Ariadne had put together her own major in college so she could design games, but now that she'd had her dream job for five years she was done with it. She was done with the boys club, the internal politics, the clubby conferences, the way people reacted with surprise when they realized the concept for the game they loved had come from "a tiny girl." She'd had it with the unrealistic expectations of marketing schedules, the touchiness of programmers, the pleading of project managers not to make anything too complicated. Since all of her current contacts were in video games, she went back to the source—the college professor who'd helped her design her custom major in games in the first place.
"Actually," he said when she called, "my son-in-law just contacted me with an interesting opportunity, and I thought you'd be perfect for it if only you were available."
"Well, consider me available," she said, and the job he described was a lot better than anything Will Shortz had come up with.
The next week found her in Las Vegas, in the upper reaches of the offices of Dream Hotel and Casino, sitting in a conference room with general manager Dominic Cobb.
"Your ideas about casino gaming are interesting," Cobb said, gesturing to one of the papers she'd written when she was working on her masters, "but that was over five years ago. Anything new to tell us?"
She cocked her head, then leaned forward. "You have entire parties of people younger than forty coming to this city every day—landmark birthdays, bachelor/bachelorette—and they'll eat here, shop here, maybe play some black jack or poker or roulette just to say that they did, see a show or two. Then they go play paintball out in the desert."
"Your point?" Cobb asked.
"What if you could do for video games what you've done for poker? Not tournaments—that's been done—but taking paintball and making it into an immersive experience where they can put a little money down on the side, just to keep things interesting."
Cobb turned to the man seated to his right. "Eames?"
Eames was dressed in a patterned silk shirt and tight trousers, almost a parody of Vegas styles from the "golden age", befitting someone who ran entertainment. "You know how I feel about immersive experiences."
"And how is that?" Ariadne asked.
"Fantastic when good, egregious when not, and murder on the wallet either way."
"So we'll make it good."
"Of course we will," he replied, "or we won't do it."
"Constructing things is what I do," she replied.
Eames turned to Cobb, smirking. " I like her. She's a confident one."
"Arthur?" Cobb asked.
The head of guest services wore a vest and tie, and looked like he'd be more comfortable on Wall Street than on the Vegas strip. "Liability wouldn't be worse than any other physical activity—the rock climbing wall, the paintball games we already run. Might be an additional opportunity to hire some veterans, make sure playing for money and not just bragging rights doesn't turn into a free for all."
Cobb squinted at Ariadne, as if trying to make up his mind. "Let's go to dinner," he said, picking up a nearby phone. "Is the table ready for us?" he asked. "Really?" Even better." He set down the phone. "Couple more people for you to meet," he said, and led the way out of the room.
At the elevator waited a tall woman who looked slightly familiar. "You must be Ariadne," she said, smiling. "My father has spoken of you very highly. I'm Mallorie Cobb and I run security."
"Nice to meet you, finally," Ariadne said. "Your father spoke of you as well."
Cobb said to Mallorie, "He's in the building."
Arthur pulled out his phone and immediately began messaging, a faint scowl on his face.
"Oh?" Eames said, sounding amused. "Good, he can meet Ariadne."
"Who's 'he'?" she asked.
"Saito," Cobb said, holding the elevator door for Ariadne and Mallorie before following them in. "He's the owner."
"I thought the Fischers owned this casino," Ariadne said.
"Saito broke the bank in a game of pai sho a few years ago," Eames replied. "Thought it was neater to just buy the chain outright, thus becoming the house. He hid the sale in a shell company."
"The entire chain?" Ariadne asked. "Goa, Macau, Argentina, Cairo, Sydney—"
Arthur nodded. "You've done your research."
"Of course I have," she sniffed, drawing herself up to her full height, which admittedly wasn't much.
"I didn't—" Arthur began.
"He didn't mean to condescend," Eames said. "His voice gets stuck that way."
"Excuse me?" Arthur said.
"All right," Mallorie said, her voice stern, and Eames and Arthur immediately stopped talking.
"You did your research, that's good," Cobb said, as though Arthur and Eames hadn't spoken. "All the better to impress him."
"I need to interview with him?" Ariadne asked.
"No, it's my decision," Cobb said as their elevator reached the lobby. "But it's easier if you have him."
He led the way, in the opposite direction of the casino floor, toward a restaurant tucked into the corner and named The Hungry Lion.
"You have a pub in your hotel?" Ariadne asked.
"No, no, fine dining," Mallorie replied. "You haven't heard of it?"
"Only Michelin three-starred restaurant in Las Vegas," Cobb said. "Yusuf is one of the leading molecular gastronomists in the world."
At Ariadne's confused look, Arthur explained, "He's like a mad scientist, but with food."
"Not really a food person," Ariadne said, shrugging.
"Yusuf will take that as a personal challenge," Eames replied. "Which is good. He needs a new one."
They walked through the bar and the main room of the restaurant—which was remarkably small for Las Vegas, seating no more than 100 people—and into the kitchen itself. Ariadne had worked as a waitress briefly in high school and she'd known the kitchen to be a loud, chaotic space. But this kitchen was almost silent, each worker moving deliberately to plate various items. Off to the side was a table with a view of the entire kitchen, at which sat a man in a business suit who fairly radiated power.
He stood. "Hello," he said. "You must be Ariadne, our game creator."
"And you must be Saito," she said, shaking his hand.
"Please, sit," he said, indicating the chair closest to him.
Ariadne steeled her shoulders, readying herself for whatever Saito might ask her. At each seat she noticed a card with a list of food.
"What a tiny menu," she said.
"Oh that isn't a menu," Saito replied. "Menus are for room service. The Hungry Lion only serves a chef's tasting."
"There is another restaurant that Yusuf oversees," Arthur said. "Midsummer; it's at the other end of the lobby."
"And it is a good place," said a new voice.
Ariadne looked up to see a young man in a dark gray chef's jacket, glasses hanging on a strap around his neck. "A restaurant for people who want to treat themselves with something expensive yet familiar. A perfectly cooked steak. A beautifully poached halibut. Midsummer hosts a great many anniversary dinners, engagements, birthday parties. But this," he said, waving a hand at the silent kitchen and smiling shyly, "is for the adventurous eater who's willing to put themselves into my hands."
"And how many people are willing to do that?" she asked.
"We have two seatings per day—dinner and a late supper for after the shows. Our reservation book is full for four months out."
"Well, I look forward to the meal," Ariadne said. "But I'm warning you: I'm not a very adventurous eater."
"Then we will have to make you into one," he said. "I'm Yusuf."
"Ariadne," she replied, shaking his hand, which was much larger than her own, but warm and soft.
"Can you join us?" Saito asked. "Perhaps Ariadne would be more comfortable if you were here to explain your dishes."
Cobb, who'd been sitting on the other side of Ariadne, moved down the table, giving Ariadne the sense that Saito's suggestion was more of an order than a request.
"Of course," Yusuf said. "Just let me shed this jacket."
"While we wait," Saito said after Yusuf walked away, "why don't you talk about the slot machines. Perhaps they aren't as elegant as the tables, but they represent a larger share of our income. And any improvements you make could be implemented across all our casinos. Would you make them more like the video games you have been constructing?"
Ariadne leaned forward, eager; she'd been surprised that Cobb hadn't asked her about this. "Actually, no," she replied. "The slots player has more in common with a casual gamer, someone who uses the family Wii to work out or play with their kids. But the game they think of as theirs is on Facebook—something like Farmville. We could build something like that, connected to their keycard, that builds every day, has the same addictive quality."
Yusuf reappeared, having replaced his chef coat with a musty-looking gray cardigan, and slipped noiselessly into the seat beside her.
Saito nodded. "Very intriguing," he said. "Though I am more fond of Mob Wars."
They all laughed and if Ariadne had had any doubt before that this job was hers, it was gone now.
A shot glass was set down in front of each of them with what looked like a cube of jello inside, layered in pale orange and dark pink.
"An amuse-bouche to start," Yusuf said. "This is my own little tribute to the bachelor parties so popular here."
Ariadne was surprised that Yusuf was giving them something so common; perhaps it was meant to be ironic? But instead of the rubbery yet not quite set texture of a jello shot, sticky-sweet fake fruit not quite covering the harsh burn of the alcohol, the cube melted on her tongue almost immediately, leaving the taste of a perfectly ripe slice of cantaloupe wrapped in prosciutto ham.
"Oh my goodness!" she said.
"Sharp, no?" Yusuf asked, looking proud of himself.
"Amazing," Ariadne replied.
The first thing Yusuf had learned when he moved to Las Vegas to oversee the restaurants in Saito's casino was that it was very easy to be thrown off of one's natural clock. In Paris, New York and San Francisco, he'd been all but nocturnal, and could often be found in the kitchen working on techniques and flavor combinations well into the wee hours. But in Vegas, where so many people were up at any part of the day, where even business people kept 11-7 hours, he found his most productive time was in the morning.
This was how he found out that Ariadne hadn't been exaggerating when she said she didn't have an adventurous palate. Oh, she'd been game enough that first day in his kitchen, but on her own she consumed nothing but egg white omelets, ham sandwiches and the occasional salad.
Like the rest of the executive staff, Ariadne lived in one of the condos in the shorter north tower. They had reasonably good kitchens, and the Cobbs usually cooked for themselves and their children. But like Arthur and Eames, Ariadne mostly existed on room service and the occasional take out order. Room service fell under Yusuf's domain, though other than daily quality checks and general menu oversight he let it run itself. Still, he told himself it was just part of his job when he looked over Ariadne's tickets and then, one morning, enclosed a note with her omelet asking permission to make her "something a bit more interesting tomorrow?"
She sent back her own note: "do your worst."
So the next morning he used her egg white omelet to continue his experiments with a few new additives and yes, he could get the white to be almost as creamy as whole eggs softly scrambled in butter. He controlled the heat so the whites were snowy-pure, not a hint of brown, looking like a soft pile of merengue. He surrounded the eggs with perfectly poached white asparagus and parsnips, then plated her breakfast on one of the dark oblong earthenware mini-platters they had at the Hungry Lion. Room service had to find an oversized lid to top it.
Ariadne returned the plate empty, and the note said, "But what can you do with a ham sandwich?"
Yusuf smiled to himself because between the many hams, breads, and toppings of the world, the varieties were infinite.
Ariadne came to his kitchen four days later, on a Monday, when the Hungry Lion was closed. That morning he'd shirred her egg whites with a bit of spinach and grape tomato.
"Can I watch you make my sandwich?" she asked.
"Of course," he said, smiling. "Any particular reason you seek to do this today?"
"I needed to get away from my computer," she replied, "but the casino is overstimulating. It's quiet here."
