PART I: THE TOURNAMENT
Summary: Two years after graduation (see Prologue: Paradox), a Duel Monsters tournament "just for fun" brings the whole gang together again as old feelings create new tensions and a lost friend seeks forgiveness. But when is a Duel Monsters tournament ever "just for fun?" End of series spoilers. YugixTéa, JoeyxMai, mild MokubaxRebecca, hints at TristanxSerenityxDuke.
Disclaimer: I don't own Yu-gi-oh or its characters; Kazuki Takahashi does. I'm just taking them for a joy ride. I promise to put them back when I'm done.
Rating: T for mild language, violence, suggestive content.
A word about continuity (such as it is): Read the Prologue (Paradox) first to follow what's going on. This story mostly follows the dubbed American Kids WB version because that's what I watch with my kids. So sue me. ;) That said, whenever it suits my purposes, I borrow from the original Japanese version (gleaned from episode guides on the brilliant Yu-Jyo site, Janime, and False Memories – e-mail me if you want the links) or the manga. For example, Yugi and Téa were childhood friends, as in the manga, even though in the American version a flashback shows Yugi and Joey deciding they should get to know her after the boys are already friends. Basically, wherever there is a conflict between the American, Japanese, and manga, I go with whatever I like best. :) Events referred to that have not yet aired in the U.S. (some of the Memory World/Dawn of the Duel arc) I got from Janime and False Memories.
Oh, and about Mai's age: I've fanwanked her about five years younger because the idea of a woman in her mid-twenties falling for a 15-year-old kid is a bit too Mary Kay Letourneau for me (shudder). I have her at about 19 when she first met the others on the boat to Duelist Kingdom and yes, there is an explanation for the discrepancy between this and canon.
Two years after graduation
Téa Gardner walked quickly through the crowded terminal at San Francisco International Airport, trying to calm her restless nerves. Two years. How could it have been two years since she'd last seen him? She picked up her pace, anxious to see a familiar face. It wouldn't be his face, she knew, but at this point, any familiar face would do.
"Hey, watch it!" she snapped, elbowing her way past a couple who was walking through the concourse toward baggage claim as if they were on a Sunday stroll. She immediately felt bad and uttered a quick apology before hurrying on. She'd been in New York too long.
Finally she could see the security station and the crowds of people in the opposite direction going through the metal detectors, and then beyond the barricades, she spotted a tall, lean young man about her age, with a long tangle of black hair held out of his green eyes with a red and black headband wrapped around his forehead. As always, a single die dangled from his left ear on the end of a long earring. She broke into a wide grin and waved.
He saw her, and smiled and waved in return. She passed the barricades and threw her arms around him in a tight hug. "Duke, it is so good to see you!"
It really was great to see him. Though an arrogant jerk when Téa and her friends had first met him during the brief time he attended their school in Domino, Duke Devlin had quickly grown to be a close friend. He'd moved to San Francisco almost immediately after they'd made friends with him five years ago—could it possibly have been that long?—and had been living here ever since, but that hadn't stopped him from joining them on many of their adventures, even showing up in Egypt to witness the Ceremonial Battle.
"It's good to see you too, Téa!" he said warmly, squeezing her in return. Then he let go and stepped back, his hands on her shoulders. "Look at you! You look great!"
She blushed. "Yeah, right. Two three-and-a-half hour flights and a plane change in Dallas. I'm sure I look fabulous."
"You do!" Duke argued. "Show Business agrees with you."
She scowled at that. "Hardly."
"C'mon, let's get your bags. You want me to carry that?" he asked, indicating the carry-on bag she had slung over her shoulder.
"No, I've got it."
"Okay," he said, then with an exaggerated bow, offered her his arm. "My lady, your carriage awaits."
She giggled, taking his arm, and they headed down the escalator toward baggage claim. God, it was good to be among friends again, even a big-headed egotist like Duke.
"So how is New York?" he asked her.
She scowled again. "It's a pit. An unrelenting, repulsive, cesspool. I hate New York."
He raised his eyebrows. "You're kidding!" Then he nodded. "Oh yeah, I forgot, you're moving back to Domino, aren't you?"
"When my contract ends in August, just in time for my birthday. Less than three months and I'm free," she said through gritted teeth. "I start at Domino University second semester in October."
"I don't get it, Téa. Dancing in New York has always been your dream."
She sighed. "Sometimes you find you've been dreaming the wrong dreams."
"Is it because you've gotten chorus roles and aren't a star?" he teased.
"Ugh, no!" she retorted, horrified. "I've been really lucky. I've been working steadily, and I don't care in the least that it's chorus work mostly."
"What, you just don't like dancing anymore?"
