Summary: Back in San Francisco, Yugi and his friends contemplate their futures in light of recent events and an interesting offer from Pegasus. End of series spoilers. JoeyxMai, YugixTéa, hints at TristanxSerenityxDuke, mild MokubaxRebecca.
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.
Continuity: Pretty much the same as the other parts of the series. Read those first, starting with the prologue. Yeah, they're really long. I'm wordy that way.
1. The Tournament Ends
When the shipwreck survivors' charter plane from Juneau landed at San Francisco International Airport Tuesday evening, a mob of press was waiting for them, along with family members who had been flown in by the cruise line. Téa's parents, Tristan's mother, Joey and Serenity's mother, Rebecca's grandfather, Duke's father, and Yugi's grandfather and even his mother were all among the crowd that had been ushered into a private waiting area to greet their returning loved ones. Later they were all shuttled to the Four Seasons hotel near Union Square where the cruise line and Industrial Illusions was putting them up for the remainder of their stay in San Francisco.
The next few days was a blurring, confused mass of interviews with law enforcement officials, interviews with the press, interviews with consulate officials from the passengers' respective home countries to get replacement travel documents, interviews with insurance adjusters from the cruise line. Each passenger was given an airline voucher for their flight home and an allowance to buy replacement clothes to last the week or so they would all be required to remain in San Francisco while Homeland Security conducted their investigation, although it seemed they would wrap it up much more quickly than that, authorities having concluded—at least officially—that Evan Haines had no political objectives and had acted alone.
By Friday, after law enforcement had pretty much finished with them but before the press's enthusiasm for the story had completely waned, Industrial Illusions president Maximillion Pegasus made an announcement that Alexander Nelson would be replacing Geoffrey Goradon as the president of the International Duel Monsters Tournament Commission and that the final four duels of the Duel at Sea World Championship Tournament would be held the next day at the Four Seasons. Despite the high profile afforded them because of the media, the finals were anti-climactic and the results a surprise to no one.
In the semi-final duel, Seto Kaiba defeated Joey Wheeler. It was an unexpectedly close duel—there were times when it looked like Wheeler, the undisputed underdog, might actually win, but in the end, Kaiba prevailed by more than a thousand Life Points.
In the second semi-final, Yugi Mutou defeated Mai Valentine. It was a spirited duel, but no one in the crowd ever doubted that the young man known throughout the dueling circuit as the King of Games would win. The only thing remarkable about the match was that it marked the first time Yugi's mother had ever seen him duel.
In the consolation match for third place, Joey Wheeler edged out Mai Valentine. Perhaps the most evenly matched duel of the entire tournament, the only surprise came at the end when despite the near constant exchange of stinging barbs slung back and forth at each other throughout the duel, as soon as Valentine's Life Points clicked down to zero, the two adversaries smiled at each other.
"You owe me dinner, Valentine," Joey told her.
"Fine. But I pick the place. Just make sure you wear a coat and tie."
The final duel for the title of World Championship was the fiercest and yet somehow most anti-climactic of them all. Yugi Mutou defeated Seto Kaiba with only fifty of his own Life Points left, but it was almost as if it were destined to be, as if no matter how close Seto Kaiba came, he could never quite succeed in unseating the King of Games. Even the aftermath was a bit of a letdown; though certainly there was none of the warmth between rivals that Wheeler and Valentine exhibited at the end of their duel, neither was there the expected outburst of rage and bitterness from Kaiba, known throughout the gaming circuit for his intensity, pride, and temper. He merely gave his opponent a tight grimace and a short nod of concession before walking off the field.
At the end of the Championship duel, Pegasus made a flowery speech about the strength of will characterized by all duelists as evidenced not just in their matches but in their survival during the crisis at sea. He announced that he would be holding a special brunch meeting in his suite the next morning to sign contracts with the top four duelists of the tournament to form the first ever Industrial Illusions Professional Dueling Team.
Saturday night, exactly one week after they'd made their way out of the cave, two weeks after they'd first left San Francisco on the Chrysaor, Homeland Security cleared all of the passengers to return home.
