Note: Well, this is the last chapter, folks! I want to take this opportunity to thank you all for sticking with me this far, and for all your lovely comments. I hope you will enjoy the ending!
Epilogue: More Career Choices
Rex Goodwin stood in the empty space, waiting for whatever came next. If he felt anything at all, it was a sense of relief.
"Well?" said Dr. Fudo. "Are you ready to go?"
"That depends," Rex replied. "Where are we going?"
Dr. Fudo thought about it. "To the lab, I think, at least until you get your bearings. It will feel familiar to you."
"What, back to...?" asked Rex, waving his hand vaguely.
Keiko laughed. "Not the old lab. Our lab. What did you think my dear husband's eternal reward would be?"
Rudger gave a bark of laughter. "I should have known."
"What in the world are you doing in a lab?" Rex asked, eyebrow raised. "What do you study?"
"Why, everything," said Dr. Fudo. "All of time and space. Imagine a lab with infinite space, an infinite budget, an infinite amount of supplies, and complete free reign to study whatever I want, and you'll get an idea of the scope I'm working on." He smiled, sudden and direct. "I could use a couple of good assistants."
Rex thought about it.
"Oh, why not," he said. "I have nothing better to do."
Keiko laughed. "I should have known you'd say that."
Her husband turned and gestured at the empty air, and there was a sudden swirl of light. Rex stared at it. Even after all he'd been through, it was hard to believe what he was seeing. It was much easier to believe in a place of eternal suffering than in a place where things went right for a change. Rudger clapped him on the shoulder.
"Come on," he said. "Wherever that goes, it's bound to be better than where we were."
Rex nodded, and the four of them walked together into the light.
Whatever Rex had been expecting, what he found was not it. It looked like any staff break room in any office building anywhere in the world: a small, dingy little room, lit by neon lights. There was a folding table in the middle of it, and a coffee pot and a box of doughnuts rested in the middle of it, surrounded by a jumble of notes and half-finished plans. Dr. Fudo and Mrs. Fudo immediately sat down and began helping themselves to refreshments. Rudger stared at them for a moment, shrugged, and did the same. Rex simply stood a moment, taking in the scene.
A table. Four chairs. One of them was empty. It was waiting for him. It always had been.
With a smile, he went to finally take his place.
Aki was surprised how much the small changes bothered her. The front door had been repainted, for one thing, white where it had once been red. Some new plants had been put into the flower beds around the front walls, and someone had hung a wind chime on a nearby tree. Everything was a reminder that Aki had been gone a long time.
They fixed the windows, she noted, and put the thought out of her mind.
She still had a key to her own front door. She used it now, but stopped before actually opening the door. After the lifting of the black fog, all of those who had been taken by it had returned to more or less the same places they'd left, without any clear memory of what had happened to them. None of them, though, had fought a dark duel the way her father had.
He's here. The professor said everyone would come back...
He'd said everyone who'd vanished into the fog would come back. He hadn't said anything about the ones who'd been dueled.
Hiding won't fix anything, she told herself. She took a breath and forced herself to push the door open.
The inside of the house was quiet. Aki told herself that it was to be expected: it was a large house, and her parents were only two people to fill it. Besides, her father would probably be at work...
No. He wouldn't. Not today. He would have to know, wouldn't he, that she would try to come back?
Aki walked silently through the house, checking rooms. She found a few people tidying up the rooms, but they took one look at her and darted away nervously before she could ask them anything. It all felt vaguely dreamlike, as though she wandered through a house full of ghosts. On an impulse, she went to her old room. She wasn't quite sure why, except that she was curious about what it looked like after all this time.
It was almost exactly the same as she had left it. Someone had been there, cleaning. The plants on her windowsill had grown while she was gone; obviously they had been well tended to. Other than that one little change, it was as though she had never left at all.
They were waiting for me to come back. They didn't want to forget about me...
She wandered closer to the flowers, wanting a closer look at them, and as she did so, she heard a sound behind her. Aki turned to see her mother and father standing in the doorway. For a moment, they all stood frozen, watching each other cautiously. Her father cleared his throat.