"No, that isn't it. I love dancing. It just… I don't know," she said, hoisting her bag back onto her shoulder as it slipped. "I guess once it became my job it stopped being fun. Do you ever feel like that? Like Dungeon Dice Monsters isn't fun anymore because it's your work?"
"Actually, no," he replied. "I love making money off the game I invented."
She rolled her eyes. "You're like a second-rate Seto Kaiba."
"Give me a break," he shot back. "Kaiba and I may both be fabulously young and handsome entrepreneurs, but I didn't have a stepdaddy with a gazillion dollars to set me up."
"No, you had Pegasus."
"Hey, I had to work for that contract with Industrial Illusions!" he protested.
Téa started laughing. "I'm joking, Duke, take it easy!"
They made it down to baggage claim and elbowed their way through the crowd for a spot near the belt where Téa's bags were to be unloaded from her flight. While they waited, she asked, "So when do the others arrive?"
"Joey and Serenity will be here in a couple hours," he replied, looking at his watch, "but they'll have to go through customs first. I was thinking we have plenty of time to run back to my place, drop off your bags, and get a bite to eat before we come back to get them."
Téa couldn't wait to see Joey and his sister, but they weren't exactly foremost in her mind, either. "What about everyone else?"
"Tristan is coming on military transport and is meeting us at the pier tomorrow afternoon."
Still not what she was looking for. "And Yugi? Have you heard from him?"
Duke shrugged. "Nothing from Becky, either. I figured if anyone would've heard from him, it would be you. Or Joey or Tristan. Still nothing?"
She shook her head. "None of us have heard a word from him, unless he sent Joey an e-mail since he and Serenity left for Tokyo. I'm starting to get worried, Duke. Yugi bought his plane tickets six months ago just before he went on that expedition. The last I heard from him they were supposed to be getting back to Cairo two weeks ago and then he and Rebecca were supposed to fly to New York on Monday to stay with me and then we'd all fly here together. But no one heard anything so Joey contacted the university in Cairo last week and they said Professor Hawkins' team was delayed and that's all they knew."
"No news is good news," Duke said, trying to reassure her. "I heard the dig sites were out in the middle of nowhere and there were all sorts of religious restrictions against electronic communications and stuff from the local tribes. Very little communication with the outside world, and transportation is probably a bear, too. I bet it isn't unusual to be delayed a week or two," Duke said.
"Yeah, that's what I keep telling myself. But if he's any more delayed, he's going to miss the tournament entirely," she sighed, disappointed. She'd hoped that maybe in the last few days, Yugi would have at least have managed to contact Duke to arrange for pick up at the airport or something.
"Well, I do know the tournament officials are expecting him. They're making a huge deal out of it, too. 'The Return of the King of Games!' or something like that. Kaiba is going to foam up like a rabid dog over the fuss they're making over, well, anyone who isn't Kaiba."
"Oh God, Yugi will be mortified." But it made her smile.
Duke smiled, too. "Yeah, I can't wait to see his reaction." He nudged her with his elbow. "Don't worry, okay? He and Becky will be fine. They'll find a way to get here on time. Oh finally, here come the bags."
Téa grimaced at the mention of Rebecca Hawkins. She knew from the constant e-mails she and Yugi had exchanged in the year and a half prior to his leaving Cairo that he had come to regard her as something like a little sister, but the thirteen-year-old child genius still got under Téa's skin. Giving herself a mental kick for thinking like a jealous schoolgirl, she watched for her two bags to come up the belt from below.
By the time they got through customs, the extensive search through his bags, and the terrifying moment when he was pretty sure the severe, imposing, and very large female customs official was going to strip search him, Joey Wheeler was in a foul mood. It was hard to stay that way, however, partly because his eighteen-year-old sister was brimming with excitement at her first trip to America since she was a toddler and her enthusiasm was infectious. The other reason that it was hard to stay cranky was that now that they'd finally made it through customs, they were only minutes away from seeing their friends.
"Joey, look! There's Téa and Duke!" Serenity cried out, waving at their friends on the other side of the security barricades. She took off at a run, leaving Joey with all their luggage.
"Ren!" he heard Duke cry out as he swept Serenity into a tight hug.
"Great, just great," Joey muttered under his breath, his bad mood returning. But only as long as it took him to drag their bags down the concourse and past the barricades to where Serenity was talking with Duke and Téa.
"Joey!" Téa shouted, flinging herself at him before he could even drop the bags. He staggered back under her momentum, then regained his footing and threw his arms around her in return.
