Chapter 1: Silver's Cry
Aoi Shirogane spent the ride to Domino City making a list of things she needed to accomplish after she arrived. By the time her train pulled into the station, she had narrowed said list down to four necessary tasks: find a job, find a place to live, acquire more clothes (the few articles in her bag would only go so far), and save "him."
The first two things were most essential in terms of building a life for herself. The third she could put off until her situation stabilized. The fourth was the most obscure, because she didn't know who needed saving or why. She had only a gut feeling and a crumpled note scrawled in her own hand:
Aoi had no memory of writing the words, but they resonated with something deep inside her, a sourceless imperative that she could neither discount nor trust completely.
Mysteries aside, Aoi felt determined: she would start anew in Domino City. No longer would she go through life like a ghost, silent and half-seen. She would become a part of other people's lives, and they a part of hers. She would matter to someone.
Her determination wavered a bit in the heart of Domino's crowded train station. The sheer number of people around her proved daunting. Aoi had never seen so many strangers in her life. Clutching her shoulder bag to her chest like a shield, she eventually broke from the flow of foot traffic, paused, and breathed slowly until she could better process her fast-moving surroundings.
Domino Central Station boasted sleek, modern lines and vivid colors. Technology abounded: large touchscreens displayed up-to-the-second departure and arrival schedules, while 3-D televisions played various sports matches, news shows, and advertisements. Nearby, one particular technological marvel had attracted a large crowd. A Kaiba Corp. holographic machine projected life-size, semisolid images of popular Duel Monsters into a roped-off area. The monsters bellowed battle cries and interacted with onlookers before vanishing in pixilated flourishes. A knight's horse pawed the ground and snorted; a furry round creature cooed and nuzzled at a little girl's cheek. Charmed and impressed, Aoi approached the exhibit, gasping as a sea-serpent swam into the world and out of it again. Closer to the hologram, she could feel the air stir as the creature rushed by.
A father smiled at Aoi and shifted behind his son so that she could move closer to the front of the crowd. She returned his smile and accepted the better vantage point. More monsters appeared and disappeared as she watched: a giant moth, an armored warrior, a grinning, animated pumpkin. Then came the Dark Magician, one of the few characters Aoi could name. The mage leapt from a black hole in space. He spun his staff, which emitted a shower of arcane sparks, drawing excited oohs from the crowd. Looking over the audience, the Magician's black-lined eyes found Aoi's; they widened slightly. Then the projection flickered abruptly out of existence.
A sussurus of confusion traveled through the crowd as long seconds passed without another monster taking the Dark Magician's place.
"Is it broken, Daddy?" the little boy next to Aoi asked his father.
No sooner had the child spoken than the holographic machine whirred loudly back to life. Light poured from it, flooding the station concourse. The audience flinched away--all except Aoi, who stared mesmerized as the light resolved into a creature larger than any that had come before it.
Too big to land in the roped-off perimeter, the Blue-Eyes White Dragon hovered in midair. Its armored scales shone like platinum, and its wingbeats shook the ground beneath Aoi's feet. Aoi expected it to roar, but instead the dragon lowered its massive head, drawing so close that Aoi could see herself reflected in its peerlessly blue eyes. Independent of her own will, she reached out a shaking hand towards it, even as her mind screamed, no, stay back!
All the lights in the train station, including those in the hologram, went out before her fingertips could brush the dragon's nose. Panic erupted around Aoi, who remained frozen with her hand outstretched until someone knocked into her, making her stumble. She came back to herself as her hands and knees hit the ground. Heart pounding, sweat beading her brow, she scrambled to her feet and fled.
Aoi made it out of the train station before security or the Domino City Police could establish a perimeter around it. The open air felt blessedly cool, and the afternoon sky was pale and overcast. Aoi crossed the traffic-jammed street in front of the station, weaving between stopped cars, and escaped down a side alley perpindicular to the road.
Domino's great forest of skyscapers and high-rises swallowed her as she ran. Her lungs burned, but somehow, stopping to catch her breath felt like the more untenable option. Aoi rushed blindly onwards for some minutes, not caring where she ended up so long as she got away. Eventually, however, she could run no further. Aoi slowed to a stop on a quiet stretch of sidewalk, her hands braced against her knees as she panted for air. She felt dizzy and sick, and the more she thought about it, foolish. Why had she run? Whatever significance it might have had, she shouldn't have allowed that sourceless, nameless panic to rule her.
You're a thinking human being, not an animal, she reminded herself. You shouldn't be afraid of shadows.
Whether justified or not, fear and flight left Aoi so weak that she didn't have the energy to search for a public bench. She sat down against the nearest building's yellow outer wall, adjusting her long skirt to preserve her modesty as she pulled her knees up to her chest. The sweat began to dry on her exposed skin. She shivered and closed her eyes. Just a few minutes. I'll rest here for a few minutes, and then I'll find somewhere to spend the night, she promised herself.
The next thing she knew, a concerned voice was addressing her: "Miss? Miss, are you all right?" it asked.
Aoi startled awake from a dream about flying. She registered a figure standing over her and instinctively shielded her face with one arm.
"I'm sorry!" she gasped. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to--I'll leave!"
The figure took a step back, holding up its hands in a placating gesture. "Please don't worry. I'm not scolding."
Aoi rose quickly to her feet, but a rush of vertigo overtook her, forcing her to lean heavily against the wall and shut her eyes.
"If you don't mind my saying so, Miss, you look unwell," the figure continued. "Won't you come inside for a moment so you can rest properly?"
As her head began to clear, Aoi looked at the speaker properly for the first time: a stocky old man in green overalls regarded her in turn. Aoi hesitated before replying, unsure that she'd heard him right,
"I...I can't. It's a kind offer, but I couldn't impose..."
