, her warm, lithe legs quivering in anticipation for him, for this. How could either of them consider anything else?

"Please. Now." It didn't matter which of them said it. Seto guided Ishizu to one of the foyer couches, a plush, sleek leather affair, and lowered her down onto her back. His eyes felt wet and starry as he slid his hands up those soft legs, slowly, teasingly, causing her to nearly cry out in frustration, until her skirt was bunched up around her waist.

He had to have a condom somewhere, dammit, he thought briefly as Ishizu disentangled herself from her blouse, her cheeks flushed and breasts heaving, leaving him rather distracted for a moment. Not that Seto Kaiba was not typically unprepared for such matters, being who he was, but he hadn't exactly expected this sort of affair to go on during this ostensible business trip in Domino City… the strangest things happened in the strangest situations, was the conclusion he came to as she guided his hands to the front clasp of her bra.

That sort of thing had stopped giving him trouble years ago. He dropped the garment on the floor and took in Ishizu's body, her soft stomach, and felt as if he had left Earth. God.

Ishizu pulled him down to her by the lapels of his shirt, enjoying the flash of delighted surprise in his eyes at her forwardness. She planted a searing kiss on his neck and helped him cast off the offending garment, reveling in the heat of his skin, the smooth planes of his chest and torso, the way he was being pushed further and further, the increased frenzy of his movements.

God, everything he was—it was just impossible to believe that it was all true, that she'd managed to hold such wild beauty all to herself, even for a moment. His hair was tousled, his eyes bright and wicked as they looked down at her—oh, the gentle, insistent movements of his long fingers on her thighs… it was a miracle she didn't come undone at any moment.

Seto got in a kiss, sucking on her lower lip and making her giggle wantonly, before a nagging thought tugged at his mind, demanding attention. "Say," he breathed into her ear, before nipping at her collarbone, "how did the meeting go?" That farce? He was sure that it had been an utter failure—in what world would a group of scummy duelists suddenly turn to art and community service as their salvation.

Ishizu flushed again, gasping as Seto unbuttoned her skirt, making her entire body quiver. Lower, oh god, lower… "It actually went quite, quite well… we got se, several volunteers after Joey Wheeler made, made his case…"

Seto lifted his lips from her, his face blanching. Well, fuck. She's played right into Devlin's hands.

Clearly his plan of sending an anonymous tip to the Herald in a few months down the line was not going to be sufficient anymore.

He slid off of her and onto the marble floor, any trace of arousal having fled his body, replaced with apprehension and a trace of… fear? What a ridiculous emotion for Seto Kaiba to feel, and yet it was not an inaccurate description of how his heart beat violently, erratically, in his chest.

Ishizu snapped up, groping for her shirt, breath beginning to steady. What is going on? What just happened? She looked up at Seto, who had risen to his feet and begun pacing hurriedly throughout the foyer. Her cheeks paled with anxiety.

"Seto? What is going on?" She couldn't keep a tinge of annoyance out of her voice. They'd been having such a good time—and why would Seto have this kind of fraught reaction upon hearing of her success with D-CARP? It just didn't make sense—was he threatened?

Feeling more than a mite bit embarrassed, the fog of lust having lifted so abruptly, she swung around on the couch and began getting dressed—a sad set of gestures that did not escape Seto's notice, even as he was becoming completely agitated.

Seto crossed his arms and sighed, his voice skill husky and unsteady. He couldn't meet her inquisitive gaze, choosing instead to address her elbow. "Well, Ishizu, you've kind of made a mess of things, haven't you."

His mind was racing—as if he always should have known… shouldn't he have pieced together that Ishizu's success with D-CARP would not only continue the Mayor's unchecked, maniacal influence over the city and his eventual (highly illegal and unquestionably unethical) Dungeon Dice Monsters venture, but continue to criminalize Duel Monsters, only continuing the economic downturn of the city that few of the elites seemed to actually care about?

How had he not put it together sooner? Was he growing idiotic? God, he hoped not.

How was he going to tell Ishizu that the work she had devoted herself to for all these months, had suffered and slaved over, agonized, planned, wheedled, begged for—how could he tell her that the very program she had pioneered and was championing as zealously as anything was actively harming the city?

He couldn't even look at her now—couldn't take in the woman sitting near him, so near in body, but so close to leaving again, feeling betrayed and hurt by his unending spite.

Bitter anger rose in his mouth—anger at their unfortunate situation, how every time it seemed as though things between them (what a childish, disgustingly romantic concept, but there you go) could go smoothly for once, some other ridiculous force beyond their control would shatter what frail trust they had managed to patch up in that moment; at the cruelty he knew he would have to deal out shortly, at the way her impossibly strong and lovely face would crumple at his words; and, mostly, anger at the mayor. That fucking bastard. And several other equally obscene epithets crossed his mind.

It took gall to do what the well-loved Mayor had done—to capitalize on the growing unrest over Duel Monsters, to turn Ishizu's personal tragedy at the game's hands into his own plan for governance, to do all of this—all of this lying, all of the championing of harmful ordinances and restrictions against cards and Duel Disks, creating a seemingly never-ending downward spiral—all to sell his own rip-off game. Gall and careful, crafty planning.

His greed knew no bounds. Seto almost chuckled to himself at that thought; surely many would describe Seto Kaiba in just that way. Yet the discovery of such a kindred spirit left him feeling cold.

And befriending Ishizu like that, gaining her trust, and manipulating her goodwill, her passion, her drive for art, in order to further his agenda, in order to enjoy an uncontested opportunity to sell his asinine dice game… Seto felt ice settle in his veins.

While Seto Kaiba had done cruel, ruthless things for gain, for profit, the impending misery of Ishizu Ishtar turned the words over in his mouth before he could say them, before he could explain.

