Joan and Michael take some time to volunteer.
|Chapter Song: Teach Your Children by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Chapter 66: Gertrude
Just as Joan climbed out of Seto's limo, her phone rang. She looked at the caller ID. "It's my mom. I'll meet you inside in a few minutes." She gave Seto a quick peck and picked up the call. "Hey mom!"
Seto turned to Roland and Tamara. "Both of you stick with her." He cast a glance over his shoulder before entering Kaiba Manor, letting Joan wander the grounds under the supervision of the bodyguards.
"Is everything all right?" Gertrude asked. "The news says there was an explosion at Kaiba Corp, but they don't know what caused it yet."
"Yeah, um . . ." Joan didn't feel like giving her mother too many details. "How'd you find out about that so fast?"
"I set up a news alert on my phone so I wouldn't miss anything involving you or the Kaibas."
Part of Joan wanted to scold her mother for prying into her business, but on the other hand, it felt good to have another person looking out for her. "Mom, I've been fine all this time. Why start worrying about me now?"
Gertrude took a shaky breath. "I've been trying to figure out how I steered you wrong. I thought a lot about the story you told me at the brewery. I had trouble sleeping for many nights after I found out you were sleeping around, but then I had a dream. In this dream, I had another daughter, and that other daughter was telling me that I was only allowed to love her and not you. I think God was trying to tell me something in that dream."
"Uh, Mom, what exactly are you saying?"
"George will always be my one and only husband, and you will always be my one and only daughter, but if God blessed me with more, how could I deny them? I'm not in your shoes, so I don't know what it's like for you. I just don't want you to feel like you need to hide things from me anymore."
Joan choked up. After a moment, she managed to squeeze out a soft, "Thanks, Mom. That means so much to me." After brief consideration, Joan decided to test the waters on another matter. "Mom, do you believe in magic?"
"No, but I believe in divine intervention. I've told you that story before about how I almost got in a fatal crash."
"Yeah, how your car mysteriously flipped around and backed into a tree, and the cops were totally baffled about how it happened."
"And I knew, just knew that God had decided it wasn't my time yet. He had bigger plans for me, and part of His plan for me was giving birth to you."
"Yeah, I remember. The thing is, about that explosion, there was a god involved, but it wasn't your God. It was an ancient goddess."
"Sweetie, are you feeling all right? Have you had a concussion test yet?"
"I'm fine, and Seto saw her too."
"Are you sure it wasn't one of those dress-up fanatics like the one who played that card game against Seto?"
"I . . . it's been a long day." Joan wanted to say more but remembered she told Seto she'd only be a few minutes. If she said too much, they could be on the phone for hours.
"You know, you're still welcome to come to church. All the other choir members are always asking about you."
"That's nice. I'll think about it. I gotta get back to Seto now, though."
"I love you, sweetie."
"I love you too, Mom. I'll talk to you later." With that, Joan ended the call. She gazed up at the hulking Kaiba residence. God, if you're listening, talk to me. I need to figure this shit out. With silence as her reply, she sighed and headed inside.
Chapter 67: Shuttle
Seto sent Joan to Pennsylvania on his private jet. He insisted despite Joan's protests. It stopped at SFO to refuel and pick up Michael. On the plane, she and Michael changed into their official California Imagination of the Mind T-shirts, and Joan gave Tamara an official Sacramento Valley Imagination of the Mind T-shirt so she wouldn't stand out. Joan strapped a KC belt around her hips but left her T-shirt untucked to avoid attracting attention. By the time Joan got off the jet, she desperately wanted a walk and paced the sidewalk with Tamara while they waited for the Imagination of the Mind shuttle to arrive.
Michael sat on a bench poking at his phone until a gray-haired fellow in a Texas Imagination of the Mind T-shirt sat down next to him and started chatting. "Howdy! Which performance are you judging?"
"Timeless Treasures, but I'm just entering the scores," Michael replied. "How about you?"
