Disclaimer – Think of this as a game of jacks. The pieces themselves belong to Kazuki Takahashi, but the way they landed when I tossed them into the air is my doing.
A/N – This is part of an alternative universe I started in the fanfic Variation on a Theme. That fic explored what the YGO universe might have looked like if ten-year-old Yuugi gave away the Millennium Puzzle to cement his friendship with Anzu and she solved it instead of him. This fic comes after Variation on a Theme (FFN ID: 2630951) and Unforsaken (FFN ID: 2935491), but before Hand of Friendship (FFN ID: 3027189) or Fish Out of Troubled Water (FFN ID: 3365168). I think I may have to put together a proper continuity list at some point, as every time I believe I've left this universe behind I think of something else I want to write for it.
It Only Hurts When I Breathe
© Scribbler, March 2008.
I played the fool today.
I just dream of vanishing into the crowd.
Longing for home again –
Home is a feeling I buried in you.
I'm all right, I'm all right;
It only hurts when I breathe.
-- From Breathe by Melissa Etheridge.
1. Breathe In
Mai wrapped her hands around her mug and stared into her coffee. She supposed she should've waited before ordering. Social niceties said it was rude to go out for coffee with someone and then drink yours before they even arrived. Still, social niceties could take a running jump. Today Mai was playing by her own rules and nobody else's.
She scowled at the fact she was even here. Since when did she bow to the whims of anyone but herself? True, she could name several times in the past few months when she'd done just that, but only for those she'd come to call friends, and none of them were meeting her for coffee.
There was a kid bawling its head off at the next table, while its mother consulted a glossy magazine and dipped biscotti into her latte without glancing at either mug or offspring. She hit her mark every time, betraying long practise as she chewed, swallowed and reached for another, eyes never leaving the page. A part of Mai wished she could block out the world so easily.
Mai settled further down in her seat. He wasn't late, so she didn't actually have any right to be angry, but she was anyway. The cheek of expecting her to keep her promise – a promise, she constantly pointed out, that had been made when she was trying to save a lost soul and thought the world would end within twenty-four hours – was enough to make her angry on its own, without him setting the stage in such a public place. That just added whipped cream and sprinkles to her boiling resentment.
The Domino City Mall was a hodgepodge of chain stores, family businesses and restaurants that vied for shoppers' attention though flashing lights, special offers and catchphrases. It was tackiness incarnate and both sounded and smelled like a war between a canteen and a rock concert. For someone like Mai, who'd spent the past few months hiding in her apartment (when she wasn't out saving the world, of course), it was the atmospheric equivalent of pulling her ribs out one by one and hitting herself over the head with them.
She consulted her watch. She was now only fifteen minutes early. The coffee was pretty good and she was glad she'd had one before he arrived. Rather than tense her up, the caffeine made her feel calmer and she drained the last of her mug with a satisfied gulp.
When she put it down, however, her satisfaction evaporated like steam.
"Valon." More of a statement than a greeting. He was early.
Valon winced theatrically. "You're not happy to see me?"
"Just sit down and let's get this over with."
He did sit, but his eyes frowned above his mouth's smile. "That's not really the mood I was going for."
"What did you expect – me to wrestle you to the floor in a hug of gratitude that you'd sacrifice your precious time for my benefit?"
"It'd be a start." He held up his good hand with the palm towards her. "Okay, okay, I get the hint."
"If you'd got the hint I wouldn't be here." Mai folded her arms and recrossed her legs. "This isn't a date," she informed him crisply.
"No. It's just me fulfilling the promise I made, since you kept up your half of the deal."
"And I've got the scars to prove it." Valon gestured, grinning, to his left arm, which was strapped across his chest in a sling. "In case you wee wondering, it does still work, I just have to rest it. Not much power to the old swing anymore – I went to the gym and the punch bag beat me up."
Rather than putting Mai at ease his grin only made her feel more irritated. So did seeing him in street clothes – in her mind she'd pictured him turning up in his Apocalyptic Biker outfit. It would've been easier to hate him and forget what the others had said while he looked like a reject from a bad gay porn movie. Now she realised that would've been ridiculous, but the sight of him in shirt and jeans made her uncomfortable. He looked like a regular guy meeting a lady friend for an innocent coffee.
"Just because you got hurt doesn't make this a date," she replied.
Valon sighed and shrugged, then winced. Rubbing absently at his left shoulder, he nodded compliance. "All right, it's not a date. So what is it?"
"A psycho stalker living out his sick fantasy?"