This whole mess was truly much larger than the either of them could rightfully be called upon to handle, and yet they were the only ones who could.

Well, he supposed, the "we" was conditional on how well she took all of this.

"Excuse me, Seto Kaiba? I've made a mess of things? Why, how utterly rude of you to say—how so?" Ishizu's voice cut through his reverie, his internal monologue, with all the brittleness of glass shards.

He let out a long sigh as he finally met her confused, indignant gaze. She had stood up and finished pulling on her clothes; her hand was giving away her nervousness, having drifting up to the top button of her blouse and abusing it with a careless fury.

"Well, Ishizu, I'm not exactly sure how to say this in a way that will not make you become completely irrational…" Well, that was quite the start there. Idiot.

He regrouped, wondering idly where his shirt had gotten off to. Ishizu looked nearly livid; Seto gathered that her patience for his behavior was fraying quicker than she was letting on.

"Basically… your D-CARP program is a tool of the mayor, and you've been made a pawn this whole time." God, was there any way to say this without sounding like the cruelest of cruel men?

Ishizu felt sick. Her throat closed up; her stomach twisted in knots. No. No. It cannot be true. He must be wrong—he must be lying.

When has he been wrong before?

Why would he lie?

She could feel an acute stress headache come over her; her stomach dropped with anxiety. A shiver trickled over her skin as every muscle in her body seemed to clench up tightly. Her mouth tasted of blood—she'd bitten too hard on the inside of her cheek, tingeing her saliva a rusty, salty-bitter red.

She swallowed the blood and shuddered, willing herself to regain her blessed composure. I cannot cry. I cannot humiliate myself in front of this man more that I already have.

"What do you mean?" When she found her voice, it was low. Controlled. Composed. Curated. She smoothed her skirt over her legs and resumed picking at the top button with her left hand, her right hand curling around her body as if to give herself an embrace, to hold herself together.

Seto looked pained as he muttered, "I met with Mayor Devlin today—that's the reason I even came to Domino in the first place. He wanted to speak with me about a matter of business with KaibaCorp… I found out his whole damned plan."

He sat down in one of the swivel chairs in the foyer, sure that the floor would abandon being steady for him in that moment.

"I know you hadn't been here long before—before the incident with the Duel Monsters game and the museum, but what do you know about the relationship between this city and Duel Monsters?" He cocked his head as he waited for her response; Ishizu opened her mouth but said nothing, her brow furrowing.

What did she know? Why does it matter? Haven't I suffered enough at the hands of that foolish, dangerous, criminal game?

"I don't see how that is relevant, Seto Kaiba." The continued use of his full name, spoken smoothly and dispassionately, did not go unnoticed; he felt an annoying pang.

"Well, you see, Duel Monsters had long been one of the largest economies in Domino City. KaibaCorp was making a killing selling new hologram technology that I designed—all top of the line, cutting edge, of course. Industrial Illusions had been considering opening a location here—Industrial Illusions, of course, is the company that owns the rights to Duel Monsters. And of course, you surely must have heard of our own hometown hero—" and here he spat out the name as if it were poison on his tongue—"Yugi Moto, not to mention myself, as I was the former champion before that runt—anyway, it its height, around seven years ago, one-in-ten adults in this very city was either employed by KaibaCorp in the Duel Monsters division, or involved in selling merchandizing or trading cards—for example, I believe, Yugi Moto's own grandfather used to run a gaming shop." He delivered the lecture drily, like a professor, leaning back and lacing his hands around the back of the chair.

Of course the memory of the golden days of Domino had no effect on Seto Kaiba's cold heart at all. Of course not…

Ishizu's eyes narrowed. "I see, but that doesn't change…" Duel Monsters may have been the lifeblood of this city, but surely it was a poisoned blood…

Seto pressed his lips together in unbearable annoyance before continuing. "You see, Duel Monsters used to have a veritable monopoly on the gaming scene in Domino, but it wasn't all that much of a problem, legally speaking, because it provided many opportunities for employment across various sectors of the economy." Herein was the laying of the groundwork—the information she would hopefully put together first so that he wouldn't have to tell her positively everything—he was no teacher, after all; she would surely figure it out almost as quickly as he had. "Of course, there were competitors, but they all failed, hah, spectacularly."

"Yes, but the game is—it's dangerous! You know this as well as I do, Seto Kaiba. You designed the holograms, the shockwave effect…" Ishizu remembered the incredible pain that had felt like it would rend her body in two—the hours upon hours spent crouching under feet of debris, concrete, steel, dust encasing her lungs as she clutched that Vermeer close to her chest as if it were the only real thing in the world, the only thing that would save her… the weeks lying in the hospital bed… that was what Duel Monsters meant to her. Nothing more—how could he expect her to see his story as valid, when even now she still felt phantom pains from the broken bones she had sustained as a result of that one fateful duel?

Seto closed his eyes to avoid seeing the pain that threatened to crack Ishizu's face apart into a mess of tears. And to be honest, in that moment, he regretted all of it. The work at KaibaCorp, the technical design, the perfection—it had led to the anguish of this woman, this woman sitting across from him, and that thought turned his previous victories unexpectedly…sour?

Was this…?

He couldn't even think the word at a time like this, when Ishizu felt further away than ever.

"Yes," he managed, his voice coming out weaker than he would rather have liked. "Yes… I did do that. And… I—I regret causing you that pain, however indirectly." That will have to suffice.

Ishizu raised an eyebrow despite herself. Seto Kaiba, apologizing? Surely the world was coming to an end.

He went on, continuing in his usual bored drawl. "So of course, when you've got wide, unfettered access to a potentially dangerous game, accidents will happen. The city council and our beloved Mayor Devlin didn't do much when the incidents were confined to the less desirable neighborhoods, but when the museum was hit… suddenly, controlling and ending Duel Monsters became the goal, with you as the poster girl for the movement."