"They... said you were here," he said. "We weren't sure..."
He trailed off uncertainly. Aki wondered if he remembered anything that had happened. Then she decided that it didn't really matter. She remembered. That was all they needed. She smiled at her parents.
"It's all right," she said. "I'm home."
Demak had been dreaming.
He couldn't quite remember what his dreams had been about, only that they had been dark and unpleasant, and he was relieved to be waking up with warm sunlight shining on his eyelids. He lay still for a moment, taking stock of his situation. The movement of the air told him that he was outside. He could feel grass and cool earth against his cheek. He couldn't quite remember how he'd gotten there, or why he'd fallen asleep outdoors, but something inside him said that it didn't really matter.
Something nudged him. He muttered under his breath, displeased that anyone would dare disturb his peaceful moment. Whatever the thing was, though, it was persistent. It shoved him again, harder this time, and he opened his eyes and sat up to give whatever-it-was a piece of his mind.
Sunlight dazzled him. He shaded his eyes, trying to take in his new surroundings. He was sitting on a grassy hill, surrounded by flowers of every color of the rainbow. A silvery brook wound past him nearby, splashing musically. On the far side of the brook was a forest, its trees a deep and peaceful green. The sky was more intensely blue than any sky he'd ever seen, flecked with the occasional wispy cloud. He stared at it all, unable to do anything but gape. He had never been exposed to so much beauty in one place in his entire life, and he was dazed by it, unable to take it all in. For a few moments, he could hardly breathe.
Something bumped him again, and he caught his breath in a rush. He turned to see what was doing it, and found himself facing a sleek rainbow-colored beast.
"Fish!" he exclaimed.
The Seven-Colored Fish burbled contentedly at him, and he flung his arms around its neck. It butted his chest affectionately and wagged its tail.
"It's good to see you again, Fish," he said.
The fish burbled again. The sound was echoed somewhere above him, as something gave out a ringing cry. Both of them looked up to see the Ancient Fairy Dragon soaring across the sky, the sun shining through her wings and making them glow like a stained-glass window. Demak watched, enchanted. A small part of him thought that even if he never saw anything like that again, he would be content just for having seen it once. He sat perfectly still, staring until she was out of sight. Then he roused himself.
There was a lot more to see.
"Come on, Fish," he said. "Let's explore."
Misty was not sure where she was going next. She only knew that she was going to leave. There were too many difficult memories here, too many things she didn't want to have to deal with. She had put in a call to her agent, letting him know that she was ready to take on a job, any job, as long as it wasn't in Neo Domino City. Within an hour, he had called back telling her that he'd arranged a photo shoot in Paris, and she could be there whenever she was ready. It was good enough.
She had been in the middle of packing her things when there came a knock on the door. Several knocks, in fact, probably made by more than one fist. She put down the shirt she'd been folding and went to answer it, and found Rua and Ruka on her doorstep. They both looked a bit flushed, as if they'd been running. She smiled at them.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Now isn't a very good time..."
Rua shook his head. "You need to come with us."
"I can't," she said. "I'm leaving. I have to go back to work."
"Then you should come with us while you have the chance," said Ruka seriously. "This is important."
In spite of herself, Misty was intrigued. "What is?"
"You have to see for yourself!" Rua insisted. "Come on! Everyone is waiting?"
"Everyone?" Misty repeated. "I don't know..."
The twins wouldn't listen. They caught her hands and began drawing her forward, insisting that it was important that she come with them, and she finally relented. Whatever they wanted her to see, it couldn't possibly be worth fighting about. She had done too much fighting already. She told herself she could just look at whatever they wanted her to see and be done with it.
They led her outside, to where a taxi was idling, its driver watching attentively. As soon as the children approached, he bounded out and opened the doors for them.
"Where are we going?" asked Misty as she slid inside.
"You'll see when we get there," said Ruka, eyes sparkling.
"It's a surprise!" her brother agreed.
Misty knew when not to argue.