"Ouch." For a moment the corners of his mouth turned down. "Is that how you really see me?"
"No. I really see you as an arrogant asshole with a conscience that decided to wake up at the very last second, who happens to have the habits of a stalker, which he passed off as 'just doing his job' while working for the biggest megalomaniac psycho on the planet and casually ignoring the damage that immortal psycho was doing by passing it off as inevitable collateral damage. But that's too much of a mouthful to say all the time."
For a moment Valon seemed to falter. His comeback was still sharp, but the timing was fractionally off. "Technically Dartz wasn't immortal; he'd just lived a really, really long time." He paused. "A really long time. But he wasn't immortal. I'm surprised you forgot that."
"Don't. Push. It." She narrowed her eyes at him. She may have turned up, but she wasn't going to make this easy. Perhaps she wasn't as diamond-sharp as she'd once been, but neither was she a complete pushover.
When she first mentioned how Valon had asked her out, Anzu wasn't as outraged as Mai expected. Instead, the younger girl went very quiet, eventually saying in a thoughtful voice that Mai should accept. To Mai's increasing horror, Yuugi, Ryou and Otogi agreed. It was just a coffee, after all, and Valon had helped them against Dartz when it really counted. He'd even gotten hurt in the process, and getting hurt to protect someone was like a rite of passage for friendship with them.
Naturally, Mai had tossed her head and proclaimed them all idiots.
"He risked a lot to help us," Yuugi had pointed out. He should know. He was there, even though he wasn't firing on all cylinders at the time. "And a lot of that was because of you, Mai, not us. The guy lost his soul for you. It's not asking too much to repay him with one date." He'd said this with a combination of gentle chiding and apprehension, every pore aware that for Mai, whose breakdown after Battle City was as spectacular as it was devastating, it may well be asking too much.
She'd told them what Valon said to her outside the trailer, that morning after the Oricalchos claimed Anzu's soul in place of Yami's. Valon had approached Mai with an offer to work against the very organisation he'd served up to then, citing no other reason than Mai's own wellbeing. He said he didn't care about her friends or the more philosophical reasons for fighting against Dartz, just her. Trembling with rage, Mai had told them how, when she was at her lowest after Malik, right before they found and dragged her back from the edge and long before Dartz made his first move against them, Valon was watching her from the shadows with the intent of bringing her into Doma.
"He said it was to heal me," she'd spat, skin still crawling with the idea of being secretly observed at her most vulnerable. She'd lived too long with her image of self-sufficiency. Even her friends' working their way under that veneer wasn't enough to let her accept just anyone seeing her weak. "Apparently when you joined Dartz he wiped away your doubts and fears with his magic. As if I'd ever agree to let more magic mess with my head?" She'd injected more vehemence into her tone than strictly necessary. A tiny part of her – the part that still sometimes dreamed of drowning in sand – couldn't be sure she wouldn't have tried anything to escape the nightmares and crippling anxiety in the wake of Malik's mental torture.
"But Valon fought for you," Ryou had said softly. He said most things softly, though he rarely said anything that wasn't worth listening to. "He jeopardised everything to keep you safe. Remember how he fought Raphael on your behalf when he challenged you because you had Hermos?"
"Valon took over for you even though he knew he wasn't strong enough to beat him without the Oricalchos," said Yuugi. "He refused to play that card even when Raphael tried to force his hand."
"Even Yami couldn't resist that temptation," Anzu had interjected. "That shows strength of character. Right? Maybe he's not such a bad guy after all. Maybe he just had some bad breaks and made some bad choices. Like any of us are fit to judge about something like that?"
Feeling pressganged, Mai had grumbled and turned her face away, discouraged but not dissuaded.
Now their words replayed in her head as she looked across the table at Valon. Without the metal straps, the studs, the bike or the body armour she realised he was actually quite small. She'd always suspected he was shorter than her, but his chest was thinner than she'd imagined, and his biceps were hidden beneath his shirtsleeves giving the impression of slimness. His hair wafted crazily with no goggles to hold it back. He pushed it out of his eyes as he signalled to a waitress but it fell right back again as soon as he let go.
Yet despite this softness there was a kind of wiry strength to him, as if his whole body was a knuckle. The waitress noticed it too and obviously found it attractive. She shot Mai a withering look her customer relations manager would have reprimanded her for, curling her lip at Mai's neckline and figure. Mai took her own total lack of jealousy as a good sign. She lived for competition. She was the type of person who revved other cars at stoplights and got a thrill when beating any opponent, but she couldn't be bothered to do more than stare blankly at the pretty waitress with her Barbie curves and proprietary touch of Valon's arm. She was welcome to him.