"You are welcome any time we aren't serving," he said. "I can tell you are the sort not to get in anyone's way."
"I hope not," she said. "So what are you making me?"
"I just received some lovely jamón serrano from Spain," he said, removing it from a nearby chill chest. "Very salty. And this wonderful dark bread made with a fermenting process—"
"Like sourdough?" she asked.
"Very much," he replied, nodding. "At Midsummer we serve a tomato jam, sweet and smoky with just a hint of spice—no hotter than yellow mustard." He cut the bread on the thin side and spread it with some unsalted butter, then arranged the jamón serrano on one slice and dolloped tomato jam on the other. After cutting it in two, he placed the sandwich on a bright blue plate that would contrast with the dark brown bread. He presented the dish to Ariadne, who'd perched on a stool opposite him.
She picked up the sandwich and took a bite. Even after all this time Yusuf's heart caught a little whenever he watched someone eat his food. Her eyes closed as she chewed.
"Mmmm,' she said. "Oh my god, Yusuf, this is incredible."
"As it should be," Yusuf replied, cleaning off the surface in front of him.
"And what are you working on when you're not making me omelets and sandwiches?" she asked.
"Well, actually, I might need your help on this, as a taster." He reached behind him and pulled out a bucket of lumpy mollusks still in their shells.
"Are those oysters?" Ariadne made a face. "Slimy," she said.
"Precisely," he said. "And yet, I feel you would love their flavor—mild and sweet and delicate. I want to try some preparations for Midsummer, for people who don't care for the texture of the raw product. Would you—could you come down and try a few things this week? Your work permitting, of course."
"I'm sure I can manage that," she said. "Give me an excuse to get out of my office."
"And what are you hard at work on?" Yusuf asked. He put on a glove and grabbed the top oyster and an oyster knife.
"I'm getting the slot ideas ready to send to the programmers, see what we can do quickly and easily and what might take longer," she replied. "The paintball idea is with Arthur and the legal team to make sure we can make it happen and afford the insurance. In the meantime Saito has challenged me to come up with a new game that might lure some of the whales away from poker and pai sho but would be exclusive to us. So I may be ordering my breakfasts very late over the next week!"
Yusuf shrugged. "I can try some new egg techniques that will hold up over time. Always good for catering and buffet tables."
Her eyes widened. "You cater? Buffets?"
"Man cannot live on sous-vide duck breast alone, and neither can my profit and loss statement. We always need better egg dishes for the brunch buffet at Midsummer. Brunch does very well on a buffet, actually. It's no different than your redesign of the slot machines."
"True," she allowed. "Hey, since tonight is your night off, want to come with me to the casino, check out these whales? I'm not usually intimidated but if they're all like Saito it might be good to have a friend along."
"Oh I'm not one to gamble," Yusuf replied. "You may have noticed that I prefer my environment to be under my control."
"I can do the gambling," she said. "You can get me drinks and hold my bag and look pretty." She grinned at him and he could feel his face flushing.
"Perhaps," he said. "Though I wouldn't know what to wear. I assume a tuxedo is too much? Don't see many of them in the restaurant."
"I think what you usually wear will be fine. I still want to recognize you."
"I'll consider it," Yusuf said, and shucked another oyster. He noticed Ariadne cocking her head.
"So what do you do to unwind?" she asked.
"I drive cars very fast on closed courses in the desert," he replied. "And I'm taking stunt driving lessons."
"Really?" she asked. "So if I were to rob a bank—"
"I should be your getaway driver, yes," he said.
"How about this," she said, sitting forward. 'You come gamble with me, and I go driving with you?"
Yusuf kept his eyes on the oyster in his hand, guiding the knife to the hinge of the shell and popping it open. "That would be satisfactory," he said.
Ariadne smiled. "Thank you! Really, it will be so much better with a friend. And I can't wait to see you drive. I'll pick you up at your door at eight? Eames says that's the time to go—the whales avoid the shows and the casino floor is emptier."
"Eight o'clock it is," he replied.
She was as good as her word and arrived on his doorstep at eight wearing a simple cotton dress and one of the small jackets she favored. It was easy to escort her through the lobby and into the casino, past the slots and the tables. They had emptied out a bit, to Eames's point. Yusuf opened the door to the high stakes room, the guard nodding as they went inside.
There, Yusuf could see why Ariadne had asked him along. These men—for there were few women in sight and none appeared to be gambling—were all seriousness. They scarcely looked up as Yusuf and Ariadne walked into the room.
"And what are you looking for?" he asked.
"Oh, the atmosphere, the way they play. Tells me a lot about what kind of game might fit in this room, and how we can get them to play it."
A man approached them and, upon confirming their identities, handed Ariadne a stack of large, square chips.
Yusuf saw the "$10,000" printed on the top. "I assume this isn't your money," he said.
"Of course not," she replied. "I have a budget, and whatever I lose to the house doesn't count."
"Handy," Yusuf said.
"Isn't it?" Ariadne replied. "I think I'll play at that table there. Could you get me a ginger ale, but in a rocks glass with a cherry?" she asked.
"Deceptive," he said.
"Just trying to fit in," she replied, and walked over to her chosen table.
Yusuf followed soon after and took a seat just behind Ariadne. She was quiet, focused on the game, though Yusuf knew she was observing the entire room. It seemed difficult for the other players to read her, but she didn't take all the advantage of that she might have. Instead she played relatively conservatively, opting out of big pots she didn't control. She folded while two of the other players tried to take the other down; they seemed to know each other, as well. At the end of two hours, she'd taken four of fourteen pots and had come out slightly ahead.
They went to one of the cocktail lounges after that, Yusuf writing a note to the kitchen about the off-menu snacks he wanted.
"You use new technology in the kitchen," Ariadne said, "and yet you still send hand-written notes."
Yusuf smiled. "I can't check my phone in the middle of service," he said. "A note can reach me."
"Good to know," she replied.
"So did you find out what you wanted to know?" he asked.
"Some of it," she said. "It's even more relationship based than I thought."
"Those two men at your table."
"Yes. If the game is going to succeed, we'll need to find some whales who're bored, who want something new. That will bring in the others who will want to challenge them on a slightly more level playing field."
"More level because no one will have much experience with the new game?"
"Exactly. We'll need previews, private showings, and we'll need to roll it out internationally."
"But what about the game itself?" Yusuf asked.
"That's easier, actually," she said. "Symbol-based, simple to start but with hidden complexities. I already have a start and was going to teach it to Arthur and Eames later this week if you'd like to join?"
"I would like nothing better," Yusuf replied.
Every day at three o'clock—before Yusuf's first dinner seating, and late enough when everyone else could be counted on to be awake (even Eames)—the six of them met in the conference room off Cobb's office, where Ariadne had interviewed. Roughly once a week Saito would call in, though even when he did it was Cobb's meeting. He kept it to an informal hour, an opportunity to status, bring up potential issues before they grew into problems, and bounce ideas off each other. Not that they weren't all in contact all day; Yusuf and Ariadne's work overlapped with both Arthur and Eames, and they with each other, and of course Mal needed to know about any interruptions in the usual routine as soon as possible. But Cobb didn't like surprises, and it was better for everyone when he could easily answer any question Saito might put to him.
Ariadne actually liked the daily meetings; they added just enough structure to her day. Unlike the others, she didn't manage a staff, but rather dealt with outside vendors like the slot machine people. The daily meeting made her feel part of a team again.
It was after one daily meeting about three weeks after she'd arrived in Las Vegas that Mal approached her about playing golf, saying, "I can tell by your complexion that you aren't spending enough time outside."
"I'm a terrible golfer," Ariadne said, remembering tagging along with foursomes at annoying conferences to get face time with whomever.
"Ah, so am I," Mal replied, waving a hand. "We can be shitty together and not bother the others."
"Others?" Ariadne asked.
"Dominic and Arthur. Saito when he's in town."
Saito had left Las Vegas after making Ariadne her offer and she hadn't seen him since, though she gathered that this was his usual pattern. "Not Eames?"
"Golf bores him," Mal said. "He kickboxes, or no, MMA, with a trainer."
"Huh," Ariadne said.
"You didn't ask about Yusuf," Mal said.
"He drives fast cars. I can't imagine him golfing. Can you?"
"No," Mal said, smiling.
And so here they were with a nine o'clock tee time. They were just about good enough that not too many people needed to play through. Well at least, not on every hole.
"But isn't this nice?" Mal asked. "To be outside before it gets too hot. A purposeful walk."
"It is, actually," Ariadne replied, as it was more pleasant than she'd been expecting.
"I admit that selfishly I was hoping you would take the job. It's a blessing to have another woman on the team. Especially one who doesn't want to shop all the time, like my friends when they visit." Mal stuck her tee into the soil at the ninth hole. "Refreshing," she added, swinging at the ball and sending it flying into the rough. "Ah well."
"My friends all want to see Cirque du Soleil," Ariadne replied.
"Did you speak to Eames about that?" Mal asked.
"I didn't want to—"
"Bother him? No. He'd be insulted if you didn't ask him to get your tickets. Backstage, even. He's very proud of his ability to ingratiate himself with everyone."
"Good to know," Ariadne said, before driving her ball into the sand trap.
As they walked away from the tee, Mal said, "I see you're spending time with Yusuf as well. That's good; he's very shy. So easy for him to shut himself off in his kitchen and speak to almost no one except Eames."
"Oh, yes," Ariadne replied. "I don't know, he seems easy to me. We talk about work, and he feeds me what he's working on."
"And helps you test your game," Mal said.
This could be awkward, as she hadn't invited the Cobbs. "Arthur suggested I wait—"
"He was correct," Mal said. "I'm very competitive. I always want to win."
"You seem okay with playing golf badly," Ariadne pointed out.
"Because you play still worse," she replied, smiling. "If I were here with Dominic I would be screaming with rage right now."
Ariadne looked at Mal, thinking of the two men at the poker table the week before. "Then he was correct—and I'll need both of you when the game is closer to being finished."
"Of course," Mal replied. "Anything we can do."
Ariadne could hear Eames and Arthur's voices all the way down the hall, so she was trepidatious when she knocked on the door. When Eames opened it he was frowning, but that turned to a broad smile.
"Thank goodness you're here, darling," he said, and ushered her across the threshold.
"What's going on?" she asked.
Arthur came around the corner. "Robert Fischer is coming tomorrow and it's upending everything, is what's going on."
"Poor Arthur," Eames said. "He doesn't like having his plans spoiled."
"I can think on my feet, thank you very much," Arthur said, and walked back out of the room again.
"Of course you can, but you're a bear while you're doing it," Eames replied. He led Ariadne to the dining table, where wine glasses and small plates were laid out.
