A/N: And, behold, it is finished. A commemorative piece for my grandmother. With some polarshipping elements. Please enjoy it, for what it's worth.
Disclaimer:I do not own Yu-Gi-Oh! or the song mentioned, In the Garden.
Warnings: My longest one-shot/chapter work. Possible typos, as always, even though I edited. And some angst/tragedy.
"And to her grandchildren, [a symbol of] acceptance and love." -Reverend Patrick Cooley
In Loving Memory of:
Patsy June Michaels
June 28, 1944 - July 18, 2009
Joey Wheeler shuffled along down the paved sidewalk, dragging the toes of his best pair of dress shoes- his only ones at that- and scuffing up the glossy black material. He kept his amber eyes solely trained on the ground, examining the cracks in the pavement as he stepped, and not looking up to greet passersby with his usual cheery smile. His black dress pants attracted immense amounts of heat but not as much as the jacket seemed to. So much, he had pulled it off and now had it slung over his shoulder. Still, his white under-shirt still clung to him due to his sweating torso. His hair, its normal shaggy blond mess, also made the nape of his neck slick with perspiration and his sleeves were rolled up past his elbows. Joey had forgotten how hot the city of Domino was in the summer.
His feet continued to drag down the familiar blocks of his adolescence, heading toward a pizzeria he had grown accustomed to as the old hang-out spot he and his friends went to. His starting point was the Domino City Metro Train Station.
It had been three years since Joey had set foot in this city. Three years since he had graduated high school. The city that had held many of his most cherished memories and experiences while growing up as the atypical hot-headed boy with "behavioral issues," as his old teachers commented in his progress reports. Still, he had loved this city and it was, by far, his most favorite that he had ever lived in. A once sprawling city that held many aspiring duelists for him to battle against whenever Kaiba decided to throw another tournament. But not only was there Duel Monsters to keep this city interesting, there were his friends. Now, Domino just seemed desolate and cold, despite the hot summer sun shining down mercilessly on him.
Joey sighed. He could have worn some other, more permeable clothing and brought the suit with him to change into later. But then, he decided it was probably better that he didn't occupy his time with trying to find a proper place to change at. And then, having to worry about to find some sort of reflective object to see if he looked decent enough. Oh well. At least he was smart enough to bring deodorant along with him, tucked away in a small athletic bag he carried on his back.
It was going to be tough. Really tough. Joey didn't like going to funerals. Too wishy-washy and emotional for him. He couldn't handle it with feeling completely unnerved, vulnerable, and helpless to comfort those who took it hard. And then there was the charade of false brightness everyone tried to maintain as if reassuring themselves everything was going to be okay while tears streamed down their face. No. Funerals weren't really a thing for Joey. But he was going to this one. He had to. He wanted to go to this one. He needed to.
Joey's feet instinctively stopped suddenly and he looked up to see that he had made it to the pizzeria: the place he was supposed to meet the others. Slowly, hesitantly, and with heavy feet, Joey pushed the glass-paned door open and went inside.
The small tingle of bell marked his entrance but no one looked up. The guy manning the counter seemed to be too preoccupied with wiping down the counter's surface and everyone else in there was too engrossed with their own contemplative silence to notice him. Joey's eyes scanned the narrow, cramped room that smelled of Italian sausage and melted cheese. His eyes stopped at the sight of a figure sitting down in the far corner of the room. An easily identifiable figure with a black dress, heels, and shortly cropped brunette hair. Téa. Joey took a deep breath and approached her.
Out of those he was meeting before the funeral, he certainly didn't want to be caught alone with Téa. Not that he didn't like her or that they weren't still friends, just that she was the female of the group. And females were usually the most emotionally-wired of people. And Joey wasn't experienced in the department of handling females who were in the possession of uncontrollable tear ducts. And, out of all of them, Téa was surely the one that would take this loss the hardest. Nevertheless, Joey still made his way to her, his shoes clacking on the tiled floor.
"Téa," he said simply when he had reached her. Unsurprised by his sudden appearance, she merely looked up at him with a placid expression and blood shot eyes. When she spoke, her voice was soft and even- much to Joey's bewilderment.
"Joseph," she said back, nodding toward the chair across from her. "Have a seat." He obliged, scooting the chair back as its legs scraped against the floor, and sat down. When he had, Téa said nothing and continued to look out the large, glass window at the street lying before the shop, as she had when he first spotted her.
Téa's silence was unsettling. When she had called to alert him of the devastating news, she was balling, completely unrestrained. Now, she seemed indifferent. Calm even. If not for her red eyes, Joey would have guessed uncaring. But he knew she cared and that, on the inside, she was suffering. Her arms were folded across her torso, hands tucked underneath her elbows. Joey waited a full two minutes before he had enough of the empty silence and decided to fill it.