Valon ordered a mocha but asked Mai what she wanted instead if picking something for her. After the waitress was gone he leaned on the back of his hand and smirked. "So, time for smalltalk. How've you been?"
His eyes were, Mai thought, invasive and smug. Her spirit shook inside her like a small hot flame. Couldn't this be over already?
She leaned back in her seat, purposefully putting distance between them as he leaned further forwards. She wanted her signals to be absolutely clear – even if he hadn't taken any notice of them so far. Maybe the waitress would see and make a play for him. The sooner someone else distracted Valon, the better. "You only specified coffee. That brief never said I have to actually talk to you."
"Spoilsport. But seriously, how have you been? How's the little brunette – Ainzu, was it?"
"Anzu." Mai inspected her nails. "She's as fine as can be expected, considering she had her soul sucked out and almost fed to a monster lizard."
"Exactly why I asked."
Mai's index finger twitched involuntarily. Oh yeah, he was speaking from experience, wasn't he? "Anzu's fine," she said flatly. "Everybody's fine."
"That's good to hear. I got quite attached to that lot while we were allies."
"I thought you didn't care about them. You said they weren't the reason you switched sides."
"Well that was before I got to know them, wasn't it? They're a nice bunch. Close. Very loyal. They saved my bacon while I was on their side."
"Meaning you're not anymore?"
"You're looking to trip me up, but it won't happen." Valon wagged a finger at her. "Truth is I've gone straight. Since you saw me last I've broken off all connections with the Paradias Organisation. I don't even live in the house they provided anymore. I'm a free agent – master of my own destiny." A melodramatic wave accompanied this statement, robbing it of any gravity. "I've barely talked to Raphael or Amelda since Dartz's defeat. They're both travelling the world trying to find themselves now they don't have a big mission to give their lives purpose." He shrugged like it was no skin off his nose whether they succeeded or not. Valon seemed to treat most things like they were no skin off his nose. Moments when he showed actual emotion, beyond mild amusement or unease, were isolated and infrequent.
Mai pushed away a recollection of his eyes, wide and dark like a smashed Precious Moments doll when he finally found the strength and a good enough reason to yank off his Oricalchos ring and throw it into the ocean. If he hadn't done that he might've been able to break out of Raphael's duel the way he used its power to punch the green dome covering Yuugi and drag him, unconscious, from a duel he couldn't win. Yuugi was so bereft without Anzu he'd made a stupid decision to challenge Raphael when they found him, but Valon rescued him and the shock of nearly losing another friend snapped Yami from his mawkish stupor. From that moment it was like having the old Yami back – the driven Yami who chafed against Anzu as she kept him in check, instead of the self-pitying, withdrawn version they'd been left with after she disappeared.
Yet Valon had been emphatic about getting rid of the ring even though it lost him his edge against their enemy. Mai didn't understand at the time, and understood only a little more now.
"So where do you live now?" This wasn't idle interest. Mai was worried that Valon, like a true stalker, would set up home in her neighbourhood since he knew where it was. She'd just got settled again and didn't like the idea of moving, but she would if she had to.
Valon seemed to know her thoughts. "I moved to Rubik City. I work over there now, too. This trip to Domino was a long way out of my territory, but worth it." His voice dropped on this last sentence, and there was an underlying sincerity Mai wanted to distrust but felt more discomfited by.
Her eyes ticked from him back to her nails, each one long and red and perfectly formed. She'd been to the manicurist for the first time in ages, determined to give the impression she was in complete control – unlike the last time they saw each other. Back then her nails were scuffed and chipped, several torn from clinging to cliffs and stealing Raphael's bike so she didn't have to rely on Valon to escape Dartz's monstrous army.
It was more difficult than she'd expected. Valon wrong-footed her. She was trying really, really hard to maintain the hate that was so easy to rouse while he wasn't there. Staring at her living room wall, talking to Anzu, Yuugi, Ryou and Otogi, organising her Duel Monsters deck – these were all activities in which it was simple to summon a belly-scorching disgust for Valon. He was one of the bad guys. He'd seen her breakdown and almost turned her to the darkness because of it. He'd stolen who knew how many souls for Dartz before turning against him for all the wrong motives. Those were good reasons to hate him.
