Mai's family was notorious for displaying their wealth on a grand scale, and when Saturday evening came they certainly didn't disappoint. Outside the world was on fire, bright streaks of lightning unzipping the dark while thunder crackled overhead. Inside, the Valentine great hall was rich with tables dressed in deep blue and silver. Mounds of white chrysanthemums piled in silver bowls at the center of each. A banner hung beneath the chandelier, glowing with the dull sheen of velvet and an embroidered silver crest. A college crest. Mai's college!
"What the hell," Tristan whispered over Joey's shoulder, jerking his chin up to draw Joey's attention to the ceiling and the crest. Joey followed his gaze, head turning slowly to keep staring at it as he and Mai skirted the edge of the hall, Tristan and Serenity following.
"Dammit, Mai, whyn't ya tell me this was for you?" Joey demanded, turning back to his date.
Mai shrugged, smooth bare shoulders moving independently from her heavily embroidered bodice. "You didn't ask? Why does it matter? It's just junior college."
"'Cause ya don't graduate every day! I woulda—" Joey looked down at the starched white shirt and silky blue cummerbund he wore beneath his tuxedo, "—Okay, so I'm already dressed up. I woulda done something for ya!"
"What, bought me a candy necklace?" Mai teased, and patted Joey's arm when he swung around to pin her with an offended glare.
"I'm not a kid."
Mai smiled indulgently, the expression fading as she turned away. Tristan and Serenity moved abreast of Joey and Mai, Tristan on Mai's left now, and though Joey was too busy with his spluttering outrage to notice, Tristan saw the downward flicker of her glossy mouth.
He leaned toward her, ignoring the anxiety that always grabbed at his gut when he stood in the young woman's presence. "That was—"
Violet eyes turned, lovely and terrible, rimmed with dark eyeliner and shadow. They glowed bright in the dim spangling light of the room, and the cool dispassion he saw there warned him off. Her dress was the color of the banner on the ceiling; the blue tablecloths; the frosting trimming the cake on the buffet. She seemed as much a part of the décor as the chrysanthemums in their silver bowls; just as expensive and untouchable.
Tristan flinched under her gaze and shook his head. "Never mind, it was dumb."
For a moment, Mai's pitiless eyes seemed to soften. She turned quickly away. "Excuse me," Mai said, untangled her arm from Joey's and stepped out to meet her parents. Her tinkling jewelry made a soft patter of sound against the click of heels on the marble floor.
Tristan's hand closed around Serenity's wrist, and drew her with him to Joey's side. Joey watched Mai disappear, his expression alternately stunned and stricken. He seemed barely aware of their presence when both Serenity and Tristan flanked him and slipped an arm around his waist.
"Was it just me, or did she seem weird to you?" Tristan asked in an undertone. Joey shook his head, soft at first, slowly, and then with more energy. His whole posture was slumped, hands eventually finding their way into his pockets to bunch the hem of his jacket.
"Naw," Joey sighed in a defeated tone, "she's just doin' what she's gotta do. Can't figure out what this forfeit was all about anyway; not like she'd hafta trick me, to get me to go out with her. Er." He noticed Tristan's long stare, and shook his head, apologizing sincerely for the misstep with his gaze, "Before, anyway."
Tristan, not all that unsettled by the comment to begin with, nodded in understanding.
They found their seats; the tables within the grand hall flowed around an open dance floor, the place settings at each marked with a tiny filigreed pewter easel and a placecard bearing a name. Joey, Tristan and Serenity all found their cards at the same table, near the disc jockey's booth.
"I'm just happy there's no symphony," Joey said, bending over his own place setting to examine his name on the stiff embossed linen card. 'Joseph Wheeler,' it read. Joey's nose wrinkled. "She's laughin' at me," he said quietly.
"Orchestra," Tristan corrected, circling the table after he'd found his own card. There were three places still open. Presumably one was left for Mai, but who were the other two?