Not far off, a bell jingled, accompanied by the sound of a door opening and shutting. A short-haired woman rounded the corner of the building.
"Otousan, what's going on?" she asked the old man as she approached. She wore an apron with a turtle on the front and carried a broom in one hand.
"Ah, Omocha. This young lady seems ill. I was just inviting her into the shop to rest and perhaps to share some tea."
Aoi expected the woman to protest, but if her father's friendliness towards a perfect stranger troubled Omocha, she didn't show it as she gave Aoi a once-over.
"She does seem under the weather. You weren't behaving inappropriately towards her, were you, otousan?" Omocha queried, fixing her father with a stern look.
The old man laid a hand over his heart. "I take exception to that question! Is it inappropriate for me to seek out innocent companionship, since both my daughter and grandson are too busy nowadays to take tea with their own flesh and blood?"
Omocha rolled her eyes. "I came to find you because your tea is ready, and it'll get cold soon. Drink it alone or with company, it doesn't matter to me, but don't waste it." So saying, Omocha turned on her heel and left the way she'd come.
Her father gestured after her. "See how cold my daughter is, Miss? You'd be doing me a favor by stopping in; it's not an imposition at all."
Aoi stood frozen with indecision. As she frantically tried to interpret the strange man's kindness, he winked at her conspiratorially. Something about the gesture assuaged Aoi's nerves. She nodded.
"Excellent! Follow me," beamed the old man. He led her around the building and through the green front door. "Welcome to Kame Game Shop," he intoned.
Aoi took an instant liking to the place. The store's furniture and fixtures seemed well-worn but well cared for; the walls could have used a fresh coat of paint, but the glass display cabinets and tiled floor all but sparkled. Gaming paraphenalia crowded every available rack, shelf, and surface. Duel Monsters occupied the most real estate by far, but to Aoi's relief, Kame Game Shop eschewed electronic merchandise in favor of cards and other physical products. Overall, the store exuded a warmth and friendliness that left Aoi feeling she had made the correct choice in accepting the old man's invitation.
Whatever the old man read in Aoi's face as she surveyed the shop's interior made him grin and puff out his chest with pride. "I've run this store for over thirty years now. I'm Mutou Sugoroku, by the way," he said, bowing to her.
Aoi returned the polite gesture. "My name is Shirogane Aoi. It's good to meet you."
Mr. Mutou flipped the sign hanging in the shop door from open to closed. Aoi followed him past the checkout counter and into a storage room at the back of the building. From there they ascended a staircase to the second floor, which apparently served as the Mutou residence. Aoi noticed a kitchen, a living area, and a narrow hallway that must have led to the family's bedrooms.
Sugoroku brought Aoi into the kitchen, where someone--likely Omocha--had set a table with a steaming teapot, two cups, and a plate of cookies. He grumbled at the last despite their appetizing appearance.
"Sugar-free," he harumphed. "Disgraceful! Please sit, Shirogane-san; you look dead on your feet."
"First, may I use...?" Aoi trailed off, embarrassed. Mr. Mutou took her meaning, however, and pointed her to the restroom down the hall.
Aoi used the facilities and washed her hands. After splashing some water on her face, she cupped her palms beneath the tap and drank deeply from them once they filled. She repeated the process three or four times, swallowing the water in messy, desperate gulps. The tepid liquid tasted sweeter than anything she could remember.
"You won't swindle water out of us!"
Aoi coughed and sputtered, straightening up from the sink. She knew she had not heard the words, exactly, but they had manifested so suddenly and clearly in her mind that she reflexively looked around for their source. Finding nothing, she pressed her fingers to her temples and breathed deeply. My imagination...
A minute later, Aoi emerged from the restroom looking marginally less haggard than when she'd entered it. While her long hair tended to fall in her face no matter what, the comb in her shoulder bag had smoothed it closer to respectibility, and she'd pinched a bit of color back into her pallid cheeks. She returned to the kitchen just in time to catch Sugoroku dumping the plate of cookies into a trash can.
"I poured the tea," he informed her, utterly unselfconscious.
"Th-Thank you." Aoi took one of the spots at the table, placing her shoulder bag on the floor beside her. For lack of anything better to do with her hands, she wrapped them around her teacup, enjoying its warmth.
"I can't serve a guest sugar-free cookies. I refuse!" Mr. Mutou rummaged about in the refrigerator before emerging with a plastic-wrapped plate in each hand. "A special guest deserves the fancy shortcake I made my grandson steal from a rich-people banquet."
"Please, I insist!" Sugoroku unwrapped the cake slices and retrieved a pair of forks from a drawer. He placed one of each in front of Aoi. The cake itself looked a bit squashed, but it smelled enticingly of strawberries and handmade whipped cream. Aoi's mouth watered, but she waited until Mr. Mutou began to eat before taking a bite herself. She chewed the cake as slowly as possible, then stared down at it, unmoving, after she swallowed her first mouthful.
"What do you think?" asked the shopkeeper.
"It's the most delicious thing I've ever tasted," said Aoi wonderingly.
Mr. Mutou's bark of laughter made Aoi jump a bit. She flashed him a small, nervous smile.
"I'm glad you like it," he chortled. "Eat up, eat up!"
They ate their food in companionable silence. Omocha soon joined them; she scolded her father for over-indulgence at first, but, allowing him to pacify her with the remainder of his cake slice, she eventually sat down at the table to have an afternoon snack herself. Aoi observed the Mutous' dynamic with equal parts amazement and trepidation. She felt as though she had stumbled upon someone else's campfire in the middle of a cold, dark night; the soothing warmth she felt from Sugoroku and his daughter warred with a persistent sense that she did not belong among them.
"Get out of here! You're a bad omen! You'll bring disaster!"