Except that watching him accept his mocha and tip the waitress, awkwardly pushing money into her hand because of his sling, she was reminded of how he got that injury. She recalled the horrific 'crack' when Raphael, crazed with the realisation that Dartz had caused his family's deaths and shouting that it couldn't be true, pinned the arm Valon had already injured rescuing Yuugi against a stone pillar and slammed his fist down on the joint. As bearer of this bad news Valon endured the full force of Raphael's meltdown. Valon's scream was unearthly and terrible, and she remembered the way Seto Kaiba slammed into Raphael before he could do any more damage. As if that wasn't starling enough (Seto Kaiba showing concern for another human being who wasn't his brother?), she also remembered the way Valon pushed Yuugi's helping hands away so he could duel Raphael to stop him attacking their group in his grief-stricken madness. That duel gave Mai and the others the chance they needed to reach Dartz's central chamber, and Valon's pain and sacrifice were enough to convince everyone he really had turned to the side of good – everyone, that is, except Mai.
Her dislike of him was a combination of anger that he'd worked for Dartz and resentment that he'd seen her at her weakest. Irrational, perhaps, but no less potent for it. Unlike Anzu, Yuugi, Ryou, Otogi or even Yami, who had also seen her when she was little more than a slowly putrefying ball of despair, Mai objected to Valon knowing what she'd been through after Malik. He had planned to take advantage of her weakness to recruit her for Dartz and that, more than anything, she found unforgivable.
Well, she grudgingly admitted, maybe not just to recruit her for Dartz. At the time he'd honestly believed the Oricalchos was key to solving major emotional torture. During their battle against Doma Valon had learned for himself that this wasn't true. Like Mai, he'd finally had to face up to whatever had driven him into Dartz's clutches on his own, without the Oricalchos's twisted magic to cushion the blow. She still didn't know what had made him think Doma was the answer in the first place, but what followed when he broke out from under its influence and threw away his ring had mirrored her own struggle to reconcile herself with her scarred emotions. That should have endeared him to her, but instead something about Valon prodded the part of her personality that demanded she be the Strong Woman Who Took No Crap. It was hard to maintain that image knowing he'd seen her on her knees screaming at the world.
"Once upon a time I believed I was the best hope you had of getting your life back."
That was what Valon said when he revealed how he'd been in her life far longer than she'd realised. Mai shook the memory away, focussing instead on the embers of her anger. She picked up her fresh cappuccino and blew steam off it, pursing her lips with their carefully applied non-smear, extra-gloss, red-as-her-nails lipstick. Red was a vibrant colour, not wishy-washy like pastel, chilly like blue, or falsely cheerful like yellow. Red bespoke danger. Women who wore red could take care of themselves and had no need of knights in armour – either tarnished or shining.
Silence stretched between them for a few minutes. Valon fetched handfuls of tiny milks and creamers, holding each one up to his mouth to tear the foil with his teeth before dumping them into his drink. His arm was much better, but because the joint had been severely damaged it demanded rest. He told her he'd developed lots of little ways to get by with only one hand, filling in the gaps left by her silence, and then asked if her coffee was nice. Mai only grunted in reply.
"I used to come here a lot when Dartz had us watching the God Cards," Valon said. "Raphael and Amelda hated it. They were so focussed on the big mission they didn't have time for something unrelated like coffee. It was always work, work, work with them – if it wasn't for the good of Doma they only spent the bare minimum of time on it. That included eating and sleeping. You ever tried to eat an egg roll while doing seventy on a motorcycle?" He swirled the liquid in his cup and stared into it, as though he could see images of his past in the foam.
"Were you watching Anzu for long?"
"Is that how you found me the first time?"
"No. I thought I already told you that part. I saw you on TV when you were in Kaiba Corp.'s Battle City Tournament. Dartz didn't order me to bring you in; I sought you out on my own because I honestly thought the power of the Oricalchos could help you forget your pain. Of course," his voice turned grim, "that was before I appreciated just how much the Oricalchos was doing my thinking for me. I never really thanked you for that, did I?"
"What?" Mai was confused.
"I wanted to bring you into the fold to save you, but it ended up you saving me by bringing me out of the fold. You already know I didn't originally turn against Dartz because I disagreed with his beliefs. I left because I didn't want you to be hurt. As it turned out, I did – do – disagree with his beliefs, I just didn't know it at the time because the Oricalchos had such a hold over me. It was insidious, that thing." His words carried the ring of something repeated so often it had melted into bitter acceptance. He closed his eyes and rolled his shoulders as though shrugging off the memory. It wasn't quite a shiver, but gave the same impression. "The influence you had over me was that bit stronger than the Oricalchos, and just strong enough that I could finally figure out what was wrong with what I'd been doing with my life up to that point. So thank you." He chuckled. "You kind of saved my life as well as my soul."