"What does Arthur need to do for him?" Ariadne asked, setting down the box of game components and beginning to unpack them.
Eames counted on his fingers. "First, we have to give him his suite, which means Arthur has been playing checkers with rooms all day and moving the whales about without offending anyone. It's an art, and he does it well, but it does stress him."
"I'm opening the sauv blanc!" Arthur shouted from another room.
"You do that, darling," Eames said. "Second, I have to make sure that we have on hand every ticket for everything that's arrived in town since he was here last. And third, Yusuf needs to make sure that they have what they need to make the things that Fischer tends to request."
"Sounds very high maintenance for a man who doesn't even own the hotel anymore," Ariadne said. "Do you have to do all this for Saito?"
Arthur came back with two open bottles of wine, a white and a red. "Saito is easy," he said. "He maintains a suite here in our tower, rather than staying in one of the guest rooms. Yusuf already generally prepares whatever Saito might want to eat."
"And he nearly always comes to town for the opening night of the big shows," Eames said, "so he's seen everything."
"The problem with Robert Fischer," Arthur said, "is that he doesn't even realize how high maintenance he is. He was born wealthy and always had everything at his fingertips. His father requested that all of his casinos continue to treat Robert as they always did, and Saito honored that request." There was another knock on the door, and Arthur went to answer it.
"And the worst of it is," Eames said, "he spends all of his time giving the money away to fund businesses, venture capital, all these charitable organizations. He even gets his hands dirty, spends a lot of time in the field. Hard to begrudge him a bit of luxury when he's just returned from digging wells in darkest Africa or something."
"Pardon me," Yusuf said, walking into the room. "I was born in darkest Africa and we had running water thank you very much."
"Were you really?" Ariadne asked.
"Kenya," Yusuf replied. "But my uncle heard that I wanted to cook, and brought me to London when I was sixteen. I studied in Paris."
"So did I," Ariadne replied. "That's where Mal's father teaches."
"Of course," Yusuf said. "Well, I wonder if we might have walked past each other then."
"I might have already eaten your food," Ariadne said.
"Well, we all get to eat it now," Eames said. "What did you bring us?"
"Oh, yes, sorry," Yusuf said, and set the containers down on the side board. "I'm trying some more vegetarian snacks for room service and the cocktail lounges, experimenting with different dumplings from various traditions. Nothing too heavy. This one is quite spicy so you'll like that, Arthur. This other one is more sour-sweet so that's for Eames. And this one is mild, a bit salty, which Ariadne likes."
"Ah, you know us so well," Eames said, happily taking the indicated container. "Now, Ariadne, tell us about your game."
"These cards," she said, handing them out, "will eventually be tiles, so you'll be able to slide them around the table."
"Like mah jong?" Yusuf asked.
"Somewhat, but the game play—actually, it works better if I tell you the concept after you've played. Let's get a dry run now."
She explained the rules, which didn't take long as they were still simple, and left them to it, watching to see how easily they picked it up, how the game flowed. There were a lot of stops and starts, and some mishaps along the way, but she had proof of concept. She had an actual game, that people could play, and bet on, and feel fairly treated by.
"And look at that," Eames said. "You've made Arthur smile."
Arthur was smiling, balancing on his tipped back chair as he often did, though Ariadne thought that was likely more the result of company, wine, and the day being over than anything else. But he said, "It's a good game. You should be proud of yourself."
"Indeed," Yusuf said, nodding. "You have watched me create all this time. It was a pleasure to see you in your element."
"Thank you," she replied. Funny, she was still surrounded by men, and yet it felt so different than her last job.
She and Yusuf left soon after that, to allow Arthur to get a good night's sleep, as he was the first line of defense when it came to the requests of Robert Fischer.
"Is he really as bad as Eames makes him out to be?" she asked Yusuf, who was walking her down the hall to her own suite.
"Not really," Yusuf replied. "Eames just dislikes the state Fischer puts Arthur in. He might give Arthur a hard time, but he very much likes to be the only one who gets to do so. Being soothing and conciliatory is not his strong suit, but he can't resent Arthur for needing it, so he resents Fischer for requiring it. You might not even run across Fischer while he's here."
"Might not?" Ariadne asked. "I'm not sure why I would?"
"Oh he sometimes comes to the daily meeting. Likes to feel like he's carrying on something from his father, or carrying his weight, or some such. Of course he might not. He's mercurial, that one. It's my understanding that his relationship with his father was rather difficult, and he was actually relieved that Saito took on the burden of the Fischer empire." Yusuf paused, as they had now reached her door. "From my dealings with him, I would agree that his temperament is better suited to the charity work he does now than to running a network of hotels and casinos."
"Now you've made him sound interesting," Ariadne said. "But I should let you go."
"Yes, it is getting late," Yusuf said. "But please don't let tomorrow's chaos keep you from coming down to the kitchen tomorrow morning."
"I wouldn't dream of it," she said. On impulse, she gave him a hug. "Thanks again for all your help."
He looked down with that shy little smile she now recognized. "It was an honor to be of some assistance," he said. "Good night."
"Good night," Ariadne said, and walked into her suite. Yusuf was awfully sweet, really. She'd have to remember, after the Fischer-generated chaos had come and gone, to ask Eames what Yusuf's deal was, romantically speaking. Eames always knew that sort of thing.
Yusuf was humming to himself as he went through his morning routine, because he had a crush, and he was fairly sure that his crush object was crushing back. Right, so this was grammar school language but Yusuf had never been particularly good at romance. He was slow to notice not only other people's interest in him but also his interest in them, and many was the time that he only noticed long after they'd given up on him and moved on. Granted, it had never happened as quickly as it was with Ariadne—he'd only known her a month!
His friends tended to worry about him, he knew. Eames had gone so far as to offer his and Arthur's bed to Yusuf rather than his going to some professional, which was Eames's way of caring. But Yusuf was used to being alone. At first he was so focused on his training and the new ideas for dishes were coming so quickly that there didn't seem to be enough hours in the day. Then he got the opportunity here in Las Vegas and was focused on the challenge Mrs. Saito had laid down for him: to create a three-star restaurant. He did it in less than a year, and while he wasn't one to rest on his laurels (the Michelin people wouldn't let him, anyway) he found that now, finally, he had some room to breathe.
And, apparently, to develop crushes on creative young women with unadventurous palates.
Perhaps after Fischer had been and gone, he would try to gauge her interest. He'd ask Eames how to go about it. Eames would have good advice.
Actually, on second thought, perhaps he'd ask Arthur.
He was still humming to himself as he made Ariadne's breakfast; his sous-chef commented on it. True, he kept a relatively quiet kitchen, which helped him to think. But there was nothing wrong with expressing a bit of joy, when joy was found.
Ariadne came by around ten o'clock, still excited that their try-out of her game the night before had gone so well. With her she had some options for designs for the tiles, though she refused to show them to Yusuf yet.
"Unfair, Ariadne!" he said, but he was smiling. "It isn't nice to tease."
She smiled back. "You'll be the first to see the finished ones, I promise," she said.
He heard voices in the restaurant, and looked up sharply. Arthur, accompanying Robert Fischer, came in through the door.
"I'm sorry, Yusuf," Fischer said. "I know you're not a short-order cook but I just got off a long flight and I'm craving those delightful eggs of yours. Could you?"
"Of course, of course," Yusuf replied, because it really was no bother. "Please, sit," he said, waving his hand at the chef table in the corner.
"Actually, I think the place to sit is here at your counter," he said, extending his hand. "I'm Robert Fischer."
"I'm Ariadne," she said, shaking it.
"Oh! The game wizard Arthur was telling me about!" He smiled winningly. "No wonder you're sitting here with Yusuf. He's a wizard, too, and wizards flock together."
Ariadne laughed. "I don't know about being a wizard," she said, "but I am trying to create a new game."
Fischer pulled over a stool and sat down. "Tell me all about it," he said. "Maybe I can help."
Yusuf glanced up at Arthur, who looked startled, then shrugged.
"Mr. Fischer, if you need anything else?" Arthur asked.
Fischer didn't turn around. "I know where to find you. Thank you."
Arthur nodded, and left the room.
Yusuf made eggs for Fischer and listened to him asking Ariadne about her new game. She laughed and tucked her hair behind her ear and his mouth felt dry.
Suddenly Yusuf realized that they were flirting, right there in front of him. They were doing that thing regular people who weren't slow to become attracted to someone and painfully shy on top of that did to show interest. (Well, except Eames, who flirted like it was breathing with everyone within a five-mile radius.)
But what could he do? He hadn't given any indication of how he felt—hadn't even realized it until the night before. He would just wait. Fischer was like a hurricane, blowing everything around before leaving as quickly as he came. Then Yusuf would declare himself (somehow; maybe Eames could give him some pointers) and Ariadne could make up her own mind.
At least she wasn't showing Fischer the preliminary designs, either. That was something.
Fischer attended the daily meeting. He'd never shown up to one before, but this time he came in with Ariadne, sat right down next to her. Cobb said of course he was welcome and they got on with it. It was mostly the usual, Yusuf might have said something about shipments or reservation issues. He wasn't really paying attention even when he himself was speaking.
Then it was Ariadne's turn, and after a bit of preliminaries having to do with the status of the new slot machines, she gave a quick overview of the game trial from the night before, and that she wanted to work on it a bit and see how it would do in other markets.
And that was when Fischer said, "We should go on a research trip around the casino network! Ariadne's been telling me about this game and it sounds wonderful but I think she needs to experience first-hand the other environments in which her game might be played. I'd be more than happy to facilitate that."
"Really?" Ariadne asked. "I mean, that sounds like a wonderful idea but I wouldn't want to impose—"
"No imposition at all," Fischer said, and was he looking into her eyes?
He was absolutely looking into her eyes. Yusuf's grip tightened on the arm of his chair.
"I don't know if I can be gone for very long," Ariadne said, but she sounded excited.
"Two weeks is all we'd need," Fischer said. "If the others can spare you, of course."
They all looked at each other, and Yusuf was sure everyone was looking at him and looking away. He felt his face heating with shame, which annoyed him; he wasn't important enough to either Fischer or Ariadne to claim that they were humiliating him, after all.
"Ariadne works very independently at the moment," Cobb said, "since we haven't started to implement her games yet. How long before we get the prototype slot machine?"
"Three weeks, give or take," Ariadne said.
"Well, you have a blackberry and a laptop," Cobb said.
"Wow," Ariadne said, smiling, and looked at Fischer again. "I guess I'll take you up on that!"
"Fantastic!" he said. "We can leave tomorrow if you like."