"So…" he began, uncertainly. "It's been a while since I've been back here." Téa's head turned with the slightest of movements to gaze at him with her solemn deep sapphire blue eyes that seemed to now shimmer with moisture he did not notice before. Joey mentally slapped himself; she was probably trying to stop herself from crying and now he had to go and talk to ruin her attempts.
"Yeah. It's been a while." She paused for a moment, sighed, and continued the casual conversation. "What have you been up to, Joey?" Joey exhaled and leaned back in his chair and, by doing as such, hoped to ease the tension by making a more relaxing environment.
"I went to a trade school for a while, and worked in auto mechanics on the side to live on. Now, I'm looking into computer sciences. Engineering. That kind of stuff." Téa's eyes widened slightly, as if seeing Joey for the first time. Really seeing him. Uncomfortable, he avoided her gaze.
"Wow, Joey. That's great. I didn't-" she stopped herself before she finished the statement, trying to be polite. Joey looked back up and smiled for her benefit.
"Didn't think I could do it? Heh. It's okay. Not many people thought I could be into the science and math stuff. Tell you the truth, I didn't either. But… I guess you never know…" his voice trailed off as his train of thought veered off to the past three years. After a moment, Joey blinked and returned to the present. "So, what about you, Téa? Where has life taken you?" At this, she looked away again, pointedly avoiding his eyes.
"Well," she began. "I set out to accomplish my dream to dance like I wanted. Somehow I was able to find scholarship money and was accepted to the fine arts school in New York. I originally was just going to major with dance. Ballet, contemporary, jazz, all that. But then a professor asked to help with a musical and backstage stuff and I somehow landed a role. Not the main one, but a pretty big part. And since, I've been interested in Broadway. I still came back here for holidays and the summer and stuff and then…" Téa abruptly paused in mid-sentence. She shifted in posture, legs uncrossing, untangling her arms to fold her hands on the table. The sunlight from outside shone through the window and reflected on a metallic object that temporarily blinded Joey until he moved his head to see the source of the reflection- a golden metal band around Téa's left ring finger. Joey's heart nearly stopped dead in his chest, guessing the rest of her story.
"Well on last winter break, on New Year's Eve…" she continued, voice showing signs of weakness for the first time that conversation as it shook, losing its steady tone from earlier. "I… got engaged." Téa said nothing more and Joey didn't press her for questions for fear of her reaction. Instead, he just stared at her face. Here was a girl he had known throughout his high school years. A girl that was strong, loyal, and brave. She was a friend and Joey was her friend. And, like her other friends, Joey always felt bound to protect Téa. Not because she was helpless but because he cared for her and because she was, well, a girl. He wasn't sexist or a chauvinist. It was just the way he had been raised. And in his eyes, Téa had always been the young teenage girl of the group. Maybe more mature than rest of them but still. And now, it seemed as though she had grown up. Career path, engagement… it was as if she didn't need his protection anymore. But he would always still be there for her. As a friend, of course. Nothing more.
Joey coughed, unsure of how to continue the conversation. "Erm, what time are the others getting here?" Téa had been staring at him blankly, a lost look to her eyes, and then turned her head back to face outside the window.
"They should be here soon. I gave them the same time I gave you. I expect it might take some time for Duke to get here. You didn't bring Serenity?" Joey shook his head.
"Nah. She and mom are vacationing in California and I told them not to worry about it. But they said something about sending flowers." Téa said nothing more about his sister but gave a small impatient huff that they weren't coming. Joey pretended to ignore it, he was used to Téa being irrational even after all these years they'd been apart.
Contrary to what Téa suggested, Duke was actually the next one to arrive. He pulled up a chair next to their table and casually talked about his business deals- how he was attempting to expand his company to a more widespread corporation and such. Téa seemed to listen attentively. Or, she maintained eye contact with him. Joey didn't know if she was really paying attention; you never knew with her. Joey however was too preoccupied with how much Duke had changed. Like himself, he was wearing a black suit. Though, probably finer and more expensive than his. He still continued to keep up his pretty-boy appearance but dropped the eye liner. Or maybe he just decided not to wear it for the funeral. His hair was shorter. Not extremely short- fringes that framed his face- but definitely not long enough to keep it tied back into a ponytail.
Ryou came next. He hadn't changed much except for maybe a more sharper-planed face that made him look older. He still kept his white hair long but not untamed as it usually was. He was still thin but Ryou had always been a small guy. When Téa asked what he was doing nowadays, he replied, "Assistant film producer. I'm still in school though, majoring between film studies and theatre arts." Joey was mildly impressed; Ryou always seemed too introverted to act.