"Whatever," Joey plucked his card from the easel and turned it over in the palm of his hand, "wonder if we get to keep these."
"Téa's sitting with us," Serenity reported, standing on the furthest arc of the table. She smiled up at her startled companions, the expression quickly fading as she read their faces. "…What? Her card's right here, next to Tristan's."
Quickly, Tristan reached for the card he'd been about to examine when she spoke. Sure enough, the leftover seat was Duke's. He looked up to meet Joey's waiting gaze, and nodded with a heavy shrug. "Yup. It's them."
"Man, this's startin' to feel like one of those MTV shows, like any minute now somebody's gonna tell us 'you got punked,' Tris," Joey replied, turning away from him, hips and fingertips lightly pressed against the edge of the table. "But I got no idea why Mai'd wanna punk me, and I don't get how she'd punk me, anyway."
"You think it's a setup?" Tristan suggested, joining him. Serenity reached Joey's other side. That was the way it went since he met her, Tristan thought suddenly; Serenity on Joey's right, Tristan on his left. The two of them sidled up to Joey, unasked and unwanted (but necessary) supports, not quite meeting but still sort of together anyway. He'd never noticed before.
"Dunno," Joey said. He poked both hands into his pockets again. "Something doesn't feel right. Why'd she invite me if she was just gonna spend all night over there anyway?" Joey's left wrist jerked restlessly in his pocket as he remembered not to point, and thrust his chin in Mai's direction instead. She played the gracious, smiling hostess across the room, nearly melted into the scenery in her matching sapphire costume, but no amount of velvet-and-embroidery camouflage could conceal her bright blonde hair.
Tristan thought of how Mai looked at him earlier. He risked looping an arm briefly around Joey's shoulders. "Because she's supposed to be over there, I think," Tristan said. He felt Joey start inside his grip, then sag against him a little as the veil of aggravation wore off and Joey understood what he should have guessed all along.
"Remind me not to treat my kids like that when I'm a millionaire," Joey grunted.
The hall filled rapidly now with bright voices and the swish of taffeta as the gala guests found their tables and took their seats. The DJ returned to his booth and now the fast strains of a Viennese waltz swept from one end of the room to the other. In the lull, Joey volunteered to forage cups of soda for the three of them before a line had time to form…wherever the bar happened to be. He vanished into the crowd, blending in with an ease that he'd never manage without his rented tux and neatly-combed hair.
No sooner had he disappeared, but Duke and Téa joined Tristan and Serenity at the table. Tristan greeted them, surprised. "Where's the fanfare?" he asked, leaning into Téa as she came forward and wrapped her arms around him for a brief hug.
"I downsized my entourage budget," Duke replied. His smile was as surprised as Tristan's when Duke looked up from gently clasping Serenity's hand. "You made it after all, huh?"
"Couldn't let all my hard work and suffering go to waste," Tristan grinned.
"Speaking of suffering, where's the other Bobsey Twin?" Duke asked, craning his neck as he searched the crowd. "I see Mai playing Queen of the Ball, but I don't see Joey."
"He's raiding the bar," Tristan said casually, "I hear they're not carding."
Bullshit, Duke grinned. He circled behind Téa's waiting chair and drew it out. "Tristan, this is the social elite. If you're under twenty-one and your parents aren't rich enough to send you a limousine, you shouldn't be here." He paused, reconsidering his statement. "You want something, though? I could take you home." The tone of his voice held a tint of the something it missed since the day at the hospital. Tristan felt a tiny electric thrill.
"I do," Téa interrupted, curling both arms around Duke's arm once she'd set her purse on the table at her spot, "Duke, I didn't spend all that time and energy on you because I wanted to be a wallflower. Dance with me." She stepped away again, to Tristan's relief – because the image of Téa clinging to anyone's arm, even in play, was just weird as hell – and extended her hand to her dance partner instead.
