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In the Land of Gods and Monsters

Chapter Text

The alarm clock’s grating wail sliced through the delicate dark veil of sleep. My hand went out automatically to silence it. Sighing, I stared listlessly up at the darkened ceiling.

It was one of those mornings that begged me to stay in bed; if I succumbed, I knew I was going to be late for work. Outside of my frosted window, a thick fog had settled over San Francisco obscuring the tops of buildings and anything that exceeded three blocks in every direction. Rolling out of bed begrudgingly, I tugged a brush through my sun-stained coppery-brown hair, washed my face, applied my usual make-up, and slipped silently into the very generic black and white pantsuit ensemble hanging up on the back of my closet door.

I was almost scared to emerge from my bedroom- especially after last night. My roommate had come back from a three-day tourney and went straight to the bottle and the record player. I didn’t know if she’d lost or if her old demons were coming back to haunt her, but one thing was for certain; she didn’t like when I asked questions, so didn’t.

The living space was orderly- except for the fact that my roommate was sleeping on the couch in the living room again. She looked incredibly unkempt- her makeup was smeared, her curled blonde hair was a mess, and she hadn’t even bothered changing out of her purple leather jacket. Her duel disk lay haphazardly on the coffee table and her cards were in disarray on the floor. I let out a pitying sigh, and took a warm, soft blanket from my bed and lay it over her, tucking her in the way mom used to do for me.

“Joey,” Mai mumbled to herself, turning a little in her sleep. “I’m sorry.”

Other than the occasional sleep-talk mention of the elusive Joey Wheeler, I knew next to nothing about my roommate. Mai Valentine was a professional duelist that did fairly well for herself. She paid rent and utilities every month and kept the fridge stocked- even though she usually just ate out. I’d invited her to hang out with me on more than one occasion, but she always turned me down for one reason or another.

I guess we all have our secrets.

Breakfast has been a rushed affair of a cinnamon-apple cereal bar and a brisk teeth-brushing. I yanked my mother’s old briefcase and yellow rain coat from the overloaded jacket rack and grabbed my keys from the little pink porcelain dish on the hallway table, sparing one last glance at myself in the mirror that hung over the table before vamoosing out the door.

 

After a trek across San Francisco that would have put the hobbits’ journey to Weathertop to shame, I finally arrived at the entrance of KaibaCorp. Immediately, I got that chilly sinking feeling of equal parts intimidation and regret as I looked up at the impossibly tall building. It was akin to the feeling an unprepared duelist might being menaced by a Blue Eyes White Dragon holo.

“Oh, boy,” I whispered, before taking a deep breath and walking through the revolving glass door. The lobby was a polished black and white marble with a colossal blue-eyes white dragon statue smack-dab in the middle of it. “I guess I’m in the right place,” I muttered, crossing the lobby to the front desk. My new employer’s obsession with the Blue-Eyes White Dragon duel monster was no state secret. Reaching into my briefcase, I pulled out the employment papers I had filled out with a lady from the staffing service that placed me here and smoothed them out on the receptionist’s desk.

The red-haired woman took notice of me and smiled, “how can I help you?” She asked, peering curiously at the paperwork which I slid to her.

“My name is Victoria Cruz,” I answered, as she reached out to take the documents and glance over them. “I was sent here by Domino Staffing.”

“Oh, yes. You must be the new executive assistant,” the receptionist said raising her eyebrows in sudden recognition, her voice holding an undercurrent of... pity? “Do you... have a duel disk and a deck of cards?”

I quirked an eyebrow at her, “I beg your pardon?”

The receptionist frowned handing the papers back to me, “you understand this is a gaming company, right? We developed the holographic dueling platform.”

“Yes, I understand that, but I don’t own either of those things.”

“Do tell me you can at least duel?”

“I played duel monsters... a little as a child,” I answered cautiously. “Is this an interview? I thought I had already been hired.”

“Well,” the receptionist said, a little uncomfortably. “You have, but you must show some skill as a duelist before we can hire you full-time.” I cringed.

“I’m guessing I have an opponent?”

“Yes,” the woman replied. “President Kaiba.”

All of the blood drained out of my face, “there’s no way I can beat Seto Kaiba!”

“He doesn’t expect you to beat him, he only wants to see your dueling abilities under pressure.” The woman picked up a metal case from behind her desk and opened it to reveal a smorgasbord of cards and a duel disk. “The cards assembled match the personality profile you created for your staffing agency, so feel free to assemble a deck of your choosing- and be sure to take the duel disk as well.”

Biting my bottom lip, I took note of the cards in the suitcase, and began to assemble something that resembled the deck I had as a kid; the Luster Dragon #2, Aqua Spirit, Mystical Elf, Spellbinding Circle, Swords of Revealing Light, the Dunames Dark Witch and... my hand paused over the Dark Magician Girl.

“Where did President Kaiba find this?” I whispered, picking it up gently.

“Pegasus made two Dark Magician Girls; one of them belongs to the King of Games, Yugi Muto, and the other has been in the President’s archives for many years now.”

“I see,” I smiled putting her on the top of my deck and slipping the cards into the duel disk dock which I’d slid onto my wrist. “I think I’m ready.”

The receptionist smiled at me and closed the briefcase, “then follow me.”

She hailed the elevator, pressed the button for the topmost floor, and offered me an ominous “good luck.” Before the doors closed and spirited me away from the world of mortals. My knees started shaking half way up, so I had to lean against the railing to keep from losing my balance.

I was suddenly really regretting my decision to work here. My livelihood was relying on how well I could play a card game I hadn’t laid a finger on in ten years! President Kaiba would probably fire me today if I didn’t wow him! How the hell would I pay my bills then? That was the crux of my resolve.

Nothing motivates quite like money does.

The doors to the seventy-fourth floor slid open moments later, and a boy no older than sixteen stood with his hands on his hips, waiting. He was fashionable in his black leather jacket, pale blue shirt, skinny jeans, and combat boots.

Who could he be?

He had youthful violet eyes and his long raven wing hair was tied into a side ponytail. When I stepped out of the elevator, the boy assessed me with interest rubbing his chin, “you must be Victoria?”

“That’s me,” I answered with a smile.

“My brother is waiting for you in the conference room. It’s been set up for the duel.”

My eyes widened, and my mouth went slack, “so you’re... the vice president of Kaiba Corp?”

“The one and only!” He grinned, straightening out his jacket and extending his hand for me to shake which I did, “I’m Mokuba.” His grip was firm but friendly.

“Nice to meet you,” I replied. I’d read about the sixteen year-old vice president of Kaiba Corp online, of course. This kid was about four inches taller than me and I was wearing heels ! Frankly, it blew big time.

“Same here,” he said with a wink. “So, let’s get a move on. My brother doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

Naturally, I thought sarcastically.

 

The conference room was enormous with a high ceiling. A long table that had previously been in the center of the room had been pulled to the side, and chairs had been stacked expertly against the walls to conserve space.

Off to the side, a tall man loomed menacingly as he stared out of one of the many floor length windows that made up a singular wall which offered a breathtaking view of San Francisco. He didn’t turn around until Mokuba closed the door behind us.

I couldn’t get over how differently Seto Kaiba looked from his younger brother. Under his white horn-shouldered sleeveless trench-cape, he wore a black, long-sleeved turtleneck, a necklace with a duel monster card pendant, dark pants, and boots. He was outfitted with a state-of-the-art duel disk that I’d only ever seen on television. It was far more digital than the one I’d been given by the nice lady downstairs.

By far the most terrifying thing about Seto Kaiba were his eyes; his sharp, unfaltering, stark blue eyes. It made me wonder what horrible things he’d seen to give him that perpetual grim expression. This was a man who trusted very few and took no prisoners.

I could already tell that he was making a number of unfavorable assumptions about me as he approached us, so I stood a bit straighter and stared right back at him- demanding that he look away first. He didn’t.

“Look who I found,” Mokuba smiled, putting his hands on his hips casually. I averted my eyes from President Kaiba’s penetrating gaze for a moment to thank Mokuba with a bow and a handshake. Proper Japanese etiquette.  

“It’s about time,” President Kaiba muttered, taking out his deck from the duel disk on his arm.

“But,” I said checking my watch just to make sure. “My interview with you is in fourteen minutes.”

“Let me make this clear,” he said, his glare cold enough to freeze the blood in my veins. President Kaiba was nowhere in the ballpark of joking around, “if you aren’t at least twenty minutes early to everything, you’re already late.”

Who was he? Miranda Priestly?

I refused to crack on my first day. Not a chance- I needed this job, “understood, sir.”

“Good,” he said inspecting me carefully taking in my professional attire. “I’m guessing you have no dueling experience at all?”

Pursing my lips at his assumption and replied in a tight voice, “I have minimal experience. I haven’t picked up a deck of cards in years.”

“Huh,” he grunted. “Well, this shouldn’t be too much of a challenge.”

I frowned fighting the urge to put a hand on my hip, “with all due respect; if you know you’ll win, why duel me in the first place?”

“It may not seem like it, but I like surprises,” he said, a mean smile making his intense demeanor even more threatening. “So, surprise me.”

Be nice, be nice, be nice. I chanted to myself. You have to pay your student loans this month. 

“I’ll do my best.”

He took his deck out of his duel dock and held it out for me to take. I traded my deck for his and we shuffled before exchanging them once again, our fingers brushing the slightest bit. I felt a shock jolt me, and pulled my hand away quickly- looking up at him with widened eyes. He blinked at me in surprise, withdrawing his hand as well. He recovered from this quickly, “good luck.”

“Thank you, sir.” I said evenly, and walked a good distance away from him. Turning around, I  raised my forearm to initialize the duel disk. The l-shaped card placement disk lit up and a counter for 4000 life points (LP) blinked to life.

“Let’s duel,” President Kaiba said. We selected five cards from our decks; Dunames Dark Witch, Cure Mermaid, Mirror Force, Pot of Greed, and the Sanctuary in the Sky found their way into my hand, “because you’re at a disadvantage, you can go first.” I cringed at his condescending tone, but took his generosity anyway.

“You got it,” I selected two cards from my hand, slipping the first into the slot intended for field spells. “I play the spell card Sanctuary in the Sky, and Dunames Dark Witch in attack mode (ATK 1800/ DEF 1050).” Suddenly, the entire room began to shift and melt away into a courtyard  filled with dappled sunlight and technicolor wildflowers and the greenest grass I’d seen west of the Mississippi. Around us were the dazzling alabaster walls of the Sky Sanctuary. Exhilarated, I looked up to the azure sky filled with fluffy clouds and laughed, opening my arms and closing my eyes. The heady scent of wild flowers filled my nose, and a pleasant spring breeze mussed my hair.

“This is amazing,” I breathed, feeling all of my annoyance drain away into wonder. Suddenly, I felt the pressure of a hand on my shoulder, which nearly made me jump. I opened my eyes in shock to see a young woman with wine-colored hair, strange burgundy and white armor, and white mechanical angel wings on her back. She smiled at me and cocked her head at my opponent. Blinking at her, I looked down at the monster card on my duel disk, and then back up at her in disbelief and realization.

Seto Kaiba looked very interested in the exchange we were having.

“Oh- oh my god, you’re Dunames Dark Witch!” The woman’s smile widened and she nodded. “Hi, oh man, I’m Victoria- so nice to meet you,” I reached out to shake her hand. The duel monster looked down at my hand and gripped it in hers. I felt a definite pressure on my hand. Woah!

I’ve got this, don’t worry. A voice in my head said reassuringly, and Dunames Dark Witch walked out on the field with her arms crossed.

“What do you think? This is the new software prototype I’ve been testing for some time now,” said Seto Kaiba, folding his arms over his chest. “You seem to be impressed.”

“I am,” I agreed. “It’s amazing, President Kaiba.”

He seemed to be pleased with my compliment. “Good. Let’s get back to the duel,” he said, rolling his shoulders back.

I cleared my throat coming back to myself- my hand still tingling, “While Sanctuary in the Sky is on the field, any fairy type monsters I summon that are destroyed by you in battle will not detract from my life points. I’m also going to place one card face down and end my turn.” The facedown card materialized right next to where the dark witch was standing, and she looked back at me to give me a nod.

Mokuba looked impressed, and he shot a hopeful look at his older brother who had donned a grimer expression.

“That was a fairly strong start, but let’s see how you deal with this; I play La Jinn in attack mode (fiend type, ATK 1800/ DEF 1000), and arm him with the dark energy spell card which raises his attack and defense points by 300 (ATK 2100/1300).” La Jinn appeared, solidifying out of a plume of green smoke. Dark energy spell was clutched in one of his muscular green hands. “I’ll have him attack and destroy your Dark Witch. Go, La Jinn!” La Jinn held his hands out, and sent bursts of purple energy straight for her! My fingers itched to flip my trap card, but I was too late.

“No!”

The Dunames Dark Witch took the brunt of La Jinn’s attack, and wind whipped by as she vanished. I put her card into the graveyard, taking a moment to orient myself. “Next, I’ll play the spell card Oozaki which allows me to automatically inflict 800 points of damage to your life points. I’ll place two cards face down and end my turn.”

All of a sudden, a cyclone of fire headed straight for me- I threw up my forearms to protect myself from the hot flames. I could almost smell the hair on my arms burning.

 

 

Kaiba, 4000

Cruz, 3200

 

Narrowing my eyes, I drew two cards and glanced at them: Hibikime and Waboku. I added them to my hand and placed the Pot of Greed magic card on the field.

“Pot of Greed allows me to draw two new cards from my deck,” so I did. I kept both Just Desserts and the Horn of the Unicorn in my hand. “I’ll summon Cure Mermaid in attack mode (ATK 1500/ DEF 800), and equip her with Horn of the Unicorn which allows her to gain 700 attack and defense points (ATK 2200/ DEF 1500).”

Cure Mermaid materialized out of a swirling vortex of bubbles. She was a pretty blond woman with a cherry red tail and a pale pink blouse. She wore a circlet of seashells on her brow over which a silvery unicorn horn protruded.

“Now, Cure Mermaid, attack president Kaiba’s La Jinn!”

“Not so fast, I play negate attack!” He said, raising his hand. Cure Mermaid retreated sullenly when her bubble attack hit the barrier created by the president’s trap card. “Obviously, your attack has been rendered ineffective.”

I pursed my lips and selected Waboku from my hand, “I switch my mermaid to defense mode, and place one card face-down on the field. That will end my turn. However, thanks to my Cure Mermaid’s special ability, I gain 800 life points during every standby phase. It looks like we’re even again, President.”

 

 

Kaiba, 4000

Cruz, 4000

 

He drew three cards and grinned, “not for long. I also play Pot of Greed which allows me to select two new cards. Next, I’ll place Lord of D in attack mode, and equip him with Flute of Summoning Dragon. This allows me to special summon the two Blue Eyes White Dragons in my hand.” (ATK 3000/ DEF 2500) I clenched my jaw when they materialized on the field. They were just as scary and as hulking in real life as they were on television. They snapped their teeth together and growled. Great. “I’m going to place La Jinn and my second Blue Eyes in defense mode. Blue Eyes, destroy her Cure Mermaid!”

“You stumbled right into my trap! Mirror Force, go!” I yelled. “It destroys every monster in attack mode on your side of the field.” Kaiba quickly slipped a card into one of the spell ports of his duel disk and braced for the impact of Mirror Force.

Lord of D and the attacking Blue Eyes were destroyed, leaving President Kaiba with one facedown, the second Blue Eyes, and his La Jinn in defense mode. At least I had all of my life points, thank you for your sacrifice, Cure Mermaid .

 

Kaiba, 1800

Cruz, 4000

 

Then, Kaiba started to laugh. He was laughing. A shiver ran down my spine, and I shot a look at Mokuba who looked concerned. For me.

“Thankfully, I was able to sacrifice two spell cards in my hand to the graveyard in time to activate Emergency Provisions. It allows me to gain 1000 life points for every spell or trap card I send to the graveyard.” I think I just incurred the wrath of a ruthless billionaire. “I’ve gotta say, you’ve been getting pretty lucky with your draw, but not lucky enough.”

That was rich coming from the guy that was losing.

I drew a card quickly, desperate for anything to save me- it was magic formula. I couldn’t use it unless I had Dark Magician girl in my hand which I didn’t. I cursed inwardly. On my side of the field, I only had my Sky Sanctuary field card. In my hand I had Just Desserts, Hibikime, and magic formula, so I placed Just Desserts facedown on the field and ended my turn.  I was horrible at this.

He drew first, and placed the card in his hand only to select another card. “I’m going to bring back one monster back from my graveyard with Monster Reborn.” It was the facedown card Kaiba had placed on the field before! “C’mon back, Blue Eyes! But, because I can’t attack you with both of my dragons this turn, I’ll settle with switching the Blue-Eyes I summoned in the previous turn to attack mode and  attacking your life points directly!”

 

 

Kaiba 1800

Cruz 1000

 

“Next,” he went on, “I play Saggi the Dark Clown in attack mode, equip him with this face down card, and end my turn. (DEF 1500/ATK 600) Come on, Miss. Cruz, stop playing around!” The dark clown materialized on the field, and had a seriously foul look about him. He looked extremely cagey in the sanctuary.

The Clown’s attack and defense points are too low- I thought. The president must be planning something pretty nasty. I can’t take the bait- maybe Just Desserts can help me after all. “I’m playing my facedown card Just Desserts,” the president flinched. “You lose five hundred attack points for every trap card you have on the field.”

He lost five hundred attack points which meant the card he equipped onto the Dark Clown was a trap.

 

 

Kaiba, 1300

Cruz, 1000

 

“Next, I’ll draw-” I drew Graceful Charity, I breathed a sigh of relief, “and play Graceful Charity, so I’ll draw three more cards and discard two.” I discarded magic formula and Hibikime and drew The Dark Door, Fissure, and Dancing Fairy. “Because I discarded magic formula to my graveyard, I gain 1000 life points.”

 

 

Kaiba, 1300

Cruz, 2000

 

“Next, I play the spell card Fissure and destroy your Dark Clown. Then, I’ll summon Dancing Fairy to the field in defense mode and one card face down to end my turn. Thanks to Dancing Fairy’s effect, they add 1000 life points during every standby phase.” The three fairies sprung out from the wildflowers in the sanctuary, and held hands, swirling into the air, their dresses and wings glinting in the light.

 

 

Kaiba, 500

Cruz 3000

 

“You think your little fairies can stand up to the ultimate power of the Blue Eyes White Dragon?” President Kaiba scoffed. “Fine!” He drew, and grinned. “It’s the beginning of the end. I play the spell card de-spell which removes your Sky Sanctuary field card.” I gritted my teeth, removing Sky Sanctuary from play. The beautiful scene dissolved and the dull conference room emerged once more. “Blue Eyes, attack her fairies with white lightning!”

“Hold it, I play The Dark Door- this means that only one of your Blue Eyes can attack me this turn.” He gritted his teeth in frustration when the attack hit.

I held my breath and braced myself for the impact.

 

Kaiba, 500

Cruz, 3000

“You just won’t give up, will you? That’s good. You’re going to find many times that the odds will be stacked against you while you work here.” He placed a series of cards on the field one after another. I’ll play White Dragon Ritual in order to summon Paladin of White Dragon, only to special summon my final Blue Eyes. You got lucky because I can’t use him to attack you this turn due to the nature of the summon, so I’ll add another facedown card to the field and end my turn.”

I had to show him that I could strategize or I’d definitely be out on my ass before lunchtime.

I drew Horn of the Unicorn, Pot of Duality, and Dark Elf. My first inclination was to summon Dark Elf and flip Waboku, but it would suck my life points dry for her to even attack. Perhaps I had a better option in my deck somewhere. I played Pot of Duality; “Pot of Duality allows me to look at three cards from the top of my deck and select one.” I chose Splendid Venus from among Princess of Tsurugi and Mystical Elf, and added her to my hand. “I play Dark Elf” The elf appeared on the field briefly, and tossed her dark hair over her shoulder and glared at Seto Kaiba with a snarl on her lips, “only to sacrifice her to summon Splendid Venus.” Dark Elf bowed to me, and I inclined my head. Thank you .

She was replaced by a swirling kaleidoscope of sunspots and Splendid Venus descended from the ceiling, her armor glittering despite the lack of direct sunlight, touching down on the gray carpet with her staff at the ready. “Her special effect detracts 500 attack and defense points from every monster card that isn’t a fairy type, and as your Dragons aren’t fairy types… well, you get the picture.”

 

 

Blue Eyes White Dragon: ATK 2500/DEF 2000 - Each

Splendid Venus: ATK 2800/ DEF 2400

 

“Now, Splendid Venus, attack his La Jinn with Holy Feather Shower!”

“Damn!” He shouted as a bright burst of light energy emitted from Splendid Venus’ staff and destroyed his La Jinn- which was in defense mode. The least of my troubles. Though his three Blue-Eyes had less attack power than my Venus, there were three of them, and one of her.

I looked down at the card in my hands, and decided to equip Splendid Venus with Horn of the Unicorn.

“I end my turn.”

Seto Kaiba drew a card and smiled, “This has been an interesting duel, but it’s over. I’m going to play the card Really Eternal Rest which means your Splendid Venus is done for, and you’re finished.”

I blanched, “oh no-” Right in front of me, Horn of the Unicorn broke off, and Splendid Venus blinked out of existence in a million sunspots.

 

 

Kaiba, 200

Cruz, 0

 

“Nice job, bro,” Mokuba grinned giving him a thumbs up. The holograms disappeared, and President Kaiba looked at me with a stern expression. It looked like I was about to get scolded.

“Thanks, Mokuba, but can you step outside for a minute? I need to talk to Miss. Cruz. Alone.” A lump stuck firmly in my throat and looked pleadingly at Mokuba. Don’t leave me in here with him!

“Sure,” he shrugged, hopping off of the table on which he had been sitting. “Hey- good dueling, Victoria. I’ll get your desk ready,” he flashed me a toothy smile before disappearing out the door. I cringed as he left.

“No one’s had me on the ropes like that in a long time,” he admitted, “who taught you?”

“In all honesty..." I trailed off, coloring a little. "You did. I’ve been watching you duel on television ever since the Duelist Kingdom Tournament so, I was more than prepared to duel you. Looking at this from a strategy standpoint, I’ve had more time to analyze your tactics than you’ve had to analyze mine.” He seemed satiated with this answer. Then I paused to take the duel disk off of my arm and extended it to him. “Thank you for lending this to me.”

President Kaiba looked down at the duel disk and then at me with an exasperated expression, “what are you talking about? All of it is yours. You’ll need to get better at dueling if you want to work here, and you can’t do that without a deck. Anyway, you passed the interview, so I’ll show you to your desk.”

Holding back a sigh of relief, I smiled. “Thank you, sir.”

Kaiba grunted and crossed the room to hold the door open for me, “let’s go.”

Chapter Text

I allowed him to lead me to the tall white desk that was nestled in a corner next to a metallic sliding door. A small bonsai tree, a few smooth colorful rocks, and a name plaque decorated the counter. The actual desk was deeper inside.