Ishizu leaned in towards him, feeling fury rise again in her chest. "Do you mean to say, Seto Kaiba, that the mayor used what happened to me to push Duel Monsters out of legitimacy?" What an absurd idea. What reason could he possibly have had?

"That's exactly what I'm saying, Ishizu." God, why couldn't she catch up faster? This was all getting slightly irritating on his end—what, did he have to spell it out for her like he would for a child? Wasn't she supposed to be brilliant?

"But why would he do such a thing, Seto Kaiba? What stake do you think Mayor Devlin could possibly have had in outlawing Duel Monsters in Domino City?" His story was getting more and more ludicrous by the moment. Why hadn't she left the penthouse already, and be done with this foolishness, his coldness, his rudeness?

"I'm not done, Ishizu. What I'm trying to say, if you'll grant me the fucking time to get the words out, is that Duke Devlin most definitely had a stake in ending the legitimate business of Duel Monsters in this city." Yes, his patience with her refusal to believe him was definitely wearing thin, dangerously so. He ran a hand through his hair in agitation. "As he so kindly put it for me during our meeting earlier, the market was too strongly dominated by Duel Monsters; there was no room for competitors in the market. And with the power as mayor of Domino City, what better way to advance his own interests by reducing the one thing that was standing in the way of his financial gain?"

Ishizu raised a hand to her mouth, eyes widened, heart careening wildly, uncontrollably, in her chest. He's not saying… it cannot be true, what he's implying…

"Are you saying Mayor Devlin was one of those businessmen with competing interests?" she murmured, not wanting to believe it—could her benefactor, the charming, kind, popular mayor, have anything to do with this sort of thing?

And yet the pang at the base of her belly revealed her own doubts.

"That is precisely what I am saying, Ishizu. Very good. You seem to have finally caught up." Seto couldn't help how nastily, how condescendingly the words came out; he instantly regretted them. "Duke Devlin, back in the day, was a small-business tycoon who had created a game called Dungeon Dice Monsters, a fairly derivative rip-off of Duel Monsters. He'd had a brief partnership with Industrial Illusions for the rights to the Duel Monsters creatures, spells, traps—but even with the rights, the technology, he couldn't sell a damn thing. It was a failure for him—I can't believe I didn't put the pieces together until I was standing in his office." Clearly his intellect seemed to be abandoning him.

Ishizu looked down at the ground, desperately trying to stop the tears from welling up behind her eyes. No. Please. Not now. Not in front of him.

If what he was saying was true, then she'd been a pawn in the mayor's hands, nothing more than a chess piece he'd controlled and manipulated to serve his own end. Her drive, her hard work, her curatorial expertise… the pain she'd suffered the day of the incident… he'd seen it all as nothing more than the means to his ultimate end, to sell his damned dice game without competition from Duel Monsters.

The nights he'd spent at her hospital bed, the hours they'd spent carefully crafting each aspect of D-CARP in order to weed out the duelists and get them to stop playing that awful, dangerous game—his sympathy, his care for her, his desire to improve the city, to improve the safety and health of his citizens… none of it had been true.

Yet Seto's tale was so absurd that it all had to be true.

Didn't it?

"So what now? What am I supposed to do? Whether or not what you're even saying is true, let alone feasible, the fact remains that––" and here Ishizu actively blinked back tears, remembering those awful, endless hours spent trapped under debris, sure she would die before the rescue team found her—"the fact remains that Duel Monsters is dangerous. I don't have the same history with this city that you do, Seto, but… but even as you said, I wasn't the first victim of these games. Thank goodness I was the last."

"You aren't the last, Ishizu—the loss of these games has created thousands of new victims—people without jobs, people who cannot feed their families, people who are living in squalor—"

"Why do you even care?" The question was like a knife in Seto's heart. She'd seen right through him early on, he realized—perhaps even on the day they'd met. God, it seemed like ages ago.

Seto Kaiba was hardly one to grieve over other people's suffering. And yet….

"Well, I would have thought you would care, Ishizu, since your D-CARP program is only furthering the rationale that is allowing the mayor to destroy this city before he can sell his damned game." He crossed his arms and returned her dark blue glare, her acute distrust, in full measure.

"Are you saying I don't? This is what D-CARP is meant to address, Seto! The duelists enrolled in D-CARP will help repair the city!"

"Yes, but they won't be able to stop the fact that the lack of Duel Monsters is what is causing more problems than the game ever did!" Seto pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers, willing himself not to lose his temper.

He had practice dealing with those as cynical as he, but he was most unpracticed at dealing with a true zealot, especially one like Ishizu, who had stood, eyes shining, fists clenched in frustration. In her frustration, her fury, she was nearly radiant, just shy of being a goddess.

Ishizu straightened her spine and looked down her nose at him. Surely her angry expression and body language could conceal the confusion that gnawed at her, threatened to eat her alive and spit her out, all cold and mangled, and unable to recover from the blow.

If what he was saying was true… then she'd not only been a pawn, but she'd been a tool of the mayor, actively harming the city doing what she believed had been the right thing. Surely art was not the culprit—art was good for the soul. Good works are good for the soul. Hadn't she just wanted to help the downtrodden duelists, these outlaws who wouldn't emerge from the shadows without the D-CARP promise of reduced jail time for their crimes.

Duel Monsters is dangerous. That fact still remained—Seto's own technological advancements for the game had created to its increased power to harm others.

Couldn't she save those poor duelists with art, the way art had once saved her from her own despair?

Had any of them needed saving, art or no art?

She wasn't sure anymore. And Ishizu Ishtar did not take uncertainty well.

