Having never eaten ochazuke before, Aoi couldn't judge whether Sae's was the best in the country or not. Objectively, however, the tea soup was delicious. All the food served to her at Ukiyo was delicious. Among other dishes, the lightly fried agedashi tofu, the homemade tsukemono pickles, the oily grilled mackerel, and the subtle but flavorful ochazuke were all simple but savory, making for a once-in-a-lifetime feast.
Aoi couldn't enjoy any of it. She felt like a pit of anxiety had opened up in her stomach, swallowing any joy she might have taken in the meal. Conversely, something else had sparked to life inside her. Beginning around her chest region, it radiated hotly up her spine as the meal progressed. She ate sparingly and mechanically, not raising her head from the dishes, and tried to understand the feeling.
"Aren't you even going to look at that deck?" Kaiba asked after she set down her chopsticks, her food only half consumed. He'd had no problem finishing his meal, and he hadn't spoken to Aoi since his bodyguards had escorted Nagumo out of the dining room.
Aoi continued to trace the table's wood grain with her gaze. "No."
"Don't tell me you're one of those duelists who likes to play by instinct. That's all well and good for practice games, but..."
The emotion in Aoi's chest swelled and caught on some sharp corner of her mind. She knew its name then: anger.
"I'm dying," she told Kaiba.
A host of microexpressions, each more unreadable than the last, fluttered across Kaiba's face in quick succession. He regained control and narrowed his eyes at her. "Dr. Dhawan..."
"Didn't find anything wrong with me. And I haven't been to any other doctors since her, though you probably knew that already." He didn't deny it. Aoi continued, "I can't offer you any kind of objective proof or medical explaination. I only know that I feel it. I have bad headaches at least twice a day. I'm cold and tired all the time. More than that, I feel insubstantial, like I'm going to crumble into nothingness or blow away like mist. It may just be anxiety—I hope it is—but I feel... I know, deep down in my bones, that I'm running out of time."
Kaiba opened his mouth to interrupt her, but she silenced him with a glare of her own.
"All I want before my time runs out is to understand who I am. I wanted to understand you, too, because we're obviously connected on some level, but you..." She clenched her fists in her lap to keep them from shaking. "In the time I've known you, you've subjected me to medical testing without my permission, accused me of stealing from you, threatened to kidnap me for more tests I haven't agreed to take, and tried to use me as a tool to humiliate a minimum-wage worker just because he called you a cheat. More than that, you've been treating me like an enemy all the while. I am not your enemy, Kaiba-san, although you've done a fine job of making me dislike you. I don't have time for enemies. And I don't have time to play your games."
She stood up from the table and bowed deeply to him. "Thank you for the meal," she said, then left the private dining room without another word. Only one bodyguard stood by the door-the other, presumably, was keeping an eye on Nagumo as the waiter prepared for a duel that would never occur. He straightened as Aoi passed him, like he meant to stop her. The girl simply kept going. She knew she could not outrun or resist the man if he attempted to drag her back to Kaiba, but for whatever reason, the guard stayed at his post. Perhaps Kaiba had wordlessly halted him, figuring she wasn't worth the fuss.
Aoi made her way down the historic building's warmly lit halls and out its front door. The night air was chilly, raising the fine hairs on her arms. The lights in the zen garden shone beautifully as followed the path leading out from the restaurant. Reaching the sidewalk, she chose a direction at random and walked in it. She'd traveled maybe forty meters before she became aware of someone's unhurried footfalls keeping pace behind her.
"Shirogane," came Kaiba's voice.
Aoi did not turn to look at him, though his presence was a surprise; she'd thought Kaiba would send one of his guards after her before he'd stoop to the indignity of pursuing her himself.
"Shirogane," he repeated, sounding slightly closer this time. "Don't be stupid. Do you even know where in the city you are?"
"I plan to call Yugi-kun and ask him for directions."
"With what phone?"
"Either I'll find a pay phone or I'll ask to borrow one at a shop."
"Do you know any of the Mutous' numbers?"
Aoi mentally berated herself for never memorizing the family's contact information, but even self-recrimination couldn't cut through the rage simmering inside her. Anger was good, she decided; where despair had smothered her and anxiety had shrunk her, rage pushed her forward, lighting her up from within. She felt as though she could easily cross Domino City on foot so long as that indignation fueled her.