Tristan was the last to arrive. Everyone gave him a hard time for being late but it was playful banter. Joey couldn't help but to give him a huge bear hug; it'd been so long since he'd seen his friend.
"What happened to your hair, man?" Joey asked after their embrace, noticing it was considerably shorter. A buzz cut at the least. Tristan smirked at him.
"You didn't know? I joined the military- the marines." And, looking at the rest of him for the first time, Joey finally saw the uniform. Joey couldn't help but laugh and rap his knuckles into his head for old times' sake. Tristan retorted, elbowing him in the gut.
"Cut it out, guys," Téa said, impatience lining her voice. But Joey could tell that she was happy to see all of them.
"Is this it or are we waiting on someone else?" Duke asked her. Téa looked around to account for everyone.
"I think this is it. Arthur and Rebecca were going to meet us at the funeral home with Solomon. And the Ishtars flew in a couple nights ago and stayed at a hotel nearby."
"What about Kaiba and Mokuba?" Ryou asked.
"They're not meeting us," Téa answered. Joey stared at her blankly.
"What about Mai?" Téa looked back at him evenly, an apologetic look in her blue eyes.
"I'm sorry, Joey. I tried. I called the last cell number she gave us but the number was in use by someone else. And I tried looking in the Domino directory but she doesn't live here anymore. Her old apartment building was torn down last year for a new mini mall." Joey sighed; he should have expected as much. It was always hard to get in touch with Mai.
"It's okay, Téa. You tried. I guess we better go then." Téa nodded and led the way out of the pizzeria.
A new, grave air settled over the group as the purpose for their get-together slowly sunk in. They had lost one of their own and today was the day to mourn for him. Ryou walked up front to talk to Téa quietly. Joey lagged behind the group slightly and Tristan sort of stayed close by him. Duke remained in the middle of the pairs, content to just walk in his own contemplative silence. The pizzeria was a few blocks away from the funeral home. They had only agreed to meet up there for Duke's sake because that was the only place he really remembered from the short period he lived in Domino. Otherwise, had it not been for that fact, they would have met somewhere closer to the funeral home or maybe at the funeral home itself. Personally, Joey would have preferred it that way so he wouldn't have had to walk through the many streets of Domino, forced to reminisce and nostalgically think at how much it had changed in three short years. Joey tried emptying his mind, tried blocking out all the painful memories of him and his old friend. So, by the time the group reached their destination, Joey was slightly surprised at how the long walk passed in such a blur.
Téa turned toward the rest of them, standing just outside the entrance. She took a large breath and gave a small attempt at smiling at everyone before asking, "Everyone ready?"
No one said anything and Téa took their silence as a confirmation as she turned back around and walked through the front doors. Everyone followed her inside.
Joey kept his head ducked upon his initial entrance, eyes trained carefully on the dark green carpet. His nose half-expected to be greeted by the strong scent of roses, as is customary for many funerals but instead, the air was filled with some sort of unidentifiable odor, still floral but not the traditional waft of rose. Something sharper but still pleasant. His ears were met with the soft murmur of voices, low and full of teary grief. The sadness was practically tangible in the air as it made Joey's tongue thick of useless condolences and as it made his eyes weighted down by restraining his blasted tear ducts. He didn't need an expert to tell him that today was going to be a long day.
He sniffed, wiping the edge of his nose on his exposed forearm, and quickly disguised it poorly as a cough. Joey looked up, debating whether to talk with a few people he knew or to just take cover in the chapel and wait for the services to begin. The first person his eyes caught was Mokuba and Joey went with the first option, figuring that the latter wasn't the most polite of choices. He walked over to the youngest Kaiba brother and sensed that Tristan was following closely behind.
"Joey, Tristan," Mokuba greeted once he had saw the two of them approach him. Joey took notice of his thick voice and red face. But something also struck him; he'd remember Mokuba just as a kid back when he still lived in Domino. Now, the kid seemed older if not a teenager. His voice deeper, the round face showing sharper, more prominent planes of a Kaiba face, and even his hair was slightly shorter. But maybe that was the effect of a yearly trim.
"Hey kiddo," Tristan said.
"Hey Mokuba," Joey said also, smiling at him. "It's been a while, hasn't it?" Mokuba forced a smile on his own face.
"Yeah, it has. What have you two been up to?"
"I joined the marines," Tristan boasted smugly, jabbing a thumb at his uniform. Mokuba raised an eyebrow at the obvious.
"I can see that. What about you, Joey?" Joey shrugged.