It wasn't until Pegasus's announcement about the Industrial Illusions Dueling Team and the subsequent word from Homeland Security that they could leave that it hit Joey: he was going back to Domino and Mai would most likely remain in San Francisco. From the moment she'd stopped avoiding him on the island, he'd been so rooted in the present, either enjoying how close he and Mai were becoming or focusing on the Shadow Games or beating Evan and Ramesses, that it had never occurred to him that when it was all over they would once again have to go their separate ways. Pegasus's announcement, then, came like a brick to the head, smashing him back to reality. It would be Battle City all over again, only this time he resolved to do it right. If he couldn't be with her, at the very least she would know how he felt. Besides, they still had a few days together anyway. Yugi and his grandfather were going to New York before heading back to Domino, so Joey wouldn't be needed back at the game shop right away and the university had given him an extra week of leave because of the circumstances, so that would give him at least few more days in San Francisco to spend with her. And there was the dinner tonight that he'd won from her in their duel.
After Yugi and Kaiba's duel and all the pomp and circumstance that followed, everyone split up. Mai had disappeared, probably to get ready for dinner. Yugi's mom was flying out early the next morning for some business meeting or something in London and Téa's parents were heading back to Japan tomorrow afternoon so the Gardners and the Mutous were all going to dinner together. Joey was thankful he had other plans; it had all the makings of parents checking out the prospects of future in-laws and he didn't want to be within a hundred miles of it. He wasn't sure where any of the others had gone, but he figured Serenity and their mom were also having dinner. Although he'd been trying to get along better with his mother since Serenity's operation, being around her was draining for him and he wanted no part of that either. His mother probably felt the same, he assumed.
That's why he was surprised and not particularly pleased to find his mother standing in front of the door to the hotel room he was sharing with Yugi, Tristan, and Duke.
"Joseph, there you are, I've been looking for you," she said when he came up the hallway from the elevators. It was still a good hour before he had to meet Mai for dinner.
"Ma? What are you doing here?" he asked, trying not to sound annoyed. "I thought you'd be spending time with Serenity or something."
"No, we're having breakfast together tomorrow. She's having dinner with… oh, I can't remember his name."
Joey glowered. "Tristan?"
"That might be it," she frowned, thinking.
"Duke?" he supplied.
She shrugged. "I forget. It was either the boy with the buzz cut or the boy with the long hair and the dice earring."
No problem. He'd just kill them both.
"Anyway, I wanted to see if you wanted to have dinner," she went on.
This surprised him enough that he stopped contemplating gruesome ways to murder his two friends. "You wanna have dinner with me?" he repeated.
"Yes, Joseph. If that's all right."
"Actually, I have plans."
"Oh, okay," she said, looking a little deflated. "Well, I need to talk with you for a moment."
"Okay," he said, folding his arms and waiting.
"Can't we at least go into your room?"
"Ma, I'm kinda in a rush here," he lied, "so can you just cut to the chase?"
"All right," she said. She fished into her handbag and handed Joey something. "First, before I forget, here's your airline ticket."
"My what?" he asked.
"Your airline ticket. I took those vouchers the cruise line gave you and Serenity and got tickets back to Domino for you. We'll all be on the same flight back to Tokyo and then you and Serenity can go on together to Domino. We leave tomorrow afternoon. I think your friend Téa's parents will be on the same flight, too."
"Say what?" Joey cried, his temper flaring. "You took my voucher and decided for me when I'm gonna go back? Did it ever occur to you maybe I planned to stay a little longer?"
Her face darkened. "How much longer?"
"None of your damn business!" he exploded. He snatched the ticket from her and looked at it. Departure was at three o'clock tomorrow afternoon, which meant he'd have to be there by noon or one at the latest since it was an international flight. Less than eighteen hours from now. Less than eighteen hours left with Mai. "It's non-refundable, isn't it? Dammit Ma, now I'm stuck going back tomorrow and I'm not ready to go back yet!"
"Why?" she demanded. "Because of that duelist job with that Mr. Pegasus? Serenity told me all about how you would be working for him since you finished in third place."