"Then what am I supposed to do, Seto Kaiba?" Her voice was frost. She crossed over to him and leaned over, eyes boring into his intently. "What am I supposed to do?" Her voice was softer this time, bordering on a whisper.

"I… I'm not quite sure, myself." Seto similarly disliked this feeling as well. Having the knowledge of what the mayor's machinations was one thing, and yet no plan of attack had dawned upon him as he'd anticipated it would.

Clearly his time away from Domino had been making him go soft.

"Duel Monsters… Duel Monsters is dangerous, Seto… that is something that I cannot let go of in my mind…" Ishizu whispered, looking away from his gaze towards his chin; meeting his intense gaze was too painful.

Did her refusal—no, inability—to change her mind on this matter make her selfish, impossibly so?

Was she going to be the last obstacle to stopping the mayor holding this city hostage?

"Ishizu… Duel Monsters can be made safer. I promise," began Seto, suddenly alert and full of fear at the word "promise" leaving his lips so easily, so wantonly, as if making a promise to this woman was easy. Was it?

He found it hard to gaze upon Ishizu's crestfallen, frightened face without feeling something.

"I—I promise that if we can do this, if we can get rid of that bastard mayor, then we can work on making sure Duel Monsters is played responsibly." It shouldn't be too much of a task—the police force surely have confiscated all of the Duel Disks, save those belonging to Yugi and his goons?

Tabletop Duel Monsters, or even arena Duel Monsters, would have to suffice.

"But you do believe me, right?" His voice was quiet, nearly inaudible, vulnerable. He held his breath, sure its unsteadiness would give away just how humiliatingly weak he felt.

Ishizu blinked and pressed her forehead against his sweetly, gently. She was nearly alarmed at the openness, and had to suppress a gasp at the danger, the blooming sorrow in his eyes.

Do I believe him?

How could I not?

She pressed a gentle kiss to the side of his mouth and nodded. Seto's eyes returned to their normal haughty state, relief evident in his posture.

Although Seto Kaiba had always abhorred being part of a team, something about the prospect of for once being on the same side, for once, as this incredible woman made him want to reconsider his earlier position on the matter

Ishizu pulled her head away and smoothed out her clothes again. Do we confront the mayor? Do I call for a press conference, or try to quietly end the whole program? What is the best way to do all of this, and spare the museum as much as I can?

Should I… do I need to resign from the museum? She did not particularly want to go down that road.

Seto rose from his chair and began hunting for his shirt. Ishizu noticed his questing movements and spotted the garment peeking out from behind a couch cushion—how it had gotten there, neither of them were sure. She extricated the rumpled mass of white fabric and handed it to him, almost regretting doing so as he buttoned it up.

And even if we manage to pull the plug on D-CARP with minimal red tape, how do we go about fixing the underlying problems?

I mean, realistically—while I'd love to stage a coup and throw the mayor into a guillotine setup, it's not exactly my style. Seto idly wondered where the nearest pair of his pants was, mind whirring at this impending challenge.

Ishizu, quite suddenly, emitted a yawn. "What time is it?" she asked almost drowsily, hastening to stifle another one. The large windows at the other end of the foyer revealed that it was still night, the midnight blue of the sky only just hinting at the gentle pinks of sunrise.

Seto looked around briefly for his cell phone, finding it on the modern glass and oxidized steel desk by the elevator. "It's 2:25 am… it's not like we can do much now, anyway… We can move on in the morning," he concluded, struggling to fight off a yawn—must have caught Ishizu's exhaustion, despite his earlier nap.

All these stressful late nights were going to fuck up his skin.

Ishizu registered the late hour, sleep setting into her bones quicker than she would like. She arched her back in a delicate, graceful yawn, which did not escape Seto's keen notice.

Seto dropped the phone back onto the desk and crossed over to Ishizu, whose cheeks were rosy with exhaustion, with impending slumber. He moved his hands to her waist and pressed a kiss to her temple.

"Do you want to go to bed, Seto?" Ishizu murmured, feeling his touch stir her again. Like clockwork—her reactions to his man were getting practically obscene and impossible to curtail. And he knew it, his lips curling into a sly smile despite his tiredness.

In response, she lifted her hands to his neck and trailed her nails down towards his collarbone, making him shiver deliciously.

"Mmm…" Seto bent his head down and brushed his lips against her neck, making her let out a thick sigh as she pulled him closer. "I'm not sure, Ishizu," he said teasingly, his voice coming husky, his breathing beginning to grow labored at her ministrations. "I don't know if you're in the mood enough…" he finished, eliciting a gasp as he nipped at the tender flesh.

"Don't make me ask again," Ishizu nearly moaned, causing Seto to chuckle at her wantonness, as she led him back to the couch.

Ishizu woke up first in Seto's bed, a dreamy, slightly guilty smile curling on her lips as she remembered how they'd gotten there. Luckily Seto had been able to find a box of condoms among his possessions, or had Roland put it there? Neither of them had been able to figure that one out, and both had been rather occupied at the time.

Ah, the vigor of fresh lust and discovery. So far, neither of them had grown bored with one another, and managed to communicate in as heated and witty ways with their bodies as they had with their words.

She felt his gentle snoring by her ear, his warm arm thrown across her belly, and disentangled herself, wondering what time it was. The two of them had planning to do—it wouldn't do to lie around in bed all day.

That could come later, she thought with a mildly cheeky inward smile.

She studied Seto Kaiba for a moment, Seto Kaiba asleep, those piercing blue eyes that saw and judged everything closed, fluttering, and how he slept: curled up on his side like a child, back turned towards the window. His face was remarkably smooth and untroubled in sleep—Ishizu supposed that in his dreams, there was little room for the ruthlessness that occupied most of his brain.

