Well, this story has come to its final chapter. I can't thank my reviewers enough. Thank you! The reason this story is even here is because of you. Thinking would've been a one-shot had it not been for my original two reviewers, so Super Sailor Moon thanks to them. And for anyone who's read/is reading this fic, again, thank you. And I don't send any icy Kaiba glares to you guys. I send gratitude. (Love you! But not that way. Uhm... I'm sorry, but I think we should just be friends. Shh, I know, it hurts, it hurts, but you gotta move on. You've got your whole lives ahead of you!) Okay, I'm done being creepy. On with the chapter!
Disclaimer: For the last time, I don't own Yu-Gi-Oh! No, really, this is the last time. I'm not being crabby or anything, just truthful.
For a while, Mai couldn't move, couldn't talk, couldn't even speak.
She turned around abruptly, too shocked to express anything but... well, shock. Was it a coincidence that he was here? No way. That was impossible. Kaiba had a bar in his mansion. Why the hell would he need to go to a bar? But then that would mean that it wasn't a coincidence and that he'd "bumped" into Mai on purpose. But that was impossible too. He hated her... right? He hadn't tried to stop her from leaving and he most certainly hadn't expressed anything other than outright disgust at her presence. So if this wasn't a coincidence and it wasn't an "accident", then what was it?
As Mai mentally pulled out her hair, trying to make sense of this, she felt something cold.
The lighter wheel.
He was dragging the wheel softly across her cheek. The ridges bit coldly into her skin as he continued the motion slowly...
Mai clicked back to life like an ignited lighter. She spun around angrily, glaring at the tall man. She scrutinized his facial features for some hint of his feelings. Nothing. Just like those quiet days before this, he had his poker face intact with no possibility of her cracking it. A ghost of a smirk haunted his mouth, but she couldn't even be sure of its existence. As for his eyes, they had a stern... something about them: it wasn't boiling rage or frosty distaste. It was his stance that made Mai assume his stare was cold before, but now...
With him, here, now, in this moment...
Oh, why did he have to be so damn beautiful? Why were his narrowed blue eyes so sexy even now, and why did she want to run her hands through his hair and why, why, why did he have to look at her that way? Why couldn't he show remorse at all? Anything would be better than this queer look, this look that she couldn't decipher at all.
"L-Loser?!" the girl beside her sputtered and it was only then that she remembered her friend... and that Kaiba had just insulted her. In this bar with its lights sexily dimmed, it seemed as if they were the only ones there. And then there were his eyes... His gaze could make a girl feel as if the only ones on this earth were herself and him. He also had a gaze that made her feel naked, but this one was currently unemployed, never to have a job in Mai's heart again. Besides, the mood wasn't so much sultry as it was nervous and tense.
Kaiba didn't respond, just continued to look at her. Mai was weak and even trembled under his stare. Somewhere along the way, she heard Anzu get up and say something about having to leave.
Some friend. Anzu was ready to split once things got tense. Mai couldn't blame her. The vibes coming from them had to be strange. It was too weird for a third party to witness anyway.
She spat out her unlit cigarette. "What the hell do you want?" Mai hissed, ready to physically fight him if provoked. And with him there, just standing there, Mai felt pretty damn close to punching him.
"Hey, miss, here's the light...er..."
Mai looked up through long lashes at the guy in confusion, who was holding up that lighter stupidly like the Statue of Liberty or something. The poor guy interrupting this crazy serious moment was left there to flounder pathetically as his eyes traveled from the sexy blonde to her even sexier companion. And he'd had his hopes up so high before! Not even her sorta cute brunette friend was there as a consolation prize; she'd split moments before. But Mai wasn't even sure he was real. It was strange, but she'd just... forgotten him, as if he'd never been born. To compensate for this, she decided to show a bit of kindness to the guy. She gave him a brief, fluttering smile and he was almost content until Kaiba's dark glare gave him an almost-telepathic threat to get lost. The guy didn't need to be a mind-reader to know what to do. He scurried off in the opposite direction.
The guy has the right idea, Mai thought grimly as she jumped up and stalked off. I should get far, far, FAR away from this asshole jerk.
It was no use. Kaiba went after her.
He caught up with her at a secluded hallway where the bathrooms were. His fingers went around her arm. His slightly damp palm soon made contact with the skin. "Mai..."
She snapped. Without hesitation, she raised her other arm, bent at the elbow, and slammed it into his throat, pinning him to the wall in the process. "What do you think you're doing? Don't put your hands on me!"
