It was too late for Katsuya to be up, but he was currently engaged in a losing battle with the cacophony of sirens and shouting somewhere outside his apartment. He sighed as he fell into his lumpy mattress, and palmed his tired eyes, wondering how another day had slipped by again.
It is easy when time had stagnated in the monotony of the same routine – hauling himself out of bed before dawn; forcing himself to do a couple of laps around his neighbourhood; rushing to work while trying to stuff his sandwich down his throat; working until his hands were numb and back was cramped; grabbing a quick dinner alone in the same damn ramen place; finally dragging himself back to the mess of his small studio apartment, waiting to repeat the cycle again.
This wasn’t how he had envisioned his life. In a life that didn’t seem to be his, Katsuya was once the third best duelist in the world. It was quite the feat, and sometimes when he laid in the stuffiness of his bed, thoughts and memories deafening in his solitude, he wonders if it was all just the product of a wistful imagination.
Weren’t fame and recognition ingredients for a future of success? One paved with comfort and certainty, with the promise of a quaint home filled with the laughter of his future family? It worked more than well for many others, so why did the formula bring him only failure?
Perhaps it was because Katsuya was naïve. He used to be optimistic to a fault, with an industrious personality that previous hardships had proven almost impossible to break. His downfall was that he possessed a heart too soft for the harshness of success. Even now, that hadn’t changed. The only exception was that he had succumbed to cynicism, and finally acknowledged the impossibility of his fantasy. (Because how could he break something that was so intrinsic to who he was?)
To be fair, (kind of) winning did propel Katsuya from the pit of poverty to a life of relative stability. The exposure opened more doors than he had expected, and unsurprisingly, he soon grew addicted to the taste of his new life.
Bombarded by his newfound importance, he pursued every opportunity he could lay his hands on. What else would give him the best chance at relevance than the saturation of his public image? Aside from maintaining his existing lifestyle, he had hoped that the relationships created would solidify his longevity in the industry.
Unfortunately, even with his new recognition, the unyielding mound of debt his father had accumulated siphoned away his initial income. With the debt’s urgency, Katsuya ended up taking back his old part time job at the mechanic shop, hoping the steady stream of income would tide him until the next big pay check.
The new commitment eroded away much of his time. At the peak of his overload, trying to juggle his own practices with the evolution of Duel Monsters and his personal life seemed an insurmountable obstacle. When his sponsors dumped appearance after appearance on him, he felt too beholden to reject any of them. What had to give was his much needed practice time. However, with the debt steadily dwindling, he persevered, adamant that the money, friendships built and reinforced, and the eventual freedom would be worth it.
In spite of the responsibilities he shouldered, he still tried. Between work, media appearances, sponsor events, and personal commitments, he snuck in readings on new cards and strategies. With Yugi’s help, and using whatever he could afford to set aside from his earnings, Katsuya kept his deck as updated to the new meta as possible. But even with the talent Katsuya had for the game, he still found himself floundering with every new expansion and change of rules.
So, he practiced, and practiced, and practiced. He played until his fingers were numb from paper cuts; researched until his eyes were perpetually squinted and bloodshot; strategised until his sleep became the medium in which his simulated battles came alive.
Still, that wasn’t enough. Somewhere during the Synchro Summon bullshit that came along, Katsuya found himself failing to even breach the quarterfinals, let alone retain his title as one of the top duelists in the world. That was his endsong, for future attempts only led to the further plunging of his overall ranking.
With his repeated failure, the sponsors that had doted on him as their poster boy gradually evaporated, their hands already extended greedily before the newest champions.
Left with bitter sting of betrayal and little else, Katsuya was desperate. He pushed, and eventually begged his manager to secure him any form of work. Although his father’s debt had already been paid off, he would not risk using his meagre savings as the foundation for his increasingly uncertain future.
Between months, he would occasionally land gigs at very small local tournaments that catered more to the casuals than the professionals of the dueling world. They were miles away from the international championships he used to feature in, but they were still something amidst the drought he was trapped within.
To further add salt to his wounded pride, his fee would be negotiated and renegotiated. Knowing Katsuya was on his way out of the industry, the organisers strong-armed him with threats of inviting someone better unless he settled for just above the minimum. He complied each time.
Even that wasn’t so bad. As the months bled into years, his manager too abandoned him, preferring some fourth-rate duelist in the local scene to an ex-third place duelist in the world. Katsuya endured many humiliations during this period, but that alone left an inexpungible bruise on his previously unwavering faith in his capabilities.
With his last contact to the glamour of the sports lost, his hundreds of calls gone cold, and his inability to secure a notable placing in tournaments, what else could he have done?
For the first time in his life, Jounouchi Katsuya gave up.
It was difficult, almost excruciating trying to adapt to a life of normalcy. It became apparent that the fame he had gained would never disappear. Whispers would ghost by him when he was in public – of the duelist who came from a less than savoury background, once more fallen from grace; of the duelist whose lack of financial knowledge, must mean that he had expended all his monetary resources on the frivolous; of the duelist whose deck, and thus success were dependent on the whims of luck and nothing more; of the duelist whose visits to bars were definitely to satiate his hidden drinking habit and womanising ways purely because of his upbringing.