"Whimsical Wonders. I'm judging aesthetics. They have some really fun requirements this year. They're making up a unique mythical creature, and they've got to use dental floss in one of their props."
"That's cool. I'd probably use it as a bowstring."
"Yeah, we've seen a lot of that, but this one team made a shag carpet out of the stuff, and then their creature hid under the carpet, and I can't even remember it all, but they were so funny."
"Nice! For Timeless Treasures this year, they have to pick a piece of music in the public domain and make up a story about how the musician was inspired to write it."
The man nodded vigorously. "Yeah, I heard about that one. I wish I was judging yours this year."
"Well, a lot of teams did 'Greensleeves,' but this one team did 'Ye Banks and Braes,' and afterwards my wife decided to learn the whole thing and wouldn't stop singing it for a week straight."
The man chuckled. "Maybe it's better I didn't do that one this year. I get songs stuck in my head way too easily. Say, want to trade pins?"
"Sorry, we missed the deadline to order them this year." Michael decided not to add that, before Joan had secured her wealthy clients, pins simply weren't in their budget. In fact, if Imagination of the Mind wasn't providing their lodging and meals, the trip would have been out of the question.
"That's OK. I have a bunch of extras. I'll just give you one." The man dug in his luggage and pulled out a sparkly enamel pin with "Imagination of the Mind" on a Texas flag.
Michael took the pin. "Cool. Thanks!"
"Don't mention it. Say, are you here with anyone else?"
"My wife and her friend. They're stretching their legs over there." Michael nodded in the direction of Tamara and Joan. "How about you?"
"My niece is competing in the Durable Designs performance. She's back there with her team." The man turned around and nodded at a group of six kids sitting in a circle on their suitcases.
Michael turned around too and noticed that the kids were playing with Duel Monsters cards. One of the kids caught sight of him and started giggling. Michael quickly turned back, wondering why Joan thought this would be a good idea.
Michael's conversation partner obliviously went on talking as the bus pulled up. "Their design held seven hundred thirty-five pounds at the state tournament. Can you believe it? Every year, they just get better and better."
They stood and got in line for the bus. Joan sidled up to Michael and hugged him while the man kept chatting about his niece's team. They heard giggling behind them but ignored it.
Once on the bus, Joan and Tamara sat together so Tamara wouldn't have to answer difficult questions about Imagination of the Mind, at least not right away. Even though Tamara planned to watch and not judge, Joan gave Tamara a crash course on the various judging positions, the performances that the teams spent months working on, and the impromptu competition that factored into their score but was only witnessed by a handful of judges. The parameters of the impromptu competition were always kept secret until the entire tournament was over so no team would have an unfair advantage.
Shortly after the bus unloaded, Joan heard, "Hey Whore!" and turned to see a group of six kids holding out notebooks. "Can we have your autograph?"
Tamara eyed the kids like a hawk, ready to strike at the first hint of threat, but their sincere expressions put her at ease. Michael gave the Texan he'd been conversing with a sheepish grin.
The kids' parents gaped in horror until one stepped forward. "I'm sorry. I don't know where they learned that word. They don't know what it means."
Joan smiled. "No worries. I'm sure they learned it on TV or maybe Youtube. It means companion, after all. And sure, I'll sign some autographs." She got down on one knee and scrawled her name in one notebook after another.
"What kind of deck do you have?" one kid asked.
"Seto and I are still working on it. He says he wants my deck to be just as unstoppable as his."
"Is he giving you a Blue-Eyes White Dragon?"
"No, but I got to hold all three of them."
"No way! What were they like?"
Joan recalled the visions Seto had shared with her. "Absolutely beautiful in every way."
The kids wanted to stay and chat more, but their parents herded them towards the student dorms for competitors' check-in.
Chapter Song: Cruel Youth - Devil In Paradise
Chapter 68: Coffee
Marc insisted on showing up to work. Mokuba insisted on checking to see if Laura had shown up first. Mokuba went up the narrow staircase with his bodyguard while Marc sat in the car waiting for Mokuba's text.