“Vice President?” I called, standing on my tiptoes to peer into the cubicle. Mokuba wasn’t even there. The desk was decked out with a silver Apple computer and all the office supplies I would need for an entire year. “Welcome, Victoria!” Was written in a neat script on a pink envelope leaning against the bonsai tree. I took it and turned it over in my hands with a wide grin. How cute.

“Mokuba gets really excited about new employees,” President Kaiba explained, folding his arms over his chest. “Sometimes, he goes overboard.”

“I think it’s sweet,” I said in Mokuba’s defense, holding the envelope to my chest to protect it from the scrutinizing glare of President Kaiba. “He seems like a good kid.”

“He is a good kid,” he agreed. “Just don’t get too close to him just in case I have to fire you later. He gets attached to people pretty easily and he’ll be heart-broken over you for sure.”

Wow.

“Isn’t that sort of harsh?” I asked him, raising an eyebrow. “I mean, I think Vice President Kaiba is old enough to be able to talk to whoever he wants. He’s what- sixteen?”

“I’m not interested in arguing with you about this,” he said breezily. “Let’s step into my office.”

“Yes, sir,” I said flatly as he swiped his key card across the panel near the door, and it slid open. His corner office, though lacking in any overtly personal decor, did not lack in natural light. Windows made up the exterior walls while the windowless walls were decorated with company awards. Four rice paper floor lanterns were set up on each corner of the room, and his polished cherry wood desk was orderly and had on it telephone, a desktop, a few documents held down by a Blue Eyes White Dragon paperweight, a rack of beautiful metal fountain tip pens, and a photograph of he and Mokuba striking a pose in front of Kaiba Land. Kaiba looked serious and confident as usual, and Mokuba looked a good deal younger than he was now, but he looked extremely happy. I couldn’t help but to smile- I remembered when I was like that, too. A long time ago.

“You’ll be getting your ID and badge on your way out of the office today, so you’ll have access to my office as well as to the IT department and the Holographic Development department.” He said, taking off his duel disk and sitting down at his desk, interrupting my strangely nostalgic train of thought.

Kaiba  pulled out a silver briefcase from a drawer which was obscured from view, and opened it for a moment to check on the goods inside. He closed it quickly and glanced at his computer and typed a few things, “the printer, copier, and scanner are all straight down the hall in the third room to your right.” He typed something longer quite quickly. “Here at KaibaCorp, we have our own means of transportation, so there is no need to book travel arrangements unless I need to stay at a hotel. Speaking of which, I’m going to visit Pegasus at Industrial Illusions, so I need you to hold down the fort while I’m gone.” He rose to his full height and swept past me. I followed him to the door and out of the office, “I won’t require a hotel for this visit though, so you can relax for now. You just need to make sure that Mokuba doesn’t get into trouble.”

“Wait- are you saying-” I started.

“You’re here to run errands and to keep an eye out for my brother when I’m unable to do so. Understand?”

“Yes, sir. Got it.” President Kaiba smiled at me in that cold way he did.

“Good, then we should get along just fine,” he glanced at his watch. “You start right now. Where is my brother?”

I made a face, “I’m on it.”

He nodded, “once you find him, contact me.”

“Yes, sir.” I ran to my desk and began dialing the number for Holographic Development before I dead stopped. “Wait, President Kaiba, did you tell the vice president that you were going to see Pegasus today?”

“Yes I- shit,” he muttered. I sighed, and we rushed off to the roof where the helicopter was waiting. Mokuba, of course, was already inside. “Mokuba, you’re staying here with Victoria. She needs someone to show her around.”

“What, really?” Mokuba shouted over the chopper’s whirling propellor as he jumped out of the craft.

“Yeah. I should only be gone until ten, so I’ll see you at home.”

“You got it, bro,” the boy nodded. Kaiba boarded the helicopter with his silver briefcase.

“Victoria, you can leave at five but make sure Mokuba gets home safely. Just call a car, and it’ll drop you off wherever you want to go.” I gave him a mock salute and he rolled his eyes disappearing into the helicopter. It took off and soon disappeared into the overcast clouds.

“Wow, my brother really likes you.”

“Really?” I asked him doubtfully as we headed back into the building from the misty launch pad.

“I know it might not seem like it, but he’s usually... uh...”

“Meaner?” I finished, bluntly, calling the elevator. Mokuba laughed mirthlessly.

“That’s Seto for ya,” he sighed. “He wasn’t always like that, though. He was so much fun when he was younger- wanna see a baby picture of him?”

I smiled, biting my lip. Somehow, I found that a little hard to believe; but Kaiba does own a gaming company which is something I wouldn’t have expected for someone with his personality type. “Is that allowed?” I asked as we boarded the elevator and took it down to floor 74.

“What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

“Okay, let’s see it then!”

Mokuba grinned and opened the little duel monster card locket around his neck to reveal a picture of a young boy with brown hair, round blue eyes and a gentle smile, “oh my god, is that really-”

“Yup! Isn’t he cute?”

I giggled taking a closer look, “you could say that, sir.”

“Hey,” Mokuba said, putting his hands on his hips as we walked back to the president’s office, “you can just call me Mokuba, okay? I’m not gonna fire you if you do.” I nodded, “but I wouldn’t try that with my brother yet- he might.”

I smiled, “I wouldn’t dream of it. So... what... what exactly happened to him?”

Frowning, Mokuba pursed his lips, “how much do you know about us, Victoria?”

“Not too much,” I admitted. “I didn’t want to pry.”

“This is important, but don’t act on anything I’m about to tell you. My brother hates pity.” I nodded, encouraging him to continue. We had returned to my desk, and I let him sit on my chair, slipping his card into my pocket. “We were abandoned by our parents at an orphanage  when we were kids.” I gasped.

“Oh, no- I’m so sorry. I had no idea-” Mokuba gave me a sad smile.

“It’s okay, it’s not your fault. That would traumatize anyone, but at least we had each other. That is... until Gozaburo Kaiba showed up,” he shuddered. “He told the owners of the orphanage that he would adopt anyone who could beat him in a game of chess, so Seto challenged him and won.”

“Incredible.”

“So, overnight, we became part of the Kaiba family. Gozaburo saw promise in Seto and started training him to take over KaibaCorp, which was a weapons manufacturer at the time. Little did my brother and I know that Gozaburo’s real son, Noah, had been involved in a terrible accident which crushed his body. He uploaded his son’s brain into the Kaiba Corp virtual reality simulator and planned to transplant his mind into Seto’s body.” That is so fucked up. “It was the training that broke my brother. I still love him more than words can say, but I miss the person he used to be, but that man... he tortured him for years.” His voice went dark, and his eyes turned hard. “The rest is history.”

“What happened to Gozaburo?”

“He killed himself after Seto bought out a majority of the company from under him.”

I closed my eyes and shook my head, “I’m sorry- I didn’t realize what you boys had gone through. I had no idea-”

“It’s okay, Victoria- what happened to us wasn’t your fault.” We had returned to my desk, and were both a little at a loss. “I should show you around,” he said, trying to regain some of his cheeriness and dispel the somber silence that had fallen between us.

“That’s a wonderful idea- let me get a notepad...” Mokuba looked at me incredulously. “Two notepads?” I ventured. This earned me a grin.

The rest of the morning passed in a blur as Mokuba Kaiba walked me through each department of KaibaCorp- it would take two weeks at least to see everything if I devoted every day to venturing about the building and nothing else. Highly impractical of course, but no less true.

I chewed through both notepads during that tour, filling them with information on the company, when to transfer callers to different departments, and the protocol on how to send project specs to engineering and the HoloDeep (Mokuba’s slang for the holographic department). After shaking some hands with some of the other office workers and a few of KaibaCorp engineers, Mokuba took me to the testing lab which was inhabited by six pods that looked a little like the cockpits of fighter jets that had been scavenged and repurposed. Thick clumps of cables snaked from them and plugged into the walls. The room looked like the inside of a huge silver box and the ceiling was perhaps four stories high with a glass-covered mezzanine.

The control room , I guessed.

“My brother has two of these testing rooms,” Mokuba said. “One for beta testers, and one for his own personal use.”

“Wow,” I mused, making a note of that in her second notepad. Must be nice to have money.

“We’ll have to show you how they work sometime when Seto’s back,” he smiled, tilting his head with a grin. “I’ll take you to the PR department next- you’ll have to excuse them if they seem a little off- big bro drives them a little hard.”

That was an understatement.

Stepping into the PR department was like stepping onto the reporting floor of The New York Times. Paper was flying, people were yelling, graphic designers were hunched over computers working feverishly, every other person was on a phone setting dates for events and duels… it was organized chaos.

Despite everything, I found myself smiling… because it reminded me of home.

“You okay, Victoria?” Mokuba asked suddenly, shaking me out of it.

“Oh, yeah- I’m fine. No worries,” I told him. “It looks like they work pretty hard. How’s the turnover?”

“Not as bad as you’d think,” Mokuba chuckled, leading me onto the floor. “They have great benefits.”

“Anything yet?” A cautious voice cried from the other side of the room, rising a little louder than the rest. “Not yet,” an equally loud voice replied a little closer to where we were standing. I looked at Mokuba quizzically, a little perturbed by the panic in their voices.

“Seto’s a little… unpredictable,”

“Ostentatious?” I offered at the same time.

Mokuba and I locked eyes for a moment before we both burst into laughter, “that, too.”

 

When we returned to the executive suite, I sat down to checked my outlook inbox- in which I found about a plethora of new hire KaibaCorp assignments and papers to fill out. Mokuba cleared his throat, and I looked up apologetically.

“I’ll let you fill out your new hire paperwork, but leave some time on your schedule at around two- I’m treating you to lunch.”

“It’s really okay- don’t worry, I brought a sandwich.“

One I hadn’t had time to refrigerate… ugh.  

“Victoria,” Mokuba said leaning forward. “Let me do this for you- Seto won’t.”

I swallowed a sigh and smiled, I’d be a fool to give up the opportunity to get a free lunch- and maybe dinner, too if there was enough left over. “If you insist. Thank you for your generosity.”

Mokuba grinned, “see? That wasn’t so hard was it?” He straightened and tugged on his jacket, pulling at his sleeve to check the time on the large expensive-looking black watch on his wrist. “I’ll come and pick you up at 1:45.”

“Yes, sir,” I answered automatically without thinking. Mokuba outwardly cringed. Though I could tell it was done good-humoredly, I felt myself make a face too. “I’m- sorry about the sir thing… I’ve made it a habit.”

“There are worse things to make a habit of,” he chuckled,”but it must be weird to call me sir since I’m technically your junior… how old are you again?”

“Twenty-one.”

He tsked, “we’ll work on it,” he winked. “Let me know if you need anything! My extension is preprogrammed into your desk phone.”

The phone remained there- unmoving- for a solid hour while I busied myself by completing all the mandatory forms and training sessions. After that, I scavenged for manila folders in the supply room next to Mokuba’s office and began to construct a system for myself given multiple sets of circumstances, jotting names on folders in my trademark on-the-verge-of-sloppy scrawl.

I was so focused on the folders that, when the phone rang, I nearly jumped out of my skin before I fumbled with the phone to answer, “thank you for calling Kaiba Corporation, this is Victoria speaking, how can I help you?”

“Did you even bother looking at the caller ID?” A familiar voice demanded, snidely voice. I knew his voice before I even had to look. My ears turned very warm, and I looked at the screen. Seto Kaiba’s name flashed in black digitized letters, along with a dour-looking display picture. Fitting.

“President Kaiba, my apologies. What can I do for you?”

“I want you to pull the information recorded during my last VR session and put it on a flash drive and hold it for me at your desk until I return. Also, go into the shared file titled ‘Dungeon Dice Monsters’- print two copies of the presentation inside and bind it. Then, I need you to put the presentation onto a different flash drive. Make sure you print out two copies of the contract on the high-grade ivory paper with the Kaiba Corp header. I’ll be meeting with Duke Devlin tomorrow morning to discuss a business merger. You’ll be present during the meeting to take notes and pictures with the company camera. ”

“I can do that,” I said smoothly as I scrambled for a notepad to write all of that down.

“Good, I’ll expect you to be prepared when I come in tomorrow morning.”

“Yes, sir,” I responded, a little breathlessly as I finished writing everything down. “Is there anything else you need?”

There was a pause as if he were surprised that I’d asked, “Now that you mention it, there is. Do me a favor and don’t wear as much makeup tomorrow. Devlin is a womanizer, and I don’t need you distracting him.”

I colored, my eyes narrowing in anger. What the hell did he expect me to say to that? I thought, furiously- trying not to grit my teeth.

He may have sensed that I was mad, so he didn’t bother dragging out the brief and awkward silence. “Anyway, make sure my brother gets home safely. Bye.” Then he hung up, leaving me sitting there with the phone five inches from my ear. I made a face at it before returning it to the receiver.

“That jerk!” I muttered, leaning back in my chair to rub my forehead.

“Well, that went well,” Mokuba commented. Jerking up to a straight seated position, shock and then embarrassment washed over me. He was leaning against my desk with a wily grin. “Need help?”

“Oh, um, I think I can handle most of this stuff. I appreciate the offer, though.” I assured him, searching for anything with “VR” and “Virtual Reality” in the name.

It didn’t take long to find.

I quickly put in a blank flash drive from one of the myriad that sat in a glass jar near my computer and started the download. I glanced at the clock- it was nearly time.

“Wow, he gave you a list, didn’t he?” Mokuba whistled, taking the notepad I’d just scribbled Kaiba’s to-do list on. “Don’t worry, I’ll have you back before the end of the day so that you can finish up.”  

“Would you?” I sighed, relieved, locking the screen on my computer so that no one could mess with the downloading process while I was away. “I’m so sorry for the trouble.”

The teenager grinned, “no trouble at all. Grab your stuff.”

“Okay,” I nodded, getting up from my chair and dropping my briefcase over my shoulder, “let’s go.”

 

“I’ve got to ask,” Mokuba began curiously after we’d gotten into the sleek black car in the parking garage and he’d told the driver, George, where we were getting lunch. It was some Italian place I’d never heard of before- probably because I was too poor to even look at the place without being charged a cover fee. “What did my brother say to you to make you so mad?”

I sighed, “he told me I would distract Duke Devlin if I wore this much makeup when he came to sign the merger contract with KaibaCorp tomorrow.”

Mokuba leaned back and quirked an eyebrow at me, “well, he isn’t lying. Devlin’s got the attention span of a goldfish.”

Sounds like it if he’d be distracted by this, I thought wryly. “So, what type of meeting are your brother and Maximillion Pegasus having anyway?” I asked, changing the subject as George pulled out of the darkened parking garage, and into the bright sunlight.

“It pertains to releasing the designs for his new cards to us so that we can make holographic projections of them for gameplay,” he explained as we sailed through the light San Francisco traffic.

“Cool,” I mused. “I can’t wait to see what your brother comes up with- he’s amazing.”

Mokuba looked at me for a moment too long, before smiling, “he really is.”

“I mean- the Sanctuary in the Sky holo? I felt so at peace… I swear I could almost smell the wildflowers- and then you saw Dunames Dark Witch shake my hand, right? Holy cow- and then the dragon…” I paused, and Mokuba was grinning at me from ear to ear. He was going to think I was crazy if I kept on and brought up the Blue Eyes Ultimate Dragon and its   feelings, so I decided to leave it at that. “It’s very impressive- is what I meant to say.”

“Seems as if we have another satisfied customer,” Mokuba said, nudging my shoulder with his. “I’m glad you had fun even though Seto was really competitive. Sorry, about that,” he added sheepishly, “but I’ll say- you nearly had him at the end there. I really thought you were going to win.”

“What would he have done, then, I wonder?” I mused, rubbing my chin, leaning back fake-thoughtfully. “Fire me perhaps?”

“No way. He would have brooded about it for like a year. Or five,” he chuckled. “And then he’d challenge you to a duel every day until he beat you.”

“Wow,” I muttered, rolling my eyes with a chuckle. “I’m glad I didn’t win! It sounds like a lot of trouble.” Frankly, I’ve had enough of that to last me a lifetime.  

“I don’t blame you,” Mokuba laughed, “I know Yugi’s had it.”

“Oh has he?” I laughed. “What’s he doing these days, anyhow?”

Mokuba shrugged, “a little bit of everything-  rumor has it, he’s making his own game- they say that he’s going to start promoting it in January. It’s pretty hush, hush. In the meantime, he runs his grandfather’s gameshop. Grandpa Muto got really sick last year, so Yugi was out of commission trying to nurse him back to health.”

“That’s so sad… is he doing okay now?”

“I think he’s better, but he’s old, Victoria… I don’t think he has much time left.”

Chewing on my bottom lip, I clasped my hands together in my lap and let out a long sigh.

“That’s life, isn’t it? We’re born and we grow up- learn some things, make mistakes, fall in love, have adventures- and then we die. That’s the only thing in this reality that’s an absolute truth. One day, we’re all going to cease to exist, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

Mokuba looked at me with a speechless sort of expression- one I was very familiar with. I just had to let my co-boss know that I was a space cadet on my first day, didn’t I?

“I’m sorry if that was weird,” I said quickly. Shaking his head, Mokuba put a hand on mine, and closed it over them.

“It’s true,” he said, “that’s how things should be.”

I wouldn’t understand the significance of that comment until much later.

 

After lunch after which we had to be escorted out through the basement exit thanks to the paparazzi, I’d prepared everything Kaiba requested for the meeting tomorrow and escorted Mokuba home. The Kaiba mansion was just on the outskirts of town and was completely obscured from view by a tall privacy fence made of polished pine.

I didn’t get home until about seven. When the KaibaCorp company car finally dropped me off outside of my apartment complex, it was fair weather and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I thanked George and fumbled to scrounge my keys out of my briefcase as he drove away.

Chapter Text

I spent the rest of the evening in my room avoiding calls and people like the plague while watching youtube videos and painting my toenails. I stole out of my room once to make udon with a chicken broth, green onions, and hard-boiled eggs, and set aside a little for Mai in a bowl wrapped up in the fridge. Scribbling down a little note on a spare piece of paper, I hung it on the fridge.

It said, “ I made ramen! ” with a little heart at the end. As I sat barely awake in bed reading  The View from Flyover Country by Sarah Kendzior, I found myself nodding off to dreams that would provide me with little sleep and even less comfort.

 

“Stop!” I cried, my voice raw from screaming as three men in ragged garb pushed me into a cage. I was lightheaded and weak with hunger as my legs folded in beneath me as I stumbled inside, crumpling to the ground. I looked up through a thick curtain of dirty flaxen hair that had turned back to its original shade. Damn!

The men closed the cage door and leered at me. “I hope you aren’t a waste,” one of them chuckled darkly. “I don’t know if anyone will take you with that skin and hair.”

Struggling to stand up, pushing my hair back flushed with anger as I rushed to the bars of the cage, I pulled at the door, “you can’t do this!”

One of the men spat in my face, “know your place, brat!” I wiped his spittle off of my cheek, and glared at him.

“My place is out of this cage!” One of the men reached through and grabbed my neck, squeezing it hard. I gasped for air, digging my dirty ragged nails into his hand.

“You are nothing, you fatherless, motherless urchin. Nothing!” The other man growled, before releasing me. Staggering back, I fell to my knees, panting to catch my breath as I felt my vision blur. 

“Leave her alone!” A voice called rising up in the pitch black. “Let her go.”

 

You have so much more courage than I did, a quiet voice whispered into my ear . You will need it for the dark days ahead.

 

I woke with a jolt, sputtering and gasping as if I’d just been resuscitated after inhaling too much water. The dream had  faded in and out on the edge of my memory, but it did not frighten me anymore. Somehow, I managed to roll out of bed early enough to style my hair which took about a millennia and a half on any given day. I did not forget Kaiba’s suggestion to dress down, so I did, but my mind was barely in it. I selected a pair of plain black slacks and a conservative white button down and parted my hair down the middle, slipping on a pair of large thick black-rimmed glasses to complete the look. Slipping on a pair of low black heels, I headed into the living room.

Mai Valentine was sitting on the couch with her legs crossed, reading over a tournament magazine. She wore a white button down, a high-waisted purple skirt, and a wraparound purple fur coat paired with a pair of strappy purple suede high heels. Her blond hair was curled as usual, but it had been pulled into a fashionable coif. It was like living with a Victoria’s Secret model.

“Morning,” I said, raising a hand in greeting.

“Yo,” she returned, giving me a two fingered salute. “So, I wanted to let you know that I’ll be out of town starting today for about a week for state finals.”

“Oh, hey- that’s great! Congratulations on winning regionals!”

“Thanks- I found out yesterday night. I got in late and went straight to bed, so I didn’t have the chance to tell you.” Mai cocked her head, “how was your first day at work?”

“No worries,” I assured her. “My first day  was interesting; I work at Kaiba Corp.”

Mai’s eyes lit up, “you’re kidding!”

“Nope,” I smiled, “I’m President Kaiba’s new assistant.”

“You lucky girl,” Mai griped, dark violet eyes glittering. “Do you know what this means?” She cried, grabbing my shoulders. I shook my head, “all of the free stuff you’re going to get- oh my!”

I laughed, “well, I did get a duel disk out of it. And some pretty great cards.” Mai gasped, clasping her hands together.

“I didn’t know you played!”

“I did a long time ago... “ I bit my lip, wondering if I should tell her that Kaiba made me duel him. It was probably best not to bring it up just yet. “I’m getting back into it, I guess.”

“When I get back, we’ll have to have ourselves a little duel- what do you say, Tori?”

“Definitely,” I agreed. “I don’t know if I’m worthy of dueling the next state champion, though!”

Mai laughed, swatting at my shoulder playfully- I giggled, “you flatter me. Say, let’s get bagels before we have to go our separate ways. I’m headed out of town right about now, actually.”

“Sure,” I smiled. “My treat?”

“Oh, you’re too kind!”

Einstein’s was about three-quarters of the way to Kaiba Corp which worked out just as well for me. The morning hustle for bagels and lox wasn’t too bad considering Wednesdays were usually big days for meetings. It was about 7:30 when we arrived, which left me plenty of time to have breakfast with her before she had to shove off on her 9AM flight to San Diego.

“I’ve always wondered what it’s like to work for Seto Kaiba,” Mai mused, sipping on the orange juice she’d ordered after we’d taken our trays to a table near a bay-front window. “He seems pretty high maintenance.”

Thinking back to the insanity in the PR department, I cringed, “oh, yeah. Very much so.”

“But he knows what he’s doing, that’s for sure,” she nodded, folding her arms over her chest. “What do you think of him?”

“He’s very intimidating,” I admitted, “but I respect him. He’s brilliant. It’s funny that Mokuba and he are related- they’re so different.”

“It’s true,” Mai chuckled, “but I think most of that had to do with Yugi rubbing off on him. From how I understand it, they’re pretty good friends.”

The conversation we had about Yugi and his grandfather suddenly made so much more sense.

I smiled, “I’m so glad that Mokuba has friends. I guess that’s the difference, isn’t it?”

“I guess,” she conceded in mid-bite. “Speaking of, have you heard from any of your friends back in New York?”

