Mai looked up at the front of the building, with its faux-Egyptian facade and the fake palm trees flanking the entrance, and thought, Well, it's not the Luxor, but I suppose it will do.
The neighborhood was nothing to write home about, either. The street was run-down, housing a variety of grubby bars, tawdry clubs, grungy shops, and disreputable casinos. This place didn't look a whole lot less tacky, but it was newer and cleaner, which counted for something.
Then again, the Luxor had animatronic camels, and she was in no condition to be picky. The last five places she had applied for work had given her their polite regrets and hustled her out the door. At least the Pyramid Scheme had been interested enough in her resume to call her in for an interview. Even if they were just a knockoff of a better casino, and might fold just a few months after they'd opened, they still might keep her solvent long enough to find something better.
She stepped through the front doors, beneath the heiroglyph-strewn archway that spanned them, and into the dimly lit entryway. It had been painted to look like the inside of an Egyptian tomb, complete with profiles of gods and kings strolling amid the ankhs and eyes of Wadjet. Mai did a double-take. Some of the people on the walls appeared to be eating hamburgers or drinking ice cream floats. One row of priestesses appeared to be demonstrating the moves to the Macarena. Mai smiled a little.
At least they have a sense of humor here, she thought.
Two men in elaborate costume armor stepped forwards, blocking the door to the inner rooms. They were not particularly big men, but their stern faces and piercing eyes suggested that they didn't need to be muscular brutes to make a troublemaker very sorry.
"I'm sorry," said one. "The casino isn't open yet. Please come back later."
"I'm Mai Kujaku - I'm supposed to have a ten o'clock appointment for a job interview," she replied. "I'm supposed to ask for a Mr. Jonouchi."
"Ah," said the man. "Wait here, please. I will see if he's available."
He disappeared through the doorway. As the double doors swung open, Mai caught a brief snatch of noise - people talking and laughing, a few bars of upbeat music. Someone was having fun in there. Then the door swung shut and left her alone with the... guard? She couldn't easily think of him as a bouncer when he was dressed like that.
She hadn't been standing there long when the second guard returned again, accompanied by a young man in blue jeans and a faded T-shirt. He had broad shoulders, a broad grin, slightly shaggy blond hair, and all the cheerful exuberance of a Golden Retriever.
"Hey there," he said, offering her a hand. "Katsuya Jonouchi - I'm the general manager here. You must be Miss Kujaku."
She gave his hand a brief shake. His hand was strong and callused. Whatever he had going here, he'd worked for it.
"Pleasure to meet you," she said, as she released his hand. She eyed him up and down. "Sorry, but I was expecting someone a little more..."
"Formal?" He grinned. "Sorry. We're still in cleaning and prep mode right now. I haven't got my fancy duds on yet."
She attempted to imagine him in "fancy duds" like the armored pseudo-Egyptian soldiers were wearing and had to stifle a laugh. She tried imagining him in a suit. The image wasn't a great deal less silly.
"Well, I hope my outfit passes muster," she said. She knew the score on jobs like this: half of what they involved was looking good enough to distract the people playing cards into not thinking too hard about what they were playing. She was doing her best "professional" dress, in black pumps, a little black skirt, and tailored jacket worn open over one of her best filmy-little-bit-of-nothing tank tops. It was the sort of "professional" dress that was meant to inspire less-than-professional thoughts. She saw Jonouchi look her up and down with a grin.
"Not half bad," he admitted. "Come on. I'll show you around a bit, and then we can go back to the office and talk business."
She nodded. "Sounds fair. Lead the way."
She led him into the main room of the casino. In keeping with the outer areas, the walls were lined with more pillars etched with hieroglyphics mixed with random typographical symbols, and paintings of Egyptians eating pizza or bobbing their heads while listening to pocket MP3 players. The slot machines all had some sort of desert theme, and even the card tables had been made or covered with the same fake stone used for the pillars and arches. Jonouchi led her past all this towards the back of the building, where there was a bar and dining area facing a stage. The bar was framed with plastic palm trees and - she watched a moment to make sure - a pair of animatronic camels. A glance upwards showed her not only a variety of colored lights, but also a complicated series of rigs that would allow performers to put on their acts high above their audience's heads.
"Quite a place you have here," she remarked, impressed in spite of herself. It was over the top, it was cheesy, and yet there was something strangely endearing about its ebullience.
"Yeah. We really wanted it to be the kind of place where people could forget their troubles for a while and have a good time, you know? Someplace you don't have to put on a lot of airs," said Jonouchi. "Think we got it right?"
She nodded slowly. "I think you might just have it."
"Awesome," he said. "We're still pretty new in these parts, you know, but we've got big plans. Eventually we're hoping to partner up with some other people we know and try to get this whole street revitalized."
"I wondered why you lot decided to set up shop in a place like this," she remarked.
"Hey, don't knock it. We've already got investors lined up," said Jonouchi. He led her past a curtain at the back of the room, which obscured a lot of sound and light equipment and a door marked "Employees Only." It led to a small, cluttered office, crammed mostly with surveillance equipment. Jonouchi sat down behind a desk and gestured for her to take a seat in the only other chair. It creaked when she rested her weight on it.
"So, anyway," said Jonouchi, "the guy behind all this commotion is Yugi Mutou - you'll meet him later. I'm the guy in charge of this place, though, so I'll be conducting your interview. Not that I have a lot of doubts about you."
She smiled a little. Suddenly financial stability was sounding like a genuine option.
"So it says here that you've got a lot of experience as a dealer," he said, settling comfortably into his chair.
Mai nodded. "Cruise ships, mostly. The kind where they sail out of territorial waters so everyone can gamble legally."
"Gotcha," said Jonouchi. "Anything you feel like you're specially good at?"
"I have the most experience at blackjack," she said, "but I've done a little of everything. I've even dealt in a few poker tournaments." This was all on her resume, of course, but presumably he wanted to hear her say it.
"Yeah, I saw you had the training for it," he said, glancing briefly down at her papers. "How did that go?"
"Surprisingly smoothly, considering they asked me to do it in a bikini." She shrugged. "Cruise ships. What can you do?"
He grinned. "Sorry I missed it." He sat back in his chair, going businesslike. "So, what would you have done if it hadn't gone smoothly?"
She raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"
"Well, say for example, what would you do if someone accused you of not shuffling the cards right - stacking the deck in favor of one of the other players?"
Mai answered the question as well as she could - that, and the ones that followed. For all his playful manner, Jonouchi clearly knew his business. He drilled her mercilessly, asking for her reactions to various scenarios, plumbing the depths of her knowledge on a variety of games. At last, he seemed satisfied.
"I gotta admit, you know your stuff," he said. "Tell you what, let's go out on the floor and play a hand or two."
She had no objections, so he escorted her out to one of the blackjack tables and handed her a fresh deck of cards.
"Pretend I'm a customer," he said. "Show me what you've got."
She nodded and began shuffling the deck. She knew all the tricks to make it look impressive, and she executed them one after the other with the elan of a seasoned performer. She plastered on her most winning smile and slipped easily into her old patter, flirting and posing, doing everything she could to make herself a distraction, taking her opponent's mind off the game even as she focused everything she could on her own. It was a juggling act she had mastered years ago, and now it came as easily as breathing. Sometimes it was even fun. By the end of the shoe, she had relaxed, and Jonouchi was grinning despite the fact that he'd lost by a substantial margin.
"I've gotta hand it to ya," he said. "You've definitely got the skills."
She smiled smugly. "I could have told you that."
"Well, I had to check," he answered. He glanced over her resume again. "You've got the experience, and you've got the practical skills... just one more thing I want to know."
"Oh?" she asked.
"Why did you leave your last job?"
There it was - the question she didn't want to answer. She stifled a sigh.
"I assaulted a patron," she admitted.
Jonouchi's eyebrows rose. "How did that happen?"
"He put his hand up my skirt," she said, "so I broke his wrist."
To her surprise, Jonouchi laughed. "Good for you!"
"You think so?" she asked.
"Hey, I won't lie to you. This is a rough neighborhood, and sometimes the patrons get a little rowdy," said Jonouchi, "but we don't put up with people trying to get handsy with the staff. Some guy tries to play grab-ass with you, you do what you gotta do to get him to back off. We got security cameras all over the damn place. If they back you up, so will we."
She smiled, relieved. "Sounds good."
He smiled back. "Sounds like you're going to work out just fine. I'll get you some forms to fill out and a copy of the staff handbook. Welcome to the team."
She emerged from the casino later with an armload of paperwork and mixed emotions. She had a job, and that was good. She had to keep that at the forefront of her mind - that she was now assured of having enough money to pay her rent and keep food on the table. She had not even had to resort to flipping burgers or managing a cash register, and that was also good. She liked casinos, in a strange way. They had a sense of promise to them, a suggestion that if you stayed there long enough, you could make all your dreams come true. All it would take is the turn of the right card.
She had dreamed of winning big, once. It was a pleasant fantasy that got her through the day. It would be nice to not have to rely on the tips she earned to get her through the month, nice to never have to worry again about where she was going to find another job. Being rich would have been nice, but she would have settled for being secure. Most of all, she would have liked to be independent, her own boss, doing something that brought her enough money that she wouldn't have to rely on anyone else.
But at least she didn't have anything to worry about tonight. She smiled a little as she let herself into her apartment. Heck, maybe she'd splurge and buy something really decadent tonight, like Chinese takeout.
Ah, well, she thought, it's a living.
It was a fairly slow evening, and Mai was taking advantage of a little downtime to do some people watching. She had been working the day shift, and soon enough she'd be able to go home and soak her feet, but for now, she was enjoying the chance to relax a while and check out some of the odd characters who had drifted in.
