Note:This story was written for Masterdramon, who requested a Jonouchi/Mai fic as a prize for winning my entry in the Help Japan fandom auction. Congratulations, Masterdramon, and thank you for your contribution to the cause!
I am never going to get used to these things, Jonouchi thought.
It shouldn't have been difficult, really. How hard could it be just to go to a party? But Jonouchi had figured out somewhere along the line that what he considered a party and what upper-crust society considered a party weren't always the same thing. This was the kind he could do without: buffet tables loaded with tiny bites of food and guarded by people who glared at you if you dared load up your plate too much, tinkly classical music playing in the background instead of anything a person could dance to, and a lot of strangers milling around making small talk. It had to be some kind of cruel joke. Why else would anyone invent something so dull and try to convince people it was a party?
Not that there was no one here he recognized. This was an event for duelists, after all, and nearly everyone who was anyone (and several people who simply thought they were someone) had wrangled invitations. Jonouchi had dueled several of them himself, over the years. As he made a circuit of the room, he noticed Pegasus, who was hosting the event, standing in a corner and being fawned over by Siegfried von Schroider on one hand and Otogi on the other. Jonouchi made a mental note to say hello to his old friend when he wasn't so occupied, but he wasn't going to get too near when Siegfried was around. It was a shame, too, because other than Otogi, Jonouchi hadn't seen anyone else he considered a friend.
He was just considering making another trip to the buffet table, when his attention was caught by a glamorous blonde woman on the other side of the room. He wasn't the only one, either - it looked like every other man in the area had turned around to look at her. She was dressed to be looked at, in a violet cocktail dress with a skirt slit nearly to her hip and a plunging neckline, and she moved at the center of a cloud of sweet perfume. Jonouchi grinned, thinking to himself that tonight might be fun, after all. He threaded his way through the crowd and crept up to tap her on the shoulder.
"Hey, pretty lady," he drawled. "Howzabout giving me your number?"
She turned around to give him a look of reproach mixed with amusement.
"Jonouchi, you pig," she said.
He laughed. "I mean it! Gimme your number - I haven't heard from you in ages. What have you been doing?"
"Oh, I've been around," she said.
"Yeah, well, you should be around Domino City more often," Jonouchi replied.
Mai just gave him a half smile and said, "Maybe I will... if I thought there was something there that might interest me."
"You sure know how to give a guy a hard time."
"I play to my strengths," she agreed. She offered him his arm. "Here. You can be my escort tonight."
Jonouchi grinned and slid his arm through hers. "Are you making this a date?"
"I'm claiming you as my bodyguard," she said. "You can keep the rest of these clowns from drooling on my shoes."
"I can try," he replied, "but that's a pretty tall order. You kinda stand out in a crowd, you know?"
She smiled at him, and he grinned back, feeling that he had just scored a point.
"C'mon," he said. "Let's grab something to drink. That's the only thing this party is doing right."
"You have no class," said Mai, but she didn't argue.
After they had collected their drinks, they wandered away from the main crowd to stand by the windows. The party was being held at the Industrial Illusions main building, on one of the upper floors, so they had a good view of the city lights, as well as a wide spread of well-manicured lawn.
"So I guess you're here for the tryouts, huh?" said Jonouchi after a while. As conversational gambits went, it wasn't the most brilliant. Nearly everyone at this event was here for the tryouts. Up until this point, dueling had always been a more or less freelance thing. People held tournaments, and you either went or you didn't. You could become a professional of a sort by winning enough tournaments that you could support yourself on the prize money, but up until now, no one had ever gotten around to organizing an actual professional league. Now the experiment was being tried. Jonouchi had been pleased to get an invitation. He still wasn't completely convinced that the life of a professional was for him, but he wouldn't forgive himself for not trying.
"They sent an invitation," said Mai. "I thought it would be rude not to show up."
"You don't sound too enthused," Jonouchi observed.
"I haven't really made up my mind," she said. "I'm used to doing my own thing. I don't know how I'd feel about taking orders from someone else."
"Yeah, same here," said Jonouchi.
"So why show up?"
"Just to see what happens," he replied. He grinned. "What's life without taking a few chances, am I right?"
Mai laughed. "That's you all over."
"Who else would I be?" Jonouchi answered glibly. He tossed off the last of his drink. "Hey, is there any point to this party, or is everyone just going to stand around gabbing all night?"
"I think standing around talking is the point."
Jonouchi made a dismissive noise. "Forget that. You wanna go outside?"
"And do what?" she asked.
"What are we doing in here?" Jonouchi retorted.
"Good point," she said. "All right, I suppose I've done my social duty for the night."
They slipped out of the party. A few people gave them sidelong looks as they made their exit, and Jonouchi grinned a little, imagining what they must be thinking.
Well, at least I'm giving them something to talk about. Maybe this will liven up the party for them. My good deed for the day.
They took the elevator downstairs. Jonouchi didn't attach much significance to that fact until he'd gotten inside and the door had closed, locking him in a small windowless box with a beautiful woman. Not that he hadn't always known that Mai was immensely attractive, but somewhere along the line she'd made the transition from "desirable but probably unattainable woman" to "platonic friend", and he'd started assuming that she was off-limits instead of simply hard to get. All the same, he was very aware of her perfume and how close together they were standing. She must have noticed him noticing, because she smiled and ruffled his hair, and laughed as he yelped.
"I know what you were thinking," she said.
"Yeah, me and every other guy in the world," said Jonouchi, trying to put his hair back in order.
They reached the ground floor and stepped out into the lobby. It was empty at this time of night - all the security people were busy upstairs, keeping an eye on the bigwigs. The room echoed with the sound of their hard-soled party shoes.
"There's nobody here," said Jonouchi, prompting Mai to give him a look.
"Thank you, Captain Obvious," she said.
He ignored her. "Hey, let's snoop around while nobody's looking! There's bound to be something cool stashed around here somewhere."
"You just never grew up, did you?" she asked him.
"I look at it as not turning down an opportunity," said Jonouchi. "I'd hate to miss out on something. C'mon, where's your spirit of adventure?"
"Listen, bucko, going out in public in these shoes is adventure enough," said Mai.
"Well, they look good on you."