He held her tightly for a moment, than pulled back to look at her. "Téa, man are you a sight for sore eyes," he said. She'd changed since he'd last seen her when she'd come back to Domino last Christmas, which suddenly seemed like a very long time ago. She'd always been an attractive girl, medium height and lean, but professional dancing had added muscle tone and she carried herself with a grace she hadn't possessed in high school. Her chocolate-brown hair was longer than he remembered it, brushing her shoulders now, but she still wore it in basically the same style, with bangs dusting her large blue eyes. He grinned. "When did you get to be such a hottie?"
She blushed deeply. "Shut up, Joey." Then she, too, smiled. "You haven't changed at all."
He knew that was true. He'd only grown maybe half an inch since graduation, putting him at just under six feet tall, with the same shaggy blond hair that was always hanging in front of his brown eyes. "I'll take that as a compliment," be replied with a wink.
Téa laughed in response. "You would."
His reunion with Téa was cut short, however, when he saw over her shoulder that Duke was standing awfully close to Serenity, his arm casually draped across her shoulders. Breaking off from Téa, he went over to his sister and gave Duke a menacing glower. "Duke."
"Joey!" Duke cried, and if he was the least bit cowed by Joey's Protective Big Brother Glare, he didn't show it. Removing his arm from Serenity's shoulders, he grabbed Joey in a bear hug. "Glad you guys made it! You get through customs all right?"
"Don't ask," Joey grumbled. "You wanna give me a hand with the bags?"
"You got it," Duke replied amiably, and Joey found his bad mood dissolving again in spite of himself. The two men sorted out who would bring which bags, then they followed behind Téa and Serenity, chatting animatedly as they headed for Duke's car.
"I'm so excited you're moving back to Domino," Serenity was telling Téa. "I just moved back there myself. Yugi's grandfather is letting me stay at their place for free and I started college in April."
"How can you afford so much time off school in the middle of May?" Téa asked.
Serenity indicated her luggage with a nod. "You wouldn't believe the amount of books and homework I brought with me. I really shouldn't have taken so much time only a month into my first semester, but I really wanted to visit America and I couldn't miss the opportunity to see everyone."
"You're in pre-med, right?"
"That's right," Serenity confirmed. "Ever since the operation on my eyes, I've wanted to become a doctor. I took a six-week introductory EMT course over the winter, too, so I've already got a bit of a start with some basic stuff."
"Wow, you did all that before you were even done with high school?" Téa asked, impressed.
Serenity flushed. "I was eighteen already, so they let me in. It was very basic; I need more training before I could get a job or anything."
Joey couldn't help but brim with pride at his sister. While he would never be anything more than an almost-but-not-quite-champion duelist, his sister, the most important person in his life, was going to be saving people's lives.
"So when do you move back?" Serenity continued.
"My contract is up in three months," Téa responded. "I'll be back a couple of months before the start of second semester."
"That's great! We'll be going to school together! What are you studying?"
Joey watched as Téa hesitated. "I'm not really sure yet. History and Literature, mostly. I think I might like to go into teaching."
Joey shook his head. "You know, Téa, I still don't get it. For as long as I've known you, you've wanted to dance."
"I'll still dance," she said, turning to look at him over her shoulder. "I just don't want to do it for a living."
She took a long time to answer. "I think I got spoiled in high school with all the things we did. I mean, how many people get to help save the world? Dancing seems kind of… anti-climactic."
Joey nodded. "I know exactly what you mean. I miss the old days. I miss… making a difference."
Serenity stopped short in front of them and turned to face him. "You make a difference, Joey. I wouldn't even be going to college if it weren't for you."
That was a never-ending source of both pride and frustration for Joey. Pride that he was the one who was putting Serenity through college. Frustration with his parents as neither his mother, who had raised Serenity, nor his father, who had raised him—at least if you used the term loosely—had bothered to put away any money to pay for either of them to go to college. Their mother had exhausted all of her money on medical expenses for Serenity's eyes to the point where she hadn't even been able to pay for the final operation. That money had come from Yugi's Duelist Kingdom prize. Their father was a lazy, abusive, selfish drunk who blamed Serenity's medical problems and eventually her very existence for everything that was wrong in his life. Joey did try not to blame his mom too much and as for his dad… well, they were better off not having any connection with him anyway. Frankly, the last thing Joey wanted was for him to even know Serenity was in Domino at all.
Still, the very idea of Serenity not getting to go to college made him burn. She was so smart and kind and had so much to give the world. To him it was almost criminal. So for two years, he'd scraped and saved, living in Yugi's old room in exchange for working at his grandfather's shop, and working a second job as a cook at the university's student union, which would not only earn him more money to save, but would allow family members, including his sister, a greatly reduced rate on tuition. He also had won some decent prizes at quite a few dueling tournaments, and Serenity had earned a scholarship that would pay for all her books and supplies. Yugi's grandfather had kindly allowed her to stay with them, too. Amazing that the grandfather of his friend cared more about them than their own father. All of this should be enough to get her through undergrad, anyway. He'd figure out how to manage med school when the time came. It was his absolute top priority.