For example, the man who had just come in. He was dressed in form-fitting black leather pants, with matching black boots, and a red silk shirt worn open enough to showcase the glitzy gold bangle he wore around his neck. Not everyone could have pulled off that look, but he had the build to manage it. He had a tan that didn't look like it came out of a spray can, wild pale hair, and a jagged scar running across one eye. All in all, despite his expensive clothes, he put her in mind of an alley cat - the kind with one ear, half a tail, and claw tracks across his nose, who was nevertheless the undisputed ruler of his street. The blend was oddly attractive, and she kept half an eye on him while she pretended to be looking elsewhere.
Jonouchi ambled over, carrying a glass of something pink and fizzy with a cherry on its surface.
"Thought you might be getting a little dry over here," he said, offering it to her.
She picked it up and contemplated it with wry amusement. "I thought there was a strict no-alcohol-on-the-job policy."
"It's soda and grenadine," he said, grinning. "Figured you deserved something better than plain old water."
"How kind of you," she said. She took a sip. It was cold and sweet, and made her realize just how thirsty she'd been getting.
"Actually, I have an ulterior motive," Jonouchi said. "I wanted to ask you something."
"Sorry, I have to wash my hair that night."
He rolled his eyes. "Nice to know what you think of me, but that's not what I was gonna ask."
"Okay, what's on your mind?"
"I need you to pull a double shift tonight," he said.
"Not on your life, buster."
Jonouchi ran a hand through his hair. "Look, I know you're tired and I'm really sorry about this, but we caught the new guy with his hand in the till last night, and another dealer called in sick, and I'm having trouble finding people to cover the shifts. You're one of the best we've got working for us right now, so I know you can do this."
"Flattery will get you nowhere," she said, but her heart wasn't really in it.
"I'll give you an extra day off next week," he promised, "and a voucher for a free meal tonight - whatever you want. You can take an hour to kick back, enjoy a steak, watch the show."
She weighed her options. She supposed it wouldn't kill her to pull a double shift, and an extra day off next week would give her a little more time to catch up on some errands she'd been putting off, or maybe just a day to lounge around her apartment. A free dinner would be nice, too, especially if there were no limits on what she ordered. It wasn't every day someone offered her a free steak dinner that didn't have amorous expectations attached.
"All right, you talked me into it," she said.
He beamed. "Awesome. I'll owe you one for this, Mai."
She smiled back. "I'll remember that."
She became aware of a few things just then. One was that Jonouchi was giving her a measuring look that suggested he was thinking of moving this conversation to a more personal level. She wanted to head him off before that happened. He was nice enough, and undeniably attractive, she wasn't ready for the complications that dating her supervisor would bring on. The other thing she noticed was that he wasn't the only person watching her. That was as good a distraction as any.
"By the way," she said, pointing over Jonouchi's shoulder, "who is that guy?"
"Huh?" said Jonouchi, train of thought clearly derailed. He looked back to where the man with the scarred face was leaning over a roulette wheel. Mai saw him glance quickly away when Jonouchi turned towards him. "Oh, him. He's called Bakura - he's a regular. He's no trouble. He just comes in, plays a few games, orders dinner, watches the show a while, and then leaves. I don't think anyone here has heard him say more than a dozen words to them."
"Hm," she said. She glanced at the clock. "Oh, well. My shift is ending, so about that dinner voucher..."
"Right," said Jonouchi, looking put out.
A few minutes later, she was sitting comfortably at a table, enjoying the best meal she'd had in a while. She thought she wouldn't mind working more double shifts in the future if it came with perks like this. The show wasn't bad either. Just now, The Magical Mahaado and Mana were running through their routine, making things appear and vanish or float in the air or turn into other things. They were good enough to play somewhere better than this, she thought, as she watched them pull off one illusion after another to the accompaniment of enthusiastic applause.
She was so intent on the show that she didn't see Bakura approaching until he'd sat down across from her. She glared at him.
"I didn't say you could sit there," she said.
He smiled at her. It was not an entirely friendly smile. "You aren't using it."
"I'm not using my car right this minute either, but that doesn't mean you're allowed to drive it," she retorted.
"Clever," he said. "You did strike me as a woman with a sharp mind."
"Uh-huh," she said skeptically. "And I'm sure it's my mind you're interested in, right?"
"You'd be surprised what I'm interested in," Bakura replied.
"I doubt it seriously," Mai replied.
"Now, why the negative attitude?" he asked. "You don't even know what I want, yet."
"I can guess," she said. "Your type are always interested in the same thing."
"Well, put your mind at ease," he said, looking highly amused. "Whatever virtue you have is safe from me."
She gave him a skeptical look. "Really."
"Yes, really," he answered. "Let's start at the beginning. You can call me Bakura. And you are?"
"Mai Kujaku. Listen, what's this all about?" she asked.
He didn't answer her right away. His gaze was fixed on the stage, watching the show without appearing to really see it.
"People love illusions, don't they?" he remarked. "Show them something shiny and they'll throw everything they have at it without ever caring that it's not real." He turned to look at her, his gaze knowing. "You know what I'm saying, don't you?"
"What makes you say that?" she asked.
He smiled. "Your remarks about men, for one thing."
"Can you blame me?" she asked.
"Not really," he said. "True Love is the biggest illusion of them all."
"You might be right," she said. "Sometimes I think it's just something men say to get women to sleep with them."
"And vice-versa," said Bakura. "I thought you'd understand. And that's what I wanted to talk to you about. How would you like a job?"
"I have a job," she said.
"A second job," he elaborated. "Something you can do that will only take a couple of hours a week."
"Does it pay well?" she asked.
"Possibly," he said. "What would you buy if you had some spare cash?"
"Oh, I don't know," she said. "A microwave that wasn't made in the stone ages?"
"Too practical," he said dismissively. "Try again. What would you buy if money were no longer an issue and you could get whatever you wanted without worrying?"
She laughed, a little bitterly. "Oh, the usual - dresses and jewels and perfume and shoes."
Bakura smiled. Apparently that was the right answer.
"Then this is my proposal," he said. "I'm looking to hire an escort."
She glared at him. "Haven't I already made myself clear? You want an escort, there are places where you can hire them by the hour. I don't work there."
"Not that kind of escort," he replied, his expression amused. "I'll explain. I'm a businessman. I own a number of businesses in the area, and I have to attend a lot of social events with other businessmen. A beautiful woman is an essential accessory. It's awkward talking to couples when I'm alone. Having a woman with me makes me less of a threat - it puts people at ease. I could hire a paid companion, but that doesn't make the right impression, especially when some of the people I'm meeting have probably hired the same women at some point. I don't want people thinking that I can't get a woman to spend time with me unless I pay her. It looks bad. On the other hand, if I do pick up a woman and start spending time with her regularly, I run the risk of her getting romantic ideas. What I'm looking for is... an independent contractor."
She raised her eyebrow. "And you're offering to hire me?"
"Exactly," he said. "It would be strictly a business arrangement. You show up, cling to my arm, smile, make pleasant conversation, and then you go home. In exchange, I give you the dresses and jewels and perfumes and everything else you need to blend into the crowd, and a little something extra for your time."
"It sounds too good to be true," she said.
"If you don't want the job, I can ask someone else," he said.
She frowned. "You're sure this isn't just some big leadup to trying to get me into your bed?"
"As I said, it would be strictly business," he replied. "I'm asking you because you've made it clear you aren't going to try to rope me into a romance. Not many women are so sensible. That makes you valuable, and I'm willing to pay for that kind of value. That's all. I don't even care if you decide to see other people at the same time. It wouldn't mean anything to me."
"I see," she said slowly. "I'd have to think about it."
"Think all you like," he said. "I'll be around."
He began to stand up.
"Wait," she said. "If I try it and don't like it, can I quit?"
"I think I can manage something on a case-by-case basis," he said. He considered. "I have a cocktail party to attend next Thursday night. You can have a trial run."
"A trial run," she repeated. "Fine."
He looked pleased, even smug. "Excellent."
He took out a pad of paper and scribbled something on it before ripping off a sheet and passing it to her. She studied it, trying to make out what he'd written in the dim light.
"This is my number and address," he said casually, "and the number and address of my personal stylist. She'll provide you with everything you need. Meet me outside my building next Thursday at eight."
"Why do I have to meet you there?" she asked, a little annoyed at simply being summoned so brusquely.
"Would you rather I came to your house?"
She considered that idea. She tried to imagine him outside her dingy apartment building, or worse yet, getting a glimpse inside her rooms. She doubted they would pass muster for a man who could pay for the things he was offering without any apparent hesitation.
"Not really," she admitted.
"Good," he said. "See you Thursday."
He walked off, leaving her looking at the paper in her hands.
Well, that was weird, she thought.
Her first instinct was the ball the paper up and throw it away. There was no way this man was sane, or trustworthy. Even if he was, she was not sure she really wanted to be in the position he was offering her. No one just gave a woman things like that just for the pleasure of using her as an accessory, did he?
Then again, he might actually be telling the truth. She was savvy enough to know what a high-level paid companion could cost. Buying outfits for Mai to wear might actually be cheaper in the long run than hiring that other sort of "escort". And maybe a wealthy and attractive man like him did have trouble with women trying to manipulate him into matrimony. If he did, she could sympathize a bit. If that was the case, what harm could it do to humor him for a while?
Who knows? she thought. Maybe it will even be fun.