Mokuba walked in to find Laura typing furiously at her computer, words filling the screen faster than he had ever seen. "Hey Laura, we need to talk."
Laura pounded out the rest of a sentence before turning. Without her usual flawless makeup, the deepening lines on her face showed. "Can it wait? I'm on a roll here."
"Only if you promise not to kill Marc when he shows up."
"Only if he promises not to come near me."
"All right." Mokuba texted Marc about Laura's condition and left her to deal with other matters.
Marc came in and greeted his art team, pretending that nothing was wrong but sneaking glances at Laura whenever possible. He sat down at his desk and tried to lose himself in his work, but he made slow progress as everything replayed in his mind.
Laura got to a stopping point and saved her draft before going to see Mokuba. "What did you want to talk about?"
"I think you already know." Mokuba glanced around the busy, open office. "Can we discuss this over coffee?"
Laura crossed her arms. "Whatever."
Marc watched them leave, but Laura avoided so much as glancing in his direction.
Once settled at a quiet corner table in a nearby café, Mokuba opened, "Marc is an absolute wreck right now."
Mokuba stirred his steaming beverage in silence, trying to figure out what to say next. "I'm no good at this stuff," he finally admitted.
"Then butt out."
"I can't butt out. Joan is involved in this too, and none of us want to lose our baby."
"It's not my baby and it's not my problem."
"What if it could be yours? That ring has other powers too. Joan could probably use it on you and Marc and make it happen."
"Fuck. No." Laura took a long, slow sip of her coffee while glaring at her boss.
"I don't get it," Mokuba's voice rose an octave, "you let Marc have sex with anyone he wants and you do the same, but when he finally gets someone pregnant, you don't give him the time of day?"
"I saved him from mediocrity. I gave him a home, cooked his meals, cleaned up his messes, all so he could develop his skills as an artist, and this is how he repays me? By knocking up some whore with a magical ring? I'm done with men. They're selfish, greedy pigs."
"Say what now?"
"I held onto my marriage a decade too long. I married Marc thinking that he would be a responsible co-parent, that having someone to love would give him a sense of responsibility, but he's never taken on his share of the housework, and I've had to work my ass off just so he could advance his career. I've come to accept that if I got pregnant, I'd be stuck at home taking care of the baby while Marc brought home the bacon, but I'm not going to be cajoled into doing that for some young whore's baby while she runs around fucking you rich pricks."
"It's Seto's and mine too. And don't forget Michael. There will always be someone available to watch the baby. We can even hire a nanny if it's too much for the rest of us to handle. You won't have to do a thing. We'll have staff to handle the housework too."
"No, I'm out. I practically pulled Marc out of a dumpster fifteen years ago, and now I'm wishing I'd left him there. He just proved to me that he's still as reckless as the day I met him."
Mokuba's forehead creased. "We all used protection. It was an accident."
"No no. You can't just magic a baby into someone without wanting it. Marc knew what he was doing. He was hoping to get lucky just like you and your brother."
"So . . . that's it? You're just giving up on Marc? You don't love him anymore?"
"Love has nothing to do with it. I've told Marc countless times that I would leave him if he got someone else pregnant. Usually that scared off any woman with baby rabies, but apparently fear doesn't apply to whores."
"Why should she live in fear? She's been through a lot, but she keeps on going, keeps on trusting. That's something to admire."
Laura rolled her eyes. "Would you admire a puppy for trusting its master after it got kicked?" Before waiting for an answer, she continued, "I need to live my life for me. I wasted my best years taking care of a man-child because I didn't have the guts to stand on my own."
"What if Marc can't live without you?"
"That's his problem."
"But . . ."
"God, you're naïve. Just wait until you're forty-five, and you'll see that love is nothing but an illusion brought on by our hormones driving us to breed. The sooner you come to terms with that, the better."