He gave Serenity a quick dip of his head, acknowledging her words, then grumbled "You wanna keep moving there, little sis? These bags are kinda heavy."
Serenity smiled and turned around again, following Téa to Duke's convertible, where they managed to stuff all the bags into the trunk then all piled in. Joey glared again when Duke offered Serenity the front seat next to him, but Téa grabbed Joey's arm and pulled him into the back seat beside her and they were off to Duke's apartment where they'd be spending the night and recovering from jet lag before heading for the tournament tomorrow.
The Duel at Sea World Championship Tournament was the most elaborate tournament Joey had participated in since Kaiba's Battle City Tournament in Domino almost four years ago. It even rivaled his very first tournament, Duelist Kingdom, which had taken place on the private island owned by Maximillion Pegasus, CEO of Industrial Illusions and creator of Duel Monsters. Or the modern version of the game, anyway. Duel at Sea was to be held on a chartered cruise ship that would sail from San Francisco north toward the Alaskan coast. Like Battle City and Duelist Kingdom, Duel at Sea was invitation only, although each duelist was allowed to invite one non-competing guest, which is why Téa, Tristan, and Serenity, none of whom dueled at tournament level, were able to come. Serenity was Joey's guest, Tristan was Duke's, and Téa was Yugi's.
Unlike Battle City and Duelist Kingdom where he had wormed his way in merely by virtue of his friendship with Yugi Mutou, this time he actually had an official invitation. There'd been a tense week or so at first when he wasn't sure whether he'd get one after Yugi, Rebecca, and even Duke had theirs before his had come, but just before Yugi left Cairo for his dig, Joey's invitation had arrived. Over the past few years, he'd become quite a skilled duelist, often taking first place at tournaments and he was the current National Champion of Japan. Of course, he knew he'd never have won that title if Yugi hadn't removed himself completely from tournament dueling to concentrate on his accelerated studies in Cairo and Kaiba hadn't pretty much moved to America. The former he'd only beaten in friendly, private games, never in a tournament; the latter he'd never yet been able to beat, and Kaiba still took great joy in reminding him of that every time they saw each other. No matter how many trophies and titles Joey had to his name, he'd always be "second rate duelist" to Seto Kaiba.
On the bright side, ever since Egypt two years ago, Kaiba had warmed slightly to their gang—if the definition of "warmed" could be interpreted as moving from absolute zero to somewhere in the polar range, anyway—so Joey tried to take the barbs with a grain of salt, but he still itched to actually beat Kaiba in a duel. He didn't get many opportunities, however; besides dueling on the American circuit these days, Kaiba, whose only goal in life, at least when it came to Duel Monsters, was to defeat Yugi, didn't bother to go to many tournaments. But Kaiba was still the current reigning World Champion due to Yugi's semi-retirement, so he was sure to be at this tournament, especially if there was a chance Yugi would be competing. Joey knew Kaiba would be as bent on beating Yugi as he himself was on beating Kaiba.
He couldn't wait.
"So Joey, did you check your e-mail from Tokyo? Any word from Yugi about what happened and when he's coming?" Téa shouted so she could be heard over the wind whipping past Duke's convertible.
Joey gritted his teeth. He was as worried about Yugi as she was, but he was getting a little sick of her constant queries about him. "Yes, I checked my e-mail from Tokyo. No, there was nothing from Yugi."
Téa's shoulders slumped, causing Joey to feel a little guilty for his irritation. She did have reason to be concerned, after all.
"Would you relax?" he said bracingly. "He said he'll be here, so he'll be here."
"He also said he'd be in Cairo two weeks ago and New York four days ago."
"He'll be here," Joey repeated with emphasis.
"I hope so, or I won't be able to get in since I'm his guest."
"Never gonna happen," Joey insisted. "He wouldn't miss this tournament for anything. I'm sure he and Rebecca are busting butt to get here. Besides," he added, a wicked glint in his eye, "you know Mokuba Kaiba's been dueling on the tournament circuit these days. I bet you could be his guest. He's always had a crush on you."
"Joey, he's just a kid," Téa protested, her nose wrinkled.
"He's not a kid, he's almost fifteen now…OW!" he finished, when Téa kicked him in the shin by way of reply. "That hurt!"
"You are so gross," she grumbled, her arms crossed.