"Eh… I work on cars. I'm still in school though, studying computers-"
"Heh. And I never knew our Joey could be accomplished in something so smart," cut off a familiar cold voice from behind. Joey turned, expecting the elder Kaiba brother to be there. And he was. Though, he was giving Joey an amused smile rather than a condescending one he was so used to. Joey's mouth quivered, his habitual tendencies wanting to say something smart and mean right back at the CEO. But, really, Joey didn't feel any inclination for that type of behavior he used to exhibit. He didn't know if it was the purpose for their meeting, the fact that he might have actually matured in his three years of absence, or that Kaiba seemed to be genuinely joking rather than trying to be antagonistic, Joey just didn't feel the old need to retort as he had when he was still a teenager. Instead, Joey gave his own smile at Kaiba's joke.
"So everyone says," he agreed. He held out a hand and Kaiba, after briefly glancing down at it, shook it without hesitation.
"Nice to see you, Joseph," Kaiba said. Though, Joey couldn't be sure if he really meant it or was just being polite.
"You too," Joey said uncertainly, glancing around himself to see that Tristan had meandered off to talk with Solomon Mutou. Joey gazed at the old man, feeling a need to speak with him but feeling unable to. Poor Grandpa. Joey continued staring dumbly for a moment before Kaiba's voice brought him back to the present.
"So, Joey, how much do you know of what happened?" Joey refocused his gaze on Seto's face and blinked, needing a moment to realize what he was referring to.
"Not much," Joey admitted sheepishly. "Why?" Seto shrugged.
"I figured as much. I thought that you of all people would have been up here sooner if you knew the whole story." Joey arched an eyebrow.
"What story?" Seto shrugged once again.
"About the accident, that is. There's not much to say except that, well, it happened two months ago. I mean, there was time that you could have gone and seen him in the hospital." Joey sighed.
"Yeah, I know." It was Seto's turn to arch an eyebrow.
"And yet, you haven't come before now?" he asked skeptically.
"Don't be an ass, Kaiba. I haven't had time. Junior year of college takes a lot out of your time. Plus I do have a job."
"I'm not being an ass. I'm just saying. Some of them are pretty angry at you for not coming sooner."
"I didn't find out until a couple weeks ago- when I had finals and all that to take care of," Joey hissed, feeling his old temper reawakening. Kaiba was stoic and unperturbed by his tone, used to Joey being a hothead.
"Yeah well, some people don't really understand that real life can get in the way sometimes," he said dismissively. "I'm just warning you of some tension you can be sure to expect." Kaiba looked away from Joey to people-watch. Joey followed suit and remained silent for a few minutes until he had the nerve to ask a question that had been bothering him.
"How, exactly, did it… happen?" Joey said, struggling with words. Kaiba glanced down at him, watching Joey's face carefully.
"He was actually getting better. Expected to make a full recovery. And it was because he was getting better that they moved him to a more local hospital. At some point during the move, his heart stopped. Of course, they were able to get it starting again but not before it made considerable brain damage." Kaiba's voice was calm and even, a famous trait for him. Which was why Joey rather he would hear it from the seemingly uncaring CEO, because he didn't sugar-coat anything and he didn't let the emotion overcome him. If there was any. Joey, however, wasn't so sure about himself. He stared at Seto, unblinking and his vision clouding quickly. He sniffed, hoping the tears wouldn't fall, and closed his eyes, feeling a few escape anyways. He covered his face with his forearm.
"Oh God, Joseph," he heard Kaiba say. "It's a funeral, it's okay to cry, believe it or not." Joey opened his eyes to see Seto offering him a tissue. Joey gratefully took it and blew his nose.
"Thanks," Joey said, his voice dry.
"No problem," Kaiba replied stiffly, looking away. "I've had enough practice with Téa these past few months to know how to expertly give someone a Kleenex." Joey, in spite of himself, gave a small chuckle which caused Kaiba to crack a smile.
They were silent once again and, to his own surprise, Joey stayed by Kaiba's side. He figured it was because he could handle Kaiba's calm composure rather than someone else's unrestrained sorrow.
"How's your sister?" Seto asked, more out of forced politeness rather than sheer curiosity as he awkwardly stood his arms folded across his chest.
"Fine," Joey mumbled. "Graduating high school in, I think, two years." Kaiba only nodded in comprehension, not looking at Joey as he spoke but continued to people-watch. Joey looked around as well, his eyes catching Téa sobbing in the arms what appeared to be Ishizu Ishtar. Seto followed his gaze and silently gazed at Téa as well.
"You do know she was engaged. Téa that is," Kaiba said suddenly, breaking their silence.
"Do you know to whom?"
"No." Kaiba turned to face Joey, his gaze severe and his blue eyes smoldering and it took a moment for Joey to comprehend that Kaiba had used the past tense.