Aoi forced herself not to look about as the words rang through her head. She gripped her teacup tighter; her hands trembled as she brought it to her lips.
Mr. Mutou was looking at her. Aoi lowered her teacup quickly.
"I'm sorry. I wasn't listening," she admitted.
"That's all right. I was only saying that you don't seem like a native to Domino City. Is that so?"
"I just arrived today."
"Today... Did you come by train? You weren't at the station during that earlier blackout, were you?" asked Omocha.
Sugoroku's eyes widened. "Blackout?"
"I was," Aoi answered Omocha.
"You poor thing! No wonder she looks so shaken, otousan. Apparently the entire Central Station lost power. Everyone panicked and stampeded--I think at least seven people are in critical condition right now." Omocha crossed her arms, anger furrowing her brow. "They're saying on the news that a Kaiba Corporation machine might have caused all the trouble. Yet another thing we can thank that awful boy for!"
"Now, now, Omocha," murmured Mr. Mutou. "Bitterness won't help."
"Neither will ignoring all the damage that young man has caused over the years! I can't believe nobody has taken him to task yet. Even you give him a pass, otousan! I've half a mind to get Yugi to teach me to duel just so I can beat him my--"
Sugoroku cut his daughter off gently. "We were speaking to Shirogane-san," he reminded her.
Omocha flushed. "Oh. Yes. Please forgive me, dear. Our family has a bit of an unpleasant history with Kaiba... Corporation. It's hard to hear about something like this without remembering."
"I-It's fine," said Aoi, awkward in the face of the older woman's righteous anger and polite apology. "Please don't worry about it."
"Were you harmed in the train station, Shirogane-san?" asked Mr. Mutou.
"No," said Aoi. An idea occurred to her to help explain her lack of money and means. "But I lost my purse in the confusion. It had all of my savings in it, and my I.D. and cell phone."
The lie made her gut churn, particularly when Omocha fixed her with a sympathetic look, exclaiming, "How horrible!"
Sugoroku folded his arms contemplatively. "I'd like to say that somebody will turn your things over to the lost and found, but so many out-of-towners pass through the station every day. It's difficult to say whether they'll do the neighborly thing, particularly during an accident."
"A good many of our own citizens aren't particularly neighborly, either," added Omocha. "It's gotten better in recent years, but we still have more than our share of bullies in this city."
"You shouldn't give up, though, Shirogane-san. Check back at the station once all the trouble passes; there's still a chance someone turned your purse in," Mr. Mutou attempted to reassure his guest.
Aoi lowered her head to stare at the tea leaves in the bottom of her cup. A strange weariness gripped her. Slowly, quietly, she spoke to no one in particular:
"I came to Domino City to build a new life. I wanted to prove to myself that I could stand on my own two feet, that I could find a place for myself in the world. I wanted to make meaningful connections with people and live without fear. I even thought I might save..." She shook her head. "It doesn't matter, because the first time the world challenged me, I didn't do the brave thing. I just ran away. Now I wonder if I'm cut out for the path I've chosen. Maybe it would be better if I'd never left where I was."
Humiliatingly, tears began to pool in Aoi's eyes. She blinked rapidly to drive them back, while Omocha and Mr. Mutou exchanged glances over her head.
"There, now, you musn't think that way," Omocha began.
Her father broke in: "I know how you feel, Shirogane-san."
Aoi did not trust herself to look at the old shopkeeper as Sugoroku folded his arms and leaned back in his chair.
"Losing important things...that can make us feel quite lost as well. Just recently I lost one of my most important treasures. I'm not ashamed to say its disappearance broke my heart. Everyone gets a bit sentimental in their old age, and as a collector, I'm worse than most. In any case, I felt quite unworthy after I realized I'd lost it. I questioned myself harshly and nearly made myself ill looking for it. But then my grandson said something to me that made a lot of sense. He told me that the more I focused on what I'd lost, the less clearly I'd be able to see the treasures and opportunities that might appear in my future.
"I valued my treasure because it reminded me of the friend who gave it to me, but I realized then that I'd been avoiding that same friend because I felt so ashamed of having lost his gift! I prioritized a memory over an experience I could have had in the present. That's the height of foolishness. It's never too late to make new memories, or to change into a better version of yourself.
"So, Shirogane-chan, you may have lost some important things today and missed an opportunity to be brave, but there's no guarantee that you won't find those things again or encounter opportunities to make yourself proud in the future."
Omocha added, "I wouldn't even consider today a total loss if I were you. You survived a frightening experience. That alone takes strength."
"Yes, experiencing difficulty can teach us things and increase our courage. That's part of why people enjoy games; they're miniature challenges that help us grow."
"It's always about games with you, otousan," sighed Omocha, annoyed.
"I won't apologize for it! Games put that cake on the table!" Mr. Mutou exclaimed.
"Anyway," Omocha continued, returning her attention to Aoi, "you also said that you wanted to make connections with people, didn't you, Shirogane-san? I don't want to presume, but I'd say you've made a connection with us, at least."
Sugoroku nodded. "If you don't have any friends or family in the city, you're welcome to stay the night here. We'll see what we can do about finding your things tomorrow."
This final kindness proved too much for Aoi: the tears finally escaped, flowing freely down her face. She covered her mouth with one hand to keep from sobbing. Overwhelmed with gratitude, she could only nod, shoulders shaking. The fact that neither Omocha nor Mr. Mutou drew attention to her undignified display of emotion made her cry even harder. Wordlessly, Omocha passed Aoi a clean paper napkin, and she buried her face in it gratefully.
"Thank you," she rasped when she'd recovered her voice. "Thank you, Mutou-san, Mutou-san."
"Call me jii-chan," said Sugoroku, and Aoi began to cry all over again.
Chapter 2: Beacon of White
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.