"Sure," Ariadne said, then turned to Yusuf. "I'm sure you'll be glad to have a break from my eggs and ham sandwiches."
"It was no imposition at all," he said, then realized that Fischer had said the same thing not five minutes before, and cursed himself for being so terrible at this. It felt like everyone was looking at him, suddenly, and did they all know? They must all know. Yusuf sat up and attempted to look dignified. "I should probably get back to the kitchen."
"Of course," Cobb said. "Anyone have anything else?"
They all shook their heads.
"All right, I'll see you all tomorrow. Well, except for Ariadne."
Yusuf was mindful enough not to run out of the room, but neither did he linger. He gave everyone a smile, then headed down to the kitchens, to his sanctuary.
But when he arrived he still felt dark and murderous, which wouldn't be fair at all to the staff. He needed a way to blow off steam before service or he'd make everyone's night hell and not improve his own one iota.
Just then one of the line cooks was coming into the kitchen, so he called out to her.
"Mind if I help with mise-en-place tonight?" he asked, smiling. "I promise to maintain Chef's high standards."
She laughed and nodded, and as he got out his knives he started to feel his feet back under him again. A few hours of precise chopping was just the therapy he needed. And if he opted to chop all the onions needed that night, well, no one need know why.
To say that Robert Fischer wasn't like anyone she'd ever met would be an understatement. Oh, she'd been around wealthy and powerful men a few times, but they were generally self-made tech millionaires who were still geeks at heart. Their egos were plenty big, but centered much more around their brains than anything else.
Robert, though, had that kind of careless entitlement that reminded Ariadne of an F. Scott Fitzgerald character. And yes, he spent most of his time in charitable works, and was incredibly knowledgeable about the current situation in Uganda and the Central African Republic; that wasn't just showboating and check-writing he was doing. Ariadne found him fascinating to watch.
"We should start in Argentina," he said that night at dinner, "and end in Monte Carlo."
"But Saito doesn't own a casino in Monte Carlo," she said. "The country of Monaco owns it."
Robert shook head, smiling a little, and Ariadne felt uncomfortably condescended to. "Of course, of course," he said, "but the people there, they're the ones you want to attract to our casinos with your game, aren't they?"
"I suppose you're right," Ariadne said, though she was still irritated.
He put one hand over hers, on the table. "I'm sorry," he said, and actually looked fairly contrite.
But she knew men like this, who apologized whenever a woman was annoyed, and said, "For what?"
He blinked; clearly he wasn't used to that sort of response. "I suppose, for treating you like the other people I meet. Someone who works for me, or …" he trailed off, breaking eye contact with her. "Or someone who wants something from me."
"You're taking me on a trip," she said.
"But that's out in the open," he replied. "Sometimes people want secret things." He picked up his wine glass. "Here's to no secrets between us."
"To no secrets," she said.
The next morning she went down to the kitchen a little early, wanting to have her omelet there rather than in her room. She was packed and ready to go, though it was strange that she didn't have tickets or an exact flight but just a vague time to meet Robert in her suite. Yusuf seemed surprised to see her, but made her eggs with his usual pleasant manner.
"I put in some cheese," he said. "As a treat. And shallots."
"Special eggs," she said, smiling.
He looked away shyly. "Well, since you won't be getting them for a while, I thought it might be nice."
"Yusuf," she said, waiting until he was looking at her again. "I'll miss them. I'll miss our mornings. I'll miss your notes."
"I'm sure you'll be far too busy with your work to miss any of us," he said, but he seemed pleased.
"Not a bit," she said. "In fact, would you make me a ham sandwich for the trip?"
"Fischer has a chef on his plane, you know," Yusuf said.
"But they don't know how to make me a ham sandwich the way you do," she said. "Please? And I promise, I will bring back the most pungent spices I can find as long as you don't use them on anything for me."
Yusuf laughed. "It's a deal, then," he said, and began to peruse the pantry just behind him.
Ariadne meant what she'd said—she would miss this, even if it was only for two weeks. Yes she'd miss the food, and that was easy to joke about. But she'd also miss being able to wake up into the still peacefulness of Yusuf's kitchen, spend time there just letting her mind wander, sequestered from the constant overstimulation of the rest of the city. Half of the pleasure of the trip, she knew, would be coming back and telling him about it.
If she were being honest with herself, she wouldn't mind spending more time with Yusuf, but she couldn't tell how he might react if she asked. She didn't want to ruin what they had now, which felt like as much of a very careful balance as any of his dishes. Better not to say anything, at least until she got back.
Yusuf handed her the sandwich, carefully packed into one of his colorful boxes. "I gave you a small treat as well," he said, smiling.
"What?" she asked.
"Ah, you'll have to wait to find out," he replied.
As she took the box she thought, okay, Ariadne, when you get back from this trip, no excuses.
Robert Fischer, on the other hand, was completely easy to read, at least for Ariadne. And he was much more obvious about what he wanted. The oddest thing is that it didn't seem to have any strings attached, either the trip or his obvious interest in her. But this was a business trip, and she was a professional. She'd done this before. She knew how to keep things separate.
Once they were on their way, Robert said, "I hope you don't mind, but I'm going to take the liberty of buying you some appropriate dresses."
Ariadne scowled. "But I have—"
"You'll want to look the part," he interrupted. "And it's not fair to make you pay for that."
"And it's fair for you?"
Robert shrugged. "I can write it all off as a business expense."
"For a business you don't own."
"Five percent, actually," he said. "For sentiment's sake, mostly, but it comes in handy."
She wanted to feel affronted, to resent his knowledge of these people and the way they worked, because of course they would judge her for what she was wearing. She wanted to reject the Pretty Woman bullshit, the being on the arm of a wealthy man who'd dressed her up and brought her to the casino. She certainly wanted to reject the pull of how attractive and charming he was, how attractive and charming he clearly found her, and how it had been a while—since before she moved to Vegas, since she stopped dating Jack because it wasn't going anywhere.
Then she thought of that anthropology class she took her freshman year of college, about the importance of fitting in with the population one studied, and wondered: why not? Why not just spend these two weeks letting herself get sucked up into his whirl of gaiety, treat it as a vacation from herself? Why not soak it all up and use it to make the game better?
Why not fuck Robert Fischer, actually, if it came to that? Was there an actual reason not to?
She leaned back in her chair and smiled at him. "All right," she said. "Your trip, we can do it your way."
His eyebrows shot up. "What made you change your mind?" he asked.
"Oh, just decided to go with the flow, I think," she said, and rooted out the ham sandwich, which Yusuf had packed with two soft chocolate chip cookies, and she had to smile at that. Maybe some time spent as a decorative object would give her the push she needed to work out what was going on with Yusuf, especially since she was the one putting herself there.
Maybe this was just what she needed.
Ariadne and Robert went in and out of each city so quickly that they all merged together, but maybe that was the point. After all, the whales flew into Vegas, played for at most three days, then flew back out again. The two of them rarely ventured outside the casino, never took in a show, only sometimes ate in the fine restaurants that were in all of Saito's hotels. One place really did become just like the next; they even saw some of the same people. The game rooms were decorated differently, but offered the same games, the same routines. Ariadne had to think about both how to fit her game in and how to make the difference a welcome change rather than an unnecessary interruption. She was still breaking even playing poker with Saito's money, too; the whales were thrown enough by a pretty face that she could take advantage, then leave the table before they adjusted their game play.
During the day she would venture out into the city, always with one of Robert's bodyguards in tow, looking for preserved foodstuffs she could bring back for Yusuf. She sent him postcards, too, thinking of the notes that she was missing, and telling him that all the food was lousy. It was the only time she came close to being herself, rather than the gambling girl on the arm of an heir, and she relished it. But that wasn't Robert's fault; she hadn't felt like herself the night she went into the high rollers' room in Vegas, and she'd been with Yusuf at the time.
Oh, and she was fucking Robert. She didn't mention that in the postcards.
It started after that first night in Argentina. They left the gambling rooms and gone to one of the cocktail lounges for a celebratory bottle of champagne. The moon was rising over the Paraná River, and she was wearing a short red sparkly dress he'd bought her that afternoon, and he was impressed with her skill at the poker table, and when she leaned forward, laughing, he kissed her and she kissed back.
He pulled back, a question in his eyes, and she just put her hand on his and said: "Let's go up to your room."
After that, they just got one room. And weirdly, it didn't change much. Robert was still respectful of her opinions, her abilities, still talked to her about her game and what she was gleaning from their trip. And he was still dressing her for each casino like some kind of international Barbie doll. Maybe his hand on her waist felt a little more comfortable since it had already been between her legs, but that was about it.
Not that Robert wasn't a good lover. He was considerate, if a little distant. He was eager to go down on her, but didn't seem fussed about actually fucking her after that first time, happy for hand jobs though Ariadne sucked him off sometimes just on principle. It was a good itch scratch, and all indications from Robert were that that was all he intended on his part, too.
That was just fine with Ariadne; it added to the unreality of the whole thing. Or maybe surreal was a better word, what with the jet-setting and the pretty dresses and being almost completely insulated from the real world. The proletarian in her was vaguely horrified at how easily serious money could keep you from anything unpleasant, and it was even more fascinating that Robert spent the rest of his time deliberately stepping outside that bubble with his charity work—work that he never, ever discussed with her.
But for two weeks, the bubble was kinda fun.
Except there was this one day, in Macau, when the bubble was, not burst really, but intruded upon. They were at the poker table as usual, Robert sitting behind her as she played, and suddenly she noticed him tensing.
"Something wrong?" she asked.
"No, I just—I thought I saw someone I knew," he said. "But I was mistaken."
He sounded a bit sad, which was strange; they were carefully avoiding negative emotions on this trip. So she glanced around the room, turning in the opposite direction that he had, and caught a man staring at them. He was a little older than her, maybe around Cobb's age, and he was blond-haired and square-jawed. He fit in, looked every inch the part of another high-roller enjoying the casino, except that the look in his eyes was cold, as if he was angry at Ariadne even though she'd never seen him before in her life. She shuddered.
"Let's leave for Monte Carlo in the morning, shall we?" Robert said.
"Please," Ariadne said. She left the game soon after, but by then the man was nowhere to be found.
Monte Carlo, on the other hand, was everything she'd seen in the movies and more. Everyone really did wear tuxedos and evening gowns; everyone did mostly play baccarat; and everyone did seem to exist on champagne. She liked it a lot, and was glad that Robert had saved it for the end.
The man from Macau wasn't there. She knew because she looked for him, and she never forgot a face, particularly someone who'd given her such a murderous look. She wondered if Robert had known he couldn't follow them here.