"I will manage somehow, Kaiba-san. Please don't concern yourself with me," she said, her words cold and clipped.
The CEO gave a frustrated growl that made goosebumps break out afresh on Aoi's arms. He sounded quite close to her now; the girl picked up her walking pace. If he tries to stop me by putting a hand on me, I don't know what I'll do...
Behind her, Kaiba's footsteps ceased. Then he said,
Aoi paused in spite of herself. She despaired of the way Kaiba speaking her name made her heart lurch like a dog on a leash. "Is this the part where you tell me that I'm being irrational? That I can't actually be dying, and that if you've treated me unfairly, it was for a good reason?" she demanded, holding fast to her anger.
"I can't speak to either of those points."
"Can't or won't?"
"Can't in the first case, won't in the second; I don't make excuses." Kaiba stepped briefly onto the street in order to circle around Aoi. He stopped in front of her, keeping sufficient space between them that she didn't feel physically threatened, but forcing her to look at him all the same. Distant streetlights lit them indirectly, just bright enough to allow them to see each other's faces.
"You still think I'm crazy," said the blue-eyed girl.
"I don't. That isn't to say I believe you're dying, either, but I can tell you believe it, and you don't seem unhinged."
Shame briefly slipped past Aoi's shield of resentment. "Even after I stormed out of a restaurant in the middle of dinner?"
"I've done far worse for far pettier reasons."
"I'm not trying to achieve your level of self-control." Sarcasm sat strangely on Aoi's tongue; she stumbled through the retort, but delivered it no less vehemently for all that.
Kaiba raised one eyebrow, studying her. "You remind me of Yugi," he commented apropos of nothing. "You're both ridiculously meek and unassuming, right up until you aren't anymore. It takes a lot, but when you get there..."
Something about the way he said the last part made Aoi suspicious. She considered the implications of his words more closely than usual. "You were trying to make me angry back at the restaurant," she realized. "You, what, wanted to see how much I'd tolerate from you?"
Kaiba smirked by way of answer. "Whether you chose to duel Nagumo or not, I would have learned a good deal about your character," he commented.
"You shouldn't toy with people like that," Aoi snapped disapprovingly.
"It's necessary when I want to understand someone. People only show their true colors when their backs are against a wall."
"That's not true. Extraordinary circumstances make people behave in extraordinary ways. You only learn what someone is really like by listening to them and talking to them."
"All I learn when I listen to people is how they lie," Kaiba said.
"Have I lied to you tonight?" she challenged him.
That was a mistake. Kaiba's gaze lit with the calculating gleam she'd seen back in his limousine. It took all of Aoi's willpower not to shiver as he looked her up and down, scanning her like he might a playing field or chessboard.
"Right now, you're lying to yourself, pretending you aren't afraid of me," he said after a moment's analysis.
Aoi huffed out a humorless laugh and parroted back his earlier statement: "I'm afraid of everything, Kaiba-san. Don't think you're special."
"Fair enough. Do you want to kiss everything you're afraid of, too?"
Aoi's train of thought screeched to a halt. "W-What? No!" she stammered, recoiling, her face heating. "I don't want to kiss you! I'm angry at you! You hate me! And you're a very rude person!"
"I don't hate you," said Kaiba.
"But you've behaved horribly towards me!"
"That's because I don't hate you." At Aoi's look of blank incomprehension, he explained irritably, "Even though you're part of a past that I don't like to think about, and even though you took one of my Blue-Eyes White Dragons..."
"...whether you intended to or not," Kaiba qualified, shooting her a glare, "I can't make myself hate you. I have to consciously remind myself to distrust you, which makes me suspicious, and that makes me distrust you."
"That barely makes sense."
"It would make complete sense if you lived in my world."
"Your world is awful," Aoi told him, "and even if I wanted to kiss you, I wouldn't."
Kaiba had the nerve to look vaguely offended. "Why not?"
"Why...? I just told you I'm dying!"
"You think you're dying," corrected Kaiba, "and even if you actually are, that's a fixable problem."
"For a billionaire, maybe."
Kaiba folded his arms and stared at her as if to say, yes, and?