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.
Chapter 3: The Ultimate Creature of Destruction
"You found the second piece of your soul but quick, didn't you? Almost makes the trouble of getting that first piece worth it..."
This chapter references the events of "Yugioh: Transcend Game," the two-chapter manga prequel to Dark Side of Dimensions in which Kisara makes a cameo appearance. Reading it is not absolutely necessary in order to understand the chapter, but I recommend it anyhow, as "Transcend Game" was a huge inspiration for this fic.
Kisara wakes in an unfamiliar room. A spartan brick-and-mortar affair, it has no furniture apart from the wooden pallet on which she lies. Metal bars make up the room's door and window, but in one corner, an oil lamp burns, indicating that she has not been jailed; prisoners are not allowed light. Nor are they allowed blankets, and the one covering her is finer than any textile she has ever touched. Kisara spends a few minutes simply running her fingers over the linen, memorizing its softness so that she can take comfort in the recollection later.
She holds up her arm to observe a fading bruise. Licking it, Kisara tastes honey and aloe. Someone has treated her injuries, and indeed, she feels hardly any pain. Her tongue is no longer dry and swollen with thirst, either. Confusion washes over her. Who has given her water and care? Who has helped her? That she remembers nothing about being saved troubles her; this unprecedented stroke of luck will likely run out soon, but memories endure beyond misfortune. Kisara would have as many good ones as possible to stand as bulwarks against her usual harsh existence.
Glancing about, Kisara notices a small plate on the ground next to her pallet and instinctively snatches a bread roll off it (There are two rolls on the plate. Two! What madness afforded her two portions of bread?). Driven by stray-dog hunger, she eats it without enjoying the bread's fine texture or flavor. She feels almost worse after she finishes, her starvation re-awakened in a woozy rush of adrenaline. Experience warns her against eating the second roll too soon. She drains the cool water from an adjacent clay cup instead, sitting up on the pallet so as not to spill a drop.
She resolves with effort to save the second piece of bread. Reverently, she moves the plate and cup onto the end of her cot and stares at the oil lamp, trying to remember.
A man's authoritative voice, half drowned out by the pain coursing through Kisara's body: "Give her water! Make sure you're extra careful with her."
No one has treated Kisara carefully in her entire life. Well, no, that can't be true; someone must have when she was a baby, or she wouldn't have survived past infancy. She simply can't recall any such carefulness. Though Kisara has long since given up on self-pity, she can't help but marvel at the unlikelihood of it all.
Whoever helped me must have the noblest heart in the world, she thinks, to pity what everyone else hates and fears.
The creak of rusty hinges draws her attention to the opening door. A guard with a spear stands in the hall beyond.
"Have you finished eating? Get up," says the guardsman, beckoning stonily.
Kisara obeys. She doesn't expect a response, but asks anyhow, "Where am I?"
"The hospital wing of the palace," answers the guard. He speaks with his back to Kisara, leading her down the dim corridor. "You were so weak when they found you, you slept for four days. A special doctor took care of you while you were unconscious--did everything he could to make you well."
Kisara knows about doctors the way most people know about wizards or prophets; the guard may as well have told her a magic potion cured her ailments. Still, she believes him, for what reason would he have to lie to someone as insignificant as her?
The guard continues, "It was all on the orders of High Priest Set. You owe him your life."
"High Priest Set," whispers Kisara, committing the title to memory. High Priest Set saved me.
She does not ask where the guard means to take her. The two descend through many winding passages. After an unknowable stretch of time, they come to a long chamber lined with cells on either side. The people in the cells jeer and weep, pressing themselves to the bars and reaching blindly for the newcomers. The prisoners' faces are crazed and wretched. They shout horrible things at Kisara and the guard, who takes her by the upper arm and has her walk before him, as far from the prisoners' grasping fingers as possible. Kisara isn't precisely afraid, because she knows a free citizen can inflict far more harm than a caged criminal, but she doesn't protest the precautionary measure, either.
Toward the last of the cells, the guard lets her go. It's only when he pulls his hand away from her arm like it's burned him that Kisara realizes the guard fears her as much as the rock-throwing townsfolk did--perhaps even more.
I am still cursed, still a bad omen, even in this dark place, she thinks.
"This is as far as I go," says the guard. "I must fetch more men to take you on. Do not move from here."
He retrieves a torch from the wall and departs down a short side-passage, presumably to find his replacements. Left in shadow, Kisara keeps her eyes lowered. Somehow, the empty cells on either side of her feel more sinister than the occupied ones; she does not wish to look in them.
"Hey. Hey! White Dragon!"
Not quite empty, it seems: a skinny man with a big nose looks out from the cell on Kisara's left, a bucktoothed smile splitting his face.
"You did it! I knew you would!" the skinny man exclaims. "You found the second piece of your soul but quick, didn't you? Almost makes the trouble of getting that first piece worth it..."
Kisara regards him in mute confusion.
"Oh, I forgot, you don't know me in this form, do you? Maybe this will help." Before Kisara's eyes, the man's body blurs and changes. His ears and limbs lengthen. His linen rags morph into a bright blue suit, and a crooked purple hat blooms from the top of his head. Most altered, however, are his facial features: his eyes, nose and mouth swim like fish across his countenance, bouncing off one another until they come to an equilibrium at the front of his moon-white head. His violet lips stretch to reveal pointed teeth.
"It's Saggi! You remember ol' Saggi, don'tcha, White Dragon?"
The world has, for the most part, beaten involuntary expressions of fear out of Kisara. Though she manages not to shriek at this particular horror, suppressing her instinctive yelp takes more conscious effort than she's had to apply in a while. She falls back a step, too frightened to look away from the creature.