"You know, you're asking a lot of questions, but not giving me time to respond!" With a grunt, he pulled her arm from his neck and flung it to her side. Mai still glowered at him as if she couldn't wait to peel the skin from his bones and burn it.
"From your pompous attitude, I can tell you're not here to apologize. And I don't have time to listen to anything you have to say, even if it is an apology, so fuck off." She raised her chin like the daughter of a duke, giving him her trade-mark eat shit and die glare. Kaiba didn't know how he felt seeing it again. On one hand, the way he'd treated her had turned her into an introverted little child and he was glad to see the old Mai again. But on the other hand, if she was going to be strong, he didn't want her to direct her anger towards him, no matter how much he deserved it.
"Well, aren't we spirited tonight." He grabbed her wrist as she tried to squirm past him. He guided her body so that she faced the other wall, then gently backed her into the one behind her. Very close to her face, his eyes skittered here and there, almost always remaining on her face. Sometimes his eyes fell over her body. "Mokuba made it sound as if you were on the edge of dying, but you seem just fine."
"I said let go, you fucker!!"
"You sure curse like usual. Just like when you left me." His fingers went under her chin and tilted it to the ceiling, moving her face back and forth as if examining her. His tone lost a bit of its granite edge. "Why the hell did you let yourself get sick?"
Mai almost had a right mind to kick him in the nuts. She wasn't sure what was keeping her legs firmly locked together so that she couldn't even walk away. "I'm not sick," she protested weakly. Finally she found some muscles that worked in her arms and she roughly pushed the CEO away.
"You're sick," he said gently. "Have you been eating regularly? Well?" he persisted when she looked away sullenly. She would be damned if she'd let her ex treat her like a child. "And don't give me that shit about how you have. You're pale and you look like you've lost weight."
"Okay," she admitted, swinging her eyes to him in a powerful blow. She could've sworn she saw him flinch. "I don't eat every meal. But since when was it any of your business whether I feed myself or not? You're not my keeper, dick. Not anymore."
Kaiba had almost stepped back with the advent of Mai's powerful stare. Why did he have the sudden feeling that he was in danger? Sure, he was stronger so he could take her but he couldn't and wouldn't hit someone he loved. And when would he get the chance? Mai was quick and agile. It wasn't like she'd never hit him before, especially back when they hated each other. He knew firsthand how strong she was.
"You could've left whenever you wanted."
Mai squeezed her eyes shut. A migraine was coming on. "What?" she spat irritably.
"You're right, I wasn't your keeper. I never owned you, Mai. You could've left me whenever you wanted but you decided to stick around and take my shit. What the hell is wrong with you, Mai?"
Enraged, her eyes became wide open. "There's nothing wrong with me. I'm the one who should be asking that question. What the hell's wrong with you?! You were the one who put up with me all these fucking months! If you wanted to end it, you could've at any fucking time! So don't give me that shit about how hard it was for you. Your "pain", if you can even call it that, was nothing compared to mine. You just sat on your fat ass and waited for me to make the first move." By this time, she couldn't restrain the tears welling up in her eyes. All of the things he made her feel were coming back stronger than ever: frustration, rage, pain, sadness and love. "You want me back? You want to tease me? Fine, but I don't want either, okay? So if you came to gloat, go away. If you came to win me back in that twisted, demented way of yours, then kindly fuck off. I'm not gonna stand for it anymore." She couldn't help thinking that someone should hold her tongue so that she couldn't speak. Mai was blabbering on and on, showing even more weakness. She hadn't meant to show anyone her tears, especially not to him. Not again.
A sudden rush of weariness conquered her. The day had been long. And getting longer, Mai snidely commented. All she wanted to do was take a hot bath and go to sleep. She couldn't just stand here and have a debating match with Kaiba about who was wrong and who was right.
"Why are you here, Kaiba?" she asked. "Really, tell me the reason. Have you been stalking me? How did you know where I'd be?"
A long silence stretched hot and thick between them. Mai was paralyzed by the sound of the fan whirling in the distance.
And then he sighed and said, "I know you, Mai."
A hazy spring day mixed with cherry blossoms floated dimly to the surface of Mai's mind.
'I know you, Mai.'
Trying to squelch the tender feeling in her heart, Mai looked away, crossing her arms. "Hah. You gotta do better than that. Now you're recycling lines. You think flinging that at me again's gonna make me melt?"
His hands landed on her shoulders. Mai looked up.
"I know you, Mai," he repeated. "I know how you act and how you think. I know your mannerisms, your heart and your body better than anyone else."