Realization dawned over Aoi's brain. "Are you saying you want to help me?"
"I didn't put you through all those tests in the hospital for my own amusement."
"But you told me in the car that you don't trust me. Why would you offer me medical care?" asked Aoi.
"You said it yourself: we're obviously connected on some level. I also want to understand why," he replied. "However, I'm not going to sugarcoat my offer. Figuring out what's wrong with you specifically and us in general will involve extensive testing, some of which may prove uncomfortable. If you can't handle it, you might as well walk away now."
"I can handle it so long as I have the option to refuse."
"I won't make you undergo any test, trial, or experiment that I wouldn't endure myself," Kaiba promised her.
It was Aoi's turn to fold her arms as she corrected, "You won't make me undergo anything at all. I'll voluntarily take your tests in return for help and information, but if you ever try to force me..."
She trailed off. A muscle in Kaiba's jaw twitched in frustration. "Fine, although you should remember that you need me far more than I need you."
His warning tone would have thoroughly subdued Aoi an hour ago; hearing it now, she still hesitated, but nevertheless managed to retort, "If that were true, you wouldn't have sought me out tonight."
"I think I liked you better when you were a cowering milquetoast," Kaiba grumbled, though without as much ire as Aoi expected. Abruptly, he thrust out one hand into the space between them and asked her impatiently, "So, do we have a deal?"
Aoi glanced from his frowning face to his outstretched hand and back again. She could feel the last dregs of her anger draining away, and with them, whatever energy she might have had for further negotiation. Meanwhile, Kaiba's gaze never left her. The sheer intensity of his full attention was difficult to endure. She wanted to cringe away from it, but instead she squared her shoulders, stepped forward, and clasped his warmer, larger hand in her own.
"I accept your offer," she told him formally.
She maintained eye contact throughout the exchange, so she beheld the exact moment when Kaiba's challenging expression turned curious and thoughtful. His fingers tightened around hers. He carefully drew his arm back, pulling her with it. He was stronger than his rake-thin frame suggested, but not so strong that Aoi couldn't have broken away if she wanted to. Besides which, he moved his arm—moved her—with deliberate slowness, like someone attempting to reach out and touch a wild creature. Aoi had ample time to freeze or disengage from him, or at least to say something sensible like stop or let go. Why wasn't she saying those things? She knew she ought to. But even as she reminded herself, I don't want to kiss him, she realized that wasn't true.
If a single hint of triumph or satisfaction had crossed Kaiba's face as he pulled Aoi close, the girl would have bolted, but Kaiba looked just as unsure as she felt. Granted, his lack of certainty seemed more intellectual than emotional, as though he were attempting to solve an equation by inputting a value he wasn't sure would prove correct. Still, his doubt assured Aoi that this probably wasn't one of Kaiba's power plays. Then all at once he and she were standing less than an inch apart. His right hand released hers and coming up to rest on her shoulder. His other arm wrapped around her back, a bit stiff and awkward; he obviously wasn't accustomed to embracing another person.
His suit jacket was unbuttoned. Aoi bypassed its lapels in order to grip his waistcoat, as the fabric was warmer from being closer to his body, and her fingers had gone almost numb from the evening chill. She tucked them between his waistcoat and his shirt to warm them. He's so tall, she thought, dazed. Aoi pushed herself up onto her toes so that Kaiba wouldn't have to crane his neck so far down to reach her. For a moment they were so close they shared the same breath, and then Kaiba kissed her.
It wasn't perfect—he caught one side of her mouth more surely than the other at first, and Aoi had to tilt her head to adjust the angle—but the press of his lips against hers electrified Aoi nevertheless, obliterating her fear and anger. The closest experience to which she could relate the sensation was a moment when, playing Dance Dance Revolution with Yugi and Shizuka back at the arcade, Aoi had finally stopped feeling so self-conscious about missing every point and had allowed herself to dance for the simple joy of it, laughing loud and breathless over the blaring electronic music along with her equally uncoordinated friends. Kissing Seto Kaiba felt like that, only quieter.
