Malik shifted his grip on the cardboard box and carefully hefted it onto one shoulder, thinking to himself that he had never imagined this job would require so much physical labor. Fortunately, this was the last of the boxes on the truck, meaning that the worst part of his work was over. He bid goodbye to the truck driver as he carried the final package into the shop.
"That the last of it?" asked the woman who ran the store. She had been a bit leery of hiring a foreigner, particularly one with no work references and whose educational records were doubtful. He had been lucky to get this job, little as it paid, and wouldn't have managed at all if he hadn't had a few influential people to back him up. It helped that he was a bit of a celebrity here in Domino City, and he had been able to convince enough of them to put in a good word for him that the manager had finally agreed to take him on. He did his best to convince her he was worth the risk.
"That's everything," he agreed. "I filled out all the inventory forms while I was unpacking to save time. Do you want me to go ahead and start putting everything away?"
"You might as well," his boss agreed. "Once we open our doors, we're going to be flooded, and you won't have time to do anything but ring up customers." She gave him a considering look. "I'll tell you what - I'm going up the street for a minute to get some coffee. Keep an eye on the shop while I'm gone, and I'll bring you back a cup."
"You can count on me!" Malik declared, with an unusual show of enthusiasm. Among the many things he appreciated about the surface world, coffee ranked near the top of the list.
She gave him a look that suggested she almost believed him, but offered no other comments. Malik was pleased enough, anyway. It was nice to know she didn't feel completely adverse towards him, and might actually be starting to like him a little. She had been downright hostile towards him for the first few days, but he hung around because he needed the money and he liked the work. One of the best parts of the job was getting to unpack the boxes.
There was a box opener in the drawer behind the front counter. He found it, flicked out the blade with a practiced movement, and set about applying it to the top of the nearest box. Very carefully, he sliced through the tape that held the package together, cautious not to make any move that might damage the precious contents within. There wasn't much likelihood of that, as everything was packed in such a way to avoid that eventuality, but still, someone might have been careless somewhere along the line. At last, the box was open completely, and he was able to reach inside and draw out the treasure.
It was, of course, a pile of books. They were fresh from the factory, brand new and shiny, bound in bright glossy paperback covers or noble hardback bindings. Malik took a moment to enjoy the papery scent: there was nothing else quite like the smell of a fresh book. Or an old book, for that matter. He had loved books since the moment he'd first seen one, and now that he had no other great goals in mind, it had occurred to him that if he had to work, he might as well do it where there were books. Lacking the education to work in a library, he'd chosen this as the next best thing. It was fun getting to look at all the new books before anyone else did, and his boss didn't mind him sitting at the counter and reading when business was slow.
Of course, when business was not slow, he had better be ready to answer the door, and business hadn't been slow for quite a while. Christmas was coming, and the past few days had seen the store jam-packed with last-minute shoppers. Lucky for him, the store wouldn't open for another half-hour, so he had a little time to browse as long as his boss didn't catch him at it. However, as he was leafing through the newest Hikaru no Go manga and wondering whether it was interesting enough to buy, he noticed someone hovering around the front door. They couldn't come in, obviously, since the door was locked, but he was peering eagerly through the windows as if hoping to see someone hurrying forward to help him. Ordinarily, Malik would have ignored him and made him wait until opening hours, but this was a special case. Without even bothering to set the manga down, he scurried over to the door and unlocked it to admit the visitor.
"Bakura!" he exclaimed.
"Hello, Malik," said Bakura. "Good book?"
"I haven't decided. Listen, Bakura, the store's not open for almost a half-hour. What are you doing here so early?"
"Trying to beat the Christmas rush," Bakura admitted, "but I forgot what time the store opened."
"Well... I guess it's okay if I just let you in. I know you won't cause any trouble. We can talk while I unpack."
Bakura laughed a little. "I thought you were reading."
"Well, I'm supposed to be unpacking."
"Can I help?" asked Bakura.
Malik smiled. He hadn't been able to get to know Bakura very well when they had first encountered each other at Battle City, but they saw each other more often now that Malik had moved to Domino to be closer to the people he knew. It amazed him that someone whose first encounter with him had ended with a knife in his arm could be so friendly and helpful now, but that was just the kind of person Ryou Bakura was. Just having him around make Malik want to be nicer to the world in general, just to live up to Bakura's standards.
"No, that's all right. I'm getting paid to do this, after all," Malik replied.
"Oh. Well, in that case, don't let me distract you. I just came by to see if the book I ordered came in."
"I can check that. It will only take a moment." Malik set his box of books aside and went behind the front counter to consult with the computer. "Ah, here we go. Secrets of the Tarot? You're in luck - it just came in with this morning's shipment. I'll go get it."
Malik ducked into the stockroom, and returned a moment later carrying a glossy hardcover book.
"Here you go," he said. "That'll be twenty-five hundred yen, please."
Bakura fished some bills out of his pocket. "This is getting to be an expensive hobby. Maybe I should start looking for a job, too. I hate to keep letting my father pay for everything. Are they hiring anyone else here?"
"You could ask. I only got in because Yugi and Kaiba ganged up on Ms. Ogata and pressured her into giving me a chance. It might be easier for you, though. Talk to her when she gets back with the coffee, and don't let her intimidate you. She's not as bad as she acts."
Bakura didn't look entirely encouraged by that; apparently he was having second thoughts about tangling with someone who could potentially intimidate Malik. "Maybe I'll just think about it and come back tomorrow."
"If you do, you'll be on your own," Malik warned. "I won't be here tomorrow."
"Why not? Is it your day off?"
"Not usually, but tomorrow is my birthday, and Ms. Ogata agreed to let me spend it with my family."
"Oh, that will be fun. Are you going to have a party?" Bakura asked.