They rode to the edges of the city, straight up to the gate where the Security entrance had been. There wasn't a gate anymore. Director Goodwin might have been gone, but his final papers had included instructions that Satellite be rebuilt and the bridge completed. In the meantime, the Security entrance had been opened to the public, with no more than a token guard to keep an eye open for trouble. He was there now, smoking a cigarette and reading a magazine. He gave them all a cursory glance and waved them through.
The road beyond the gate was rough, and in some places nonexistent, but the children seemed to know where they were going. Rua, who had started out sitting in the back seat with everyone else, scrambled up into the front to help guide the driver. They drove through the crumbling remains of the old city, drawing curious stares from passers-by. At last, they came to a place where there were a few trees growing, and some dusty grass, and in the midst of it all was a house. The driver stopped.
"We're here!" Rua exclaimed.
He bounded out of the car, and his sister followed him at a more sedate pace. Misty stepped out onto the ground and looked around.
"What is this place?" she asked.
"Martha's house," said Ruka. "Yusei told us about it."
"All right," said Misty, bemused, "but who is Martha?"
"She runs the orphanage," Rua explained.
"Orphanage?" Misty repeated. "Why would..."
Rua simply took her hand and began dragging her around to the back of the house, telling her to hurry. She followed him to the back yard, where a number of children were scampering around, chasing rubber balls, shouting at each other, and generally showing high spirits. Rua stopped to look at Misty, clearly proud of himself.
"We found you someone to play with," he said. "These kids have all lost their families, too, so they need somebody. I mean, I know nobody is going to be just like your brother, but..."
"You don't have to be lonely anymore," Ruka finished.
"I don't know," said Misty hesitantly. "I'm not sure it works like..."
She was interrupted by a tug on her skirt. She looked down to see a small girl with pigtails looking up at her, eyes wide.
"How do you get your hair so pretty?" she asked.
Misty stared at her a moment. A smile crept over her face.
"It takes a lot of work," she said. "But I think your hair is very pretty, too."
"Really?" the little girl asked.
Misty nodded. On an impulse, she opened her purse and took out a comb. Then she reached up and removed the jade clasp that she'd been wearing in her hair.
"Here," she said. "You can wear this."
The girl's eyes lit up. "Really? You mean it?"
"Of course. I have more at home. Here, I'll put it in for you..."
She knelt down to undo the girl's pigtails, and began gently combing out her hair with her fingers. A few of the other children stopped what they were doing to keep watch over this stranger. Misty calmly ignored them and finished putting the girl's hair back in the clip, and then released her, watching as the child pranced about gleefully, showing off to her friends.
"Me next!" another girl said. "I want my hair done too!"
"Hey, isn't she the lady from TV?" asked one of the boys.
"Yeah, that's her!" another agreed. "No fair! How come she plays with the girls and not us?"
Misty looked up, amused. "What do you want me to play?"
A moment later, Rua and Ruka were sitting on the steps, drinking lemonade that Martha had kindly provided for them and watching the show. Out on the grass, Misty was running barefoot, having abandoned her expensive but impractical high heels. Her hair was in disarray, and her dress had taken a few grass stains where she had tumbled on the lawn. She was chasing after the ball while the children threw it back and forth, trying to keep it away from her, and she was laughing. Rua and Ruka grinned at each other, pleased to see a job well done.
Something in Misty's purse jangled. The twins looked at her, but she was taking no notice. Rua shrugged, got up, and answered the phone.
"Hello?" he said.
"Who are you?" a harried voice demanded.
"I'm one of Misty's friends," said Rua. "Are you looking for her?"
"Yes, I'm looking for her! She was supposed to be at the airport half an hour ago! She's going to miss her flight!"
Rua looked back at Misty. She had finally managed to catch the ball, and was being swarmed by children trying to take it from her.
"I think she changed her mind," he said, and hung up the phone.