Aoi had never kissed anyone as far as she could remember, so she tried to mimic the careful movements Kaiba made with his lips and jaw. She thought he would be as uncompromising in this as in every other aspect of his life, but he didn't attempt to rush or overpower her. He seemed content to experiment and let the kiss unfold at its own pace. That wasn't to say he was indifferent; when Aoi pulled back the barest centimeter to draw a breath, he chased her and took advantage of her opened mouth in order to deepen the kiss. Aoi rocked back a little, wobbly on the balls of her feet, but Kaiba kept her from losing her balance with the arm around her back.
Gradually Kaiba's grip on Aoi grew more natural, more sure. He drew her flush against him. Aoi approved, so she released his waistcoat in favor of wrapping her arms around his back beneath his jacket. His tongue in her mouth felt hot and strange and wonderful. As it traced her crooked right incisor tooth, she envisioned biting him accidentally, and she almost giggled in horror and amusement. Heart pounding, lungs burning, she dropped her heels back down to the sidewalk in order to get some distance and breathe; oxygen deprivation was obviously impeding her brain function. This time, Kaiba let her, and Aoi felt better about bringing an end to the contact when she noticed he was panting just as hard as she was.
How long had they been kissing? she wondered. A minute? An hour? Feeling dizzy, she dared to glance up at Kaiba, whose own gaze was angled sideways and down towards the road. His facial expression was... interesting. He looked like the equation he'd been attempting to solve earlier had suddenly transformed from a geometric proof into a physics problem, leaving him unsure about how to proceed. His evident confusion would have been funny if he didn't look more than a little pissed off about it. On second thought, it was still a bit funny, but Aoi didn't want to laugh at him. She wanted to kiss him again. She wanted everything to be okay.
Moving as slowly and deliberately as Kaiba had when pulling her close to him, she reached up and touched the side of his face with her still-cool fingers. His eyes swung away from the patch of asphalt he'd been studying in thought. Their gazes locked. Aoi removed her hand, and after a long moment, they both started to speak at once:
They subsided, each waiting for the other to talk. Aoi's stomach dropped. He shouldn't what? Shouldn't have kissed her? Shouldn't have agreed to help her?
Kaiba finally took initiative, clearing his throat. "In the future, in this context, I won't push for something you've explicitly stated you don't want," he said.
It took Aoi a moment to comprehend what he meant. When she did, she shook her head. "I sent mixed signals. I thought I didn't want to, but..." She hesitated.
"I ought to have accepted that." Some surprise must have shown on Aoi's face, because Kaiba raised a challenging eyebrow at her and said, "I am many kinds of bastard, Shirogane, but I understand the importance of consent, and I don't use attraction as a tool to push my agenda. I'll do just about anything else to get the upper hand, but nothing related to that."
"I see," said Aoi. She felt the strangest urge to grin like an idiot. Instead she continued, "Then I'll try to be clearer about my own boundaries. The burden to intuit what's okay and what's not shouldn't be on you alone."
Kaiba nodded shortly. "I would appreciate that. I'll try to communicate clearly, as well."
The reason behind her odd urge to smile hit Aoi then: Kaiba and she were both assuming they would need to communicate about such things in the future, which meant...
"You—you want to continue this?" she asked, because she'd just promised to be direct about her expectations.
Kaiba a hand through his hair agitatedly. He seemed almost uncertain, but then he muttered, "Well, why not?" to himself, and then said more strongly, "Yes. I want to... cultivate a relationship with you. Yes."
"If you aren't sure, that's fine too," Aoi told him, because she didn't enjoy the idea of playing mind games, either.
He glanced at her and away again, working his jaw. At length he explained, "My reservations about the matter have nothing to do with you personally. It's only that I haven't had the slightest interest in any of this up until now."
"Or anything like it."
"Oh," said Aoi.
"It all seemed a waste of time. I thought my disinterest was just another way I differ from everybody else. I've never felt ashamed for being extraordinary, but it still took me some time to understand and accept that particular aspect of my identity. Now..."
Kaiba frowned. Aoi didn't think he was self-conscious about his inexperience so much as disturbed that he'd been mistaken about a fundamental part of himself. Her heart went out to him; she knew firsthand how disconcerting an abrupt change in self-perception could be.
"If you need time to think, I understand," she told him softly. "We shouldn't rush into anything."