Mai didn't know what to say to that. His bare-faced openness was confusing – especially in public. She hadn't had to tease the admission from him; had barely shown any interest before he confessed something so personal it would've caught in her own gullet like a shard of bone. She glanced around at the other customers of the coffee shop while thoughts flew around her head like a flock of bewildered sparrows.
Memories woke and yawned and unfolded: Valon's stricken expression after he took Yami and Kaiba into Paradias Headquarters to look up its hidden history; the way he yelled cryptically at Raphael that Dartz had been behind everything; the motor-oil-and-dust smell of him slung across the front of Raphael's bike when she rescued him from a Doma monster soldier; his face, pale and drawn, as he was stretchered away to have his arm set before she followed Anzu into yet another of Seto Kaiba's tournaments. She'd tried hard to forget all about Valon until the phone call a week ago when he asked if he could cash in her promise to meet him for coffee.
His voice broke her from her thoughts. "'Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster'."
"Friedrich Nietzsche. It seemed appropriate. Plus it makes me sound smart." His wink ruined the solemnity of the moment.
Mai used to be good at being coy, but now she no longer had the stomach for it. Convalescence, the apocalypse and being chosen to wield Hermos had made her face several important issues about who she was and wasn't. "Why did you join Dartz?"
For a moment Valon looked shocked that her brazenness was more brazen than his brazenness. He paused with his lips pressed to his cup but nothing going past them. Then, slowly, he put it down so gently it made no noise against the tabletop. "That's a long story."
"And that's a cop out."
"This isn't actually what I'd planned on talking about when I asked to meet you."
"Tough. This isn't what I'd planned to do with my Saturday afternoon, but I'm here."
"I suppose it's my fault for bringing up the subject. Don't you want to discuss politics, or fashion, or movies or something?"
"Not even movies?"
"I don't watch movies."
"Duel Monsters, then. Found any good cards lately?"
"You tell me. Haven't you been watching me again?"
"You really aren't going to make this easy, are you?"
"Should I? You aren't making yourself any easier for me to understand."
Valon shrugged "What's to understand? I used to be a bad guy and now I'm not. It's your basic average redemption story."
"If it was so basic and average you'd have no problem telling me why you joined Doma."
"Touché." He raised his mug. "You're definitely one in a million, Mai."
That wasn't remotely a proper answer. It didn't even make proper sense. It sounded like he'd stolen it from a Hallmark movie and used it to shut her up.
She levelled a look at him that was colder than Midwinter. At the North Pole. During the Ice Age. "I already know all about your buddies, Raphael and Amelda."
"I bet you don't. Not even I knew everything about them and I worked side by side with them for years."
"At least they took the time to talk to Anzu and the rest of us and apologise for what they put us through. It didn't make everything better, but it helped us understand where they were coming from."
Valon looked unconvinced. "Hm. One thing I do know about those two is that they play their cards pretty close to their chests – and don't worry, I won't hold it against you for not laughing at my witty pun. The whole time I knew them they fobbed me off with half-truths and discouraged any interest I showed in their lives before Doma. Amelda was always this fizzing ball of angst but never said more than 'Must find Kaiba, ug, Kaiba evil, ug, Amelda smash evil Kaiba, ug ug,' and Rafael had the emotional range of an orthopaedic shoe. Until he had his meltdown in Dartz's temple, I thought his catalogue went all the way from serious to grim. They're not exactly the carey-sharey types. If they told you anything it was an edited version."
"They told us enough. They explained how Dartz fooled them into working for him by promising them things he could never provide."
"Like a house with a picket fence and kids on the lawn?"
"Like payback, except he neglected to mention payback doesn't make pain go away." Mai remembered finding the Ishtars' phone number in Anzu's house, copying it down and holding it in one hand and a phone in the other for a whole night. "But you were already gone by then. I never got even an edited version of your story. Considering you stalked me, I would've thought you, especially, would want to get your side of the story across."
However, rather than inspire him to answer, her words instead inspired him to chug his mocha and keep up a sphinx-like silence while he smacked his lips. "This place does a good mocha," he said approvingly, as if she hadn't spoken. "When it has enough milk in it, of course. I never understood how Raphael could drink his coffee black. Straight black, no frills, practically just water with caffeine in it. Blech."
