My window through which nothing hides
And everything sees
I'm counting the signs and cursing the miles in between – home!
-- From Breathe by Melissa Etheridge.
3. Breathe Out
Valon stiffened. Mai actually felt his breathing accelerate, following the movement of his chest with her hands.
"You don't give up, do you?" His smirk reappeared. "Actually, that's one of the things I find most attractive about you. You never give up, even when the chips are down. You always find a way to pull yourself back from the edge and come out fighting. We're similar in that respect – except that you had friends to pull you back and I had Dartz." He sighed, chin dropping onto his chest. "I think you got the better deal."
Perspiration dripped off his nose and Mai wanted to tell him not to wipe it away because him moving made staunching his cut harder, but she couldn't bring herself to say anything. Suddenly Valon looked so tired; a spirit-crushing weariness that made even his gravity-defying hair droop.
"I've always come out fighting," he said. "I didn't always mean to, it just kind of happened that way. I'm not like Amelda, or Raphael, or even Gurimo. For me it was never about getting revenge on one person or putting the world to rights – it was my own selfish need not to be alone and to punish anyone who crossed my path. You ever punched someone just because you can, Mai?" Valon shook his head almost immediately. "No, I guess not. You're too classy to use fists, right?"
Mai actually snorted at that. Classy? Maybe once upon a time. As far as Mai knew, classy was an outdated idea used to cover up the bad behaviour of rich people by renaming it as socially acceptable. Classy was for women who didn't know the thrill of wearing a short skirt and knowing you were wearing it for you, not for the people watching you. Classy was for women who'd never trash-talked across a duelling field, or worked on a ship's casino where blackmail opportunities were rife and not been tempted any of them. Mai remembered the glittery world in which she spent her childhood. The backstabbing and money-grubbing and loneliness in crowds of people had left a nasty taste in her mouth.
"I just had a knock-down drag-out fight and brained a guy with a hubcap," she reminded Valon.
"Always come out … fighting … We're survivors …" Valon looked at her with something too long to be a blink.
"Huh?" Several shorter blinks followed, in which Valon seemed to remember where he was. He looked at a point just over Mai's shoulder, narrowing his eyes in thought. "You just want me to keep talking so I don't pass out."
"So let's talk about the weather."
"Was it really that bad, what happened?" Mai tried to catch his eye and failed. Something inside her … didn't snap so much as withdraw at that moment. "You say you first saw me back in Battle City. You don't know the whole story. You say you understand what it's like to feel lonely and misunderstood, but you don't know what I went through there to make me that way." She took a deep breath. "I lost a duel against a guy called Malik."
What was she doing? What was she doing? This wasn't how it was supposed to go. This wasn't what she'd planned to say. The worlds burbled up from somewhere deep inside Mai where she'd thought she locked them away. She didn't need to say this with Anzu or the others – she didn't need to go into detail because they already knew. They knew and they didn't judge her, and that shored up Mai's self-confidence to where it used to be. So why was she bringing it all up now, to Valon of all people? You couldn't get more inappropriate than that. Nobody beyond those who were present at Battle City knew more than she'd allowed them to, which wasn't much, but the words just kept coming.
"He was just a kid – a no-name scrap from some backwater place in Egypt. I was taller than him, older than him, I had more Duel Monsters wins under my belt: realistically I was better than him in every way and I should've been able to beat him. I didn't. After I lost to him he used a Millennium Item to split open my psyche and dump a load of poison right into me. Sometimes … sometimes I still feel it crawling around inside, like I swallowed a cockroach or something. He made me believe everyone I'd ever cared for had abandoned me to die. My own mind was eating itself alive for nearly a day. I was so convinced I was imprisoned in a glass box filling with sand I'm told I actually started to choke to death. They had to clear my airways and pump oxygen into me through a machine because my body was giving up. Some sicko teenager literally reached into my head and tortured me just because he got off on the power trip and I was in his way.
"After it was over – when someone else saved me – I felt so … so dirty, like I should've been able to look after myself better than that. I always prided myself on being stronger than everyone expected. I … my family wasn't exactly close and they didn't believe I could make it on my own. Every time I overcame another difficulty it was like I was proving them wrong. Yet that kid was able to reduce me to this quivering wreck who couldn't get to sleep at night without a light on. I was a mess. Nobody took me seriously anymore. It felt like that one loss had taken away everything I ever worked for – everything I ever wanted to be. That's why I was depressed after Battle City, Valon. That's what was going on in my head when you were considering asking me to join Doma."
He kept his gaze resolutely away from her. "Is this 'I showed you mine so you show me yours'? 'My angst can beat your angst'?"
"No, I just …" Mai paused. Even she wasn't sure why she'd revealed all that to him. It had just seemed appropriate at the time. Ever weirder, she didn't regret it. Her throat was tight and her eyes felt like half-sucked boiled sweets, but she didn't regret a word. Not a syllable. "I guess I just wanted you to understand."
Valon grunted. "I grew up in Edogawa," he said bluntly.
"Edogawa. Big place. Lots of people. Lots of buildings. Lots of everything that makes a city plus a big dose of callousness if you grew up on the wrong side. You learned the rules pretty fast there – the guy with the best right hook reigned supreme and all the other dumb schmucks got out of his way. Hitting things is practically my first memory, or if it isn't, it should be. Lil' Valon, standing up in his crib, punching the daylights out of his stuffed rabbit. As long as all my punches were connecting I was okay, and that worked for me. That is, until I met Sister Mary Catherine." He blinked, and then blinked again before going on. "She hated fighting, and she hated me fighting even more. But what did I care? It'd worked for me for too long. Even getting arrested a couple of times didn't stop me. I was due in juvie if I got caught again, but I wasn't going to give up my edge just because some woman in a smock frowned at me.