She found herself on the receiving end of another one of his sharp, analytical stares, which she held as best she could. If he was looking for dishonesty in her, he wouldn't find any of which Aoi was consciously aware, and anyway, she was growing more accustomed to the weight of his gaze.
"That sounds acceptable," Kaiba replied after a moment, and the way he said it sounded almost like thank you.
They were still standing quite close together. Aoi stepped back, blushing, and shivered as the night air rushed in to replace the warmth of him.
Of course Kaiba noticed. "Will you let me take you back to the Mutous' now?" he asked, affecting irritation at her previous stubbornness. Aoi fought down a surge of reflexive embarrassment; she refused to regret pushing him after he'd pushed her first.
"If it's not too much trouble," she said, her tone polite but unrepentant. It was only then that she remembered Kaiba's bodyguards. She looked around in vain. "Your men...?"
"Not watching, but near enough." Kaiba touched a silver pin fastened high up on his suit jacket's lapel. "Bring the car," he said into it. Then he reached into an inner pocket of the same jacket, pulled out something small and rectangular, and held it out to Aoi.
She thought for a moment that it might be the playing cards she had abandoned back at the restaurant, but the object was too thin and lightly colored to be a Duel Monsters deck. She took it and brought it closer in order to examine it properly. Her eyes widened.
"It's not a gift," said Kaiba before she could protest. "It was contingent on your acceptance of my offer. If we're going to be working together, I need to be able to contact you at a moment's notice. Hold the screen up in front of you like you're taking a photo."
Gingerly, Aoi did so. Teal light emerged from the smartphone's front camera, gridding her face before she could so much as blink. Kaiba also had Aoi lay her thumb on the home button so the phone could scan her fingerprint.
"It's keyed to your biometrics now. The device's hardware is highly encrypted, and the phone utilizes my private telecommunications network. I would have insisted you use it to speak to me even if you'd already had a phone. Don't lose it or let anyone steal it; that model won't hit the market for two years at least."
"I won't," Aoi promised, a little overwhelmed.
The limousine pulled up beside them. One of the bodyguards got out of the back and opened the door for Kaiba and Aoi, who slid into the car in silence. Aoi had thought the phone was plain white, but in the limousine's well-lit middle compartment, she realized the device's shell was in fact tinged a subtle cherry blossom pink; she glanced up questioningly at Kaiba, who folded his arms and said,
"I assumed you wouldn't care for a blue one."
For a long moment, they just looked at each other. Then, remembering the horrible customer from a couple days back and desperate for some emotional release, Aoi began to laugh. She expected Kaiba to think her insane, but he just smirked at her, seeming to understand exactly why Aoi was giggling like a loon. How closely had he been watching Kame Game Shop? she wondered. Aoi wasn't sure how she felt about the possibility that Kaiba had the Mutous under surveillance, but though she made a mental note to warn Yugi about it, she decided not to question Kaiba about the matter just yet. She didn't have the energy to pick another fight with the man. Instead she spent the car ride tapping hesitantly on the smartphone, her fingers clumsy with inexperience. Luckily the device's user interface was simple enough for her to navigate without help. She found that Yugi's number had already been programmed into the phone. More surprisingly, Kaiba had listed a number for himself.
The company president gazed out the limousine window, dour and irritated-looking, as the vehicle passed into a part of Domino City that Aoi recognized. When Kaiba noticed Aoi had looked up from her phone to check on him, his frown deepened.
"My brother," he said abruptly. "Has he been to see Yugi at all?"
"Not that I know of," replied Aoi. Kaiba nodded as if her words confirmed what he'd already suspected. She couldn't help but ask, "Have you not seen...?"
"I haven't lost him; we still live in the same house. He's just being childish and avoiding me still, and he's irritatingly good at losing whatever tails I put on him."
Sending spies after someone didn't strike Aoi as a terribly effective way to convince that person not to avoid you, but she did not share this opinion with Kaiba. As with her personal concerns about the man's information-gathering practices, Kaiba's difficulties with Mokuba seemed like a subject best delved into at another time. "I'm sorry you two are having trouble," she told him instead, which wasn't a lie.
"He'll get over it. He always does."
"I'll let you know if I see him in the future."
"And here I thought you'd take his side," Kaiba sneered.