They were on the balcony of their room on the final night, snuggling on a chaise and looking out over the lights of the harbor.
"I think I know how to get them now," she said.
He kissed her on the shoulder. "If you build it, they will come?" he asked.
She giggled. "Something like that," she replied, and turned in his arms to kiss him.
Yusuf appreciated the postcards. It was very thoughtful of Ariadne to think of him while she was away. He was very sure she was thinking of the others, too, so even though he saved every one in the drawer of his bedside table, he didn't let himself think too much of it.
Until one Monday afternoon, during the second week she was away, found him in Eames's office, with Arthur. It was odd to have downtime but they did; the only event they were getting ready for was a visit from Saito and his wife to check in. Mrs. Saito was quite the gastronome—she was a food writer in Japan and had been a judge on Iron Chef on several occasions—and had been instrumental in getting Yusuf this job after she found him working as the executive chef at a small place in Manhattan. He was looking forward to a special dinner, on a Monday when the restaurant would ordinarily be closed, to show her his newest ideas and as always thank her for the opportunity through his food.
But that was easily planned, and now they were just sitting around talking when Yusuf mentioned the postcards, as offhand as possible.
Eames, who'd been bouncing a racquetball off the wall, caught the ball and turned. "Postcards? Ariadne's been sending you postcards?"
"Yes," Yusuf said. "I assume she's been sending them to everyone?"
"I didn't get any postcards," Arthur said.
"Neither did I," said Eames, who held up one finger before trotting just down the hall to Mal's office, sticking his head in. They could hear him ask, though not her answer, but when Eames returned he was shaking his head.
"Well, Yusuf," Arthur said, grinning. "Why didn't you tell us?"
"Tell you what, exactly?" he asked, suddenly feeling very confused.
Eames perched on the corner of his desk. "That you had something going with Ariadne. Good on you. Though you're both certainly playing it close to the vest. Dunno why."
"There are certainly no anti-fraternization rules at this casino," Arthur said.
"No, you mistake me," Yusuf said. "We don't—there's nothing to tell. I make her eggs. She comes to my kitchen and works in the mornings and I make her ham sandwiches."
"Well, isn't that your way of courting?" Eames asked. "Food, I mean."
Yusuf shrugged. "I didn't mean—that is, I didn't know that I wanted to court her until that night we played her game, to be honest." He sighed. "I was actually going to ask you for your advice."
"Hold on, you've never said anything to her?" Eames asked.
Yusuf shook his head.
"Even after we played her game?" Arthur asked. "And you walked her home?"
"I didn't—what is one to say?" Yusuf asked, and felt hopeless and incompetent. "And now, with Fischer—"
"Ariadne is far too savvy to get involved with someone like Fischer," Eames pronounced. "You needn't worry about that."
"We should focus on what you can do," Arthur said. "Which, let's face it, is cook."
"And I've already done that for her," Yusuf said.
Eames hummed. "But not with intent," he said. "You haven't made her a meal that is clearly a seduction. You've cooked with her in mind, yes, and you've accommodated her preferences, but that is something any friend might do—or she might think that you consider her a challenge of some sort. You haven't declared yourself."
"You can't just be nice to a girl and expect her to fall for you eventually," Arthur said.
"I know that," Yusuf said. "I didn't expect—that is, I know that I haven't yet done anything. I just didn't know what it was that I should do. That's why I was going to ask you."
"But why did you wait so long, mate?" Eames asked.
"Because I didn't know!" Yusuf said, and it was painful even to him to hear the despair in his own voice. "I never know. It isn't—it isn't instant, for me, a pretty face or a fine body or what have you. I need to know her. I need time."
"It's fine, Yusuf," Arthur said. "It's not too late. All that friend zone stuff is bullshit anyway—" Then he stopped short, and pointed to the open door. "Is that who I think it is?"
They scrambled to the door and looked down the hall and saw a familiar dark haired man talking to Cobb's assistant.
"I thought Mal banned him," Yusuf said.
Arthur went back down the hall and silently summoned Mal, then pointed at the man.
Mal strode past them, purposefully, and the man looked up just as she reached him.
He held up his hands, a handsome, winning smile on his face. "You know I wouldn't be here if it wasn't urgent."
"I threw you out once, Danny Ocean," she said, shaking her finger in his face, "and I can do it again."
"He called," Cobb said, emerging from his office.
She turned. "And you didn't see the need to tell me?"
Cobb sighed. "Let's all just come into my office," he said, beckoning Arthur, Eames and Yusuf as well.
They settled in—Arthur and Yusuf on one couch, Eames in one of the chairs, Cobb behind his desk and Mal perched on the corner. Danny remained standing in the middle of the room.
"So what's this emergency, Danny?" Cobb asked.
"Before I start," he said, "I want to remind you that you owe me."
"For what?" Cobb asked, scowling.
"Getting rid of Willy Bank should be enough," Danny replied, "but Terry Benedict didn't buy that fourth casino because of us."
"All right," Cobb replied. "What do you want?"
"One of my guys has something going on Fischer," he said. "Very long play. And your lady gambler is messing it up. I need you to call her off."
"For what reason?" Cobb asked. "Besides, she's back in a few days anyway. I don't understand the issue. Your guy can meet back up with Fischer when he's back in town. It's not like he's here all the time anyway."
"What if I said that I had it on good authority that she and Fischer aren't keeping things strictly professional?" he asked.
Yusuf's eyes widened. He'd been wondering, and yet hoping—but perhaps he was wrong.
"If she's up to anything with Fischer other than touring the other casinos in the network, that's her own business," Cobb said. "I can't do anything about that."
Mal added, "Everyone knows Fischer doesn't keep his playthings for long."
"Looks like more than a plaything to my guy," Danny said. "And he should know; he's been observing Fischer very closely for some time now."
"Look, I'm all for returning favors," Cobb said. "You know that. But asking Ariadne to stop dating someone—that's a lot. And I don't see where me or this casino would have any interest in that."
"Actually," Eames said casually, "we might."
"You mean," Cobb said, and Yusuf wasn't sure how Cobb managed to indicate him without actually looking at him at all.
Eames nodded. "Mr. Ocean, I propose a dinner. Say, a week after Fischer and Ariadne get back into town? Saito is bringing his wife to Las Vegas to check in on things, and I know Yusuf has been wanting a group of appreciative diners to try some new food out on."
"So you're suggesting I provide those appreciative diners?" Danny asked.
"I'm only suggesting that your 'guy' as you call him be among them," Eames said.
"And how will this do anything?"
Arthur stood up. "The reason that Cobb is … reluctant to agree to just 'calling off' Ariadne, as you put it, is that he can't. She makes up her own mind."
"What we're suggesting is presenting an alternative," Eames said.
"So you're going to con her?" Danny asked.
"Not at all," Arthur said. "It's straightforward. If Ariadne accepts that alternative, everyone gets what they want. And even if she rejects it, she might still reject Fischer. After all, while I accept your guy's observational skills where Fischer is concerned, he doesn't know anything about Ariadne. We only have his word for it that she's interested in anything serious enough with Fischer that it would get in his way."
"Believe me, it wouldn't take much," Danny said, shrugging. "So what's the alternative?"
"Leave that to us," Eames said. "Just get your guy there and we'll make sure he's sitting near his mark. The rest is up to Ariadne and Fischer."
Danny sighed. "I don't like leaving this much beyond my control."
Eames stood up and put his hands on his hips. "Forgive me for saying, but I don't think you have a choice."
"Fine, we'll do it your way," Danny said, "but if it doesn't work—"
"If it doesn't work," Cobb said, "your guy has bigger problems."
"True. Well, tell me the date, and I'll bring the people."
Eames nodded. "We'll be in touch."
Danny started to walk out of the room.
"By the way," Cobb said, standing up, "which of your guys is working on Fischer anyway?"
Danny spun on his heel, smiling, and wagged his finger. "See, I knew you were going to ask me that," he said, "but I was really hoping you wouldn't."
"Who is it, Ocean?" Cobb asked again.
"Linus, but before you get excited—"
"Are you kidding me?" Cobb shouted, trying to walk around the desk before being stopped by Mal and Eames. "You come into my office and want me to help him?"
"You should think of it as helping me," Danny said. "Don't worry about him."
"Dominic!" Mal shouted at him, and he stopped struggling against Eames's hold. "Look at me." Once he made eye contact, she said, "We're not in Boston anymore."
Cobb grimaced, but he calmed down. "All right," he said, "but after this, we're even, no matter what the outcome is!"
Danny shrugged. "That's more than fair," he said, and walked out of the room.
"Well, Yusuf," Cobb said, "I hope you can pull this off."
"If it can be done," Yusuf said, determined, "I shall do it." He left the room filled with a clarity he hadn't felt since he first met Ariadne. Eames was right—he had to declare his intentions, then let her make her decision.
But the declaring bit? He knew exactly what to do.
Ariadne really didn't expect much to have changed in the two weeks she'd been gone, but she came back to find the four men on her team very involved in planning some kind of enormous dinner.
"To which you are invited, of course," Yusuf said the first morning she went to see him. "But I'm afraid I'll be very busy until then."
"Of course I understand," she said. "I can find eggs and ham sandwiches someplace else. They just won't be the same."
"I should hope not," Yusuf said, smiling.
"Anyway," she said, handing him a box, "I brought you a present."
"Well!" he said, opening it.
"You probably know what those things are," she said.
"Very likely," he said, pulling out jars and bags and bottles of spices and condiments she'd found in the cities she'd visited. "This is really lovely. Thank you, Ariadne."
"Maybe it will help you for your dinner," she said.
"Indeed it will," he said, looking over the assortment greedily. "This is just the thing."
"Good," she said, feeling satisfied. "You've always been such a help to me. Glad to return the favor." She paused, watching as he stroked the bottles reverently. "Well, I should let you get to it," she said, hopping off the stool.
"That is probably best," Yusuf said with his warm little smile. "But I will see you at the dinner."
"Absolutely," she promised. "I look forward to it."
She made her way upstairs, but she felt unsettled and annoyed. She'd so been looking forward to things being back to normal, to being able to see where this thing with Yusuf could go, but she couldn't see any signs that he'd even missed her or was happy that she was back. He was as difficult to read as he'd ever been.
And now she didn't even have the outlet of easy sex to turn to. Robert was returning for the dinner, but had been decidedly uninterested in spending any more time in Vegas than necessary. He was in New York now, on business for his charity, and she didn't expect to hear from him. They hadn't had that sort of arrangement.
Work helped, but she was at that place with the new game where she needed to sit and think and let the pieces fall where they should, and lately that had meant sitting in Yusuf's kitchen for as long as he let her. She was glad that she had the new slots to distract her; that required only a series of yeses and nos back to the programmer, and they might have a prototype to show off to Saito when he was in town. At least she knew that the idea would work across his casino network, thanks to her tour with Robert.