Finally, something to throw in his face. She looked up at him through her lashes, but the look was far from sweet and demure. "It seems it comes back to that again. I see you take great pride in that, don't you? Especially about knowing my body. Does it make you feel like a man? Does it?"
Kaiba flinched. Dammit, he'd said something wrong again. He hadn't meant it that way. If only he could tell her... But it didn't seem to be of any use. Everything he said, Mai didn't want to listen to. He gave the woman's words some thought. What had he come for anyway? He knew he couldn't be with her. Even now, in this compromising position with her, it would undoubtedly come back to bite her in the ass, in both their asses. If only he could explain that the only reason he'd pushed her away was because of the tabloids... Then maybe they could work things out from there.
Mai wasn't stupid. She knew how the general public despised the sight of them as a couple. Everyone had said that Mai was too extreme for Kaiba, too flashy and extravagant. But what the hell did they know? Not her, that was for certain. They didn't know how sweet or caring or generous she was.
And of course she knew about the tabloids. How could she not, when goons were hounding her all the damn time? But even so, he wanted to spare her the brunt of that pain. Then there was this big story that had spread through Singapore... It was too disgusting to even think about. It was a good thing the whole catastrophe had been marginally avoided.
Then he really thought about it. If he opened his mouth... Just said it right now, the reason why he'd started this whole thing... what would happen? Would she take him back? Could they go back to being a normal couple again? As normal as a CEO and an ex-duelist could be anyway. Kaiba didn't want to make Mokuba upset; he was the one who'd urged him to get her back in the first place. And then there was himself... He missed her, he needed her, and most of all, he loved her.
His eyes widened. Himself. That was what it was coming back to: his wants, his needs. After the way he treated Mai, did she even want him back? He looked into her eyes, eyes that were wide and shining violet. He tried to read those eyes and saw a reflection of himself.
Hard, cold loneliness, but steely determination.
Mai loved him. He knew she did, or at least was mostly sure, but she would move on. She was tired of it. She didn't want to negotiate shit. Whatever Kaiba had to say, he'd better say it and fast... then just walk out of her life like she did out of his.
Like he did long ago.
Long before any of this...
Mai stared up tremblingly into his face, wondering why he'd gotten all quiet on her all of a sudden.
And why he was still so close...
And why he was wearing that damned cologne Mai had bought him when he'd rarely done so before.
Musky, sweet, warm and comforting. Mai closed her eyes to absorb that scent. For some reason, whenever she smelled this cologne, she thought of amber. If only they could preserve all the moments they had in amber so that they'd still be as fresh and vibrant as they had been years ago.
She opened her eyes.
This question didn't need to be expanded upon. From her weak, hazy voice, Kaiba understood the why of this one-word question.
Kaiba didn't know what he wanted to do.
Did he want to keep her at the risk of being selfish or to let her go without even telling her why?
Mai dragged herself back in time, back to the times even before Kaiba had shunned her. The business trips, the times when he was away for days, even weeks at a time...
Back then, Mai had always found a way to entertain herself. She went out with friends. She shopped. She read and even drew sometimes.
Then Kaiba would come home with a big smile and kisses for her, hugs and sweet words. I missed you, I love you, I need you... They wasn't a shortage of love between them.
But there was a shortage of time.
In the mornings, Kaiba had to get up and go, also working as he prepped himself for the day. Mai would be up just as early, but without anything to do. They couldn't even have a proper conversation; that was how much Kaiba rushed around. He was anal about being early to work, usually about thirty minutes early.
Mai loved Kaiba and he loved her back. Naturally, they tried to find time to be together, but it was difficult.
It got so bad that after awhile, they couldn't even properly speak to each other in a day. The most they would say to each other was hello and good-bye. Kisses and hugs even went neglected.
And that was when the silence began.
Silence that reigned. Silence that went on and on and on, uninterrupted. First it was days. Then weeks. Then, slowly, months.
"If we really wanted to be together, we could've made the time," Mai began in a low voice full of tears, distorted and foggy as if she were in a daze. Which, in a way, she was. "We could've tried to be together, even if it was for only a few minutes."
"Mai..." Kaiba was astonished, seeing the truth yet not wanting to acknowledge it. What was she saying? He had wanted to be with her! He did want to be with her! "We tried."
"Of course we tried." Mai no longer could hold back the tears; they freely roamed down her cheeks. "I know we tried. But... We..." Mai faltered, not able to grasp the words that proved her point. But Kaiba seemed to understand. With a sigh, he stepped back, eyes morosely absorbing her every feature.