Aoi took a moment to fully process the sight of the richest man in the world sitting before her, cool and proud and imperious as a king, yet very obviously pouting about an ongoing fight with his thirteen-year-old brother. The cognitive dissonance of it all made her head hurt.
"I don't know enough about the situation to take a side. I just think families should work things out," she said.
"Hmph," snorted Kaiba, but some of his vitriol subsided at her response.
Soon the limousine parked on the opposite side of the street that ran in front of Kame Game Shop. According to Aoi's new phone, it was well after midnight, but lights still shone from the building's second story windows. She hoped fervently that the Mutou household, which generally operated on the early-to-bed, early-to-rise principle, hadn't stayed up solely on her account. Guilt for abandoning Yugi and his friends filled Aoi anew.
"He won't be angry with you," said Kaiba, reading her thoughts. "It takes much more than that to piss him off, and being one of the few who have managed it, I should know. The others tend to follow Yugi's lead, so you'll be fine by them as well."
"...Are you trying to comfort me?" the girl asked, amazed.
Kaiba shot her a look that could have curdled milk. "Get out of my car," he ordered without any real malice behind the words.
One of the bodyguards opened the door for Aoi. She slipped from the vehicle, pausing for a moment to look back at Kaiba.
"Good night," she said with a tiny, reflexive bow, feeling suddenly shy.
Kaiba did not respond. Aoi stepped away so his bodyguard could shut the car door behind her. The suited man then escorted Aoi across the street to Kame Game Shop. He didn't reply either after Aoi thanked him, but that might have been because at the same moment she finished speaking, the shop's front door swung open to reveal a murderous-looking Omocha armed with a broom.
"Where is he? I'm going to kill him!" she cried.
Yugi and Sugoroku followed hot on her heels as Omocha marched from the building, trying to deter her but unwilling to actually get between Omocha and her intended target.
"Mama, don't, he's got an army of lawyers," panted Yugi despairingly, while Sugoroku attempted to soothe her: "Now, now, Omo-chan..."
"Don't 'Omo-chan' me! You," Omocha snarled, advancing on the bodyguard. "You tell your boss that if he's touched one hair on this girl's head," She gestured at Aoi with her broom, "he's going to need an actual army to protect him from me! In fact, I'll inform him myself! Take me to him right now!"
It seemed that Aoi wasn't the only woman Seto Kaiba had brought to a seething rage that night. The bodyguard's sunglasses rendered it difficult to judge his emotional state, but Aoi thought she detected more than a hint of panic as the burly man turned on his heel and speed-walked back to the limousine. Aoi was torn between feeling touched at Omocha's concern and responsible for defusing the the woman's righteous anger.
"Mutou-san, it's fine. I'm all right," she said hastily, intercepting Omocha before she could chase down the bodyguard. "I went with Kaiba-san willingly."
"As if he'd give you another choice!" Omocha raised her voice as the bodyguard opened the limousine door. "Do you hear me, you sociopathic spoiled brat?! If you come anywhere near this house again, all the money and rare cards in the world won't be able to save you!"
"There's another noise complaint filed," muttered Yugi, running a hand down his face.
To Aoi's horror, one of the limousine's middle windows lowered to reveal Kaiba, who looked thoroughly unimpressed by Omocha's tirade.
"Omocha. Always a pleasure," he drawled, then turned his attention to Yugi. "We aren't finished, you and I. In the meanwhile, tell Shirogane what she needs to know."
The window rolled back up. He can't resist getting in the last word, Aoi thought with a mental sigh. Meanwhile Omocha swore at Kaiba more extensively and creatively than the girl had ever heard anyone curse.
"Where did she learn that?" Aoi asked Sugoroku in an astounded whisper.
"Omocha went through a brief busozoku phase in her teens. I couldn't exactly complain given my own sordid past. Are you really all right, Aoi-chan?"
Aoi nodded. "I'm sorry I worried you."
"I was never worried. You're a smart girl, and you're braver than you realize; I knew you could handle him."
Sugoroku winked at her, and Aoi's heart filled so full of happiness and affection that she didn't even mind watching Kaiba's car drive away into the dark. She minded it even less when the phone in her pocket trilled to alert her to a text message, the first she'd ever received.
From: Kaiba S.
To: Shirogane A.