"I know," she said, smiling slightly. "That's part of what makes it an adventure."
They went outside. Night had fallen, but the air was still warm and pleasant. There were enough trees and growing things to screen the area around the building from the rest of the city, creating an illusion that they were far away from the rest of the world. The city lights didn't reach far enough there to blot out even most of the stars. Jonouchi wandered off of the sidewalk and onto the grass, stretching his arms as though he'd been cooped up in a box all night, instead of wandering freely at an upscale party. Mai watched him with an expression of amusement.
"Great outdoorsman, are you?" she asked.
"Don't knock it till you've tried it," said Jonouchi. He bent down to start unlacing his shoes.
"Now what are you doing?" she asked him.
"Taking my shoes off. What's it look like?" he retorted. He pulled his socks off as well and stuffed them in his shoes. He strolled barefoot across the grass. "Ah, now that's more like it! Hey, you should give this a try. It tickles!"
"Maybe I'll just stay here and watch you enjoy yourself."
"Hey, you were the one who was complaining about high heels. I'm giving you an option," said Jonouchi. "Come on. I didn't think you were the kind of girl who got worked up over a little dirt."
"Well, when you put it that way..."
She removed her shoes and set them down on the sidewalk before venturing out onto the lawn. Jonouchi grinned at her. She was being careful, but he felt certain she had nothing to worry about. As far as he could tell, this grass had been well groomed, and it was as smooth and soft as the best carpet imaginable. He might have been a city boy at heart, but he had to admit that it would have been a shame to waste good grass like this. He picked out a comfortable looking hillside - not much more than a slight rise in the ground - and stretched out on the lawn to gaze at the sky. After a moment, Mai shrugged and settled down next to him. They were quiet for a while. Jonouchi wondered if she couldn't think of anything to say. He certainly couldn't.
"How is the rest of the gang?" Mai asked at last.
"Hanging in there," he replied. "Anzu's in America now, working on that dance thing of hers. Honda got a job with a company that... hey, would you believe it? They make motorcycles for dueling. Seriously."
"Sounds nice," she said. "Where can I get one?"
"I don't think you can buy them yet," said Jonouchi. "It's still in development. I can get you on the waiting list, though."
"I might just take you up on that," said Mai. "What about Yugi? What is he up to?"
"Still dueling. What else?" said Jonouchi. "He's been different lately, though."
"How do you mean, different?"
"I don't know. It's not like his personality has changed, really. It's more like... he's gotten to be more like himself."
Mai glared at him. "That doesn't even make sense."
"Hey, you asked!" said Jonouchi. "I don't know how else to say it. It's like... the other Yugi, the Pharaoh, he was taking up space in Yugi's head, and now he's gone, so Yugi's got room to stretch out." He smiled a little. "He's gotten taller, too. He can just about look me in the eye, now."
"Now, that I'd like to see."
"It is kinda unreal," Jonouchi agreed with a laugh. Then he sobered. "He's been thoughtful lately. Restless, even. I don't know how much longer he's going to want to stay in Domino City."
"Why isn't he here?" asked Mai. "He's the King of Games, isn't he? People would be lining up to sponsor him."
"I think that's what he doesn't want," said Jonouchi. "He loves dueling too much to make it a job. Besides, it'd be too easy for him."
"You're probably right," she agreed. "So what is he going to do?"
"No idea," said Jonouchi. "Travel, I guess. Find people who need helping. He's good at that. Anyway, there isn't much to keep him in Domino anymore. I mean, the rest of us have already moved on." He stretched and made himself more comfortable on the grass. "I think that's why I'm here, you know? Everybody else is moving out in the world. They all know what they want to do with themselves. Me, I never really figured it out. I guess I just always figured that when I graduated high school I'd turn into something. You know, some people turn into doctors or lawyers or taxi drivers or something, but I'm still just me. I figured I'd try this and see if it fit."
"I know the feeling," said Mai.
Jonouchi turned on his side to look at her. "You don't know what you're doing either, huh?"
She reached out and ruffled his hair. "Don't put it like that."
"Hey, cut that out!" he said, squirming away from her. She laughed and tried to haul him back into her grasp. He didn't try very hard to escape; while he could have easily wrested his way free, he didn't like to use force against a woman, particularly one he was friends with. The end result was that he end up with her pinning him to the ground and leaning over him, grinning wickedly.
"Now I've got you," she said.
"Sure looks that way," he agreed.
"I wonder what I should do with you," she said. Teasingly, she added, "Maybe I should drag you off somewhere a little quieter. What do you say we have a private party, hm?"
For a moment, Jonouchi couldn't answer. He was acutely aware of all the places where her body pressed against his as she leaned on him.
"Ah... maybe another time," he said.
She laughed and let him go. All the same, he thought she looked a little disappointed, but it may have been only a trick of his imagination. She lay back down on the grass.
"I knew you wouldn't go for it," she said.
"Hey, what's that supposed to mean?"
"Well, I was right, wasn't I?" she said. "You're too loyal for that sort of thing. You're not the kind to fool around."
"That's good, though, right?"
"I suppose," she said. "Frustrating for the women you're going to turn down until you find the one you want to stick with, though."
He was still trying to work out how he was supposed to reply to that, when he became aware of a figure moving across the grass. He sat up a little straighter, wondering who would be out wandering around on Industrial Illusions' lawn at this hour of the night. As the shape came closer, Jonouchi was able to identify it as a middle-aged mustached man, dressed in an impeccable suit and a pair of dark glasses, strange to see in such a dark place. He looked vaguely familiar, and after a moment of thought, Jonouchi was able to identify him as Pegasus's bodyguard, Mr. Crocketts.
"Excuse me, sir, miss," he said. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything."
There was no trace of irony in his voice, but Jonouchi couldn't help feeling that there was an innuendo in there somewhere.
"We're watching for UFOs," he said.
"I see," said Crocketts. "Be that as it may, I'm afraid I'm going to have to call you away. Mr. Pegasus would like to speak to you."
"To me?" Jonouchi repeated. "What for?"
"I'm afraid I'm not privy to that information," said Crocketts.