"To... to Yugi?" Joey whispered. Kaiba nodded slowly.
"Just before he died, he couldn't really speak yet. But he could write messages. On one, he told Téa that, if he didn't make it he wanted her to know that he thought it was okay if she found someone else." Joey gaped at him.
"Oh Yugi…" Joey groaned.
"I must admit, Joey, Téa's been quite strong throughout this whole ordeal, for one in her position. Tell you the truth, I haven't seen her cry much. At least, not around people. You know how she likes to go off on her own for that." Joey nodded, understanding exactly what he meant. Téa didn't like to show her weakness to people.
Joey looked around him and saw people filing into the chapel area of the funeral home. From beside him, he felt a nudge from Kaiba's elbow. When Joey looked up at him, Kaiba was nodding his head to follow the rest of the people and led the way into the chapel.
Joey took a seat on the end, next to Seto Kaiba and behind Tristan and Duke. He kept his back straight and stared right ahead and watched as those organizing the funeral stepped up and closed the lid to Yugi's casket. Joey didn't allow himself to pay attention to that; closing the casket was usually what made people lose it.
A pastor stood at the podium and gave a few words of remembrance for Yugi's sake for a few short minutes.
"And to everyone, he was a symbol for acceptance and love," were the only words Joey caught. Simple words that caused him to issue a loud sniff which, in turn, made Kaiba glance down at him curiously. He continued staring straight ahead, though, and Kaiba looked away.
A total of three songs were sang. Two by everyone attending. Joey didn't exactly feel like belting out his out-of-tune tenor voice but sang along quietly anyways. The third song, In the Garden, was sang by a timid-looking girl who turned out to be a pleasant soprano. Not the kind that had to strain their voice to reach the high pitches, but rather, one who could sing those with a nice, full vibrato.
A final prayer was given by the pastor and then the official service ended. The pall bearers stepped up and moved the casket outside, to the awaiting hearse, while family and close friends were the first dismissed to their cars for the procession. Kaiba stood up and looked down at him.
"You can ride with us," he said. Joey only nodded and followed Kaiba and Mokuba out to their limo.
It took a while for all the cars to be lined up in order behind the hearse and for the police escort to take off and stop traffic. But once they were off, they were off, going a full thirty miles an hour down the high way. Kaiba kept quiet, with the exception of reminding Joey to put his seatbelt on and Joey only mournfully stared out the tinted window as the city passed by. He didn't keep track of time so he didn't know how long it took them to reach the cemetery. When they had parked, slightly off the shoulder of the paved pathway, Joey unbuckled his seatbelt and numbly got out of the car.
The small breeze slightly stung his sore eyes and he sniffed again, following the general crowd until they reached the gravesite. There was a small tent standing just in front of where the casket was to be buried. Most people tried huddling within the shade of the awning provided. Joey just stood beyond a bit from the crowd and watched as the pastor gave another prayer and as the casket was placed inside another, more durable casket, and then slowly lowered into the ground. At that point, many of the onlookers wandered to talk with others, mainly about a lunch everyone was going to go to afterwards. Téa and Solomon Mutou were not one of those people as they stood desolately by the grave, watching silently when they filled it back with dirt and rocks. Joey didn't feel like joining them.
After the hole had been filled, the flowers were arranged creatively around the grave marker (there was no tombstone yet), and Grandpa, rubbing Téa's back soothingly, walked off with her toward their car. Joey side-stepped, letting them passed, and walked up to the grave himself. Many people had already left, to attend that lunch probably. And those that lingered weren't close enough to Joey to hear him mutter a few words.
"Yugi…" he said quietly, feeling a few more tears prick the back of his eyes. Angrily, he wiped them away with his arm again, rubbing his runny nose as well. He started again.
"Yuge," he said shakily, using the old nick name for his friend. "You were always a good pal, man. You were my best friend. I'm sorry I couldn't always be there for you like you were always there for me. And, I'm sorry that it took your death for me to come an' visit. I'm really sorry, man. I just hope you can forgive me. And that's all I ask of you, Yuge. Just for you to forgive me. Tha's all." Joey sniffed again and stood there for a moment, not saying or doing anything. And then, finally he turned around to leave, mentally hoping Kaiba was still there to give him a ride to his hotel.
But, when he turned around, the first thing he saw wasn't Kaiba. No, the first thing that caught his eyes was the figure standing just a few feet away. A woman with a sleek, black dress that accentuated her round curves, black heels, and wavy golden, blonde hair that reached as far down as her back. Joey stood, frozen to the spot, unable to believe what he was seeing, and Mai winked at him.
"Well, Joseph, you looked surprised to see little old me," she chided playfully. Joey smiled and stepped closer to her.