Katsuya tried for once to be the bigger man, to walk away from the inevitability of an outburst. He kept his head up, and ventured into alternate routes in the industry with less visibility, hoping the gossip would be less prominent. He tried for caster and coach positions for big and small events alike, only to have the persistent lies and his irrelevance thrown back at him.
After rounds and rounds of nonstop rejections (and anything but a shortage of snide remarks), even the most tenacious individuals start to falter. The fragment of doubt that had imprinted itself under his skin seeped into his broken resolve. Definitives became suggestives, actions became daydreams, and goals became wishes. Everything that was once within reach felt suffocatingly far, and capitulation taunted him as he strained against the inertia. When Katsuya finally stopped fighting, what he felt was not regret, but a surge of relief as he willingly watched a lifetime of hopes drown inside him.
With the pressure of expectations finally gone, Katsuya requested for a full-time position at the mechanic shop he had been helping at. Although the pay was mediocre, it was sufficient, just barely, to cover his living expenses until something better came along. Moreover, it was the only place that didn't care if he were a professional duelist or a washout – as long as he did his job well, he would get his pay.
A month, two, six, and soon twelve passed. His savings were dangerously low, and his prospects remained depressingly bleak. Even with the downsized studio, unless he worked a side job, he was at risk of not being able to afford rent soon.
Because of the gruelling hours at the mechanics shop, Katsuya struggled to find another job that complemented the former’s hours. It didn’t matter that he was running on empty most days, with his mind shrouded in a permanent fog of fatigue, and his eyes glazed with a resignation that betrayed the easy smile that hung on his chapped lips. With all that he had lost these years, he wasn’t about to lose his little luxury of personal space.
Three days from the due of his rent, Katsuya pulled out his savings for his monthly payment. Suitable jobs continued to elude him, so he had already started his search for alternative communal housing. He still wasn’t going to give up on his original plan, but he was also not stupid enough to risk eviction and become homeless by clinging on to false hope (never again).
When he returned from the bank, he found a long envelope stuffed beneath his main door. It was curious in how unremarkable it was, with the surprising absence of a stamp, and his name written in cursive on one side. The handwriting was unfamiliar – it lacked the neatness of Yugi’s print, the scratches of Hiroto’s stroke, and the deliberate slant of Anzu’s characters. One thing he was certain, was that it definitely wasn’t from his ex-manager. No way that unloyal bastard could write like that, nor did he know Katsuya’s new address.
Katsuya examined the writing, still trying to place its owner. He traced the graceful strokes of the characters, sliding along the pressure indents in quiet contemplation. Whoever penned it definitely had some calligraphic training, because he never knew his name could look so pleasing.
The big surprise came when he extracted the contents. Either he was dreaming, or it was a joke (if so, a very cruel one indeed). Within the unassuming package was a neatly bundled stack of ten thousand yen bills, brand new, but slightly crumpled from being forced under his door.
He thumbed through the wad in disbelief, suspicion unabated as he checked them for authenticity. There was little reason for anyone to send this much money over, especially after it’d been ages since his last appearance as a professional duelist. Katsuya spent the rest of his day scrutinising every single note, crosschecking them with a bill he had stashed away in his emergency fund.
The serial numbers were different; the microprinting was visible; the watermarks were prominent under light; the holographic pictures shifted colours as expected; the material was familiar and crisp…
After repeatedly being unable to find any faults with the notes, Katsuya cautiously set them aside, convinced of their authenticity, but still wary of the unexpected gift. He shook the empty envelope once more, hoping that some note he had missed would flutter onto his palm, but remained perplexed when all he felt was emptiness instead.
What were the odds that a random benefactor would drop such a significant gift onto his lap, and right when he needed it the most? Furthermore, it was bewildering that the amount present was that of his rent rounded up. Katsuya was certain that no one else besides him, and his landlord knew the cost of his studio apartment. Even Yugi with his best friend status did not have access to the information.
The thought of using that money was incredibly tempting, but over the years, he learnt that nothing was truly free. Every favour must be repaid, sometimes even in excess before the other party was satisfied. Without any knowledge of the other party’s intentions, it was just too big a gamble, even for a risk-taker like Katsuya. Right now, he couldn’t afford to be indebted to some stranger, not when he was at such a vulnerable point of his life.
Since he still had money for the current month’s rent, Katsuya carefully replaced the money into the envelope, tied it up the best he could, and hid it behind his disused stacks of cards. If it was a test or an elaborate prank of some sort, he was determined to not fall victim.
The next month went by uneventfully, with his luck in job-hunting just as dismal as before. By then, the incident had long been filed away, his mind too preoccupied with the stresses of daily life.
When he returned home from an especially long day of work, he was greeted by another envelope, identical to the one from a month before. He stared at it, questioning if the lack of sleep had finally manifested in micro hallucinations. He reached for it hesitantly, the crinkle of material a confirmation of reality.
