Not a bad start, I thought, wandering out of the castle. Between Flinna and Marmel, I had been successful twice. Two for two. A few gold coins in the kitty. Whistling, I bamfed out of Whelfdom and back into my own office.
To my surprise, there was someone in the office besides Bunny. The curtain to my private office had been pulled back, and someone was sitting in my desk chair. Someone with green scales and yellow eyes and four-inch pointed teeth.
"Aahz!" I cried.
He scowled at me.
"Where the hell have you been?" he asked.
"Who needs competition?" Ma Bell
As much as I had been looking forward to seeing my old mentor and partner ever since returning to the Bazaar, now that the moment had arrived, I felt strangely uneasy, almost shy.
To my surprise, Aahz seemed to feel almost as awkward as I did. He quickly rose from the chair, offering it to me with a sweep of his hand.
"Sorry," he said. "I just got back from out of town and heard you were back. Just dropped by to wish you luck, and Bunny said you were off working yourself, so I thought I'd take a look at your new set-up. Didn't expect to see you back so soon."
Like while you were trying out my chair, I thought, then was annoyed at myself for the territoriality of the reaction.
"I didn't think you'd mind," Bunny said, clearly nervous herself.
"No problem," I said, forcing a smile. "Nice of you to stop by, Aahz. It means a lot to me. Really."
"I like what you've done with the place," Aahz said, looking around. "Classy, without being ostentatious."
"Bunny gets the credit for that," I said. "Interior decorating never was my strong suit. Somehow, we never got around to that in my training."
"Too busy running for our lives, eh?" Aahz said with a chuckle. "Those were the days. Do you mind?"
He indicated the pitcher of wine and accompanying goblets we had set out for prospective clients.
"Help yourself," I nodded. "I'd join you, but I've been trying to cut back on the stuff...and definitely not during business hours."
"Probably a good policy," Aahz said, pouring a goblet for himself.
"Oh, what the heck," I recanted. "Pour one for me, too. I just came off assignment, and it's not every day my old partner comes to visit."
Policy was well and good, but I didn't want Aahz to think I was avoiding drinking with him. Besides, I had just finished an assignment. I lifted the glass and drained it in a toast to my success, and to seeing Aahz again. The wine felt warm going gown.
Aahz hesitated slightly, then poured a second glass for me.
"About that visiting thing," he said as he passed me the wine, "sorry if I haven't been to see you very often. We've been kind of busy lately."
"So I've heard," I said, taking an appreciative sip from the goblet. As with the decorations, Bunny had chosen the wine. I no longer trusted myself to do the liquor shopping. "M.Y.T.H. Inc. is still the hottest ticket at the Bazaar."
"We try," Aahz said with a modest shrug. "It's been tough, though. As you know, we've been a little short handed."
That struck a bit of a nerve, but I decided not to let it bother me.
"That's funny," I said, carefully. "When I first got back to the Bazaar, I dropped by the old offices to say ?Hi', and they seemed to have everything in hand. If anything, things seemed to be running more smoothly than I ever remember. As a matter of fact, I cut my visit short since it seemed I was more underfoot than anything."
"I heard about that," Aahz said with a grimace. "In fact, it's one of the reasons I stopped by. In hindsight, everyone realizes they gave you a bit of a lame reception. It's just that you caught them flat-footed. I mean, they've stopped by Klah once in a while to see how you were doing, but no one expected to see you back here at the Bazaar. Not permanently, anyway."
"Setting up shop for myself, you mean."
I realized my goblet was empty, which surprised me. Aahz didn't normally pour light. I got up and refilled it. I meant to pour half a glass, but they were small. I hadn't really noticed that before.
"I really didn't mean to throw anyone a curve," I continued. "It's just an idea that Big Julie suggested to me, and I wanted to give it a shot. It wasn't until I saw how awkward the crew was when I stopped by that I realized how it must look. It never occurred to me that I was potentially setting up in competition to M.Y.T.H. Inc.'s operation. That was never my intention."