"I think Joan has already come to terms with that."
"Good for her. I wish her all the best. She'll need it with you four douchebags."
"Are you . . ." trying to get fired, Mokuba wanted to ask, ". . . jealous?" he said instead.
"I am not jealous. I don't miss my twenties at all. I let every man with a scrap of power walk all over me back then."
"Well that's you, not Joan."
"Exactly why I don't give a fuck."
Mokuba sipped his coffee as his brain played with the puzzle pieces Laura had given him. Her bitterness seemed to come on suddenly, but what if Laura had merely been pretending things were fine all this time? What if Joan's pregnancy was merely the straw that broke the camel's back? He needed more information to complete the picture. "How are things with Matteo?"
"None of your goddamn business."
"Laura, I can't help you if you–"
"I never asked for your help, but if you really want to help, you can tell Marc to go fuck himself."
"Uh . . . I'll leave that one to you."
"First smart thing you've said all day. Now, unless you have anything work-related to discuss, I'm going back to mine." Laura grabbed her coffee cup and marched back to the office. Mokuba stared into space for a few minutes before heading back himself.
Chapter Song: Polyamory Song by David Rovics
Chapter 69: Reassignment
Joan, Michael, and Tamara followed signs for volunteers' check-in and found themselves at a luxurious hotel with purple and yellow flowers by the entrance and pots of hanging red flowers along a side patio. Even with the vibrant flowers, adults in brightly colored T-shirts and silly hats dominated the scene.
In the lobby, a U of folding tables formed a barrier around a row of folding tables holding cloth bags containing volunteer packets. A name tag hung from each bag, which contained three T-shirts in the volunteer's size, meal tickets, coupons for local businesses, maps, schedules, and several thank-you trinkets. Joan approached the tables and gave her name to a volunteer behind the U.
The volunteer blanched. "How do you spell that?" She scanned a clipboard while Joan patiently fulfilled the request. The volunteer looked up again, spotted Joan's ring, and lost all her color. "I . . . I think we'll have to reassign you."
"Why?" Joan asked, knowing full well the reason but challenging the check-in volunteer to say it to her face.
"C-could you take a seat over there, please? I need to ask the tournament director." The volunteer gestured at a horseshoe of couches and chairs.
Joan sighed. "Sure." She dragged her rolling suitcase to a couch and plopped into it with Michael while Tamara roamed the lobby.
"Man told Woman we should have stayed home," Michael said.
The weight of everything started to pile up on Joan. "Why? So Woman could cry in bed for three days?"
"So we could process what happened instead of winding up with more things to cry about. They're probably going to kick us out now and ban us from ever coming back. If we'd waited a year, people would have forgotten and we could move on with our lives."
"Maybe Male's right, but we're here now, so whatever happens happens." Joan dropped a defeated head against Michael's shoulder.
"It's touching me," Michael whined.
Joan patted his bald head. "Smart Male, special Male."
"Pretty Male. Don't forget pretty."
"Smart Male, special Male, pretty Male."
"Mine!" Joan wrapped her arms around him.
Michael pulled up a two-player game on his phone, and they passed it back and forth to pass the time.
An hour later, a warm greeting caused them to look up from Michael's phone. A grandfatherly man with wispy white hair wearing a vest covered in shiny Imagination of the Mind pins from all over the world peered down at them. "Joan Saunders and Michael Wurzel, I presume?"
Joan's eyes bulged. She recognized this man as none other than the founder of Imagination of the Mind. "Walter Mickley?"
Joan rose and shook Walter's hand. Michael pocketed his phone and followed suit. "It's an honor to meet you, sir."
"Please, call me Walt." Walt sat down in a nearby chair, and Joan and Michael returned to the couch.
"So . . . the check-in person over there said something about reassignment?" Joan opened.
Walt regarded her seriously. "Yes. You were originally assigned to judge the objective components of the Timeless Treasures performances, but given your current celebrity status, we worry about you being a distraction to the competitors."