Katsuya looked at his phone and saw that it was once again three days to his next rent payment. He felt his confusion from the previous month resurge as he fumbled about the package, fingers easily identifying the rustle of notes within. There on top of the envelope was his name, written in the same neat cursive as before.
He set the envelope on his bed, flustered that whoever it was had decided to send even more money to him. While he would be the first to admit that his financial situation was shaky, it was definitely not precarious enough for him to need handouts from someone he didn’t know.
After confirming his suspicions, he resealed the envelope as best he could, and threw it behind his card collection, next to the previous one.
The envelopes continued showing up, always three days before his rent was due. There was never anything else inside it, and the only words on it would be his name in cursive. Katsuya tried to compare the handwritings of his friends to that on the envelopes lest his memory was inaccurate. Not only were theirs different, he ended up receiving compliments on the writing form, and a string of light-hearted teases thrown his way when he was tight-lipped about its contents.
Realising that his efforts were futile, Katsuya decided that he would imagine his mysterious benefactor as the personification of Lady Luck. If the person wanted to remain anonymous, Katsuya was more than happy to oblige for it was one less thing he had to worry about.
When winter arrived, his landlord decided that it was justified for the rent to be increased by a hefty twenty per cent. Barely holding out at the current rate, Katsuya was furious when he found out. Even if he skimped on all luxuries, he knew it was unsustainable on his current income. Furthermore, it would be extremely rude of him to ask for a raise less than a year into his stint as a full time employee. Even if he did, he doubted the owner would be pleased with his forthright demand, and little substantiation besides I’m really broke, please help.
As he sat frustrated into the night, all he could think of was the growing stash of money that kept arriving at his literal doorstep. With the bearish market forcing even more people out of jobs, finding a second job was near impossible. His current job, and the handyman work he did around the building could only bring in so much. The only way for him to keep his current lifestyle (which wasn’t all that glamourous and luxurious) was to use part of that money.
The money had been accumulating for a good number of months, and if it were a prank and not from the kindness of a philanthropist, the owner of the cash would have long revealed themselves. It had been a good half-year of Katsuya waiting for someone to collect the money. After so long, what were the odds of the money belonging to anyone else but him now?
If there were an alternative that didn’t involve him downgrading to a hostel somewhere with him huddling against strangers due to inadequate heating, Katsuya would have taken that option. His current residence was the only decent place he could afford, and sure enough, it was too good a deal to be true given the rent hike.
He reached behind his prized cards, and gathered the slightly dusty envelopes. When he felt their collective weight in his hands, he finally became aware of their significance. The money within held more than his rent – Katsuya realised that for the first time in recent memory, someone had given him an opportunity. What he held wasn’t a favour disguised as a loan. It was a gift of trust with no strings attached.
Somehow, whatever this person had glimpsed convinced them that Katsuya was a worthy recipient. It was overwhelming knowing that even after how so many had hollowed out the best of him, and hung his shell out to dry, someone still managed to see past his wither and found a part of him that was redeemable.
The first rent payment that included those notes was the hardest. Exchanging ownership of them added a sense responsibility that was refreshing in the confidence boost it gave, but also terrifying as a reminder of his failure. Katsuya may not possess the same courage as before, but he is resolute in wanting to justify the trust given to him.
For the first time in years, Katsuya felt reinvigorated with purpose.
Katsuya went about his job as a mechanic with an enthusiasm he thought was lost to history. His change in demeanour was not unnoticed by his coworkers, and his boss was delighted with the change of atmosphere. With a reason to keep pushing forward, time gradually started trickling alongside the activity of each brand new day.
Although Katsuya was still unable to revert fully to his old carefree self, he was no longer asphyxiating in his own despair, and shackled by his own regrets. His temples hurt less, and laughter came more easily, much to the relief evident in his friends’ eyes. When Katsuya finally started fighting, what he felt was not exhaustion, but a surge of relief as he willingly watched another lifetime of hopes reignite inside him.
The envelopes continued to arrive monthly (astonishingly, with the value updated to his new rent), calling to Katsuya in the same neat cursive. He would never take more than a few notes to supplement each payment, preferring to rely on his own competence whenever possible. Whenever he could, he made it a point to repay the money by depositing his excesses into the envelopes as a ritual of gratitude (which also served as a reminder of the responsibility he now borne).
Half a decade later, Katsuya is now the assistant manager of the same mechanic shop. Finally enjoying his time, he has decided to stay in this line of work instead of forcing his way back into the virtual card games industry. These days, he spends his hours helping the owner, whom he has become close friend with, to expand his business. Unlike before, he hasn’t yet thought of where he would be in the next ten years. Now that his confidence has been renewed, wherever it is, it will finally be a success.
Katsuya now has a proper safe to store the envelopes that still appear with perfect frequency. A lot more financially independent than before, he has long stopped relying on them to get by. In spite of that, Katsuya has already made it a habit to always include some of those notes in his rent or other significant payments. It has become almost a source of comfort for him when he inserts his used wrinkled notes next to the crisp fresh ones – a memento of a time when it took a stranger’s belief in him to turn his life around.