Even from a distance, Kiryu could hear the sounds of people at work. It was an encouraging sound. There were still mixed reactions from the city's populace about the reclaiming of the island. The official story, put out by Jaeger, who was turning out to be better at running things in Goodwin's absence than anyone had imagined he would, was that the dark clouds that had engulfed the city had been caused by a gas leak brought on by instabilities in the old Momentum and the breakdown of various equipment. Exposure to the gas had caused hallucinations and unconsciousness, hence the number of people who believed they'd seen strange lights in the sky or had awakened to find themselves lying sprawled on the sidewalks. The official story was that Director Goodwin, who had worked on the original project and understood the mechanisms involved, had taken it upon himself to enter the old laboratory in an attempt to contain the damage, and while he had ultimately been successful, he had died from overexposure to the chemicals, which explained why he had been found outside the old lab's site lying dead without a mark on him.
In the wake of all this, Jaeger had declared that the island was a health hazard and should be cleaned up and rebuilt in an effort to prevent anything like this from happening again. Some people were all in favor, if it would keep anything like that black fog from appearing again. Others said that opening up the island would lead to a rise in crime and flood the city with lazy vagabonds who had no desire for work. Jaeger had ignored them all and simply put out a declaration that anyone on the island who wanted a job working on the Satellite reclamation project would be allowed to do so and paid accordingly. Naysayers predicted that no one would show up.
People had arrived in droves.
Kiryu paused a moment as he arrived at the site of the new bridge. It was swarming with people, many of them familiar. They were people he'd seen every day, before he'd been sent to prison. Some of them, he'd considered friends. They were all hard at work. Not all of them knew how to do skilled labor, but they were more than willing to lift and carry and clean up debris, to mix cement and roll on paint. There were even children there, eagerly fetching tools and carrying water bottles for the thirsty workers. It was almost enough to make Kiryu smile. A bridge, a real bridge, being built right in front of him, by workers from both the island and mainland alike. It was more like some sort of bedtime story than something he'd expect to see in real life. He stood in the shadow of a building and watched for a while.
It felt very quiet inside his mind.
One particular figure stood out in the crowd. His bright red hair was visible even from a distance, and Kiryu was close enough now to see even the faint metallic glimmers of sunlight reflecting off his markers. It was hard to imagine that anyone on the work site could be any more enthusiastic about the job than Crow was. It was impossible to be sure what the original color of what he was wearing might have been, because it was soaked through with sweat and liberally spattered with dust, paint, and assorted unidentifiable grime. He looked like he was having a wonderful time. Kiryu hated to spoil it. After a few moments of watching, though, he gathered his courage and started forwards.
Crow noticed him, of course. The smile vanished from his face, and he gave Kiryu a serious look as he approached.
"Hey," he said guardedly.
"Crow," said Kiryu. "I think we need to talk."
"Talk while I'm working," Crow suggested.
"I'm leaving Neo Domino."
Crow glared at him. "What the hell are you doing that for?"
"I have to," said Kiryu. "There's no place for me here."
"You're nuts," said Crow. "Come on, I thought you got over being crazy. Don't start again."
"Don't joke, Crow! I'm serious!" said Kiryu.
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Crow. "Seriously. You've got a clean record now. There's no reason why you can't stay here if you want to."
Kiryu shook his head. "It's not that simple. Just because the books say I'm not a criminal anymore doesn't mean that everyone is going to forgive and forget. As far as this city is concerned, I'm still the one who tried to single handedly wipe out the government. They aren't just going to smile and welcome me with open arms."
"Uh-huh. I gotcha," said Crow, raising an eyebrow. "So basically, instead of trying to prove them wrong, you're just going to throw up your hands, say 'it's too hard, I can't do it' and quit. Totally understand."
"It's not that simple!" Kiryu snapped. A few people had stopped what they were doing to stare at him, and were either backing away from him or surreptitiously easing closer to hear more clearly. He ignored all of them.
"Never said it was," said Crow. "It's probably going to be hard as hell. Trust me, I've been there. So have you. I don't understand why you're talking about giving up now."
"I'm not talking about giving up!" Kiryu said, frustrated. "I'm just talking about... going somewhere else for a while. Someplace I can start over fresh."