"When I was fifteen I was sent to the orphanage run by her church. She made me promise I wouldn't do it anymore while living under her roof. I broke the promise, of course. I never intended to keep it; I just said what she wanted to hear to shut her up, then climbed out my bedroom window and shimmied down the drainpipe to go beat on whoever had ticked me off that day. But she just kept on forgiving me and looking at me with these big sad eyes, cleaning me up afterwards and serving me dinner like everyone else. At first I thought she was a moron, covering for me and acting like I wasn't doing wrong. I knew I was doing wrong, I just didn't care. If she was going to be a moron, I thought, then let her get on with it. All the better for me.
"She never skimped me or punished me or anything like that. It was weird. I was used to getting a good smack if I did wrong, but she never raised a hand to anyone. She gave me school books, told me I could make something of myself if I tried. I burned the stupid things and she bought more out of the funds. When I caught measles she stayed by my bedside like some character in a storybook – like I actually mattered. It sounds like I'm making this up, but she was real. Man, was she real. She had this … this way of getting under your skin – making you feel like you weren't destined for prison or a plot in come cheapo graveyard. I can't really describe it."
Mai could. She knew that feeling all too well. Flashes of faces swept through her like she was standing at a crossroads when a train went past: Anzu, Yuugi, Ryou, Otogi, Seto Kaiba, Mokuba …
Valon went on haltingly, but his words were picking up speed, "Eventually I felt so bad that I did stop fighting. Well, as much as I could. Mostly I changed what I was fighting for and cut back on the needless beatings. I set myself up as some kid defender of her and the church, so whenever anyone from the neighbourhood dissed it I was right there in their faces rearranging them. Sometimes she caught me. I learned to hate that sad-eyed look. It was crazy – me, the kid who'd mashed more rivals than a monster truck, and I was worried about disappointing some nun. But I … I'd started to care about her. She was the first person to show me kindness without wanting something in return."
Mai knew this story couldn't have a happy ending, but she still felt her stomach clench as he continued.
"I never figured out what made the Oricalchos pick people as Doma Riders. I don't understand what made some better candidates than others. Billions of people in the world and only a handful of each generation were ever worthy? Maybe if I'd stayed some street punk who didn't care about anyone it would've picked someone else. Maybe if I'd never learned to care about anyone but myself I couldn't have been chiselled into the right shape. Maybe." Even Valon didn't look convinced. "One night a protection racket burned down the church. I was out knocking heads together and when I came back the whole place was in flames. The orphanage was attached to the church building itself, so whoever targeted it had to know what would happen. The flames spread so fast the petrol bombs they threw might as well have landed in the nursery with the eight babies who burned to death in their cribs. Someone had put padlocks on all the doors – on the outside – so nobody could get out. I could hear the littlest kids screaming from three streets away."
Mai stifled her horror.
"I knew who did it, and I'll admit I went a bit crazy. A lot crazy," he amended, still not looking at her. His words tumbled like water over rocks, as though keeping them locked up for so long meant that now he's started, he literally couldn't stop. For the moment nothing existed in the world but him and his own voice. "There were five punks from the protection racket and one of me, but I still put them all in hospital with critical injuries. Nobody died, which I'm grateful for, but if the police hadn't found me I can't guarantee ... I was so angry I couldn't even see straight. Have you ever been that angry? So angry you feel like you're watching yourself from far away as you macramé some guy's face while he's begging you to stop? You can see yourself busting his kneecap and hear him pleading but you can't do anything to stop yourself. The kids I lived with begged, but nobody let them out. Nobody listened when Sister Mary prayed for a miracle. There was just me and my fists and then -"
A car door opened and an engine retched and turned over. Mai snapped around to see Gurimo behind the wheel, holding his head with one hand. She'd been so absorbed in Valon's story, and he was so distracted with telling it, that they hadn't even realised he was getting up behind them. There were bloodstains on the MG's door handle. Gurimo looked at her once, eyes blazing, and for a moment she thought he might drive straight at them to finish them off. They were an easy target and his face bespoke nothing but hostility and the settling of scores. He'd already proven he wasn't above killing in the name of his fallen master.
However, Gurimo didn't, instead pulling away and turning a corner out of sight. The fact that he didn't deem them worth bothering with made Mai more uneasy than if he'd turned his headlights their way and stamped on the accelerator. Maybe he thought there was no point. Maybe he thought he'd already done enough to settle his score.
She was suddenly very aware of Valon's laboured breathing and her own pulse loud in her ears.
Somewhere in the distance she could hear sirens. "The ambulance is on its way." Her hand felt funny. When she looked down she saw that the bit of her jacket pressed against his side was soaked with blood. "Shit."
"Not too classy to cuss." Valon's voice sounded weird; sort of slurred.
Mai immediately checked to make sure there was no blood in his mouth. She'd seen enough movies to know that a wound to the body that made blood come up the throat was pretty damn serious. Luckily, there was none there.
"You stay awake," she ordered. Blood wasn't gushing from the wound, but his face was wan and his gaze getting more unfocussed by the second.