"I couldn't have lost weight in such a short amount of time," Mai said through her tears, surprised at the hint of a laugh that had come to visit.
"Yeah, I guess not."
"Did you want me to be helpless when you saw me again?"
He placed a hand on her cheek. Absentmindedly he caressed the golden strands that fell over his fingers. "Maybe. A little."
" 'Yeah, I guess not'? 'A little'? Why, Seto Kaiba, you're not usually so vague."
And surprisingly, the two of them laughed. Two people who were supposed to be at odds and hate each other, two people who were the exes of each other yet still loved each other, they fell into each others arms and giggled as if they were seven and carefree. But both of them at that age were less than carefree, more like adults trapped in miniature bodies. However, this feeling might've been even better than childhood laughter, or at least Mai thought as she squeezed him tightly. Tiny tears escaped the folds her squeezed shut eyes had become and flowed down cheeks rounded by a huge, toothy grin. How odd the two must've seemed to others, especially those who were in line for the restroom.
After two centuries, they broke away from each other.
"What if... we could start over?"
Husky and low, Kaiba's voice betrayed the nervousness he felt... the nervousness they both felt. Mai's liquid eyes met his. A blur of peach, brown and two drips of blue for his eyes. Mai restored her sight by whipping out a handkerchief, the one Mokuba had given her and that she'd washed, and dabbing at her eyes. Folding it neatly, she placed it into his coat pocket.
"What if indeed."
The next morning brought on a terrible headache for Mai, even though she hadn't even gotten drunk. But she had to go to an interview, so she had no business lying around in bed. Mai sat up and held a hand to her head. After last night's drama, she wasn't sure she could face the day. She couldn't even believe it had happened. Finally there was "closure." Mai had to admit, the way they parted was better than she had expected, but she still missed him. She had a feeling that even when she moved on, she would still think about him. After all, he was her first love.
"Mmmngggg," she groaned as she staggered to her feet. But Mai soon found out that after that, the rest was easy. Mai went through her daily routine and was out the door in less than half an hour. She munched on a bagel slathered with cream cheese while on the way to the company. She'd applied for a job as some guy's receptionist. Mai was sick of applying to these degrading jobs that had her running errands for people who were supposed to be her betters, but what could she do? Like Anzu said, pride was only a liability. So Mai would put up with anything, even asshole bosses, as long as it helped put food in her stomach, clothes on her back and a roof over her head.
Mai squinted against the glare of the dazzling sunshine as she dashed past a French bakery. She even shielded her brow with her hand, but it wasn't helping much.
A run-of-the-mill day. That was what Mai was expecting. She probably wouldn't get this job. She'd crawl back to her room and eat, watch some T.V., handle her finances and sleep.
Who would've expected that while she was approaching the bookstore and started to walk past it that she'd be punched?
The punch wasn't from a would-be mugger or just a generally unpleasant person, but from an image. It was unlikely that an image would make someone double up and slump to the floor in actual pain. Mai knew that, but she still felt the sting of injustice as vibrantly as if she'd been physically attacked. After all, it wasn't like this was just any other picture. It was a picture slathered on the cover of a magazine like strawberry jam on a piece of toast. But the issue wasn't nearly as sweet.
Actually, the picture was touching. It was a side view of an attractive woman leaning forward to taste what was on the fork of the handsome young fellow who was also inclined forward. A grin made the corners of his eyes crinkle up adorably, a sight that would make any teen girl melt. (And perhaps a few smitten young men if Mai had to admit; his appearance was irresistible to both sexes.) The scene was like that of a manga cover, sweet and innocuous. The two could've even been brother and sister, innocently enjoying breakfast.
But it was the glaring red caption above that twisted the heart-felt moment into a glaring, wicked lie.
Kujaku Sets Her Sights on Both Kaiba Brothers?!
And in that damaging statement, that screamed question that boasted its ignorance even more with dripping bold font, there seemed to be a change in the scene. The slight smile tasting Mai's lips seemed to give her violet eyes a seductive twinkle. Mokuba's grinning face boasted simple sibling-like affection, as Mai knew it would. Because in the article within the soiled pages, Mokuba wouldn't be the one being blamed. He was naive and young, very, very young, which made him susceptible to the ploys of gold-digging women like Mai. Mai was the temptress, the pedophile bitch who had one hand on Kaiba's checkbook and the other greedily counting the yen from Mokuba's wallet. Mai was a tramp and always would be.