The hell you aren't! Jonouchi thought. He had a notion that Pegasus discussed almost everything with his most trusted advisor. If Crocketts didn't know what was going on, he probably at least had a good guess.
"So what if I don't want to talk to him?" Jonouchi asked.
Crocketts gave him a quick, sharp glance over the rims of his sunglasses. "I believe that would be problematic for all of us. I would prefer to avoid any problems. Therefore, if you would follow me...?"
Jonouchi thought it over. It went against the grain for him to be ordered around by anyone, particularly someone like Pegasus who he only half-trusted on a good day. On the other hand, if he made an issue of it, Crocketts would probably just put him in a judo hold or something and march him inside anyway, and that would be embarrassing. For one thing, Mai would never let him live it down.
"I'll give him ten minutes," said Jonouchi. He hauled himself to his feet and began brushing grass off his clothes. To Mai, he said, "Don't wander off. I'll be back soon as I'm done with this joker."
He allowed Crocketts to lead him back into the building, and they silently took the elevator to the top floor to where Pegasus's office was located. Jonouchi couldn't help thinking that riding with Mai had been considerably more interesting. He put that thought out of his mind, and forced himself to consider what this was all about. He rather doubted that Pegasus had called him out here just to catch up on old times - he could have done that at the party. What on earth would he want to talk to Jonouchi about in private?
The world better not be coming to an end again. This guy gets himself into too much trouble.
Crocketts paused outside the office door and gestured that Jonouchi should let himself in. Jonouchi reached for the handle, feeling suddenly nervous. It was like being sent to the principal's office, something he'd been glad to be done with.
Inside the office, he found Pegasus sitting serenely at his desk, half-turned so that he could gaze out the windows. Jonouchi cleared his throat. When that didn't work, he marched over to the desk and rested his hands on it.
"Hey, if you wanted to talk to me, you could at least look at me," he said.
"Hm?" said Pegasus. "Ah, yes. My apologies; I was thinking."
"Yeah, well, you're supposed to be talking," said Jonouchi. "I know you didn't have your goon drag me up here just to look at my pretty face."
"Here, now, don't go calling Mr. Crocketts a goon," said Pegasus amiably. "He is a gentleman and loyal employee."
"Okay, fine, your employee, then," said Jonouchi. "Quit fooling around and tell me what's up."
"In such a hurry? And here I thought I would draw things out a bit to spare your feelings," said Pegasus. "But if you insist... you are planning on entering the trials for the professional dueling league tomorrow, yes?"
"Yeah. What of it?"
"Don't bother," said Pegasus. "You're disqualified."
"What?" Jonouchi yelped. "What for?"
"Unsportsmanlike activity," said Pegasus.
"What do you mean, unsportsmanlike activity? I haven't done anything!" Jonouchi protested.
"That isn't what I hear," said Pegasus. "One of the sponsors claims to have incontrovertible evidence that you've been caught cheating - tampering with other players cards, stacking your deck, making illegal modifications to your Duel Disk, that sort of thing."
"But I haven't!" Jonouchi exclaimed. "You know I haven't!"
"I know nothing of the sort," said Pegasus mildly.
"Don't you give me that! Damn it, Pegasus, you know me! You've read my mind! You know I'd cut off my hand before I'd do something like that!"
"For heaven's sakes, keep your voice down," said Pegasus. "People will think you're raving, talking about reading minds."
"Quit changing the subject," Jonouchi snapped.
Pegasus swiveled his chair to look back out the window. "I know there was a time when you never would have contemplated doing such things. Now, who can say? People change."
"Yeah, right," said Jonouchi. "Maybe I've changed. Maybe I'll grow wings and fly, too."
"Stranger things have happened," said Pegasus with a shrug. "The important thing is that Lewis Whelton from our distinguished assembly of sponsors says that he has the evidence, and that he will be presenting it tomorrow morning before the games begin."
"Then I'm going to track him down and give him a piece of my mind!" said Jonouchi. "Where is he? Is he at the party? Point me at him!"
"I wouldn't advise that," said Pegasus. "I feel it only fair to warn you that confronting him directly could at this point be considered hostile behavior. It's only likely to lead to make you look worse than you already do."
"So what do you want me to do?" asked Jonouchi. "Just sit on my thumbs and watch while I get kicked out of the Pro Leagues before I even get into them?"
Pegasus turned and looked directly at Jonouchi. There was a spark of mischief in his single eye and a faint smile tugging at his lips.
"My dear boy," he said, "I've given you everything you need to know. What do you think I want you to do?"
Jonouchi was silent for a moment.
"Huh," he said thoughtfully. "Right."
"Don't say I never did anything nice for you," said Pegasus.
"I wouldn't call this nice," said Jonouchi. "I'll let you know how it turns out."
"Oh, I have no doubt of that," Pegasus replied. "I will permit you to remain at the party tonight, if you so desire. No one needs to know we talked about this."
Jonouchi nodded, sensing his interview was at an end. That was fine by him. He didn't need to talk to Pegasus anymore. What he wanted was to find this Lewis Whelton and find out what kind of game he was playing. He was going to have to find out fast, if it was ending tomorrow morning...
He returned to the ground floor and found Mai waiting in the lobby.
"What did Pegasus want?" she asked.
"To give me a hard time," said Jonouchi. He leaned against the wall and pressed a hand to his face. "I'm out of the competition."
"What? You can't be," said Mai. "Why aren't you going to be in the tryouts?"
"You won't believe it," said Jonouchi. "I sure don't." He quickly outlined everything Pegasus had told him.
"That rat," said Mai when he'd finished. "Why doesn't he do something? He owes you."
"Pegasus doesn't do anything if there's not something in it for him," said Jonouchi sourly.
Mai frowned. "So why did he tell you any of this?"
"Who cares?" said Jonouchi. "I've got bigger things to worry about, like how to get this lying scumbag off my case so I can play in the tryouts tomorrow."
"I wonder why he's doing it," said Mai. "What has he got against you?"
"No idea," Jonouchi admitted. "I never even heard of the guy."
"I wonder what he has to gain from getting you disqualified," said Mai. "Is he backing somebody he's afraid you'll beat?"
"Well, I know one way to find out," said Jonouchi. "If he's showing the evidence tomorrow before the tryouts, he's gotta have it with him somewhere close by. I just have to find it."