You could skate on Mai's stare, though he refused to meet it. "Why is this such a difficult question to answer?"
"I told you: it's a long story and not one I really want to go into right now."
"Amelda and Raphael -"
"I already told you that, too: I haven't spoken to them since Atlantis. Whatever they did or didn't say to you doesn't bother me. In fact, good for them if they finally pulled the corks out of their butts." Valon plunked his empty mug on the table, stuffed his serviette into it and abruptly pushed back his chair. "Let's go for a walk."
Mai snorted. "Just coffee. That was the agreement."
"Aw, c'mon. Just one itty bitty little walk?"
"Will you tell me if I do?"
"Wouldn't you do it just for the pleasure of my company?"
Valon frowned. "You still really don't like me, do you?"
"Why should I? And that was a rhetorical question."
He closed his mouth. "I always said you were a tough cookie. I guess I never realised you were such a stale one, too. Isn't it against the Good Guy Code to hold grudges?"
"Good Guy Code?"
"Yeah, you know, the unwritten rules for how to be a good guy – all that stuff about being noble, defending the weak and making the right choice even if it's not in your own best interests. The Good Guy Code."
"There isn't any code." Though life would probably be easier if there were. For people like Anzu, Yuugi and Ryou those rules seemed built in at bone level – the correct impulses came instinctively to them. Present them with a situation that called for them to play the hero and they filled the role without even thinking about it. For people like her or Otogi, who'd been selfish their whole lives, or like Yami, who'd grown up with a totally different set of values, those rules had to be learned and the learning curve was steep. Only one wrong move for it to be game over and there no practise range, just situation after situation where they were supposed to already know how to be heroes.
"Really?" Valon scratched his chin. "I could've sworn it took up the first few pages of the Hero Handbook."
Mai snorted again. "Idiot."
"That's good enough for me." He ambled away.
Mai stayed exactly where she was. She had no intention of following him. As far as she was concerned, her part in Valon's life was over and the coffee rings on their table provided a full stop to that chapter of her own story, too. Doma was disbanded; Dartz had been defeated; Anzu and all the other lost souls had been returned to their bodies or finally released into the afterlife. There really was no excuse for things not to move on from the whole ugly, messy business.
She realised her foot was bouncing in irritation and uncrossed her legs to tuck her feet under her chair. She'd barely touched her own drink but found she'd lost the taste for it.
"Damn it." Mai grabbed her bag and tossed some change onto the table.
Valon was propping up the wall outside. He smirked and Mai resisted the urge to slap it off his face.
"Going my way?"
"Buzz off, creep."
He shrugged and moved away, apparently confident she'd follow. Mai deliberately walked in the other direction, towards the escalators, though slowly so he could catch up with her. Sure enough, a few seconds later she heard his feet clunk into place behind her. He didn't say anything, but a small fierce smile turned up her lips. Valon didn't hold as many aces as he liked to think.
"So where are we walking to?" he asked.
"Philosophically or actually?"
"Just promise me no shoe stores. I don't do shoe stores."
"I should go into Shooz just to spite you," she said sarcastically.
"Well, I suppose I could use some new chains for my boots. I haven't ridden my bike in an age but I'll need some for when I finally get back on the thing."
Mai wrinkled her nose in disgust at his capriciousness.
"So why'd you decide to go with me?" Valon avoided a stroller and used the flat of his good hand to catch the door Mai didn't hold open.
Mai shrugged, unable to answer.
"I knew it – you don't hate me as much as you make out. I'll bet under that icy exterior you actually kind of like me."
"I never said that. I want closure, and for that I need to understand why the hell a person like you would join Doma."
"A person like me?"
"Don't get any funny ideas. You're a creep and a stalker, and probably a borderline psycho, but you showed enough concern for the wellbeing of another person to put your own life in danger. You tried to convince Raphael not to duel, tried to make him not use the Oricalchos so you could save his soul, then sacrificed yourself to save people you barely knew. On the other hand for a long time you took an unhealthy pleasure in stealing souls just because you got some sick thrill from winning when the stakes were so high. You're inconsistent."
"I'm a loveable screwball."
"You're screwy, but you're not remotely loveable." Mai refused to look at him, too busy trying not to think about what made people revel in the pain of some and want to save others from equal amounts of pain. "The people whose souls you stole for Dartz, were any of them like me?"
"What?" Valon was baffled. "How do you mean?"
"In breakdown territory."
He went quiet.
"Is that a yes?"