Serenity, who had been half turned in the front seat, listening to them over the wind, covered her mouth with her hand and suppressed a laugh. Then she asked, "So who else will be at the tournament? Anyone else I would know?"
Joey shrugged. "I don't know who's been invited. You, Duke?"
"Not really. I know Yugi's registered because the tournament officials are making a huge deal out of it, but otherwise they've kept the list kind of hush-hush. A hundred and twenty-eight of the top duelists from all over the world, that's all I know, but you can make a pretty good guess at some of them."
"Both Kaiba brothers, that's a given," Joey said. "Probably Leon von Schroeder. Mako Tsunami."
"How about Bakura?" Duke asked.
"Nah, he doesn't really compete on the tournament level much anymore. I don't think he likes to be reminded of who was actually doing the dueling for him before, if you know what I mean. I haven't seen him in a while, actually. He's been spending a lot of time in Egypt. I think Yugi's probably seen more of him than I have, at least before they left for the dig. And speaking of Egypt, I don't think the Ishtars are coming, either."
"Rex Raptor and Weevil Underwood will probably be there," Duke added, and both Joey and Téa groaned.
"Man, don't those two ever quit? They are so past their prime. I don't know how they keep getting invited to these things." Joey said.
"Cheating, mostly," Duke replied.
Joey snorted. "How about Vivian Wong, think she'll be there?"
"No, she retired," Duke corrected.
"Well there's good news; that girl is nuts," Téa complained.
"Nuts, yeah, but she is hot," Joey grinned, earning him another kick in the shins.
"There are some new faces on the American scene that will probably be there," Duke went on, "though Becky would wipe the floor with them if she were still dueling here. And of course, now that Kaiba's living in San Francisco most of the time, they only shot anyone ever has at the championship here is when he's too busy to compete."
"What about you, you're a champion on the American circuit, aren't you, Duke?" Serenity asked him.
"Eh. I'm okay, but I'm nowhere near Kaiba's or Becky's league. Besides, I concentrate on Dungeon Dice Monsters too much to ever get too high up in the Duel Monster ranks."
"You got invited here," Téa pointed out.
He shrugged. "There are a lot of politics involved in tournaments like this, believe it or not. It isn't always about who's the latest champion. Yugi and Rebecca haven't competed in two years, but they're still on the list because when Yugi Mutou duels, stores sell out of booster packs, and if Yugi Mutou and Seto Kaiba are both dueling, it's big bucks for everyone. I tend to get invited to tournaments because Industrial Illusions wants to promote Dungeon Dice Monsters, not because I'm the greatest duelist."
Joey leaned forward and cupped his hand to his ear. "What's that? Did I just hear right? Was Duke Devlin actually being modest?" He then fell back again and with a dramatic sweep of his arm covered his heart with his right hand. "I think I'm having a heart attack!"
"Watch it, or I might have to defend my honor in a duel, Mutt," Duke said, with emphasis. Joey raised his arm to make a gesture in response, but Téa restrained him and gave him a maternal glare.
Serenity, who had ignored the whole exchange, asked "What about Mai? Do you think she'll be there? I'm really hoping to see her again."
Joey winced. He saw Duke look at him in the rearview mirror, his eyebrows raised in silent query. Joey narrowed his eyes and shook his head slightly.
"I don't know, but I kinda doubt it," Duke replied to Serenity.
"But she still duels, doesn't she? I know I've read about her winning some major tournaments."
"Yeah," Duke said carefully, glancing again at Joey in the mirror, "She did tag team dueling in China with Vivian Wong for a while until Vivian retired. Since then I think she's mostly been on the European circuit, where she started out."
"She's not European," Serenity said.
"No, but she learned Duel Monsters in Europe when she worked on a cruise ship casino," Joey replied before he could stop himself. He immediately regretted it when this piqued Serenity's interest further.
"A cruise ship! Well, then I'm sure she'll be here since this tournament is on a cruise ship. It's perfect! Besides, it's a World Championship, not regional. There'll be people from all the major circuits, right? She wouldn't miss that for anything, and I know she had to have been invited."
"Don't count on her being here, Serenity, okay?" Joey said, irritation rising. "She doesn't hang in our circle anymore."
Leave it to Serenity to open that wound. Not that it was her fault; she'd idolized Mai Valentine since they'd first met at Battle City and Joey had never told her what had happened the following year in California or why he never spoke of Mai anymore. It wasn't what Mai did to him that still left him cringing at the mention of her name after all this time—he had long since forgiven her and saw no need in tarnishing her in Serenity's eyes. Rather, it was the fact that other than a letter of apology that she'd sent him immediately after they'd returned from California, she'd had absolutely no contact with him whatsoever in the three years that followed. Although he no longer expected or even dared hope to see her any time he entered a tournament, he still missed her and wished they could have resumed their friendship.