Mai raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure you sure that isn't going to get you into even worse trouble?"
"Hey, Pegasus practically toldme to go do it," said Jonouchi. "If I get caught, I'll blame it on him. Besides, it's not like I could make things much worse at this point."
"You could get arrested for breaking and entering," Mai suggested.
Jonouchi shrugged. "Okay, so it could be a little worse. But I'm not taking this lying down!"
"In that case, let me help."
Jonouchi looked at her in surprise. "No way. I'm not letting you get in trouble over this."
"Pipe down," she said. "I'm not in the mood to deliver a speech about how we're friends and we have to look out for each other, and you know it already anyway."
"So what are you going to do?" asked Jonouchi.
"Well, for starters," she said, "you need to know where he's keeping his evidence, don't you?"
"So I'll find out for you."
"How are you going to do that?" Jonouchi asked.
Mai smiled. "Oh, don't worry about that. I know a few tricks."
"What do you..."
"Come on," she said. "Let's go party."
They went back upstairs and rejoined the festivities. The crowd was still as thick as ever, and Jonouchi found himself slightly surprised. It felt to him as though he'd been at this party forever; he had half-expected that everyone would have gone home by now. Mai tucked him into a nook behind a potted plant and told him to behave himself for a few minutes. Then she wandered off to collar someone and ask him who Lewis Whelton was. Jonouchi picked a handful of nuts from a bowl and watched as someone pointed Mai to a thin man with a combover and a navy blue suit. She thanked her informer politely, adjusted the neckline of her dress for maximum advantage, and sauntered over to him.
"Well, hello there," she said. "I didn't see you before. Are you here for the tryouts?"
"In a sense, yes," he replied. "I'm one of the sponsors. Lewis Whelton, of White Flame Design. And you must be Mai Kujaku, yes? I'm a great admirer of yours."
"I can't say that I mind being admired by a gentleman," she said coyly. "So, just what is it you admire?"
Jonouchi scowled and tuned the rest of the conversation out. It was not, he told himself that he was jealous. Mai wasn't his girlfriend or anything; it didn't matter to him if she was flirting with someone else. They were simply friends and that was just fine with him. What bothered him, he told himself, was the fact that it seemed so easy for her. There she was, giggling and cooing over a man old enough to be her father, with the light shining off the bald spot on his head, and she seemed perfectly comfortable with it. It was clear that she had done this kind of thing a hundred times before and didn't need to think about it anymore. He wondered how often she'd had to do this sort of thing, and whether she'd been doing it recently, and why. Then he thought he would really rather not know.
A few minutes later, she returned with a piece of paper.
"I got his hotel room," she said.
"Why did he give you his hotel room number?" Jonouchi asked.
"Because I asked him nicely," said Mai flippantly.
"Does he think you're actually going to go to his hotel room?"
"I told him I might," she admitted. "And I am - to help you. I didn't tell him that, of course."
"You shouldn't have to schmooze up to that guy," said Jonouchi.
She laughed. "You're a white knight at heart, aren't you? Don't you worry about me. I'm a big girl - I can take care of myself."
"Yeah," he said, "I know that, but..."
"Are you jealous?" she asked.
"I'm not jealous!"
"Sure you're not," she said.
"I'm not," he insisted. "But you deserve better than to have to suck up to guys like that for anything."
She laughed and ruffled his hair. "You're sweet. Naive, but sweet. Now, let's get out of here before he notices us together and realizes something's up."
"Sure. Fine," he said.
They started for the door, leaving in separate directions so that they wouldn't seem to be leaving together. Jonouchi was sulking.
"I am not jealous," he muttered.
They found the hotel. Mai sized it up from her vantage point beneath a street light. She'd done her share of traveling, and had seen quite a few hotels in her day, so while she had never been in this particular one, she had a pretty good idea of what sort of place it must be.
Mid-level. Practical, inexpensive. Good for business travelers. Not the sort of place you'd expect to find a high-level executive like Lewis Whelton. So what's he doing here?
She took out her phone.
"What are you doing?" Jonouchi asked her, craning his neck to look.
"I'm trying to find out more about this guy's company," she said. "White Flame Graphics... here we go."
"I know who they are," said Jonouchi. "Graphic design company. What do you need to know about them?"
"I was wondering what kind of financial shape they were in," said Mai. "This isn't exactly a five-star residence."
"I guess you're right," Jonouchi agreed. "Maybe this is just where he comes to make deals with shady characters. You know, so they won't stand out."
Mai gave him a look. "You watch too many movies. It says here that their profits have been down. I'm betting this guy has been trying to keep it afloat by dipping into his own funds, if this is where he's staying."
"Yeah, maybe you're right," said Jonouchi. "I know one thing, if I'd picked up a girl, I'd take her somewhere better than this dump."
Mai fought to keep a straight face. "Oh really? Where would you take her?"
"I don't know. One of those places where they have room service and a hot tub and leave rose petals on the sheets and all that kind of stuff."
"I had no idea you were so romantic," she said with a laugh.
"I'm not," he said, "but I'd have to make an effort, wouldn't I?"
"Well, I have to admit, I'd rather be there than here," said Mai. "How are we going to get into that hotel room without getting caught?"
Jonouchi gave her a smug look. "Oh, that's easy. You should have thought of it yourself."
"Ain't it obvious?" he retorted. "We're just checking in for the night. Nothing suspicious about that at all."
She tossed her head. "Ruin my reputation, why don't you?"
"You got any better ideas?"
"Not a one," she said. "Oh, well, I suppose I can live with it. At least you're paying."
"I am?" Jonouchi asked.
"Oh, come on," she said. "You expect me to go into a hotel with you and you didn't even buy me a drink. The least you can do is pay for the room."
"You didn't have to come," said Jonouchi, but he stopped arguing.
They went inside. Jonouchi took out his credit card and paid for a room, while the clerk smirked knowingly at the two of them. Jonouchi was blushing brilliantly as they started for the elevator. Mai couldn't help but be amused, and a little touched. It was nice to know there were men like him in the world.