In the meantime, though, she still had another job to attend to. With a week and a half between her and her appointment with Bakura, her worries subsided beneath the waves of other things that needed tending to. After a few days of settling in, she had found that she actually liked working at the Pyramid Scheme. It might not have been the classiest venue she'd ever worked, but for a friendly, relaxed atmosphere, she couldn't think of anywhere better. Yugi Mutou, who owned the place, was a clever operator, shrewd without being ruthless. He was clearly determined to make a go of his business, but not by cheating or exploiting his employees, and the rest of the staff took their cues from him. Sometimes when things were particularly hectic or the casino was shorthanded, he'd come in and act as a dealer himself.
It wasn't often Mai worked directly with him, though. Most of her day to day interactions were with Jonouchi. She was, in fact, beginning to develop a suspicion that he was fostering a crush on her. He often found excuses to drop by her table and chat with her during slow moments, to bring her coffee or bottled water, or to sit with her during the rare moments when their breaks intersected. Once he even invited her to join him and several other members of the staff for pizza. Since he was never pushy or crude about his flirtations, she allowed them to continue. After all, he was good company and reasonably attractive, and it made the time pass more quickly. She had already made up her mind, though, that it was not going to go any further than flirting and teasing. No matter how nice he seemed, the last thing she wanted was to make things complicated with her boss.
She did, however, visit Bakura's stylist. The stylist turned out to be a wizened woman with her hair done up in a prim bun and old-maidish spectacles on her hooked nose. Mai thought that if you painted her green, she'd have made a marvelous Wicked Witch of the West. Oddly, she found this reassuring. It was hard to imagine a woman who looked like she was inches from rapping your knuckles with a ruler being involved in anything disreputable. Mai was content to let her measure her from a variety of directions and hold swatches of various fabrics up to see which would best compliment her coloring. She left with a promise that a gown and suitable accessories would be delivered to her home the day before her appointment, and on each day before any subsequent appointments so that there would be time for last-minute alterations. All of this happened with such brisk efficiency that Mai got the impression it had probably happened many times before.
So, this really is all routine for him, she thought. I wonder what it is he does that makes it worth all this? He never did say.
She made up her mind to ask him as soon as she saw him again. She wasn't about to get involved in anything illegal, no matter how much she stood to gain by it.
The party had gone smoothly. For the first time in her life, rather than being on the sidelines, Mai had been allowed to mingle with the upper crust as though she were part of it, and she reveled in the experience. She was amazed how easily she fit in with the crowd; a lifetime of watching other people with money had given her a good idea of how they acted. She doubted anyone could guess that she hadn't been born to a life of wealth and privilege.
If anything, she fit in better than Bakura did. Anyone could tell he had money - his clothes, his jewelry, his cologne all screamed it - but his behavior told another story. Where everyone else spoke in polite tones, he was blunt, even coarse. He moved with his alley-cat swagger, so that people moved out of his way as he approached, looking faintly uneasy. He seemed to enjoy their discomfiture. She wondered why they let him get away with it. Clearly, she decided, money made up for a lot of shortcomings.
Then again, perhaps he livened up their evening. Against their placid backdrop, he stood out like a bonfire in a dark night. It was hard for her to take her eyes off him.
Not that he was making any effort to be quiet and unobtrusive. He slipped away from her side several times, collaring various people and engaging them in conversation - if "conversation" was the right word. Mai didn't get close enough to hear whatever he was hectoring them about, but it sounded as though he was provoking them into arguments. From what little she could catch, it sounded like they were arguing about business and money matters, and he didn't like what he was hearing. Mai decided it was his problem and of no interest to her, so she tuned it all out.
She did her job as well as she could, laughing and chatting, offering mild flirtations, generally making herself agreeable. When she began to tire of those games, Bakura suggested that they step outside for a moment. He led her out onto a balcony, where a pair of potted plants gave them a measure of privacy, and the fresh night breeze could restore her energy.
"So," said Bakura, "what do you think of the best and the brightest?"
"It surprises me that they let you into these shindigs," she said honestly.
He laughed. "They let me in because they know which side their bread is buttered on. They know they need to keep me happy."
"What is it you do?" she asked.
"I told you, I'm a businessman. An investor," he said. "I own a long string of businesses in this town - restaurants, clubs, casinos, whatever will turn a profit. I can buy and sell anyone in this room if I want to."
"So that's why you hang around the Pyramid Scheme so much," she said, nodding. "Checking out the competition?"
He nodded. "It doesn't hurt." He gave her a considering look. "I suppose now you're going to get all high and mighty and start talking about conflict of interest?"
She shrugged. "I don't see why I should. It's not like going out with you is doing the Pyramid Scheme any harm. It's not like you're asking me for company secrets. I don't even know any company secrets."
"Sensible," he said.
"A girl does what she has to do to get by," said Mai. She leaned on the railing, looking out into the night. There was enough of a moon out that she could see glimmers of the garden that the balcony overlooked.
"Spoken like a woman who's led a hard life," said Bakura. She wondered if that might have almost been a note of sympathy in his rough voice.
"Like I said, I get by. My parents died when I was pretty young, so I've always kind of looked after myself," she said. "I mostly worked cruise ships and casinos as a dealer. I've spent my whole life putting up with people who have money and think they can use it to get what they want from me. I keep telling myself someday I'm going to have the things I want without having to rely on someone else to get them."
He raised an eyebrow. "And where do I fit into that equation?"
"You're a special case," she said. "At least you understand there are some things you can't buy from me."
"Good to know," he said. He leaned on the railing next to her. "Actually, I understand where you're coming from."
"You mean you weren't born with a silver spoon in your mouth?" she asked, quirking an eyebrow. "I never would have guessed."
He laughed. "I have to work with those fools. That doesn't mean I have to act like them. I was born in a slum, and I'm not going to pretend otherwise."
"How did you get from there to here?" she asked.
"The usual rags-to-riches story," he answered with a shrug. "My parents were drug dealers. Nearly everyone on the street was, or something just as bad. The police made a raid one night. I heard the commotion and hid. There was a loose panel in the wall of our apartment where my parents kept some of our valuables. I was just small enough to crawl into it. The police took my parents and nearly everyone else I knew. I waited there all night and into the next day, until I was too hungry and thirsty to stay put any longer. Then I took everything in the cubbyhole, took it to the pawn shop and pawned it, and I took the money and struck out on my own." His eyes flashed. "I made up my mind that I was never going to live like that ever again."
"Well, it sounds like you made good on your promise," she said. "You ought to write a book."
He smiled a little. "Maybe someday I will. But not yet. I still have a lot more I want to accomplish."
"Well, I bet you're going to do it," she said.
"Of course I will," he said. "You just watch me."
There was a tap on the glass doors of the balcony. "Mr. Bakura? A word with you?"
Bakura straightened up. "Duty calls," he said, and departed without a backwards glance.
Mai stayed where she was. Well, that explained a few things about her new companion. In truth, it gave her a lot of sympathy. She knew how hard it was to grow up with no parents and to have to fend for oneself. It was impressive that he'd managed to get where he was now from a beginning like that.
More than I've managed, she thought. Maybe he'll give me some pointers.
They left the party at a nicely timed moment, being neither the first nor the last to depart. As the car pulled up in front of Bakura's elegant townhouse, he said, "So, do I pass muster?"
"Hm?" she asked. She had been looking out the window, lost in thought.
"This was a test drive, right?" he asked her. "You're deciding whether or not you're going to keep the job."
"No," she said. "I mean, yes. I'm not still making up my mind - I'm going to stay."
"Good," he replied. "I knew you were a sensible woman."
He slid out of his seat, and Mai watched him, thinking that had this been an actual date, this would have been the point where he'd try to kiss her. Instead, he simply reached into his pocket, took out his checkbook, and wrote out a check.
"Your payment for the evening," he said. "So long. It's been fun."
Then he turned and walked into his house without another word.
Mai was in the breakroom, learning to do things with rope.
It had been mostly Mana's idea. Mai had learned over the course of the past few months at the Pyramid Scheme that while Mahaado was the one who planned all the tricks and designed all the props, it was mostly Mana's skills that the performances relied on. She was stronger than she looked, extremely flexible and agile, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of knots, with the end result being that there were few constraints she could not find her way out of. Mai liked Mana. It was refreshing to spend time around someone who apparently didn't know or care that a willingness to be tied up and an ability to bend herself into almost any contortion she cared to and stay there as long as she liked could be used for anything other than to perform escape tricks.
Also, she was a chatterbox. Her teacher was a solemn man who rarely said anything unless he felt it was important, but Mana was more than happy to talk about anything Mai wanted to talk about. When Mai had expressed casual interest in Mana's ability to wiggle free of even the most secure knots, Mana had been only too happy to rush off and grab a few so she could demonstrate.
That was why when Jonouchi walked into the breakroom, he found Mai standing with her wrists tied together. He grinned.
"Hey, is this a private party, or can anyone join?" he asked, laughing.
Mai gave him a tolerant look. "Pig." She performed the twist and flick Mana had taught her, and the ropes fell off. Mana clapped appreciatively.
"Nice trick," said Jonouchi. "Planning on pursuing a career on stage?"
"Not if I have to wear those costumes," said Mai.
"I like my costume," Mana protested.
"Mind if I interrupt, then?" said Jonouchi. "There's a guy I want to introduce you to."
"You'd better not be playing matchmaker," said Mai, as she set aside the rope and prepared to follow him.
"Wouldn't dream of it," said Jonouchi. "Come on. He's waiting."
The man lingering outside the breakroom door was a good-looking man, with flawless fair skin and raven-black hair caught up into a ponytail in back and falling enticingly over his eyes in front. After a while, she guessed he was here on some sort of business. The dice on a chain that dangled from his ear suggested that he was more than just a casual gamer. When Jonouchi walked up to him, the two greeted each other with the ease of long familiarity.