It was like she was seeing that shy yet open Seto Kaiba who had shown her the very orphanage where he grew up—the Seto Kaiba who had a heart, who could trust, who could…

That all seemed like ages ago.

Ishizu stood and stretched, then walked into the foyer to hunt down her clothing. Spotting Seto's white button-down by the couch, she giggled to herself as she slid it over her frame, the sophisticated scent of his cologne filling her nose.

How like—how like a couple they were becoming—not just the physical intimacy, but at last they were united in a common goal, if only for a while before some clash would get in the way of harmony again.

Somehow, though, she felt as though such clashes would be less trouble to handle than she'd previously thought.

Seto woke up in limbs all tangled up in the thousand-thread count sheets, as the sunlight streamed in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. He groped around for Ishizu's warmth and discovered that she was not there. He registered this fact as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes, hearing Ishizu's low, professional voice in the foyer.

Her voice stopped and she walked into the room, holding a tray of plain toast and coffee, clad only in his white button-down, face blushing either from the steam or from this ridiculously domestic gesture. Seto thought he was in heaven.

"Room service?" Ishizu placed the tray on the nightstand and bit into a piece of toast. Not a crumb spilled. Incredible. "Wake up, Seto. We have to decide how best to move forward." She sat on the bed next to him, crossing her legs and causing Seto to lose his train of thought.

Seto yawned and squinted in the sunlight as he sat up and reached across Ishizu for one of the cups of hot coffee. He took a sip, reveling in how expensive it must be—something like a twenty-dollar cup for this Guatemalan forest, shade-grown coffee. Perhaps it was best if Ishizu didn't find out his expensive tastes in everything.

"So I've decided that before we do anything regarding the mayor, we need to get in contact with Joey Wheeler and the other duelists who joined D-CARP last night and break this news to them gently—that D-CARP is… is shutting down." Her voice grew faint as she thought of the months of work she'd put into the project, utterly wasted.

Seto placed a hand on her thigh in an attempt at comfort, which Ishizu appreciated more than she would ever let on. He'd had to abandon countless projects at KaibaCorp, and it was never easy to admit the hardest thing to admit—that sometimes, talent and genius was not enough. Often it was, through sheer force of will, as well, but sometimes it wasn't.

Seto Kaiba hadn't made it to where he was by letting failures get to him. Ishizu Ishtar could not stand to do the same.

"I think I should call a press conference for this afternoon," Ishizu went on, her voice slightly somber. "Invite the mayor, pretend everything is all right, and then…"

Seto caught on to what she implied, not particularly liking it. "Ishizu, that's awfully reckless of you—if we expose him live, on-air, without any way of getting the upper hand, who knows what kind of shit he'd pull to get us arrested, to get you deported, even…"

"You really think he would go that far?"

"Ishizu, you haven't seen this man's true colors—I have," stated Seto rather coldly, remembering how the carefully crafted mask had slipped.

Ishizu sighed, knowing that once she had trespassed onto his bad side, she would be unable to escape the reach and wrath of Mayor Devlin—unless she managed to put him away for good—discredit him entirely. "It's a risk I'll just have to take… unless you've got a better idea?"

Suddenly, Seto leapt out of the bed, nearly overturning his cup of coffee and causing him an immense amount of pain. I've got it.

This is it. This is the way it can work.

If only his hacking skills and Ishizu's poker face were up to the task, of course.

Adrenaline flooded his veins, giving him energy, strength, gall, even joy. Nothing pleased Seto Kaiba quite like getting the upper hand on someone who deserved it, than serving a dish of revenge to someone who most deserved it.

Ishizu looked at his abrupt movements with no shortage of surprise and a mite of alarm. "Are you quite all right, Seto? Please—put down the coffee. You are making me nervous."

"Ishizu, make the calls you need to make to the ex-duelists, and then call the mayor to set up a press conference for this afternoon. I have a plan—if we can pull this off, we can expose the mayor."

Several hours later, Ishizu sat outside the museum beside Mayor Devlin behind a plastic table covered with a tablecloth, having showered, clad in a black suit jacket, cream-colored, high-necked blouse and long black skirt, hair pulled into a low bun—looking perfectly professional, like nothing was wrong.

The camera crews were setting up before the table, microphones being tweaked and calibrated. All of the local news stations who had tried to intrude upon the meeting the previous night were in attendance—a particularly telegenic reporter sat at the end of the table beside the monitor, practicing her vocal articulations as her teleprompter was warming up.

When she'd called the duelists—Seto had had to find the number of the Baby Dragon to best reach Tristan, and, by extension, Joey—she'd been truly sorry about this whole affair. When she'd heard Joey's rather disappointed response, despite his best efforts to cover up his emotions, she'd nearly cried. Yet she'd pressed on bravely, explaining, in hushed tones, what exactly she and Seto were doing, and how they planned to help the duelist community in ultimately more concrete ways than the noble but misguided D-CARP initiative by exposing the mayor and hoping to turn public opinion against him and towards Duel Monsters once more. Still, despite her best efforts at being unselfish, a lump formed in her throat as she said goodbye to all of her hard work, watching it disintegrate before her eyes.

She'd then called Marik and Odion and explained the situation in halting tones, knowing that she was also throwing away substantial amounts of their work. Odion had taken it rather better, in his usual stoic way, while Marik rather wanted to hunt down the mayor with torches and pitchforks in that old-fashioned way, making her laugh despite her apprehension. How dare that bastard use Ishizu Ishtar's personal tragedy and suffering for his own greed and gain, and nearly throw the city into an economic depression along the way? It was almost unfathomable.

Yet the plan she and Seto had concocted had to be at least a decent one—it was the only such opportunity they would have to catch the mayor off-guard on live television, anyway.

Let it be said that Seto Kaiba had a flair for the dramatic.