"Start over here," said Crow. "Look around you - really look. The bridge is getting built. The island is going to become part of the city. We're not going to be second-class citizens anymore. Shoot, Security is actually on our side, for once. This is your dream, Kiryu. It's what you wanted all along, isn't it - to turn Satellite into the kind of place we'd enjoy living in? Can you really walk away from that?"
Kiryu was quiet for a moment. He knew Crow was right. A part of him did want to stay, but...
"What do you expect me to do?" he asked quietly.
In response, Crow reached into a toolbox and pulled out a screwdriver. He offered it to Kiryu. With his free hand, he gestured at the bridge, at the crumbling buildings, and the construction crews working on both of them.
"Why don't you build something?" he said.
There was a lot of activity going on around Martha's house. This was nothing unusual, since at any given time she generally had at least half a dozen active children in her care, but this day was special in terms of the sheer scale of commotion. It appeared that a small army, carrying an assortment of ladders, tool boxes, and buckets of paint, had decided to make a camp on her front lawn. When the orders had gone out that Satellite should be rebuilt, her orphanage had apparently been put near the top of the list of things that needed repairing, and she had suddenly found herself with a pile of grant money for the sole purpose of bringing her building up to code.
Even if the money hadn't been there, though, the work still would have gotten done. The island was full of people who owed her favors, and when word got out, they had descended en masse, ready to do whatever they could to help.
Yusei was among them. At the moment, he was perched atop a stepladder on the back porch, replacing a light fixture that had burnt out eons ago and had never been deemed important enough to replace. What was left of it was so old and corroded that he was having to reinstall nearly everything down to the wiring. He paused a moment to wipe sweat from his brow, leaving a rusty streak across his skin.
From his vantage point, he could observe much of the other action. Aki had turned up early, and had immediately taken over the task of lawn reclamation. Under her guidance, the grass was being re-seeded, flower beds mulched, and shrubs planted. For the first time since he'd met her, she looked less than perfectly groomed, her clothing all but hidden under a layer of mud and grass stains. At the moment, she was busily overseeing a few others as they installed a row of climbing roses against one wall.
The door swung open, slamming into Yusei's ladder and making it lurch precariously.
"Whoa!" he shouted.
"Oops, sorry!" said Yuji "Didn't see you up there."
"It's all right," said Yusei as he began climbing back down to earth. "We were going to replace that door anyway."
Saiga came out of the house, brushing his hands together with a look of satisfaction.
"The AC is working," he announced. "You're now the first building on the island with air conditioning."
Yuji nodded. "And it's cable and internet ready. You know, whenever you get around to that."
"Thanks, both of you," said Yusei. "You've been a big help."
"I figured it wouldn't kill me to be useful once in a while," said Saiga. "And everyone else was doing it."
Yuji punched his shoulder. "Don't listen to him. He just likes to put on his old-grouch act."
"Well, whatever the reason, we're glad you're both here," said Yusei.
He folded up his ladder and wandered around to the side of the house, where other work crews were busy with other projects. He waved to Taka, Nerve, and Blitz, who were hard at work patching up the roof. A flock of children wearing oversized leather gardening gloves were scurrying around collecting the old shingles and piling them into wheelbarrows. Rua and Ruka were already chatting and joking with the rest of the children as if they'd been best friends forever. Yusei waded through them, exchanging greetings as he passed, and made his way to the front yard.
Things were equally hectic there. Not only were workers busy there as well, but Crow had found a barbecue grill somewhere, and he and Martha and several others were hard at work creating a picnic lunch for all the people who'd turned up to help. It smelled wonderful, and Yusei, who had been hard at work since nearly dawn, found himself thinking longingly of the hamburgers that were being turned on the grill. Sitting in a shady spot out of the way of the other workers was Yanagi, keeping watch over the children who were too small to work or had become tired from their labors. He seemed to be telling them a silly story about a prince and a soldier with ugly feet.
"I see you're having fun," said Yusei as he passed.
Yanagi beamed. "You bet! I'm glad to be here!"
"And I'm glad you're here," said Yusei. "It's good to know you're feeling all right. Crow told me you got hurt while you were helping him."