"Sorry to keep you waiting. You should have seen what was going on in there," Jonouchi said. "Otogi, this is Mai, one of our best dealers. Mai, this is Ryuuji Otogi. He's an old school friend of Yugi and me."
"Charmed," she said, offering him a small smile.
Otogi beamed back at her and shook her hand before glancing back to Jonouchi. "Boy, you sure know how to pick 'em here."
Jonouchi raised his chin. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Geez, you must be blind," said Otogi, shaking his head mock-sadly. "Well, if you don't want her, I'll take her... unless, that is, your cute little sister is still single."
Mai raised an eyebrow. "I notice you didn't ask if I was single. Are you implying I'm not good enough to find a man on my own?"
Otogi laughed. "You're sharp. I like that."
"Better be careful," Jonouchi warned. "Mai's a professional. She's not here to pick up dates." He sighed dramatically. "Believe me, I've tried."
"Maybe she just doesn't like you," Otogi teased. He turned back to Mai, giving her a friendly smile. "Anyway, don't mind us. I just like to ruffle his feathers."
"He's an incorrigible flirt," said Jonouchi. Apparently he wasn't too pleased with the teasing about his sister.
"You're just jealous I get more women than you do," said Otogi, tossing his hair. "Anyway, Yugi and I are going into business together, so you're probably going to be seeing me around."
"Are you going to be working here?" Mai asked guardedly. She'd gotten used to Jonouchi flirting with her, even liked it sometimes, but there was such a thing as too much attention.
"Sadly, no," said Otogi with a dramatic sigh. "Yugi and I are putting in the money to buy the place across the street, and I'm going to be running it. So if you're looking for a classier venue, I'm sure I could find you a place." He winked.
"I don't think so," she said. "I've just gotten used to this place."
"Well, let me know if you change your mind," said Otogi.
He and Jonouchi ambled off in the direction of the bar, where they struck up a chat with Honda, the head bartender. From the scraps of conversation that drifted over, Mai got the impression that Otogi and Honda were rivals for the affection of the previously mentioned little sister, and that teasing each other and Jonouchi about it was a long-running tradition.
Boys, she thought, with a mixture of amusement and exasperation. Why couldn't men be sensible about women? Inevitably, her thoughts drifted to Bakura, who joked with her in his dry way but never attempted to flirt, much less push himself at her. It was such a relief, sometimes, to spend time around a man who treated her like, if not an equal, since he never treated anyone like his equal, then at least as a valuable colleague.
As if her thoughts had summoned him, she found him at her usual blackjack table, apparently waiting for her.
"I see you've met Otogi," he said.
"You know him?" she asked.
Bakura waved a hand. "We've seen each other around. We move in some of the same circles."
"You don't like him," Mai guessed.
Bakura barked a laugh. "I don't like anybody. You know that. If it comes to that, do you like him?"
"Not particularly," said Mai with a shrug. "He's a flirt. Seems harmless enough. Not really my type. I can't get my head around the idea of a man who wears as much makeup as I do."
Bakura laughed again. "He's vain as a peacock. I'd be disappointed in you if you were impressed by him." Slyly, he added, "Your blond friend is jealous."
"You think so?" Mai asked.
Bakura nodded. "He's interested in you, and he doesn't care much for competition."
"Well, it doesn't make any difference," said Mai. "He's not getting anywhere with me."
"You should be careful," said Bakura. "He is your supervisor, after all. He has power over you. You know what men in power do to the women beneath them."
Mai frowned a little. She knew that all too well. She'd always been cunning when it came to avoiding getting trapped, and had generally been willing to cut and run rather than leave herself open to that sort of manipulation, but she'd seen other women who didn't have the leisure to pack up and go somewhere else. The ones who couldn't afford to lose their jobs were the ones who had no choice but to do anything to keep them, and if it came to "Sleep with me or be fired"...
"Jonouchi's not like that," said Mai.
Bakura gave her a disappointed look. "I thought you were smarter than that, Mai. Didn't you tell me yourself that all men are after only one thing? What makes you think he's different? Maybe he's been easy on you while he had no competition. Now that he's got someone he thinks is a rival, who knows what he'll do?"
"Well, he hasn't done anything yet," said Mai, "and if he does, I think I can handle it."
"Suit yourself," said Bakura. "Just remember, you know where to find me. Are you free on Sunday night?"
"Good. I'll send for you then. Take care of yourself."
He ambled off again, mingling with the other players in the room and disappearing into the crowd. She watched him go with mixed feelings. Part of that was annoyance - what business did he have, meddling in her life that way? Didn't he think she could take care of herself? It wasn't as though she hadn't been dealing with flirts all her life, not to mention men who wanted to do more than flirt. She certainly didn't need his help to fend them off. Besides, his suspicions were surely groundless, weren't they? Jonouchi liked to flirt with her, but it was always in a laughing sort of way that came off as more of a compliment than an imposition. He made it clear that he was attracted to her, and would have been thrilled if she responded in kind, but that he didn't mind simply being friends with her. He was always quick to back down as soon as she'd let him know she was tired of his teasing.
Still, a treacherous little part of her mind whispered, what if Bakura was right? It surely wouldn't be the first time a man had come off as simply wanting to be friends, only to turn angry and hostile when his apparently "friendly" gestures had not resulted in invitations to her bedroom. Maybe she had been getting overconfident. Bakura could have been quite right in reminding her to watch her step.
And really, as long as she wasn't wasteful with her money, she didn't even need the Pyramid Scheme. The payments Bakura gave her were enough to give her a comfortable life, in and of themselves. She had already had to turn down a few of his invitations because her work schedule got in the way and she couldn't find anyone who would cover for her, so if she quit working here she might end up making even more than she already did. Working for him full time would give her a lot more freedom for doing the things she wanted to do. If she managed her pennies carefully, maybe sold a few of the gifts he'd given her, she might even be able to scrape together the capital to open a business of her own. The idea of having a pleasant little boutique someplace well away from here appealed to her. That was what she really wanted, after all - not to work for Yugi or Bakura or anyone else, but to live her own life without having to rely on the whims of other people. Bakura would get her there a lot faster than working at the Pyramid Scheme would.
And maybe that was what he wanted her to do, at least so far as leaving the casino was concerned. Bakura was a businessman, after all. It only made sense that he wouldn't want to share what he saw as a valuable resource. If he could pry her away from her other job so he could have her exclusively available to her, it did him no harm to point out that the situation could be as beneficial to her as it was to him.
Or maybe he really is worried about me.
She turned that thought over in her mind. It was really very hard for her to tell what Bakura was thinking sometimes. There were moments like that night on the balcony where he would open up and share his thoughts and even personal feelings and memories with her. Then he would just as abruptly shut down and close her out as though he'd forgotten she was there. It could be maddening. Sometimes she found his indifference soothing - just as she'd been thinking earlier, it was relaxing not to have to fend off amorous approaches every minute of the day.
Sometimes, though, she wished that he would treat her, well... more like the people at the Pyramid Scheme did. They really did make her feel like she was part of a family, maybe for the first time in her life. She enjoyed having girl talk with Mana, or with Anzu, who coordinated the nightly performances and who appeared to be Yugi's sweetheart, or with Isis, the beautiful Egyptian woman who appeared to predict the future to the delight of the crowds. Honda the bartender was always happy to send her a cold drink when she needed it, or even when he just guessed she needed it. Even Shada and Karim, the two imposing men who acted as bouncers and who could reduce ne'er do wells to quivering jelly just by looking at them sternly, could always be counted on to turn up when she needed them to calm a rowdy patron. She felt like these people genuinely liked her. It wasn't as though she wanted Bakura to flirt with her the way Jonouchi did, but...
Well, maybe she did. She certainly had noticed, even from the very start, what an attractive man he was. There was something very appealing about that tomcat swagger of his, the way he radiated a sort of raw masculinity. She couldn't deny that it had crossed her mind, at least once or twice, what it might be like to get a little closer to him. Besides, there were times she actually liked him. When she could get him talking, he had intelligent things to say, and an acidic wit that amused her.
And I can't even tell him, she thought, annoyed. If she admitted to having any sort of feelings for him, he'd start to suspect that she was actually falling for him...
She shook her head hard, trying to clear her thoughts. The last thing she needed was to get emotionally tangled up with a man like him; it would only lead to bad things.
All right, Mai. You can do this. Keep a cool head. You remember how to do that, right? If you blow this gig now, you're going to be really sorry, so keep it together!
For a fleeting moment, it was tempting to just drop the whole thing, leave town, and go find a nice cruise line she could work on where no one who knew her here would ever find her. Then she sighed and regretfully set the idea aside. She was a big girl; she was going to deal with her own problems. And speaking of dealing...
"Hey, lady, this table open?" a voice asked.
Mai forcefully snapped herself back into the present and gave the man a bright smile.
"Of course! Just waiting for you to get here," she said, and began shuffling cards.
Mai worked the day shift on Sunday. That was usually an easy shift, since the crowds tended to be thinner during the day. She was in a good mood by the time she clocked out and prepared to go home and change.
"Where are you headed in such a hurry?" Jonouchi asked her. "Hang out a while. Soon as my shift is over me and Yugi and Anzu are going to grab dinner together at the Lighthouse. Want to come?"
"Sorry, can't," she replied. "I have a previous engagement."
Jonouchi's face darkened. "It's that Bakura guy, isn't it?"
"I don't see how that's any business of yours," she said haughtily.
"I don't know what you see in him," Jonouchi muttered. "The guy's a jerk."
"He's good company," she replied. "He's got intelligent things to say."
"He's nothing but trouble," Jonouchi insisted. "I'm telling you, Mai, there's something about that guy I don't like."
"I'll tell you what it is," she said. "You don't like him because he's spending time with me. You're jealous."