"So Serenity," Téa said, leaning forward in her seat, "I'm so glad you finally got a chance to visit America! You're going to love it here! You and Joey are going to do some sightseeing after the tournament before you go back to Japan, right?"
Serenity turned to Téa and with great enthusiasm began to detail their whirlwind one-week post-cruise itinerary. As she talked, Joey caught Téa's eye and shot her a grateful smile. While still listening with rapt attention to Serenity as she looked forward to seeing the Grand Canyon, Téa reached over and gave Joey's knee a small, comforting squeeze.
God, it was good to be with his friends again. And tomorrow, Tristan and hopefully Yugi would be here as well. The whole gang, together again.
They talked over pizza at Duke's, each of them filling the others in on their current lives. They talked about the gradual growth in success of Dungeon Dice Monsters and they talked of the show Téa was dancing in and of her reasons for quitting and moving back to Domino. They talked of her college plans and Serenity's first month of college. They talked of tournaments Joey had won and tournaments he had lost.
Though they were all excited that at least half of them were together again and enjoying the chance to catch up, jetlag eventually set in. Téa was the first to succumb, as she was three hours ahead and by nine o'clock it felt like midnight to her. Joey's and Serenity's internal clocks were more confused; they had tried to adjust their sleeping schedule to Pacific Daylight Time while still in Tokyo and had slept only fitfully on the plane, but still, nine o'clock was one in the afternoon to them so Serenity wasn't quite ready for bed when Téa could no longer keep her eyes open. Téa said her goodnights, then headed off to Duke's room where she and Serenity would sleep while Joey and Duke took the sofa bed in the living room.
Alone, Téa changed into her pajamas and washed up, then slipped between the covers of Duke's comfortable bed. As exhausted as she was, however, sleep would not come easily. She was among friends again: Duke and Serenity and especially Joey. It hardly felt real. Tomorrow she would see Tristan.
Tomorrow she would see Yugi. Or at least she hoped she'd be seeing him.
Please let him make it here, she prayed silently.
Ever since confessing how she'd felt about him that day not long after they'd come back from Egypt, she'd regretted saying anything. In the end, it had only confused things, especially with the later discovery that he had somehow retained Atem's memories. She felt a little like she'd used him, dumping her conflicting emotions over him, Atem, and Atem's departure on him when he had enough of his own feelings to deal with. So when she went to New York, she'd resolved to just be his friend, the kind of friend he deserved, not one so self-focused. She'd made new friends, dated a little, though nothing very serious, and tried very hard to convince herself that the feelings she'd had for him before were just a high school crush.
That self-delusion fell apart the moment he'd told them he was leaving Cairo and would be out of touch for six months. Facing that long a stretch of time that would be completely devoid of him, she'd realized that rather than getting over him, she'd managed to fall hard for him instead. It was then that she'd broken up with the last of her almost-boyfriends and told herself that when she and Yugi were together again, she would find out how he felt—something she'd been too afraid to do back in Domino—and then see what was next.
But now that she was actually here in San Francisco, less than twenty-four hours away from seeing him, the thought absolutely terrified her. Would she be able to tell how he felt when she saw him? His feelings for her had always been so hard for her to read because he'd treat her with a sort of devotion that would make her think he must like her as more than a friend, but then she would realize that he treated all his friends with that kind of unflagging loyalty and affection. Would she just be making the same mistake she'd made two years ago, dumping something on him that could only burden their friendship? It had survived the last time, but could it survive two such revelations, or would he feel put upon? And her worry over his failure to return to Cairo or come to New York at the appointed times only heightened her anxiety. She'd gone from obsessing over what she would say when she saw him to obsessing over whether or not she'd even get to see him at all.
She took a deep breath to try and calm herself. Thinking of Yugi was not exactly helping her sleep, so she tried to let her mind drift to other things. She let one of the songs from her current show waft through her mind, feeling herself doing the dance steps even as she lay still in bed. Usually going over a dance number she knew backwards and forwards was the perfect way to lull her to sleep, but tonight it only made her think about her decision to quit dancing and move back to Domino and suddenly she was wide awake again.