Mai hadn't noticed it before, but there was a smaller photo in the corner of the magazine. The blurry picture seemed stamped there as an afterthought, something that thinly proved the caption's point. It was as if the layout person had considered the evidence almost unimportant. When she squinted her violet eyes, she could make out a passionate Kaiba pushing her against the wall. Another less insistent but still pushy caption asked: How Far Will She Go?
Mai was covered in sweat, pale and shivering in the hot air. She was breathing irregularly from a gaping mouth like a fish rudely pulled from the safety of the pond into a cruel, cruel world that refused to notice her flopping around, trying to live. Dammit, picking on Mokuba had been enough, more than enough to shatter Mai's heart. But now her ex was being pulled into this too? She felt regret shred up her insides. If she had just pushed him away, this wouldn't have happened. Now Kaiba was being made a fool out of as well.
She wanted to pick up the tabloid and rip it to shreds, but not because of her tatters her reputation had become. It was because the damn writer of the story had nothing better to do than zoom in on an innocent kid who did nothing but treat Mai with love and respect. It was because some asshole wanted some scandal, so decided to suggest a sibling rivalry between two brothers who couldn't be more close. But it wasn't Kaiba who would be the most damaged by this scandal. Kaiba had been featured in the media in an unfavorable light many times. This was Mokuba's first scandal. Her hands clenched into tight, angry fists. How dare they for hurting him. Who was it that had the balls to publish this piece of trash? Who-- And then it dawned on her. That time in that café, when that guy in a funny-looking hat and trench coat was there...
It was him.
That morning, he'd looked as if he was reading the newspaper, but he probably had a close eye on the two. Who knows, he could've even been stalking her from the time she stalked out of her ex's house. She was surprised that her lingerie escapade wasn't splashed on all the tabloid covers. She would've gladly suffered that embarrassment to spare Mokuba's reputation. Mokuba had a promising life ahead of him. He would undoubtedly become someone of great social standing and importance. It didn't matter if Mai was the one being ridiculed and blamed. It was Mokuba who had more to lose.
Mai felt like collapsing to the ground and crying, but most of all thought it would be just dandy if she could rush into the damn bookstore and tear apart every edition of that damn lying piece of trash while screaming at the top of her lungs.
But she did neither.
There was nothing she could do.
Mai had to walk away.
Not only did Mai have to walk away from this store that was adding profit to a writer who only cared about entertainment regardless of whether it was credible or not, but she had to walk away from the Kaibas. Mai could never go back to Seto's side. She could never approach Mokuba or even look at him.
She wanted to defend him yet had no control of the situation.
She had never felt so helpless in her whole entire life.
"No way. I'm bad at serving people."
"It might be a nice change, you know. Acting humble and all."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Still not gonna do it. So what's next?"
"Actress?! Get the hell out of here, Mazaki! I can't do that."
"Oh, but why not? You're a natural."
"Sez you, Shizuka, but I don't think anyone else would agree."
"Well, acting is lying and you've got that down pat..."
"...Would you like me to strangle you, Anzu? I'll pretend to be sad at your funeral, I promise."
"Ah! Mai-san! I'd don't think that would be best--"
Mai let loose a bout of laughter that the others contributed to. Shizuka, Anzu and Mai were seated legs crossed in Shizuka's room, deciding the older woman's future. Mai gave a sweet glance to the petite auburn girl. Shizuka was still humble, polite and a bit reserved, but bright enough to light up a cold winter sky.
Two weeks had passed since her encounter with Kaiba. Two weeks had also gone by since the scandal. It was astounding, but the whole thing just blew over, just like that. There was another celebrity who was doing far more scandalous things, some empty-headed duelist who was also a trashy pop star. The tabloids writer had attempted to pump more gas into the flame of the self-proclaimed love triangle, but he could only resort to obviously doctored photos. The public was desperate for entertainment, but they were not stupid. The story was coldly ignored and Mai was as easily forgotten as a sock that's missing in the wash. Mai was extremely glad for that. Now she could have a normal life.
Anzu cocked her head to one side, causing her fringe to gravitate to her ear. "Hey, Mai... You okay?"
Mai looked up, back in the present. "Hm? Oh, sure, Anzu, I'm fine."
"Are you sure? 'Cause if it's about Kaiba..."
Mai had broken her vow of silence and told her friend everything. She'd even told Shizuka, but watered down some of her more harsher words. Despite being a woman, Shizuka still struck Mai as being fragile and child-like. But she knew that the girl had been through a lot, from almost losing her eyesight from watching her brother become a different person under Malik's mind control. Shizuka was strong no matter what her appearance claimed.