How had this happened? An hour ago she was waiting to have coffee with him, tapping her foot in irritation and resolved to hate his guts from start to finish. She resented Valon. She was still bitter about the stalker issue, and the things he'd done for Dartz, and all he and Doma had put them through. She hated his presumption in thinking she might still be attracted to him in the face of all that. She hated him being attracted to her, full stop.
It had taken most of Mai's life for her to open up enough to make friends, much less have a relationship. Prolonged loneliness blunted trust and sharpened suspicion. Guys only lusted after her, and she'd had plenty of offers before but always turned them down. Valon was no different. He was an asshole with the charisma of a second-hand car salesman and the magnetism of a lion picking its teeth.
So why were her palms sweating and her throat closing up as she shook him now? "Valon? Hey, stay with me."
"N-never thought I'd hear you say th-that."
"Don't get used to it. I still can't stand you, but I don't want anything like this on my conscience. You came to my rescue so, for the time being, that makes me responsible for your miserable life. I'm repaying you by keeping you awake until the paramedics arrive."
"At last you acknowledge I c-came to your rescue."
"It'll be faster for them to treat you than for me to try getting you to the hospital in my car -"
His eyes slid shut and his head dropped forward.
"Valon! Damn it, didn't you learn first aid in Doma? All those missions, all that time in the field, surely you learned something useful apart from how to goad people into high-stakes duels. Didn't you ever fall off your bike or meet guys with worse attitudes than you? Stay awake."
"Mmf… duelling's not the same as hitting stuff. Didn't g-get hurt like this in Doma. Well, not much." He lifted his head, obviously making a real effort to keep his voice precise. "Don't take the pressure off the wound. Fold the other half of your jacket on top of it if you have to, add more layers, but don't move the bit of it that's already attached. Gotta – ngh – plug the hole. Blood needs to clot to stop the bleeding. Just like ice won't form on the rapids of a river, blood won't clot when it's flowing. You move that plug and it'll just reopen."
Mai hastily did as she was told, folding in the arms of her jacket and holding them tightly in place. It was a new jacket from Long Tall Sally, which she'd had to special order over the Internet and greeted with delight when it arrived in the mail. She wore it today to give her confidence a boost and remind herself she didn't answer to anyone, least of all arrogant assholes like Valon, but right now it might as well have been a dishrag as she used the carefully cut fabric to blot up his blood.
She was a little dismayed that she knew exactly how to get blood out of fabric and when it was time to throw something bloodstained out and buy a new one.
"I know why you don't like me, Mai."
She faltered, thrown by the unexpected statement. "Excuse me?"
Valon took a deep breath. "It's because you're scared that I'm what you could've been if you'd been given the same choices I was. If Dartz had come to you and offered you power and a chance to wipe out all your pain, to prove yourself to the world through Duel Monsters and show you were still in control of your own destiny when everything around you had turned to shit – you can't say you wouldn't have said yes, and that scares you. But I did say yes, so it's easier to just hate me for giving into the temptation instead of you, right? Easier t-to hate my weaknesses than admit your own. But I'm not a bad guy, Mai. I'm … house trained an' … everythin' …" Valon's eyes, which had been flickering, suddenly widened. He lurched away from her and noisily threw up. "Urgh … guh … aw, man. What an impression to make on a first date."
Mai wasn't listening. She was looking at the shard of glass sticking out the back of his thigh, which had been revealed when he shifted position.
There was much, much more blood than she'd realised. She looked at him, panic stirring inside her like a speeded-up icicle arching down from the top of her ribcage into her heart and lungs. Wasn't there some important vein or artery in the thigh that killed you in a few minutes if you punctured it? How long had they been sitting like this? More than a few minutes, but maybe she was remembering it wrong. How much blood could a body lose before it gave up and died?
Even the word sounded strange in this context. She could think about her own death easily, but this context made its meaning glimmer and throw off new connotations like light shining through a prism. She hated Valon. She did. yet did she hate him enough to want him dead? Especially after he'd just saved her life – again – and especially after what she'd just heard.
"Sorry," Valon said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
"What the hell are you apologising for?" Should she get him into the car and try for the hospital, or should she continue to wait for the paramedics?
"I got blood on your upholstery." He was back to not meeting her eyes.
"Don't be an idio-"
"I did this right before I followed those protection racket guys into the alley behind the shopping mart. Threw up, I mean. I couldn't … couldn't deal … so I just … didn't. Just shut down – let my fists do the talking. Wasn't thinking. Always worked before … worked when they sent me to juvie, too. Lotta bad stuff happens in juvie … stuff a lady like you shouldn't hear about … I'm not a bad guy, Mai. I'm a thug, and a screw-up, but I'm not a bad guy. Lotta bad stuff … juvie … sickos in places like that …"
Mai didn't know what to say. What could you say when someone sliced open their heart and gave you a guided tour of their secret pain?
Valon retched. It seemed to bring him back to himself. "Man, this hurts. Why do I always end up either debating the future of the world with you, or getting the crap kicked out of me and then getting yelled at for it?"
Mai willed the ambulance to hurry. They'd have equipment they could use on the spot, whereas she just had murky recollections of first aid and a guilty conscience. Gurimo was already long gone, but he wasn't her first priority anymore. "You're just lucky, I guess."