He stifled a groan. "Ma, listen—"
"No, Joseph, you listen. I know you like this game and I'm… well, I'm proud of how good you are. Don't look so surprised," she said when he raised his eyebrows, "I am proud of you. You're still my son, you know. But you can't do this. You can't leave your sister in Domino alone. Not when…" She trailed off, knowing she didn't need to finish the thought.
"Not when Dad's there. I get it Ma."
"I'm not sure you do," she said, and then he really lost it.
"What part do you think I don't get? That I'm the sacrifice so Serenity can have a good life? I got that when I was nine, Ma, when you left me with a pathetic drunk who could barely find his way home from the bar every night, let alone take care of a kid, so you could get Serenity away, and so you wouldn't have to risk a custody battle and money you needed for her medical expenses."
"No," he cut her off, "now you're gonna listen. I get how it works, okay? I know my role in this family. And in case you haven't noticed, I'm actually on board with that plan. Serenity always comes first to me and I would never do anything that would stop her from getting her medical degree and there's no way in hell I would leave her alone in Domino with that bastard. I'm not stupid. Serenity spoke outta turn. I will be offered the job, but I'm turning it down."
She relaxed at this, but Joey was far from finished. "But here's the thing you need to realize, Ma. It's my decision to make, not yours. I'm twenty years old and can decide for myself where I live and what job I will or won't take. You don't get to decide for me. Hell, you gave up the right to make any decisions for me when you gave Dad custody of me—and I know why you did it and I'm glad you did if that's what it took to get Serenity away from him and to get her eyes fixed," he added when she looked like she was going to protest. "And… in the end, my life is better for it. I couldn'ta become the person I am if I hadn't been in Domino, if I hadn't met Yugi, so in the end it all worked out, but that's no excuse for what you did, Ma. And you don't have a clue what I'm giving up here. Not a clue. You think it's just a game I like to play, but there's more for me here than you'll ever realize. So understand this: I'm going back to Domino because I love Serenity and I'll do whatever it takes to get her through college and med school, but you have no say in it whatsoever."
"Joseph," she said sadly, but he was in no mood to assuage her guilt.
"And don't ever take something that belongs to me again. I'll decide for myself where and when I'm going somewhere."
She looked at him a moment, then sighed. "Fine. I'm sorry if I upset your plans. I just wanted to be sure Serenity would be safe in Domino."
"I will never abandon Serenity," he replied. "Ever. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to meet a friend and I'm late."
"You're early. And not in a jacket and tie," Mai noted in a tone of disapproval when he showed up at her hotel room. He'd actually caught her out in the hall, key card in hand, just returning herself. She turned toward him, her back to the door. Like him, she was still in the same casual clothes she'd been wearing when they'd dueled earlier.
"I… let's take a rain check on dinner, Mai. I just wanna talk," he said.
She frowned, all reproach gone from her expression. "What's wrong, Joey?"
He ground his teeth in frustration. "It's my stupid mother, that's what. Never mind that I'm an adult, never mind that she gave up custody of me eleven years ago, she still goes and takes my plane voucher and decides for me when I've gotta go back to Japan."
Mai shook her head. "Hold on there. Start from the beginning."
Joey sighed. "My mother took mine and Serenity's plane vouchers and bought our tickets back for Japan. We have to be at the airport by noon tomorrow."
"Oh," she said, but then she shrugged. "Okay, so you have to go back a little sooner than you'd planned. You'll still be able to make that brunch at ten if you eat fast—and I've seen you eat, so no problems there. And then you'll be back in a couple of months for the new job."
Joey closed his eyes and clenched his fists. "Yeah, about that," he began.
"What?" she asked, and he could hear the frown in her voice. When he opened her eyes, he saw it on her face as well.
"The thing is… that job… I… well…" he stammered, "I'm not taking it."
Her eyebrows went up in surprise. "What do you mean you're not taking it? Joey, it's perfect! You're the third best duelist in the world—at least until the next tournament when I clean your clock. Dueling professionally, access to all the newest cards, a penthouse apartment, cars, travel. And what about Ramesses? You can't tell me you don't want to be a part of bringing that bastard down."