"...Oops," says the creature--demon--Saggi? The unnatural curve of his mouth inverts. "You sacrificed your memories about the Shadow Realm when you entered the mortal world, didn't you? Because if you remember that you aren't completely human, you might not be able to stay in your human body... I remember that now! " Alarm seizes the demon's face, and he cringes back. "Oh, man, I didn't just screw up your rescue mission by telling you that, did I?!"
Abruptly, the demon reverts back into the guise of the bucktoothed man, who prostrates himself on the floor of his cell.
"Please don't kill me, White Dragon...I mean, Kisara! I'll give you the message you told me to deliver and get Penten to erase everything else I said! Just don't blast me into oblivion!" The man practically vibrates with fear, peeping up through one slitted eye to gauge her reaction.
"Message?" is all Kisara manages to whisper. She feels light-headed, like she might faint.
"Oh, uh, yeah! I'm supposed to tell you how to save your man. Since you gave up all your Shadow Realm memories for good, you won't remember how to help him even after you get all the pieces of your soul back. Hence, the message... What was it again?" The man taps his chin. "Something like, 'Don't let him die'? That's too obvious. 'Don't let him kill himself'? That sounds more like it, but..."
Kisara can see torch lights coming down the side corridor: new guards to bring her further than the first could go.
"The land of the dead!" cries the bucktoothed man in triumph. "'Don't let him return to the land of the dead!' That's what you told me to tell you! Yeah, I remember, you were worried that his soul was gonna get stuck between dimensions, or that evil spirits were gonna follow him back and, like, possess him--"
"Prisoner, do not speak to the guest of the High Priest!" snaps one of the guards as he emerges into the main hall.
"'Don't let him return to the land of the dead!'" repeats the prisoner, heedless of the frowning guardsmen. "Remember that! Nothing else I just said, though!" The little man turns his head about like he's looking for someone. "Penten! Penten, buddy, where'd you go? I need your help here!"
"Madman," mutters a second guard. Far rougher than her original minder, he seizes Kisara and pulls her away from the bucktoothed man. One of the other guards leads them onward with a torch. Another follows behind Kisara and the guard holding her.
"Also, maybe watch out for the Dark Magician! He's pretty pissed that you broke out of the Shadow Realm!" the prisoner calls after Kisara. He says more, but his words fade from her hearing like they do from her memory, growing less distinct as the guards hurry her along, down deeper into the dark.
Seto Kaiba frowned at the readouts on the hospital computer screen as though he could render the unfamiliar data more comprehensible through intimidation alone.
"What does it mean?" he finally snapped.
"It means she's fine. She's sleeping," answered the middle-aged woman seated in front of the monitor.
"Then why won't she wake up?"
"Perhaps she's very tired."
"'She's sleeping.' 'She's tired.' You're a credit to your profession, Doctor," scoffed Kaiba.
Dr. Vritika Dhawan, the world-renowned neurologist Kaiba had recently placed on personal retainer, shot him an amused glance. Her habitual refusal to be bullied into submission distinguished her from Kaiba's many employees; she acquiesced to the multi-billionaire's displeasure no better than the clunky medical software she utilized.
"The gentleman who came with her--Mr. Mutou?--said that your overzealous security measures might be to blame for her current state," she commented.
"I'll tell you the same thing I told him: the girl never touched my briefcase. None of its anti-theft protocols activated."
Aware of how little Seto Kaiba feared lawsuits or bad press, Dr. Dhawan accepted his explanation as most likely true. She peered at the computer monitor again, pressed a few keys, then murmured, "Interesting," after a second graph and data set appeared beside the original.
"I hope," said Kaiba, "for your sake, that you aren't going to make me ask what's so interesting."
"Her brain-wave patterns here and here..." Dr. Dhawan pointed out a few dips and rises in the first graph, "look awfully close to your most recent brain scans, Mr. Kaiba." She indicated matching sections of the second graph.
Frowning, Kaiba folded his arms. "Her mind is behaving similarly to mine? How so?"
"I can't say for certain from this data alone. You're certain she wasn't a Project Neurons test subject?"
"I would have remembered if she was," said Kaiba. He glanced through the office's one-way glass window into the adjacent exam room, where the girl called Aoi Shirogane lay unconscious on a hospital bed. A wire-studded, egg-shaped helmet enveloped the entire upper half of her head. Once used as a virtual reality simulator in the failed Project Neurons, the helmet had found new life in the healthcare sector as a medical monitoring device; Kaiba Corp. wasted no money-making opportunities. "Anyway, she's too old to have participated in the Duel Links experiment."
"Well, that's encouraging--it indicates that the changes in your own brain-wave patterns might not be due to reckless self-experimentation with VR tech, after all. Unless another company is developing something similar, and she's one of their test subjects?"
Kaiba snorted. "Don't make stupid assumptions. Kaiba Corporation is leagues ahead of even its closest competitors."
"In which case, I'm going to run all the same tests on her that I ran on you, just to rule out tumors, seizures, or any other medical abnormalities. I assume she'll remain here long enough to undergo them?"
"She will," promised Kaiba darkly.
As he spoke, Mokuba Kaiba entered the exam room and made his way into the attached office.
"Hey, nii-sama. Hey, Dr. Dhawan," he said, brightening as he addressed the neurologist.
"Konnichiwa, Mokuba-kun." Dr. Dhawan greeted the younger Kaiba in his native language before switching to her own, a rapid steam of Punjabi. Mokuba replied enthusiastically, if haltingly, in the same tongue, then turned to English when he got stuck:
"Uh, 'stubborn'? 'Pig-headed'? I don't know the word in Punjabi."
"I can tell you're talking about me," Seto told them flatly in English, the language he generally spoke with Dr. Dhawan.
The neurologist failed to suppress a smirk. "We are practicing languages," she said with dignity. "Mokuba-kun is a fast learner."