"Mai. I can't believe it, you're actually here," he confessed.
"Of course I am," she said, feigning stung pride. "Why would I miss this?"
"I don't know," Joey replied, laughing nervously. She smiled at him.
"Well, look at you, Joey. Three years and you're all grown up. You're almost a man now, aren't you?" Joey blushed.
"And you're getting closer to forty every day." Mai's smile disappeared instantly and she waggled a finger in his face.
"Don't patronize me. I'll have you know I'm not yet thirty."
"And yet you still amaze everyone by acting like a two year-old all the time," he shot back. She lowered her raised finger and chuckled at his joke.
"If you ever want to get a girlfriend, Joseph," she said in her serious tone. "You've got to know there are two things you never ever, ever mention. The first thing is her age. The second thing is her weight. Got it?" Joey shrugged.
"Seems easy enough." She smiled at him again and Joey felt his heart, heavy from the loss of his friend, become light again and rise within his chest.
"How are you, Joey? About all this, I mean," she asked. Joey looked away from her intent gaze, preferring to stare at the ground as he spoke instead.
"I'm… okay. Better than some definitely. But still, it's hard. Ya' know? I mean I hadn't really talked to him in a year when he called me for Christmas. But… I just feel so guilty. It's not that I'd been trying to avoid him it's just… I'm not sure how to explain it. There were opportunities I could have called, opportunities I could have visited him. I just never thought to. I had other things going on. And when I heard about the accident… I just didn't think I could handle seeing him in a hospital when he was in such a helpless state. And I know that sounds selfish. Hell, it is selfish but…" Joey sighed. "I'm not sure how to explain it."
There they were again, tears in his eyes. He roughly wiped them away on his arm, breathing out of his mouth for his nose was too stopped up. He couldn't look up at Mai again, to show her that he was crying. Men weren't supposed to cry and he wasn't even a man yet in her eyes. And yet, he must appear weak to her already now for going on that little spill he had bottled up inside of him.
But, as soon as Joey lowered his arm, he felt other arms encircle him and wrap around his waist as a massive amount of yellow hair filled his vision. Had his nose been in proper condition, Joey knew he could have smelled the familiar aroma of pear blossom and vanilla that made up Mai's scent. Not wasting this moment, Joey wrapped his arms around her as well, letting loose the trapped tears into the mask of her hair where no one would see them. He heard her voice whisper in his left ear as he spoke.
"It's okay to be sad, Joey. It's okay to cry. You've just lost a close friend. And, even though you haven't really kept contact with him over the past couple of years, that's okay too. Reality often wedges distance between us and those we care about. People grow apart sometimes. But, if they really care for each other, then they meet up again." She paused in her condolences, hesitating. "Just look at me and you," she said, so quietly Joey could have imagined it even though he knew he hadn't.
To his surprise, Joey found himself shaking. Mai must have noticed this as well because, in response, she tightened her grasp around him, giving him a tight squeeze. Joey took a moment, until his eyes felt dry and drained of any further waterworks, blinked, and, slowly, retracted his arms from around her. Mai did the same and took a step back, as if hesitant, and examined him. Joey avoided her gaze again, just knowing his eyes were still blotchy and red. He tried clearing his throat, giving a small cough, so that when he spoke, it wouldn't come out as strained and weak as he could have been.
"It's good to see you again, Mai," Joey said casually, stupidly feeling uncomfortable for some reason. He heard her sigh, as if disappointed, and then she responded.
"It's good to see you too, Joey," she mumbled quietly. Joey peeked up at her from the cover of his eyelashes and saw that she wasn't facing him either.
"So, how long do you plan on staying here?"
"Not very long. If I don't leave tonight, then I'm leaving tomorrow." Stunned, Joey returned his wide-eyed gaze back up to her.
"Why don't you stay longer?" he asked, still surprised and forsaking his social awkwardness. She turned her head to look at him, a small smile playing on her lips.
"Because I'm sure everyone wants good old, annoying Mai Valentine to stay." She barked a humorless laugh.
"I want you to stay," Joey said quietly. "At least longer than that." It was her this time that broke away their eye contact first.
"Well," she muttered. "That's very sweet of you. But I do have my own life to tend to-"
"And what is that, Mai? What have you been doing for the past three years?" Joey felt his anger rise, but he tried keeping it suppressed from his voice. Mai looked back up at him, surprised to hear a harsher tone in his voice.
"The same thing I've been doing three years ago. Doing odd jobs all around the place, never permanently staying in just one spot."
"Yeah, well, why can't you just stay in one spot, Mai? Just settle down for once and think about the future." It was getting harder to keep his voice in check now and Mai noticed it. She responded as if her pride really had been stung this time.