Valon was going into shock. All the signs pointed to it – the shallow breathing, paleness and nausea, plus he was beginning to get disorientated, mumbling and verbally wandering in circles. Shock was bad. Not as bad as bleeding to death, but still very bad.
This was not how Mai pictured her day when she left the house with a promise to call the guys if anything bad happened.
"You need to stay warm. I have a blanket in the trunk for if I ever broke down while it was snowing-"
"You'd think I'd be bitter against Dartz, wouldn't you?" Valon cut in as if she hadn't spoken. "I know the protection racket in Edogawa belonged to Paradias. I know he got the warden at my juvenile detention centre to give me a Duel Monsters deck and set me loose on the other kids with an Oricalchos card. Can't be bothered, though. Dartz is dead and I'm not. Bully for me. Augh … ngh …"
"I swore I'd never let myself be as weak as I was that night. I swore I'd always be strong, never be the little guy who couldn't … do anythin' … that I'd always … I was prepared to lose everything if it would make me forget that I'd cared … even about one person. Caring made you … made you weak. It made you have nighmares because caring means hurting when you're not enough to … I'd hitched my star to Doma and I would go wherever it took me. Except you don't forget. You just … stop feeling it so much. You're given a mission, something else to concentrate on, but yu don't forget." He gripped Mai's wrist in one clammy hand. There was a manic, unfettered look in his eyes that hadn't been there before, and even though it wasn't focussed on her, Mai felt intimidated by it. This was one of Valon's unguarded moments, but it was bigger than the others she'd seen. Shock and blood loss were making him fuggy and edging him towards something like hysteria. "I still saw her face. I still heard her screaming out to God to help her and I still … I still remembered how I couldn't do anything to help her except act like the same old thug I always was … lettin' her down again …"
Mai didn't know what to do. She felt herself falling towards a familiar pattern of helplessness. She really, really wished she hadn't pushed so hard for him to tell her his story. It had been a way to get under his skin, to exert power over him and to give her an excuse to walk away when she didn't even want to be there in the first place. She never imagined anything like this.
Was this what it was like for Anzu and the others when they stayed with me?
Valon babbled, "My life was like this … this piece of paper with the word 'Doma' on it, folding in on itself again, and again … and ag-gain … so there was … there was almost nothin' left the longer I went on. Just me, and Doma, and my fists hanging onto these pieces of cardboard that sucked out people's souls. Was even worse than punchin' people with 'em … I guess …" He laughed; a humourless chuckle like water gurgling down a drain. "The timing made sense. You made me question everything, Mai. Nuthin' like Sister Mary, but something about you reminded me … I think … you're a strong woman like her. Thinking about you in … in Doma with me. When I found you … it was like … like something inside me cracked open and all these … questions I'd been sitting on just … came out … I am talking such crap."
"Just keep talking."
"No, really, I'm talking crap. Forget everything I just said. Just … total … crap …" His eyes closed and his grip on her wrist relaxed. A long breath seeped from his mouth like the last bit of air from a punctured tyre.
"Valon?" Alarm laced Mai's voice. "Valon!"
He toppled towards her. She caught him awkwardly, eyes wide with alarm. Panic rose inside her like a column of badly stacked bricks. She could feel herself slipping, getting overwhelmed by the situation like she had that day beside the dumpster. She'd come a long way since then, but the after-effects of Malik's torture went deep. She could cope when she had people around her. She could fight for the future of the whole freaking human race if she had her friends nearby, but not alone like this. Alone, her nerve wavered like a candle flame next to an open window.
"Valon, please…" She hated the pathetic way she sounded and a tiny, selfish voice inside was glad he was unconscious so he couldn't hear the crack –
An ambulance screamed around the corner and skidded to a halt. One man and one woman in uniforms hopped out and the whole situation devolved into a mass of questions, soft touches and technical terms Mai didn't understand.
"Are you the one who made the call?"
"Uh? Uh, yes," she said, staring at the woman. "Yeah, that was me. The other guy took off, the one who attacked us."
"You know this guy?" asked the man, pointing at Valon. "Is he with you?"
"I-I think he's in shock-" Mai realised she was trembling as the woman gently peeled her hands away from Valon's side. Trembling – how pathetic!
"Looks like you are too, honey. You gotta let go now. That it, that's the way, just let him go. C'mon, we'll get you warm and see to your friend."
"He's not my friend," Mai automatically snapped, and then stopped herself. Part of her was thinking 'I'm not the one in shock here' but another part was saying 'so if you're not his friend then what are you?'
"We're gonna need a tourniquet on that leg," said the male paramedic. His expression looked grim. "Plus some rocket fuel to get him back to Domino General," he muttered, obviously not intending Mai to hear.
"There's glass in his leg and some got in his side, but that bit must've fallen out or something," Mai tried to tell them, but she was steered away with quick, purposeful movements. "I'm pretty sure his shoulder was dislocated too, but his elbow's an old injury – hey! Wait!"
Another siren blared and a police car pulled up next to the ambulance, disgorging a pair of police officers. Mai was wrapped up, her pupils were checked and a blanket found its way around her shoulders. He caught a glimpse of her Long Tall Sally jacket on the flooor, crimson and dripping, and then she was left with these two while the paramedics worked on Valon. Though she strained her neck she couldn't see what was happening to him.
"Are you his partner?" asked one policeman, ducking into her line of sight. He'd apparently been speaking for several seconds and she hadn't noticed. "Or are you relative of some kind?"
A relative? With their disparate looks?