"Go do your job before I fire you," Seto threatened, and felt irked when Dr. Dhawan responded simply by laughing. On her way out of the office, she low-fived Mokuba and stage-whispered,
"It's 'zidī,' Mokuba-kun."
"I'll remember," promised Mokuba. He smiled as he watched Dr. Dhawan leave, but his grin faded when Seto turned a cold look on him. "Nii-sama, I..."
"I don't care if you make friends with our employees, Mokuba, but you shouldn't encourage them to act insubordinately," said his elder brother, turning back to the computer and frowning at its screen.
"Dr. Dhawan was only joking. She didn't mean it to be disrespectful."
"You know her so well?"
"We talk sometimes," admitted Mokuba. "She's nice, and she doesn't condescend to me."
Seto made a skeptical noise. Bad enough that Dr. Dhawan was privvy to his most confidential medical information--now she was cozying up to his little brother, too? His extensive background checks had all painted Dr. Dhawan as a discrete and dutiful physician, but "good" people had attempted to take advantage of the Kaibas in the past.
"She might be using you," he told Mokuba.
"I know that!"
The stridency of Mokuba's tone surprised Seto, though he gave no sign. The thirteen-year-old stared down at his loafers, red-faced.
"I get it," said Mokuba. "Everyone wants a piece of us, we can't let our guard down..."
"It's true. Everyone is a potential enemy," affirmed Seto.
Mokuba's hands curled into fists at his sides. "If I can't make my own decisions about who to trust, then you shouldn't have left me alone for weeks on end," he muttered resentfully.
Seto sent a sharp glance in his little brother's direction. "I thought you understood why I had to go," he said.
Words spilled from Mokuba with such force that Seto realized he must have been holding them back for a while: "I know why you thought you had to do it, but you didn't actually need to hurl yourself into the literal afterlife using untested technology just to duel the stupid Pharaoh! It was reckless. You could have died for nothing, and now your brain's all weird and no one knows why!"
"Not for nothing!" Seto snapped. "You're saying I should have hung my head and accepted my defeats? Losers die in every way that matters, Mokuba. You know that!"
"I've messed up and lost plenty of times, and I'm okay--" Mokuba began.
"Because you have me to do better for us both," Seto finished cruelly.
Mokuba jerked back like Seto had physically struck him. His expression hovered between abject hurt and rage. Seto braced himself for an emotional eruption. After a heavy moment, however, the boy's face smoothed into a neutral mask that shocked Seto more than any outburst could have.
"I shouldn't have questioned it. I apologize," Mokuba said calmly, his voice gone as stoic as his countenance.
Seto stared at his little brother. He shouldn't know how to do that, he reflected. I knew how to when I was his age, but that was because of...
"Your report," he ordered, rather than allow himself to finish the thought.
Visibly tucking away the remnants of his discontent, Mokuba drew out his prototype Kaiba Corp. smartphone and called up a file. The device's holographic function projected the report into the air above its screen. Mokuba summarized flatly,
"She doesn't exist--not as 'Shirogane Aoi' or as anyone else. Our facial recognition program couldn't find a match for her in any government registries or medical databases. Her name returned a few hits online, mostly as pseudonyms used by various people; there may be an actual Shirogane Aoi living in Hokkaido, but she's fifty years old and runs a convenience store. We're checking into her, but..."
"Fine. What about the DNA analysis?"
"That's the weirdest part: we couldn't map her genetics. I mean, obviously she has DNA, and individually her genes seem normal, but whenever we try to profile her ancestry on a macro level, we just get a bunch of inconclusive results. The geneticists think the mapping software's broken and the software engineers think the geneticists screwed up the program somehow." Though he normally relished a good nerd fight, Mokuba did not smile at this, but asked his brother without much genuine curiosity, "So who is she?"
Seto turned his back on his little brother in order to stare into the exam room, his mind alight with confusion and wariness as he studied the sleeping girl.
"A potential enemy," he answered.
Chapter 4: A Wingbeat of Giant Dragon
I am a meager person, but perhaps I could be useful to him, she thinks. He has already seen me in the dust and dirt; I must now show I was worth saving.
The passages beneath the palace grow darker and narrower the deeper Kisara and the guards descend. Fewer and fewer torches line the walls, which change gradually from smooth sandstone bricks to rough-hewn granite. Kisara does not mind the dark, but the close walls and the steadily-lowering ceilings make her feel entombed. At one point, she halts entirely, sucking in shallow, desperate breaths, but the guards harry her onwards.
"Move, woman," says one. "High Priest Set dislikes waiting."
Like magic, the name loosens the invisible vice around Kisara's torso.
"I am to see High Priest Set?" she asks shakily.
"We bring you to him on his orders," a second guard confirms.
The wild thumping of her heart eases somewhat. He would not save me from a mob only to condemn me to be buried alive, she reasons. A part of her yet loathes this place--she has lived most of her life under the open sky, and her most beloved dreams consist of flying through its blue or starlit expanse--but she can endure claustrophobia for the sake of the one who rescued and healed her.
I must conduct myself well in High Priest Set's presence, reflects Kisara, and distracts herself by thinking of how best to approach her rescuer when the time comes. Certainly she will bow to him, but in what manner? She decides against throwing herself at the high priest's feet, though she is grateful enough to do so. She decides instead to stand strongly before him in order to show how his charity has restored her. I am a meager person, but perhaps I could be useful to him, she thinks. He has already seen me in the dust and dirt; I must now show I was worth saving.
Gradually the underground ceilings begin to rise and the walls recede. Kisara and her escorts pass through a grand doorway into the tallest, widest chamber yet. The majority of the room consists of a great pit bordered on all sides by a narrow brick walkway. Shadows obscure the area above the pit, though Kisara senses large shapes moving in the gloom. Every so often, low, inhuman snarls echo off the room's cavernous walls.