She knew quitting dancing and going back to school was the right decision. She felt it in her bones that she needed to be doing something more, that dancing was only supposed to be a part of her life, not all of it. But moving back to Domino… that decision gnawed at her. She could have stayed in New York and gone to school there. She'd initially come to the U.S. on a student visa, then later obtained a temporary work visa when she started auditioning for shows. She could have easily gotten another student visa, and her work visa would have allowed her to work part-time to pay for school. It wasn't exactly easy to get a work visa in the U.S. and it made her nervous to give hers up and lose some of the progress she'd made toward a green card. Ultimately, she wanted to end up in the United States, not Japan, so it caused her no small amount of anxiety to take a step backwards from that goal. However, she hated New York City and it was very expensive to live there. Japan wasn't exactly cheap, but at least she could live at home while going to school, and in a couple of years she could transfer back to the U.S., somewhere less expensive than New York, and start over again.
Besides, Joey and Serenity were in Domino.
This was ultimately, she knew, the real core reason behind her decision to return to Japan, and that is what bothered her the most. At almost twenty, she was at a time in her life when she needed to think about her future, not her past, and not make decisions about where at attend school and what to do with her life based solely on being with her friends. But the truth was, she missed them too much. It wasn't that she hadn't made any friends in New York, because she had. But clearly her heart was elsewhere and she suspected a huge part of her aversion to New York was simply the fact that Joey, Tristan, and Yugi weren't there. Yugi would still be in Egypt another two years and Tristan had one more year left of active duty, but Joey and his sister both would be in Domino and she could be with them. Half the gang was better than none.
But the decision to go back did not rest easy with her. She didn't want her life to be defined by dancing, but did she want it to be defined by her friends? Of course, it always had been, hadn't it? Who was she, really? Téa Gardner, friend of Yugi Mutou. Friend of Joey Wheeler. Cheerleader. Background support. They were the fighters, they were the ones who actually did the something more she'd been looking for. She'd merely… watched. She used to think that when she got to New York and started dancing that she'd come into her own, that she'd finally be doing the thing that was her gift. And it was her gift, but it wasn't what she wanted for her life, either. But was she only going backwards? By going back to Domino to be with Joey and Serenity, was she admitting that there really was nothing important for her, that her only skill was to follow those with the real talents?
Then there was the fact that she'd made her decision two months ago when Yugi was out of contact and she couldn't even talk it over with her best friend first. And now that she was away from New York and in an American city she actually liked—and where another of her friends lived, she belatedly remembered—it felt even more like the wrong choice.
She sighed and rolled over. What's done is done. It was too late to renew her student visa and her work visa would soon expire. No point in dwelling on the decision now that it was too late to change her mind. Domino was a good place to live, she told herself, and Domino University was a decent school. She would be happy and she would be with some of the people she loved most in the world. Maybe in Domino she'd find her real place after all.
Taking another large cleansing breath, she let a second song from her show seep into her brain, and this time it and the jetlag finally won out over the other thoughts on her mind and she fell asleep.
After Téa went to bed, Serenity asked Duke to show her the basics of Dungeon Dice Monsters. Joey, too tired to play the game and even too tired to worry about Duke hitting on his baby sister, yet not ready to sleep, went out onto the balcony off the living room from where he had a nice view of downtown. It was a breezy May evening and the air smelled slightly of the sea.
San Francisco. He really liked this city, except… the last time he'd been here was the last time he'd seen Mai. If only Serenity hadn't mentioned her.
Who am I kidding? he chided himself. Being in San Francisco would make him think of Mai whether Serenity had mentioned her or not. The last time he'd seen her, they'd been dueling in a vacant lot somewhere in this city. He could probably even find the exact spot if he cared to try, but that wasn't exactly a place he was anxious to revisit. It had been an Orichalcos duel that had followed immediately on the heels of another Orichalcos duel where he'd defeated Valon, the guy who had been responsible for Mai joining Dartz's group in the first place. Completely drained from dueling Valon, he could hardly see straight during the duel with Mai and he'd lost, but he'd been glad then that he'd lost, and he was still glad now.
He couldn't help but feel partly responsible for Mai's decision to throw in with Valon and Dartz and the rest of them. He knew what the Shadow Game with Marik's Yami side had done to her in Battle City the year before, how her memories had been brutally assaulted and one by one her friends removed from her consciousness until she felt completely alone. She'd seemed fine after Marik was defeated and everyone who'd lost to him returned from the Shadow Realm, but how could he have not checked to make sure? After all she'd been through, it had been stupid to think she'd come out of it unscathed, and yet he did nothing, nothing to ensure that she knew she had friends, that he would always be her friend. As they'd stood there on the dock saying good-bye, he'd just stammered at her, too full of how much he cared about her to say anything at all. It took an admonishment from Téa to get him to go after her, to say something before she left, but even then he'd been unable to say anything of substance. She'd let him off the hook, telling him what he'd done for her had said enough, but while she'd gone out of her way to say that getting to know him had been her favorite part of the tournament, all he had managed in the end was to thank her. Not one word about how much she meant to him in return.