How does he do it? she wondered. He's famous enough now to have fans. You'd think one of them would have wanted him. I know he's attracted to women, so it's not that. Is he really that shy? I didn't think he was the type to be afraid of anything. Maybe he is just waiting for the right person. And he says he's not a romantic...
She had to admit, she had missed him more than she'd expected to, while she was wandering around the world. She wasn't the sort of person who liked having someone hanging over her every minute of the day, but she often found herself wondering where he was and what he would think of the things she saw and the people she met. There had been so many things she'd imagined telling him about, but now that they were actually together, she was remembering how hard it was to have a meaningful conversation. It was so much easier to fall back on ingrained habits. Maybe that was why she kept finding herself tempted to flirt with him...
"Hey, Mai! Hello? You aren't checking out on me now, are you?"
She snapped out of her reverie. "What?"
"Elevator door's open," said Jonouchi. "What was that hotel room again?"
"Oh. Right," she said. She fumbled in her purse and fished out the business card with Whelton's scrawl on the back. She handed it to Jonouchi, and the two of them got into the elevator. They got out in a dingy hallway lit by flickering fluorescent lights and took stock of their situation. Nobody was around but a drab woman pushing a housekeeper's cart, who looked at them with disapproval before shuffling off.
"Classy place," Jonouchi said. "Reminds me of my old apartment."
Mai ignored him. She wandered up the hall, periodically checking door numbers until she found the one she was looking for. She tried the handle.
"Locked," she said. "Now what, mister spy?"
Jonouchi grinned. "You forget who you're dealing with."
He fished around for something in his pockets and knelt down next to the doorknob.
"Man, cheap locks they got in this place. Lessee, just a little twist here and a flick there..."
"You carried lockpicks to a party?" asked Mai incredulously.
"Hey, you never know when they might come in handy," said Jonouchi. "I mean, I might lock myself out of my room or something. Ha, here we go!"
The lock clicked quietly open, and Jonouchi grinned proudly as he pushed the door inwards.
"After you," he said.
There was nothing to do but go in. Mai walked through the door and took a look around. What she saw didn't impress her - if she had really been there to meet with a date, she would have seriously considered remembering that she needed to go home and wash her hair. As it was, she looked with disfavor on the clean but worn carpeting, the bare walls, the plain, functional furniture. The room smelled faintly of incongruously expensive cologne, with an undertone of old cigarette smoke. Idly, she wandered over to the dresser and began picking through the things spread out on it. He'd had the good sense to leave anything truly valuable in a place where housekeeping wasn't likely to find it, but even the brush and comb set had silver inlays. There was also a top-of-the-line MP3 player and a pair of designer sunglasses. Mai was amazed they hadn't been stolen yet. This, she decided, was a man who was not used to worrying about taking care of his possessions. He had people who worried about that for him, and probably would think nothing of buying a new whatever-it-was anyway. He wasn't used to staying in hotels like this, either. She wondered if he would just think he had lost his things if someone walked off with them.
"Finding anything?" asked Jonouchi. He was poking around through the writing desk.
"Not much," said Mai. "Just thinking."
Jonouchi tried a drawer on the desk. It was locked. He shrugged and pulled out a pick again.
"Hate these little tiny ones," he said, mostly to himself.
"You're incorrigible," said Mai, not entirely disapprovingly.
"I do what I gotta to get by," said Jonouchi.
Inside the drawer was a laptop, an expensive model of the sort that was so slim it was barely even there. There was also a manilla envelope with an intriguing bulge in it, so Jonouchi opened it up and tipped its contents onto the table. It appeared to be a memory stick.
"This looks important," said Jonouchi.
"So turn it on already," Mai replied.
Jonouchi fumbled with the latch and managed to get the laptop open and turned on. It blinked a welcome screen at him. He made a face.
"Geez," he said. "There isn't even a password."
"He probably didn't think anyone but him would ever use it," said Mai.
"That's pretty stupid. Anybody could come in and mess with his stuff."
"If anybody had a bunch of lockpicks."
"Well, yeah," said Jonouchi. "That's what I'm saying."
He plugged the memory stick into the computer, and a new window appeared, showing a variety of thumbnail images.
"Huh," said Jonouchi.
"What in the world?" said Mai.
"Looks like a party," Jonouchi opined. "Another one. Man, I can't get away from those things."
"It's probably not what we're looking for, then," said Mai. "What else is on there?"
She started to reach for the laptop, but Jonouchi fended her off.
"Wait, wait," he said. "I want to look a little more."
"What for?" she asked.
"Because I want to know why a guy puts his birthday party photos under lock and key. I mean, he leaves all his expensive junk lying out on the dresser but a dinky little thumb drive I could get for ten bucks gets maximum security? It don't add up."
She shrugged. "Maybe he got drunk and did something stupid?"
"So why keep the pictures at all? Why not just delete them and be done with them?"
"Good point," she admitted. "But they're nothing to do with you, unless you were at that party."
"I wasn't," said Jonouchi. "And that's why I want to look. Something here is starting to smell fishy."
He began going through the pictures one by one. They weren't very good quality - probably taken with someone's camera phone. They showed a party not unlike the one they had just left, save for the fact that it was apparently being held in someone's home. Most of them were fairly unremarkable, and Mai was starting to lose patience with them and insist that they look elsewhere before the room's occupant came back. Then the pictures began to change. It seemed that whoever had been taking them had wandered away from the party, and was wandering through the hallways snapping pictures of small art objects. Some of them seemed to particularly interest the photographer, and had been photographed from several angles.
"Man, that's just wrong," said Jonouchi. "Who goes snooping around other people's bedrooms?"
"Somebody looking for secrets," Mai murmured. "A lot of those things are Egyptian, aren't they?"
She rolled her eyes. "You're not thinking. You've been hanging around Yugi too much - you've gotten desensitized."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Egyptian artifacts are legally the property of Egypt. You have to go through all kinds of red tape to get them out of the country."
"How do you know all that?" Jonouchi asked.
"I happen to be a lady of cultured tastes," said Mai, raising her chin a fraction. "I've picked up a thing or two about art."
"Fine. Great," said Jonouchi. "So you're saying these are... what? Black market Egyptian art?"
She shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine."