Two of the guards flank Kisara, grip her arms so that she cannot turn or pause, and march her towards a raised dais at one end of the chamber. A pair of ornate chairs sit upon the dais, and a pair of men sit upon the chairs. A squat, hooded figure skulks and murmurs between them; they all study the black pit with interest. Kisara's third guard steps forward to address the young man in the closest chair.
"Lord Set, we've brought the woman," he reports.
The remaining guards release their collective hold on Kisara. One pushes her forward with enough force to make her stumble, but not fall. She sways toward the dais like a reed in the wind. All thoughts of unseen shadows flee as she raises her eyes to the young man's face. This is High Priest Set? His confident bearing and fine clothing support that assumption, but up close he appears barely older than her. Priest Set does not turn from the darkness, but his gaze flicks sidelong to meet Kisara's, the corner of his mouth lifting in triumph or satisfaction.
The squat figure next to him shuffles around Priest Set's chair. Beneath his hood, he appears more wizened than even the second priest, whose beard and hair have silvered with age. His face is fantastically ugly. Rolls of fat or loose skin create many-layered jowls around his cheeks and neck. He giggles anticipatorily--a high, wet, greedy sound--as he approaches Kisara.
"So this is the girl rumored to harbor a god!" he comments.
A god? Kisara glances at the ugly man, then back to Priest Set, who watches her in turn, his expression turned evaluative. Recalling her desire to make a good impression, Kisara ignores the hooded man entirely. She straightens her shoulders and dips her head. Laying her right hand over her heart in a respectful salute, she speaks clearly and earnestly, declaring:
"High Priest Set, I have no way to thank you for saving my life, but you have my eternal gratitude. Thank you for helping me."
The ugly little man halts in his tracks. Kisara thinks he might be like the feral dogs who prowl the city's garbage heaps, menacing all but only attacking those who show fear.
Priest Set acknowledges her words with a small hmph. "Woman, what is your name?" he asks.
Kisara is called 'beggar,' 'parasite,' or 'barbarian' on good days, 'witch,' 'ill-omen,' or 'accursed' on bad ones. Just as she cannot remember the last time someone treated her carefully, she cannot remember the last time someone asked for her name.
"...I am Kisara," she answers, swallowing back the unexpected flood of happiness that threatens to overwhelm her at his question. She has no time to enjoy it, however: a roar goes up from darkness then, and Kisara's eyes have adjusted to the dim well enough to discern its source.
Two monsters brawl amidst a maze of platforms suspended over the pit with thick metal chains. A ghostly phosphorescence limns their bodies. One a horned beast, the other a spider-like creature, both beings loom huger and crueler-looking than anything Kisara could have imagined on her own.
Somehow, Kisara finds her voice. "...What is this?"
The hooded man answers, "This is an arena where prisoners strengthen their ka."
As he speaks, the horned creature seizes the spider demon's pincers in its clawed hands. The spider spits a mass of sticky webbing into the horned monster's face. The latter squeals, wrathful. Kisara notices two scarred men standing on platforms below the creatures, watching the battle--and each other--with fierce concentration.
"Why are you so surprised?" the hooded man inquires when Kisara draws back disbelievingly from the tableau. "Surely you know there is a ka inside your soul as well."
"In my...?" Kisara shakes her head. "There's nothing like that inside me!" She looks to Priest Set, desperate for an explanation.
"Ka is a life energy. Most people cannot even see it, but when some people are driven into a corner, they can give their ka a physical embodiment that will protect them. You have that ability, Kisara," says Priest Set, sounding sure of himself.
That cannot be. They are mistaken. They must have assumed Kisara harbors such power after they heard the townsfolk call her a witch. Kisara does not want to gainsay the one who saved her, but neither can she lie to him; she knows no magic and she commands no demon. She shakes her head again, opening her mouth to explain, but the little hooded man speaks first.
"There is a simple method by which we may ascertain her abilities, High Priest Set: only have the girl fight the prisoners in the arena, and when her heart fills with fear, her ka will materialize to protect her."
For all his previous confidence, Priest Set looks almost as alarmed by this suggestion as Kisara feels. "Gebelk, she doesn't even know what it is! How could she control it?"
"If she is truly possessed by a god, she will have no difficulty defeating the ka of two mere criminals." Gebelk waves a hand as if to say, simple.
"But that is incredibly dangerous..."
For the first time, the older priest in the second chair joins the conversation: "Set, let us test the god's power as Gebelk suggests."
Priest Set turns in his seat toward him, plainly stunned. "...You support this, Lord Akhnadin?" he asks.
"I see no other choice," replies Lord Akhnadin. "We have no gods to protect the royal palace now. Whatever the Pharaoh's fate, we must acquire a divine guardian as soon as possible, or we risk a total breakdown of law and order, not to mention destruction at the hands of the Thief! Who among us will not be in danger if his Diabound lays waste to the capitol?"
As he talks, the old man's soft, measured tone grows in forcefulness. When he concludes by ordering, "Put the woman in the arena!" the guards scramble to obey. Two of them seize Kisara's arms again, while the third goes over to a series of levers and pulleys at the edge of the dais. Their operation unfolds a wooden bridge from the wall. It telescopes across the pit, connecting the stone walkway to one of the suspended platforms that make up the arena.
Kisara looks desperately to Priest Set as the guards begin to pull her from the dais. He meets her gaze with obvious reluctance.
"Lord Set," she pleads. It is all she can manage.
"Do as they say and get ready," he tells her. Then he adds, "Kisara,"--as if, knowing how much using her name means to her, he means to give it as a final gift before her end.