When she'd at last paid a call to the mayor, he'd picked up mid-way through the first ring, his voice solicitous and charming as ever. Ishizu had had to fight the nausea brewing in her stomach as she'd make her voice as sweet and honeyed as possible, telling him of their success the previous night and suggesting a short press conference, to be broadcast on all the local news channels, for that afternoon. Not one to shy away from positive press after the near-fracas with the press the previous night, who had practically chased him away from the museum until he'd managed to quell their suspicions, Mayor Devlin agreed readily and agreed to meet her at the Museum at 3 pm.

There went the new Devlin wing of the museum, she supposed, with a rueful sigh.

Seto, for his part, had taken his seat on the hotel bed, pulled out his laptop and begun hacking into the Mayor's files, as he'd planned to do sometime in the future. The quickly approaching deadline of 3 pm lent a sense of urgency to his keystrokes as he tried to bypass the heavily guarded security around the City Hall server. Yet Seto Kaiba was a skilled hacker, and had conquered greater, more powerful obstacles than the Domino City Municipal Department Services and their well-crafted, if easy to massage, security system.

A bead of sweat escaped his hairline. He wiped it away as he finally found what he sought—the mayor's confidential financial records, all documented in a virtual ledger as if for Seto's perusal.

Seto almost laughed aloud. Perhaps a paper ledger would have been smarter for the honorable mayor to employ.

After that bout of internet warfare, he anticipated no problem hacking the teleprompter and supplying his own text for the reporter to read out loud mindlessly.

Mayor Devlin cast a wide, charming smile at Ishizu, who returned it only slightly coolly, and said, "well, Ishizu—I mean, Doctor Ishtar, it's now 3, and it would seem as if the camera crews are ready. Would you like to begin?"

Ishizu bowed her head and slid a glance at her cell phone. There was one new message from an unidentified number (Seto had managed to send it from his computer, hardly a difficult feat):

"Check one."

"I think you're quite right, Mr. Mayor. Let us begin," replied Ishizu, her heart in her throat at this upcoming deception, and turned to the camera in front of her face, a small smile blooming on her lips.

"Hello, Domino City, we're coming to you live from outside the Domino Museum of Art and Artefacts, where Mayor Duke Devlin and Doctor Ishizu Ishtar have an important message to deliver to us about the progress of D-CARP," beamed the reporter, reading the words clearly off her teleprompter.

"Now, for those of you not in the know, D-CARP stands for the Domino City Arts Reformation Program, and is an important keystone in the city's fight against illegal Duel Monsters games as well as a tool for reforming those duelists who are still playing the game illegally. Isn't that right, Doctor Ishtar?"

Ishizu took her cue, disregarding her own teleprompter. Even when she was nervous, even at such a precarious time as this, Ishizu Ishtar did not need cue cards to deliver a speech. "That's right. In addition to Director of the Domino Museum of Art and Artefacts, I am the Domino City Arts Representative, and for the last several months, Mayor Devlin and I—" and here she turned to the mayor and shared a faux-conspiratorial smile for the benefit of the cameras— "have been hard at work creating the D-CARP program to help rebuild this city and bring the last of the illegal duelists out of the shadows. I am happy to report that as of the recruitment meeting last night, we have six ex-duelists who have agreed to join the pilot year of the program."

The reporter and the mayor clapped brightly in response; Ishizu lowered her head in acknowledgment.

Any time now…

Seto watched the press conference on the hotel television with one eye, remarking at Ishizu's impeccable grace under pressure. The majority of his attention was now devoted to hacking the reporter's teleprompter and converting the number-heavy items in the mayor's virtual ledger into something easily read aloud and understood.

Got it.

Now he just had to wait—wait for the reporter to read the information aloud, to begin to ask questions, and for the mayor to lose his cool.

"Mr. Mayor, can you talk more about the processes and goals of D-CARP, for our viewers who may not be as familiar with the program?"

Ishizu's phone buzzed gently in her lap. She looked down and saw the second message from Seto:

"Check two."

She took a deep, imperceptibly labored breath, and smiled at the mayor, who was talking to the reporter and to the cameras about the planning process, how happy he was with Ishizu's hard work and success, and reiterating his rhetoric about cleaning up the streets of duelists and the effects of Duel Monsters once and for all, to lead to a safer, more prosperous Domino City.

It nearly made her sick on-camera, hearing the smarmy words coming out of his mouth—the lies, the damned lies that had gotten her hook, line and sinker and gotten her support, made her become the face of D-CARP and the anti-duelist efforts.

The reporter smiled emptily at Mayor Devlin and turned to her teleprompter, scanning it quickly. Her smile dropped slightly, but noticeably, before picking up again.

"Mr. Mayor, is it true that the ban on Duel Monsters has caused far more economic harm to Domino City than the game itself ever caused?"

A gasp could be heard from several of the crew members behind the cameras and microphones trained on the three subjects behind the table.

Seto chuckled heartily at the reporter repeating his words with little trouble like a trained puppet. Ah, how he loved the press sometimes. So malleable like pretty puppets.

Mayor Devlin's smile vanished for a brief moment, a look of disgust and contempt for the report passing over his face, like he'd smelled spoiled milk. Or a rat.

"I'm sorry?" he said courteously, the smile returning for the benefit of the cameras, for the crew, for the citizens of Domino who happened to be watching this press conference live.

Ishizu smiled inwardly as the reporter went on in stunned disbelief: "Mr. Mayor, do you have a comment? Is it true that you've begun a collaboration with Industrial Illusions and made overtures to KaibaCorp to begin new game design work?"

"As mayor of this fine city, it's my job to foster strong ties to the largest companies in the city for the benefit of all," replied the mayor smoothly, trying to conceal his growing panic as the questions kept coming from the mouthpiece reporter with no sign of slowing down.