"Yeah. Well, I don't think you have to worry about that anymore," Aahz said with a smirk. "I've set them straight on that score. There's no way you're competition to us."
Something inside me went a little dark at that last comment. I took a sip of wine to give myself a moment before responding.
"How did you convince them of that?" I asked. "Just out of curiosity."
"Well, first of all, I pointed out that you'd never deliberately do anything to hurt us," Aahz said. I nodded agreement. "Then again, there's the difference in the scope of our operations. I mean, you may be the great Skeeve, but you're still only one person...two and a half if you count Bunny."
"Thank you, Aahz," Bunny said, dimpling and giving him a mock curtsey.
"Oh, I don't know," I said, refilling my goblet. "We've been doing all right so far. We've only been in business for a little while, but we've already handled a couple clients' problems for them."
"Good for you," Aahz said, lifting his goblet in a small toast.
"And you're right. We've been careful not to step on M.Y.T.H. Inc.'s toes." I smiled. "We've even managed to send a little business their way. Nothing I couldn't handle, you know, but I'm keeping to the terms of my new operation."
"Oh you have, have you?" Aahz said, setting his goblet down with a click on the chair arm. "Sent us some jobs you weren't interested in, is that it? Too easy for you? Or taking pity on the folks you left behind?"
"Hey, Aahz," Bunny said, stepping forward. "It's no big thing, really."
"I wouldn't say that," Aahz said, staring at me. "Even while he's trying to get his own new business launched, the Great Skeeve is careful to make things as easy as he can for his old crew. No, Bunny. I'd say that is a big thing."
"I figured it's the least I can so," I said, staring back at him. "After all, they're my oldest and best friends...even when they don't act like it."
"Skeeve..." Bunny said, but Aahz rolled right over her.
"Well, maybe they're a little unsure about how to act," he said, "after their ?best friend' walked out on the business and left them to twist in the wind."
"At least I told them up front what I was doing and why," I snarled. "I seem to remember someone who walked out on everyone without a word and went back home to Perv. I had to hold things together then!"
Aahz tensed and opened his mouth to speak, then hesitated.
"You're right, Skeeve," he said, finally. "I'm in no position to be critical. I will say this much, though: you can forget about walking on eggshells around us. I don't think you would be much competition for us, even if you tried. Especially not at your current level of powers."
"Says the one with no powers at all," I shot back.
The words hung in the air.
"So, this isn't really about the team at all," Aahz said softly, even dangerously. "You're still trying to protect your old partner. Well, I'll tell you something, kid, powers or not, I can still perform as well or better than anyone else...including you! Outperform them, even."
"And exactly how are you measuring performance?" I said through gritted teeth.
"How have we always measured it?" he said with a fierce smile. "Who can earn the most?"
"That sounds like a challenge," I said.
"Does it?" Aahz said, innocently. "All right. Have it your way. It's a challenge. The one who takes in the most money will take over the leadership of M.Y.T.H., Inc. The others will go along with whatever I commit them to. What do you say?"
"All right," I said, clapping down my own goblet. A few drops splashed. I thought I had drunk all of the contents, but it was half-full. "Starting tomorrow. The first two clients that come in. You take one, and I'll take the other. We'll toss a coin to see who get the first and who gets the second. Then we'll see who ?performs' the best. I'll show you I belong back in M.Y.T.H., Inc."
"Sounds like a plan," Aahz growled.
"You got that, Bunny?" I asked. "The first two clients tomorrow. Winner take all."
"I got it," she said, emotionlessly.
"I'll see you tomorrow," Aahz said, and swept out.
"I really don't believe that," I said, looking after him.
"Frankly, neither do I," Bunny said.
Something in her voice caught my attention.
"C'mon, Bunny," I said. "Did you hear what he said to me?"
"Sure," she said. There was a pitying expression on her face. "He said that he's missed you and wishes you well, to a point where he's gone to bat for you with the old team."
"When did he say that?" I asked.
"Right after you told him how much you've missed him and still need his praise and approval."
I shook my head.
"Now, I know I didn't say that."
She looked at me.
"No. You didn't," she said, and walked out.