"I'm not jealous!" said Jonouchi, his voice rising to an indignant squeak. "I'm just... I'm trying to look out for you. You're our friend, and nobody wants anything to happen to you. I'm not the only one who's worried."
"Well, you have nothing to worry about," said Mai. "Bakura and I have a very honest relationship."
"Sounds romantic," he said sourly. "Look, your life is your business. I admit that. But if that guy gives you any trouble, you know who to come to, okay?"
"That's funny," she said. "He said almost the same thing to me about you."
"Me?" he repeated. "What did I do?"
"You have to admit, it's pretty sketchy for a boss to keep hitting on his employees," said Mai.
"I'm not..." Jonouchi began, and then deflated. "Okay, fine, I admit it. You're a gorgeous woman, and I like you. I wouldn't mind if there was something between us. But I'm your friend first, and I'm worried about you. Is that guy your friend?"
"I don't have to put up with this," she said, and walked out.
When she got home, she dressed slowly and thoughtfully. Normally the act of getting dressed for an outing would have relaxed her and raised her spirits, but today her mind remained troubled. She was quiet when she met Bakura at their usual place, and thoughtful as he led her into the restaurant that would be their nightly venue. When the other guests arrived - a wealthy banker and his wife - she attempted to rally herself and be the kind of engaging date Bakura expected. It was heavy going. Neither the banker nor his wife were particularly stimulating, and it would have been difficult to spark a lively conversation with them even if her thoughts hadn't been wandering. Even though the food was delicious and the wine was of the best quality, she didn't have much of an appetite for either. She didn't think Bakura had noticed, but when the banker's wife brought up the subject of dessert, Bakura said something about a headache and an early meeting tomorrow, and he paid their bill and escorted her out.
"You'd better not be planning to take this out of my check," she said lightly.
"I would have, if you had done something that embarrassed me in front of them," he answered. "What's wrong with you tonight?"
"Oh, I don't know," she said, deflating. She had hoped he wouldn't realize anything was troubling her.
He stopped on the sidewalk and glared at her, folding his arms across his chest. "Look, if there is a problem that's preventing you from doing what I've hired you to do, then I want to hear about it now, before it has time to really make headaches for me."
That's just what's annoying me, she wanted to say. Jonouchi's barb about Bakura not being her friend had stung, and hearing him talk about their business relationship didn't help. She sighed a little.
"Jonouchi was talking to me," she said.
"Ahh," said Bakura. He relaxed and almost smiled. A knowing expression crept into his eyes. "Let me guess. He's not happy about you being here tonight."
"No, he's not."
"And you're not either?"
"I don't know," she said.
Bakura frowned slightly. "Why not? Have I given you any reason to be unhappy? Haven't I given you everything I've promised you? Are you not being paid enough? Is the work unpleasant? Have I mistreated you in any way?"
"No, no, that's not it," she said, waving the questions away. She struggled to find words to express what she wanted to say without embarrassing herself. "Look, tell me I'm spoiled if you want, but at the Pyramid Scheme, we treat people with something more than just the bare social essentials."
"And I'm not as nice as they are," said Bakura. He looked amused. "So what do you want? Should I pretend to like you more than I do to make you happy? This is a business arrangement. It always was. You knew that. We never agreed to be friends. In fact, I seem to recall us having a conversation agreeing that when men say they want to be friends, what they mean is that they want into your bed. I thought that was why you spent time with me in the first place. Are you saying you want to have your cake and eat it too?"
"Well, why shouldn't I?" she retorted. "I don't think it's too much to ask to be treated decently by the one person I know for sure isn't doing it for ulterior motives?"
He shook his head sadly. "I really thought you were better than this. Listen to me, Mai Kujaku. Anyone who tells you that there is something special about friendship is wrong. They're telling themselves a fairy tale. When you get down to it, it's just another kind of business arrangement. You amuse them, and they repay you by doing things they think you'll like so you'll keep spending time with them. It's no different than what we're doing here - you amuse me, and I repay you. The only difference is that I pay you better for your efforts." He met her eyes gravely. "This is all there is. Get used to it."
He reached in his wallet and handed her the usual check, along with a handful of bills.
"That's for a taxi home," he said.
Mai knew a rebuff when she heard one. She snatched up the money and stalked off, seething. What made it worse was that she didn't know who she was more angry at - him, for dismissing her so casually, or herself for being foolish enough to think he would do anything else.
Maybe what was making her angriest was that she wasn't sure if he was right or not. She didn't want to believe it anymore. All right, so what if Jonouchi wanted to date her? There was no harm in that; she was prepared to believe that if she did take him up on his offers, he would do everything he could to make whatever they did together as pleasant for her as it was for him. But even if he was only angling for access to her bedroom, that still didn't explain everything else. What was Honda getting out of sending cold drinks to her when she was working hard? What did Shada and Karim get out of protecting her from unruly patrons with roving hands? What did Mahaado get out of chatting with her in the breakroom, doing card tricks and pulling silk flowers out of nowhere to make her smile on hard days? For that matter, what did Yugi get out of being kind to her? He already had a girlfriend - she'd even heard them talking vaguely, once or twice, about what they planned to do when they were married. Surely he didn't have designs on Mai. And then there was Anzu herself, and Mana and Isis, who had even less motive to be nice to her. As far as she knew, none of them were interested in women that way and two of them had boyfriends. And yet, all of these people had been kind to her, even when she was oftentimes aloof with them. Strange as it seemed to her, the most likely explanation seemed to be that they were unselfish people who cared about her because they were genuinely kind, and not because they expected anything from her in return.
She arrived home in a glum mood and went upstairs to change out of her glamorous dress. She had quite a collection of them now. Bakura had been as good as his word in that regard, and every new event had been accompanied by an entire matching ensemble, right down to the perfume he wanted her to wear. They were beautiful things, every one of them, and probably nothing she would have been able to afford to buy for herself on her Pyramid Scheme salary. She had enjoyed wearing them, at first. She still thought they were beautiful, but at the same time...
Somehow, when all this had started, she had thought that it would be something better, something cleaner and less demeaning than so many of the other things she could be doing to get money from men. She had thought that it would be a relief to spend time with someone she knew for a fact wasn't trying to use her for sex. So why did it feel like this was somehow more sordid than if she had agreed to be his mistress?
I feel like a piece of furniture, she thought. A sofa, maybe, or better yet, a dining room table - one that he could recover with a different table cloth and place settings depending on the occasion. If she had been his mistress, there would have been at least some implication that he found her desirable, that he at least preferred her to other women. The way things were now, she couldn't help but think he thought no more of her than he did of one of his neckties.
Guess this wasn't my best idea, She thought wryly. Well, live and learn - just because a man isn't using you for sex, that doesn't mean he isn't using you. Got it.
Well, she didn't have to keep doing this. She hadn't signed any contracts. He'd said from the start that she could back out any time. She could easily tell him sorry, not interested, find someone else. That's what she ought to do. There were better people out there - the people at the Pyramid Scheme had taught her that. She didn't even have to date one of them. If there was a whole building full of people like that, the world probably had others.
Bakura, she told herself, was not good enough for her. She would be well rid of him. It was just her bad luck that she had let herself, for a little while, start wanting someone she shouldn't have.
"So, Mai, are you coming to the party tomorrow?"
Mai glanced over to where Anzu was poking through the staff fridge. The two of them were in the breakroom, picking over the remains of the doughnuts Yugi had sent in to get the staff through the worst of the evening rush.
"Maybe," said Mai. "No one told me there was going to be a party."
"It's for Otogi," she said. "He's almost got his new place up and running, so he's inviting a few of us over for a test run. I hear it's going to be really nice. He's got a five-star chef and a string quartet and a dance floor."
"Sounds awfully classy for a street like this," said Mai.
"That's the idea, really," Anzu explained. "Our goal is to clean up this whole street." She smiled conspirationally. "Actually, I'm busy looking for an assistant to take over what I'm doing here so I can open up a place of my own."
"I didn't think you were interested in owning a casino," Mai remarked.
"I'm not," said Anzu. "It's going to be a dance club, a really good one."
"That sounds like more your sort of thing. I might just come in and check it out myself some night, once you get it up and running."
Anzu looked pleased. "I really do love to dance - almost as much as Yugi loves playing these games. I can't help but want to share that with other people."
Mai started to say something in reply, when one of the waitresses peered through the doorway.
"Hey, Mai," she said. "Your boyfriend is looking for you."
Mai started to say she'd be out in a minute, and then remembered that she was still angry at Bakura. He hadn't spoken to her since their last encounter over a week ago, and since then she'd seen no reason why they ought to start again. She'd been spending more time with the Pyramid Scheme crowd, joining them for pizza nights or trips to the movies, and had found it to be a lot more fun than hobnobbing with a lot of stuffed shirts bent on impressing each other with their money.
"I don't have a boyfriend," said Mai. "Tell him I said to get lost."
"Right on," said the waitress approving, and left to deliver the message.
Anzu looked interested. "You broke up with Bakura?"
Mai shrugged. "Not officially. I just decided not to put up with him anymore. He can find someone else to push around."
"I never understood what you saw in him in the first place," Anzu admitted. "No offense."
"None taken," said Mai. "I know he's not everybody's style. He could be good company, though, when he wanted to be. And you can't deny he's attractive."
"I guess so," Anzu replied. "If that's your type."
The waitress came back.
"He says he won't go away until you come out and talk to him," she reported.
"Tell him to come back here, then," Mai replied. She didn't feel like letting everyone in the casino hear about her personal problems.
"I'll just go check on the stage props for tonight," said Anzu, and hurried out of the room.
A moment later, Bakura came in, looking peeved.