"No, I'm his … friend." Mai swallowed. "We went out for coffee. He kept calling it a date and I kept correcting him. I only went out with him because we made a deal – he did me a favour and payment was sharing one cup of coffee. I never expected … he rescued me from that other guy even though I told him I never wanted to see him again."
The officers exchanged glances. Mai realised at once how much she sounded like one of those feeble movie-of-the-week actress and set her jaw against their sympathetic looks.
"So how would you characterise your relationship with the other man, the one who attacked you?"
Mai bit the inside of her cheek. "He used to know my … that guy I was with. My … friend." The title still tasted weird, like mixing cotton candy with coal dust. "They weren't all that close. I only met him once before and never spoke to him in my life. I don't know what provoked him to attack me; he was babbling nonsense and smelled really bad, like he hasn't been taking care of himself. Listen, I get that you have to do the whole questioning thing, but what are they doing to Valon?" She indicated to the ambulance, which obscured her view of her own car.
"Don't worry, honey," said the female officer in an entirely too familiar way, resting one hand on Mai's shoulder and slipping her a comforting smile. It made Mai angry. "They'll take good care of him."
Mai shrugged off the hand. "They're taking him away. Can't I go with him?"
"We'll take you to Domino General to get you checked out, but it's probably best you leave the paramedics to do their job in peace."
"Is there anyone we can call for you? Someone we could let know what's happ – 'scuse me?" The officer unclipped a radio from her belt and moved away to answer its crackle.
Mai heard the words 'crime scene', 'mugging' and 'young couple' along with number-coded instructions that made her feel like an extra on a cop drama. All the while she was conscious of the clank and squeak of a stretcher being loaded into the back of the ambulance. She wanted to look, but when she did she caught only a glimpse of uniformed backside retreating into the driver's seat.
"They'll take care of him," the other policeman said reassuringly, parroting his partner and doing nothing whatsoever to alleviate the heavy feeling in Mai's stomach. He was a soft, fatherly type, low-jowled and hood-eyed. Mai stared blankly at him. She realised it was dread in her stomach when the ambulance lurched away, snapping her attention to it, and she found herself hoping Valon would be all right so fervently that she clean forgot she didn't like him.
This is ridiculous. He's a stalker. He's my stalker. Plus he's a borderline psychopath. Remember the soul stealing. Remember what he said about always being a thug who likes to beat people up.
The remonstrations didn't ring as true as they had. Some part of Mai's brain kept going back to Valon's sweaty palm wrapped around her wrist, his shallow breathing and the garbled, earnest admissions about his past. She also remembered the incredibly liberating feeling that'd suffused her when she let her own secrets up for air.
You can't change your entire opinion of a person based on one confused conversation.
He had protected her, though. More than once. He'd been hurt on her behalf, and while she could write off fighting Doma as him pursuing his own selfish goals, today he got seriously hurt just keeping her safe from Gurimo. She'd made it perfectly plain there was nothing in it for him, yet he'd stuck his neck out for her anyway. There was a lesson in there somewhere. Anzu would be able to pick up on it easily, Yuugi and Ryou too. Even Otogi would probably have had the light-bulb appear above his head ages ago, but Mai was slower on the uptake. She was too wedded to her determination to find Valon objectionable to do more than glance sideways at any other emotions.
I called him my friend. What does that mean?
"Miss?" The policeman was talking again.
"Huh?" Mai blinked up at him. "Whu?"
"Is there anyone we could call to meet you at the hospital? Any family members you'd like to be with you right now? We're arranging to have your car taken care of, so we'll give you a ride now, but after some questions and a check-up you'll need transport home."
"No. No family. Uh, but," the words came so easily, "there is someone you can call for me. The name's Mazaki, you can reach her at-" she reeled off a number she hadn't, until that moment, realised she knew by heart. Then she corrected herself, remembering everyone was at the Game Shop, and realised in a second instant she knew that number too.
When did all these people become so important to her that she memorised their phone numbers? They were just kids, the kind she used to pass in the street without a second thought and which she hadn't even been for some time. It was ludicrous on some level that a grown woman like her should voluntarily hang out with teenagers; yet they had become her support network. She knew she could rely on them and would sacrifice her own soul to keep them safe. What had been the turning point to change them from acquaintances and allies into proper, go-to-the-mat, turn-to-you-first-in-a-crisis friends?
Valon never had anyone like that. You didn't get close in Doma, he'd said. Mai wondered what that must've been like – how she would've coped being cut off from a support network and having it replaced by dreams of power and a (flawed) higher purpose. Dartz made you dependant on him and called it support, but she remembered how he callously dismissed all those lost in his war; all those who'd seen him as their saviour, like they'd brought it on themselves and deserved nothing more than oblivion.
"… If Dartz had come to you and offered you power and a chance to wipe out all your pain, to prove yourself to the world through Duel Monsters and show you were still in control of your own destiny when everything around you had turned to shit – you can't say you wouldn't have said yes…"
Mai was guided into the back of a car. She heard the plastic snap of do-not-cross tape and the dull thrum of an engine turning over. Shouldn't she have spoken to someone on the phone? Or collected her things from her car? There were things she should be doing, the mundane things nobody ever thought about in a crisis, but she had to think about them. Her insurance company needed to be called about the damage to her Corvette, plus she'd lost her keys somewhere in the scuffle, and this outfit was ruined because of whatever slime had been on the ground in that alley. She had to be practical. That was what you were supposed to do in an emergency, right?
