Following Aoi's acceptance of their invitation to stay the night, the Mutous conducted business as usual. Sugoroku cleaned and closed up Kame Game Shop while Omocha finished a few household chores.
"Please make yourself at home," Omocha told Aoi. However, it soon became apparent that the girl would not, or could not, rest easy under the circumstances. All evening she trailed after Sugoroku and Omocha, offering her assistance with whatever task either undertook. They refused her at first, citing her status as a guest in their home, but Aoi displayed strange persistence for one so timid: she waited without speaking, staring with wide, unreadable eyes until they relented, or else she simply commenced helping despite their refusals.
She performed her self-imposed duties with dedication if not dexterity. Proficient enough at simple chores like wiping down countertops or carrying things, Aoi handled a broom awkwardly and seemed never to have folded clothes in her life. If she found her own lack of skill embarrassing, she didn't let on, but applied herself to every job with a decidedly nervous energy, like she was afraid of what might happen if she paused. Omocha only managed to get her to take a break by proposing she wash up before dinnertime. She felt relieved when Aoi agreed, leaving Omocha to prepare the meal by herself; she hadn't been keen to put Aoi's kitchen skills to the test after seeing the girl's housework.
There was something of an animal about her, reflected Omocha as she cooked. Certainly Aoi spoke articulately and courteously, but she moved through the world like a feral creature newly displaced from the wilderness. While she didn't seem wild in the sense that she might lash out at those who approached her, neither did she strike Omocha as entirely tame. She had a kind of--"newness" was the only word Omocha could think of to describe it. She reacted to everything like she was seeing it for the first time.
I wonder what her story is. Omocha switched off the rice cooker and began fluffing the grains with a wooden spoon. Glancing up, she was not entirely surprised to see Aoi standing in the kitchen doorway. Fresh from a bath, wearing the Mutous' guest robe over her clothes, she regarded Omocha solemnly through a few damp strands of hair, waiting until the woman had replaced the lid on the rice cooker before addressing her:
"Your son," she said, her voice a birdlike rasp, "he lives with you?"
"Yes. Yugi-kun just started at Domino University. He graduated high school first in his class, but he wouldn't hear of leaving his grandfather and me in order to attend college elsewhere." Omocha realized she was bragging, but she could hardly help it. Thinking about how much her quiet son had grown and achieved in recent years lit her heart like a beacon; pride shone through all too easily.
"Will he mind my staying here?" asked Aoi.
Omocha chuckled, "If he'd been around this afternoon, Yugi-kun would probably have asked you to stay before we did. He has his grandfather's generous spirit and then some. Even if he didn't, I doubt he'd mind coming home to a pretty girl very much... but it's a moot point, since he's spending the night with friends."
Absorbing this without comment, Aoi nodded. Meanwhile, the subject of Yugi spurred Omocha's motherly instincts, which she directed at her guest:
"Shirogane-san, aren't you chilly? You should put on some socks so you won't catch cold," she said, removing a tray of roasted vegetables from the oven.
"I--I don't have any."
"Eh? You're moving to a new city and you forgot to pack socks?" Omocha tsked. "Not that you could fit much in that tote bag of yours. Are your parents shipping the rest of your clothes and things after you find a permanent address?"
"I don't have any parents, either," said Aoi. Her admission was more self-conscious than sorrowful; still, the words rang true.
Omocha put a hand to her mouth. "Oh," she breathed. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right."
"No, really, I shouldn't have pried. It's just that you seem so young. I was concerned."
"I'm old enough to look after myself," Aoi reassured her, "but I understand why you asked."
Omocha seemed to consider for a moment. "Come with me," she said, and lead Aoi into her bedroom, where she took a pair of thick, calf-high socks from a dresser drawer and held them out to her guest. "Please use these for now."
"You don't need to..."
"I do; just looking at you makes me feel cold," countered Omocha. "Put them on and we'll eat dinner, all right?"
Aoi dipped her head, accepting the socks as gravely as one receiving a priceless gift. "Thank you, Mutou-san," she murmured.
Later, lying on a spare futon in the living room, the world quiet and dark around her, Aoi thought back on Omocha's generosity and on all the previous acts of charity the Mutous had performed for her sake. Something like wonder suffused her. They're such kind people, she reflected. I must pay them back.