"Are you still sulking?" he demanded.
"I'm not sulking," said Mai loftily. "I'm just telling you things. I've decided I've had enough of you and your job and your attitude."
"You're one to talk about attitude," he retorted. "I laid out the terms of our agreement up front, and now you're acting as though you're entitled to more and I'm at fault for not giving it to you. I thought you were better than this, but it turns out you're just like everyone else."
"Well, you're worse than everyone else," she snapped, raising her voice. "I am getting tired of being treated like I'm no better than a vase you can change the flowers in to suit your decor. At least around here they treat me like I'm a person."
"We've been over this before," he said. "But if you want to give up a good job to chase after illusory feelings of friendship, that's fine by me. I don't need a woman who expects me to act like someone out of a romance novel."
"I don't need you either," she said. "I've got better company around here anyway."
"Be that way, then," he said. "We're through. Don't come running to me when you realize you've made a mistake." He turned on his heels and stalked out.
Mai waited until she was sure he was gone, then sagged against a counter.
"Whew!" she said.
Mana peeked into the room. "Is he gone? Is everything okay? Do I need to get Shada and Karim?"
"Everything is fine," said Mai, forcing a smile. "Just having a little discussion."
"Oh," said Mana. "All right. Just as long as you're okay."
She departed again. Mai let herself relax against the counter again. That had been harder than she'd thought it would be. A small part of her had hoped that if he realized she was serious about giving him up, he might realize how much he'd upset her and change his ways. Fat chance of that happening.
After a few minutes of pulling herself together, she left the breakroom, wandered back onto the floor, and scanned the area until she sighted Jonouchi. She caught his eye and sauntered over to him.
"Hey," she said. "I heard something about a party tomorrow night."
"Yeah, Otogi's throwing a bash," said Jonouchi. "You planning on going? If nothing else, I hear the food will be awesome."
"I'm planning on going," she said. "How about you?"
"I figure I'd better," said Jonouchi. "He invited my sister, and I gotta keep an eye on these things."
"I see," said Mai. "Need any help keeping an eye on things? I happen to be good at keeping my eye on all sorts of things."
He looked at her speculatively. "Huh. Well, I wouldn't say no to a little help. So, for example, if I asked you to help me keep an eye on a movie later?"
"Sure," she said. "I can't wait."
His face lit up. "Awesome! I mean, thanks, Mai. You won't regret this."
"I'm looking forward to it," she said.
As she went back to her table, she could hear Jonouchi enthusing over his good fortune to Honda back at the bar. The smile she'd pasted on felt a little more genuine. At least someone didn't take her for granted.
As it turned out, dinner ended up being a great success. The food was every bit as good as had been promised, the entertainment was exquisite. Jonouchi turned out to be a good date, too. He clearly was impressed by his good fortune, and went out of his way to make sure she enjoyed herself. After the way things had been going for her lately, she found his attentiveness refreshing - enough so that when he dropped her off outside her apartment with a shy suggestion that he might kiss her goodnight, she readily agreed. Seeing the expression on his face as he walked off afterwards in a daze made it all worth it.
They saw each other several times over the next few days. Their schedules were busy enough that they couldn't go out every day, but that was fine by Mai, who liked having her privacy. Still, she had to admit it was nice to go out with someone who actually talked to her when they went out, even if he brought her flowers instead of expensive jewelry, and took her to mid-range steak houses instead of five-star restaurants. She had fun with him. That was starting to matter more to her than she would have guessed.
It came as a surprise to her to walk into work one day and find Bakura waiting for her. She actually stopped where she was standing to stare at him. She hadn't spoken to him since the day of their breakup - indeed, had avoided talking about him or thinking about him as much as possible. She'd stuffed all the dresses he'd given her into the back of her closet, crammed the shoes into a cardboard box, and stashed the jewelry in the back of a drawer. She'd thought about pouring the perfumes down the drain, but it seemed like a waste of perfectly good perfume, so she'd stashed it all the little bottles under the bathroom sink, hiding them like a guilty secret.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
He raised his eyes to meet hers. "I see you know how to hold a grudge."
"I see you don't know when to give up," she retorted.
"Apparently not." He laughed bitterly. "Or maybe I'm better at giving up than you think."
Mai folded her arms over her chest. "Make sense or get out."
"I've been doing some thinking, since you left," he said. He sighed. "Pathetic as it sounds, things just haven't been the same without you around. I'm not so proud that I can't admit when I've made a mistake."
She frowned a little. "Do you really think you can get around me that easily? Seems to me last time we spoke, you were the one telling me not to come crawling back to you admitting I was wrong. What makes you think I'm likely to feel any differently?"
"I don't," he said. "I figured it wouldn't kill me to ask. Look - when I left, I thought in a day or two you would realize you'd made a mistake, and you'd come back. But you didn't come back. Somehow it ended up with me being the one sitting by the phone waiting for you to call, and you being the one going out and enjoying yourself - yes, I know all about your blond boyfriend. After a while, it became obvious who had gotten the better deal."
"Yeah, well, good for you," she said. "That still doesn't explain what you're doing here."
"I suppose I'm asking for a second chance," he said. "Not for the job. For the two of us."
"You did say you noticed I have a boyfriend now, right?"
"I know," he said. "All I'm asking for is one chance. Let me invite you to dinner. Nothing business related - just the two of us. If you still think there's no chance after that, I'll never bother you again."
She frowned, weighing her options. On the one hand, it seemed like almost too much of a turnaround from the last time she'd see him. On the other, she couldn't quite work out what sort of ulterior motive he might have for making such an offer. Her cynical side said there had to be one, but her cynical side had been wrong a lot lately. This was what she'd wanted to happen... but somehow it seemed too good to be true. She wasn't entirely sure she wanted to give up on Jonouchi, either. They hadn't exactly pledged exclusive devotion to each other, but that felt like making excuses.
I really don't know whether I want to get back together or to tell him I never want to see him again.
Either way, she decided, it might be best to go along with him. If he proved he was capable of treating her properly, she could consider renewing their relationship. If he didn't, which she had to admit seemed likely, she could endure one more meal with him before telling him it was definitively over, and by his own agreement he'd have to leave her alone for good. Maybe it would even be better this way. She wouldn't have to keep wondering if there had ever been a chance.
"All right, fine," she said, "but I'm holding you to your word. If I say it's over, it's over, and you don't come sniffing around here anymore."
"Agreed," he said. "When should I pick you up?"
"Tomorrow night," she said. "Seven-thirty."
He nodded understanding. "We'll have dinner, then. My place. We can rent a movie."
She shrugged. "Suits me."
Sure enough, on the specified day and time, Bakura picked Mai up outside her apartment building. She still felt reluctant to let him inside. She didn't think he'd bother to hide his reactions to her small, shabby apartment. It occurred to her that she didn't think Jonouchi would mind. Feeling rebellious, she'd put on a dress she'd bought for herself, not one of Bakura's gifts. This was supposed to be a quiet evening at home, after all - how dressed up did she need to be? She felt vindicated when he got out of the car, glanced her up and down, and said, "Very nice," before opening the passenger-side door for her.
It occurred to her during the drive that she had never actually been inside his house before. Once she saw it, she was almost disappointed. It was an assertively masculine place, all squared-off lines, neutral colors, and minimal fripperies. His taste in art seemed to run to desert photography, by way of elegantly framed prints of vividly yellow or red dunes and cloudless blue skies. The dining room he led her to was a white space filled with sleek black furniture, elegant but stark. She had the feeling that this was not a place women often came. Perhaps they never had, before now. Spread out on the table was an elegant arrangement of silverware and some dishes under silver serving trays. A bottle of wine and two crystal glasses were prominently displayed.
"Don't stand on ceremony," he said. "Sit. Eat."
"You're such a charmer," she said, but she sat down across from him.
At least the food was good. She served herself from the various dishes while Bakura uncorked the wine and served them both.
"So," he said, "what have you been doing lately?"
Well, it was a bit blunt, but it was also the first time he'd ever asked her directly about her day to day life. Points for trying, she thought.
"Work as usual," she said. "We've really started drawing a crowd lately. Guess the word is finally starting to get out."
Bakura toyed with his food. "I hear a new place opened across from you recently. I haven't been in myself, but people seem to like it."
"I went on opening night. Haven't had a chance to go since then," Mai replied. "Definitely a classy place, though."
"That Yugi Mutou is industrious," Bakura remarked. "He'll own the whole street before long."
"I think that's the idea," said Mai. "I know his girlfriend is going to be running a dance club there soon, and who knows what else he's got lined up."
"Sounds exciting," said Bakura. He might have sounded a little sarcastic. It was hard to tell with him, sometimes.
They continued to chatter about light topics - a few local scandals, speculations on who would win an upcoming election, opinions on the current crop of summer blockbusters. When the meal was over, Bakura suggested they might watch a movie, and she accepted. They had been to one or two concerts together, but actually watching a movie would be something new. He led her into his living room and opened up a sleek black cabinet, telling her to select a movie while he made some popcorn. She perused the choices for a while, found one that suited her mood, slid it into the DVD player, and settled down on the sofa.
"I'll be right there," Bakura promised. She could hear him rattling around in the kitchen, presumably looking for something to put the popcorn in. "Start the movie. I'll be there by the time the previews are over."
Well, she couldn't blame him for that. She let the movie start to run and relaxed back into the sofa. It was a nice sofa, as these things went - black suede, with deep, soft cushions. It really did make a very comfortable place for a nap, and the movie previews were not particularly riveting, given that they were all for movies she'd already seen. In spite of herself, she felt her eyelids growing heavy.
Wait... this isn't right... she thought vaguely. She struggled to wake up, but her body wasn't obeying her. Her limbs felt oddly heavy and far away.