Arthur and Eames had tasks associated with the dinner as well, but they were able to make time to have Ariadne over for a movie and some wine, though she knew well it was mostly to pump her for information about her trip. She was happy to give it to them, going on at length about the subtle differences in the inner sanctums in Argentina, Goa, Macau, Cairo, Monte Carlo, and Vegas, and how she might alter the game for each city. She talked about shifts in rules to control the flow of the game play, make it easier for gamblers to sit in at any time and to feel successful versus the house and the other players.
She didn't say anything about the new dresses hanging in her closet, or Robert, or the mysterious man in Macau.
Cobb was testy and irritable for no apparent reason, though he calmed down a bit once she showed him the progress on the slots and her own game. The room card interaction with the slots was possible, with Arthur's help, and now she just had to make it worthwhile for the guest, including non-cash prizes like better seats at various shows—this was Eames's suggestion. After she presented Cobb her thoughts on the new game for the whales he sat back in his chair and nodded.
"Terrific work, Ariadne," he said, almost smiling. "I think Saito will be very pleased to see what you've done."
"Thanks," she said, and it wasn't until then that she realized how much she'd been hoping for his good opinion.
The day of the dinner, Mal took Ariadne out for a round of golf. Ariadne was feeling a little out of practice, not to mention out of step generally without her daily dose of Yusuf, and her first tee-off went very badly, straight into the rough.
"Sorry," she said. "Guess the stress of that dinner is getting to me, too."
"Those boys are going to spin themselves into butter over this dinner," Mal said, shaking her head. "It's best to get out of the line of fire."
"Is that why Cobb has been so …" She paused, worried what word would be the most polite to say in front of his wife.
"Why he's being such an ass?" she asked, thrusting her tee into the ground with gusto. "Because some of the guests at this dinner aren't his favorite people. Las Vegas is a small town with long memories."
"Who's coming?" she asked. "Besides us, I mean."
"Danny Ocean and some of his friends," she said. She wasn't looking at Ariadne, but down the fairway, judging her shot.
"Danny Ocean? The one who pulled that job at the Bellagio a few years ago? That Danny Ocean?"
Mal looked at her, a wry smile on her face. "There is only one Danny Ocean," she replied.
"But I thought—wouldn't he be banned from the casino?"
"He is," Mal replied, "but not for the Bellagio job. He tried something else with us, a few years before he went in that first time."
"And didn't succeed?" Ariadne asked.
Mal smiled. "What do you think?" she asked. She teed off, straight down the fairway and onto the green.
"Wow," Ariadne said. "I think that's the best shot I've seen you make."
"Maybe I should picture the con men I've kicked out of my casino as the ball when I take my swing," she said. "It does make me feel more confident."
Ariadne turned to her, eyes wide. "Remind me not to get on your bad side," she said.
"I wouldn't advise it," Mal said, and led the way down to their next shot. "Oh and you should know, the casino business is quite the rumor mill. Internationally, too, not just in Las Vegas."
"You mean, Robert?" she asked. "That was temporary."
"I don't care," she said. "I'm not here to pass judgment. I wanted you to know that everyone else knows, too. So you aren't blindsided."
"Even Yusuf?" she asked, using the excuse of finding her ball in the rough to avoid eye contact with Mal.
"Like many geniuses, Yusuf can get lost in his own head sometimes," Mal said. "Or at least, in his kitchen. And he rarely lets anyone else in who doesn't work for him."
"I guess that's true," Ariadne said. She spotted her ball and stood over it, then looked back at Mal.
"But you worked in his kitchen for weeks," Mal said. "Eames says you created that game there."
"It's a good place to work," she said, straddling the ball and setting up her shot. "He helps me keep my focus."
"Yusuf can be very calming," Mal said. "When he likes."
Ariadne breathed out, trying to clear her mind, but Yusuf was at the center of her thoughts. She hit the ball, chipping underneath to lift it up out of the rough, and it sprung up and bounced onto the green.
"Well," Mal said. "I think we've found what works for your swing."
She could feel her face flushing and hoped Mal would blame it on the sun. "So what—what are you trying to say?" she asked.
"Just giving you something to think about," Mal replied. "Though I'm not sure it's to my advantage if it makes you a better golfer."
Yusuf put on his favorite chef coat, the grey one he'd been wearing when he met Ariadne. He felt good about what he was making, about the dry run they'd done the night before to check flavor profiles and the progression of the meal (and thank goodness for friends like Arthur and Eames for being willing guinea pigs). He knew what he was about. Much of the early prep had been finished and he had a solid plan in place.
"Yusuf?" said a deep, familiar voice.
He turned and saw Mrs. Saito, who'd become a sort of mentor to him since she'd first come to the restaurant in New York. She'd brought him to Saito's attention and he'd brought Yusuf to Vegas, and Yusuf had gotten them their three Michelin stars. He couldn't think of anyone he'd have been happier to see in that moment.
He walked toward her and took her hand in his. "Thank you so much for coming," he said.
"I wanted to wish you good luck," she said. "But I can see that you've been preparing."
"All week," he said. "Trying to make my own luck."
"Very wise," she said. "Yes, you'll be just fine."
"The dinner will," he replied. His larger goal, well, he couldn't be sure about that, could he?
Ariadne bought her own new dress for the dinner—a show of independence, maybe, but it didn't sit well with her to wear something Robert bought her to Yusuf's dinner. Besides, Robert never bought her a dress for Las Vegas; she'd gone into the high-roller room here with Yusuf.
The tables in The Hungry Lion were rearranged, most of them pushed back toward the edges of the room, and several pushed together to create one long table for twenty in the center. Saito and his wife were already there, as were the Cobbs.
"Ah, Ariadne," Saito said, walking over to her. "So good to see you again. Mr. Cobb tells me that your research trip was a great success."
"Yes, thanks," she said. "I'm looking forward to showing you the current version of the game."
"And I am looking forward to seeing it," he replied, smiling slightly. "May I say, it's nice to see you in red. I've noticed you wear it often but I believe Robert Fischer preferred you in blue. I cannot agree."
Ariadne blinked, and glanced at Mal. "Thanks," she said, half to Mal for preparing her. "I like myself in red, too."
Saito nodded. "I'm happy for you to meet my wife," he said, indicating the very formidable woman standing next to him. She was as small as Ariadne, almost birdlike, and was wearing a navy crepe pantsuit.
"Your team speaks very highly of you," she said as they shook hands.
"Well, I'm glad to hear that," she replied. "And Yusuf is very admiring of you. I know he's pleased that you're here for this dinner."
Mrs. Saito raised her eyebrows and Ariadne felt like a butterfly pinned to a card. She held her breath.
At last she spoke. "Yusuf has never disappointed me, yet," she said Then she looked just behind Ariadne, and smiled. "Ah, Arthur," she said.
Ariadne gratefully stepped aside while Eames and Arthur greeted Mrs. Saito.
Cobb walked up to her, laying one hand on her back. "You look like you need a drink," he said, softly.
"Does it show?" she said, laughing a little.
"Only a little, around the edges," he replied. "Don't worry; she scares everyone the first time they meet her."
"So it gets better?" she asked, taking the flute of champagne Cobb offered her.
"I didn't say that," he said, taking a drink.
"Aha," Eames said, turning toward the door. "Our guests are arriving."
Everyone seemed to know the flood of other people who were coming through the door, so Arthur stood next to her and introduced her—to the infamous Danny Ocean and his wife, Tess, who looked and moved so much like old Hollywood film stars that it was hard to believe they were real but easy to believe that Danny Ocean could charm his way into a casino and out of it with one hundred million dollars of its money; to their friends Rusty and Isabel who seemed more like 1970s rock stars; to the various members of the rest of his crew, who reminded her a bit of the six of them working for Saito and the way they balanced each other out, how they each had a specific task they did better than anyone else but also had found a way to work together. Reuben Tishkoff was a Las Vegas legend, and immediately tried to get the details of the new game out of Ariadne, but was headed off not only by Arthur but also by Robert Fischer, who'd just arrived.
"You can't blame a fella for tryin'," Reuben said, shrugging.
Robert smiled. "It's good to see you again, Ariadne," he said, and kissed her on the cheek.
"How was New York?" she asked.
"Very productive," Robert replied. "I think the UN is receptive to our ideas about well depth."
Eames came up to them then, saying to Arthur, low, "Everyone here?"
"All but one," Arthur replied.
"The most important one?" Eames asked, glancing around the room.
One last man did come in the room then, and she could feel Robert tense when he saw him.
"That's—" Ariadne began.
"Linus," the man said, leaning in and shaking her hand.
"I saw you in Macau," she said.
He scowled. "No, I don't think so. You must have me mistaken for someone else."
"I never forget a face," Ariadne said.
"Robert," he said, nodding.
"Hello Linus," Robert replied. "Didn't know you were invited."
He shrugged. "I live in this town," he replied. "I know people other than you."
"Yes, you have a great relationship with our host," he said.
"Who, Dominic?" Linus asked, as Cobb approached them. "We're old friends, aren't we?"
"Sure," Cobb said, with as fake a smile as she'd ever seen on him. "We go way back."
Ariadne turned to Arthur, eyebrows raised, and he shook his head as if to say she didn't want to know.
"Anyway, I just came by to say that now that we're all here," and he paused to give Linus a pointed look, "we should be seated. You'll see cards on the table and Eames worked all week on the places so please follow them." He smiled, and some of the others laughed. "Bring your champagne with you; I understand it's the wine pairing for our first course."
Saito was at the head of the table, Robert at the foot, with Ariadne on his right and the mysterious Linus on his left, opposite Ariadne.
She leaned over to Arthur, who was seated on her right. "Remind me to thank your partner for this wonderful table placement."
"I'm sure you can handle it," he said, eyes twinkling.
She frowned. "I hate everyone at this table," she said, and took another sip of champagne.
Saito stood up and cleared his throat. "Welcome everyone. My wife and I thank you all for coming to this special dinner inspired by the network of casinos founded by Maurice Fischer, and we are so lucky to have his son Robert with us tonight." He paused, nodding at Robert, who nodded back. "Our chef Yusuf is as shy as he is creative, so all explanations of the meal can be found on the menu cards at each place. A toast to our chef for making us this lovely meal."
As they raised their glasses ten servers emerged from the kitchen, black-clad and silent, and set down tiny plates topped with an oyster. Ariadne glanced at the menu card.
"Oh!" she said. "I helped him with this."