Malik shook his head. "Not really. Isis and Rishid still have to work, so I'm just going to take a day to myself - you know, catch up on my reading, relax my sore muscles." He rubbed at his shoulders, which were starting to feel a bit strained after all the lifting he'd been doing. "They did promise I could have whatever I want for dinner."
Bakura gave him a puzzled look. "So you're not going to have presents or a cake or anything?"
"I doubt it. I've never really had a birthday party before. It would feel kind of strange," Malik admitted.
"You should at least have a cake," said Bakura. "I'll see what I can do about that."
"You really don't have to do that," Malik replied. "It's really not that big a deal. Anyway, my boss is going to be back soon, so I've got to get back to shelving books."
"All right. I won't keep you from your work," Bakura replied. "I'll come visit you tomorrow, though. See you then!"
Proudly carrying his new book, Bakura waved and drifted out of the store. Malik abandoned the counter and returned to the job at hand. Shelving books was a nice, repetitive job that left him plenty of leisure to think. As he worked, he wondered to himself what the big deal about birthdays was, anyway. Most of his experiences with them had been fairly neutral, with one exception that had been downright horrifying. He didn't see any need to throw a celebration to commemorate something like that. On the other hand, if it made Bakura happy to bring him a gift or something of that nature, who was he to fight the custom?
Getting a day off from work was nice, too. He was, as he'd suspected, a little bit sore from all the lifting he'd done, so it was pleasant to be able to sleep in a little, take a long hot shower (he didn't think showers would ever stop feeling like a luxury, no matter how much time he spent away from the desert), and loaf around the house with a book. He wouldn't want to spend every day that way, but it made for a nice change of pace.
Having overslept, and therefore taken a late breakfast, he had more or less skipped over lunch. This was turning out to be something of a mistake. It was now approximately four o'clock, his family wouldn't be home for another hour, and Malik was hungry enough to start gnawing on the kitchen table. If it had been an ordinary day, he would have just gone ahead and eaten something, but with his promised birthday dinner ahead of him, he didn't want to spoil his appetite. He was just considering the possibility of having some crackers or something of that nature to tide him over, when he heard a knock at the door. He quickly tried to smooth his hair into place (never an easy task, but made more difficult because he'd been lying on the sofa and had gotten it all ruffled). He finally gave up and made a dash for the door.
"Bakura!" he exclaimed. He had almost forgotten that his friend had promised to pay him a visit. He had also forgotten he'd been promised a gift. Bakura, however, had obviously not forgotten, because he had a largish box in his hands.
"Hell, Malik. Happy birthday!" said Bakura. He handed over the box. "Careful! Don't drop it!"
"What's in it?" asked Malik, looking dubiously at the box.
Bakura smiled. "It's a cake! I made it myself. I hope you enjoy it. You like chocolate, don't you? Most people do."
"Um," said Malik. Truth be told, he'd never gotten around to trying the stuff. It had never looked particularly appetizing to him - brown and sticky, like river silt and worse things - and he had trouble convincing himself that it would taste good enough to make him want to eat it. "I'm sure it's delicious. Thank you."
"You're welcome," answered Bakura, beaming. "Anyway, I've got to run, but I'll see you around, okay?"
"All right. See you."
Bakura bounced off, looking pleased with his accomplishment. Malik gently closed the door, balancing the cake in one hand. His primary thought at the moment was: Now that I have this, what do I do with it? He vaguely considered just passing it along to Isis and Rishid and letting them take the appropriate steps, but he discarded that idea. It would be rude to just set it aside without so much as tasting it, even if it had just been a store bought cake. This, however, was a homemade offering, and he didn't think he could refuse it without being hopelessly offensive. He opened the lid and peeked inside. It was indeed a chocolate cake, smeared over with sticky, slightly lumpy-looking brown icing. It did not, to his mind, look particularly enticing. He shut the lid again, but as he did so, the movement stirred a bit of air and fanned the scent towards him. He had to admit, it didn't smell bad...
His growling stomach decided the matter for him. He could at least have a taste, for friendship's sake, to see if he liked it. He opened the box again, scooped up a fingertip-full of icing, closed his eyes, and resolutely put it in his mouth.
It was, as he'd suspected, sticky - sticky and sweet and slightly warm. It melted smoothly on his tongue. He licked at his finger to make sure he'd gotten it all, and stood and looked thoughtful for a moment. Then he went to get a carton of milk and a fork.
The next day, Ryou Bakura was out doing a bit of shopping when he saw the Ishtar family walking along on the other side of the sidewalk. He waved to them, and they halted politely while he scampered across the crosswalk to greet them.
"Hello!" he said. "Nice to see you all."
"Hello, Bakura," said Isis politely. "It's a pleasure to see you as well. As a matter of fact, we were hoping we'd encounter you soon. We wanted to report the success of the birthday cake you made." Her lips twitched, as if she was trying to hide a smile.
"Oh, did you like it?" asked Bakura. "I was hoping you would."
"I'm sure we would have," said Rishid, "if someone had saved us any."
Bakura blinked. "You mean...?"
"It seems," said Isis, giving up the fight to not laugh, "that Malik approved highly of your choice in birthday gifts."
Malik held his head high, the picture of lofty innocence. "You said I could have whatever I wanted for my birthday dinner. I wanted that."
"Oh, dear," said Bakura, beginning to laugh, himself. "Maybe next time I should make a bigger cake."
"Maybe next time you should give it to Rishid or me instead," said Isis, "and let us ration it out."
Malik crossed his arms and mock-pouted. "You're just trying to steal my cake."
"Well, I'm glad my gift was a success!" said Bakura. "I'll have to try to remember to do this again next year."
"Don't worry," Malik told him. "I'll remind you."