Mai closed her eyes, let her head and shoulders fall back and parted her red lips. Through half-lidded eyes she could dimly see the pale yellow ceiling. "I'm moving on, " she responded dreamily. But despite her tone, she was heavily concentrating on her subject. "I mean, I love him and I understand and appreciate all the sacrifices he made for me." Kaiba had told her that night of all the harmful stories about her. It took a lot of punches and coaxing for him to come out with it, but she was glad she'd made him tell. "He's a great guy, y'know? I lashed out at him when he was only trying to protect me, and for that I feel terrible. But things were bad even before he ignored me, really bad. Communication became scarce and it was like... the only way I could be with him was in dreams and thoughts. I'd think about him and hope that he was thinking about me too and that was when things fell apart. You can't just think about things for things to happen... Am I making sense?" Mai laughed, then went on without waiting for a response. "I mean I wasn't truthful to him. I never came out and said things were bad. And Kaiba never did either. Then we just accepted only talking to each other and being with each other as something that happened sometimes. Things got so bad that I could only be with him by thinking of him."
Mai sat up with a sigh. "And that's my tale of woe," she finished.
She had her whole audience captivated. Eyes riveted to her, Anzu and Shizuka wore the same mesmerized look Mai must've worn.
Anzu broke through the continuous silence. "Wow," Anzu breathed. "You've changed."
"Yeah!" Shizuka said sunnily. Mai jumped up, startled by the outburst. With a smile, Shizuka continued, "You've grown a lot, Mai-san! Not just emotionally but physically too! When you walk, you walk with your head held higher and your back a bit straighter. I think that's amazing."
"Ah, what a sweet girl," Mai cooed, reaching over to hug the small woman. "Now why can't Anzu be more like you?"
"I'm not gonna worship you!" Anzu fumed in the background. "I mean, let's face it. You're not the first person who's been dumped and you won't be the last either."
Shizuka broke away from Mai's grip. "Anzu-chan! Isn't that a little harsh?"
But instead of fuming, Mai looked at the ceiling, deep in thought. "That's true," she philosophized. "'Cause life goes on. No matter what happens or what we do, we just gotta keep on walking, keep on surviving. Sometimes it's hard, really hard, but with determination and some tough love, you can get through it. That's life."
"...You've changed. Really changed." Anzu gave a fake shudder. "And I don't mean good changed. Like creepy psycho who-are-you-and-what-have-you-done-with-my-friend changed."
"What can I say? I've grown. And for the record, I didn't get dumped," Mai added as she pinched her friend's shoulder really hard. "Now let's decide what I want to do with the rest of my life!"
"Hey, it's your life. Why don't you decide?"
"Um... I kinda agree with Anzu-chan. You're the only one who knows what you want to do with your life, Mai-san, if you don't mind me saying so."
"I know. It's just that I need to rely on others. I can't do things all by myself. No one can do that. It's too lonely. And besides, my job sucks!"
"I forgot to ask. How's business?"
Mai gave Anzu an ugly glare. "Don't ask. It sucks and that's all you need to know. Now let's get serious and pick out a new job."
"Argh!! Anzu, we've already went through this! No!!"
"Well, Mai, might I remind you that we've gone through the whole list already?"
"Why don't you give the waitress job a chance, Mai-san?" With hands clasped and a squeal, Shizuka continued, "I think you'd look cute in a waitressing outfit!"
"This isn't about cuteness, Shizuka-chan," Mai replied kindly. "It's about... being practical. After all, this is the rest of my life here." She used a dramatic pause to let the gravity of this statement sink in. In the process, it sunk in with Mai as well. The rest of her life. She needed a job that would carry her through the remainder of her life. A job that didn't make her want to off herself out of boredom and bitterness. A job she could be proud of. No, not just a job. A career. Something she loved, something she could do until she was ready to retire.
"What do you love to do?" Shizuka asked.
"What do I love to do?" Dueling of course. But Mai had announced her retirement and somehow, she didn't feel right going back. Then she'd be hounded even more than ever, and that speculation could reach back and hurt Kaiba and Mokuba again. She loved them both too much to hurt them like that. And anyway, Mai wasn't eager to go back into the spotlight. If anything, she would rather live an ordinary life, free to embarrass herself without it being splashed on some magazine page for all the world to see.
As for hobbies and talents, Mai wasn't sure she had any she make a good career out of.
"Hey, Mai, aren't you in college?" Anzu prompted when Mai wouldn't respond. "There must be some courses you're interested in."