"And what's wrong with what I'm doing now, Joseph?" she snapped. "I come to a funeral only to have you insulting me and my life?"
"No, Mai, I didn't mean it like that-" Joey said, beginning to back-pedal before the volcano erupted. But, unfortunately, he had already lit the fuse.
"Then what, Joey? What is it? What could my future possibly hold that would be of interest to you?"
The answer was obvious. So obvious to Joey that he was surprised that she didn't just go right out and say it. But why, then? Did she want him to say it first? If it was, then so be it. He would give her what she wanted if it meant he could have a small chance with what he wanted.
"Me, of course," he said in small voice. "I could be in your future." The offended expression was wiped off of Mai's face as she stared at him, stunned. She was quiet for a while, more than a few minutes. And it made Joey fidget, blush, and scratch the back of his neck, as most guys did when they were uncomfortable. Had he misread her question? Did she not even consider the two of them like that?
"Joey," she began softly. "I'm not sure…"
"What? What is it? Don't tell me that you never thought of me like that!" Joey exclaimed, panicking.
"It's just… I…" she stumbled over her words, unsure of what to say.
"What? You would go with Valon but won't even consider me?" At the mention of Valon, the spark of Mai's fiery personality ignited once more.
"Nothing happened between me and Valon!" she said defensively. "Get that idea out of head right now, Joey Wheeler!"
"So what is it then, Mai?" Joey asked. She sighed and looked off into the distance again.
"It's just… I'm a tumbleweed, and you're not. And… I'm not sure if it would exactly work out." Joey closed in the distance between them and placed his grasp upon her shoulders, and slightly shook her so that she turned back to face him.
"What wouldn't work out, Mai?" She hesitated, chewing slightly on her bottom lip before responding.
"Life wouldn't Joey," she said quietly.
"How would it not?" He gestured toward the gravesite behind him. "Yugi was renowned for his acceptance and love. Well, Mai, out of everyone you know, I'm the one to accept you the most, accept you for who you are. And I don't care about the flaws you might think you have because I-" Joey hesitated, realizing what he was saying but then continued without a second thought. "Because I love you."
Mai's eyes widened at his words, specifically at his last four words. Joey released her from his grip but continued anyways.
"Over the past three years, I didn't take the initiative to maintain contact with Yugi. And because of it, I regret it now and there's nothing I can do about it since he's gone. But what about you, Mai? Yes, I love you. And I've told you that with hindsight of Yugi's incident. I'm not keeping it a secret anymore. What if something happened to you and you died and I didn't have the chance to tell you that. You may reject me but… at least now you know."
Those blasted tears were clouding his vision again and it took all Joey had to not blink and let them fall through his small monologue. But now, when he paused, they fell and Joey could only look at the ground; he'd embarrassed himself enough for today.
Joey felt a comforting warmth on his cheek and looked up to see Mai was touching his face tentatively. She was giving him a small, sad smile.
"Joey," she said softly. "I was wrong earlier. You're not almost a man. You're a man, now. But right now, I'm not sure if I can be the woman for you. I'm sorry. Maybe with time…" he voice trailed off, as if she was uncertain to give him that small amount of hope. A lucid, cold voice cut across their small conversation.
"Do you need a ride anywhere else, Joseph?" Kaiba asked. Joey turned around to face him, his mind returning to the present setting and he quickly wiped the remaining tears from his face.
"Uh, yeah. Do you think you give me a ride to Domino Suites? I've made a reservation there." Kaiba shrugged and made a motion with his hand saying, "Let's go then." Joey turned around to say good-bye to Mai. However, before he said a word, she quickly grabbed his left hand and began writing on it with a ball point pen that had suddenly materialized in her palm.
"Before you go," she said quickly. "This is my new cell number. And don't be afraid to call." When she had finished writing, she glance up at him, smiled, and gave one of her infamous winks.
"I guess," Joey said uncertainly. "This is good-bye." She turned slightly, away from him, and gave a small wave.
"Good-bye, Joseph," she bid before walking off. Joey waved absently to her back before turning around to walk with Kaiba back to the limo.
"Can't say I'm surprised," Seto noted casually as they were walking to a patiently waiting Mokuba. "Even after three years, you're still pursuing her."
"Yeah," Joey confirmed, keeping his eyes trained on the ground.
"Though, don't be surprised by a rejection." Joey looked up at him.
"What do you mean?"
"Mai's not one to settle down with anyone. Not even you, I'd bet to say. It's not her nature to pick just one place or man. So, she travels everyone and ignores men on the whole unless it's to get what she wants." Joey grit his teeth.