“Mom called about a week ago, but other than that- radio silence.”

“Wow,” she droned, sipping on her coffee. “That sucks.”

“It’s okay, they’re busy,” I shrugged nonchalantly. “They don’t really owe me anything.”

Mai put a hand on my shoulder, “I know how it is. It’s hard to be alone sometimes. Agh, I hate doing this to you, but I have to head to the airport-”

“It’s okay Mai- should I call a cab for you?”

“Nah, my Uber will be outside in like a minute. Do you need a ride to work? It’s on the way!”

I decided to take her up on the Uber, and took advantage of it by buying a dozen bagels for the President’s meeting with Duke Devlin since I didn’t have to carry them. When we arrived, I thanked Mai, and ducked out of the car.

Mai peered out the door and up at the building, letting out a long whistle. “No matter how many times I see it, it never gets any less impressive.”

“It’s as big as it looks on the inside. It’s like Daedalus built it himself,” I said.

“Dedalus?” She frowned.

“Uh,” I cringed, blushing. “He built the Labyrinth for King Minos of Crete in Greek myth.”  

“Oh,” Mai said, rubbing her chin. “I guess it’s been too long since I was in school! Anyway, I’ve gotta run- I’ll be back in a few days, okay?”

 

Fortunately, I arrived at the office early enough to put on a kettle of darjeeling tea and to set up two spaces on a long conference table (in the room the president had specified in his most recent email) with two bound slides booklets and two copies of the contract on specialty paper which had indentations of the Kaiba Corp Logo on the top center of the pages. Opening the box of assorted bagels and spreads I’d bought at Einstein’s and set out porcelain dishes and mugs I’d found in the break room.

I finished hooking up my computer so that my screen could be seen on the larger one on the opposite side of the room and opened the PowerPoint he specified, maximizing it to its fullest size and tested it with a controller I found on the podium. It looked as if it was functioning properly.

Rushing to my desk, I opened the drawer I’d put Kaiba’s requested flash drive in yesterday, and I slipped it into an envelope without sealing it, and left it and the controller at the head of the table. I had just set the happily steaming kettle of green tea on a trivet I’d also found in the breakroom when the President walked into the conference room at nine AM sharp with his briefcase in tow.

Today, he wore an expensive looking fitted black and white suit with a blue tie instead of his white trench vest and his chestnut hair was parted to the side- letting his bangs fall just below his brow. The brightness from overcast sky illuminating the windows behind me made his dark blue eyes shimmer revealing flecks of amber and honey around his pupils. He didn’t seem to register my presence at first when he walked into the room, setting his briefcase near the chair at the head of the table.

My stomach did a somersault.

Jesus. I gaped at him for two seconds before I tilted my head to rid myself of the thought, and cleared my throat, “good morning, President.”

Seto Kaiba looked at me emotionlessly, “you aren’t wearing makeup.”

“No, sir.”

He pursed his lips, eyes flitting to the table which made him freeze. “This is... “ he paused, scrutinizing everything as if he were trying to find something to criticize. He looked over at me, not angry but perplexed. “You went overboard.”

“Better to be simply overboard than dead in the water.” I answered, sliding my glasses up my nose. “I thought you might want to roll out the welcome mat for Mr. Devlin as he’s going to be a business partner of ours from now on, so I thought, why not show him some of that world-famous KaibaCorp hospitality?”

Kaiba grunted at this. It was hard to tell whether or not it was in agreement or otherwise.

“Do you have the flash-drive I asked you to prepare?” He asked me, digging through his briefcase for his laptop.

“Yes, sir- it’s in the envelope in front of you.” I responded, folding my hands in front of me- trying to look more comfortable than I felt. He set the laptop on the table, and picked up the envelope, turning it over in his hand, tossing me a quick glance. “I’ll review it after Devlin leaves.”

“Of course, sir,” I said easily, just as the phone at my desk rang around the corner. I checked my watch. It was a little past nine AM, “that’ll be him now.”

 

Once I’d told Amber to let Duke Devlin up to the executive suite, I located the company camera by by way of Mokuba who was quite chained to his desk sifting through engineering department applicants, and went to wait for Duke Devlin at the elevator. The moment the elevator doors opened and Duke strode out, I knew he was going to be a royal pain in my ass.

He was an attractive guy with the kind of gorgeous deep set green eyes that made girls beside themselves. His long dark hair was tied back in a ponytail and also wore a well-fitted suit in which he looked extremely uncomfortable.

The worst thing is that he totally gave me “the vibe”. Like, the vibe you get when you know someone’s into you before they even speak.  

“You’re the assistant, aren’t you?” Duke asked, giving me a once over and a dazzling white-toothed smile that probably worked on the fanbase he very obviously had. “Duke Devlin.” He said, holding out his hand for me to shake it. I did. Firmly.

“Victoria Cruz,” I smiled, trying to be professional. “If you’ll follow me, I’ll take you to the conference room.”

“Lead the way,” he said, motioning with his hand. A gentleman. Well, at least he wasn’t creepy.

Upon arriving in the conference room, President Kaiba stood. “Mr. Duke Devlin, sir.” I said, standing aside for them to shake hands so that I could snap a photograph with the camera that hung around my neck.

I checked the image on the viewfinder, and gave them both a nod. It wasn’t blurry- that was a good sign. Well, that was one step in the right direction!  

“Thanks for agreeing to meet with me today, Seto,” Duke Devlin said easily as they sat down.

President Kaiba only nodded, not offering any niceties in return. It didn’t seem like Devlin expected any.

“If I can call your attention to the presentation, there are a few stipulations we need to go over before any signing is done…”

I tried to be as attentive as I could be, but I found myself nodding off more than once. Contractual agreement presentations were about as much fun as watching paint dry if I’m being completely honest. While the president was going on about additions to the trademark and copyright clauses, Devlin was watching me out of the corner of his eyes with amusement and curiosity as I struggled to stay awake- catching myself the moment my eyes fluttered closed. It didn’t help that the windows were open to an overcast sky, and it looked moments away from torrential downpour. I took notes whenever I managed to shake myself out of it. 

How I wished that I could be home hunched over hot tea and re-runs of New Girl .

I ignored Duke’s glances when I could and when I couldn’t, I deadpanned. Mr. Kaiba wasn’t paying attention to us at all, still quite enraptured with his powerpoint.

Duke helped himself the tea and bagels, selecting a chocolate chip one from the box, nodding and interjecting here and there through the presentation. Scraping a dollop of plain cream cheese onto the bagel with a plastic knife, he spread it over, once more glancing at me, his mouth slipping into a discreet, knowing  smile before taking a bite out of his bagel.

My eyes were stuck as he passed his tongue over his lips. Eyes widening and cheeks burning, I snapped out of my drowsiness and averted my eyes to my notepad. Clenching my fist harder around the pen in my hand, I took notes, my attention locking onto President Kaiba’s voice. Soon, they had gone briefly off-topic and I lost track of the conversation. Dozing off, I found myself re-tracing letters I’d written moments before. That is, until Duke chuckled at something Kaiba said.

Looking up, I found the two men looking at me expectantly, I blushed hot, “I’m sorry,” I chirped, sitting up a bit straighter. “Did I miss something?”

“Your notes... “ Kaiba said, trailing of, gesturing at my pad. Looking down, I realized that I had ten pages worth. Ten. For an hour long meeting. “Are overkill.”

He wasn’t wrong.

“Are you a novelist?” Duke asked with a toothy grin, putting an elbow on the table, leaning forward with a cheek resting on his hand.

Allowing myself to smile, I sat up a little straighter, “no,” I acquiesced. “Just thorough.”

Oh ,” he droned, quirking an eyebrow with a sly smile curling the edges of his mouth. “Are you like that in every aspect of your life?”

Mr. Kaiba glanced at Duke, a twitch of annoyance marring his neutral expression. I pursed my lips, unable to hide my burning ears.

“This is boring me,” Mr. Kaiba snapped. “So, are you ready to sign the contract or not?”

Duke winked at me, “of course.” He said, returning his gaze back to Mr. Kaiba whose lips twitched ever so slightly. 

 

Once they’d signed the contract and taken an appropriate number of photographs, Mr. Kaiba excused himself to attend a meeting with the board in his office, but ordered me to see Duke out. Suppressing a sigh, I did as I was told.

“So,” Duke said conversationally once Mr. Kaiba was out of earshot and we were waiting on the elevator. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-one,” I told him, saying the words before I could even think about lying.

“We’re the same age,” he informed me with a grin. “How long have you worked here?”

“A few days,” I confessed. He was irritatingly easy to talk to. “How long have you been the president of Dungeon and Dice monsters?”

“About three years give or take?”

I nodded thoughtfully, “well, we look forward to a lucrative partnership.”

He chuckled, “you’re something , aren’t you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re very good at your job,” he said. “Kaiba is lucky to have you.”

I laughed a little, “I have to be… I definitely don’t want to get on his bad side.”

“I don’t blame you,” he smiled, a little pityingly. The elevator dinged, and he let out a sigh, shrugging, and reached for my right hand to drop a slip of paper into my palm. I blinked at his forwardness, feeling suddenly very warm. It was his business card. The elevator slid open, but no one was inside to see this exchange.

Duke scanned my face, and smiled, “if you ever want to go out sometime, I’d love to treat you to dinner.” I opened my mouth half in shock and half to respond, but nothing came out. “You don’t have to answer now,” he chuckled, stepping away from me and into the elevator. “Think about it, and call me.”

I gaped at him as the doors slid shut, and the elevator whisked Duke Devlin away.

 

When I returned to my desk, Kaiba had emailed me a to-do list. He demanded reservations to be made at Epic Steakhouse that evening for dinner for himself and Mokuba, which was damn near impossible on a Friday night. They would not be accompanying me in the company car. Mr. Kaiba had brought his own vehicle to work, and it was an recently purchased apple red Porshe (according to a very enthused Mokuba). It made me smile a little. The revelation of this expensive hobby did not come as much of a surprise to me, but it made him a little more human.

Rich or otherwise.

A few hours later, the President emerged from his office with his briefcase in tow. Leaning over my desk, he motioned to me with his index finger. I blinked at him and stood.

“Sir?” I asked quietly.

“I’m going to be out of the office for the rest of the day,” he said in a low voice. “Keep an eye on my brother and if he asks where I am, make something up.”

I frowned, “are you in trouble?”

“No,” he said. “Getting Mokuba involved with this matter has been troublesome in the past.”

“Ah,” I said neutrally. It really wasn’t my place to ask questions. “Well, safe travels.”

Mr. Kaiba leaned back and nodded before sweeping off towards the elevator. I’d just been told to lie to my employer… by my employer.  

Just super.

 

But it seemed like something that could get sticky pretty fast if I didn’t do as he asked. I wondered absently where the president might have been going that would have encouraged him to take such action as to conceal it from Mokuba. I’d come to understand how deeply Kaiba cared for his little brother- even though he was nearly an adult now. Judging from their pasts, it was no surprise that he was so protective.

Mokuba emerged from his office an hour or so later, asking me if I wanted to order pizza. Gratefully, I agreed.

“I’d invite Seto, but he really isn’t much of a pizza person.” I had to bite back a relieved sigh, crisis averted. For now. “Noted,” I said, nevertheless cataloging that information for future use. “Wait, What kind of person doesn’t like pizza? Bread, tomato sauce, and cheese are the bread and butter of American cuisine!”

With a shrug, Mokuba leaned against my desk, “no clue- I always end up eating them all of my own.”

At the end of the day, the Kaiba Corp Company car dropped me off in front of my flat at seven fifteen that evening. As George drove away, a familiar cold feeling washed over me. I was being watched. My stomach knotted with anxiety when I cast a glance over my shoulder. Nothing.

Maybe I was imagining things. I began to paw through mom’s briefcase for my keys before out of the corner of my eye I saw a black car pull to the curbside. It was like I was trapped in a memory. I quickly gave up trying to look for my keys and walked quickly away from the safe stoop of my apartment complex- out of fear that they would try to break in if they found out where I lived.

I knew what the man in the black Infinity was about. I’d scooped a South Carolina Senator in an embezzlement scandal five months ago when I worked for The New York Times . Ever since his clumsy fall from grace culminating in a bitter resignation much to the joy of his constituents, Senator Atkinson’s men had been gunning for me. Regrettably, the Senator was very well connected which meant he had a lot of resources at his disposal.   

How did they even find me here? I’d been so careful.

I’d given no notice about vacating my studio apartment. I didn’t even tell mom. I cut up my credit cards, dyed my hair, and used cash to hitchhike cross-country. I even changed my name . Not legally, of course. That would have been one hell of a paper trail.

I ducked into an alleyway and broke into a run as the brakes of the car squealed. The black car accelerated to catch up, and I turned another corner to lose them, but my obvious ruse didn’t faze them in the least. A brick wall loomed six feet upwards at the end of the alleyway. I let out a string of curse words, but I didn’t stop running. The car skidded to a stop two feet from the wall, and a tall man in shades and a well-tailored suit jumped out.

“Stop!” The man yelled, running after me with a hand closed around the pistol on his hip.  I slung my briefcase over my shoulder and scrambled on top of one of the metallic silver trash cans, jumping up to grip the top of the wall with my hands, I hoisted myself up just as the man made a grab for my legs and swung them over the wall and let myself drop into a grassy lot in the backyard of a decrepit building- it used to be red, but bits of paint were peeling off the wooden siding to reveal the brown underneath. I heard the muffled sound of the black Infinity speed off.

I dashed out to the sidewalk and looked around for any landmark I might recognize. I couldn’t even see the Golden Gate Bridge from here which meant that I was Really Fucking Lost. This wasn’t an unusual occurrence; neither was the fact that my iPhone was not getting a signal on this side of town. I could forget about getting directions from Siri.

Walking along the sidewalk, watching for cars and buttoning my blazer as if that would help conceal me, I noticed that people were seated out on their narrow front porch steps on either side of the street to talk to their neighbors. They all seemed to ignore me as I passed. I walked and walked as the sun dipped lower and lower on the horizon until I came to a large tree-lined crosswalk which was hustling and bustling with the eclectic younger crowd. Searching about, I looked for a cafe or something where I might be able to sit down and use their wifi or evade the searching eyes of the suit in the black Infinity.

Finally, I had some luck. On a chalkboard fold-out sign nearby was written; “Turtle Game Shop- 50% Off Mix-and-Match Duel Monster Cards (20 card max) with Purchase of Dungeon Dice Monsters Game Set. Free wifi available- inquire within.”  

Say no more, I thought to myself, turning around to inspect the shop. It looked warm and inviting, and was mainly yellow with red Spanish-style roof tiles with apartments on the second level.

Sparing one cautious look over my shoulder, and finding no suspicious black Infinities cruising around, I pushed the door open. A small bell above the door tinkled as I slipped inside and let the door close behind me.

Chapter Text

The shop was filled to the brim with any type of card game imaginable, board games, vials of dice in every color you could think of, Dungeons and Dragons guide books and figurines, Pokemon cards, and PlayStation games.

But amid all of that, glittering like gold in a treasure chest, was the KaibaCorp dueling disk, which was kept under the counter with the rest of the Duel Monster cards. I peered around for the shopkeeper, but they were nowhere to be found. Hm.

I decided to bide my time, so I went over to a shelf which was filled with PlayStation games, and flipped through them with my fingers. I’d always wanted a PlayStation- ever since I was a kid- but mom had refused under the idea that I might get addicted to them.

Well, she wasn’t wrong. I’d gotten addicted to duel monsters fairly quickly in my youth, too.

“Welcome to Turtle Games, let me know if I can help you find anything,” a voice said suddenly from out of nowhere, making me jump half out of my skin. In my wanderings, I hadn’t noticed that a short purple-haired kid had emerged from the backroom with a tray full of duel monster cards.

“Oh, thank you,” I managed, breathing out a sigh of relief.

“I’m sorry if I frightened you,” the boy apologized, setting the tray aside. He wore a black Led Zeppelin t-shirt, thick black leather bracelets around his wrists, distressed black jeans, and a maroon biker jacket. He looked a little concerned.

“Not your fault,” I told him with as cheerful a smile as I could manage, “It’s been a weird day.”

“Believe me, I get it,” he sighed, oddly world-wearied for someone that couldn’t have been too much older than she was. He started picking through an assorted lot of duel monster cards.  “I’ve had my share of weird days, too.”

I wandered curiously over to him, “what kind of weird are we talking?”

He looked up from his cards and smiled, “it’s a secret.”

Intriguing. I felt the reporter’s instinct flip on in the back of my brain. “Everyone has a secret or two. It makes us interesting. How long have you worked here?”

He replied with a smile, still focused on his cards, “but I’ve worked here ever since I was a kid. My family owns this shop.”

“I take it you specialize in a game particularly?”

“I do. I’m fairly good at duel monsters, but I’m good at most of the games in here as a general rule.”

“Do you have a favorite card?”

“The Dark Magician, no contest, ” he answered easily. “Do you play?”

I nodded, rubbing my chin thoughtfully. “I do, but I’m not very good.” I admitted, “not yet anyway.”  

This seemed to spark his interest, “do you have your cards with you?”

“I do, hang on,” I said, fishing my duel disk out of my briefcase to lay it on the counter next to his tray of cards, and I took out the deck Kaiba had asked me to assemble the day before.

“Do you mind if I take a look?”

“Be my guest,” I told him, pressing my deck into his hand. “It’s mainly a fairy/spellcaster base deck with a few other subcategories thrown in.”

The shopkeeper’s eyebrows shot up as he flipped through the cards, “Splendid Venus? Wow.” He continued to flip through the cards, pausing to nod, or set aside a couple of cards. By the looks of it, he was getting together the fusion monsters. Finally, he full stopped, and drew in a sharp gasp, turning the card to face me. It was the Dark Magician Girl. He looked up at me with a set brow, “how did you get this card?”

“It was given to me,” I answered.

“By Seto Kaiba?” He asked, his voice on edge.

“Yes,” I answered, a little surprised. “How did you know?”

“This is the only other copy of this card in existence other than the one I have. He must really trust you if he gave this to you of his own volition. Are you… his girlfriend or something?”

I blanched, and then burst out laughing, “heaven forbid! I’m his assistant.”

“Oh,” the purple haired boy flushed, carefully putting the card back into my deck. “Sorry.”  He continued to flip through my deck.

“Don’t think on it,” I assured him, good-naturedly. But , I thought, that begs the question- why would he give this card to me given my status? “Is that something Seto Kaiba would do for his girlfriend?”

“I really don’t know,” he responded, shrugging. “It’s hard to imagine him dating anyone, honestly.”

“I know what you mean,” I agreed. “Even if he didn’t have all of his amiable qualities, I wonder if he’d even have time. He’s booked from now until next November.”

The purple haired guy laughed, “you sure you’re okay with talking smack about your boss when he’s not here to defend himself?”

“What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” I shrugged nonchalantly, I did feel bad about it, but I was too annoyed by his “distraction” statement from earlier to care.

Grinning, the boy looked back down at my cards and finished flipping through them.

“A lot of your cards are pretty vintage- but I think I get the feel you’re going for, so I want to make a suggestion. He pawed through some of the cards on the tray in front of him and started to set a few cards aside.

“Since you have a good number of low to middling plant cards in your deck, I’m adding a few that will bolster their effectiveness.” The cards he selected were Talaya, Princess of Cherry Blossoms and Tytannial, Princess of Camellias.  They might have been pretty, but they sure were powerful. “Individually, these would go for $2 a piece, but if you buy a Dungeon Dice Monsters board game set, you can get seventeen additional cards for six dollars more.”

Ultimately, I ended up turning down the promo choosing to buy the two cards on their own. He didn’t seem too disappointed, though. After he gave me the wifi password for the shop, and figured out that I was only about a mile from home, I bid him farewell and promised to visit the shop again soon.

 

The apartment was empty when I returned. Gooseflesh pricked my skin as I pushed the door open with my shoulder cautiously, half expecting to find the man in the dark suit polishing his gun at the dining room table. For good measure, I locked the deadbolt on the door after I slipped inside.

I pulled off my high heels near the door and shirked my blazer, unbuttoning my shirt as I padded barefoot across the common area. I felt a world better once I changed into my Brown University t-shirt and gray sweatpants- before collapsing on the sofa- exhausted.

Absently, I dug my phone out of my pocket and called mom. For the second time this week.

The phone rang once. Twice. Three times- and then it went to voicemail.

“You’ve reached the voicemail box of Laureline Koenig. I’m not available to take your call at the time, but leave your name, number, and a brief message, and I’ll get back as soon as I can. Thanks!”

“Hey mom, it’s Kisara,” I said with a sigh. “I just wanted to hear your voice. Stay safe. I love you. Tell dad I said hi… and… I’m sorry.” I hung up, sighed again, and passed a hand over my face.

 

The sun was setting, casting long shadows across the floor- shadows that seemed to menace me and leer while the sun began to dance like an open flame…

My eyes blurred as if by tears, but I wasn’t crying. I rubbed my eyes on the backs of heavily bandaged and smarting hands and squinted. A flickering white candle had been placed on a table… I never remembered being next to the couch, nor did I remember cutting up my hands before going to sleep. An unbearable throbbing pounded in my head, feeling as if someone had driven an SUV over it a thousand times. When I pressed a hand against my temples to quell the headache, I found that my head had also been bandaged.

What happened to me?

Looking around, I found myself in a beautiful open room laying on a soft bed. The rest of the room was made of a white marble… or alabaster. The mild breeze coming from the open windows smelled like incense. Pulling aside the sheer gauzy curtain that surrounded the bed, I padded over to the window- all the while looking up and around- eyes wide. The pain, for the moment, forgotten.

I was dreaming. I had to be. But… this didn’t feel like a dream at all. The ceiling was high and was supported by stone columns painted with images that strongly evoked ancient Egyptian art. Hieroglyphics were inked and inlaid in gold leaf on the columns and walls as well, and it all looked so new that it felt like being on a movie set.

Definitely Egyptian. I noted to myself.

Peering out of one of the open windows, I found myself looking over a white stone courtyard glimmering in the setting sun while people in robes and  mingled and went about their business. Some looked more ceremonial than others. A few miles away, wooden scaffolding had been constructed around a large statue which looked like the unfinished body of Anubis. A large limestone jekyll's head was being pulled up the scaffolding on a platform.   I was in Egypt - but when in Egypt was I?

Taking a shaky breath, I pressed a hand against my forehead and let it drop to my mouth. Before the panic could really set in, I heard footsteps on the floor. Whipping around, I saw a dark man in deep blue robes and a headdress standing near an alcove closer to the bed.

“Are you alright?” He asked me, his voice immediately familiar.  

“Mr. Kaiba?” I whispered, my brow furrowing in confusion. What was my boss doing here? And dressed like that no less?

“Kaiba?” He asked, sounding just as confused as I was, approaching me. “I’m not familiar with that name.”

Upon closer inspection of the almost-stranger, I could tell that his face, his voice, his height were all the same Kaiba. This man was more muscular, his skin was much darker, and there was far more of it to see. Flushing, I forced myself to look directly into his eyes.