Laughing, Duke slipped his hand into Téa's, bringing it in to tuck into the fold of his arm. "Duty calls," he said lightly across his shoulder, and swept Téa out into the sea of swirling skirts. Tristan turned back to Serenity, shaking his head, to find her accepting a small plastic cup of clear carbonated soda from Joey's overburdened hands.
"They must teach waltzin' in finishin' school, s'all I gotta say," Joey said, pointing towards the busy dance floor with one elbow as he held up the remaining two glasses for Tristan to choose from, "Mountain Dew or Coke, take your pick. Cheap bastards, no A&W."
"As a matter of fact, they do teach the Viennese waltz in finishing school, Joey," Mai's voice drifted over Tristan's shoulder like a silk scarf and both boys swung to look at her in surprise. "But those are mostly professionals my mother hired."
Tristan lifted his eyebrows as he held away the slightly drippy glass of Mountain Dew before it stained his tux. "Geez, Mai, when will people quit sneaking up on me? Do I look like I scare easy, or something?"
"You don't," Mai said, "that's half the fun." She winked, tilting her head a little on her swannish neck, as if their earlier exchange never happened. She spread both hands "I don't suppose Duke told you that I can dance, did he?" She paused to let the words take the desired effect, then went on, "well, I can. Of course, finishing school is…well…let's just say that there are certain do and don't activities, but I can waltz, I can foxtrot, tango rather well I think…and definitely handle the Viennese waltz."
"That's great," Joey shot back, "you go find a partner who can do all those, 'cause all I can do is waltz."
"I whipped your ass in Duel Monsters, Joseph Wheeler, you can Viennese waltz if I say you can."
"I bet they didn't teach that in finishing school!" Tristan laughed.
"It's not that different from the steps of the waltz…it's just faster, that's all. It's older, if you care." Mai offered her hand to her reluctant dance partner. When Joey continued to hesitate, Mai's gaze flickered to Tristan. "I could always dance with—"
"I'm game," Joey said shortly, catching where her glance went, and latched onto her partially extended hand before either of them could have second thoughts. He glanced over his shoulder once – at Tristan, who smirked and made a tiny 'shooing' motion with one hand – before the carousel of flying skirts caught them up and they blended into the motion on the dance floor. The music swelled – Tristan vaguely remembered it from a dance lesson or two – and quieted, slipping back into a delicate roll of merry-go-round strings.
"Ohh, Tristan, look!" Serenity shored up the distance between her side and her escort's, and caught his attention as she pointed into the midst of the swirling dancers. He darted a surprised, slightly guilty look in her direction, before he followed the line of her extended arm and found Téa and Duke. Most of the dresses in the assembly were soft, feathered pastels – Téa's deeply rosy skirts were as easy to spot and follow as an iris in a bouquet of carnations.
Tristan watched, transfixed, realizing as they swayed and turned to the grandiose strains of formal music that—he'd never seen the two dance together until tonight. Duke was so good that he seemed almost invisible, pleased to be a backdrop for Téa's sweeps and poses. She moved with natural grace, dancing circles around the floor, around Duke, as if the bright, ancient Strauss waltz had been written only to display her gift.
Joey's moment of epiphany came yesterday. Tristan took his now. She made him want to hold his breath, now that he understood the difficulty of her perfection, how hard she worked to get here. He wished Yugi was here to see this, share this with, instead of so far away. But even gone for the summer, Tristan would bet the fifty he didn't have that Yugi already knew. Probably knew way before the rest of them figured it out.
"She's a great dancer, isn't she?" Tristan said, to Serenity…but mostly to himself.
"She's going to be famous," Serenity replied, and in a flash of prescience, imagined or not, Tristan believed she was right. He saw Téa in one of those poofy dresses too, pastel pink, marabou swishing against her long legs as she flew around the floor at some big competition.