"That's a maybe. I don't remember. Perhaps some of them weren't quite in their right minds – what kind of person accepts a challenge to duel with their soul on the line if they lose? Don't get the wrong idea, Mai," he said seriously, "I never hunted for exceptionally vulnerable people. For the most part Dartz picked out targets for us and we went after them. We didn't ask questions, even if we did question our target – which was rare. If someone was on our hit list they had to have done something really wrong and be really evil; it wasn't like we just randomly picked people off the street. We trusted in Dartz's judgement and in the power of the Oricalchos that worked through him. You have to understand that as far as we were concerned, we really were cleansing the world of impure souls. It was all for the greater good."
"'Cleansing the world'?" The disgust in Mai's voice was like bubbling stomach acid and tasted just as bitter. All at once she regretted not just waiting out his patience in the coffee shop. She quickened her step, automatically turned his feet in the direction of the elevator to the parking lot where she'd left her Cadillac. "That sounds a lot like genocide to me. And not one of you ever made the connection between that and what you were doing?"
Valon stopped in his tracks.
Mai paused a few steps in front of him, glancing over her shoulder but not turning.
"It wasn't always just the three of us," Valon said softly. "Working for Dartz, I mean. It was a worldwide operation. Three was never going to be enough for all that needed to be done."
"Yeah, you used to be a foursome. I remember that guy Anzu defeated when you stole the God Cards."
However, Valon shook his head. "That's not what I meant. There were others before that. The roster changed constantly, that's why it wasn't a good idea to get too attached to anyone. Sometimes Doma Riders lost their duels and had their souls absorbed by the Oricalchos, but sometimes … there were a couple who doubted Dartz and the mission during my tenure, and probably more before I joined. Dartz was operating for millennia before any of us were born, so there had to be."
"What happened to them?" Mai asked, just as soft.
"You couldn't leave Doma." He raised his eyes and fixed her with a meaningful look.
Mai didn't know what to say to that. Valon possessed a penetrating stare that belied how playful and annoying he could also be. Right now he was watching her with the concentration of a tanker of chemicals covered in bright yellow hazard stickers.
"We weren't a team in the traditional sense," he said, "especially not in the way you people were. Are. We worked together, sometimes lived together if the situation demanded it, but we weren't what you'd call 'friends'. We didn't look out for each other unless it made sense for the mission."
An image slid into Mai's mind like a cat slipping through a gap that should have been far too small to admit it: Valon facing off against Raphael, yelling at the taller Rider to try and stop him from duelling. She also recalled Raphael's confusion. If Doma didn't encourage attachment beyond getting the job done, it was no wonder Raphael hadn't thought twice about challenging Valon for his soul when he found out Valon had turned rogue. The Oricalchos still had enough of a grip over Raphael's mind to dictate his actions and, muddled with grief and denial over Valon's news that Dartz caused the death of his family, Raphael must have seen Valon's actions as the ultimate betrayal. Even if he no longer trusted Dartz, Raphael's mind was twisted up with misguided, dizzying loyalty to the Oricalchos itself.
"Is that why you wanted to recruit me; so you had an ally? Did you figure that if I saw you as my saviour you'd have a friend instead of just another co-worker?"
Valon sighed. "I see we're heading for the parking lot. You plan to leave me so soon? I thought we were going shopping."
Mai started walking again. "You're really good at not answering my questions."
"So are you. Here's one from you to me: Why did you agree to meet with me if you hate me so much?"
"Anzu. Yuugi and Ryou, too. And Otogi. They all reckon you're not such a bad guy. I, on the other hand, have yet to be convinced."
"You must think something of me if you were willing to meet me on your own without them as back-up."
Mai grunted, non-committal.
"I think a lot of you, Mai."
"Don't do that," she snapped.
"Make out that you have normal feelings for me. Nothing about you, or this, is normal. I'm done pretending things aren't what they actually are in my life, and I'm not making any exception for you."
"Is that something you picked up in therapy?"
Valon's neck twitched, as though her words had hit him like a slap to the face – which was ridiculous because she'd shouted much worse before and he'd always shrugged it off. That was the thing about Valon; no matter what she said, how badly she treated him or told him to his face that he was a scumbag, he just kept coming back for more. He really did seem obsessed with her. Mai waited for the familiar shiver to trace her spine … and was surprised when it didn't.
"How we met may not exactly be the personal ads, Mai, but don't misunderstand me – when I say I like you I mean it. The Oricalchos messed up my head for a while, but it never got to that part of me."