The world seemed kind of distant and haphazard, because no sooner had she thought this then they were pulling up outside an imposing building with people in bandages smoking outside the door. Mai blinked, thinking she'd lost some time there, and then remembered only the clicking of her own heels and, stumbling and wrenching her arm away when someone tried to help her up.
"… And that scares you…"
"Where's Valon?" she demanded.
"Who?" A nurse with a blonde ponytail looked blankly at her. She had a cotton swab in her hand and Mai jerked her head black slightly when she realised it had her own spit on it.
"I wasn't assaulted like that!"
The nurse glanced up at something behind Mai's shoulder; perhaps a poster detailing what to do when a doctor wasn't around to provide authority. She didn't look much older than Anzu and there was a nervous quiver to her bow-shaped lips, which struck Mai as more appropriate on a magazine cover than in a hospital. Maybe the doctor was supposed to be doing this and she was covering for him. "Uh, it's standard procedure."
Mai took a breath. "Where's Valon? The guy I was with – the ambulance brought him in before me. He was all cut up and bleeding. Brown spiky hair," she waved a hand way above her head, "really big hair, blue eyes – except they wouldn't have been open. Bloody shirt. Uh," she became conscious of the fact she didn't know his surname. Come to that, she didn't even know if Valon was his real name. "Really big hair."
"Are you family?" asked the nurse.
"I'm sorry, but we only release information to family members. Now if you'll just tip your head back for me we can get these tests done, then you can speak to the officers outside who're being so patient."
Mai pushed her hand away. "I want to know if Valon's okay."
"I'm sorry, Miss, but we can't release-"
"I don't give a damn about your procedures! He has no family. He doesn't have anyone except-" She stammered to a halt. "He doesn't have anyone except me and his other friends." She licked her lips. When did they get so dry? "He saved my life today. I have a right to know whether he's going to die because of it."
The nurse looked helplessly around as though willing someone to appear and speak to the aggressive woman who wouldn't do what she was told. Perhaps she honestly didn't know anything about Valon, but her manner said she wouldn't go and find out what Mai wanted to know, either.
"… But I did say yes, so it's easier to just hate me for giving into the temptation instead of you, right?"
"Please," Mai added, despising herself for sounding so needy but not able to stop the emotion squeezing in at the edges, like light creeping around a closed door.
The nurse was saved by a cry. "Mai!" Anzu dashed in, tried to hug Mai and then pulled back immediately. A look of horror stretched over her features. As ever, Anzu's face was a study in unprotected expressions. She couldn't keep her emotions to herself if she locked them in a steel box and tossed it into the canal. "OhmygoshI'msorry! Are you hurt? Did I hurt you some more? I'm sorry!"
Mai shook her head, grateful to see a familiar face. "I just cut my arm a little." She raised it.
Anzu's eyes widened "That looks nasty. And that bump on your head is practically fuchsia!"
"Huh?" Mai gingerly felt her forehead and winced when her fingers touched a tender swelling. "Ow!"
"You mean you didn't know about that?" Anzu was obviously worried by this. Mai wondered how much of the situation she knew. She looked like she'd expected to find Mai beaten, bloodied and fighting for her life on an operating table.
"She was more concerned about her companion than her own concussion," the nurse provided tartly, reminding them she was still there. "Are you family?" she asked, clearly noticing Anzu's hair and eye colour and comparing it with Mai's sketchy description of Valon. She obviously didn't think Mai capable of remembering things accurately, since Mai had just told her Valon had no family.
Mai's parents died when she was young, but not so young she didn't remember them. She didn't see them all that much when they were alive anyway, so what she had were mostly hazy recollections that she ignored but kept close so she knew where not to look. Her parents kept a busy lifestyle and she suspected they'd only reproduced because it was expected after a certain period of marriage. Image was a very large part of their lives. However, amongst other things she remembered the feel of her mother's hand on her forehead one night when she couldn't sleep, the sound of her singing when she dressed for another charity ball and her father's gruff voice emanating from behind a mountain of tax returns in his study. She thought she also remembered a trip to the beach not long before they died, which her mother spent on the phone to her agent and her father spent totting up expenses in his head.
There were two little kids on the beach too that day, building sandcastles and splashing in the rock pools. They called each other brother and sister, though the beach was empty of any adults who looked like them – they didn't even look like each other, the girl a wispy brunette with something of the infirm about her, the boy a hearty blonde tyke with snot stains on his bare wrist. Even in the brief window Mai saw them they seemed so devoted to each other that she, there with both parents but totally alone, ached for a closeness like theirs.
Then her mother and father died, leaving her truly alone in a world they'd chosen, but which rasped along Mai's skin like being brushed with the gentle fronds of mould on old meat. She chose self-imposed loneliness rather than being marooned someplace where she had no control over her life, confusing her surviving relatives by heading for Europe, a working life and, eventually, the Duel Monsters circuit. Mai claimed her own place in the world, but she'd used memories of her childhood to teach her what she didn't want first.
She wondered whether Valon remembered his parents. She wondered how young he was when they died and how many orphanages he'd been through before he ended up with Sister Mary Clarence. She wondered whether he had hazy recollections of his mother and father the way she did; memories sustained mostly by faces in photos.