"I do," he said miserably.
"Then why on earth would you not take the job?"
"Serenity," he said simply.
This stopped her. "What about her?"
"Mai, you know my folks don't have any money. My mom's working double shifts just to pay off all the debts from Serenity's medical expenses. The only way Serenity can pay for college is if I pay her tuition, and the only way I can afford it is by working at the university so she can get a huge cut rate."
Mai shook her head. "I don't understand. Can't you just send money back to her? Pegasus has to pay better—"
"Not enough," he interrupted, "not in cash anyway. Lots of perks and benefits, but not enough cash to pay her tuition, especially not without the reduction from my working at the university," he repeated.
"What about all the prize money from Duelist Kingdom?" she protested. "Why didn't your mom use that to pay off her debts?"
"That paid for the last surgery and that's it. Ma was in debt long before that."
"Oh come on Joey, it can't be that impossible. There has to be school loans, scholarships. Serenity's brilliant. There must be dozens—"
"Do you think we haven't looked at every possible way?" he cut her off irritably. "Ever since she decided she wanted to be a doctor we've poured over every scholarship, every loan, everything we could find. She's even going to EMT school so she can work her way through later, but for now, she needs me. And I can't… Mai, I can't back out on Serenity. Not even for this." Even as he said it he wasn't sure if he meant the job, the fight against Ramesses, or the potential for a relationship with her. Probably a combination of all three.
"Besides," he continued, "there's more to it than just the money. Serenity can't live in Domino alone. Not as long as our dad lives there."
For Mai, who had her own father issues, this required no further explanation. "Okay," she said at last. "But why didn't you tell me the truth sooner? Do you really think I'm that fragile?"
"What? No! You're not fragile at all! To be honest, I wasn't thinking about anything past getting off that island once the ship sank. I wasn't trying to hide it from you, I just didn't think about what would happen next." His words sounded weak even to his own ears and he worried that she was thinking it was like Battle City, that he was blowing her off. "Listen Mai, if there was any way, I would stay. I really want this." Once again he didn't specify what "this" meant. "But I can't go back on my word to Serenity."
She looked at him a moment, then nodded. "I know how important your sister is to you."
He looked at her and swallowed over a lump in his throat. "I… it doesn't change anything, okay? I want you to know that. I want you to know that I'm not gonna leave you like I did after Battle City. I'll e-mail you, call you. I promise. I—"
"Joey, stop. It's okay, really. It's not like Battle City. I'm not gonna go off the deep end again and I won't forget I have friends. And I won't be alone here. I'll be with Duke, and Yugi…"
"Yugi," Joey repeated, shaking his head slightly. "I…" he stopped, not sure what to say next. "Is that what you think I'm talking about here, worrying that you won't have friends? 'Cause that's not the problem at all. I thought… on the island… I was thinking…" he stammered. He shook his head and tried again. "Am I crazy, Mai, or is there something between us?"
It took her a long time to answer, but he saw her face sort of soften, as if she'd just let go of something she'd been holding tightly inside. "You're not crazy, Joey," she said finally.
He let out a breath of air he hadn't even realized he'd been holding and closed his eyes a moment to let that sink in, but realized the way she'd said it there was a "but" attached. "But?" he prompted, looking at her again.
She sighed. "But five thousand miles is an awfully long distance to figure out exactly what, don't you think?"
It was like a knife stabbing his heart and twisting there. He looked down, no longer able to meet her eyes. "I guess it is," he said, swallowing over an even bigger lump in his throat.
"Hey," she said, putting her key card into the pocket of her skirt and pulling his chin back up with her now free hand so he was looking at her again. Her voice sounded raw, like his felt, but her expression looked resolutely optimistic. "It's probably for the best anyway. Nip it in the bud before things get too messy and we muck up a perfectly good friendship."
He gaped at her, not sure if she really believed her own words. She might as well have just suggested there was still time to keep from falling after he'd already stepped off the edge of a cliff. He blinked and looked up at the ceiling, shaking his head with a rueful smile.