Bakura returned to the living room. He wasn't carrying any popcorn. He was smiling.
"Ahh, good," he said. "I was wondering how much longer it would take."
She wanted to shout at him, to demand some answers, but her tongue felt swollen and stiff. Her eyes wouldn't stay open. The last thing she saw before darkness closed in on her was Bakura walking slowly towards her, smiling as if she had finally lived up to her expectations.
Mai awoke on a bed. Her head was pounding, and there was an unpleasant taste in the back of her mouth. She wondered, groggily, if she had a hangover. Her arms were twisted into an odd position above her head, and she tried to move them back down to her sides, or possibly to massage her throbbing temples. They wouldn't move. They appeared to be tied to the bedposts.
She opened her eyes, heart suddenly racing. She was lying in an unfamiliar bedroom. She curtains were drawn, so there was very little light to see by. Turning her head one way showed her the window and an easy chair with a reading lamp and a small table next to it. Looking the other way showed her a door, partly open, and a view of a shelf full of books and bric-a-brac. She'd never been in this room before, but she assumed it was Bakura's. The scent of his cologne hung faintly in the air.
All right. She closed her eyes again and took a deep breath. Was she injured? She didn't think so. Her head still felt like someone with a hammer was trying to pound their way out of it, but no other part of her was in any discomfort that couldn't be explained by being tied to the bedposts for a span of time. Also, she still had her clothes on, which was reassuring.
That Bakura. Always the gentleman.
So, what did she do now? Yell for help? The only person who was likely to hear her was the last person she really wanted to talk to right now. Well, no, scratch that - she would enjoy having words with him if she happened to be untied and had, say, a nice aluminum baseball bat in her hands. She tried the ropes and found that she was fixed firmly in place by her wrists and ankles. Panic began welling up in her, and she quashed it.
If he wanted to hurt me he would have done it by now. Whatever he's doing, he wants me alive... at least for now...
She was still trying to work out the implications of this when the door opened and Bakura peeked in.
"Hm," he said. "I'm surprised you aren't screaming by now."
She responded with a stream of colorful invective, speculating in detail on his family and their sexual proclivities. He listened impassively.
"That's better than screaming, at least," he said. "Relax. Help is on the way."
"You'll never get away with this," she said.
He laughed harshly. "Get away with what? I haven't hurt you. Everyone has seen us together. There won't be any evidence left here that suggests anything out of the ordinary happened. Even if you tell someone, no one will believe you."
"You drugged me," she accused.
"Of course I did. I made my living as a pickpocket for years," he said. "It was nothing to slip a little something extra into your wine while I was pouring it. Of course, no one is going to be surprised to find drugs in the system of a woman who works in a casino in a bad part of town. How do you plan to prove I gave them to you?"
"Why?" she exclaimed. "Why are you doing this? If this is some kind of messed-up scheme to get revenge on me for dumping you..."
He really did laugh then, long and uproariously.
"You really are short-sighted," he said. "Do you really think this was ever about you at all? I've been telling you all along - this is business."
He began pacing around the room, pausing to peer out the window as if expecting to see someone there. She twisted her head to follow him.
"That damned Yugi doesn't seem to have any weak spots," he muttered, apparently to himself. "I'd been trying for months to get my hooks into him before you came along. Him and his ideas of cleaning up the streets." His voice rose as he became more agitated. "That was my territory, my business. I had everything the way I wanted it and he comes along making people better offers and luring in the investors who snubbed me... I had a good thing going, and he ruined it."
"That street was a slum and you know it," she said. If she could keep him talking, maybe she could get some sort of clue as to how to get out of this mess...
"Exactly!" he said triumphantly. "They called my home a slum and took it away from me, so I made a new one for myself, one that they liked. I built them casinos and bars and brothels, and they came in droves and paid me handsomely for the privilege of ruining their own lives. It was the perfect revenge. I didn't even have to do it to them - they were doing it to themselves. Then he came along with his ideas of wanting to make people happy, letting them have fun, as if this were some sort of children's story."
He's crazy, she thought numbly. Aloud, she said, "And you thought I'd help you put my boss out of business?"
"I thought you'd understand," he said. "Apparently I overestimated you. But it doesn't matter. This is my contingency plan."
"What are you planning on doing? Holding me for ransom?" she asked.
"More or less," he said. "You were one thing I could get that had some value. The moment I saw that Jonouchi character eyeing you, I knew I had my angle."
"You picked me up to get at Jonouchi?" she repeated.
He shrugged. "I had to. You were too cynical to take him up on his offers unless someone drove you into his arms. It was worth the risk. If you were just an employee, he might just let the police deal with it, but he's not the sort of white knight who would be able to resist riding to his princess's rescue. He'll cooperate. He's coming over with the deed to the building, and we're going to have a little talk about who actually owns it. Once I have control of the Pyramid Scheme, I'll be able to make sure Yugi loses all the money he's invested in it. He'll be lucky if he can cover what he owes on furnishing it. He definitely won't be financing any other endeavors. Without his backing, his friends' businesses won't be able to function, and in a few months, no one will ever be able to tell he was there."
"And then what? You'll just let me go?" she asked.
He gave her an inscrutable look, and she felt chills crawl down her spine.
"You really should have sided with me," he said. "We could have accomplished things together."
He didn't wait for her to answer. There was obviously nothing to say. He moved away from the window, apparently bored with watching, and drifted out of the room, lost in his own plans. He closed the door behind him, and Mai found herself alone in the dark once more. She closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths.
She'd been played. That hurt more than she would have expected. He'd calculated every move he had made, right from the start, with the intent of turning her into bait - or, at best, into his accomplice in some sort of scam, if she'd proved tractable enough. And yet, all that time, she'd been hoping, believing that there was some spark of goodness in him.
Maybe it was just because he reminded me of myself. They had so much in common, growing up without parents, doing whatever they could to survive, sliding inexorably towards the gray edges of the world. She could cheat as well as any card sharp, and there had been plenty of times she'd used her physical charms to seduce one thing or another out of susceptible men. Who was to say that if she had gone on long enough, she might not have ended up like him - angry and bitter, living only for the enjoyment of "punishing" the rest of the world?
Well, she wasn't like that. She'd learned a few things at the Pyramid Scheme, and now she was grateful for them. She was, for example, grateful to know that she had friends who would do whatever they could to back her up once they knew she was in trouble, if they hadn't already found out.
More importantly, however, she was grateful that Mana had taught her how to undo knots, even under trying circumstances like these.
Mai tried her bonds and found that they had a little bit of give to them - not so much that she would be able to sit up, but enough that she could flex her knees and elbows a little. She began to squirm, pulling and twisting herself into a most unnatural position, one that left her back and shoulders and neck burning with pain, but which enabled her to get her teeth on the rope around her right wrist. She yanked and twisted at it, and managed to loosen it just a bit before she collapsed back onto the mattress. For a few seconds, she allowed herself to catch her breath, and then yanked herself back into position again. It was a little easier this time; loosening the rope had given her just a little more slack to play with. She managed to get a little more accomplished before resting again. On the third try, the rope finally loosened enough that she could twist her hand free of it. From there, it was a simple matter to untie her left hand and then free her feet. She spent a moment rubbing at her wrists and ankles, flexing her joints until she was sure her limbs wouldn't fail her when she tried to move them. Only then did she ease herself off the bed and begin picking her way towards the door. The thick carpet muffled her footsteps. She crept right up to the door and put her ear to it. She couldn't hear any sound, at least not close by. There were vague sounds, hard to pinpoint, of someone moving around in another room. Careful listening convinced her that they were coming from downstairs.
Probably waiting for Jonouchi to show up, she decided. Well, he'd get a surprise, then. She scanned the room for something to use as a weapon. There was a pair of heavy brass candlesticks on the shelf, so she took one, tested its weight and found it acceptable. Feeling more confident, now, she gently opened the door and went in search of stairs.
They weren't hard to find. The house was elegantly and expensively appointed, but not so large that she could get lost in it. Fleetingly, she toyed with the idea of simply sneaking out the back door, but she discarded it. For one thing, she was sure he would hear her and come after her, possibly with a gun. For another, even if she could slip away without being noticed, the last thing she wanted was for Jonouchi to get here, sign over the Pyramid Scheme, and only afterwards realize that she was gone. But mostly, she wanted a little payback.
Bakura was in his living room, talking on his cell phone. He was lounging on the sofa where she had been dozing - how long ago? - with his back towards her. If she could get close enough to him, she could knock him over the head with the candlestick and have him tied up and ready to deliver when Jonouchi arrived. The idea of leaving him trussed up with the same ropes he'd used on her was appealing. She began creeping closer, shifting her grip on the candlestick.
She was almost in reaching distance when she saw him suddenly tense. He wasn't looking at her, though. His gaze was fixed on the screen of the television, which surprised her for just a moment. He couldn't possibly be watching it, because it was turned off, but yet...
He turned, and as he did so, she registered his blurry reflection in the screen of the television, and she realized too late how he'd noticed her.
"You! How did you get loose?" he demanded. In fury, he hurled his phone at her, and she ducked before it could strike her face. She heard it smash against the wall behind her and shatter into pieces.
She didn't bother answering. Without even bothering to straighten all the way, she lunged at him and attempted to smash his scheming head with her improvised weapon. He had come by his scars honestly, though, and reacted with all the speed and agility of a seasoned street fighter. He ducked out of the way, rolled off the sofa, and came up in a crouch, tensed to spring in whatever direction proved most advantageous. She backed off a little, watching him intently. Fighting was not her strong suit, but it was his. If she was not very, very careful, the best she could hope for was to end up tied to the bed again, and she doubted he would be that kind a second time.