His expression was different. It was kinder.

“I misspoke,” I amended. “But-”

“Your face is red,” he told me, touching my cheek with one hand. His fingers were cold. A shiver ran down my spine and I jerked back instinctively - blushing hot. “Are you coming down with something?”

“I-I n-no, I’m fine,” I stammered, backing away from him, nearly slipping on the smooth hard floor. He rushed ahead and caught me around the waist, and pulled me into him. I froze, barely breathing and heart thundering away in my ears as he embraced me. He smelled like frankincense.

“You’re not,” he insisted, his voice low in my ear. “You need to rest. You were stoned in the city square today.”

I frowned, stoned? What was he talking about?

Then I remembered the bandages on my hands and head. There were even some on my forearms. My head throbbed again, and I let out a whimper and buried my face into his neck as if that would help the pain subside.

“Kisara,” he murmured. “It’s going to be alright, I’ll take you back to bed.”

Kisara? How did he know my name? 

Then, he scooped me up gently in his arms, mine around his neck, as he carried me back to the bed, pushing the gauzy white curtain open with his shoulder. Not-Kaiba lay me down gently and pulled a soft light cotton blanket over me. I breathed out a sigh of relief as the pain ebbed a little. He pressed his surprisingly cool hands against my cheeks checking my temperature, and studied my face with his eyes as if he were committing it to memory.

“I have to go now, they’re expecting me in the throne room,” he said, near enough for his warm breath to wash over me. “I’ll be back for you later- and then we can talk,” he promised, leaning towards me to press a kiss to my forehead. My eyes fluttered shut and I felt a single tear roll down my cheek.

Don’t go.

A sob left my mouth and I jolted awake, my hands reaching upwards.

It was just a dream, I repeated to myself, taking a few ragged breaths. Pressing a hand to my head, my eyes blurred with tears and my heart throbbed painfully as if it were trying to burrow deep inside my chest. I struggled to sit up. The sun had set long ago, and the city lights lit the inside of the apartment, casting odd shadows across the room. I felt my way blindly to the lamp near the television and turned it on.

What was happening to me?

Chapter Text

 

Thank god that Kaiba was out of the office the next day. In fact, he’d be gone for the next week collaborating with a Swiss programmer named Heinrich Egen to figure out a way to work out the kinks in the Kaiba Corp virtual reality platform. His presence lingered- as it did- but I definitely wouldn’t have been able to face him today after last night.

My stupid brain kept replaying the kiss over and over again and I found myself staring into space on more than one occasion. Kaiba’s emails kept me in the now, though.

 

Victoria,

Take care of any correspondence and make sure my brother is dressed properly for his meeting with Minoru Futaba at 3:00 pm with Hologenix International. Since this meeting may get pretty ugly, there is a button you can put in your pocket if you need security to remove anyone. It’s in the upper right hand drawer of your desk.

Send any notes to me after the meeting. I’ll be away until tomorrow evening, so escort Mokuba home after work as usual. His tutors will take things from there.

Don’t mess this up,

-S.K.

P.S.

Mokuba invited Yugi Moto and his group of miscreant friends for lunch, so I need you to greet them and play nice.

 

Letting out a laugh, I thought to myself. It was good to know that he hadn’t suddenly decided to be nice to me. I really wouldn’t have known what to do with myself then!

I rolled my eyes with a grin as I typed a response;

 

President,

No problem, I’ll take care of everything. Don’t worry.

Safe travels,

-Victoria

 

“My brother?” Mokuba Kaiba said over  my shoulder as I sent the message into cyberspace and minimized Outlook.

“Yes,” I answered, perplexed, turning to face him. The sixteen year-old looked like he’d aged overnight. He’d cut his wild black hair which had been tamed with hair gel and swept to the side and he wore a black and red suit that made him look much taller than he was.

He was a natural lady killer.

“What happened to you, Mokuba?” I gasped, surprised.

He colored, tugging at his black tie uncomfortably, “does it look bad?”

“Not at all, you look… a lot like your brother actually.”

Mokuba beamed widely at this and stopped fidgeting, “well, it took a while anyway- the maids were fussing over me for hours this morning. I have to wake up at five.”

I cringed, “Yikes.”  

He shrugged, “it is what it is.”

In all honesty, I’d woken up only two hours ago after staying up late copyediting a few articles for The San Francisco Tribune - all of which had deadlines slated for this afternoon. Thank the sweet Lord for concealer and styling gel.

“I hear you have a pretty big day today,” I said encouragingly.

“Yeah, the meeting with Minoru Futaba. It’s my first one going solo, so I’m pretty nervous. I’m not great at public speaking.”

“You’re going to do fine,” I grinned, giving him a thumbs up. “I’ll make you a ‘go Mokuba’ poster if you want-“

He made a face, “no way, that’ll make it worse!”

We laughed, and then suddenly, the phone on my desk rang.

“Oops,” I said looking down at the caller ID, it was Maximillion Pegasus. “Gotta take this.” Clearing my throat nervously while Mokuba leaned against the desk still snickering, I switched to my best customer service voice. “You’ve reached the office of Seto Kaiba. How can I assist you today, Mr. Pegasus?”

“Hello my dear, would President Kaiba happen to be in?” Pegasus asked in his smooth lilting voice.

“I’m sorry, sir, but he is currently out of the office on urgent business, can I leave a message?”

“Ah, I see,” a voice droned from the end of the line. “And who might you be, young lady?”

“I’m his new executive assistant. Victoria Koenig, it's a pleasure!” I said cheerfully, glancing at Mokuba who was still grinning.

“The pleasure is certainly mine!" He returned jovially. "Curiouser and curiouser- he’s never taken an assistant before!” the man mused. “Anyway, tell Kaiba boy that Pegasus called, and that he’s willing to negotiate the matter we discussed last week at his earliest convenience.”

“I can do that,” I replied. “He’ll reach out to you once he returns to work on Thursday morning.”

“Perfect, thank you Victoria, dear. Ta-ta!”

“Good-bye, sir.”

After I hung up, I sat back in my chair. Mokuba was still hanging out, but he was on his phone typing a message. “Who was it?” He inquired, half of his attention still on his phone.

“Maximillian Pegasus,” I responded, still a little star struck. “Wow.”

“Oh, finally!” He exclaimed happily, pocketing his phone and rolled his shoulders a few times. “I need to send a few emails, let me know when you get a call from downstairs about Yugi and the others. Tea made lunch!”

“Mokuba,” I called before he could get too far away. He paused and walked back over to me.

“What’s up?”

“Why is it that your brother’s never had an assistant before?”

The teenager shrugged, “he always comes up with excuses. I had to beg him to open the position because he was so busy that he stopped eating.”

I must have looked worried because Mokuba sighed, and pressed his index finger between my eyebrows. “You always wear that expression when my brother’s concerned.”

“I’m worried that he’s going to do something reckless,” I sighed, the pressure from his finger making my headache go away somewhat. “I want to do something more for him.”

“I can think of something else you might be able to do for him,” Mokuba grinned, folding his arms over the counter. There was a suspicious suggestion in his voice that made me cringe inwardly.

“And what might that be?”

“Ask him to dinner, and don’t take no for an answer.” Mokuba said in a low voice as if someone might be listening, even though he knew full well that there was no one else on this floor. “I have a list of his favorite restaurants- make a reservation for two, and make sure you name drop. They’ll know what to do.”

My mouth went sandpaper dry as he spoke, “you’ll be joining us, too, right?”

“Oh, no,” Mokuba said shaking his head, “I think he needs to spend some time with you. He’s always away and doesn’t have anyone he can talk to about normal stuff. No one his age, anyway. I think he needs a friend.

“But Mokuba, I- I don’t think I can be alone with him- let alone be friends with him. He’d find it impertinent.”

He laughed, raking his fingers through his hair, “maybe at first, but give him time and be yourself.”

Letting out a sigh, I put my face in my hands, “I feel like he’s always upset to some degree with me.”

I felt a comforting hand on my back, “but that’s not true. This is hard for you to see without a point of reference, but I’ve never seen him so relaxed at work. I wouldn’t be asking this of you if I didn’t think you weren’t a good influence on him.”

I paused for a moment, pursing my lips. “Okay. I’ll do it. If he chews off my head-”

“Don’t worry . ” Mokuba grinned, “he only bites on Thursdays.”

I cringed, “but he gets back on Thursday!”

“Then consider yourself warned,” Mokuba cackled scurrying off gleefully just before I could chuck my tissue box at him.  

Mokuba returned about ten minutes later (after I made reservations at some fancy French place) with two mugs, “green tea?” He asked, holding one of them out for me.

“Oh Mokuba,” I smiled, taking the mug from him. “That’s so sweet- thank you.”

He waved off my thanks, his cheeks a little pink, “did you call any of the restaurants?”

“Yes- I booked us at Atelier Crenn for Friday night at six thirty- just so I can get him out of here before it makes him crazy. Also, I want to avoid getting bitten.”

Mokuba’s mouth quirked into a little grin, “good. Don’t tell him yet- make it a surprise. He likes them. Generally.”

“How are you simultaneously the most and least helpful person in the universe?” I sighed, rolling my eyes as he laughed.

 

 

I made a list of messages for Kaiba to attend to once he returned as I nursed the piping hot mug of green tea Mokuba had made for me. I decided that I’d send it to him at the end of the day so as to not overload his mailbox. Minutes turned to hours, and soon it was noon. The receptionist in the lobby patched a phone call through.

“Miss. Cruz?”

“Yes?”

“Yugi Muto and his friends are here. I will send them up to you.”

“Excellent. I’ll be waiting for them at the elevator,” I said smoothly, and I went to notify Mokuba that his friends had just arrived downstairs. He was chin deep in paperwork, so he was more than glad for an excuse to get away from his desk.

“I’ll come with you,” he told me, setting aside a rather fancy looking square stamp that was stained with red ink, rising to his feet. “We can use one of the conference rooms for lunch,” he explained, walking out of his office while I fell in step beside him nodding.

“So, what’s Yugi like?” I asked him curiously as we set up a conference room with cups and spring water from the break room because it would take them about ten minutes to get up here.

Mokuba grinned at me knowingly, “I don’t think he’s available. He and Téa kinda have a thing-”

“Oh, Mokuba! It’s not like that!” I gasped, throwing a napkin jestingly at him. He dodged it playfully and waggled his eyebrows. I laughed, “you’re ridiculous!”

 

When the elevator opened, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but it certainly wasn’t the Purple-Haired Game Shop Boy. Four others were with him- a girl with short brown hair, a slender guy of average height with long pale hair, and two tall guys. One of them was blond and wore a denim jacket, and the other was a brunette with a fashionable undercut.

“You!” The purple haired boy and I said at once in surprise.

“You really do work for Kaiba Corp,” he grinned stepping out of the elevator, his friends looked a little confused, but they followed suit.

“Do you two know each other, Yug?” The blond guy asked his voice heavy with a Brooklyn accent.

“Sort of. We met yesterday. She needed to use our wifi,” he explained, turning back to look at me. “But I never got your name. I’m Yugi Muto.”

“Uh, Victoria Cruz,” I stammered, reaching out to shake his hand. He took it.

“This is Joey Wheeler,” he said motioning to the tall blond guy behind him. Joey nodded his head, “Téa Gardner,” the brown haired girl grinned at me, wiggling her fingers, “Tristan Taylor,” the young man with the undercut was staring at me pretty intently, “and Bakura Ryou.” He finished, gesturing to the young man with pale hair.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said with a refined British accent.

“Likewise,” I replied, a little more at ease. “I’ve set up a conference room for you if you’ll follow me.”

After I lead them to  the smaller conference room Mokuba and I had set up earlier, I took my leave, and went to start preparing for Mokuba’s presentation with Hologenix International. The slides in the shared file looked to be grammatically correct, so I printed out the slides to be bound which took a couple of rushed trips to the printer.

“Wow, slow down,” the girl, Téa, called out to me- good-naturedly from the conference room breaking for their exuberant conversation, “you're making us dizzy!”

“Sorry!” I called in mid-sprint, carrying five copies of the presentation. “Trying to stay in the President’s good graces doesn’t come without running a marathon!”

They laughed as I passed. It took me about twenty minutes to set up the main conference room for the meeting. After some trial and error with the projector, it only took one call to IT and a hot cappuccino and we were in business.

Kaiba’s warning that things might get messy at the meeting started to irk me, so I went back to my desk and began to research Minoru Futaba. It only took one Google search to see what he meant. The wikipedia article on Futaba was laden with information including his less than reputable background, and past and present business ventures- each more dubious than the last.

His photograph loaded, revealing the face of a balding older man in his late forties with slicked back hair the color of pitch. Many who dealt with him in the past claimed him to be an eccentric man whose words sought to put one at ease in his presence. Though subtle, there was a darkness to him that did the exact opposite. This was expounded by the fact that he ran Hologenix International like a mob boss might run a criminal organization.

In fact, these details made him all the more terrifying. Next to him, I ventured to say that Seto Kaiba might have been preferable to this man. In gaming circles, he was known as the Boogeyman because he held a substantial amount of stock from nearly every influential gaming company in the industry- leave for Kaiba Corp. The stockholders were far too invested to sell, it seemed, and Kaiba had not been shy about lording it over Futaba at every given chance.

All of the heat drained out of my face. Was Kaiba really letting Mokuba handle this guy alone?

Dread gnawed at my stomach. I had a terrible feeling about this.

Twenty minutes before the meeting, and long after Tea, Yugi, and the others had gone, I went to Mokuba’s office.

“Come in!” He called right before I could knock on his open door to announce my presence without looking up from his computer.

“Hey,” I said, stepping into his space cautiously. His office was much smaller than his brother’s, but it was organized and airy with a large window overlooking more of downtown San Fran. There was a pine bookshelf tucked in the corner filled with handbooks, science textbooks, a row of files, and potted plants. His desk was simple, wooden, and organized as well. He had one of those pink salt lantern things perched atop it as well.

It was all very zen.

“Sorry to bother you, but… I wanted to know how you were feeling about the meeting with Futaba.”

“Oh,” Mokuba said, putting two and two together, pausing in his rapid fire typing to lean back in his chair. “Don’t do too much research on him, Victoria. He’s just a giant asshole who invests in gaming, but doesn’t actually care about it- he just wants the money and influence. Seto hates him.”

I pursed my lips, “will you be okay by yourself?”

Mokuba smiled, got up from his desk and put his hands on my shoulders. “You worry way too much, Victoria. I can handle Futaba just fine, okay?”

I nodded once, flushing all the way up to my ears. “Anyway, the room is ready,” I told him. “All we have to do now is wait. I could start a pot of tea- Futaba likes it black with star anise, but we’re out of it, so I may have to-”

Mokuba chuckled, “you’re so sweet Victoria, but honestly- we aren’t trying to make friends with him. We’re trying to intimidate him. We’re buying stock in Hologenix International this afternoon.” He paused. “Like, a lot of stock.”

“That’s bold. Why give him a heads up?”

“Do you want the official reason or the real reason?”

“The real one,” I said dryly.

“Because my brother is a petty bitch.”

I burst out laughing at this, “inconceivable.”

Mokuba’s mouth curled into a wry grin patting my cheek, “that’s better. Say, why don’t we run through the presentation so we can get the timing right?”

“Good idea.”

Mokuba seemed to have a pretty good grasp on the presentation already- he was probably doing this more for my benefit than his. One thing was absolutely certain, though; this was going to be a lot more hostile than I thought it was going to be.

“Should we try the good cop, bad cop routine, or...” I joked, checking my watch. My desk phone would be getting the call for his arrival any second now.

Mokuba rolled his shoulders back and gave me a dark challenging smile, “no. There is only going to be one cop today.”

Suppressing a shudder, I nodded- just as my desk phone rang… and for a moment, a chill licked the back of my neck like the rushing descent of a guillotine blade.

When the president of Hologenix International arrived in the lobby of the executive suite floor,  all of my worst suspicions were confirmed. He looked the image of a Mafia crime boss with his pitch colored hair slicked back with a half-can of pomade. His three piece suit was meant to flaunt his devastating success to anyone who cared to pay him any mind (and I was sure that he did draw a lot of attention- his suit was Yves Saint-Laurent and had sharp structured edges like razor blades).

To my dismay, he was flanked by a hulking man in a nondescript suit. He’d actually brought a security detail.

Was that even allowed?

I was suddenly regretting my defiant insistence to greet him alone to show a strong front. For his part, Futaba seemed a bit confused when he saw me, but recovered easily with an easy smile.

“President Kaiba has been expecting you, President Futaba. Follow me, please.” I said with a smile and a tilt of my head- just as Mokuba and I had rehearsed.

“Of course,” Futaba said agreeably, following me further into the suite with his security detail trailing behind us.

“I have paid many visits to Kaiba Corp,” Futaba said conversationally, falling into step beside me as we walked past all of the empty cubicles. “But I have never seen you before.”

“I’m a recent hire,” I told him. “President Kaiba’s executive assistant, it’s a pleasure.” I said giving him a brief smile, and a handshake with as much displeasure as I could manage without sounding it.

“Ah,” the man mused, releasing my hand a little more reluctantly than I would have liked as I showed he and his bodyguard to the conference room. “For as long as I have known him, Mr. Kaiba has never taken to accepting… that kind of assistance.”

I chewed on the inside of my cheek, grinding my teeth at the condescending insinuation. “There’s a first time for everything, I suppose. If you’ll wait, the president will be with you shortly.” Somehow, I managed to keep the hostility out of my voice.

I went to fetch Mokuba, and the game was on. The moment he walked into the room with his briefcase, the atmosphere in the room shifted from a predatory ease to preparing for trench style warfare.

“President Futaba,” he said, the expression on his face was defiant and cold. Mokuba clasped the other man’s bejeweled hand with a white-boned grip. Futaba didn’t flinch- rather, his grin widened.

“Boy,” Futaba replied. I sucked in a breath at the rudeness, but said nothing as I found my seat behind the podium. The cold nagging dread had returned with a vengeance. “Where is your brother?”

“Regrettably out on urgent business,” Mokuba said brusquely with a professionalism that copied Seto’s. “That isn’t going to be a problem, is it?”

A tense silence settled over the room before Futaba let out a booming laugh, “of course not! Please, there’s no need for all of this hostility in front of a lady, is there?” His voice was far more jovial than it ought to have been. 

Mokuba’s eyes flicked over to me as if to say, ‘he’s full of shit.’ I narrowed my eyes and nodded my head slightly.

“This isn't hostility, Futaba. We're simply not here to play games. Besides, I think the lady is fine. Let’s proceed, shall we? No bullshit.”

The reaction he’d gotten from Mokuba had dissatisfied him, but his smile never dimmed. "No bullshit," Futaba agreed.

Without pause, the younger man launched into his presentation, outlining Kaiba Corp’s successes in the past three quarters paired with its rising stock prices. It was fairly droll for someone unfamiliar with an understanding of stock market parlons, but I could see that the purpose of the meeting was getting increasingly more evident to Futaba. His expression was shifting from a satisfied, fat house cat playing with its food to a porcelain mask which was one odd word from shattering to reveal the feral beast beneath.

“With that said,” Mokuba concluded checking his watch, “As of about thirty seconds ago, Kaiba Corp has purchased 85% of all Hologenix International’s stock and assets. Starting today, Mr. Futaba, you work for us .”

Minoru was clenching and unclenching when Mokuba finished, and rose to his feet quickly- sending the chair reeling back, slamming his fist on the table. “You little--”

I sucked in a breath and rushed to pull Mokuba behind me. "What are you doing?" He demanded quietly. I didn't respond. I was too busy keeping my eyes on Futaba's bodyguard as he jumped to his feet and put his hand on his holster.

“Mr. Futaba,” I said firmly. “You are a guest here. If you cannot be civil, I will have you and your security detail removed from the premises by force if need be.”

He regarded me with a smug expression, motioning for his bodyguard to stand down. “No need, we were just leaving. You'd better learn not to fly too close to the sun, little missy, or else you're going to get burned.”

Once Futaba left, Mokuba gave me a very firm talking to which I suppose I deserved that for throwing myself into a gunfight without a gun. Not even to mention that I'd forgotten to put the security button Kaiba had mentioned into my pocket. Mokuba in his infinite kindness offered to let me go home early, but I knew I needed to be here just in case Futaba had decided to come back in a fit of rage. Kaiba told me I had to look over his brother in his absence and that was exactly what I was going to do. 

Mokuba reluctantly went back to work on whatever project had been absorbing so much of his time lately. 

I did, however, type President Kaiba a slightly searing email about dropping his brother into the jaws of a beast and asking him to cut himself out of it from the inside. Or something to that effect. I was still trembling from nerves, frustration, annoyance when I hit send. 

Chapter Text

For an entire week preceding the incident with the man in the black Infinity and for the few days following the disastrous meeting with Minoru Futaba, I’d been extra careful to leave and come home a different way every day. Sometimes, it felt as if someone was watching me everywhere I went and soon, it began to feel that way all of the time.

Mai was still gone, of course. She’d sent a brief email a few days ago letting me know that she’d made it to the final duel of the regional championship. I was happy for her, and I definitely would have watched it on the TV in our living room, but we only had basic cable, and Kaiba Broadcasting Channel required a subscription to stream online and I really didn't have the money to pay for it at the moment. I honestly could wait for her to come home but at the same time, I did not want to drag anyone I cared about into my problems.

I remembered what happened in New York. I remembered what they'd done to my family. Someone had tried to poison dad. Someone had tried to kill mom in a car accident. They’d kidnapped me before I’d left New York and they’d said that if I didn't resign from The New York Times and disappear that they would continue coming after my parents. 

Of course, I agreed. 

That's why lingering glances made me suspicious, so I kept my head down when I wasn’t at work and tried my best to switch up my schedule. Always somewhere crowded, somewhere busy to discourage abductions. But I knew something had changed. They were out for revenge and had no reason to keep me around unscathed since I was now out of the public eye. It was a catch 22. 

That’s why, on the evening before Kaiba was set to return from Switzerland, I found myself caking on makeup, throwing on a little black sequined dress and heels, donning my black cropped wig, and hitting Raven Bar. Music pulsed and lights shifted and changed color in tandem as I slipped past bar patrons who were standing around and chatting or dancing. 

 

It was busy for a Wednesday night. Fortunately, other than a few sidelong glances, I went for the most part, unnoticed. I slid into one of the few available bar chairs and ordered a Spanish sangria and a bowl of nachos while I lamented the quagmire in which I’d found myself.

Calling the police was out of the question especially because they would have to verify my identity and I would get arrested for defrauding my employer and forging my California State ID. Telling Mai about it might get me kicked out of the apartment which would leave me homeless and vulnerable until I could find a new roommate, and taking Duke Devlin up on his offer to get his confidence would probably attract a lot of unwanted media attention due to his relative fame--

I stopped stirring my half sangria, half-rum drink with the little black straw between my index finger and thumb, eyes widening at the revelation.

That’s how the men in black had found out. The paparazzi photos!