The old man waved a dismissive hand. "That? That was nothing. I feel fine! Though, you know, I had the strangest dream while I was out. I dreamed that you were there taking care of me, but in my dream, you were wearing a long white coat, and your eyes were green. Isn't that strange?"
Yusei smiled. "Very strange."
Thanks, Dad, he thought, as he walked away.
His attention was caught by a car pulling up to the house. He hadn't seen that particular vehicle before, but he recognized the driver and grinned. He hurried forward to greet the new guests.
"Ushio," he said, as his friend climbed out of the car, "you're not in uniform."
"Don't need to be," said Ushio cheerfully. "I got promoted. You're looking at the new assistant to the chief of Special Investigation."
"That sounds important," said Yusei.
"You haven't heard the best part," Ushio replied. "Mikage got a promotion, too."
"Let me guess. Same department?"
Ushio grinned widely as he walked around to open the passenger side door.
"Let me introduce you to the new chief of Special Investigations," he said.
Mikage got out of the car. She was, for the first time since Yusei had met her, wearing something other than her serious business garb. She was dressed in denim cutoffs and a T-shirt, obviously prepared to put in some hard work, but apparently she couldn't put her job behind her so easily. She was, in fact, deeply absorbed in a telephone call.
"Mm-hm... Yes, that's right. The files should be in the third cabinet over, in the drawer marked "correspondence"... No, I don't think that will work. Trust me on this one," she was saying. When she noticed Yusei, though, she quickly disentangled herself from the conversation with a few more words and hung up the phone. "Oh, hello, Yusei. Sorry to tune you out, but he just wouldn't stop asking questions."
"Someone from work?" Yusei inquired.
"The Vice-Director," said Mikage. "He's a little overwhelmed, I think. His job has mostly been more about public relations than actually making any decisions, and he seems a bit lost without Director Goodwin to tell him what to do. We'll all be much happier once a new Director is appointed."
Yusei smiled. "Maybe they should give you the job. You seem to know how it's done."
"Oh, heavens, no," said Mikage, blushing. "I'm not nearly experienced enough. I'm just sort of helping out until things get back into a routine."
Her phone rung again. She glanced at the caller ID and sighed, "Not again. Excuse me a minute..."
She wandered off, phone glued to her ear. Ushio watched her go with a dreamy sigh.
"She'd be the best Director ever," he said.
He was interrupted from his reverie by a small human-shaped object slamming into his legs. He looked down to see that a small boy had just flung his arms around him.
"Hey, kid," said Ushio. "Takuya, right? Nice to see ya again."
"Hi, Officer Ushio!" said the boy. "I knew you'd come back and visit!"
"Hey, I said I would and I did!" said Ushio. "A Security officer's word is always good!"
"You're just in time," said Takuya. "We're just about to have lunch. You can have lunch, too," he added magnanimously to Yusei.
"Thanks," said Yusei.
Takuya looked up at Ushio. "Will you sit next to me?"
"Might as well. I gotta sit somewhere," said Ushio.
"Okay! I'll save you a seat!" said Takuya, and scampered off.
Yusei smiled as he started towards the folding tables that had been set up as a picnic area.
"He seems to like you," he observed.
"No accounting for taste," said Ushio, falling into step with him. "He's a good kid, though. Wants to join Security when he grows up, yanno?"
"I might have heard something like that," Yusei agreed. He gave Ushio a sidelong look. "How did the Vice-Director find out about this place, anyway?"
Ushio grinned. "Oh, I mighta mentioned something, somewhere along the line."
There was an edge to his grin, and Yusei wondered just what that meeting had entailed. He had a vision of Ushio looming over the Vice-Director as he spelled out exactly what he wanted. Yusei smiled, too.
"I'm sorry I missed it," he said.
As they neared the seating area, Yusei discovered that other people had arrived without attracting his attention. This was possibly because Martha had detained both of them. She was busy chatting with Carly, while Jack looked on with an expression of deep embarrassment.
"...just the cutest little thing," Martha was saying. "I still have pictures of him from when he was little. Do you want to see them?"