So she'd left and when the nightmares had started, she'd had nothing to remind her that she was not alone because he had let her walk away thinking she was. That was why she was susceptible to Valon and to Dartz and that was why she ended up with a Seal of Orichalcos card in her deck and an Orichalcos stone around her neck. That is how she ended up dueling Joey and though he hadn't let her win, he'd been glad to lose because it wouldn't be her soul that the Orichalcos took. If his stupidity and fear of being honest about how he felt had contributed to her getting into the Orichalcos gang, then it was only right that he be the one to help get her out.
It had worked, too. In the last moments before as the Orichalcos had taken him, she'd held him, crying, apologizing for blaming him for her problems. There were vague memories after that: one of being trapped along with Mai, who had apparently lost her own soul after their duel, and also Pegasus and Yugi and forced to fight as Duel Monsters on Dartz's side of a match against the Pharaoh and Kaiba. There was another memory where he was floating in a sort of bubble talking to Yugi and Pegasus, with Mai nearby but not awake. It was the last he saw of her spirit before their souls were all returned to their bodies. In the real world, he didn't see her again at all, not even at the KC Grand Championship that followed. Mokuba had said she'd been on the list to invite, but that no one knew where she was.
Sighing, he pulled his wallet out of his back pocket. Thumbing through its contents, he came to a dog-eared piece of lavender stationery folded over several times. The envelope, which he'd long since discarded, had been postmarked from Spain. Though he knew most of the words by heart, he read them again in the dim light coming through the window from Duke's living room behind him.
I don't know how I can begin to apologize for everything I've done. You were right, I should have never listened to Valon and Dartz. I was stupid to think slavery to power was a trade up from loneliness when all it could ever do is make things worse. I was wrong and you were the one who paid the price.
I know that you would like to believe I was brainwashed, that I was not responsible for my choices, but I am begging you to not accept that lie merely to comfort yourself. I chose the Orichalcos and I chose to fight against you of my own free will. To believe anything else would be to deny me what I most need right now, to accept responsibility for my actions.
I got into this mess because when the nightmares started, I chose to find someone to blame rather than to actually do something about the problem. I was lonely because I refused to reach out to those who had shown me friendship. It was easier to believe it was my friends who had abandoned me than it was to admit I actually needed them. Since you were the one who showed me the greatest friendship, Joey, it was you who I most blamed for my isolation. It was so much easier to hate you than to admit how much I missed you and I am so ashamed of that I can barely stand it. I thought that needing others made me weak, but in you I see how love for your friends makes you strong. It took seeing you fight not one, but two difficult duels just because you considered me a friend to wake me up, and then it was already too late. When I left Battle City, I thought being caught in the Shadow Realm would be the worst moment of my life. I was wrong. The worst moment of my entire life will always be watching you fall and the Orichalcos take you away and knowing it was all my fault.
I know you deserve an apology in person, but to my further shame, I can't face you yet. I will, though, I promise you. I am going to work very hard to own up to everything I've done and to be the person I choose to be, not what I think I have to be to appear strong to others. When I've taken a long hard look at myself and really worked on changing what I don't like instead of blaming you or anyone else, then I will be able to look you in the eye and apologize face to face. Until then, this letter is the best I can do.
Thank you for being the truest friend I ever had. I will always regret that I was not a true friend to you. You deserved better, and I'm sorry.
He sighed again and leaned against the balcony rail, letting the breeze ruffle his hair and cool his face. He knew he should throw the letter away. If she hadn't made good on her promise to face him in person after almost three years, she wasn't going to. Not that he needed yet another apology from her. He just wanted to see her again, to be friends again and to apologize to her for not being more honest after Battle City. He'd kept the letter because her honesty had deeply moved him and he wanted to be that honest with her when he saw her again. And he kept it because it was the last thing he had from her, this promise that he'd see her again some day and they'd be friends again. Some day. It was something to hang on to.
But some day wasn't coming. It was time to grow up and move on, to stop hanging on. He straightened up and looked out at the city below him. San Francisco, where it had all happened. This was the perfect time the perfect place to let go.
Biting his lip and steeling his resolve, he held the letter out before him with both hands, then closing his eyes, he tore it in half. It felt like he was tearing his own heart apart, but he continued, resolute, stacking the two halves together and tearing again. Again and again he tore until the stack of scraps was too small and thick to tear through. He held them in his fist a moment, clenching tightly, his eyes closed against the memories and the tears that threatened. At long last, he opened his hand and let the breeze carry away the scraps of paper, scattering them across the city where he last saw her.
"Good-bye, Mai," he whispered, then turned and went back inside.