Joan bowed her head. She should have taken more time to think this through. She should have seen this coming. "I understand. May we ride the next shuttle back to the airport?"
A twinkle entered Walt's eyes. "I'm not finished yet. For certain volunteer positions, distraction is exactly what we need. Since you have an outstanding seven-year service record with us, I think you would be suited to the Impromptu Competition Waiting Room."
"What?" Joan already knew how the Impromptu Competition worked from her years as a competitor in high school; she only asked the question from shock.
"The Impromptu Competition is an improvisational challenge presented and judged in secret so no team has an unfair advantage. To keep everything running on time, we ask the teams to check in early and have them sit in a waiting room until their judging team is ready for them."
"Yes, but why me?"
"Sitting in the waiting room is stressful for the competitors. They need some entertainment to loosen up before they take on the Impromptu Competition."
Michael's jaw dangled. «Has Walt gone senile? Why doesn't he just hire a dozen strippers instead of using you?»
Joan caught Michael's thought and replied, «Let's make sure we understand him correctly before jumping to conclusions.» "You want me to entertain the kids in the waiting room?"
"Of course. You don't have to do all the work yourself, though. Get the brave ones onstage. Get them involved."
"I don't think that's such a good idea," Joan said.
"Why not? I heard you did an amazing job with the kids from the shuttle who wanted autographs. Granted you'll have to say no to autographs in the waiting room because there won't be time for everyone, but sing songs with them. Tell them stories. Ask them to share songs and stories that are special to them. Let them know it's OK to be goofy."
A smile spread across Joan's face. "OK, can do. Will Michael and Tamara be working with me too?"
At the sound of her name, Tamara stopped pacing the lobby and came to stand beside Joan's couch.
Walt looked up at her with a warm smile. "Oh, hello. Are you Tamara?"
"We don't have you registered as a volunteer, but I understand you need lodging and meal tickets as Joan's bodyguard. Is that correct?"
"Would you be up for helping Joan onstage with some silly songs?"
Tamara smiled. "I'd love to, sir."
"Excellent! We'll set you up with a full volunteer packet. As for you Michael, we'd like to keep you as a Timeless Treasures scorekeeper. Since you won't be as close to the competitors as Joan would have been as a judge, we believe a silly hat will be enough to disguise you."
"Aw, you mean I can't wear my tiara?" Michael whined.
Tamara shot a questioning look at Joan, but Joan just smiled.
Walt continued without batting an eye, "You could wear a tiara over a hat, but if it's a tiara you've worn at regional and state tournaments, I'd advise against it, as it might make you more recognizable."
"Thank you so much," Joan said.
"No, thank you. We can't run a tournament without all you volunteers."
Joan, Michael, and Tamara shook Walt's hand, picked up their volunteer packets, and checked into their third-floor hotel room. Once they put their luggage away, they headed downstairs to dine in the banquet hall with the other volunteers.
Chapter 70: Performance Captains
Joan, Michael, and Tamara stuck close as they made their way through the buffet line and selected a table in the banquet hall. Only volunteers and other tournament officials ate here; contestants ate in the university's student dining facilities. Joan recognized some people she'd worked with in previous years and decided to risk joining them. Tamara and Michael flanked her as they pulled up an extra chair, squeezing nine people around a table designed for eight.
Joan's eyes locked briefly with the devilishly handsome Timeless Treasures Performance Captain Scott, but she quickly turned her smile to his petite, almost frail wife. Scott wore a black polo shirt embroidered with IPC, setting him apart from the volunteers in colorful T-shirts surrounding them. "Hey Michael, hey Joan. Looking forward to having you on the team again."
"Actually, she got a last-minute reassignment, but I'll still be working with you," Michael said.
Scott's wife sighed with relief.
"What?" Scott's hazel eyes caught Joan's again. "Why am I just now hearing of this, and why'd they reassign you instead of Michael? I thought you were a regional performance captain. You should know the performance requirements inside and out."