Seto gritted his teeth in annoyance and tapped a few keys on his keyboard, changing the words scrolling by on the teleprompter again.

Ishizu, for her part, was not quite sure what facial expression should be showing on her face at this moment—was the plan even working, or would the mayor be able to lie and charm his way out of all questions he found disagreeable or threatening?

Was this even going to work?

Was this worth it?

She arranged her figures into a look of vague concern, thankful that only two or three of the dozens of cameras would even be trained on her at this moment, as the reporter kept reading from her teleprompter.

"Mr. Mayor, is it true that you created Dungeon Dice Monsters as a young man, with the help of Industrial Illusions, and that the game never sold because Duel Monsters had dominated the market?"

A bead of sweat ran down Mayor Devlin's forehead, disrupting his benevolent façade. "Kaiba," he breathed sharply, his teeth gritted, his smile becoming a grimace. Both Ishizu and the reporter heard his utterance, but only Ishizu understood what he meant.

Seto crowed at the screen as the camera caught a particularly unflattering view of his face and zoomed in, showing the mayor's clear discomfort and agitation for all to see.

The reporter's voice trailed off as she read: "Mr. Mayor, do you have a comment? Is it true that your new partnership with Industrial Illusions is an attempt to redesign Dungeon Dice Monsters to market to the citizens of Domino City, now that Duel Monsters has been outlawed?"

Under her breath, the reporter, wide-eyed, whispered, loud enough for several microphones to catch it, "is that even legal, Mr. Mayor?"

At this, the other reporters and standing behind the camera setup flooded the table, thrusting their microphones into his face, cornering him, pestering him with follow-up questions coming from both their station bosses (courtesy of Seto Kaiba, who had emailed the ledgers to every paper and news station in town), as well as responses trending on the internet as facts attacked the mayor mingled with even more damning (if untrue) rumors.

"Mr. Mayor…." "Mr. Mayor, do you have a comment?" "Mayor Devlin, does this mean your efforts to ban Duel Monsters were part of a larger plan to sell Dungeon Dice Monsters?" "Mr. Mayor, are you an opportunist?" "Mr. Mayor, the internet is blowing up with questions—did you stage the attacks on Domino City as part of this larger scheme? Do you have a comment?" "Mr. Mayor, do you anticipate being removed from office, or do you have hope that you'll be able to finish your term as mayor?" "Mr. Mayor…" "Mr. Mayor…"

Mayor Devlin struggled to smile as he tore his eyes away from the reporter, shrank away from the crowds, and focused on Ishizu. His guilty expression, his shiftiness, the way he fidgeted in his seat, looking to escape the sea of press corps—it was going to be nearly impossible to argue his innocence. Anyone watching would realize how utterly culpable he was in all of this—there would be no denying, for he'd had no time to concoct reasonable lies and covers.

Ishizu merely smiled back at him serenely and began speaking loudly to several of the cameras, as she and Seto had planned, for the so-called "crazy curator" was also much beloved by the camera, and began explaining, in calmer terms, exactly what Seto had discovered, had puzzled out—just how the economic collapse was related not to Duel Monsters, but to its absence, how Seto had been called in and foolishly told everything by the mayor, who had somehow thought Seto would accept such an offer (clearly money did not mean everything to the former CEO), and, of course, how completely hurt and betrayed she was at being used by the Mayor to further his own greedy agenda.

Off in the distance, a series of sirens blared as several police cars roared up the parkway towards the museum, led by none other than Detective Bakura, who, if he loved only one thing, loved the laws of the city and executing them in his own twisted way.

The mayor's expression turned furious and violent, but with nearly every news camera in Domino City trained on their table, he couldn't touch her, couldn't threaten her.

Seto closed his laptop computer, feeling satisfied, downright over the moon at how perfectly they had managed to pull this off—on live television, no less. He threw on his suit from the previous day, slipped on his shoes, and left the hotel for the parkway.

Revenge was sweet indeed—for both the ex-CEO and for the curator, who were now free to make their own ways in the city, soon-to-be free from the Mayor's pernicious influence. Together.

Chapter Text

And so that is how it happened—at the time, no one saw it coming. In hindsight, it ought to have been obvious to each and every citizen of Domino City.

How easily our best intentions are led astray.

Yet thanks to Seto Kaiba, the haughty ex-CEO who had recently found his heart, and Ishizu Ishtar, the tireless museum director who had found her truth, Mayor Devlin soon faced conflict like he'd never seen—riots on the streets of Domino, calling for his impeachment, his removal, his resignation.

And for a moment it seemed as though the protestors might have won, Mayor Devlin managed to hold onto his seat until the next election two years away due to the combination of his money and influence on the city council.

Yet his power was greatly reduced—Ishizu managed to sway enough votes on the council to make him little more than a figurehead, with all of the ceremony but none of the veto power. And that suited the city just fine. The upcoming election was sure to be a slaughter, with the mayor's plans and control left to dust.

The consensus on the streets of Domino City were that once Mayor Devlin lost his reelection bid, he'd better run, and quickly. It was about to be open season on Duke Devlin, and everyone knew it. Even Detective Bakura, the vicious attack dog of the mayor, was soon turned against him—after all, the mayor had broken a good many laws, and Detective Bakura did not like law-breakers.

It was not easy, but due to further efforts from Ishizu, Seto, and even old Pegasus, the ban on Duel Monsters was lifted, with the Zoning Ordinances left in place to protect the peace. The reduction in plein air dueling proved to be positive for the city's economic health, as KaibaCorp and Industrial Illusions were able to hire many of their old employees, and a good deal of new ones, to refurbish the old KaibaLand theme park and to build new arenas around the city. Soon enough, the growling stopped—the duelists accepted their fate and soon grew re-used to playing it "old school" once more.