"Yes!" said Carly.
"No!" said Jack.
"Hello, Jack," said Yusei, deciding to be merciful and provide a distraction. "Are you here to help?"
"I might," said Jack. "But Carly wanted to meet Martha, and today was as good a day as any."
"Don't listen to him. He wanted to help," said Carly.
"Of course he did," said Martha. "But it was nice of him to introduce me to his new sweetheart." She looked Carly over thoughtfully. "You're not quite what I was expecting, but I think he made a good choice. You seem like a nice young lady. Have you two made any plans for the future yet?"
"Martha..." said Jack, looking embarrassed.
Carly glowed and held out her left hand. "Jack gave me a ring, see?"
"Oh, my," said Martha, eyes shining with amusement. "Engaged already? Well, Jack always was a precocious boy."
"It's not like that!" Jack protested. "Carly, tell her it's not like that."
"Oh, look," said Carly. "It's the guys from the plant. Hey, guys, over here!"
Carly raced off to where she'd seen Taka, Nerve and Blitz making their way to the lunch tables. They caught her in a group hug and began chatting animatedly.
"Popular girl," Martha teased. "You'd better be careful, Jack. If you keep putting her off, someone might snatch her away from you."
Jack rolled his eyes. "I'm going to get lunch."
"Get it while the getting's good!" Crow shouted back. "Today, Crow the Bullet is making burgers!"
Ushio looked at Yusei. "Is that a good thing?"
"I'm getting a plate," said Yusei.
In the end, they all ended up gathering around one long table: Yusei, Ushio, Mikage, Takuya, Jack, Carly, Saiga, Yuji, Crow, Aki, Rua, and Ruka. It was a lively group. Crow had outdone himself with his grill-work, and Martha and her fleet of helpers had produced an array of side dishes that had everyone going back for seconds. For a while, conversation was limited to commenting on the food and asking people to pass the condiments.
"I've got to hand it to you, Crow," said Ushio. "You know your way around a grill. How'd you learn to cook?"
Crow shrugged. "I've got kids. They've gotta eat. And grilling stuff is the easiest way to cook around here - stoves are hard to come by, but all you need for a grill is a fire and something to keep the food from falling into it."
"Well, you could open a restaurant when you're done with this building stuff," said Ushio. As he spoke, he was starting in on his third burger.
Crow laughed. "Not me. I don't know if I have a head for business."
"What are you all going to do now?" asked Mikage. "I mean, some of you haven't even had jobs before, have you?"
Yusei smiled a little. "Not unless you count working for the Director."
"You did a fine job with that," Mikage assured him. "You know, if you do need a job, I'm sure I could get you one. Security could use someone like you."
"I don't know," said Yusei. "Apparently Goodwin left me some money in his will - not much, but enough to make a start with somewhere. I was thinking of enrolling in a college. There's a lot about the world I don't know yet."
"That would be nice," said Aki. "I'm going back to Duel Academia soon. Maybe we could study together."
"You should come stay with us!" said Rua. "We've got a big house you could live in! You can be our babysitter."
Yusei laughed. "You two don't need a babysitter."
"Sure we do," said Rua, looking angelic. "Just look at all the trouble we got into being left alone!"
"You could always come help us out, if you want," Yuji offered. "Saiga and I are going into building custom D-Wheels."
Saiga nodded. "Jack says you're a pretty mean hand with a wrench. We'd be glad to have some extra help."
"Hey, if Yusei's building anything, he's building it here," Crow opined. "I mean, it's going to take months to get this island rebuilt. Yusei, you ought to come with me and help out on the bridge."
"He's doing no such thing," said Jack. "He's going to try out for the Pro Leagues with me. He's the only one good enough to keep my skills sharpened."
Yusei laughed. He couldn't help it. It was funny to think that he'd started out with no options - just another nobody from Satellite. Now he had more options than he knew what to do with. Looking around at the faces of his friends, though, he thought perhaps it didn't matter which direction he picked. No matter what he chose, he knew he'd be home.