She was going to be famous someday. Gratitude welled up as Tristan realized what a gift she'd given him. "She taught me to dance, you know," Tristan said, looking away to grin at the top of Serenity's head. She looked up at him, big brown Wheeler eyes bright and preoccupied. She wanted to dance too, he could see it, but he didn't know how to do this one—
Oh, hell. Téa didn't spend all that time and effort on him so he could be a wallflower. The floor was crowded – the better dancers took the outside, but it seemed relatively safe towards the middle. "Wanna stumble through one with me?" Tristan offered the younger girl his arm in an overdone show of gallantry. She took it, they smiled at one another, and ducked onto the dance floor.
Fifteen minutes later, flushed with exertion and excitement, everyone returned to the table and their seats – sans Mai, of course, expected to appear at the head table with her parents for the initial speech to open the dinner pageantry. To Tristan's surprise, Joey insisted upon escorting the young woman back to her parents, and returned with a look of triumph.
To the uninitiated, the gala took on the novel appearance of a theatrical production. Servers threaded among the tables, offering shallow bowls of soup. Tristan regarded the thick orange-yellow liquid dubiously. "What is this?"
Duke volunteered to be the first victim to sample the first course. Joey looked on enviously, then lowered his gaze to the dizzying array of silverware. Joey darted a glance at Téa to his right, who hadn't yet picked up a spoon, and Mai's chair on his left was empty. Wait. He knew this one. Hadn't there been a movie somewhere that hinted at this? Joey checked to be sure nobody looked at him, then lifted the handle of the longest fork, checking for a number, a symbol, a corresponding name. Of course, the handles were all blank. He huffed. C'maaahn, he was hungry and shouldn't have to decode his dinner forks! Unless this was what bored rich people did for fun?
Tristan spied Joey's indecision, watched him for a few seconds, then leaned sideways over Mai's empty seat. By habit and reflex, Joey leaned toward him to catch whatever he had to say. "Titanic," Tristan muttered in an undertone, masked beneath the instrumental strains still rolling across the great hall.
Joey blinked, frowned at Tristan and raised his eyebrows. 'Titanic?' What the hell was that cryptic shit supposed to mean?
"It's roasted red pepper soup," Duke reported, brandishing his empty spoon like a Campbell's ad, "it's really good. If you like that sort of thing."
"How the hell do you know all this random shit?" Joey directed his hungry irritation at Duke instead of his plate. "You can't see the peppers, how do you know they're roasted?"
"I just know," Duke replied, airy and smug.
"Guess that gaydar of yours must not scan the control tower?" Joey retorted after a pause, and around the table hands flew to stifle explosive giggles. A middle-aged woman in a snowy fox stole seated behind Joey turned to look at him in shock. Tristan ducked toward his soup, using the flower arrangement in the center of the table as camouflage, and when Joey looked his way he once again mouthed the word 'Titanic.' Urgently, he set down his spoon at the outermost edge of the silverware, then picked it up again.
'Start on the outside and work your way in,' Joey heard in the back of his mind. There had been a movie! Not one he'd admit he watched, of course… Joey straightened, then beamed, and mouthed the word silently back at Tristan as he raised the appropriate spoon on his own side of the table. 'Titanic!'
Tristan nodded slowly, a smile replacing his earlier anxious frown. Both young men looked up to see the rest of the table regarding them with curiosity. Squat bowls of chrysanthemums made poor cover, as it turned out.
"Share with the class?" Duke asked, dryly.
"Nope," Tristan said blithely.
"Boring guy shit," Joey added. Fox-stole-woman cleared her throat with a touch of distress, and Serenity laid a warning hand on her older brother's arm. Joey continued to smile, recalcitrant, but nevertheless made an extra effort to curb his language.
The second course came, and the evening swept on with the clink of glassware and the swirl of ballgowns over the temporary dance floor. Tristan could see that Joey was bored by the fifth balding, middle-aged stuffshirt who stood up to offer a lengthy treatise of congratulations and well wishes for the future. To Tristan, this felt more like a wedding than a graduation party, and he said so in a careful undertone. Everyone else at the table seemed just as puzzled by the observation, except for Duke.