"I guess it's not important anyway," said Jonouchi. "I think you're right - these have nothing to do with..."
He trailed off. Mai stared at him.
"What's going through that head of yours?" she asked.
"Do you see what I see?" he asked. "Here, lemme enlarge this..."
He magnified the picture and pointed at a shape in the corner of the screen. It was the edge of a painting in an ornate frame. Its left side had been cut off, but it was still clearly discernible as a painting of a lovely young woman with long blonde hair and a sweet expression. Mai frowned a little. She had the oddest feeling she'd seen something like that before.
"You know who that is, don't you?" Jonouchi prompted.
"I don't know. It looks familiar, but..."
"Duelist Kingdom. Pegasus painted that," said Jonouchi. "That's his old girlfriend. Which means these pictures were taken at Pegasus's place, which means..."
"Which means?" Mai prompted.
"Which means this whole thing has been a setup from beginning to end," said Jonouchi. "You were right, and I was right - Pegasus doesn't do anything purely out of the goodness of his heart."
"Do you want to try to explain, or should I just let you keep rambling?" Mai asked.
"I'm thinking, I'm thinking," said Jonouchi, waving a hand. His face creased in concentration. "Okay. Try this on for size, see if I'm guessing right. Here's this guy, he's supposed to be running some big company, right? But it hasn't been doing so well lately. He's probably pouring his own money into it just to keep it afloat. That's why he's staying in this rinky-dink hotel."
She nodded. "That's what the numbers I was reading earlier said, anyway."
"Right," said Jonouchi. "He wants money, and he wants it now. So who around here has more money than anybody?"
Mai smirked. "Seto Kaiba?"
"Yeah, right. Blackmailing him? You might as well shoot yourself and save time," said Jonouchi. "But if you didn't know Pegasus too well... well, come on, he watches cartoons, for crying out loud."
"And keeps Egyptian artifacts in his rooms," Mai supplied.
"Probably not legally," Jonouchi agreed. "He's not really that kind of guy. So now he goes to Pegasus and demands money or else these pictures go to the cops or the internet or something. Pegasus can't call the police on him because then he'll get investigated anyway, and our boy here is probably watching Pegasus to make sure he doesn't send one of his own guys over to deal with him. So..."
Mai felt the light bulb go off in her head. "So he sent someone that no one would be expecting."
"You got it," said Jonouchi. "He knows me well enough to know exactly what to say to get me to react, and he knows I'd be able to handle whatever situation he threw me into, so he gives me a reason to come out here and snoop around until I figure out whats really going on. Or, hell, maybe he figured Id just grab everything and run and let him sort it out later."
"So why didn't he just ask?" Mai replied.
Jonouchi laughed. "Not sure, but you want my guess? He probably thought it was more fun this way."
"Well, maybe so," she agreed. She sat down on the edge of the bed and watched him thoughtfully. "So, now that you have it all figured out, what are you going to do? If it were me, I'd go back and tell him what I think of his idea of fun."
"Tempting," said Jonouchi. "He'd deserve it if I did. I don't think I'm gonna, though."
"Why not? He's got whole armies of flunkies and more money than he knows what to do with; he can solve his own problems."
"Yeah, I know, but it's complicated," said Jonouchi. "I mean, yeah, the guy can be a jerk, and he's definitely a few sandwiches short of a picnic. But you know, it was his money that paid for Shizuka's operation, and he was pretty useful during that whole Atlantis thing. And anyway, like it or not, he's at the middle of the whole game of Duel Monsters. If something happens to him, it's going to affect the game, too, and I don't want that to happen."
Mai raised an eyebrow. "And?"
Jonouchi heaved a sigh. "And it bugs me to let the bad guy get away with something, all right?"
She laughed. "You're so predictable, Jonouchi. It's no wonder you got roped into this."
"Yeah, yeah, rub it in, why doncha," he muttered.
"Oh, I didn't mean it like that," she said. "I'd be disappointed in you if you walked out now. What kind of hero would you be if you quit now?"
"A smart one?"
Mai laughed. "Maybe so. But that's not your style, is it?"
"Hey, are you calling me stupid?"
"Wouldn't dream of it," she said sweetly. "You're all heart, Jonouchi. It does me good to know there are people like you in the world."
He blushed a little and ran a hand through his hair. "Eh, I'm not that special. Yugi did all the really cool heroic stuff..."
"That's not what I mean," she said. "It's just... I've spent so much time around really rotten people that sometimes I start thinking they're all rotten, but you're not like that at all. You always seem to know the right thing to do, and you always seem to do it, and it's like you don't even think about turning around and walking away. Even when you're not around, just remembering that you're out there somewhere makes me feel like... well, like the world must still be a good place, after all..." She laughed. "I'm not good at this. This is awkward. I don't usually have guys try to get me to talk about my feelings."
"Arewe talking about feelings?"
"Maybe," she said. "I don't know."
"You must be," he said. "I always figured you'd be better at putting the moves on a guy, so that probably ain't it."
She laughed, pressing a hand to her face. "That's just it. You're my friend. I don't want to make things strange between us."
He sat down next to her. "But?"
"Don't you ever just want to cut loose for a while and not worry about how things will turn out?"
She expected him to toss off some casual remark. She expected him to make a joke of it. She wouldn't have even been surprised if he played dumb, or if he actually didn't understand what she was hinting at.
Instead, he said, "Sure I do."
"Yeah. What, do you think I'm made out of marble or something? I don't stop noticing somebody's female just because she's my friend."
She looked at him in surprise a moment, then looked quickly away.
"You're an attractive guy," she said. "You've got guts, you've got a sense of humor... you're a genuinely good person. If I wasn't worried about what would happen afterwards..."
"Hey," he said. "What do you think is going to happen?"
"I don't know," she said. "I can't see us having a normal relationship, can you? With the Saturday night dates and the love letters and the white wedding and two-point-five kids and a picket fence."
He laughed. "We haven't done so well with 'normal' so far, yeah."
"That's what I thought," she said. "Anyway, I like being a duelist and traveling around the world. I don't want to settle down."
"Me either. Not yet, anyway. Maybe someday," said Jonouchi.
They were quiet a moment. After a while, she said, "We'll still probably run into each other once in a while."