Whipping my phone out of my purse, I scrolled through Kaiba Bro subreddits to find slightly blurry photos of my face plastered over every single one of them. Some claimed that I was Mokuba’s hot older girlfriend (that one made me throw up in my mouth), some claimed that I was a new tutor, others thought I was a Kaiba Corp employee… however, one of them said that they worked at Kaiba Corp and claimed they’d seen me earlier that day getting a tour of the building and that I was Seto Kaiba’s new assistant.

It didn’t take long for the nefarious Nancy Drews to make an appearance.

 

miz_kaiba 14:38 3/15/19

Ugh. Girls like her think they can have whatever they want. Do you think she slept her way in?

 

Hadn’t they ever heard of a temp agency before? I thought dryly, rolling my eyes before continuing.

 

Black_Rose 14:45 3/15/19

I don’t care how she got there. I want to know who she is. Like. Now.

 

miz_kaiba 17:21 3/15/19

Her picture isn’t on the company website, but I did a reverse Google search and I think I found a few promising leads.

 

An uncomfortable heat churned in my stomach as I scrolled down. It was very fortunate that my hair was dark brown now as it completely threw off the Google search. The list of three women compiled looked very similar to me, but of course, none of them were. I smiled a little at the squabbling which continued for a few pages, until of course I hit a very thick wall of death threats.

I closed the window.

At least I now knew that my proximity to Mokuba is what had given up the jig. My mind wandered to the issue of tomorrow  night’s dinner reservation, and nerves began to settle in. If anyone found out about my real identity and my connection to Seto Kaiba and his little brother and made it public, there’s no telling what the men in black might do. If Seto Kaiba found out about my real identity.... I could go to prison.

I finished my drink and ordered another.

 


 

 Mokuba and President Kaiba arrived at the same time that Thursday. Mokuba looked as if he could have used a day off as he waved at me with a weak half smile before slinking into his office. Mr. Kaiba, on the other hand, looked like he could run head-on into battle. He didn’t even acknowledge me when he swept past.

I guess jet lag had no effect on him. What kind of eldritch being was he? Mid-way through the to-do list President Kaiba had emailed to me soon after his arrival, I received a phone call.

“Have I reached Victoria Cruz?” A voice on the phone asked.

“You have,” I responded, trying not to sound hung-over. Last night had not been a good one. Once I'd gotten home from the bar after getting that weird feeling that I was being watched, I'd changed into my comfortable clothes and ordered and devoured a medium sized supreme pizza... but not before finishing off a bottle of cheap sangria. I was absolutely wasted. On a list of worst drinking nights ever, it took second on the list.

The first was the only time I’d been blackout drunk. It had happened sometime earlier this year after I'd broken the story that had unleashed the series of events that culminated in the worst seven months of my life. When I had managed to battle the bourgeoning nausea after a night of revels, I realized that I had a brand new dragon tattoo on the back of my right shoulder blade. The depiction was of a snake-like wyvern eating its own tail-- a twisted version of the Ouroboros that I never remembered getting. 

In alchemy, the Ouroboros is a symbol of infinity. A paradox, and some believe it represents death and rebirth in perpetuity. The tattoo I’d gotten still stung the next day meaning that I'd actually gotten a real tattoo. I called almost every tattoo artist on Manhattan island and it's surrounding neighborhoods, but no one remembered tattooing a drunk girl with the image I described at an ungodly hour last night. 

Curiouser and curiouser— and never again, I’d promised myself.

It was too much of a chore to remember anything from yesterday night because a gnawing headache that assailed me every time I tried. Fortunately, it didn't look like I'd added any new tattoos to my body.

“Wonderful, I’m calling from Atelier Crenn to remind you of the reservation for two you made for 6:30PM this evening. Will Mr. Kaiba still be joining you?” The hostess asked.  

CRAP I’D FORGOTTEN TO TELL HIM ABOUT DINNER. But Mokuba said to make it a surprise? When was I supposed to tell him about this? And how?

“Yes, of course,” I said breezily as if this did not have the power to ruin the entire day. “We’ll be there.”

“Perfect, thank you, Miss. Cruz.”

But before the hostess even hung up, I was typing up an appointment request to President Kaiba. He was free- no dinner dates or anything scheduled for 6:30. I let out a small sigh of relief. Small mercies.

I sent the request not even a beat afterward, Mr. Kaiba called me.

“Yes, sir?”

“Come into my office. I want to discuss the meeting request you just sent.” His voice sounded stiff and unfriendly.

Yikes.

“Yes, sir,” I managed, willing my voice not to shake. He’d not been displeased with my performance thus far according to Mokuba, but this sounded like my first major blunder. Something told me that I was going to regret this. Well, at least now Mokuba couldn’t blame me for not trying.

I knocked twice.

“Come in,” he said, his voice was clipped and still held that same air of annoyance. I swallowed hard and took a deep breath before scanning my badge and stepping through the sliding door.

Seto Kaiba’s office was immaculate, but he looked as if he had about a thousand things to do before the end of the day.

“Sit,” he said as he typed- not bothering to look up from his computer until I sat down on one of the black leather high backed chairs on the opposite side of his desk. I smoothed out my navy blue slacks and clenched my hands on my lap.

A few moments passed- enunciated by his rapid typing. My heart rate accelerated, and I chewed on my lip. Hard. With a sigh, he closed his laptop and folded his hands in front of him, finally meeting my eyes.

“Was dinner your idea or Mokuba’s?” Asked Kaiba bluntly. I flushed.

“Um,” I started, clearing my throat, still blushing furiously. “It was mine.”

Droning, Kaiba shook his head, “Mokuba.”

“Please don’t be mad at him,” I said in a rush. “I thought it was a good idea, too.”

“Why?” He asked me pointedly. “What reason would you have to want to eat dinner with me?”

“I’d like to get to know you a bit better so that I’m exponentially better equipped to meet your needs when they arise, but,” I pursed my lips, “you seem to have some reservations.”

“Obviously,” he agreed more than a little condescendingly. “There will be an issue appearing with you in public.”

A hurt laugh left my mouth before I could stop it, “excuse me?”

Pausing to take a deep frustrated breath, it looked as if he were about to explain something elementary to a stupid petulant child. “Being seen going to a restaurant accompanied by a woman with whom I have no known business connections with will damage my public image,” he said, then he paused seeing my dark expression.

“Well,” I said, trying to tame my expression and wavering voice into a passably neutral range. It still came out quiet and sharp. “We wouldn’t want that, now would we?”

Seto Kaiba blinked at me, raising an eyebrow, “are you getting an attitude with me?”

You bet your ass I am, I thought furiously. My eyebrow twitched, “no,” I said stiffly, rising to my feet. “I’d just hate for you to have to deign to dine with me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to call the restaurant and cancel our reservation.”

“You will not. You’ll sit until I’m done talking to you,” he said stiffly.

I bit back a scowl before sitting back down.

“The reason why I do not care to be seen with just anybody in public is due to netizens,” he said dryly, rolling his eyes. “The paparazzi themselves are vicious, but I seem to have also attracted a lot of unwanted internet attention. Namely, that of college-aged girls and housewives, and they can be worse than the paparazzi. Don’t even get me started with the hellfire that you and Mokuba caused when you went to lunch together on your first day. Our publicist had the hardest time assuring the media that you weren’t dating. You were getting death threats.

“I know,” I murmured, picking at a loose thread on the sleeve of my blouse. “I saw them.”  

Mr. Kaiba shook his head, “and you’re willing to go through all of that again? My brother does things without taking into account the long-term effects of his actions. I thought that you might be a little more… intuitive.”

“Mokuba didn’t mean any harm,” I argued. “And besides… I think you give me a little too much credit.”

“Intentions mean nothing when you get down to it, I just hope that he doesn’t have to learn a lesson one day at your expense.” Mr. Kaiba shrugged mercilessly, leaning forward with his elbows on his desk and his fingers laced together. A chill ran up my spine as I forced down the lump in my throat. “You’re certainly a smart woman, but you need to learn how to push back- even if it means disappointing my brother. Do I make myself clear?” I licked my lips and nodded. President Kaiba sighed, leaning back. “With that said, you will take an Uber to and from the restaurant for your own safety, and for my sanity.”

He was trying to protect me. My chest tightened, and I pursed my lips. It’s been a long time since someone took my safety into their own hands… but the last time someone did that, they didn’t last very long.

“I will meet you there at 6:20 PM sharp. I’ll send you the menu I want to be served in the next five minutes. Make sure to tell them when they call to confirm it.”

“Yes, sir,” I managed.

“Good,” he said. “I’ll talk to you about the board meeting at dinner. I’ve got interviews lined up for the rest of the day. You can go.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, rising to my feet, brushing the wrinkles out of my slacks, offering him a nod, I strode out.

 

The restaurant was terribly expensive. I felt a nagging dread at the knowledge that our meals together cost in the ballpark of $700 which Kaiba had given me leave to put on the company card when Atelier Crenn called again to confirm the personalized menu for the evening.

$700 was the cost of utilities for six months... or the cost of a trip to Iceland. As I was thinking of better ways to use $700, the sound of the phone ringing brought me back to the now, and I inspected the caller ID that flashed on the screen. 

Maximillion Pegasus.

I answered the phone after the third ring, “Good morning, Mr. Pegasus, shall I forward you to President Kaiba?”

“Yes, my dear.”

“Of course, please hold.” I put him on hold and rang President Kaiba, “sir, Mr. Pegasus is calling.”

“Patch him through.”

“Yes, sir.”

 

The day went on like this. A PowerPoint project, spell-checking marketing copy for the release of a new product, rearranging the President’s calendar to make room for a phone meeting, facilitating emails-

“Victoria,” a voice called from over me. I nearly jumped out of my skin, my hand flying to my chest as I  snapped my head up to see President Kaiba standing adjacent to my desk as if he were just passing by.

I let out a breath, “sorry, sir. You scared me- what can I do for you?”

He pursed his lips, “what are you working on now?”

“I’m working on the copy for the new facility opening in San Jose in June-”

“You can pause on that. I need to speak with you regarding yesterday’s meeting with Hologenix International. Come with me.”

Remembering the chiding email I’d sent to him after the fact, I cursed myself in silence and managed a nod. He lead me away from the empty cubicles and into the large conference room in which I’d first dueled him. The table and chairs had been returned to their normal positions.

“Sit,” he said, motioning to a chair near the head of the table on the right. I did, a little shakily. He sat down across from me and steepled his fingers together, his gaze unwavering. “I can see that you thought I gave Mokuba too difficult a task.”

I looked up at him from the clasped hands in my lap and I shook my head. “That’s not it. Mokuba did a great job, Futaba was the problem. He brought a security detail and used him to intimidate us.”

Kaiba clenched his jaw, “did he, now?”

Licking my lips, I nodded. He reached for me, placing his hands on my shoulders to stop me from shaking. His hands were warm-- much warmer than I expected. I remembered the dream. Because of course I did. My heart jumped into my mouth at the contact.

“Are you alright?” He asked, his voice cautious.

“Yes, sir. I’m-”

“You aren’t in trouble,” he told me gently. “Breathe. I’m not angry with you.”

“You aren’t?”

“No,” he murmured. “I didn’t think he would actually bring security to the suite. You’re not at fault.” The tension left my shoulders. “Mokuba just got through telling me that you were really brave when you told him to leave.”

“Oh, no- I-”

“I’m trying to compliment you,” he said, cocking his head to the side, amusement on his face. Opening my mouth to say something, I sighed thinking better of it and bit my bottom lip. “Thank you for protecting my brother at your own peril. I wanted to pull you aside to offer this position to you permanently.”

I blinked at him, a gasp escaping my mouth. “Are you serious?”    

“Joking really isn’t my thing,” he said with a shrug, dropping his hands from my arms.

“I know,” I laughed. “I hardly know what to say other than thank you. Thank you so much for giving me a chance.”

He waved off my thanks, “don’t thank me yet. I have a feeling that I’m about to make you very miserable.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s something big I’m working on, and we don’t have much time to plan it. Can you work late going forward? ”  

“I don’t know, I have a chaotic personal life and copious amounts of friends to have fancy dinners with,” I said in jest with a wry smile. “I’ll have to check my calendar.”

President Kaiba smirked, “I appreciate your flexibility.”

The wide smile that cracked across my face splintered the hardened expression I’d cultivated over the first few weeks I’d spent struggling to get by. It felt as if the tension in the room had been let out as if someone had popped a balloon with a needle. “Of course.”

“I’ll send your verbal to HR, and they’ll write something up for you to sign.”

I nodded, pursing my lips as a quiet filled the room, “I… wanted you to know that I understand your caution in regards to dinner.”

“Good,” he said, waiting for a beat more before he moved to stand. I reached for his wrist and he froze when my fingers wrapped around his arm.

“Thank you,” I whispered, looking up at him. President Kaiba sucked in a breath.

“Don’t mention it,” he said, attempting to be offhand-ish. He tugged his hand away, leaving me in the conference room. Alone.

After work, I found myself touching up my makeup in the bathroom on the first floor at the sinks before meeting the driver I’d requested at the front door.

“I feel bad for her.”

Two women had walked into the bathroom. “Yeah. The president’s never had an assistant

before and if he’s anything like how he is with us, I wonder how long she’ll--”

They cut their conversation off upon catching my reflection in the glass when they emerged from the alcove and changed the subject with impressive alacrity to talk about demand generation and a possible web redesign slated for December.

I didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to fill in the blanks.

The car ride took some time in traffic, but eventually, we reached Atelier Crenn with about five minutes to spare. I thanked the driver and hurried into the restaurant.

It was much more intimate than I’d planned for. Eight polished wooden tables and a clean but rustic interior gave the place an oddly relaxed yet refined aura. A few of the tables were already full, but they were all of them filled… with couples.

Oh, boy.

I didn’t have a difficult time finding President Kaiba. Navigating through the empty space on the floor, I sat down at the chair across from him and offered a wary smile.

“I’m pleased that you accepted my offer to work as my assistant full time,” he said after a moment.

“I’m pleased you offered it to me in the first place,” I returned. It looked as if he was doing his best to avoid my eyes. I looked down at my hands which were folded in my lap, and a quiet fell between us. “So… how is Mokuba? After… you know…”

“My brother is fine,” he told me flatly. “He’s sixteen, he’ll get over it.”

I bit my bottom lip, holding my tongue. So the Futaba incident had shaken him. Perhaps I could do a little something to cheer him up tomorrow.

A few painfully quiet moments passed before the waitress stopped by to introduce herself and let us know that our first course would be arriving shortly before depositing a glass decanter of water and two drinking glasses on the table before disappearing into the kitchen.

After a beat of silence, we reached for the water at once, our fingertips brushing for a split second before we snatched our hands back.

“Sorry,” I said sheepishly.

“It’s… fine,” he said stiffly, reaching for the decanter again and poured of its contents into the glass in front of me before pouring some for himself. “So,” he said.

“So,” I said, trailing off, scrambling for something to say. “Is there… anything I can improve on?”

Seto raised an eyebrow. “Hm,” he sighed, rubbing his chin. “You need to be a little less… hospitable to visitors.” I frowned at this odd and counter-intuitive request. “We don’t want them to think we’re going soft.”

Pursing my lips, I took out my phone.

“What are you doing?”

“Taking notes,” I said, raising an eyebrow at him as I typed. “Do you really think hospitality is a weakness?”

“When you don’t have an ulterior motive for doing it,” he said, leaning forward to level me with a firm look. “You don’t?”

“No,” I responded lightly, “but it’s not my company-- I was only curious.” 

Seemingly placated by my response, his posture slackened a fraction as he leaned  back in his chair, folding his arms over his chest. His eyes bore into mine as if he were trying to read my mind, but I only returned his gaze with a calm one.

In my experience interviewing powerful people for The Times, I’d learned that the best way to manage them was to leave any fear and unease at the door until they were out of eyeshot. Otherwise, you’d easily lose control of the interview and allow a shift in power. Though I respected my employer, his ego was already bigger than the Palace of Versailles- and I didn’t want to inflate it any further.

More often than not, powerful people were little more than wolves in human meat-suits. No matter how nice they appear to be. If I’m wrong, I haven’t been proven thus. Not yet, anyway. Though Mokuba was toeing that line rather well. Only time would tell, I supposed.

“So,” he went on. “For the skill set required for the position, you’re perfectly adequate, but why is it that you chose to work at Kaiba Corp exactly?”

It sounded like a job interview question. But to be perfectly fair, he didn’t really have a chance to interview me for the position I now held, that had been all Mokuba. I also interviewed with the board of Kaiba Corp in person, and that had been terrifying enough. I found it strange that he’d had no involvement in my hiring at all.

“Well,” I said, suddenly feeling a little self-conscious. “I like games, well, I enjoyed them a lot growing up, and I thought that… the learning curve might be less severe if I worked for a company whose game I was already familiar with.”

“Hm,” he said again, taking a deliberately slow drink of water, his eyes trained on me. My throat and mouth dried as an uncomfortable flush swallowed me up. I quickly grabbed my own glass, drank a little less gracefully than he did. The thing with Kaiba was that I could never tell if he was pleased or displeased. Perhaps I should count myself lucky that Mokuba and the board had been the ones to interview me as they were far easier to read.

Before I could ask him my next question, the waitress returned with a bottle of red wine and two glasses. It was some $170 bottle of imported French merlot aged forty years. I’d Google searched it before arriving.

My general rule was this: any bottle of vino worth more than $11 was either a.) far too high-brow for me or b.) a total scam. This was no exception. The bottle looked very refined with its gold leaf foil and it’s hand-inked cream and gold label which was entirely in French. After she cleaned the bottle with a cloth she had in her pocket, she uncorked it and began to describe the flavor to us and dispensed a conservative amount of the dark liquid in each of our crystalline wine glasses. The wine was so dark that it looked almost black. Like clotted blood.

I chewed on my bottom lip, trying not to make my smile seem as forced as it felt. There was something about  “smoked oak” and “black cherry mixed with spring framboise”, but after that, I was lost. Kaiba listened intently. In the end, she promised to return presently with our appetizer before she was gone again.

“I did want to ask,” I began, my voice sounding a little off. “What sort of project did you have in mind from our conversation earlier today?”

Kaiba’s expression shifted from blase to contemplative, “I've cleared with the board approval for the funding of an event of no mean size.” He said. “On the first day, there will be an opening party and dinner for my stakeholders, associates, and affiliates. For the next two days, we’d discuss business goals, corporate earnings, and new acquisitions,” at new acquisitions, his lips curled up at the ends.

“Is this convention an excuse to rub your success in Futaba’s face?”

Kaiba smirked, “do you have an objection to my motives?”

“Does it matter?” I sighed.

“Not particularly,” he replied matter of fact, just as the waitress returned with the escargot on a silver serving tray and a plain white serving dish. “But it’s interesting to have someone to disagree with me once in a while.”

“Then, I hate to disappoint, but I agree,” I said, stabbing the scooping utensil into one of the shells and gouging out the meat. “Absolutely rub it in. Torture him. After how he came onto our turf and treated Mokuba, I’ve just about had it.”

Kaiba leaned forward, “you have a bit of a temper.”

“I have a bit of an issue with bullies,” I corrected him, dipping my snail in butter before stuffing it into my mouth. “Mokuba’s only a kid, and Futaba brought a security a security detail with a gun. How did he even get that through security unless…” I trailed off, dabbing my lip with the napkin on my lap.

The smirk on his face disappeared, “you’re afraid,” Kaiba said taking his own scoop and worked on a different shell as I started on my second snail. Now, I was stress eating.

“Of course I am,” I said, scooping out the fleshy bits. “What if something bad had happened?”

“The reason they’d been overlooked was due to the fact that the gun has been 3D printed, and was made of plastic, so the alarm on the checkpoint didn’t go off.” He said, his expression stern.

“Are you kidding me?”

“I reviewed the security footage after our chat and the footage captured by the CCTV in the elevator- which is where the guard took the plastic gun out of his boot and clipped it onto his belt.”

"They went through a lot of trouble.”

“Precisely, that’s why I want to hold the conference,” he said. “And if he reacts violently, we’ll have him in a position to be arrested-- not only for bringing a gun into our facility but for all of the other charges tied to him.”

“Do you think you’ll be able to pull this off?”

“I’m a smart man, Victoria,” he said incredulously.

“That’s not what I meant,” I said a little defensively. “What’s the game plan?”

“Why do you think I want you on this project?” He asked me. “Remember what I said about hospitality with a reason?”

I rubbed my chin for a moment, “giving him a platform at the event only to undermine him might be the right pressure in the right place.” I said, “especially since we know how he reacts to small-scale humiliation. We’ll have to invite an appropriate number of well-to-do’s and predominant industry professionals if we want to drive the point home. But… he’d go after you, I’m sure of it.”

Kaiba’s eyes widened as if he were surprised that I was concerned about the fact. A long moment passed before he nodded, “yes. He most likely will, but- you don’t need to concern yourself with that. I’ll handle Futaba.”

The silence was about as thick and bitter as the dark red wine in my glass. I forced down another lump in my throat.

“Regardless,” Kaiba said, his smile fleeting, picking up his wine glass. “I am very glad we’re on the same page.”

“So am I,” I said, relief hitching my voice as I lifted mine, too.

“To justice,” he said.

“And karma,” I added as we clinked our glasses together.

He raised an eyebrow, bringing his glass to his lips but not before swirling it around in the glass first. It stained the glass a brighter shade of red before it vanished. “I don’t believe in karma,” he said before taking a long drink.

I paused for a moment and nearly laughed at my own stupidity, Seto Kaiba wasn’t a spiritual man in the least. I might have known.

When the drink touched my lips, I found it bitter and smoky- I had to suppress a dry cough and a flinch as the alcohol burned down my throat. This stuff was so dry that I probably could have lit it on fire and it would burn the whole night. I grabbed for my water glass and polished it off, only to pour another. Too late, I realized that Kaiba had been watching me over the rim of his glass, his eyes were unfathomably dark and filled with an iciness that was both cruel and introspective. It scared me.

“There was an additional question I did want to ask; it’s regarding the background check Mokuba ran on you.”

I tried not to react, but my skin prickled as I forced down the shudder that threatened to give me away. “Of course,” I said. My voice sounded a bit off-kilter. A bit hollow.

Just in time, our waitress returned and she replaced our empty appetizer plate with our entrees: foie gras paired with a fennel salad. The waitress, possibly reading the atmosphere at the table, decided that her time might be better spent elsewhere and she left. I was almost sorry to see her go… because it meant that I would have to sit across from my cryptic frozen boss and weather his scathing glare alone as he certainly began to peel back my facade.

Chapter Text

I could go to jail.

The unpleasant series of revelations from yesterday returned with an Earth shattering vengeance. I tried to calm myself by unclenching my shoulders and picking up my fork and knife to tuck into my foie gras.

“What’s a former staff writer for The New York Times doing all the way out here… working as an office assistant at a gaming company?”

“Oh, you know, I just wanted a change of pace.”

It wasn’t really a lie, at least.

He tilted his head to the side with narrowed eyes, “I see. Well, your co-worker certainly sang your praises.”