Suddenly, against all reason, she wanted to know more about him. She wanted to know stupid little facts – his favourite food, what books he liked to read, if any, what he thought about traffic and tempura and Hello Kitty. She wanted to know a thousand things she'd never be able to know if he died. She could ask Amelda and Raphael for bare facts, commission Otogi for a research project to check official records and see if his story about Edogawa was true, but she wanted personal details to soften the hard angles that made up the skeleton of a life half-known. She wanted a window into his life of the kind she'd kept firmly bolted up until that moment.
"... I know why you don't like me ..."
She wanted what he'd offered and she'd rejected – and what it might now be too late to have. She wanted a human connection.
"… But I'm not a bad guy, Mai…"
"Mai!" Yuugi and Ryou were coming towards her. "Anzu!"
"I'm sorry, but I can't allow you to-" the nurse began. She seemed small and inadequate against the irresistible tide of their emotions. It was like a physical force that swept in and over everyone, squashing protest in the fight for air that wasn't clumped with such concentrated feelings. All their combined anxiety and affection welled up and carried them along like a tidal swell, washing away objections in its wake.
Yuugi especially didn't so much wear his heart on his sleeve as slap it on a bull's-eye and dangle it around his neck. Ryou was more reticent, but intensity burned in his gaze when he reached Mai and he actually touched her hand in concern. For Ryou, who had been made wary of physical contact after gaining a circle of scars on his chest, this was the equivalent of a rugby-tackle-hug.
Yuugi fired off questions until Mai held out a hand to stop him. "I'm okay," she told them all. "Honestly. I got a little banged up but it's nothing serious. I don't even have any stitches. Stop fussing."
"Why am I not surprised to hear you say that?" The last member of their group entered. Otogi wore his habitual smirk, but there was genuine concern in his stark green eyes. Otogi always radiated a maturity that made it easy to forget he was the same age as the other three. Car keys in his hand bespoke what had kept him
The blonde nurse looked like she wanted to just throw up her hands and go see a simpler patient. "I really must insist-"
"Wait, did you say companion?" Anzu broke in. She swivelled her gaze to Mai. "You were with someone? When you called you said you were on your own in your car."
Mai sighed. "I was attacked. Valon kind of came to my rescue. He was hurt." She had time to prepare the unconcern in her voice – not quite coldness but not the pathetic hitch of earlier.
"Hurt?" Yuugi echoed. "How hurt?"
"Pretty badly," Mai admitted. "They took him away in an ambulance." She hesitated. Just like it was easy to forget Otogi's true age, Yuugi radiated puppyish innocence despite all he'd been through. There was always a compulsion to soften the blow around him, as though he might break if exposed to too many harsh truths. Mai shook off the instinct. Yuugi was no stranger to heartache. He wasn't a porcelain figurine that needed coddling, he was a person and understood how the world worked far more acutely than first impressions of him might suggest. "He lost a lot of blood. He was going into shock when I was with him and they rushed him back here before bringing me in. I haven't seen him since."
"Oh no!" Yuugi immediately turned to the nurse. "Is he okay? Is he here? Can we see him?"
She looked like she wanted to snap, but then she looked at Yuugi's really big hair. "Family?"
"Then no. Now will all of you please clear out so I can-?"
"So that's why you were saying please when I came in," Anzu said, staring at Mai in a way that made her feel very uncomfortable. "They wouldn't tell you anything either, huh?" Her eyes were soft blue, but had a steely satisfaction in them that reminded Mai far too much of Yami after a victory.
"As I said, information is only released to family members," the nurse persevered. She didn't understand the significance of Anzu's look but it made Mai squirm.
"I wasn't worried," she insisted, conscious that not one of them believed her but unable to give up the role yet. Maybe she was revising her opinions of Valon, but admitting it out loud was a step for which her foot still hung in the air. It would be like standing on a rooftop screaming 'I couldn't beat a teenager at a children's card game!'
"… You made me question everything, Mai…"
Mai dropped her eyes to her lap. "He made me ruin my new jacket," she said sullenly.
"… When I found you … it was like … like something inside me cracked open and all these … questions I'd been sitting on just … came out …"
"Who attacked you?" Otogi's voice was quiet but purposeful.
Mai phrased her answer carefully, not wanting to make problems for herself later by generating questions she couldn't or didn't want to answer. "He said his name was Gurimo."
She expected the name to curry blank stares, since Gurimo never formally introduced himself when they first met, but Anzu looked shocked. For a second she looked hard at an empty corner of the room. The others were nonplussed until she distractedly told them they should step outside and give Mai some space. The nurse sagged with relief that these annoyances were going to go away on their own, but before she could get back to work Anzu leaned close to Mai.
"Yami's gone to find Valon," she murmured. "He'll find out what's going on. I'm sure he's fine, but … well, he'll shove the guy's soul back into his body by force if he has to."
Mai tried an 'I-don't-care-either-way' expression but gratefulness seeped into it, staining it a much lighter colour than the indifferent grey she'd been aiming for.
Anzu smiled, but Mai could see she was worried. Anzu never had a chance to get to know Valon properly, but whatever Yami told her had warmed her towards him. Anzu trusted Yami's opinion and Yami respected Valon. Mai respected Yami too, but his opinion of Valon didn't seem to extend the same way to her. Anzu was concerned for a guy she barely knew, yet rather than tick Mai off the way it would've done that morning, now it stirred an appreciative empathy. She needed validation that her mixed up feelings weren't a compete betrayal of herself. Anzu had suffered so much at the hands of Doma, and she didn't forgive everything out of hand the way Yuugi did. yet Anzu could still find it in herself to not only forgive Valon but to also count him as a friend.