"It's a power play," he said, dutifully keeping his voice low to keep the conversation at the table and away from the likes of Fox-stole-woman. "Mai doesn't have a lot of relatives. So who do you think all these people are?"
"Mama Valentine's business associates?" Tristan suggested.
Duke nodded. "Clients, a couple vendors, some local partners, maybe even a carefully chosen enemy or two. I think this is more about Mrs. Valentine's company doing well than Mai graduating college."
"Plus, it's an awfully big to-do for junior college," Téa added thoughtfully, "especially since Mai's starting in the fall at Wake Forest." At this, Joey shot her a how-did-you-know-that frown. His pensive expression went unnoticed as the others cast surreptitious glances in Mai's direction, her expensive dress still tastefully accompanying the wallhangings and the centerpieces. They all knew that the party was no more for her than Wake Forest University was chosen because she wanted to go there.
"Bet you all ten bucks they even made her go to college here first, because her mother wants her to have a local degree along with all the 'big city learnin.' Yanno. Small town pride and all that. 'Da-na-na-na-na-small-town, da-na-na-na-na-small-town,'" Duke said, ending with a few derisive bars of the annoyingly ubiquitous Bruce Springsteen song.
"So everything here is one big business maneuver," Tristan summed up, sounding awed. As if he repeated the sentence simply to drive it home, incomprehensible as it was. Nobody teased him for stating the obvious, because really, everyone else was thinking it too. Somewhere between meeting Mai for the first time in Duelist Kingdom and now, she'd become just another one of them. Now, they were reminded of reality outside the forced equality of the game, and just how different things were for her.
If Joey Wheeler was a fan of extended thought process, he might have had a little sympathy for Seto Kaiba while he was at it. Unfortunately, he was busy being indignant.
"So that's why she brought me," Joey said sharply. Everyone else – including Duke – looked at him with surprise. When he spoke next, his voice and posture were defiant. "Betcha her parents said she could invite… like… ten people herself. Figuring she'd stick to the 'right' people, yanno?" In his need to spin the words out, Joey missed the tight shift of his listeners' expressions as Mai approached the table from behind him. They could only watch and try frantically to signal to him as he stared at his plate.
"And I'm not one of the right people, and I look like a punk, and I am a punk, and so's Tris, but we're safe. Safe as in, she knows I'll piss off her folks just by being here, but we're not gonna get drunk or set the place on fire. So basically me being here is just a big friggin' middle finger to Mom and Pop, over there." Joey took a breath. Finally, he looked up, read the expressions around him and their eyes pinned to the same spot over his head. He paled a little. "She's right behind me, isn't she."
"I won't deny I get some satisfaction out of it," Mai's voice was cool, her expression impassive as he swiveled in his chair, "that I could show my mother my real friends, not the ones they'd like to pick out for me. But it gets old, being on display, and it's nice to have a table of people I can talk to."
"Don't believe ya," Joey persisted, earning himself shocked stares from his companions, "why'd you invite me? We don't even talk that much. You spend more time with him," he waved at Duke, "and she knows more about ya." Joey repeated the gesture, now in Téa's direction. Tristan, Duke and Téa looked at him with quickly hidden sympathy, hearing the aggravation at his own blindness. June had been a month of revelations for everyone, some less pleasant than others.
Mai let out a carefully controlled breath. "Why does it matter to you so much? Is it impossible that I might honestly like you all enough to invite? We don't read our diaries to each other over the phone, Joseph Wheeler, but we're hardly strangers."
"I guess so," Joey said, sullen.