The day was coming to an end. The sun was setting over Martha's house, gleaming off its fresh paint. Most of the workers had already gone home, agreeing to come back the next day to finish the last few jobs, and Martha had herded her weary children inside for hot baths and some sleep. Only Jack and Carly were left. Carly watched him as he set aside the paint scraper he'd been using and stood up, stretching his work-stiffened muscles.
"Tired?" she asked sympathetically.
"Not so much," he said. "It will be dark soon, though."
"Guess we should be heading home," she agreed.
He shook his head. "Not yet. First, I want to show you something."
"Oh?" she asked, interested.
Instead of speaking, Jack led her around to the back of the house. There was an old drainpipe there. He sized it up for a moment, then reached out and grabbed it, using a windowsill to give himself a foothold. With the ease of long practice, he began scaling the wall. Halfway up, he paused and looked down at Carly.
"Well?" he said. "Are you coming?"
Carly wasn't at all certain that she could manage such an athletic feat. Jack must have sensed her uncertainty, because he added, "I did this all the time when I was young. It's not as hard as it looks. You'll be fine."
Encouraged, she took hold of the drain. It was sturdier than it appeared, held in place with a regular series of brackets that made it easy to climb. She managed to shimmy up it without incident. There was a brief moment of difficulty as she tried to pull herself over the edge of the gutter, but Jack gave her a hand, and she was able to clamber onto the roof. She crouched there for a moment, catching her breath. Jack sat down next to her, gazing off into the sunset. There was a good view from up there. If she looked in the right direction, she could just make out the glow that was the light from Neo Domino City shining against the darkening sky.
"I used to come here a lot," he said, "when I wanted some privacy. Or if Martha was angry at me."
Carly smiled and made herself comfortable next to him. "I'll bet you were nothing but trouble."
"I probably was," he admitted. He didn't sound particularly ashamed of it. "I was up here often enough, anyway. I used to come up here and look at the city, and tell myself how I would run away someday to live there and be famous."
"And now you've done it," she said. "Just like I was going to leave home and be a great reporter."
"We were lucky," Jack agreed quietly. "Goodwin kept his word, you know. I got a message from one of his contacts, saying I could have a tryout next week."
"Are you nervous?" she asked.
He shook his head. "No. But things are going to be different now."
"I guess you're right," she said. "I got a call from the Neo Domino Daily. They want me to write features on dueling for them. I'm probably going to take the job."
"You should," said Jack. "It's what you wanted, isn't it?"
"I guess," she said. She hung her head a little. "I guess this means we're going our own ways, from here on in."
"It does," he agreed.
"I... really enjoyed this, though," she said. "Well, not everything. Not the monsters and the zombies and people getting hurt, but... I'm really, really glad I got to know you. You're the best thing that ever happened to me."
"We were both very lucky," Jack agreed.
They were quiet for a moment. Carly found herself reaching for his hand, uncertain of who she was trying to comfort with the gesture, and as she did so, she noticed the ring still on her finger.
"Oh," she said. "Your mother's ring... I ought to give it back. I guess you'll be wanting it..."
She started to take it off, but he closed his hands around hers to stop her.
"Keep it," he said. "I've gotten used to you having it."
"Wow, um... th-thank you!" she stammered.
"I'll probably want it back eventually," Jack continued. "So you'll just have to stay close, so I can find you when I want it."
Carly felt her cheeks flush. "Um... when will that be?"
"I haven't decided," said Jack. "It might be a long time. You don't mind, do you?"
"No," she said, leaning to rest her head on his shoulder. "I don't mind. I'll stay as long as you want."
"Even if it takes the rest of your life?"
"Especially then," she said.
"Good," Jack replied. "That's settled, then."
Carly said nothing, but she sighed contentedly and settled herself more comfortably against his side. She gazed out over the water as the lights of the city flickered on, becoming steadily brighter against the onset of night. Carly watched it a moment longer before glancing down at the ring on her hand, and the man sitting next to her. Neo Domino City was the city of dreams, but the time for dreams was over, and from where she sat, reality looked like it was going to be just fine.