She remembered the first time she met Anzu Mazaki at Duellist Kingdom. They hadn't exactly started out on brilliant terms, and yet now she was one of Mai's closest ever friends. Otogi, too, began their acquaintance as an antagonist, but you wouldn't know it to look at him now. He stood slightly behind Anzu, arms folded, a firm and protective presence. The strength of their friendship was in no way dented by unfavourable beginnings.
"... Somehow I'm going to win you over, Mai, even if it kills me…"
Mai hadn't done a complete turnaround. She wasn't about to be Valon's bestest-best-buddy, or walk down the aisle with him, or even forget the way he twisted Gurimo's arm into a half-Nelson so easily. However, she was willing to learn more about him – no, she wanted to learn more about him. She wanted to know about the person he really was, and for that she was prepared to let herself worry over his safety now.
"Good," she said tightly. "Thank you."
Anzu shot her another compassionate look before ushering the others out.
"Did they catch the guy?" Otogi asked, sidestepping Anzu's outstretched arms, which had already caught Ryou and Yuugi in a clothesline tackle.
Mai shook her head. "Anzu!" she called abruptly.
"Huh?" As one, they all turned back to her.
"… You don't give up, do you?"
Mai hesitated. A mixture of feelings, thoughts and worries about the future swarmed inside her: Would Gurimo try another attack now he knew they'd all survived? Were Amelda and Raphael of the same mindset as him? What about the other Doma Riders, the ones who'd lost their duels before Battle City brought the Egyptian God Cards into the public eye? Were they recovering like Valon, or were they too bitter to let go, like Gurimo? Did they want revenge on those who had made a mocker of their sacrifices? Was Dartz's mission really as dead as they'd thought? Questions whirled inside Mai like a concrete mixer full of blancmange and soot – slippery and discoloured too thoroughly to be recovered.
"… You never give up, even when the chips are down. You always find a way to pull yourself back from the edge and come out fighting…"
Mai's head hurt. Her body throbbed with aches and pains, and she couldn't shake her mystifying worry for Valon.
"… We're similar in that respect …"
She met Anzu's look; blue eyes half curious, half troubled by this unforeseen turn of events.
" … We're survivors…"
"Next time I agree to go out for coffee, make me change it to karaoke instead."
Anzu smiled. God, how Mai had missed that smile when the girl's soul was stolen. Yami hadn't smiled at all during that time, and those incidences she'd ever seen him smile it was a triumphant, imperial thing. Anzu's smile was all warmth in comparison. Valon had helped to bring that smile back. He'd fought and hurt and sacrificed so a girl he'd never, actually, met – not really – would be able to smile properly again.
"… When we were fighting Dartz I promised I'd always be there when you need me, right?"
And in that instant Mai knew she would be the first to greet him when he woke up. She'd sneak into whatever room they had him in and hide behind the curtain like a kid playing hide and seek if she had to, but she would be there when he opened his eyes – and she was convinced he would open his eyes because he was right. Galling as it was to admit it, they were the same.
They were survivors.
He would survive because he had to, because she needed him to and he had an awful habit of being around when she needed him, even when she didn't realise it. He would survive because she needed to say what she should've said from the very beginning.
Thank you … my friend.
Home is a feeling I buried in you.
-- From Breathe by Melissa Etheridge.
Side-flings, Homages and Downright Rip-offs
It was a new jacket from Long Tall Sally, which she'd had to special order over the Internet and greeted with delight when it arrived in the mail.
-- Long Tall Sally is a specialist fashion house that caters to tall women (5'8'' and over) and does a brisk trade online by re-proportioning and lengthening existing designs and shipping them all over the world. Since Mai is 5'9'' and obviously cares about her appearance I reckon she'd be pleased to discover it and delighted to shop there.
"You need to stay warm. I have a blanket in the trunk for if I ever broke down while it was snowing-"
-- Me too! Everyone should do this, by the way: have an emergency kit in the back of your car for if bad weather and/or an accident lays you up at the side of the road.
No sooner had she thought this then they were pulling up outside an imposing building with people in bandages smoking outside the door.
-- I have, unfortunately, spent a lot of time in and around various hospitals and this is a recurring thing I've spotted. It never ceases to amaze me how much some people will go through to get a cigarette. Maybe it's a British thing (and I think it may have been stopped with some new rules now), but I saw it all over the country (including in Wales, when I accompanied a pupil to Bangor Hospital on a school trip, and in Scotland when my wonderful father got us utterly lost and we spent an entire morning driving around hospital buildings instead of going to Scone Castle) and everyone I spotted glared at me like I was going to take their little white stick away from them. I'm not a smoker, but I'm not going to rob the infirm just so I can gain a couple more inches for my soapbox. The most memorable time for me was a woman who carted her own IV with her, after detaching her own catheter because she felt she knew better than the doctors about how read she was to move around. You can imagine what happened when she was halfway through her smoke.
… What he thought about traffic and tempura and Hello Kitty.
-- Tempura (てんぷらor 天麩羅,) is a classic Japanese dish of deep fried battered vegetables or seafood. Never tried it myself, since working in a chip shop as a teen put me off deep-fried food for life, but I'm told it's quite nice.
Reviews heartily appreciated!