“Trish,” I laughed, rolling my eyes a little- thankful for her. “She’s good people- even if she waited until the very last minute for me to proofread her articles most days.” It had been a good thing that I’d specified Trish Cavanagh to be one of my contacts-- I knew she was trustworthy and would do me a solid if I ever asked.

“And Ginger Anderson at Vogue? She said she’d never heard of you before.”

Shit. Her assistant, Julia, was supposed to have answered any calls from Kaiba Corp as Gigi, but she hadn’t. The could have meant only one thing: she’d gotten fired. With Gigi’s record of firing assistants, I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

He watched me carefully to gage my reaction. My heart was racing as I dabbed my mouth with my napkin, “I must have forgotten to tell her that I changed my name.”  

“Someone else might have made that mistake,” he said, steepling his fingers. “But not you. You’re far too through. So, I called The Times and asked to speak with Trish’s manager,” he trailed off. “I'll just cut to the chase. You’ve been lying to me, Kisara Koenig.

A shiver ran up my spine as the pit of my stomach began its chaotic downward spiral. It’d been weeks since anyone had used my real name.

My thoroughness be damned!

Kaiba’s cold, knowing eyes bore into me like a thousand daggers and I cannot express how much I simply did not want to be there at that moment.

Setting down my silverware and gripping the stem of my wine glass, I drew in a measured breath and brought it to my lips. I forced myself to polish it off.

“I would prefer to have this discussion in private,” I murmured finally, placing the wine glass on the table, my hand trembling.

“There’s no need, I already know the things you’ve done, ” he said quietly, his voice was low and his expression thawed. “Your face was plastered all over the news for weeks.” he went on, perfectly content to ignore my suggestion, “I can see why you opted for this kind of discretion.”

“Do you regret hiring me?”


“Not for this, and not yet."

“So... I’m not fired?”

“Do you think we’d be having this conversation if you were?” He said, raising an eyebrow. “As long as you’re not writing any politically charged news articles on me, I’m sure we won’t have any problems.”

“Absolutely not,” I told him. “It honestly never crossed my mind.”

And it honestly hadn’t.

“Good. This conversation never happened,” he said with a tone of finality before busying himself with his foie gras. “And my brother is not to know about any of it. Am I clear?”

“Crystal,” I whispered.

 

The rest of dinner passed in relative silence. Mostly, I was too afraid to talk, and Kaiba seemed to have a lot on his mind. I didn’t blame him, so I let it go. Not to mention that we seemed to have gotten quite an audience. I could hear the paparazzi talking outside as their cameras went off. My stomach tied itself into knots as I angled my face away from the windows.

Kaiba seemed to ignore them, so I tried to do the same. 

Besides, it would be a while until I ate this well again.

When our waitress returned, she took our clean dinner plates and replaced them with two slices of Opera cake. They looked as if they’d come right out of a Parisian patisserie's shop-front window. I grabbed my phone out of my purse and took a picture.

“What are you doing?”

“Pictures last longer,” I told him, putting the device away. “Don’t worry, I’m not posting it on Instagram. I haven’t used social media in months.”

He droned at this and picked up his dessert fork, lowering it into the shiny chocolate ganache and through the layers of sponge cake and frosting before he lifted the cake to his mouth and closed his lips around the fork. I found myself blushing and chewing my bottom lip into a pulp as I watched him.

Kaiba caught my gaze and I quickly looked away, grabbing my fork and digging into my cake. It was absolutely delicious. The chocolate and the coffee flavors were rich mixed with the caramel and the vanilla sponge. My eyes fluttered closed and I sighed.

“You like sweets?”

I opened one of my eyes to look at him, “I like chocolate and caramel. What do you think?”

“It’s… fine,” he said.

Wrinkling my nose at him, I went in for another bite. It was like pulling teeth to get a compliment out of him… or like stepping between his brother and a bodyguard with a loaded gun.

“Mmm,” I hummed as the flavors melted in my mouth. “Oh my god.”

Something hooked around one of my ankles under the table and I blinked my eyes open. Kaiba was scowling. I looked down discreetly to find one black Italian leather oxford pressed against the back of the heel of my foot. A thrill shot up my spine.

“You’re too noisy,” he muttered, tilting his head in a subtle motion to two tables nearby whose occupants were glancing over at us with knowing expressions before they returned to their meals.

I snapped my attention back to President Kaiba who had just detangled his foot from mine and was tucking into his opera cake.

“Sorry,” I swallowed nearly choking on my cake. Making a grab for my water, I sucked it down. I watched him hide a smile as our waitress returned with two decaf French roast coffees. Blood pulsed in my ears as I smiled and thanked her. She left a teapot, a bowl of sugar cubes, and milk in a small carafe for us before disappearing into the kitchen.

 

“Dinner was pleasant,” Kaiba said as he walked me to a cab which waited for me behind the restaurant. We’d been given permission to walk through the back door by management to avoid a tussle with the paparazzi. We moved briskly as the paps would not give us too much of a window to make our escapes. “Thank you for the invitation.”

I flushed when he opened the door of the silver Subaru for me, ducking my head and slid inside, I looked up at him, “thank you for the meal.”

He nodded- his expression was obscured by shadow and brief flashes of light from the traffic on the adjacent road, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

I returned the gesture, and he shut my door giving the roof a tap. The car lurched ahead down the road, and as I was carried away, I tried to keep him in my sights for as long as I could- until we turned a corner, and I could no longer see him through the back car window.

My phone is was ultimately brought me back to the present.

“Mamma, oooh, I didn’t mean to make you cry--”

I couldn’t answer my phone fast enough.

“Kisara?” The voice of my mother sounded strained and emotional.

A sob tightened my throat, “hey mom.”

“Oh god, I’m so glad you’re alright. It’s been killing me not being able to call you.”

“I know,” I whispered. “I’m so sorry. You know it has to be like this.”

“I know,” she managed. “You have to know- Atkinson’s estate bailed him out last month.”

I sighed, fastening my seatbelt. “Figures. When people like him have money, the whole world burns.”

“You can say that again,” she said quietly, a comfortable silence falling between us. “I’ve really missed you, sweetheart. How are things?”

“I’ve missed you too. They’ve been… alright,” I said- half honestly and half not. “What about things at home?”

“It’s been quieter since you left, but… I’d rather have you here.”

I chewed my lip and sighed. “How’s dad?”

“CBS has been keeping him busy,” she replied.

“I’m sure they have,” I murmured. Another long pause passed and I spared a glance into the rearview mirror and caught the downcast dark eyes of my driver. I pursed my lips, my attention returning to my mother. Before I could tell her that I had to go, a clamoring and many barking dogs that were obviously not from my end filled my ears.

“Oh, the dogs are at it again,” she said, frustration tinting her voice. “Someone’s at the door. We’ll talk soon, I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Usually, we would argue about who should hang up first, but I knew that someone could be tapping our call and attempting to trace it, but she hung up before I did. That was that, I thought morosely, feeling a pang of sadness as I leaned back in my seat and pressed my forehead against the chilly window.

Letting out the longest sigh in the history of sighs, I pocketed my phone and watched as the traffic and buildings and lights flashed by in the discotheque-esque blur. I didn’t even notice that I’d nodded off to sleep until I found myself standing in a freezing cold downpour.

A gasp tore out of my throat and my eyes flashed open in confusion. My face was tilted upwards towards the blackening sky as rain streaked down my face. My face felt as if I’d been crying for hours. The wind whipped around me, ruffling the skirts of a dress I now wore.

Looking down, I realized that I was wearing a black Victorian style gown with a stiff high collar which was fastened down the front with pearlescent buttons. The dress was plain but had puffed sleeves that tapered down to fit my slender wrists. Most of my skirt was gathered into a bustle in the back, and I wore a pair of high heeled boots. My hair was pinned up into a bun, but more than a few tendrils of pale blond hair flew wildly about like wheat on the wind.

A clap of thunder and flash of lightning made me jump and crumple something in my hand. I’d been holding a piece of paper which was quite damp on a count of the rain. Not knowing what else to do, I looked around and found the only place that might shield me somewhat from the storm. Lifting my skirts, I hurried over to the single old twisted tree that inhabited the moor, curled up at its base to shield the paper as much as I could with my body, and began to read.

 

“My dearest Charlotte,

 

Your father was a good man and a good businessman; without him, I never would have met you-- much to his chagrin and your mother’s, I expect. In that way, I’m beholden to him which is why… what I have to say next is excruciatingly difficult.  

 

Your father would have never accepted me into his household as I am, so in his memory, I have purchased a crew and passage on the Lady Agatha. I will set sail for the East Indies tomorrow night in the hopes that I can reinvigorate my father’s trading company. I must assure your mother that I am equipped to provide for you once we are married. And I do intend to marry you. I have always intended to marry you.

 

You must believe that.

 

I know what you will say. You will say that you do not care if we are poor as paupers as long as we are together, but society will not let us. I do not wish to ruin you forever, and so I seek my fortune over the sea.

 

Years may pass before I can return to Devon and I understand if you cannot wait for me. I will not ask that of you, but I would like to see you one more time before I leave these shores. Meet me at the knotted tree where we used to conspire together when we were children.

 

I will be waiting for you at half past four.

 

“Doubt thou the stars are fire.

Doubt that the sun doth move.

Doubt truth be a liar,

but never doubt I love.”

 

Forever yours,

 

Simon”

 

The inked letters were written in a concise hand with carefully swirling penmanship, and it was starting to bleed down the page. For some reason, reading the letter made tears well into my eyes, and I saw a face in my mind.

A heartbreakingly familiar face.

He looked so much like Seto Kaiba, but it wasn’t him. No, the man I saw in my mind, the one I remembered, was Simon; a man I know I have never met before.

What gave him away? Well, the clothing to start. It was also in the way he held his mouth and furrowed his brow. It was in the way that his eyes, though they were still a stormy blue, had a hardness to them which differed from those of Seto Kaiba. There was an obvious vulnerability behind Simon’s gaze instead of cold calculation. Simon also had a dimple in his right cheek when he smiled, and he did much more smiling than Seto Kaiba ever did.

Though their similarities were too uncanny to ignore, Simon and Priest Set were not Seto Kaiba.

I could not account for why I knew intimate details about these complete strangers. I just did.

A thin mist began to rise from the moor as the rain became merciless on its assault of the earth. In spite of it all, I could have sworn I saw a figure slowly rise from further off as if they were hiking up a hill. It could have been a trick of the light or the rain getting caught in my eyelashes, but as I blinked the water away, I saw that it was a man. A very tall man in a black coat wearing a tall black hat. He carried an umbrella in his hands.

I immediately felt very warm, as if I were standing next to a log fire which made me realize for the first time that I had been shivering in the cold. I felt equal parts excitement, love, and sadness all crashing into each other chaotically as I struggled to stand.

No.

As she struggled to stand. It was then that I decided that I wasn’t myself at all as the depth of emotion was so contrary to what I felt myself . Or… maybe I thought it made more sense that way.

“Simon Hastings,” the girl, Charlotte, whispered to herself as she hiked up her skirts to run and launch herself into the arms of the man in black.

“Charlotte--” he grumbled, as he tried to hold onto his umbrella and his countenance when she hugged him. To no avail, I noted to myself. His hat had flown off to reveal the long dark brown hair and dark stormy eyes of Simon Hastings. Seto Kaiba. Priest Set.

A warm feeling settled deep inside me as I watched on through Charlotte’s eyes. He smelled like the faintest hint of bergamot, pine wood, and a little more strongly of tobacco. I wondered absently if he smoked.

“Are you really going to the East Indies?” Charlotte asked, her voice rising. A demand.

Smiling, Simon clutched her tight, “I hope you did not wait long for me, you’re soaking wet.”

“I didn’t,” Charlotte said staunchly, noting that he’d avoided her question, “but it’s as cold as winter’s arse out here.”  

He laughed, pulling away from her to inspect her face and cup it in his hands. I felt his touch, too and I felt like melting and I swear to god-- his smile was probably one of the best things I’d ever seen in my entire life. I could see why she didn’t want him to go.

“I will miss you more than I can say,” he whispered.

“Then stay here,” she returned, holding his hands against her cheeks. “And never let me go.”

“I must go,” he said, as if they’d had this argument before. “Your father would have wanted it.”

“Then take me with you!” She insisted passionately. “You’ll find no finer first mate than me! You know papa taught me how to sail. Why have the skill if I can’t use it?”

“You know I would in a heartbeat, but you also know that your mother needs you here to look after her,” he said, brushing a stray lock of flaxen hair away from her icy cold cheek. I felt a deep sadness now, one so deep that it broke my heart.

Charlotte’s mother had fallen quite ill after her husband died. She refused to eat. She refused to leave her bed and she had the mind to let herself drift in and out of dreams until death himself took her on his dark chariot to the underworld. Charlotte knew that her mother’s time was growing shorter and shorter by the day and that nothing could rouse the older woman from her melancholy. Her mother hardly spoke-- and when she did, she flew into terrible fits- moaning and wailing in lament over the loss of her husband. This would go on for hours. When Charlotte finally managed to calm her down, her mother did not even seem to recognize her anymore.

It was like living with the husk of something that used to be a person.

“Then I shall be left here in this old haunted house alone,” she murmured, hot tears streaking down her cheeks. “Please, Simon- it’s utterly miserable. I feel like I should die-”

“My love,” he said. “Enough. You will not die. You were born of stronger metal than that.”

“But I feel so tired,” she protested, burying her face into his chest as her fists clutched his coat. “I cannot bear to see my mother in this way anymore. I beg you-”

 

 

“Miss? Miss- we’ve arrived,” came the voice that disrupted my dream- or my memory… or whatever the hell it was.

I felt disoriented when I blinked the sleep out of my eyes. Pressing a cold hand to my head, I thanked the driver before stepping out onto the sidewalk. Usually, I’d check first to make sure I was where I was supposed to be- or that I wasn’t being watched, but I didn’t. Instead, I walked through the revolving doors of the apartment building, took the elevator to the ninth floor.

The sound of smooth jazz wafted down the hallway like a promise. It made all straight, boring lines melt and waver and lengthen to infinity.

Was I drunk?

I supposed that it didn’t really matter; I was already home. Stumbling the rest of the way to my apartment door, I unlocked and pushed it open with my shoulder.

Inside, Mai was lounging on our couch and had turned on the record player again. She always did that when she was drinking away whatever new fresh memories had resurfaced. Mai always joked that she was a high-functioning alcoholic. True to brand, she was drinking a glass of white zinfandel-- the large bottle of cheap wine was on the coffee table, and it looked about three-quarters of the way finished. She’d probably been working on for a couple of hours.

When I closed the door behind me and dropped my keys in the dish on the bistro table near the front door, she turned her head, tossing her long golden hair over her shoulder.

“Oh my god! Hey, baby!” She called raising her glass, a bit flushed from the drink. “You’re home late!”

“Mai, you’re back!” I managed with a wide smile as I hung my dour black peacoat next to her purple faux fur jacket on the coat rack. “Yeah, I had a work dinner. How are you?”

“I have some news from regionals!” She continued enticingly.

“Oh,” I said groggily, stiffling a yawn, but making my way over to the couch and plopping down next to her. “What news?”

Mai was grinning from ear to ear when she threw her arms around my neck, “I got first place! Mama’s goin’ to nationals!”

“Wow, I’m so proud of you!” I squeaked, squeezing her tightly.

“Thanks, Tori- you’re such a good friend,” she mumbled, her hug slacking just a little. “I tried callin’ Joey today… but he didn’t answer. He never answers.”

“Hey,” I said, pulling away from her grabbing her by the shoulders. “Who needs him anyway?”

“I don’t need him,” Mai corrected me. “I miss him.”

I remembered the dream with a stunning clarity. “I’m going to miss you more than words can say.” I knew how she felt, so I held her tightly and she began to cry. “It’s going to be okay,” I told her gently, stroking her hair. “You’ll see. Why don’t we go out for tea this weekend? Just us. It’ll be really fun- we’ll get all dressed up and have some champagne to celebrate your well-deserved victory. How does that sound?”

Mai sniffled and nodded, but she wasn’t ready to let me go just yet. I combed my fingers through her hair just like mom did for me when I was little and I peered around the room. It was surprisingly tidy. No duel monster cards or duel disks lying about, no crumbs on the table even though she’d brought out a cheese plate with crackers and French bread.

It looked like she’d actually cleaned the place a little… and she only really did that when she was beside herself.

“So… Joey- he must be… well-”

“He was my best friend,” she told me, on the verge of tears. “Then I fell in with the wrong people and I hurt him. I hurt Yugi and--” she took a deep breath. “I’m not like that and more. I’ve changed. ”  

“Wait,” I said quietly. Yugi? She must have been talking about that blond guy! Yugi’s friend Joey! “Joey as in Joey Wheeler?” I asked her quietly.

She nodded again, sniffling, “yeah. You know him?”  

“I met him a week ago,” I told her. “It was super brief, but yeah-- and I know where Yugi works, so I could see if he wouldn’t mind pulling some strings to get you two talking again.”

She gripped my dress shirt sleeves tightly, “I’m scared. What if… he doesn’t want anything to do with me? What if he hates me and what if…”

“Mai,” I whispered. “Those two words have the power to either destroy your life or change it for the better. What if… he got a new number and you’ve been calling the wrong one all this time?”

She pulled away from me, her eyes red, tears staining her cheeks.

“What if he’s been afraid to talk to you, too?” I asked her, raising an eyebrow.

Mai wiped her face with her hands and sat back in thought. “yeah… maybe.”

I patted her shoulders and went to the bathroom for a box of tissues and held it out to her. She took a few, thanked me, and blew her nose. “Thing is- you’re never going to know if you don’t talk to him.”

Mai smiled up at me, tossing the used tissue on the table and taking another to wipe the running mascara under her eyes for good measure. “You’re right, oh, mystical relationship guru.”

“Easy on the sarcasm,” I joked with a grin.

 

That night, I helped Mai to bed, but when I stepped into my own bathroom to take off my make-up, I caught a reflection of something in the mirror. It was so brief that I could have hallucinated it all, but I remembered the image. It was burned into my brain- red hot and sizzling like burned skin.

An elderly woman in an old-fashioned black dress was hanging by her neck from the branches of an old twisted tree.

I knew who she was.

Mother.

It was very hard not to scream. I ran into my room at full speed and rummaged through my purse for my phone and called my own mother.

Ring.

Ring.

Ring.

Ring.

“The customer you’ve called cannot come to the phone at the time. Please leave your name and number, and they will return your call as soon as possible. Thank you.”

“Mom, hey- sorry for calling you again, but I just… wanted to check--”

Then I heard the click of someone answering the phone.

“Kisara?” Mom grumbled. “Are you okay, baby?”

“I’m okay,” I breathed, relief washing over me. “I just- I had a bad dream about you and I wanted to check in.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” mom sighed. “Yes, I’m okay. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.”

“Okay… well, please, please be careful. Promise me?”

“I promise,” she replied. I let out another sigh.

“Sorry to bother you.”

“You’re not. At all. I love you very much, we’ll talk soon.”

“Right. I love you, too.”

That night, I was terrified to sleep but fortunately, I did not dream.

 

Letting out a tired sigh, I finished scheduling a touch base with President Kaiba and stood up to stretch, checking my watch. It was a little after ten thirty, and he hadn’t come in yet… nor had Mokuba. I hadn’t received any calls, either. I hoped they were okay.

Unfortunately, the office being slow meant that I was left to my own devices, and my mind would not stop replaying the image of the old woman hanging in that tree. It had been the same one under which Simon had told Charlotte to meet him. I wondered... if any of it had actually happened. It felt far to real to be a fabrication, so I decided to do a Google search- typing as many descriptors into the search engine as I could possibly recall.

When I finally found something, it was a transcription from an old newspaper from 1874. The woman, Lady Prudence Ashford committed suicide on June 27th, 1874 and was a widow to Lord Byron Ashford who passed only three months prior. Both were survived by their seventeen-year-old daughter, Charlotte. They left their Devonshire estate to their daughter who was, at the time of her mother’s death, en route to the East Indies with one Simon Hastings.  

A chill settled in the pit of her stomach like a chunk of lead.

She was real. All of it… was real.

I sat back in my chair, closing out the multiple windows I’d pulled up, and passed a hand over my face. I had to do something to get my mind off of this. Getting, up from my desk I splashed some water on my face and walked around the empty executive suite for a moment to clear my head before returning to my desk. With a huff, I sat down and picked up my phone intending to call Mokuba, but before I could, a cool shadow swiftly passed me.

I glanced up in just enough time to see President Kaiba key into his office. I put down the phone and checked my email for the umpteenth time this morning just to make sure he hadn’t sent anything through. He hadn’t.

I frowned. He didn’t seem the type to be willingly late for work. Ever.  

After ten minutes, I got a phone call from his office.

“President?”

“I need…” he began, his voice heavy with exhaustion. “I need an Advil.”

I frowned, my eyebrows furrowing with concern, “I’ll be right there.” 

I rummaged in my desk for the painkiller in my first aid kit and shook three blue pills out of the bottle onto my hand before hurrying off to the break room to get a tray, a dish, and a glass of water. When I stepped into his office, President Kaiba lay on one of the black leather couches near the coffee table in the middle of the room- his hand pressed against his forehead, and his jacket hanging up on the coat hanger by his desk.

“Sir?”

“Come in,” he responded, his voice husky.

I clicked my tongue against my teeth, and set the tray down on the table near him, “are you not feeling well?”

“Like death warmed over,” he said dryly, sitting up to take the medicine, downing half the glass of water before looking at me- he looked pale and rather sickly. “Mokuba has it, too. He’s worse off than I am.”

“Poor Mokuba,” I sighed. “Does he have a fever?”

“One-hundred and two last I checked,” responded Kaiba, rubbing his forehead.

“That’s awful.”

“Don’t worry. The maids are watching after him today, but I had to come in,” He stood up with more than a little difficulty, and staggered to his desk. I rushed over to steady him before he could crumple to the ground.

“With all due respect, sir, I think you should be home resting.” He shot me a baleful glare.

“Not when I have a teleconference with the board at three.”

“I can move it up if you want,” I volunteered, helping him over to his desk. He sat down heavily in the high-backed black office chair, and leaned back. This man was going to kill himself if I didn’t give him a second option.

“They’re busy,” Kaiba sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “But go ahead and try.”

“Okay,” I nodded, scurrying out of the room to type up the meeting time switch request. Once Mr. Kaiba approved it, I sent it off into the ether. In the meantime, it was quiet without Mokuba. There were no visitors… it was just my sick boss and me.

I picked up the phone and called him.

“Did anyone respond to the meeting request?” He asked me in the brusque way he had.

“Not yet,” I answered. “But I wondered if you might want for me to pick up some lunch for you.” There was silence on the other end for a few beats.

“That… yes, lunch would be good. I want soup.”

“Anything in particular?”

“Ramen,” he said. “Also, stop at Jamba Juice and pick up a blueberry and pomegranate smoothie. Extra kale. Be back in thirty minutes.”