"Did you?" Robert asked. He read from the menu: "oyster, minus slime, plus mignonette. Minus slime?"
"It's poached," she said, and slid the oyster and its sharp vinegar-shallot topping into her mouth. Yusuf had been right, as usual; once the raw texture had been taken away she liked oysters quite a lot. So thoughtful of him to start out the meal that way, and to remember how she'd helped him. She'd been a little apprehensive about the dinner, about facing endless courses of unusual tastes, but as she read the menu card, she realized that of course Yusuf would find a way to take care of her.
Yusuf was glad he'd planned such a challenging menu; it meant he couldn't think about anything other than the food during service, couldn't wonder about how it was being received, even by a certain someone.
eat your vegetables with a gentle pistou
The first course after the oyster amuse was a vegetable au pistou, representing the Provencal cuisine in and around Monte Carlo. Usually the pistou was sharp with raw garlic, but Yusuf roasted the garlic, making it sweeter and more to Ariadne's tastes, and letting the delicate flavor of the herbs in the broth and the fresh, perfectly cubed vegetables come through.
fish curry don't worry
A Goan fish curry followed, and that had been more of a challenge, to keep the integrity and balance of flavors while making it as mild as possible. In the absence of chilies, ginger and garlic gave him some of the heat he needed to push against the coconut milk, and the sourness of tamarind helped, but the key was finishing the dish with a bit of lime juice, letting the acid do what the chilies would have. Poaching the fish to order was tricky, time-wise, and he was glad that most of the other dishes didn't require quite so much last-minute fiddling.
pigeons got into the grain, in reverse
Case in point, the mahshi hamam he was serving for the poultry course. A tasting menu lent itself to squab rather than pigeon, but once they were stuffed and simmered in broth, they could be held until it was time for their final roasting. Yusuf altered the stuffing slightly, toning down the black pepper and turning up the cinnamon, which played nicely against the sourness of the green wheat freekeh that Ariadne had brought him from Cairo.
lomo, a rare thing
The tenderloin steaks, too, were taking their time, slow cooking over low coals in the best Argentinian manner. He needed to change nothing here, for it was all about the meat, perfectly cooked, accompanied by a simple salad of baby arugula. Sometimes it was best to leave a classic dish as it was.
quelle surprise, perhaps
The rest of Yusuf's staff busied themselves with the Macau-inspired dessert course of fresh, hot egg tarts scented with ginger or cinnamon, and the tiny, delicate almond cakes piled onto platters for the middle of the table: we close with sweet not so sweet, he'd said on the menu card. But there was plenty of time, as diners appreciated a bit of a rest after the meat course, to finish their wine and digest generally before the coffee.
Yusuf himself was taking advantage of this entr'acte to whip up a second amuse, one that could speak to Ariadne infinitely better than any words he could think of. He pulled out his mise-en-place from behind the counter and stared at it, the ability to stop and think letting him feel just how much he had weighing on this one dish.
Cathy, his sharp-eyed sous-chef, leaned in next to him. "All of her plates came back empty, Chef," she said.
He took a deep breath then, closing his eyes, and exhaled all of his nerves. "Of course they did," he said, smiling, then got to work.
Ariadne sat back from the table, pleasantly full of beef and red wine, and watched as the servers cleared the table of dishes and glasses and crumbs, took coffee orders, and prepared for dessert service. She looked down the table and they all seemed to be leaning back and digesting. Cobb and Danny were laughing at some joke, while Eames was deep in conversation with Rusty, their heads bowed over a rough sketch Eames was making with his butter knife on the tablecloth.
As the servers brought out the coffee, tea and after dinner cordials, Linus suddenly turned to Robert and said, "All right, let's cut the crap here."
Robert, who'd been staring down the length of the table, started slightly, then scowled. "Gladly," he said. "It's all I've wanted for the last month, actually."
"Oh really?" Linus asked. "That's why you haven't returned my calls?"
"Excuse me, you're the one who left me behind, then proceeded to follow me around the globe like some kind of stalker weirdo."
Ariadne looked between them, confused. At least they were both admitting that it had been Linus that night in Macau, but clearly there was something else going on between them.
"Left you behind?" Linus asked. "And how did I do that, exactly?"
"Oh, you don't remember St. Moritz?" Robert asked, sarcasm dripping from his words. "When you didn't show up to that party, and by the time I got back to the room you were gone?"
"I needed to take care of something. I left you a note."
"Some note," Robert said. "You ran away. I thought I—oh never mind."
Linus scowled, looking like he was on the verge of leaving the table, so Ariadne spoke up. "Just say it. You clearly need to."
They both looked at her, surprised; clearly they'd forgotten she was there.
"All right," Robert said. "I thought that I could pull together these two sides of my life. That's why I wanted you to come to the fundraiser."
"Oh come on," Linus said. "I don't know anything about water in Africa. I would have stuck out at that party."
"I wanted you there," Robert said. "I feel better when you're with me. More confident. I can take myself more seriously and expect others to as well. Besides, you fit in everyplace. You always have."
Linus tapped his coffee spoon against the table and sighed heavily. "Because I'm a con man," he said.
"I know," Robert replied.
"You think I didn't know that I was running around with Bobby Caldwell's kid?" Robert asked. "I grew up in this city. Reuben is my godfather. My dad shook hands with Sinatra. You don't think I know what all those things mean? Just because I didn't want them for myself?"
Linus stared at him for a long moment, then said, "I guess I just thought—"
"But you never asked."
"Neither did you," Linus said.
Robert nodded. "Okay. That's fair."
"So what happens now?" Linus asked.
"Well, there's an event in Los Angeles next week," Robert said. "You could help me charm all those actors."
Linus smiled, just a little. "I'd like that."
There was a pause, and Ariadne cleared her throat. "I hate to interrupt," she said, "but, I was just a rebound fling, wasn't I?"
Robert turned to her. "Sorry," he said. "But I was pretty sure you didn't want any more than that."
"No," she said, shaking her head. "No, I didn't." She started laughing then, because if she didn't—she just had to hope. Wait out the dinner, and maybe Yusuf hadn't heard or hadn't believed the rumors, and even if he had, well, she was willing to explain. Explain for weeks if she needed to.
The servers came out with the desserts then, platters covered with piles of Macanese egg tarts and almond cakes, placing them along the center of the table so everyone could serve themselves. But others placed small covered plates at each place, and stood with their hands on the lids.
Ariadne looked up and saw Yusuf's sous-chef, Cathy, standing between Saito and his wife. She caught Ariadne's eye and waved, and Ariadne waved back.
"Welcome back," she said. "We've missed seeing you in the kitchen."
"I missed all of you, too," Ariadne replied.
Cathy nodded, then addressed the table. "As you can see from your menu cards, our desserts are from Macau. But we have one last amuse-bouche for you all, as a thank you for joining us this evening. As with the first amuse, it hails from our own city of Las Vegas." She nodded, and with a flourish the servers removed the lids.
And there, on a small blue plate, was a bite-sized sandwich. A tea sandwich, really.
Ariadne gasped, recognizing the brown bread, the pink meat, the red tomato relish. She could hear the confused murmuring of the rest of the table, but that didn't matter. She picked up the morsel and plopped it into her mouth and yes, it was the very sandwich Yusuf had made for her, that first day she'd come into his kitchen. It was for her. And when she thought back, the whole meal was really for her. He'd taken these dishes she'd eaten abroad, that she'd complained about in her postcards, and remade them into something he knew she'd love. He was telling her how he felt, in the way he knew how.
"Well!" Reuben said. "That's one hell of a damn sandwich! You should get him to open some little sandwich place, Saito. Make a lotta money."
She took a drink of water to wash down the salty Spanish ham, then turned to Robert. "I'm sorry, I have to—"
She felt Arthur's hand atop hers. "She has something she needs to take care of," Arthur said.
"Yeah," she said, turning to him and smiling. "Yeah, I do. Excuse me." She stood up, putting her napkin on the table, and tried not to run down the length of the table and into the kitchen, though she could feel every eye on her as she walked, deliberately as possible.
The kitchen had the usual post-service feeling of flurry that had finally slowed down. Stations were being cleaned and dishes cleared, while Yusuf sat in the corner, drinking coffee, exhausted. He heard a noise and looked up as Ariadne walked in.
She looked him in the eye, her hands fidgeting as she spoke. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't know. I didn't know until right now."
He rose, slowly. "I didn't tell you until now," he said. "So that's okay. Now you know."
"Yes," she said.
"And—so, what do you think?"
Suddenly she was running to him, throwing herself into his arms, and he lifted her easily as she flung her arms around his neck, her legs around his middle.
"I think," she began. Then she just kissed him, carefully at first but deeper as he got into it. He turned so he could rest her against the wall, bring one hand up to her hair, push back against her. Her lips were soft to the touch but her kiss was firm, her hands warm on her skin. He could get lost here.
After a bit he pulled back, and she looked endearingly disheveled. "You need to know," he said, "I'm not good at casual. That isn't what I want."
She smiled. "That isn't what I want, either," she said.
"Well, in that case," he said, "shall we adjourn the proceedings to someplace a bit more private?"
"I'd like that," she said, but kissed him again anyway.
They walked out into the main room, and when Eames spotted him he rose from the table and began clapping. "Let's thank our chef, shall we?" he said, and the others joined in. He felt self-conscious, but his hand was in Ariadne's and when she squeezed it slightly, it was fine.
Once that died down, he bowed slightly to Mrs. Saito and she nodded. As they walked the length of the table, nodding to each guest, he noticed that two people were missing. He leaned next to Eames.
"Where are Fischer and Caldwell?" he asked.
"Oh, they left together a few minutes ago," Eames said. "But I'm sure they also send their congratulations."
"And this long con Danny mentioned?" Yusuf asked. "Because Robert Fischer really isn't so bad, and I'd hate to think—"
"Nah," Rusty Ryan said, shaking his head. "Don't worry about that. It's the real deal."
Yusuf scowled. "The deal?"
Rusty turned to face him more fully. "Love, man," he said. "You know, the longest con?"
"Why didn't Danny just say that, in Cobb's office?"
"He's not gonna tell Cobb that," Rusty said. "Not after Boston."
Yusuf nodded because yes, that made sense. Cobb and Linus weren't exactly the best of friends.
They made their way down the table, Yusuf waving to them all. "Thank you again for coming," he said, and popped an egg tart and an almond cake on a plate before walking out with Ariadne, her hand again in his.
"You stole desserts from your own dinner?" she asked.
"You didn't get a chance to try them," he said.
"Well, she said, "maybe later."
