Title: 'Unexamined Life' - Part I

Author: whosjeebus

Rating: M (Lime Ahoy!)

Pairing(s): Seto/Joey, Tristan/Joey (with brief hints of Yugi/Téa, Joey/Mai, Tristan/Duke & Duke/Mai)

Beta: Jennie B. & Angryhamster (teaming up to save the world from bad grammar once again!)

Spoilers: Slight mentions of the ending of the anime series.

Disclaimer: Don't own it. Would like to, but they won't let me. Wonder if that restraining order is still in effect? Mr. Takahashi, it was all just a big misunderstanding, I swear...

Summary: Nearly fifteen years after being forced apart from the one he loves, Joey Wheeler reminisces on the events leading up to their separation, and holds onto a dim hope that they might one day be reunited. But, after hardships faced and conquered, can things EVER really go back to the way they were?

A/N: A space age A/U with no specific setting, based loosely on a number of popular science fiction premises, tweaked and molded to fit the LOLA challenge criteria, which it was NOT originally intended for. However, the more I wrote on it, the more I thought, 'this fic has EVERYTHING to do with the passage of time and the memories we build in conjuction WITH, and ABOUT the people close to us.' If that doesn't just scream ANNIVERSARY, then I don't know WHAT does… A number of things happened along the way, and I scrapped this idea in favour of another, but, eventually I came full circle again. (I think) I'm glad that I did. Anyway, enjoy!

Special note on the A/U concept behind this fic: Though it DOES technically have a sci-fi premise, the futuristic aspects of this fic are meant to be a bare bones backdrop to the overall story itself. Do NOT expect to see wildly OOC behaviour or ridiculous notions such as 'Space Captain Kaiba Saves the Universe'. That's all in the sequel, folks. Not.

This fic was written for the 'Love or Lies Anniversary Challenge' at A Dragon's Lair

xxxxxxxxxxXXXXXxxxxxxxxxx

"I didn't kill her."

The tall brunet was on his feet the second the doors had parted and he caught sight of a shock of bright golden hair emerging from between them.

Joey Wheeler sighed deeply as he stepped past the two large guards framed in the doorway, and into the small, confining space. He heard the pneumatic double doors slide closed behind him, the electronic lock engaging on the other side with an ominous click. He then found himself alone in the cell with his lover as silence hung oppressive in the stale, recycled air. Finally, Joey spoke:

"I know you didn't, Seto."

xxxxxxxxxxXXXXXxxxxxxxxxx

Joey startled awake suddenly, coming up hard against his seatbelt and stifling a low groan as his chest constricted painfully. The dream had been so vivid and tangible that it took him a few moments to re-orient himself in the proper time and place. Once his vision had managed to clear away the blurred residue of sleep, he realized that he was still firmly ensconced in his first class seat on board a private, outbound transport from Galderma Prime. On their way to the Culver Beach Colony at sub-light speed, a small, unexpected asteroid shower had necessitated the use of the seat restraints, and still abysmally sleep deprived from his whirlwind press tour, Joey's overtired brain had at last succumbed to his body's demands for rest.

He must have been more tired than he had realized to have fallen asleep in such a stiff, uncomfortable position, but it was obvious that all the exhaustion and excitement had finally caught up to him. Undoubtedly, his fatigued state of mind had had a hand in conjuring the previous, haunting images from the recesses of his subconscious, not to mention the massive amount of stress he'd been under lately. At least, that's what he told himself anyway.

It was becoming harder with each passing cycle, denying that it was the same thing, the same resurrection of the past, that had manifested itself in this exact manner for over fourteen years now. The universe went about its regular business unmindful of his concerns, and as he approached the fifteenth anniversary of that fateful day, the sense memories, triggers and responses became stronger and more undeniable. Even now, it was as though the compartmentalized sections of his brain, the ones he'd walled off following the events of January 20th, regularly convened meetings to unanimously decide the method of his yearly torment. Arduously locked away and denied the access to influence his life, they had gradually begun to stir about, having judged the task of making him miserable to be a cause worthy of his subconscious mind's efforts and pursuit. As he glanced furtively at the date on his watch, Joey knew his respite from himself was over.