Thirty minutes to get lunch in downtown San Francisco? Yeah, right. “Yes, sir,” I said in spite of myself. He was sick. I had to do something and I needed an excuse to get out of the office anyway. I needed an excuse to stay busy.

 

When I made it back to his office, my head was spinning with breathlessness. I knocked rapidly on the door before scanning my badge.  Instead of sitting at his desk, Seto Kaiba was once again laying on the couch, but he looked far worse than he had when I left him- tremors were wracking his entire body, and he looked so pale. Ditching his lunch on the coffee table, I rushed over to him to press my hands against his face. His cheeks were cold and clammy, and a bead of sweat trickled down his temple.

“Mr. Kaiba,” I whispered frantically, turning him over just a little to give me easier access to check his pulse. His heartbeat was faint and fluttering. Hands trembling, I smoothed his hair from his forehead and pressed my hands against his cheeks, “Mr. Kaiba, can you hear me?”

He moaned his eyes still shut as he gripped my collar in his hand- it was a weak grip, but it kept me rooted. “Kisara… Kisara don’t go-” My eyes widened.

“I’m right here,” I said, my voice a little stronger than I thought it would be. “I won’t leave you.”

His trembling slowly subsided, and his grip on me became stronger and he pulled me into a tight embrace, “I thought I lost you forever. I thought you were dead.”

Dead? It felt as if the air had been sucked out of me. So many emotions spun through my head. Embarrassment, concern, and confusion being the most paramount. My face burned hot against the scoop of his neck, and I closed my eyes… too afraid of myself to hold him.   

His eyes were closed, but it looked like he was in pain. I could feel his heartbeat normalize against my chest and he was starting to feel warmer- much to my relief. His grip on me loosened and Seto Kaiba let out a gasp, jolting into a sitting position. I detached from him quickly falling to my knees on the white shag rug, and he pressed a hand to his forehead- our eyes locked.

“What… were you doing?”

My heart was beating rapidly, but one look from him told me he didn’t remember the words he’d spoken a moment ago. I recovered quickly, “you looked deathly pale when I walked in, and I wanted to make sure your vitals were stable, but before I could call an ambulance you grabbed me and asked me not to leave.”

He closed his eyes, passing his hand across his face and shook his head.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

Mr. Kaiba shook his head again, “never mind that.”

“I think you might have had an anxiety attack… you should go to the hospital-”

“I’m not going to the hospital,” he growled, sliding off the couch. I bit my lip when he looked down at me. “Look, I don’t care what kind of puppy-dog eyes you give me, I’m not going.”

I flushed, “why not? Something could be wrong-”

“Nothing is wrong with me,” responded Mr. Kaiba stiffly as if he weren’t just trying to convince me- but himself as well.

“You’re the most hard-headed man I’ve ever met in my life!” I cried jumping to my feet to stand toe to toe with him, glaring. “Why don’t you take better care of yourself?”

Scowling, President Kaiba pushed past me, “I don’t need you to be my mother,” He said, grabbing his lunch off the table, before pulling back, once again face to face with me. His eyes were dark with a warning, “I need you to do your job.” He murmured, his lips inches from mine.

Taking a breath, my cheeks burned as I opened my mouth to say more, but the words evaded me. We glared at each other in silence for a moment more before his eyes fell to my lips. Tilting his head a fraction, he opened his mouth a little before he hesitated and drew back quickly, breaking the spell.

“Get to work,” he said stiffly, walking brusquely back to his desk. Taking a step back, I pursed my lips, turned on my heel, and quickly walked out the door. When I got back to my computer, and once I’d taken a deep orienting breath, I found a slew of emails waiting for me to answer them. To my chagrin, they were all from the board.

 

From: William Dulles

To: Victoria Cruz

 

Subject: Monthly Board Meeting- Time Change Request

 

Miss. Cruz,

How incredibly inconvenient.

I suppose if we must change the time, I have no choice. I will ensure that the rest of the board members agree to be present as well.

William Dulles

Chief Financial Officer

 

After picking through the rest of the emails (all of which were acceptance responses for the time change invitation I’d sent earlier), I phoned Mr. Kaiba.

"They've all accepted the meeting change." 

“Good,” he said, his voice tinged with pain. “After the meeting, I’m going home. You can cancel everything else for the rest of the day and go home yourself.”

I colored a little, “yes, sir.”

“And Victoria?”

“Yes?”

“Thanks,” with that, he hung up- and I paused for a moment in unadulterated surprise and set the phone down quietly on the receiver. My cheeks had gone red hot, and I pressed my hands against them to cool them off, but it really didn’t work.

Jesus, REALLY?! COME. ON.

The meeting with the board lasted only thirty minutes which was great for President Kaiba, because the moment it was over, he was out the door with a speed unreal for a sick person. I blanched, grabbed my personal effects, and trailed after him. We didn’t exchange words, but it was because I could think of nothing else to say to him other than inquiring about how he was feeling. Small talk would only piss him off and asking about Mokuba again would probably not be advisable.

He looked a little better, but he was still piqued.

We descended a few floors standing on opposite sides of the elevator in silence. The doors opened a few times in our descent for late lunch-goers to board, but the moment they saw Seto Kaiba already inside, they started in fear and stepped back to allow the elevator doors to close on their own.

“The meeting went well, I hope?”

“Fine,” he responded shortly. “I’ll talk to you more about it tomorrow.”

I nodded, “alright.”

A silence fell between us again. We descended twelve more floors before he sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. Biting back my concern for him, I gripped my hands together and leaned back against the railing. It was almost painful not to say anything since I was the type to cover my awkwardness with small talk. Once we reached the lobby and the doors slid open, I turned to him.

“Please don’t drive,” I said, stepping off the lift and into the lobby, still facing him as I did. “And try to get some rest?”

He was trying to avoid my eyes which were trained on him, concern wrinkling my brow. As the lift doors closed, Mr. Kaiba glanced up at me for the briefest moment and nodded a good-bye. The lift doors closed with grim finality, and then he was gone.

 

Since it was a short day, I decided to keep with my mix-it-up routine and go get lunch at a Japanese-American fusion place near my apartment complex.

Since I had nothing better to do on my impromptu day off, I decided to hit up Yugi’s game shop before going home to spend the rest of the day holed up in my bedroom reading. He seemed happy enough to see me.

“So, how’s working for Kaiba been going for you?”

I rolled my eyes as I picked through a box of cards, “he’s the most stubborn man I’ve ever met and he doesn’t take care of himself- it makes me so mad.”

Yugi laughed, “that sounds like him, alright.”

“Yeah, well, it could be a lot worse.” I shrugged. “Say, this is totally random, but I wondered, do you know Mai Valentine?”

Yugi’s expression turned a bit sad, “yeah. I do. I haven’t heard from her in a while though. I hear she won the WAC dueling competition.”

“She did,” I said, raking my hands through my hair. “But she’s… having some issues. Personal issues.”

Yugi nodded glumly as if that wasn’t too much of a stretch. “I’m sorry to hear it. The situation was… really complicated, and I know she was hurting something awful back then...” he trailed off.

“I know… I talked to her about it a little last night,” I told him. “I don’t know what happened and, I don’t want to pry, but I think she really misses you guys. You and Joey and everyone, and I think she needs you more than ever right now.”

This surprised him, “you know Mai?”

“I’m her roommate,” I informed him, folding my arms over the glass case. “I just… hate seeing her suffer like this.”

Yugi put a comforting hand on my back, “I’m really glad you told me. I think you’re right- and I know she and Joey have a bit to settle between them.”

“Yes! That’s exactly what I thought, too. She’s totally hung up on him.”

He nodded sagely, “we need to get them together sooner rather than later.”

“I agree,” I said. “Do you have your phone on you? I’ll give you my number.”

We exchanged phone numbers and talked a little about how we might orchestrate the rendezvous before I hit a brick wall. Mai’s schedule was a total clusterfuck thanks to duel monster gaming season. I would have to do some sleuthing to figure out when she was free.

“Speaking of dates, I dunno if you know this, but you and Kaiba are plastered all over Twitter today.”

I sighed, rolling my eyes, “not surprised.”

“I mean, you can’t really see your face in the photos, but the woman he was with in the photos looked similar enough to you, so… my friends and I have been wondering… do you… like Kaiba?”

“Platonically?”

“Romantically,” Yugi insisted.

My head snapped up to look at him wide-eyed, “he’s my boss, no way.”

“Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, you know. He’s not the easiest person to care about without reason,” said Yugi, leaning over the glass case with his arms folded, resting his cheek on his hand. “So, do you?”

Pursing my lips, I shook my head, “I don’t know. Last night was a professional dinner.”

“Yeah,” Yugi said doubtfully, pulling something up on his phone before showing me a picture one of the paparazzi had snapped last night… of Kaiba’s foot hooked around mine under the table.

I blanched.

Fan-fucking-tastic.

“It was an accident,” I assured him. Then I paused, remembering that Kaiba’d almost kissed me today, too. Making a face, I shook my head again, trying to dismiss the thought.

No way. That wasn’t possible. It was all just… coincidence.  

Yugi had his eyebrows raised in askance.

“It’s nothing.”

“That didn’t look like nothing,” he said matter of factly, not falling for my bullshit for a second.

I gave him a little smile, “it’s probably nothing.” I amended.

He raised his eyebrows at me, “well, out with it!”

Letting out a sigh, I leaned against the glass and pressed my hands against my face, “he almost kissed me today.”

Yugi sucked in a startled breath, “are you serious?”

“Yes,” I managed, my voice muffled against my palms. “And I... “ my face was burning behind my hands. “Please don’t say anything about this to anyone, okay?”

“Of course,” Yugi promised sincerely.

“I almost kissed him, too.”

I was almost too afraid to look Yugi in the face but spared a peek from between my fingers anyway. To my surprise, my new friend was smiling .

“I’m so mad at myself,” I whispered. “If not for those stupid dreams, I-”

His expression flickered, “dreams?”

I drew back quickly, away from the glass case, a hand on my mouth, “nothing.” I said quickly, my ears burning at the fact that I almost revealed those crazy dreams to him. Someone I’d hardly met twice.

“Wait- Victoria-”

“Sorry, I have to go,” I blurted, a lie, but immediately felt awful. “I’ll come back- I promise, I just forgot that I have to pick up my dry cleaning.”

Honestly, I would have said anything to make me sound more normal.

Chapter Text

It had gotten dark by the time I’d left Turtle Games, but I was too distracted thinking about the woman hanging from the tree to be aware of my own surroundings. Too preoccupied thinking about the almost-kiss... I took out my phone, and began scrolling through my news feed listlessly.

More bad news.

Another mass shooting in a nightclub full of people my age. Another crop of California forest fires. Another bad politician having their way with people they’ve wronged without being punished properly.

Perhaps if I hadn’t been so distracted, I would have realized that the bar and cafe lights of the eccentric yuppie neighborhood had dimmed to a dull glow behind me and with the light-- the cover provided by the Friday evening crowds.

My phone buzzed, interrupting my scrolling with a text message from Mai.  

Hey, babe! I’m at a nice little place in the city and I wanted to know if you wanted dinner! Where are you?

I smiled a little and typed a response. Perhaps if I had been in the moment, I would have noticed that I was being followed.

But I didn’t -- not until the cold leather grasp of a stranger wrapped around my arms like a vise. Before I could scream, throw my head back for a headbutt, or reach for the pepper spray on my keychain, I felt a seismic blow against the back of my head as my brain rattled inside of my skull. My vision went swimmy and the world slid away.

 


 

 Someone shook me awake.

I tried to blink away the daze and the headache, and as the world came back into focus, I found myself in the darkened cabin of a car across from two large, unfriendly looking men in black suits and a smaller, older man between them that looked reminiscent of an evil Keebler elf.

I scowled. Why couldn't I have just stayed asleep?

This deranged miniature cookie-making wannabe was none other than Senator Atkinson’s personal secretary, Fitch McDougal. His eyes were round and searching, his mouth curled into a sneer as his security details tensed. “You’re a hard woman to pin down, Kisara Koenig.”

“I should hope so,” I said blandly, brushing one hand through my hair in the hopes that it would distract him and his private security detail from the one I had just slipped into my pocket. I discreetly thumbed for the record memo function on my phone. I hoped that's the button I had hit, anyway. Pushing down the fear that was quickly mounting, I crossed my legs and folded my hands over my lap trying my best to look composed. “I’m sure you know that this is, quite frankly, a terrible look.”

“No one knows you’re here.” He said, waving away my statement, unbothered.

I had to come up with something fast. Something that wouldn’t send his goons after my parents or endanger anyone else that couldn’t handle them.

“I wouldn’t be too comfortable about that assumption. My boss and I are supposed to be meeting for dinner. I was just texting him when you abducted me. ” Fitch shifted uncomfortably. I tried not to grin. Check. “Funny enough, I just sent him my location and he should be here— oh, in about five minutes,” I said glancing at my phone with an unbothered shrug.

Two people can play that game, Fitch.

“I have no doubt that you know who I work for." I went on, "and if I’m not exactly where I said I’d be, he’ll assume the worst.” I offered him a grim smile.

“Fine. Brief,” Fitch growled. “We want you to recant your story and apologize publicly.” My mouth pressed into a firm line. Before I could reply, he went on, “refusal would be unwise,” he said. “I have ways of discrediting you even if you don’t.”

“More blackmail?” I said dully, trying not to show how terrified I actually was.

Fitch smiled leaning towards me. I could tell he was trying to be hostile, but it felt more creepy than anything else, “I’m here as a courtesy, young lady. I’m a man with the power and connections to ensure you and your ilk are never employed by anyone in the media industry ever again.”

“Oh, so you’ve graduated to blacklisting now,” I said, still with that monotone boredom to my voice that I knew would piss him off. I yawned for good measure and clapped. “Bravo, Mr. McDougal.”

“I see you want to do this the hard way. Boys--” he said, to the two security details that flanked him.

“Hm!” I mused, “how well do you think an act of physical violence perpetrated in the name of a disgraced elected official against the journalist who outed him for crimes he committed against the people he represents will go over in court?” I asked, rubbing my chin, “any answers?" I paused again, raising my eyebrows in mock expectation. It was a rhetorical question. Fitch seemed to take the hint. "No?  I believe the answer is really well! If you’re me, that is.”

This gave him pause, “it would be your word against mine. It would never hold.”

I grinned at him as his cocky expression crumpled into one of sour realization.

“You’re wearing a wire,” it wasn’t a question.

“Ever since your first crony tracked me down,” I lied with a smile. “Just in case something like this happened. It’s been a real pain in the ass, but it looks like it paid off. I’ll take you to court so quickly, your head would spin .”

I was banking on the fact that he might think he’d said too much by now to risk checking for one. Fitch looked at me for a long moment as if deliberating, before finally coming to a decision.

"There is no way you would go to the police when you're so deep undercover." He muttered, nodding at his men. "Check her."

My stomach tanked. It had been worth a shot.

Before they could move halfway across the cabin, I whipped out my keychain pepper spray giving it a shake with my finger on the trigger.

"If either of you moves another inch, I'll make you wish you were blind just to make the pain stop."

Fitch grimaced, holding up a hand. His men exchanged sour looks before sitting back in their seats. I kept the pepper spray out.  

“We have been watching you for weeks, Miss Koenig," Fitch said stiffly, motioning for one of his men to give him something. One of them reached into their blazer and took out a folded orange envelope which he handed to the other man.

"What?" I demanded.

"I'm giving you forty-eight hours to announce a formal apology and revise your story. If you refuse to do so by using the verbiage stated in this envelope, I will just have to pay 724 Applebaum Lane a visit, won't I?" 

My throat closed.

He knew where I lived. How? 

"Then, I will instruct my men to rough up your lovely little roommate. What was her name again?" My eyes widened, my mouth half open in shock. "Ah, yes- Mai Valentine, wasn't it? She's a professional duelist, is she not? It would be such a shame if I had to send Andre here," he patted the arm of the large man sitting to his left with his hand, "into your apartment with his hammer and shatter every bone in her hands right before Nationals."

I let out a breath, "you evil bastard." 

"Oh, that's not even the best part," Fitch went on with a cold little smile on his mouth. "I'm going to tell her that you allowed this to happen because your desire to save face was more important than her safety." He regarded my expression of horror by grinning more widely as he became more and more unhinged. "She'll blame you. After I send Little Miss Duelist to the hospital, I'm going to tell the FBI that you have been using a false social security number and a fake license to gain unlawful employment in this state, and you will go to federal prison. Once you're tucked away, I'm going set the rest of your life on fire so that when you get out, you will only have ash and death, and no one to mourn with you." He paused, taking an orienting breath, smoothing back his brittle graying hair with one hand before holding out the envelope. "Do we have a deal?" 

I stared at the envelope as if it were a poisonous snake. Swallowing through clenched teeth, I snatched the envelope out of his hand. 

Fitch smiled wickedly. "Good. Remember, you have forty-eight hours and you better make it sound convincing."  

With that, they shoved me out of the car. 

"And Miss Koenig?" He drawled. "If you tell the police, our deal is off and your life is over. Understand?" 

I clenched my jaw and my fist and nodded once. The door slammed shut in my face, and the car sped off down the road. It took all the strength in my body not to crumple to the ground and cry, but I held myself up, dug in my pocket for my phone. I hadn't found the recording function after all. I sighed and erased my initially exuberant and obliging text to Mai. 

Sorry,

I typed instead.

I can’t- I had a long day. I think I’m going to head to bed early. Next time?

I locked the front door of the apartment and slunk to my bedroom. I didn’t realize how much of a mess it had become. The last week and a half had been hellish and I’d let myself go. The bed wasn’t made, dirty clothes were everywhere; I just didn’t have the energy to do anything about it.

Letting out a sigh, I fell face first into my mattress and closed my eyes. For once, I hoped for dreams-- because I desperately wanted to be anyone other than me.

Fortunately, sleep took me quickly and dreams flooded through the darkness like sunshine through gossamer.

 


 

I woke to find myself once again in that alabaster chamber, laying on expensively soft cotton sheets. I yawned sleepily, sitting up slowly to rub the sleep from my eyes. I was still so tired, but the light filled the room suggested that it couldn't have been much later than mid-afternoon.

I sighed, rolling my shoulders back a few times and swept the room with a glance before my eyes fell on a familiar man lounging on the chaise nearby, reading a piece of parchment.

Priest Set. We locked eyes, “thank Isis,” he sighed, passing a hand over his eyes. He was not wearing his ceremonial garb today. In its place, a dark blue kilt hung around his hips. The priest uncurled himself from the chaise and hesitantly sat down on the bed next to me. “How are you feeling?”

I paused for a moment before answering, my mouth having gone very dry. It had been much easier to give Charlotte the reins than it was for me to give them to the Other Kisara, but memories that weren’t mine flooded into my consciousness all the same. The throbbing in my head had dampened to a dull ache. “Better,” I said truthfully.

He nodded, dipped his hand into a white basin sitting on the nightstand and took out a wet cloth. He wrang it out a few times and pressed it against my cheek. It was cold, but not the numbing kind of cold, but the kind that makes the brain as keen as a freshly sharpened blade. I flushed and touched his wrist. He was warm and a strange buzzing sensation danced over my skin at the contact.

I tried to swallow it down, "it's okay," I assured him. "I'm alright."

“Are you sure?" He asked, "you had a high fever last night, and I had to call a physician."

I frowned, "I don't remember being sick."

“You were out cold,” he said quietly, pressing the cloth to my other cheek, his eyes appraising me. "I was worried sick." 

“Thank you,” I whispered. A charged silence fell between us before he spoke again.   

"Do you remember the first time we met?” He asked.

"Yes,” I said quietly. “You saved my life.”

“And do you remember the second?”

I flushed as he leaned closer, pressing the cloth against my forehead. He smelled intoxicatingly of incense, myrrh, and honey, “I saved yours.”

Though I tried not to, I looked at his mouth and wondered how it would feel to kiss him. Since Priest Set technically wasn’t my boss, it wasn’t illegal. Anyway, this was all a dream, so it wasn’t real... right?

I thought about the obscure newspaper article I’d found from 1896 which confirmed events from a dream I had. Could it be possible to dream about memories that weren’t mine? What if it was real ?

He nodded, faint amusement on his face, “I think… we were meant to save each other.” He paused as if he had been trying to find an easy way to talk about what he was about to say next, and had found no luck in doing so. “However, there is something I’ve been curious about. Many years ago when we were young, I saw something remarkable-- a vision around you,” he explained. “Do you recall?”

I frowned. I didn’t, so I shook my head, “a vision?”

“We were young,” he explained sheepishly. “I’m not surprised that you don’t remember, but the vision scared the men who hunted us away, and I had a strange feeling that you created it somehow. Two days ago saw it again in the streets, fleetingly. It called out and lead me to the square, and that’s how I found you.”

What he was talking about sounded like magic... but magic wasn't real.

“What did you see?” I asked him quietly.

“A pale sky serpent,” he answered, as if he weren’t too sure himself. “With eyes of blue.”

My throat squeezed shut as memories flooded back and a chill wormed through me. I knew what it was that he’d seen… but I couldn’t quite believe it. The vision had been a fearsome pale beast with razor-sharp teeth and claws. A monster with blue eyes, large wings, and a long winding tail.

The Blue-Eyes White Dragon.

I remembered how the creature had looked at me the day Kaiba and I had dueled. I was curious about that, too. 

“If it isn’t too bold, I would like you to visit with the pharaoh's seer today. I have a suspicion about you that I want to confirm.”

“Regarding the vision?”

Priest Set nodded once, “will you allow him to make an assessment?”

I nodded.

He put the cloth back into the basin and placed a hand on my cheek, “thank you.  By the way, I’ve ordered a bath for you,” he told me, rising to stand. “The servants will be in shortly to escort you down to the pavilion.”

“What about you?” I asked before I could stop myself, and think about the insinuation. Set bent down to level me with a smoldering stare, his finger beneath my chin, “would you like me to bathe you instead?”

Turning an impossible shade of red, I stammered. He chuckled, brushing his thumb along my cheek, “don’t worry, I’ve instructed the servants to bring you to the seer in a few hours to meet me. I have a few things I need to get sorted beforehand.”

“Alright,” I said, nuzzling his hand with my cheek. “I’ll see you later.”

He smiled, leaning down to kiss my forehead slowly and caressing my jaw with his knuckles, and then he was gone, and every inch of me was burning.

 


 

Not five minutes later, two women in servants’ robes who reminded me of Siamese cats came to collect me. One was tall, shapely and looked to be in her early thirties whereas the other woman was lean and looked to be in her late teens. They both wore plain attire that looked almost like a uniform.

“We are here to take you to the baths,” said the older woman, inclining her head slightly.

“Priest Set said you’d be coming,” I said with a smile, padding over to them from the window. I needed the fresh air. “I’m Kisara.” I paused, unsure of if I should shake their hands or keep my Western sensibilities to myself.

The women exchanged looks, “Sabra,” said the older woman, inclining her head. “Daughter of Fadil. Handmaiden of the temple of Anubis.”

“Rania,” answered the other, her voice was much quieter. “Daughter of Bakari— handmaiden of the temple of Anubis, my lady.”