"You're a hell of a duelist," Mai said firmly, keeping her back turned on Fox-stole-woman even as the little disapproving "hm!" could be heard, "and I respect you more than you probably deserve, and I like having you around. Is that a crime?" If she left out, 'and a dear friend has the hots for you and Tristan, and I was setting you up a little,' Mai expected she could be forgiven. What they don't know can't hurt them, and all that. After all, as she said the words she realized that she genuinely meant every one. "If I haven't mortally wounded your pride by making my parents squirm some, then I'd like to hang out more often. With all of you," she added quickly, before Tristan coughed and Joey blushed and Duke would have to temporize something to cover their asses. She knew, of course, but they didn't know that she knew.
The table was quiet as everyone absorbed Mai's words. Téa and Tristan drew breath simultaneously to fill the silence, overrunning each other with acceptances of the invitation just a shade too eager. Joey said nothing, but turned back around in his chair after she left, refusing to look at the others for a few minutes. The discomfort ratcheted up another notch.
"Joey, could I—" Tristan began slowly, sliding back from the table. Joey shoved his chair back and bolted after Mai, leaving Tristan dangling mid-sentence and halfway between sitting and standing. He shared a wry smile with the rest of the table, and continued getting up.
"Duty calls," Tristan said, and followed before anyone could stop him.
He felt somehow exposed as he walked among the tables of the elite, even in his rented tuxedo. It felt like these people could see through his thin armor, and knew he didn't belong there. Tightening his jaw a little, Tristan trudged with more determination after Joey. He slipped through the double doors he'd seen Joey vanish through, and followed him down a dimly lit tile hallway. It somehow seemed important that he didn't give away his position, so he kept his motions quiet and didn't call after the two ahead of him. Ahead was yet another pair of doors (apparently the rich liked doors in twos, Tristan thought with a flash of faint amusement), this set mostly glass, displaying the porch beyond. When he pushed through, the humidity of the night hit him in a rush, followed by a blast of cool, wet air heavy with the scent of storm. He spotted Mai and Joey in a flash of faraway lightning, already talking intently at the end of the porch. Their voices were steady, not at all the angry bickering he'd expected. Tristan backed up, letting the doors close as he moved inside again.
Tristan took a deep breath of blissfully cool indoor air, and headed back to reassure everyone that Joey wasn't going to die tonight.
The porch was dark, obviously not meant to invite the rest of the party guests outside. Joey nearly collided with a potted topiary of some kind as he walked along the railing of the porch to reach the swing where she'd taken refuge.
"Mai, I'm sorry. Look, I didn't know," he said.
"Joey, it's fine. I came out here to get a little air away from everyone, so—if you could just—" Mai's voice was mild, not angry, not tight, not any of the things he expected. But Mai wasn't one to pull dramatics. Joey knew that. His brightest lasting memories of her were from Duelist Kingdom. About to fall out of that tube top, Bonnie Raitt hair, Mae West lips. She could be sneaky, taunting and cruel - but melodramatics couldn't be included in her list of flaws. He thought she maybe had a little bit of a martyr complex, but set against Duke's, it was a sniffle compared to walking pneumonia.
She was gorgeous in the dim light, sitting in the padded porch swing with her heels off and her feet tucked up under her pretty butt. Even an idiot like him could pick that up. Joey was gratified, at least, to notice that he felt bad because she was his friend and he'd hurt her, and not because he'd probably screwed his chances of scoring with a hot chick.
He spared a little note of humor in knowing that if he was Tristan, he'd feel guilty for just noticing she was a hot chick and thinking automatically about scoring. Dude had a problem. They needed to work on that.
"I know I insulted ya, though. I think. Felt like I did, anyway. I didn't mean to, I'm just a stupid—"
Joey came around the swing to look at her head-on, "what I said before—"
Mai sighed. Joey knew a verbal eyeroll when he heard one. She'd told him once not to apologize, but he could be just as stubborn as she could, dammit, and it was important to remind her.