She fell asleep before she could begin to think of how to do so, but the feeling of receiving unexpected kindness and wanting to return it followed Aoi into slumber. It resonated, powerful and familiar, through dreams that should have made her feel nothing but fear: faceless people pelting her with stones; gigantic monsters fighting in a dungeon above a dark pit; stone walls cracking around her as the ground vibrated with imminent destruction; and through it all, the sharp, grave face of a young man dressed like a sorcerer, or maybe a king.
Aoi woke with a name forming on her lips. She forgot it the moment her eyes opened. Half-conscious, she rolled over and dug around in her shoulder bag, which she'd left by the futon the previous night. Her hand closed around the note she'd found on the train ride into Domino City. She remembered it had said only save him, but as she read the note over in the dim morning light, she found a second sentence had appeared beside the first, still in her handwriting:
Aoi stared at the note as gooseflesh prickled her arms. Then she rose and dressed in her clothes from the previous day, tucking the scrap of paper into her skirt pocket. Following the quiet sound of broadcast voices, she descended the staircase to the first floor and poked her head into Kame Game Shop. Sugoroku Mutou sat on a stool behind the check-out counter, watching an old, portable antenna television. The slightly staticky images on the screen changed from a news show to a commercial for a department store. "Welcome, valued customer!" chirped the employee on the ad, bowing in the camera's direction with a bright smile.
Sugoroku glanced over his shoulder at Aoi. "Good morning, Shirogane-chan," he greeted her.
"G-Good morning," stammered Aoi, blushing a bit at having been caught spying. "Have you been awake long?"
"When you get my age, you don't need as much sleep," said Sugoroku by way of answering. He hopped up from the stool with ironic spryness. "I was just about to open the shop."
It was barely light out. "Have you eaten breakfast?"
"I haven't, but I'll eat a bit later. Technically, we don't open until nine-thirty, but sometimes the local schoolchildren stop by on their way to class, and I like to have the shop open for them. I'll lock the doors again around eight, get breakfast, and open back up at the proper time." Sugoroku unlocked the shop door and flipped on the overhead lights. "Could you turn that key in the side of the cash register?"
Aoi obeyed; digital letters reading "WELCOME" crawled across the machine's display panel as it came to life. She stepped quickly away from the register, conscious of being near a place where the Mutous kept money. I need money of my own; I musn't keep relying on their charity, she thought.
Sugoroku stepped outside briefly, then returned with a large cardboard box in his arms.
"Samples," he puffed as Aoi dashed over to relieve him of his burden. "Thank you, dear. They delivered these so early! I wonder if it's thanks to those mail drones Kaiba-kun developed for the city postal service. Frankly, I think they're a foolish invention, because if I was a young hoodlum, I'd devote myself to knocking down or catching as many flying robots as I could! But I suppose kids these days only care about their cell phones..."
The bell over the door jangled. A frowning, bespectacled boy entered the shop. "Hey, Mutou-jii, are you ranting about my generation again?" he asked.
Sugoroku laughed. "I thought I saw you lurking outside, Kouta-kun! The best way to lure out sullen children is to make sweeping generalizations about them within earshot," he told Aoi in a mock-confiding tone.
Kouta rolled his eyes, then looked Aoi up and down with skepticism. "Who's this lady?"
"Shirogane-chan is helping me with a few things around the store," said Mr. Mutou.
Introduced as a business associate, Aoi experienced a sudden rush of pride and obligation. Still holding the cardboard box, she bowed like the employee on the TV commercial. "Welcome, valued customer," she intoned seriously.
Sugoroku and Kouta both blinked at her. Then Kouta said, "She's weird, so she'll fit in with you, I guess. You mentioned something about samples?" The boy craned his neck to get a better look at the package. "Is that the Industrial Illusions logo? Are those cards from the upcoming series?"
"They're things for retailers, not customers!" said Mr. Mutou. "And they're certainly not cards! The company wouldn't risk any leaking before the official release date, which you'll have to wait for like everybody else."
"Can't I just take a peek at whatever you got? There might be new promotional images, or--"
Kouta folded his arms and pouted. "I don't leave my house at seven in the morning for this kind of customer service!"
"And I don't open my store at seven in the morning for ungrateful brats," Sugoroku returned good-naturedly.
While the young boy and the old man bickered, Aoi moved the box to the storage room behind the counter. The shop's front doorbell chimed anew as she set down her burden.