“It’s a pleasure,” I answered, trying to look a little more energetic than I felt. “Please, lead the way.”

They shepherded me down the decadently decorated halls of the palace. They both had beautiful bronze skin and sleek black hair.

They beckoned for me to follow them. “So,” Raina said falling into step with me as we descended a set of stairs that went deep beneath the earth. “Are you… Priest Set’s intended?”

I colored, “Oh, no, absolutely not,” I responded, with my hands up, “he’s my--” I stopped. No. He wasn’t my boss here, “friend.” I said. Even to my own ears, I knew how unconvincing and lame it sounded.

“Well,” Raina said, her dark eyes glittering with humor. “The way he speaks about you might suggest otherwise.”

“He… talks about me?”

She smiled at my sudden interest, “he’s a head priest of the temple, but I happen to be friends with the maids who attend him most often,” Raina shot a baleful look at Sabra and motioned me closer. “Last night, you fell quite ill. He was panicked nearly all night. None of the servants that attend him had ever seen him quite in that state before.”

“Oh,” I whispered. “I’m sorry to have caused so much trouble.”

Raina shook her head, “I didn’t tell you that to make you feel guilty- I only meant--”

“Raina,” Sabra said warmingly, without looking behind her. “Gossipping is a habit unfit for a handmaiden of Anubis.”

Raina sighed, rolling her eyes. “Apologies, Sabra.”

I pursed my lips trying not to smile, “thank you.” I mouthed.

The other girl smiled and winked at me.

After a moment more, the darkened stairwell gave way to an open pavilion. The main bath spanned beyond us; it resembled a huge ornate swimming pool made of limestone, decorated with engravings, paintings, and hieroglyphics that were beyond me. The water was a pale blue color and steam came off the surface in waves and curled in the air.

“What heats the water?” I asked them curiously as they lead me down to the bath side. It looked as if it was unoccupied for the moment.

“Hot coals,” Sabra told me, they did not find my curiosity odd. They did not seem to, anyway.

“The servants go to the market in the mornings and evenings to get fresh coal. We like our baths,” Raina explained.

Sabra collected two baskets from the side of the pool, handed one to Raina, and instructed me to get undressed. Flushing a little, I stripped out of the thin gauzy shift. It was my first time seeing my own body in this place. This body was little more than skin and bones smattered with deep purple bruises blooming under cream white skin.

The women exchanged looks, concern wrinkled Sabra’s brow, but Rania helped me into the pool gingerly-- doing her best not to accidentally brush against the bruises on my skin.

“Who did this?” Raina asked me quietly.

“Villagers,” I told her with a half shrug, stepping into the comfortingly warm bathing pool. “At this point, I’m used to it.”

Rania pulled my hair completely back over my shoulders and put a hand on my cheek gently, “you poor thing.” She sighed. “No one should ever be used to that.”

I looked at her sadly. “You’re right.”

“Ladies, please. We’ll be here all day if you keep gabbing. The seer is not to be kept waiting!” Sabra called. Raina managed to hide her obvious annoyance.

They instructed me to submerge my head so they could begin washing my hair and applying a facial care regimen, so I did. It was strange that I wasn’t as self-conscious around them as I was when I got facials at home, but there was something different about this, though. This was an expectation, not an option.

From the side of the tub, Sabra filled a large bowl of water from the tub and told me to lean back so that she could wash my hair. I did and closed my eyes as she began massaging my scalp with an oil that smelled like jasmine before lathering it with some kind of scentless bar soap.

It took about an hour for them to be satisfied with my cleanliness before they shepherded me out of the bath and wrapped me in a light towel.

“I’m going to go fetch the clothes Priest Set ordered, I’ll be back shortly,” Sabra said, before bowing and taking her leave. Rania smiled and walked me back to the bright, airy room.

“Would you like anything brought to you in the meantime? Food, drink? You could stand to put a little fat on your hips.”

Now that I thought about it… I could eat something. My stomach growled, and I flinched, placing my hand over it as if to keep it quiet. Flushing, I offered her a sheepish smile.  “Anything you have to eat… would be lovely,” I told her gratefully. “Thank you.”

Rania clicked her teeth with her tongue and helped me sit down on the bed.

“Relax here,” she told me. “I will be back with food and a brush for your hair.”  

After ten minutes or so, Raina and Sabra returned. In Sabra’s hands was a simple white dress that was soft and feather-light against my skin as she coaxed me into it. Raina had procured a bowl of figs and bread with cheese as well as a glass carafe of water to drink.

As Raina sat me down to pull my damp hair into a fresh towel to dry, a loud horn blared from somewhere below. It made me jump a little.

“The pharaoh must be returning from Athens,” Raina explained with a dreamy sigh. “He’s been gone for a number of weeks.”

I nodded, interested, wondering what kind of person the pharaoh could have been, and if I’d ever read about him before in the history books I used to pore over when I was young. “What is he like? The pharaoh?”

“Well,” she began.

“You will hold your tongue, Raina.” Sabra chided.

“But-”

“I’m sorry for asking so many questions,” I told Sabra quickly before Raina got into any more trouble. “I’m only curious-- I’ve never been in a place like this before.”

Sabra looked at me with her deep golden brown eyes for a moment before sighing as she began to apply a pale cream to my face with a flat brush. “Very well. The necessities, only, Raina. None of your romantic notions!”

“Okay, okay,” she said, pulling the brush through my hair before beginning to braid it. “The pharaoh was actually the youngest son, but all of his brothers either died in war or foul play. The court scheming was bad back then, but that was before my time, so I’ve only heard stories.” She cleared her throat when Sabra shot her a withering glare. “Anyway, I personally think he was the best of them all. His brothers were too warmongery, but he’s always wanted peace. Did you know that he can speak and read about a dozen languages?”

My eyes widened, “that's amazing!”

“Isn’t it? He’s also extremely just and diplomatic, so he’s been acting as our ambassador abroad ever since he was given the position many years ago. His brother, Kamuteph, was set to ascend the throne… but when he died in battle, the title fell to him, too. Some people worry that he’s doing too much.”

I nodded in sympathetic agreement, “I can’t even imagine.”

Raina finished braiding my hair and began fixing them to my head with pins. “He’s still unmarried, though. That’s part of the reason why they want him to settle down. Even the priests are getting concerned, but rumor has it that the real reason for his trip to Athens was to make a marriage deal with the governor’s daughter. They say she’s very beautiful.” She chuckled. “Their wedding day will send the women of Cairo spiraling into the deepest pit of despair.”

I smiled, “is he that wonderful of a man?”

“He is,” she said. “We are lucky to have him.”

It seemed Sabra had given up trying to keep Raina from treating speculation as fact and had resigned herself grumpily to her fate. The older woman began lining my eyes with a stick of coal-- warning me not to blink. With a final touch of rouge, Sabra was pleased. Raina had stopped pinning braids to my head a while ago and had been lounging on the floor next to me as we picked remnants of cheese and dried fig from the bowl.

Sabra quickly shooed the younger girl away, reminding her of her other duties, but before Raina left, she smiled, “it was good to meet you, lady Kisara.”

“Thank you for the bath and the company. I hope we meet again,” I told her. Then, she too was gone. 

Sabra inspected me once more and affixed a semi-transparent veil to my hair with a comb made of ivory. She explained that she’d dressed me like a handmaiden to ensure that I didn’t attract too much attention. Grunting satisfactorily at her handiwork, she instructed me to follow her.

The temple of Anubis was almost like a palace in its grandeur. Sabra steered me through multiple carved and intricately painted alabaster corridors and wide open breezeways. One of them contained a garden of stone statues. Eventually, I found myself losing track of how to return to that room.

When we stepped outside, the blazing Egyptian sun was slightly lower than it would have been at noon. Around us, a bustling courtyard packed with priests, priestesses, well-to-do individuals adorned in fine linens, gold, and enamel stretched out before them. There were merchants as well-- selling wares at stalls spattered about.

As we passed, I noted that they sold everything from swallows to oxen. I supposed that they might have been offerings. Across the courtyard was another building made of alabaster. It was far grander than the temple of Anubis-- in fact, it was the kind of building that was so large that it seemed to be much closer than it actually was.

“Where are we going?” I whispered.

Sabra looked at me with equal measures of concern and incredulity, as if I had just admitted that I'd been dropped on my head as a baby, “the palace, of course.”

“Oh,” I muttered. “I… wasn’t even sure if someone like me was allowed in a place like that.”

“You aren’t,” she said. “That is why you must not be discovered.”

“And if I am?”

“Then, pray to Isis that the pharaoh is feeling merciful today.”

 

Chapter Text

Kisara

 

Unfortunately, Raina had all but dampened most of the nervousness I’d felt about possibly bumping into the pharaoh-- not that I felt liberated enough to break laws or anything like that, but I just wasn’t sure if he’d severely punish a peasant girl who was a ward of one of his own priests.

 

I tried not to gawk when we entered the palace. Not that anyone could see the expression on my face, anyway-- but even still. The intricately painted breezeway lay open before us as we crossed a limestone bridge over a moat and into the main palace grounds. People dressed in gold jewelry, bold enamels, and fine linens strolled along-- most of which looked like courtiers. Others who were dressed similarly to the way Sabra and Priest Set did, traveled in groups carrying bowls, rods, and other oddities I could not place. 

“We will be passing through a series of highly guarded sections of the palace,” Sabra informed me. “The Seer is an important piece of our military prowess, so in some way, his safety is paramount to the survival of our dynasty. You are not to speak unless spoken to, and you are to keep your head down in his presence. Am I understood?”

I managed to nod. 

“Good,” she murmured as we strode towards a set of stairs leading to the second level of this gargantuan structure. It was, of course, guarded. 

“Halt,” said a guard with a shaved head, as he and his partner crossed the blades of their strange hooked swords to block their entry. “What is your business in the upper levels?” 

“We are Sabra and Raina, handmaidens of the Temple of Anubis. She is here to meet with Priest Set and Shada today for guidance on the Spring equinox vesper service. They are expecting her.” 

The guards seemed to relax at this, “so they are. Enter,” the other said as they both withdrew their weapons and allowed us passage. 

 

Shada

The Seer sat with his eyes closed in the middle of the gilded cage the pharaoh had made for him. Even the beauty of his trappings, the fine linens and fabrics, the softest down pillows and mattress money could buy, the highest-quality incense, and luxurious furnishings could not shroud the truth. What kind of Seer would he be if it did? 

He always believed that he could See better when he was blind. Auras were so much easier to detect when the soul was untethered from a reliance on physical sight. He took a deep breath and… just on the periphery of his outstretched soul, he felt it. 

A powerful spiritual energy approached. This must be the one that Priest Set had promised him.

He shifted atop his pillow and frowned as they drew nearer. Little by little, the energy around its host manifested a bright blue… or white. He could not tell which, and he could not surmise the form it took from this distance. But the closer they got, the more oppressive their energy became. He opened his eyes and breathed in deeply to shake the grip of it. 

 

Kisara

Up, up, up the alabaster stairs we went; I could not help but to look at the stone courtyard below as afternoon sun streamed in through large open windows. It felt like the end of spring on my skin. I wanted to ask Sabra why such secrecy was needed, or what would happen if we were discovered in our falsehood, but the stern look on her face kept me silent. 

The stairs leveled out to a mezzanine which was lavishly decorated, much like the ground floor had been. I kept my head low. The second set of guards we came to asked no questions before they stepped aside to let us pass. Beyond was a torchlit corridor in which I caught the faint scent of incense. The smell became more intense as we walked, and the air had a smokier quality that reminded me of Easter Morning Mass. With the smoke came chanting which sounded like a droning amalgamation of sounds. 

After a few minutes, the corridor opened up into an antechamber-- this one had no windows but was covered in hieroglyphics and beautiful paintings on the walls.  In its center, two women in robes similar to Sabra’s, stood around a white bowl smoking with incense on a stone pedestal as they spoke a prayer in unison. 

“What are they doing?” I whispered. 

“A prayer of cleansing,” Sabra replied. “To banish evil spirits and ill intent from this place.” 

I nodded quietly as we passed through this room and into a separate corridor that was guarded by a single man with a wolf tail and most of his head shaved. He wielded one of those hooked swords I’d seen earlier. 

“Your names and intents, handmaidens,” he said as if he were very bored. 

“Sabra escorting Raina to a meeting with Priest Set and Shada regarding the spring equinox vesper service at the Temple of Anubis.” 

He regarded us with deep-set dark eyes for a moment, before nodding once and stepping aside.

 

This corridor was much shorter than the one before it and it had windows. I let out a breath, taking in the sweet fresh air from outside. 

“Claustrophobic?” Sabra asked me. 

“Only a little,” I told her quietly. 

She chuckled motioning to the two figures ahead who looked to be exchanging words, “well, don’t get too comfortable. We’re here.” 

I recognized one of the men as Priest Set. He saw us first and broke off mid-sentence, his expression controlled. 

“Welcome- thank you for bringing her, Sabra. We have much to discuss. May Anubis grant you favor.” 

“Of course, Priest Set,” Sabra said. “May Anubis grant you favor.” Before she left, she squeezed my hand. “May you hear only good things.” 

I nodded with a small smile, doing the same… and then she was gone.

Priest Set motioned to me with not so much as a pleasantry, “come.” He said. I nodded, and the guard let us pass. 

 

Shada

Priest Set had told Shada that the host was a woman, but he certainly did not expect the woman he saw standing in his doorway. He’d half expected a battle grizzled warrior, but what he got instead was a waifish slip of a girl wearing the cloth of a handmaiden of Anubis. Her face was veiled, and her body was covered in its entirety. Priest Set stood beside her, tall and imposing, but the expression on his face was guarded, and his aura exuded worry.

 It was obvious to Shada that Priest Set was not interested in having just anyone know her identity… to protect her. How interesting. Not that she needed his protection with power like that if she could control it… but… 

“Welcome, please sit,” Shada said, motioning to the low table before him.

Priest Set looped his arm through hers and guided her to sit down at the table. Nervousness radiated off of her in waves of spiritual energy. 

“Fear not, lady. You are in no danger here. I am Shada, the pharaoh's Seer,” Shada told her gently. 

She bowed her head slightly, “I’m Kisara.” 

Shada nodded, “Priest Set- if you would,” Shada muttered quietly. 

Set nodded and threw his hand out, muttering a few quick words under his breath as his shielding spell took. Good. Now they’d have some privacy. The girl snapped her head around to regard Priest Set who ignored her, Shada could not see her face-- but he could feel her surprise and confusion. He wondered if the Priest Set had neglected to tell her that he could cast spells. 

“If you would remove your veil, I would be most grateful,” Shada said evenly. “It’s easier for me if I can see your eyes.” 

A beat passed, and she moved her veil back over her head. She was unusual-- like a foreigner. Her skin was alabaster pale, and her hair was a silvery-white. It was as if whatever beast lived within had drained her of all color and given her power instead. When she opened her eyes, he found himself staring into pools of cloudless blue sky-- or into the eyes of a monster. 

Whatever beast lay beyond her eyes was fast asleep, waiting to be woken. He did not know if the subjugation of this monster was due to discipline or chance, but he was impressed regardless. 

“You were right, Priest Set,” Shada began. “She is the avatar for a power that rivals that of the gods. It is not to be treated lightly.” 

Set nodded silently, “it’s good to have it confirmed. What of the pharaoh?” 

“We have made an agreement,” Shada said. “Three days of my silence should afford you time to help her disappear before the pharaoh goes looking for her.” 

I frowned, “why--” 

“He would use you as a weapon against the Romans,” the Seer explained. “With your power, he could destroy those who would attack our lands, kill our people, and force us to bend in subjugation.” 

What could I say to that? My mouth went very dry. 

“Tell me, have you had any formal training to control the monster within?” Shada asked her quietly. “To reign in such power is quite difficult.” 

“No,” she said quietly. “Never.”

“Any schooling at all?” He pressed, scanning her face with eyes that saw nothing and everything at once. She paused as if considering-- as if she were unsure how much to say. 

“No,” she decided. 

A lie. He could smell lies like an animal could smell rotting, diseased flesh. 

“You should tell me the truth,” Shada went on. “It will be easier for all of us.” 

Priest Set’s frown deepened and the strange woman before him awkwardly, “some.” She amended. “Algebra, calculus, natural science, political science, literature,” she said quietly.

Shada’s eyebrows shot up, Priest Set might have been ignoring her before, but he wasn’t now. This girl was not as she seemed. 

“Kisara-- what are you saying?” Priest Set asked her. 

The girl let out a sigh, looking at the hands she had folded in her lap, “it is… difficult to explain.” 

“Perhaps I can help,” the Seer said, standing up to brush the lines out of his blue linen robes before crossing the room to a neatly organized wooden breakfront where he procured a jewel-encrusted knife. When he returned to the table with the knife and the bowl, Priest Set clenched his jaw, watching him with his sharp, volcanic glass eyes. The girl tensed in fear, snatching her hands to her chest.

“Do not be afraid,” Shada said, sitting down across from them, setting the bowl on the table between them, his arms around either side of the bowl. “This is the memory blade. It will allow me to see into the mind of the person whose blood it touches and access your memories. I only need a little blood for it to work.” 

She looked at Priest Set with a pleading expression which, this time, he returned and held her gaze. “We have to know for sure, and… whatever you’re struggling to explain, we’ll worry about later.”  He told her. I could sense the yearning on him like the scent of jasmine in the spring, “please.” 

 After a moment, she sighed, nodded, and turned to the Seer- slowly extending her hand out to him as if he were a stray dog on the street. Shada took her hand gingerly and pressed the blade of the knife down to prick the skin on her index finger. 

Bright crimson welled in a bead on her fingertip which vanished the moment that it touched the cold steel of the blade. He released her wrist as the memory blade began to glow… and pull him into a stream of strange memories. 

 

Kisara

My heart hammered in my ears as the Seer’s eyes emptied and the knife in his hand began to glow. Set took my hand in his and bandaged my finger with a scrap of cloth from his robes. His touch was clinical, precise… cold. 

I glanced at the Seer and suddenly felt like an imposter all over again. Would he sense that I was not exactly who I said I was? I nearly laughed at the irony, but swallowed it down. It almost had the bitter taste of arsenic. 

When Shada’s eyes cleared from the haze, he looked horror-struck. “She is a woman out of time,” he told Priest Set. “She has lived many lives.” 

“What do you mean, Shada?” 

“This woman is the reincarnation of the girl who saved you when you were children,” he paused, confusion and wonder wrinkling is brow. “From over three-thousand years in the future.”

I closed my eyes as the truth washed over me. It was a strange truth, but it was the truth nonetheless.. 

“Is… this true, Kisara?” Priest Set paused. “Or is that even your name at all?” I was too afraid to look at him. 

“Yes,” I answered. “And my name is still Kisara.” 

“Why would you lie to me?” he asked quietly. 

I sucked in a breath and turned to face him, “I have no idea what’s happening to me.” I told him. “I didn’t ask for this. When I close my eyes, I dream of this place and I don’t know why. I’m so confused and I’m scared. I never wanted to hurt you. Please believe that.” 

Set considered this for a moment before sighing, “and you didn’t think for one moment… to ask me for help?”  

“I didn’t know if you’d be more likely to offer me assistance or put me in prison for acting like a madwoman.”

“Have you such little faith in me?” He murmured. I sucked in a breath and looked down at my hands which were folded in my lap. We fell silent until the Seer spoke again.

“There is more,” Shada said carefully. “She has met your reincarnation in her own time, Priest Set.” 

He blinked at him, “what?” 

The Seer nodded sagely, “and when she met him, it triggered this strange magic allowing her to travel through space and time. I believe that his constant interaction with the Shadow Realm may be the culprit.” 

Priest Set froze, but it was my turn to look confused. “The Shadow what now?”  

“The Netherworld,” Shada said. “I could feel the remnants of Death and Shadow upon him when I was looking through your memories, Lady Kisara… it is possible that a few of you past lives sensed him and latched on when he was communing with the other side… and when he made contact with you, I believe they sensed your kindred spirit and latched on to you.” 

I blinked at him incredulously. It sounded like pure fantasy. 

“I don’t believe in magic,” I said. 

“It does not matter what you believe and what you do not,” he said. “If not for magic, how is it that you’re here? You already know that I speak the truth.” 

I forced down the lump in my throat, “it’s so… impossible.” I whispered, peering up at the Seer. 

“For all of your learning and keenness, you have no mind for possibility,” Shada said. “Your spiritual connection to this place is so strong that it defies time and space. It is clear that there is something your reincarnations wish to share with you— whether it is a warning for what is ahead or a lesson for you to learn. What their motives are for certain, even I cannot tell.”

“So she has walked this path before in one of her past lives?” Priest Set asked.

Shada nodded, “in fact, this is when her soul was born. This is why it is imperative that she is not found; the flow of history would be disrupted, and,” he paused, looking at me pointedly. “If you are found and the pharaoh uses you for the glory of Egypt, it would destroy your spirit forevermore. In other words, the reincarnation cycle will be broken and you will die here.” 

I snapped my head up to look at him, the blood draining out of my face. 

 

We made our way back to the Temple of Anubis and a quiet fell between us. Neither of us spoke or looked at each other the entire way. What could be said? If the pharaoh found me, I’d never go home again. All Raina’s talk before of how good the pharaoh was created a new fear in me. 

A good king would do everything in his power to protect his people… and if sacrificing one peasant life could help him do that, he would. Without question.

Only when we reached his chambers did he speak. “What am I like in three-thousand years?” He was staring off into the distance as we crossed the room onto the balcony. It was late afternoon, now and had grown much cooler. I followed his gaze, but I could not see what had fixed his eyes. 

“Well,” I said, crossing my arms behind me as I peered up at him. “You’re much more  pleasant if I’m being honest. Apologies.” 

He flinched, looking down at me-- a little concerned. “Is he cruel to you?” 

“Not cruel,” I said quickly as warmth crawled up my neck. “Just… brusque.” 

Priest Set frowned, rubbing his chin. “I have to make this up to you somehow--” 

“No,” I told him, flushing. “Absolutely not. You are not Seto Kaiba.” 

“Ah,” he said, a lightbulb going off. “It’s the name you called me on the first day you regained consciousness.”

I nodded. 

“It all makes sense,” he said thoughtfully. “I wonder; what kind of relationship do we have in the future?” 

“I…” I trailed off, looking down at my feet. “I work for you.” 

“A handmaiden?” 

“Well,” I thought on it for a moment. “I guess, yes… a handmaiden- of sorts.” 

He asked me about my job and I asked him about his— which included holding ceremonies and presiding over services, most of which were funerals. 

“Do you like it? Being around so much death all the time?” I asked, our shoulders were nearly brushing now as we leaned on the balcony.

“I do. It’s quiet. I enjoy… the quiet.”

“It isn’t lonely?”

He looked at me for a moment, his expression reflecting a myriad of emotions that transitioned from one to the other seamlessly: humor, sadness, resignation. “Sometimes, but I’d rather be lonely than disappointed,” he paused and flashed me a grim smile. “Fortunately, the dead rarely disappoint.”