"Scheming bitch," Bakura snarled at her.
She cowered a little, attempting to look frightened and dismayed that her first attack hadn't worked. Well, she was frightened and dismayed, but if he thought she'd used up all her steam on the first try, perhaps he'd let his guard down. He was used to being able to make her do whatever he wanted. He would go on expecting it, even now that reality had stopped following his plans. She let the candlestick dangle in her grip as if she might drop it at any second, and she watched and waited.
Bakura sprang, vaulting up over the sofa and preparing to fling himself at her. She hurled the candlestick. Her aim was slightly off, and it sailed past his ear to smash into the TV screen, but the movement and noise was enough to distract him. Instead of leaping off the back of the sofa, he stumbled and fell onto the floor. She kicked at his face, but he grabbed her ankle and pulled. Taken by surprise, she lost her balance and went down. The two of them began to struggle. He tried fiercely to pin her down, while she clawed at him with her long nails. She would give him a few more scars - she would scratch his eyes out, if she could!
But she couldn't - he was stronger than she was, and more experienced. With a wrenching maneuver, he managed to fling her down onto her back and pin her there, leaving her struggling uselessly. With a bit more maneuvering, he was resting the weight of one knee on her chest and had both her wrists clenched in one of his strong hands. While she struggled to wrench herself free of his grip, he used his other hand to reach into a pocket and slip out a small knife.
"I promised to return you to him alive," he said, leering down at her, "but I never said anything about returning you in one piece. Let's see how well you deal cards with your fingers removed..."
He pressed the edge of the knife to the base of her index finger. She bit back a whimper. She would not give this bully the satisfaction of hearing her scream...
Into the silence came a musical chime. Someone had just rung the doorbell. Bakura froze, thrown off-balance by this interruption.
Mai decided in that moment that screaming in front of Bakura was one thing, but screaming for whoever was behind that door was another matter entirely. She filled her lungs and let out a shriek that would shatter glass.
There was a commotion outside the door. Bakura snarled.
"I'll cut your throat out for that!" he said, and raised his knife.
The door was forced open. It slammed against the wall with an earsplitting crack that rattled the windows, and not one but three men burst in. Jonouchi had arrived, and he'd brought Shada and Karim with him. A distracted little part of her realized that this was the first time she'd ever seen them wearing something other than their ridiculous pseudo-Egyptian guard costumes. They looked much more frightening this way - ready to kill, in fact.
Bakura noticed them, too. The look on his face said that he did not like his odds against three strong men, but he was not going to give up without a fight - not while he still had his captive and his knife. Surely they would not move against him when he could end her life with a quick flash of steel...
But in that moment of distraction, Mai managed to wrench a hand free and grab the wrist that held the knife. Then, just as she had on that long-ago man who had tried to reach under her skirt, she grasped him as hard as she could and twisted with a force that made bones crack.
Bakura howled in agony, and the knife slipped from his suddenly nerveless fingers. It made no sound as it bounced on the carpet and fell still. She grabbed at it and pressed it under his chin.
"Now, who was going to cut whose throat?" she asked, her voice deadly.
"Mai, are you okay?" Jonouchi shouted.
"I've been better," she said. "Someone want to get this guy off me?"
Bakura twitched a little, but the broken wrist and the knife at his throat combined to convince him he shouldn't try to move too far. Karim and Shada grabbed both his arms and hauled him roughly to his feet.
"I think you should come with us now," said Karim.
"You'll never pin anything on me," he said.
"We don't need to," said Shada, his blue eyes blank and inscrutable. "We have our ways."
Bakura blanched very slightly. Mai wondered, as she got to her feet, whether Shada was being serious or if he was merely trying to frighten Bakura into behaving. She found herself rather hoping that Shada really was going to make something nasty happen to him. She would have gladly helped him.
Jonouchi offered her a hand that she was gladder of than she wanted to admit. Adrenaline was making her knees shake very slightly.
"Are you hurt?" he asked. "If he's hurt you, I'll take it double out of his hide."
"Cool it, Romeo," she said, with a smile to soften her words. "I hurt him worse than he hurt me."
Jonouchi laughed. "Yeah, I should have expected. You're about the toughest woman I know... but damned if I wasn't looking forward to a big rescue."
"Well, you picked a good time to show up," she said. "And now you can whisk me away to safety. I'm ready to get out of here."
"You got it," he said warmly. "Back to your place?"
She hesitated for just a moment, then nodded. After this place's stark elegance, her scruffy little apartment would feel very welcoming indeed, and she imagined that he would feel the same.
"You got it," he said. He fished in his pocket and withdrew a set of car keys, which he tossed to Shada. "You guys take the car - I'm calling Mai a cab and seeing her home."
Shada nodded, making the keys vanish into his pocket with impressive speed. "We'll take care of things here," he said, and she had no doubt that they would. One day, she thought, she was going to have to pry their histories out of them.
Jonouchi did call a cab for her, and he got in with her. They were quiet for a while as they rode. At last, though, his curiosity got the better of him, and he said, "You're sure you're okay?"
"I have no idea," she admitted, and laughed a little. "Just my luck. The first time I start to fall for a guy and this has to happen."
"I hope it doesn't put you off dating for good," said Jonouchi. "I promise we're not all like him."
"I know," she said. "I really do. I just feel... a little sad. That's the stupid thing - he really was good company at times. I liked him. He didn't have to turn out this way."
"But he did," said Jonouchi quietly.
"Yes, he did," she agreed. "Don't worry, I learned my lesson. More than one lesson."
They reached her house, and she let him walk her up to her door. She hesitated there, and Jonouchi, apparently sensing she was about to come to some decision, waited.
"Could you do something for me?" she asked at last.
He smiled. "Anything for you."
"Call Yugi and Anzu, and any of the others who might be free," she said. "Mana and Mahaado and Honda and Otogi and Isis and all the rest. Tell them they're free to come over to my place tonight. Tell them I'm ordering pizza and Chinese takeout and they can bring their own bottles."
"Might get kind of crowded in there," he said.
"I don't mind," she said. "They're all welcome."
"Your wish is my command," he said, taking out his phone. "We pretty much shut the place down after we found out what happened to you, so everyone ought to be free tonight."
"Good," she said. "I'll be glad of the company. Everyone's company," she added, meeting his eyes and smiling.
He grinned back, and she felt something inside her relax. Maybe she'd been manipulated into dating Jonouchi, but that didn't mean that there couldn't still be something between them someday. She knew she could trust him, and that was worth a lot. For now, though... for now, she was glad to be surrounded by friends. Still smiling, she slipped through her door, leaving it open behind her, and went to start ordering the food.
Six months later...
"Hi, welcome to..." Mai began, as the bell above the shop door tinkled cheerfully. Then her bright professional smile warmed into a real one. "Oh, it's you. Hey, there."
"'Oh, it's you'?" Jonouchi repeated. "What kind of a way is that to talk to me?"
"I can get away with it. You're not a customer," she teased.
She was very happy with her new line of work. The street that had once been Bakura's little kingdom had blossomed into something very different once he'd disappeared. She had never inquired too closely as to what had become of him - word on the street was that he'd made some bad investments that had gone belly-up, and he had left town in a hurry to avoid the people he owed money to. Mai had a suspicion there was more to the story than that, but Shada and Karim had only told her that she need never worry about seeing or hearing from him again, and she was willing to settle for that. Some days she hoped they really had dropped him off a pier wearing cement shoes, but other days she hoped they'd just put the fear of God (or possibly Ra) into him and then put him on a train bound for anywhere else but here. She really didn't want to know for sure.
Without Bakura's influence, though, the path had been clear for Yugi's dreams to become reality. His casino was prospering, as was Otogi's, and Anzu's club had opened with considerable success as well. Encouraged by this positive trend, Mai had gone to Yugi with a proposal, and he'd been only too happy to listen. He'd help set her up with this pleasant little shop. It had once sold adult novelties and scanty lingerie. Now, with a lot of cleaning, painting, and some new fittings, she'd turned it into an upscale boutique, selling jewelry, perfume, handbags, and assorted other accessories. She was making a go of it. In fact, she thought that by the end of the year, she'd be able to pay off everything Yugi had loaned her. Then she really would be fully independent. She would never again have to rely on someone else to provide for her.
But that didn't mean she wouldn't be relying on someone for other things. Companionship, for example. She was learning to be all right with that.
"So, are you about ready to go?" Jonouchi asked.
"Give me a few minutes," she said. "I need to count the cash drawer and lock up."
"No problem," he said. "I don't think the others will leave without us."
"If they do, we'll go somewhere else and have a private dinner," she said. He grinned at her.
"Anything I can help with?" he asked.
She put him to work tidying up the stock while she counted the cash drawer. She'd done well today. When everything was cleaned up and put away, she hung out the CLOSED sign and let Jonouchi out before following him, locking the door behind them.
The sidewalks were busy. The sun might have been going down, but the local night spots were just starting to heat up. She paused a moment, watching the people hurrying up and down the road, laughing and chatting with each other. When she'd first set foot in this place, it had been little better than a slum, and now you would never know it. Everyone here seemed relaxed, intent on having a good time. She found herself wondering what he would have thought, if he could have seen it. Would he scoff, calling it a fantasy world and resenting that anyone should dare to be so happy in what had once been his territory? Or might he have ever been convinced that he'd been wrong, and this was the way things ought to be?
She'd never know. She'd always wonder. His legacy might have been shrinking daily, but she would always remember.
"What are you thinking about?" Jonouchi asked her.
She smiled. "Just thinking how much things have changed around here," she said.
Then she offered him her arm, and they slipped into the crowd.