"Welco--oh, not this again," came Sugoroku's voice. "Kouta-kun, you'd better go."
"What's happening? Who are all...whoa, okay, I'm leaving, you don't have to push!"
"Do not manhandle my customers!" Mr. Mutou cried as the door opened and shut again.
Aoi hurried back to into the shop only to collide with a burly man wearing a suit, sunglasses, and a low-profile communication device in his ear. She bounced off him on impact; he barely moved, but took her by the upper arm and spoke into the device: "One more. A girl."
"Shirogane-chan is my guest, so she'll remain here, if you don't mind," snapped Sugoroku. He looked annoyed, but not frightened, as three other suited men in sunglasses swept through the store, checking over countertops and behind displays as though they expected to find assailants lying in wait.
What's going on? wondered Aoi. She kept still and quiet, shoulders hunched in an effort to make herself as small and unnoticable as possible. The man's grip on her was unyielding as he nodded at his compatriots. One of the four suited men said into his respective communicator:
"The area is clear, Kaiba-sama. No sign of Mutou Yugi."
The front door swung open with a dramatic bang almost before the suit had finished speaking. A lanky young man in a white coat strode though, the heels of his boots striking the floor like flint, light flashing off his metal briefcase as he walked.
"No, finding him here would be too easy," he commented. His cold, disdainful eyes pinned Sugoroku in place. "Where is your grandson, old man?"
"Even if I knew, I wouldn't tell you, Kaiba-kun. Yugi-kun has said specifically that he doesn't want to speak to you," replied Mr. Mutou.
"I don't care what he wants. I'm going to catch up with him one way or another; he may as well stop avoiding me."
"You not caring is precisely why he's shut you out! That stunt you pulled this spring upset him terribly!"
Kaiba smirked. "If he's so upset about it, we can hash it out in a duel. I'll admit I was in the wrong if he wins."
"Yugi-kun doesn't need to earn the right to be hurt by your actions, and winning a duel won't absolve you of the consequences." A suspicious light burned in Mr. Mutou's gaze. "Why have you been so eager to duel Yugi-kun since you got back from your trip, anyhow?"
"Is it so unbelievable that I want the 'King of Games' title for myself?"
"No, but you've never acknowledged my grandson as the holder of that title before."
"Perhaps I've had a change of heart," drawled Kaiba.
Sugoroku snorted. "That's what's unbelievable. No matter how many times Yugi-kun beats you, no matter what miracles you witness, your heart never changes, Kaiba-kun. I pity you because of it."
The young man's features twisted into a snarl. "You don't know anything about me."
"Neither do you, I think. Not really."
Kaiba moved towards Mr. Mutou, his grip on his briefcase causing his knuckles to whiten. But in that moment, the tumult of emotions coursing through Aoi finally found a small escape: without intending to, she made a soft, wordless animal noise, half a gasp, half a keen, that drew Kaiba's attention to her for the first time.
His eyes widened as they took her in; his lips parted, going abruptly bloodless.
"You...?" he breathed.
"Seto," whispered the girl. For reasons she could feel but not identify, her eyes filled with tears. "You--You're Seto, aren't you?"
His coloring was wrong for the person from her dream, the dark-skinned man in lapis and gold regalia. He looked a little sharper than that man, a little harsher, a bit less sure of himself underneath all his bravado. But he was the same person, Aoi felt certain. Her heart knew him even if her mind didn't.
From the look on his face, he knew her too. Kaiba's countenance had somehow tightened and slackened simultaneously, disbelieving recognition suffusing every inch of his normally proud features. For a moment it seemed like he might turn and flee, but, never one to back down from a challenge, Kaiba took one mechanical step forward, then another, then another, until he stood a scant arm's length in front of Aoi and his bodyguard.
"But you're dead," he said to her. "I saw you."
Aoi had no words with which to answer him. Instead, she reached out one long, pale hand. It trembled with the same wondering fear she'd felt when faced with the simulated Blue-Eyes White Dragon not even a day ago. The bodyguard made to stop her, but a warning glare from his employer stilled him. Kaiba's gaze found Aoi's again just as her fingertips brushed his face, curling tenderly around the side of his jaw.
Something resembling an electric spark discharged from the paper-thin seam in Kaiba's briefcase: a single dart of blue-white light to shot out of the interior and struck Aoi in the chest. She cried out once, her muscles seizing. Then she fell like a plucked flower into unconsciousness.