Mai had decided to go back to college, finishing her education but changing her minor. Cosmetology was nice and all, but Mai was done with being about image. She wanted to show the world a new her, someone who was bold and confident. Sure, she had plenty of boldness and she was strong, but Mai wanted that to reflect mentally as well.
"Mai nodded. "Sure," she answered, taking a sip of the bottle of cranberry juice stashed by her lap. "Doesn't mean I've gotten stuff figured out yet. My major's Business, but I think I should change it."
"Why?" Shizuka wondered. "I bet you'd make a great businesswoman."
"Businesswoman? Perhaps not," Anzu said. "I think.. a model would be a good job for you."
Mai waited for the laugh, the sarcastic add-on to this comment that seemed to be made so earnestly... And indeed, Anzu was leaning forward, no longer wry but honest, with a hint of a smile that was nowhere near mocking.
"You can't be serious!"
Anzu looked offended. "But I am. It took me a long time to think that up, you know."
"Oh, Mai-san, that would be perfect for you," Shizuka added gently. Nothing could disguise the excitement on her face however. "You're tall and pretty, so you'd make a great model! Plus you're so graceful."
Anzu nudged the starry-eyed girl playfully in the ribs. "Got a crush, Shizuka?" she joked.
"C'mon, guys, let's be serious."
The auburn-haired girl raised her hand eagerly as if she were in school. "Ooh, I've got a suggestion!" she cried.
"And what's this one?" As Shizuka opened her mouth, Mai added, "And it can't be a job based on looks or talent in making others look good. Not even a career as a designer works."
Anzu and Mai looked at the girl blankly, wondering if she was serious or joking. Like a puppy, she turned her face up to them eagerly, smiling broadly as if waiting for their approval.
All of them burst out laughing.
Mai leaned against the plush leather interior of her car, sighing as she drummed her fingers on the dashboard. She was stuck in a traffic jam and she didn't want to delay going home for a second longer. Work had been strenuous and trying today and she wanted to take a nice hot bubble bath and relax.
"Come on," she muttered under her breath. Her eyes caught the fire of the disappearing sun and the embers it left behind. With another sigh, Mai tilted her head towards her shoulder in order to stretch out her neck. Her hand massaged her throat, hoping to get out some of the soreness. Then she sat upright again.
Years had passed since she and Kaiba had broken up, a moment in time that was so dim, Mai could barely see the brightness. She had learned and grown from the experience and still cherished Kaiba dearly, but knew that even if she'd went back to him, things would've been changed and unchanged all at once. They would've still barely seen each other, but even if they did manage to spend time with each other, something about the way they acted, talked to each other would've undoubtedly changed.
Mai had always had a problem with authority, especially as a child. Of course, under the rule of her rich, influential family, Mai could do little to garner respect and freedom to speak her mind, but as she grew up, that rebellion burned so earnestly, it scorched innocent bystanders as a result. Even Jounouchi was on the receiving end of her stinging remarks and fiery backlashes, often for unexplained reasons. Mai felt bad about her hot-headed temper, but that was in the past. But now it turned out that she was taking on the role of the authority in society. Mai hadn't lost her fire, not by a long shot. The anger of her younger years had been converted into passionate debating skills as an attorney. Mai was in Criminal Justice, which meant she had dealings in the imprisonment of wrong-doers. Ironically, the idea Anzu and Mai had laughed at had in a way come true. Like Shizuka had shrilly exclaimed, Mai had become Sailor Moon, except without the super powers. Or the cat. Or the cute miniskirt.
Mai let out a chuckle as a car in front of her lurched forward. Hands back on the steering wheel, Mai drove herself home. With one hand, she unraveled the bun pulling her hair back and tossed the hair tie on the other seat. The wind swerving above her topless car delved its fingers into her hair, sending it behind her.
She pulled up to her modest home, which was like Anzu's but to a lesser degree. As Mai made her way into the driveway, she thought with a smile about her friend. Anzu had went from being a blushing bachelorette to a rosy-cheeked bride with a baby on the way. Looks like she'll be needing those extra rooms, she mused with a grin, thinking back on the many rooms the brunette had. Anzu and her husband were planning on having a big family, so Mai wouldn't be surprised if they ended up having five kids.
With a sigh, she stopped the car, took the key out of the ignition and got out. For some reason, Mai was feeling restless and even a bit inferior to the prima ballerina. While the rest of her friends were in relationships, Mai was still single. She almost called herself a spinster but mentally bit her tongue over the insult. Her birthday was coming up, adding yet another year to her on-going resume, but she was not old.