The 18th of January already? Where had the past year disappeared to so quickly? Despite his denial, time marched inexorably onward, and for the other 347 days of the solar year, Joey was able to refute the power, the sheer inevitability, of those painful events, and focus on anything and everything besides the ticking time bomb of despair that awaited within. Some years, a random glance at the calendar would send some anonymous signal, triggering the landslide of memory and grief. Other times, more insidious but no less traumatic, the recollections would ambush him in his dreams, building in strength and intensity until his weary heart and mind perceived his nocturnal time travels as the true reality; his waking world relegated to nothing more than a pale substitute. It seemed that this year would be of the latter variety.

Despite the foreboding date, Joey attributed the larger part of this latest bout of remembrance to Yugi's most recent 'helpful' suggestion. Nearly two decades past their initial mentor and student relationship, Yugi was still attempting to gently nudge his best friend toward the path of enlightenment, happiness and confidence. Whenever they spoke, Yugi could be expected to drop any number of hints and not-so-subtle reminders that it was he, and he alone, who had always had Joey Wheeler's best interests in mind.

"'Write a book,' he says," Joey murmured aloud to himself, doing a fair impression of Yugi's high alto and eager enunciation. "It'll be good for you."

He had to laugh at this. Yugi had assumed that Joey found the notion ridiculous, and he'd certainly not given his diminutive friend any reason to think otherwise. Oh sure, he'd been slightly affronted at Joey's seeming outright rejection of the idea, but his feelings weren't truly hurt. He was more than used to the blond's stubborn insistence on living his life his own way, and whether or not Joey's way was the easiest or the best was totally irrelevant.

Little did Yugi know that the book he was so gung-ho for Joey to write had already been penned some ten years prior. Inevitably, the manuscript was dedicated to Seto, and even though his current level of fame and high profile meant he'd have no problem finding a publisher, Joey had vowed never to release it until his former lover had been found. Which, in actuality, meant simply that the rough draft would molder away in obscurity, forgotten by all except for the man who had authored it as a means of purging his own guilt and preserving the last remnants of a lost love. And really, was that such a loss? Though Joey himself had never given up the search, he'd long ago stopped asking himself exactly what he hoped to gain from it.

He shook himself roughly out of his maudlin thoughts, and debated the odds of a positive outcome if he were to face his demons head on. Who knew? It might just help him to finally move forward, to start living his life again. He reasoned that he must be beginning to feel his age, since he'd managed to convince himself that he was happy, these past few years. Wasn't that what people were supposed to do at thirty-five? Build a life for themselves and their families, aim for a goal, look only to the future? It had never been that simple for him, though he'd thought it might have been, once upon a time. No, happiness was something that still managed to elude Joey Wheeler despite his successes, and now, in the wake of his dream, the illusion he'd surrounded himself with lay shattered around him, exposed as the fragile and crystalline structure it had always been.

Joey lowered his head and rubbed tiredly at his temples. This press tour had come at the worst possible time for him, and he cursed the unfortunate scheduling. He didn't for one second regret his actions, or his decision to come out of retirement and accept the controversial case, but being out of the limelight for a number of years had softened him. The public hadn't, as he'd hoped, forgotten his face or his activism, and his previous fame had been both a boon and a bane in the trial against the young native of Tula, who stood falsely accused of spying for the Nivian Alliance. Procuring an acquittal had not, in all honesty, been very hard work. The poor alien kid had been railroaded from the very beginning, and the case had garnered massive amounts of media attention. Joey soon found himself at the center of a firestorm of controversy and debate, hounded by newspapers and magazines, both local and system-wide, his visage plastered across animated billboards and vid screens in every Colony and holding. His strong beliefs and fervent words became nothing more than sound bites to be repeated again and again ad nauseum, and he found his footsteps shadowed by admirers and opponents alike.