And now, what of our heroes? What of Yugi Moto, the troubled, tortured former King of Games turned criminal mastermind? What of Joey Wheeler, his big-hearted right-hand man with the torch for the buxom, flighty Mai Valentine? What of Mai Valentine, the conflicted onetime champion and pioneer for female duelists? What of Téa Gardner, the dancer with a chance at a new way of living? What of Ishizu Ishtar, the museum director who had been mired in politics for far too long? What of Seto Kaiba, the man who had everything and nothing?

Mai Valentine, much to Joey's chagrin, continued to travel around the world for most of the year, playing in tournaments and bolstering her international reputation as both a duelist and a veritable femme fatale. Yet she was faithful to Joey, who stayed behind, and when she returned to Domino one month out of the year, you could not wipe the smile from his face. Soon, though, Mai plans to settle down, and Joey Wheeler will be right there with her when she does.

Joey Wheeler re-entered Duel Monsters tournaments in Domino City as soon as he was able, and faced a few setbacks toward the beginning. Yet what was Joey if not the ultimate underdog? He soon won some major local tournaments, and the money kept flowing, which was a welcome change.

He also volunteers on weekends in the Domino Museum of Art and Artefacts and has befriended Marik and Odion, although the latter will never admit as much. He also does community service work in several of Domino's most underserved areas on a regular basis, which are slowly improving along with the rest of the city's fortunes.

With the help of some of Joey's winnings, Tristan and Serenity moved the Baby Dragon Café and Bar from its seedy location into a nicer part of town. The new restaurant benefited from the carefully chosen décor, courtesy of Serenity's keen eye, and soon became a popular local spot. Once business became steady, Tristan and Serenity finally got married, although she kept her last name.

Marik Namu and Odion Rishid are still working at the Domino Museum of Art and Artefacts with their de-facto sister Ishizu. They are still dating, and have recently made a down payment on a house near the parkway. Stoic Odion plans to propose soon, so let's keep that a secret, shall we?

Téa Gardner moved into her own studio apartment and enrolled in business classes in order to better prepare her for taking over the House of Pegasus. Once she got the knowledge in order to run the business, she met with each dancer individually and discussed what kind of establishment they would like the House to become. The greater consensus was that while stripping had its charms, the majority of dancers would prefer to turn the Dark Magician Girl Revue into a proper dance repertory company, with Téa as the manager and head choreographer. With Pegasus's blessing, for he had decided to stay on at Industrial Illusions once Duel Monsters had been legalized, Téa was able to achieve her dream of running her own dance company.

Yugi Moto, as promised, went with Serenity to the rehabilitation facility Téa had arranged for him to stay at. He ended up spending nearly five months in treatment—quite a lot was not all right with our former King of Games. Joey Wheeler was his most constant visitor—along with Tristan and Téa, while Ishizu and Mokuba Kaiba (on behalf of his brother, who refused to do such things) sent bouquets of roses to him every week—flowers befitting the champion.

While he and Téa have decided not to rekindle their relationship until Yugi has been out of treatment successfully for a long while, they are both quite optimistic for future changes, and have remained close friends.

When Yugi was released from rehab, he surprised many in Domino City by not returning to Duel Monsters. Instead, at the relatively young age of twenty-seven, Yugi Moto retired from Duel Monsters, leaving his crown as King of Games up for grabs, and re-opened his grandfather's old game shop, where to this day he regales lines of children and duelists spilling out the doors with his stories of past duels and knowledge of the game.

Ishizu Ishtar decided that politics was not quite for her, and decided to focus her energies on establishing the Domino Museum of Art and Artefacts as the most respected museum in the region. With the financial help of KaibaCorp, the recently renamed Kaiba Wing of the museum went up smoothly and won several awards for its attractive modern architecture.

After Duel Monsters became re-legalized, Ishizu worked together with Marik, her artifacts expert, Odion, her chief conservator, and with Pegasus, who had undertaken several excavations in Egypt, to curate an exhibit of Ancient Egyptian games of monsters and magic—which, it must be said, bore several key similarities to Duel Monsters. The exhibit drew massive numbers of attendance, surprising everyone, except for Seto Kaiba, who had predicted it all along.

Seto Kaiba was reinstated as CEO of KaibaCorp immediately, with Mokuba letting out a sigh of relief—he had never wanted his brother's job in the first place, and was perfectly fine planning the renovation of his beloved KaibaLand in great detail, making it as inclusive and family-friendly as he could. Seto soon began designing revolutionary new arenas all around the city, and although he missed the utility of the duel disk, he did enjoy creating new "Bubble Arenas", in which duels would be played, where all damage and shockwaves from the matches are absorbed by the "bubble", causing harm to no one.

He is still working on the name.

While Seto is the favorite to run for mayor against the wildly unpopular Mayor Devlin, he has publicly stated that he has no intention of doing so. Yet his love for the city is evident, and so we shall see, shan't we?

Seto and Ishizu began dating officially, taking Domino's most eligible bachelor off of the list, much to the chagrin of half the city. While neither has plans to get married for the time being, they are very much happy with one another. Seto Kaiba has even spoken the word "love" in this context more than once, no small feat, which is practically enough for Ishizu.

After much discussion (Ishizu's euphemism for "arguments"), Ishizu moved into Kaiba Manor with Seto. The palpable chemistry between them has failed to dissipate. They are both quite busy with their work, but when they have a spare few hours, they like to take the jet back to Manila, where Ishizu has become a regular at El Café Tagalog.

Someday soon, though, Seto will take a ring along with him when they make their trip to the café.

And now, dear reader, this is where we leave the scene.

After all, aren't there better games to play?