Maybe I should go for a walk, Mai mused as she floated out of the garage. She looked up. Charming midnight blue swelled above the green and pale yellow of the sky. Autumn leaves scarcely held on to the scary, gnarled tree limbs, but the colors of the leaves were beautiful: rich reds, vibrant oranges, and browns that were rich and chocolatey instead of dead and crispy. A slight bite was in the air that Mai enjoyed, but it wasn't too cold. She could just walk around in her smart navy blazer, pencil skirt and ruffled blouse if she wanted. Mai wasn't even bothered by her high heels and anyway, she loved taking walks to just reflect and think about things.
Mai lived on a quiet street that was near enough to the city for her not to go crazy. She needed excitement, bright lights and urban living, but all of that activity wasn't so alluring at night, when car alarms would go off and stupid drunk people started hollering in the streets. From her hotel room, Mai had moved to a seedy apartment; it was the only place the wage from her crappy job could afford. Unfortunately, that apartment was in the bad part of town, where strip clubs and rundown bars took residence, carrying along with it the residue of the young gang-bangers high on drugs and their uncaring alcoholic parents. Of course it wasn't all that bad and Mai had made some friends in the area. Miu, a resident on her floor, had been around the same age as Mai and the two had bonded. And there was an older woman on Mai's block that had been very kind to her, welcoming her to the neighborhood, always armed with a smile and a pan of brownies. Plus there was an attractive man who'd helped her move in, but nothing came of their meetings other than a deep friendship. And for Mai, that was enough. Scarred from her relationship and finally seeing reality, Mai couldn't rush into a relationship and make someone a mere rebound boy. That would be just too much.
Mai smiled softly as she strolled along, taking in her surroundings and drinking the features in deeply as if she were savoring the taste of wine. She loved summer, but autumn was wonderful too. Everything looked so beautiful and the air had a certain scent about it, like... autumn. It could only be described as being distinctly autumn.
The blonde attorney crossed the street when the streetlight told her it was safe to do so. Night was falling swiftly and she was getting a little hungry. She'd almost considered going to a restaurant, but she felt a weariness drape over her shoulders like a silk scarf. Mai wanted to go home and make dinner, then doze off.
Mai had grown up knowing every comfort and convenience in her wealthy home, but none of the benefits of love. Love was a luxury was the cold, cruel fact that seemed to be stressed. It had to be earned and nothing Mai could do would grant her a gentle pat on the head or a tender kiss on the cheek. It had taught her to be independent in some ways, like relying on herself for love, and to be dependent in other ways. Even as an adult, Mai carried that contradiction with her.
Mai didn't know much about house-keeping and she could barely cook. She could pay her bills and provide for herself financially but was hopeless at creating a comfortable life for herself. During her hotel stay, she'd spent more time eating take-out than refining her skills as a chef. But being on her own had taught her well. Mai could make even the most talented cook blanch in shock and envy. Of course she couldn't soak up all of the credit. Her friends, her sweet, bothersome friends who wouldn't leave her alone to grieve, all of them, even Jou, who couldn't even open a can to save his life, had rushed to her aid and got her back on her feet. No woman was an island. Mai knew that now and she was grateful for her friends. Being independent didn't mean she had to do everything all alone, isolated and lonely.
Mai never wanted to experience loneliness like she had through her childhood and during the collapse of her relationship with Kaiba ever again.
Her eye caught a particularly bright star just resting in the heavens, waiting to be admired. It gave off a dazzling flash as if aware of its captive audience. Mai smiled. Could she wish on a star without feeling absolutely foolish? Wishing was for little kids, not for strong women who held down jobs. But even when she was a kid, Mai had never wished on a star, although she'd heard about the practice. Without warning her eyelids fell over her eyes. She clasped her hands and locked the fingers as if in earnest prayer, concentrating on that point in space, a ball of gases that even in death shone with intense brilliance.
Mai wished for Seto's happiness even though it wasn't necessary. She had looked through a newspaper that morning to find that another one of Kaiba's brilliant inventions was on the market and soaking up profits. A black and white photo of the CEO and his brother stood tall next to the long article. The identical smiles on their faces was enough to bring a smile to her own. They had had a bad childhood as well and they'd turned out just fine.
And Mai had turned out just fine, not only because of the tribulations she'd faced but the people who stood beside her, holding her hands, telling her it was okay to lean on them.
Mai had love.
Seto had love.
And even though they didn't have each other, they were doing just fine.