"And I'm supposed to believe that? You stalked me! You watched my apartment. How else would you know the condition I was in to even consider me for Doma?"
A pair of old ladies carrying voluminous shopping bags looked at them curiously. Despite being indoors, each wore what appeared to be a sheet of cellophane that held their blue-rinsed curls tight against their skulls. One whispered to the other and Mai knew she must've heard, but they scurried away like mice when she treated them to the full force of her glare.
Mai's heels clicked against the floor as she headed for a busier area of the mall and threaded her way through crowds of people to the elevator. "You saw my suffering as an excuse to get yourself an ally. Anzu and the others may have been late to the party, but at least when they arrived they helped me. They didn't do it because they wanted an extra member of their group; they did it because they genuinely wanted me to get better. By your own admission what you wanted was self-interested, and I have nothing more to say to you. Thank you for all your help against Dartz, now get the hell out of my life."
"Save it for someone who doesn't know who you are, Valon." Mai slapped the button for the elevator but, antsy with Valon right behind her and suddenly imagining being trapped in a small space with him, she instead yanked open the door to the stairwell and clattered down the steps two at a time. She listened, but there was no second slam to indicate he'd followed her.
She travelled the three floors to ground level and reached her car without mishap. Inexplicably breathless, she spent a moment leaning against it. The metal door felt smooth, comfortable and familiar under her splayed palms.
When she bought the Corvette it was a status symbol after finally breaking into the big time on the European Duel Monsters circuit. Everyone around her got themselves Bentleys, BMWs, Ferraris and Lamborghinis, wowing their fans with lavish displays of money they didn't have or had sold out to receive in advertising revenue. Mai saved up her winnings and bought the car she'd admired in American movies since she was a kid. It was a beautiful sleek red when she got it and screamed 'male-mid-life-crisis-mobile'. All it needed was an airhead blonde in the passenger seat and some Led Zeppelin. In an act of ownership that also made her take up her skirt hems and tighten her bodice laces, Mai paid to have it painted lurid purple like her favourite outfits and added furry dice to the rear view mirror. For others this would've been tacky and cheap, but Mai took this tackiness and stood over it with a glare like a metal-plated baseball bat. She owned it so completely that it became admirable instead. It was how she'd always lived her life – single-handedly and by her own rules – right up until the moment Malik sealed her up in her own mind and left her to die on the battlefield.
Mai dropped her head, gathering her thoughts and emotions. There was no point having a road accident because she wasn't thinking clearly before she got behind the wheel.
It was over. Atlantis, Doma, the Oricalchos and everything that went with it – it was finally, officially over. She'd fulfilled her promise, and if there was no real sense of closure with Valon then that was something she was just going to have to live with.
Mostly satisfied, or at least telling herself she was, Mai thrust a hand into her jacket pocket for her car keys. It took three tries to get them into the lock but once inside the car she took a deep breath, switched on the fan and made for home.
To Be Continued…
Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs
Mai pushed away a recollection of his eyes, wide and dark like a smashed Precious Moments doll when he finally found the strength and a good enough reason to yank off his Oricalchos ring and throw it into the ocean.
-- Precious Moments is widely known as a series of collectible porcelain bisque figurines. The original artwork was created by the American illustrator Sam Butcher in the 1970s and the dolls are all young children with distinctive teardrop-shaped eyes. They're maudlin as hell, and I can't decide which disturb me more; Precious Moments or Hummel figurines. For all they corner the market in cutesy kiddies I find them all quite soulless (not helped by the fact my mother adores Hummel so I have lots of austere little eyes staring down at me from her wall-mounted plates while I'm trying to watch telly). Additionally, that ring would be the same ring which, in the canon anime, Valon used to rescue Mai from her duel against Jounouchi when she started to lose control.
"I moved to Rubik City."
-- Fanonical location I've used a couple of times before. I figure that if the gang live in Domino, perhaps the other towns around it have similar game-themed names. Rubik obviously referring to that damn Rubik's Cube I started as a child and still can't solve).
Valon's expression when he learned Dartz had set fire to some church in downtown Edogawa.
-- Edogawa (江戸川区) is one of the twenty-three special wards that make up Tokyo. It takes its name from the river that runs from north to south along the eastern edge of the ward. Edogawa actually has a sister-city relationship with Gosford, New South Wales, in Australia which, coupled with Edogawa's dense population, crowded municipality and Valon's (very dodgy) Australian-by-way-of-Cocky-London accent in the dub, made Edogawa an appropriate place for him to be from, I felt.