"I am, but it's a long story." Joan couldn't believe it had only been two months since the regional tournaments and one month since the state tournaments. At the rate things were going, she'd be in labor when the time came to train next year's regional volunteers. Perhaps she should put someone else in charge, assuming Walt would continue to back her up in the first place. If Walt learned more about her situation, he might change his mind. Having learned her lesson at her internship, she'd kept all her relationships except her marriage secret from her fellow volunteers. Two years ago, Sacramento Valley Region needed a new performance captain for Timeless Treasures, and Joan had been in the right place at the right time with the right amount of charisma to take on the responsibility.
Scott smiled. "I like stories."
"How do you not know," Scott's wife hissed, "it's been all over the internet!"
"In case you haven't noticed, I've been busy prepping for the tournament," Scott chided his wife. "Anyway, fill me in!"
For years, she'd been terrified that someone in Imagination of the Mind would find out she was polyamorous, but getting involved with the Kaibas had changed everything. Joan knew that Scott would find out sooner or later, and since Walt Mickley himself had already cleared her for duty, she had little left to fear. In fact, she had to take control of her story now to prevent misunderstandings. Starting from when she married Michael, Joan gave Scott a simplified version of her story, leaving out the most recent developments with supernatural forces.
"So what you're saying is that you're one of those Ethical Slut people?" Scott clarified.
"Pretty much, yeah," Joan agreed. "How did you know about that phrase?"
"Some of my friends have the book sitting around their house, and we got to chatting about it. They said their relationships were 'outside the box' and talked about how they came up with imaginative solutions to their problems kind of like what we do here in Imagination of the Mind."
Some of their tablemates leaned forward with interest, but Scott's wife cleared her throat. "Just because some people are doing something doesn't mean everyone should try it. It rarely works out and just wastes everyone's time."
Joan nodded enthusiastically. "I know what you mean. My parents are doing monogamy, and that works great for them, so I tried it back when I was eighteen because I thought it was my only option, but it didn't work out so well for me. I wish I'd known my options sooner so I didn't waste so much of my former partner's time as well as my own."
Scott's wife stared with her mouth half-open until Scott changed the topic. "Well, enough of that. I heard there's a Chinese team that got penalized for using a giant smoke cloud during their performance. They had no fog machine, no apparent fires or chemical reactions, and they couldn't explain to the judges how they did it. I think it's really sad that happened because the penalty lowered their overall score so much they couldn't come here. Still, if that smoke was caused by something truly dangerous, it's a good thing the officials caught that."
"What if they were using magic?" Joan asked.
Scott laughed, and everyone else echoed his sentiment. The nervous undertones of Michael and Tamara's laughter went unnoticed. As the laughter died down, Scott said, "We're Imagination of the Mind, not Hogwarts. If magic did exist, we would have to penalize teams for using it anyway. It would give the wizards an unfair advantage over the muggles."
Joan nodded. Allowing magic would hinder the program's fundamental goal of encouraging creativity and developing problem-solving skills. However, entertaining kids in the waiting room held no such restrictions. Besides, if anyone questioned her about it, she could blame her abilities on her duel disk implant rather than the ring.
Joan remembered that she needed practice and levitated forks and spoons every so often throughout the meal for her own practice as well as entertainment. Not knowing that Joan caused the levitation, her tablemates took it as a joke or an illusion brought on by a hidden piece of technology. Joan held her silence on the matter, but after several rounds of searching for a mechanism, Scott brought up the possibility of magic again. They all had a good laugh and laid the matter to rest.
Author's Note: The Chapter 58 illustration by shiopan on Tumblr, also known as etherealbao on Scribble Hub, is done! If you are reading this on a platform without a good illustration display, I recommend hopping over to Scribble Hub to check it out! I uploaded a small version of it for the cover of this part because I was feeling too lazy to edit the part with Chapter 58 and I didn't have anything new for this part's cover.