"Mai doesn't use me-"
"Just calm down for a second, Joseph. That's not what I meant. Look at the big picture. Can you actually see Mai settling down, marrying someone, having kids, and then spending the rest of her life looking after her family. It's just not in her nature."
"People can change," Joey retorted, hating the fact he could see the logic behind Seto's words.
"True, but it doesn't mean people want to change." Joey didn't say anything after that.
Before they reached the vehicle, they were met by a solemn Grandpa Mutou and a tearstained-faced Téa who thanked them for attending as they each shook hands. When he shook Téa's, he decided to give her a hug as well. And she smiled him, a silent thanks, when they released.
"By the way, Joey, I saw Mai wondering around here not too long ago. Did you see her?" Téa asked. Joey nodded.
"Yeah, I did. We talked for a bit."
"How's she doing?"
"She's still doing the same thing, moving around a lot. Though, she doesn't plan on staying here longer than after tomorrow.
Téa gave a small, "Oh" and dropped the subject.
"Come back and see us, Joey," said Mr. Mutou. Joey smiled at him.
"I will Gramps. I graduate college soon so I might just move back here. In which case you'll have a hard time getting rid of me." Grandpa chuckled.
"It's good to see you Joey," he said, dropping the formality a bit. Joey smiled at him gravely and followed Kaiba to the car. When he and the two Kaibas had climbed into the back, the driver took off at a steady speed. Seto said nothing more to Joey so the blond felt liberated enough to stare dejectedly out of the tinted windows. Joey watched as they past a few straggling mourners making their way to their own cars and then, as they left the cemetery, as signs of the city began to slowly creep back into view. With a sigh, Joey lowered his gaze to the velvet interiors and started picking at his fingernails. It was a few minutes before Kaiba's voice broke through his thoughts.
"The Domino Suites you said?" he asked.
"Yeah," Joey mumbled absently, clearing his throat before answering as such. And after that, Kaiba said nothing more.
It wasn't late in the day, perhaps a little after noon but definitely no later than three. There was still time to do other things after he had checked into his room. Maybe swim in the hotel's indoor pool. Or even just browse around the city and let the old, fond memories carry him away. But, Joey didn't feel up to any of that. In all honesty, he just wanted to curl up in a bed or on a sofa, maybe watch some television, but to be just left alone. He sort of reprimanded himself for getting annoyed with Mai for not staying in Domino longer because he himself planned on leaving tomorrow. In all honesty, he has been hypocritical. Maybe he would call Mai and apologize for his little stunt in the cemetery. It was definitely not the time nor the place to confess his fool's hope of a love. And now, he slightly regretted his actions, feeling more embarrassed about it than anything.
"Hey Joey, we're here," Seto said, speaking again. Joey looked up and around, noticing the car had stopped in front of the large hotel that was Domino Suites. He quickly fumbled with the seatbelt for a moment until it unbuckled and opened the limo door. Before he stepped out, he glanced back at Kaiba.
"Thanks for the ride and… everything else," Joey said, feeling slightly uncomfortable by expressing his gratitude toward Kaiba. Seto simply nodded.
"Yeah," he said, turning his face away. Joey suppressed the urge to sigh. Kaiba hadn't changed with his in responding to gratification; Joey should have expected no less. So, he got out of the car and shut the door behind him. A bellhop came rushing toward him, wearing the customary maroon uniform with a thick, golden trim.
"May I help you with your luggage, sir?" he asked eagerly, expecting a large tip from the sight of the limo. Joey shook his head, pointing a thumb to the athletic bag still hanging on back.
"Nah, this is all I've got," he said. The bellhop looked crestfallen but nodded in acknowledgement anyways. Joey smiled at him apologetically and went inside, through the revolving glass doors.
Once inside, the cold air of the hotel crashed into him like a wrecking ball, both soothing his sweaty skin and even chilling him slightly. He wiped some of his hair out of his eyes and walked up to the reception desk where, after he gave the person manning the desk the necessary information, was given a rectangular, plastic card that was his key to a room somewhere on third floor.
"Have a wonderful day, Mr. Wheeler," said the receptionist who flashed a large smile with extremely white teeth. "If there's anything you need, please let us know." Joey nodded and turned to make his way to the elevator where he saw a familiar mane of blonde hair. Joey stopped and blinked, thinking that what he was seeing wasn't really who he thought it was and would turn out to be a hallucination or a completely different person. But, the sight remained, as familiar as always. Joey took a hesitant step forward, and then, within moments, closed in the rest of the distance between them. Mai only turned slightly and, upon seeing him, gave him a smile.
"Things happen for a reason, Joseph," she simply said.
Thank you for your time in reading this. I apologize for the length and the brief ending. Please review