"I just don't get why you stick around," Joey pressed. He could barely breathe in this humidity, and sweat already filmed his skin. Why couldn't Mai have picked a cooler place to run off? "But that don't mean I got any business thinking you're running us. And for the record, I don't think you are," as the words came forward, Joey realized with relief that he meant them. He didn't know Mai nearly as well as he thought he should, but he really, really wanted to believe her. Enough, apparently, to tamp down his own fears.
Silence fell between them, thinner and less charged than the humidity, and Joey knelt slowly in front of Mai to meet her gaze without forcing her to look up. The whites of her eyes flickered in the dark as she glanced at him, and then her teeth. Mai patted the bench beside her. "So obviously, you aren't going to leave. Sit up here, you dope. This isn't church."
Joey did as she asked, cautiously staying as far to the opposite end of the swing as he could. Silence descended again, broken only by the rising wind and peals of thunder. A few tendrils of cooler air reached them, carrying the scent of rain.
"Joey, I know you and I have very different families," Mai began tentatively, "and I know things aren't great for you—"
"Cut that out," Joey replied in a flat voice, "Mom don't want me around and Dad's wasted allatime. Don't make me a charity case. You got troubles too. Yugi, Tris, Téa, everybody does." He realized too late that his cool, sharp response had taken Mai back, and huffed. "Sorry," he said, awkward again.
"You know what it's like to feel unwanted, then," Mai began again, after a minute or two of quiet, "I don't have that. Not... quite the same. Mother wants me, but I think she wants me in the same way she wants her New England townhouse, or her Sony stock." Joey's puzzled expression must have conveyed itself to her obviously enough. Mai sighed, folded her arms, and added, "Do you know what my graduation gift was? An interest in the business. A board position."
"She must trust you," Joey mused, too shocked by the revelation to say anything else.
Mai laughed. He could hear the rustle of her hair as she shook her head. "Trust doesn't figure. Your townhouse is going to be a townhouse. You go to bed, you wake up, knowing that it's going to be a townhouse when you get there, because it just is. You don't have to trust it because it doesn't have an option to be anything else."
"You got options!"
Another laugh, this one quieter and strained; almost lost beneath the thunder. "I never said I didn't. I said that's what she thinks. I know my mother. She doesn't know me."
Straining Mai's monologue for relevant information, Joey felt asea. "How'd you manage that AND keep her thinking you're still a townhouse?" he asked, adding "...in New England," just to hear her laugh.
"Very carefully," Mai replied. "Joey, most of my life, I knew what it was like to want things. Not care about them. I did things because I wanted to get away from my mother, because I didn't want to spend my life showing houses and running a company. That's how I got to Duelist Kingdom. You're my first real friends. You want me around because I'm me, without any expectations." She leaned back, rolling her slender shoulders. "That's why I put up with you goofballs. You'd care if anything happened to me. You wouldn't just… adjust your plans."
The words got out of Joey's mouth before he could stop them. "We miss ya. You were around every other day forever, seemed like. Now you're a million miles away over here in Candyland. It's like trying to see the Pope."
Joey could almost feel Mai's smile in the dark. He regretted the admission a little less.
"Well, I'm done with college for the summer, at least. I'll be around until August." She unfolded her arms, palms lifted. "I'll probably humor Mother, work here with her for a while. Why not? Put some more money away for my great escape – since you and Yugi made off with my exit strategy the last time."
A crack of lightning less than a mile away distracted them both, the sharp-edged boom following the flash making both Joey and Mai sit up and peer anxiously towards the garden.
"Better get inside," Joey said.
"You go," Mai nudged him, then made shooing motions with her hands - only vaguely visible now. "I'll catch up."
"But Mai, it's swelterin' out here! Plus it's gonna start rainin' ponies and airedales any minute."
"I'm—what's that phrase—'sweating like a pig,' Joey. When I go inside I'm going straight up to my room to clean up. No boys allowed. Now get."
The return of Mai's flirtatious tone of voice and manner was soothing to Joey, somehow. He went, with the feeling that more had been settled besides his guilty conscience.