"So what are you suggesting?" Jonouchi asked. "Friends with benefits?"
"I'm not suggesting anything," she said. She was embarrassed to hear a faint squeak in her voice; she was almost certain her cheeks were flushing. She shouldn't have been embarrassed by this sort of thing anymore. She'd figured out early in life that a girl on her own had to do what she could to get by, and she was mostly all right with that. It was a messy world. Everybody had to do something they didn't enjoy, at some point or another; no point in acting like she was special. By now, she had learned how to refine her techniques enough that she only had to hint at what she might have to offer, and then get what she wanted in exchange, without having to ever actually give what she'd been hinting she might. She could choose to do what it pleased her to do.
Except, perhaps, here. Was it wrong to want to have a fling with someone even when you were afraid it might endanger a long-term friendship? Then again, was it wrong to want to spend some time, for once, with a man she knew genuinely cared about her, and who she cared about in return? That had been a rare thing, in her life.
If she couldn't trust him, who could she trust?
She started to say something, and then immediately turned towards the door. Someone was coming towards it, humming to himself in a way that sounded entirely too pleased.
"We picked a bad place to have this conversation, didn't we?" Jonouchi asked.
"Hide," Mai ordered.
She pushed Jonouchi towards the edge of the bed. He got the idea, diving over the side, putting the bed between himself and the door. Mai didn't bother to see what he did after that. There were no other hiding places in the tiny room, and even if there were, her perfume would surely give her away almost immediately. If Mr. Whelton moved around this room at all, he would find Jonouchi almost immediately, too.
Unless something distracted him.
There was really only one thing to do. Mai stretched out on the bed, assuming a posture of relaxation that she didn't feel, and she waited.
There wasn't a lot of room to hide, but Jonouchi was doing the best he could. Like most hotel beds, this one didn't have any sort of space underneath that he could conveniently crawl into. The best he could do was pull the blankets over himself as much as he could, and concentrate on breathing quietly.
The door opened, and Jonouchi heard footsteps, not completely muffled by the thin carpet.
"Hey, big fella," said Mai. "What took you so long?"
"How did you get in here?" Whelton asked.
"I have my little ways," she replied. "Where have you been? I've been waiting and waiting..."
"Just wrapping up a few things," said Whelton. "Don't worry, honey. Now I have the rest of the night free to keep you company."
He finished crossing the room; Jonouchi heard bedsprings creak.
"So," the man continued, in what he probably thought was a suave and seductive voice, "where would you like to begin?"
"Let's start by getting a little more comfortable," Mai purred.
There was a sound of rustling cloth. Jonouchi felt his face reddening.
They aren't... she isn't... Damn it, I'm right here!
Whelton made a pleased little sound, and Mai giggled. Jonouchi knew she was faking - hoped she was faking - but that didn't make it any better to listen to.
That's it - I'm not going to put up with this!
He burst out of his hiding place and seized on the first small object in reaching distance, a ceramic table lamp on the bedside table. He grabbed it with both hands and swung it at Whelton's head with all his considerable strength. Perhaps fortunately, the lamp was a cheap one and not built to survive that kind of stress, and it came apart in a number of gritty shards, leaving Whelton stunned but not particularly hurt. Mai took the opportunity to knee him in the stomach. He went "oof" and backed away from her enough that she could wiggle out of his grip. She gave Jonouchi a deadpan look.
"Don't expect me to be grateful for saving me," she said. "I'll have you know I had everything under control."
"Well, now everything is twice as under control," said Jonouchi.
"Ow," said Whelton, rubbing his head. Then he focused on Jonouchi. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Taking care of a little business deal," said Jonouchi. "You've been blackmailing Pegasus, haven't you?"
Whelton looked almost as stunned as he had when he'd been hit with a lamp. He did not cut a very impressive figure. His shirt was unbuttoned but not yet removed, revealing a very pale chest with a few sad wisps of hair curling above his navel. There was still dust from the broken lamp in his hair.
To his credit, though, he started pulling himself together almost immediately.
"What proof have you got?" he asked.
"Only a thumb drive in that drawer over there," said Jonouchi, "and I'll bet I can get it away from you if I have to. You don't look like you could put up much of a fight."
He folded his arms over his chest and attempted to look menacing. It wasn't that hard. He'd always been an able fighter, and he'd kept himself in good shape. He certainly looked more imposing than the rather scrawny man before him.
"That's assault," said Whelton. "I'll have you in jail so fast your head will spin."
"No you won't," said Mai. "Not if I say that you were trying to take advantage of a poor defenseless woman, and Jonouchi here came to my rescue. He'll back me up. All I have to do is scream loud enough and everyone will come running to see you standing here half-naked, and they'll draw the obvious conclusion."
Whelton took the hint and began to button up his shirt.
"All right, all right," he said. "Let's calm down and think about this. I'm sure we can all come up with a reasonable way to settle this that will make everyone happy."
Jonouchi did what he could to look bored and unimpressed. Mai did it a lot better; she leaned against the wall and inspected her nails with nonchalance that looked almost real.
"Look," said Whelton. "This is just a business matter like any other. It happens all the time. There's nothing to get up in arms about."
"I'll bet Pegasus doesn't think so," said Jonouchi.
Whelton waved a hand. "He's one of the richest men in the world. He can afford it. Compared to what he personally earns every year, I'm asking pocket change. It's a lot less than what he stands to lose if I took my evidence to the police. If you think about it, I'm doing him a favor."
"Huh. You don't say," said Jonouchi. "You're a real humanitarian, huh?"
"I'll make you a deal," said Whelton. "I'll cut you in - both of you. Five thousand dollars each if you'll just go home and forget about all of this. I'll even make sure my company offers to sponsor you both in the Leagues. You can't ask for better than that. I'll bet Pegasus wouldn't give you anything better for helping him."
"No, probably not," Jonouchi agreed.
Whelton smiled, relief all over his face. "Then we have a deal?"
"I don't know," said Jonouchi. "What do you think, Mai?"
"Hm," she said. "Don't ask me. I'm just a woman. I don't have a head for business. What do you think we should do?"