"You're kidding, right?" he said at last, then met her eyes once more. "Don't you get it, Mai? I'm in love with you."
Her eyes got very round and her face slackened. She dropped her hand away from his face and simply stared at him. He gave her another smile. Despite feeling miserable knowing it wouldn't come to anything, he was glad to get that weight off his shoulders and he had to go on, to tell her everything.
"That's what I couldn't tell you after Battle City, why I couldn't call or write. I was in love with you back then, too, but I was just a stupid kid and you were so far outta my league. Then… California… all I wanted when that whole mess was over was to see you again. I carried that letter of yours for three years just because you promised I'd see you again. It was something to hang on to, and I wanted to hang on to you so bad I could taste it. But eventually I gave up. I figured you'd moved on and so should I, and then you showed up at that damn ball and oh my God, Mai, I couldn't breathe when I saw you again.
"And now, after everything that's happened, all the crap we've gone through, from the ship sinking to that completely wacked Shadow War with Reshef and all the stupid stuff we've been busy with since we've gotten back, none of it matters because all I can look back and see is you and the time we got to spend together and the only thing I can think is it was the best couple weeks of my life. All I want is to be with you, and I would do anything to make that happen. Anything… except the one thing I can't do, and that's sell out my sister."
He shook his head again in self-deprecation. "I'm still a complete idiot and you are still so far outta my league. But five thousand miles or across the hall, I'm not gonna stop being in love with you any time soon."
She stared at him a moment longer as if she couldn't quite comprehend what he'd said. Then with a growl, she said, "You are an idiot," and grabbing a fistful of his shirt yanked him roughly toward her into a feverish kiss, jerking him off balance in the process so that he had to put his hands out on either side of her to catch himself from falling onto her and smashing her into the door. As she pressed against him, everything he'd been holding back for two weeks spilled over like water through a crumbling dam. When he'd regained his balance, he grabbed her shoulders and pulled her closer as she wrapped herself around him, her hands grasping his face, her mouth sucking hungrily on his lower lip.
He ran his hands down her sides, wanting to touch every part of her, then belatedly remembered they were still standing in a public hallway. She started fumbling between them, surprising him for a moment, but then he realized she was trying to fish her key card back out of her pocket. As he was in a better position to get it into the door than she was, he took it from her as soon as she had it in her hand and without breaking the kiss, not even to pause for air, he pushed the key card into its slot.
It took him three tries to get it right, but finally he heard it click home and he opened the door, causing them both to lose their balance and tumble into her room. Stumbling, they collided with a wall directly across from the door that separated the entryway from the main part of the room, Mai's back against the wall and Joey leaning into her. As soon as the door clicked closed behind them, he let his hands explore, feeling every curve, every contour of her body. He kissed her lips, and then her throat, thrilled to hear her moan in response. Then it was his turn to moan as she writhed against him, then let her hands slip across his chest and under his denim jacket, up to his shoulders where she grabbed the collar of the jacket and pulled it downward, tugging it off of him impatiently.
At this point, the small part of him that was still able to think rationally cut through his desire and he pulled back from her. "Mai…" he panted heavily, "stop. I… I don't have anything… I'm not prepared…." He forced himself to take a staggering step back from her. "We should probably slow down anyway," he said with deep regret.
She gave him a ravenous look that nearly melted his resolve. "You sure about that?" she taunted, grabbing him again and pulling him into another long kiss.
Summoning all his will, he pulled back again. "Yeah," he said with conviction he didn't completely feel. "I don't wanna do anything stupid. It's… it's probably best anyway…"
She gave him an admonishing look. "That's too bad, Joey, 'cause how long have you known me? Aren't I always prepared?" She showed him the small purse she still had slung over her shoulder. Undoing the catch with one hand, she reached in and pulled out a familiar package with a flourish and a bright smile.
"Oh thank God," he moaned, then abandoning all pretense of self-control, he pushed her back against the wall and pressed against her, covering her mouth with his once more.