They went to Ariadne's condo, mostly because it was closer to the elevator. That Yusuf's place was literally down the hall reminded her that they were coworkers, and why she wasn't reluctant about dating one now when it had been a hard and fast rule back in her video game days she wasn't sure, except that it had happened so gradually that it didn't feel claustrophobic. She knew him. She'd seen him frustrated when he couldn't get a recipe to where he wanted it, excited when he did, exhausted and stressed.
His cat even liked her.
They held hands through the lobby and into the elevator, glancing at each other and laughing nervously. They stood at the back of the car, and Yusuf lifted their clasped hands, pressing a kiss to the back of hers. Just that simple gesture was so tender and so erotic that she couldn't breathe. Or maybe it was the look in his eyes, dark and intense. She felt hot all over.
Inside her apartment she realized she was too small to kiss him without his bending over and if she hopped up into his arms again she wouldn't be able to get his clothes off so she just pulled him straight into the bedroom, where he managed to set the plate of desserts down on the nightstand before she pushed him down onto the bed.
"This is what you want?" she asked.
"Yes, god, yes," he said. "This is what you want?"
She nodded, and stepped between his legs. She didn't have to bend down very far to kiss him again, and as she worked the buttons on his chef coat he reached around her and pulled down the zipper on her dress.
"Not fair," she said, keeping her shoulders up so the dress wouldn't fall. "You're wearing a ton more clothes."
"Then take them off," Yusuf said, shrugging off his coat and lifting up his hips as she reached for his trousers. Down they came, along with his boxer shorts, and she went for his t-shirt as he kicked off his shoes.
"That's better," she said, flinging his t-shirt into the corner.
He looked down. "You're going to leave me in just socks?" he asked. "There's no sexy way to take off socks."
"Do whatever you want," she said, kicking off her own shoes. "I'm not looking at your feet right now."
His eyes widened, and he quickly shoved off his socks. She liked how he moved, that he was trimmer than he seemed under his usual layers of clothing, but there was still a softness to him, to his arms and legs and the round of his cheeks. She let her dress fall down to the floor now, slipped her panties off, and climbed into his lap.
He wrapped his arms around her and nosed into her neck. "Do you usually go without a bra?" he asked.
"Not much for one to hold up," she said, shrugging.
He moved his hands, one staying splayed across her back while the other came around to her front. He brushed his open palm against her nipple, just hard enough not to tickle, and she shuddered.
"Kiss me," she said, and he did, pulling her back down onto the bed and then rolling them over. His hands were so large—he was so large above her, and yet it didn't feel like some romance novel where she was being overpowered. She wasn't nearly as strong as him and yet she knew that she could easily slither out from under him, or flip them back over if she wanted to. He was touching her everywhere, and she him, running her hands greedily across his broad shoulders and back, her toes caressing his legs, and keeping his mouth on hers. He seemed to like her nipples, liked pinching them lightly and making her buck up into him with a moan, putting a hand on her hip to spread her legs even wider.
He pushed up, so he was on his hands and knees, and said, "Condoms?"
"Drawer," she said, pointing.
He knelt back on his haunches and she studied him, brown skin covered in black hair, his cock not huge but hard as a damn rock for her, his movements as he unwrapped the condom and rolled it on as quick and precise as always, and she couldn't wait to have those hands back on her. She wondered if she'd be able to sit on that stool in his kitchen and watch him cook without thinking about sex, even though he hadn't even fucked her yet.
"Ready?" he asked. His voice was husky now, his eyes still dark but bright like stars, burning into her.
She felt brazen. She sat up on one elbow and spread her legs wide. "Do I look ready?" she asked, slipping her other hand between her legs and teasing herself, feeling how wet she was.
"Jesus," he said, and all but fell on top of her. He lined himself up and slid into her easily, and she wrapped her legs around him, pulling him into herself, and feeling so full of him.
He started to move, slowly, and she tried to spur him on by digging her heels into the small of his back.
"No, no," he said. "Fast is for later. First time slow."
"I want it to last," he said, kissing her neck, and his beard felt so soft on her skin. "But here, I'll help you." He moved one hand between her legs and whispered, "What do you like?"
Her breath caught at the question, tender and sexy and caring, wanting to please her. "Your thumb," she said. "Push down on my clit, hard."
"Here?" he asked, pressing.
"Al—almost," she said. "To the left just a little—oh god, yes, there, there, harder," and she tensed around him, squeezing his cock.
"Mm, that's nice," he said, still thrusting as he got her off. "I'll need to do this every time."
"Every time?" she asked, though it was getting hard to speak.
"Maybe," he said, frustratingly calm. "Or perhaps I'll put my head between your thighs first, get your off as many times as I can. Would you like to sit on my face, Ariadne?"
"Yes, yes," she said, and now she was licking the bicep that was next to her, the closest thing but she needed something in her mouth. "Please."
"Do you even know what you're asking for anymore?" Yusuf asked. He pushed down harder.
"Yusuf!" She came, hard, and kept coming, riding it as long as she could before it was too much and she had to push his hand away.
"So lovely," Yusuf said, smiling at her. He was still fucking her with long and steady strokes, though they were getting faster now, his eyes still on hers, and she looked up at him openly, with everything she felt.
"You are," she said, burying one hand in the soft curls at the top of his head, continuing to squeeze him with her legs on the outside and her muscles on the inside.
He pushed his head against her shoulder and moaned.
"Yeah you like that, don't you?" she said, doing it again. "You feel so good in me, I can't help it. Got me so wet just kissing."
"So wet," Yusuf said.
"Come in me," she whispered in his ear. "I want you to."
That was the trick; his thrusts became erratic, then he stilled, his mouth open over Ariadne's shoulder, and he collapsed atop her.
Quickly he rolled off onto his back, panting. "That was—"
"Fantastic?" she finished, smiling.
He turned to her and reached out his arm, smiling back, and she curled into his side, into the warm sweetness of him. "With such a glowing review," he said, "I expect return business."
"You did promise fast next time," Ariadne said. "I'm holding you to that."
Yusuf raised his eyebrows. "I never make promises I don't keep," he said, sincerely.
"God, of course you don't," she said, and had to kiss him again to reassure herself that he was real.
The next morning Yusuf called down to the kitchen for a few ingredients—Ariadne's kitchen was unsurprisingly empty, as was his—and made her eggs there in her flat, bringing them to her to eat in bed. She sat up, beautiful, and he had a vision of many mornings like this, and his heart leapt at the thought of it.
"Can I come see you later?" she asked. "Like we used to?"
Yusuf felt a pang of guilt—he truly had been busy working on the dinner in the week since she'd returned, but Arthur and Eames had also advised him to "create some fucking scarcity, man" as Arthur had put it. He smiled.
"Please do," he said. "I've missed you."
She looked shy. "I missed you, too."
He showered and changed and fed the cat, then went right down to work. Ariadne joined him later, but it wasn't like it used to be at all; it was both calmer and more electric. He was aware of her, of every move she made, and yet that awareness settled down into the back of his mind, didn't interrupt his focus. Well, she'd always been good for his creativity; the dinner had showed that.
Mrs. Saito came by just before lunch, when Ariadne was about to leave.
"Ah, Yusuf, your dinner, delightful," she said.
"Thank you, ma'am," he said, smiling. He knew well that she would send him a long, detailed note about it—something like the reviews she'd spent a career writing—but to hear this, now, warmed his heart and soothed his nerves.
"You should come out to the other casinos," she said. "See what we might do there. Something a bit more interesting, eh?"
"I—would love to do that," he said, surprised.
"Good," she said, nodding. "The details we can work out."
"I look forward to that," he replied.
She turned to Ariadne, who looked nervous and wide-eyed. "You have a treasure here my dear," she said. "Cherish him."
"I intend to," Ariadne replied.
four months later
The slot machines were in place in Las Vegas and Macau, and would be starting in Goa in a few weeks.
The paintball idea had finally passed every legal hurdle Saito's team could come up with and they were moving forward with it soon.
But tonight wasn't about any of that—it was about the opening night for the international roll-out of the new game. And everyone was there: the Saitos, Cobb and Mal, Eames and Arthur, and even Robert and Linus. Mal wasn't thrilled that Linus was present, and Arthur was fairly sure that Linus had already figured out how to cheat at the game undetected, but Ariadne couldn't disinvite him after all Robert had done to help her refine the game in those early stages.
Still, it wasn't a glittering party, but a soft open. She'd taught the game to a few whales that Cobb and Arthur had picked out as looking for something new, and they were there now, at the table, along with Saito and Robert. As the evening went on the rest of them played for a round or two, never very long, just keeping the table full. But it took only a few hours before some of the other whales were sniffing around, asking about the rules, watching the play, and by the end of the night three of them had joined the game.
"It was a good start," Saito said later, when they gathered for a sunrise cocktail in his suite. "But we'll need to keep that going without Ariadne."
"We can maintain while you're rolling out," Arthur said.
Mrs. Saito nodded. "But can you do without Yusuf for that time?" she asked.
"Cathy is very good," Yusuf said of his sous-chef. "It's encouraging, the number of diners who are interested in trying her cooking."
Ariadne smiled at him, excited. They'd combined the roll-out of her game with the tour Mrs. Saito had requested Yusuf do of the other restaurants in Saito's casino network. She couldn't help but think of the whirlwind tour Robert Fischer had given her and how different this trip would be.
The food would be better, for one thing.
"Don't worry, Arthur," Saito said. "I fully intend to send you out on a tour similar to Yusuf's once Ariadne and Yusuf return to the States. Along with Mr. Eames, of course. But I wouldn't want Mr. Cobb to have to get along without all of you at once."
"The casino would amble along," Cobb said, "but it wouldn't be nearly as much fun."
"Yes, after six months Ariadne's become indispensable," Mal added. "Especially to my golf game."
Saito's eyes lit up. "You two play golf?" he asked.
"Traitors," Eames said, scowling.
"Very badly, or so I hear," Arthur said.
"This is true?" Saito asked.
Ariadne nodded. "Afraid so."
He shrugged. "Ah well. Perhaps it is best that you cannot play every game."
"I hate to break this up," Yusuf said, standing, "but I would like to catch a few hours of sleep before my first dinner service."
"Of course, of course," Saito said, and raised his glass. "One last toast to Ariadne, and a hope for continued success."
Afterward, walking down the hall, Ariadne said, "I thought you'd asked Cathy to take the dinner service tomorrow."
"I did," Yusuf said, smiling. "I just wanted to get you all to myself."
She leaned her head back to look at him. "Did that—did watching them play my game turn you on?"
"Oh man, this trip is going to be full of sex, isn't it?" she asked, smiling.
He slipped the key into her lock and let them in. "Food, games, and you?" he replied. "Sounds like the perfect trip to me."