Whelton looked convinced by that bit of blather; he turned to Jonouchi expectantly. Jonouchi pretended to think, trying to keep Whelton's attention on him. Mai, finding herself out of the spotlight, began edging slowly towards the desk.
"You know what I think?" Jonouchi said.
Whelton watched him eagerly. "What?"
"I think," he said slowly, "that Pegasus is completely off his rocker. He's a spoiled little kid who never grew up. Half the time, he does whatever he wants, without thinking about how it will affect anybody but himself. Shoot, I could tell you some stories that would make what you've got on the guy look like small potatoes."
He saw Whelton's eyes light up when he said that. Clearly the man was salivating to know just what kind of stories Jonouchi could tell.
Jonouchi also saw Mai reaching for the desk drawer. He started talking again to cover the sound.
"You know what I also think?" he said. "I think I understand why Pegasus does what he does. He may be nuttier than a fruitcake, but at least he's motivated by something besides money, and he doesn't go around hitting on my friends, so I think I like him a whole lot better than I like you. In other words, no deal."
Whelton had just enough time to register his shock before Mai brought the drawer down on his head with a satisfying thud. He gave a yelp of pain and staggered a little, but somehow kept his feet. Fortunately the drawer was made of sturdier stuff than the lamp had been, so she hit him again, and this time he dropped to his knees, clutching at his head and gasping in pain.
"Aw, c'mon, put the guy outta his misery," said Jonouchi.
"I'm doing my best," she said.
She took one more swing, and this time, he went down for the count. Jonouchi watched him for a moment to see if he was going to get up, and when he didn't, he picked the man up and hauled him over to his bed. Mai carefully collected the drive, slipped it back in its envelope, and put the drawer back where it belonged.
"Let's get out of here," she said. "I think our host has a headache."
"Yeah, better let him sleep it off," Jonouchi agreed.
They started back towards the elevator, carrying their hard-earned prize. Jonouchi felt rather cheerful. It was always nice to have these things under control. He was going to give Pegasus an earful about this later, but that could wait.
"Hey, Mai?" he said, as the elevator doors closed.
"What now?" she asked.
He felt his face warming. "You weren't really gonna... with that guy... I mean, you wouldn't, right?"
"Of course not," she said calmly. "I was going to get him out of his clothes and then run like hell. I would have had to leave my heels behind, but a woman without shoes can get a lot further than a man without pants."
"You," he said, "are evil."
"I am not. I'm practical," she retorted.
"That too," he agreed. More quietly, he added, "Thanks for helping me out, there. I really owe you one."
"No, you don't," she said. "It was a lot more fun than spending time at that stupid party. I actually sort of missed having adventures."
"It is kind of a nice change from the old routine," Jonouchi agreed.
"So what do we do now?"
"I figure I give Industrial Illusions a phone call so I can tell Pegasus we got his party pictures," Jonouchi replied. "After that, I dunno. Go back to my room and start getting ready for tomorrow, I guess."
She gave him a sidelong look. "You have a hotel room reserved here for us. You don't want to put it to good use?"
"Nope," he said. "Like I said, I wouldn't take a girl to a place like this. Besides, I haven't even bought you a drink or anything yet."
She laughed. "I knew you were going to say something like that."
"I could buy you a drink."
That got a look of surprise from her. He grinned.
"Well, I could," he said.
She smiled. "I could go for that. And see where it goes from there?"
"Works for me," he said. "You never know, it might even be fun."
"I'm sure between the two of us, we'll think of a way to make it fun," Mai replied.
She slipped her hand into his, and together they stepped out of the hotel.
The next morning, a great number of duelists, corporate sponsors, commentators, reporters, and of course, Pegasus himself, gathered in the lobby of the arena where the tryouts were being held. Lewis Whelton was conspicuous by his absence; he had phoned in saying that he was suffering from a migraine and unfortunately not be attending. Jonouchi had made commiserating noises when the announcement was made, and Mai had said blandly, "That's too bad. I sort of liked him."
Preparations for the main event were causing a certain amount of commotion, as everyone tried to sort out where they were supposed to be and what they should be doing. In the midst of the confusion, Pegasus slipped over to where Jonouchi and Mai were standing.
"Good morning," he said in his singsong fashion. "Are you enjoying the festivities so far?"
"Yeah, sure, fine," said Jonouchi. "I'll be having more fun when the dueling starts."
"Spoken like a true duelist," said Pegasus. "You don't care much for social functions, do you? I couldn't help but notice you left the party early last night."
"I had a little errand to run," said Jonouchi. "Favor for a friend. Wanted me to pick up some photos for him."
"I see. I hope that didn't take too long."
"Well, the guy on the staff was kinda cranky and didn't want to give them up, but we talked him into it," said Jonouchi cheerfully.
"So glad to hear it," said Pegasus. He gave Jonouchi a sidelong look. "You had me worried for a while, you know?"
"Aw, have a little more faith in me," said Jonouchi. "You knew I wasn't going to let you down. You owe me a favor, by the way."
"Consider yourself owed," said Pegasus. "So, are you all ready for the games today? Would you prefer to be more towards the front of the pack, or save your trials until the end of the day when you've had more of a chance to see what your competition is like?"
"I'd rather start now, while I'm feeling fresh," said Mai. With a sly look, she added, "Jonouchi took me to a hotel last night, so I'm a little bit short on sleep."
Jonouchi pressed a hand to his face, but Pegasus merely raised an eyebrow, clearly not ready to take her at face value.
"Is that so?" he asked mildly. "How lucky for you, I'm sure. Very well, then. I will see to it that you are moved to the front of the line. How about you, Mr. Jonouchi? Are you feeling ambitious today?"
"Sure, why not?" he replied.
"Excellent," said Pegasus. "Then you can both report to the arena to be our opening act."
He walked away. Jonouchi and Mai looked at each other.
"Well, this oughta be fun," said Jonouchi.
Mai smiled. "Sounds good to me."
"Go easy on me?" asked Jonouchi, giving her his best boyish grin.
"Not a chance, Blondie."
"Good," he said. "I'd hate to think I was gettin' in on favoritism."
"You'd better not go easy one me, either."
"Wouldn't dream of it," he said.
Then, together, they walked into the arena.