This press tour had been another of Yugi's brilliant ideas, he reflected glumly. Yugi, who knew first hand that hiding from fame most assuredly did not make it go away. But, Joey had already been down this road before, and he remained semi-reluctant to traverse it again. Still, in his experience, Joey had found that the best, most effective plan of action for dealing with the angry bull of an unwanted spotlight, was to just go ahead and lock horns with it. He planned on over saturating the media with his presence and making his adoring public so very sick of his face and voice, that when the smoke finally cleared, he could safely burrow back into the comfort and isolation of obscurity and insignificance. Until the next time, that is.

He gave a heartfelt sigh as he contemplated the utter and irrefutable truth of that realization. There would always be a next time; of that he was certain. It was in his nature to fight against perceived injustice, and he'd made a promise that January day, nearly fifteen years ago now; it was a promise he had every intention of keeping, right up unto his dying day.

Lifting his head and seeing that the caution light had gone off, Joey unfastened his seatbelt and stiffly made his way over to the well stocked minibar at the front of the cabin. As he leaned over, reaching into the small refrigerator for a bottle of water, he spied Tristan's soundly sleeping form sprawled out awkwardly across the row of seats nearest to the exit door. Smiling affectionately, Joey paused on his way back to his seat at the rear, bending down to stroke his husband's dark hair back and press a gentle kiss to his forehead. Tristan wrinkled his brow briefly, muttering nonsense and turning over onto his side before resuming his quiet, even breathing. The brunet didn't travel nearly as often as Joey himself did, and as a result, his body's internal clock resisted any sort of deviation from Galderma Prime mean time more strenuously than Joey's own.

He'd tried, albeit with half a heart, to talk Tristan out of coming along on this trip, knowing full well that he'd be dreadfully morose company this time of year, as well as insanely preoccupied with various meetings, public appearances, and press conferences. But his husband was nothing if not loyal, even to a fault, as he far too often set aside his own needs and desires to accommodate those of his love's. If experience was anything to go by, Joey figured that he'd probably been talking in his sleep again, and it was most likely this ever present, ever painful reminder of his heart's first owner that had driven Tristan to seek refuge elsewhere in the posh transport ship's spacious cabin.

As he settled himself back into the comfortable upholstery, Joey spared a moment of sympathy for his agent, his legion of staff and assistants, and various other hangers on crowded into other compartments of the ship, but he shrugged it off just as quickly. He really couldn't be bothered to deal with any lingering guilt over the issue. After all, he'd gotten to where he was today by overcoming adversity, through years of hard work and dedication, and he valued his privacy above all else. Tristan was the one of the few people he allowed into his personal sanctuary, and even he knew to make himself scarce when Joey was in his annual throes of remembrance. Hence the strategic retreat to more isolated sleeping accommodations.

In all fairness, he was vaguely ashamed that those closest to him felt the need to tiptoe around him cautiously every year at this time, but Joey could not change who he was, who Seto had made him, nor would he even want to, if given the chance. It was all he had left to cling to, and Tristan had entered into their relationship with full knowledge of his lover's past, eyes wide open and full of acceptance and compassion. 'Damaged goods', he'd joked once, and only once, after seeing the hurt flash across the blond's face at the careless words, and Joey himself didn't have it in him to disagree with the assessment.

Sipping his water and brooding silently, Joey made the conscious decision to not let his husband's sacrifices go in vain. These memories haunted him for a reason, and a very specific one at that. They were his cross to bear, shouldered willingly so long ago, accepted the very day he had been forced to say good-bye, as well as come to the most painful decision of his life. The decision to walk away from the only true happiness he had ever known.

Reclining his seat as far back as it would go, Joey Wheeler closed his eyes and remembered:

xxxxxxxxxxXXXXXxxxxxxxxxx

tbc