She proves herself a greater coward than him, hearing his pronouncement: she looks away first, closing her eyes in despair.
Yugi Mutou harbored mostly good feelings about his notoriety within the dueling community. More often than not, he enjoyed being recognized, because at his core, Yugi liked people. He appreciated any opportunity to discuss games with fellow players or fans, and his personal renown afforded him many such chances. Fame had its drawbacks, too, of course--Yugi didn't work in his grandfather's store nearly as often as he once had, because his presence tended to draw crowds who were more interested in Yugi than in Kame Game Shop's wares (His grandfather had commented once that Yugi was "good for advertising, but bad for business," which still made Yugi chuckle whenever he thought about it). Nevertheless, his experiences with strangers identifying him as the King of Games remained largely positive despite the occasional trouble.
However, Yugi had never enjoyed the slightly confused double-take that frequently occurred after someone recognized him. Just now, he watched the struggle play out on the face of a Domino City Hospital receptionist. He could practically hear her inner monologue: This guy definitely looks like the King of Games, but isn't something different? Maybe it's the way he holds himself? Somehow, I thought he'd be taller...
"Excuse me," said Yugi, pushing his negative speculations aside, "could you please direct me to Shirogane Aoi's room?"
"I'm sorry, sir, but I don't believe there's anyone here by that name," replied the receptionist automatically, speaking a bit too fast for the truth.
Honestly--she didn't even pretend to check the records. Yugi affected puzzled surprise. "I was told that Shirogane-san has been checked into this hospital since eight-thirty this morning," he said.
"Perhaps whoever told you was mistaken?"
"I'm certain he wasn't," said Yugi.
Finally, the receptionist made a show of typing the name into her computer. "I'm afraid the person you mentioned isn't showing up in our system," she lied.
Yugi swallowed back a long, exasperated sigh. Count on Kaiba to make my life more difficult than it has to be. Well, fine, then. He glanced about the hospital waiting room, then leaned closer to the receptionist, lowering his tone confidingly.
"Are you a Duel Monsters fan, by any chance?" he asked.
The receptionist's eyes widened behind her coke-bottle glasses. Without looking away from Yugi, she opened the top drawer of the desk she sat behind and pulled out a pink deck box emblazoned with the Industrial Illusions logo. She presented it for his inspection, admitting, "I never leave home without it."
Yugi didn't need to fake the pleased surprise that broke over his face. "Oh, wow. You're a real Duelist, then!"
"Hardly!" stammered the receptionist. "I've never even competed..."
Yugi shook his head. "But I can tell from the way you hold your cards that you really care about them. That's all it takes to be a Duelist, really."
The receptionist looked down at her own hands, cupped gently but firmly around her deck box, and blushed.
"The reason I ask," continued Yugi, "is because I'm actually looking for Kaiba Seto. I've been trying to get in contact with him for a while now, but we just keep missing each other. I came straight here when I heard he'd brought Shirogane Aoi-san in because I really need to talk to him about, you know, Duel Monsters stuff. Upcoming tournaments and that sort of thing." Yugi shook his head in exaggerated regret. "He's really hard to reach..."
Caught between her desire to help the King of Games and whatever obligation to Kaiba's privacy her bosses had impressed upon her, the receptionist squirmed and bit her lip. "Um, maybe I could give him a message for--?"
"Yugi!" Jounouchi careened through the waiting room doors and ran over to the front desk, still dressed in the visor and apron from the restaurant where he worked part-time. "Sorry, traffic was crazy. I came as soon as I could! Where's that Kaiba?"
Yugi opened his mouth to reply, but a sharp squeak from the receptionist stilled him. Her chair clattered as she shot to her feet, one hand over her mouth.
"You--You're Katsuya Jounouchi-san," the receptionist gasped, staring.
It took Jounouchi a few seconds to process her words. "Uhh, yeah...?" he confirmed.
The receptionist bowed her head. After a visible struggle, she blurted, "You're my favorite pro Duelist!"
"Huh? Me?" Jounouchi pointed at himself, glancing at Yugi in confusion. "I'm your favorite?"
"Graceful Dice and Skull Dice are two of my favorite cards," she explained. "You inspired me to build a deck around them. I beat my nephew for the first time using it! Oh, gosh, that sounds bad, but he's very skilled, I promise you. Family dinners were torture before I managed to put him in his place... Um, sorry, I'm babbling, aren't I?" The receptionist looked abashed.
"Uh, no, I think that's awesome!" Jounouchi replied. "They're two of my favorite cards, too."
"And they're so under-used at the professional level!"
"I know, right?! They're ridiculously useful; it makes no sense!"
Yugi watched the two like a spectator at a tennis match, unable to conceal a grin as Jounouchi and the receptionist commiserated. Eventually, at a lull in their conversation, the receptionist returned her attention to Yugi once more.
"I can't tell you where he is," she whispered to him, "but I can tell you that he donated some state-of-the-art neuroimaging equipment about a month ago, shortly after he returned from his three-week stint at the Kaiba Corporation space station. We keep the equipment on the top floor, and it's currently in use."
"Thank you very much," Yugi said.
"Yeah, thanks," echoed Jounouchi, which made the receptionist turn pink. "C'mon, Yugi, let's go see about..."
"...something completely unrelated, right," finished Yugi.
He bowed to the receptionist, then lead Jounouchi from the waiting room. Knowing that Kaiba's people would be watching the elevators, they made for a back stairway instead. Jounouchi wore a silly grin as they walked. He rubbed the back of his head self-consciously and joked,
"Damn, is that what it's like to be you all the time?"
Yugi smiled at him. "Fame has its perks occasionally."
"Yeah. Yeah, I guess it does. Man, I hope I get to kick Kaiba's ass for kidnapping your grandpa again. That would make today absolutely perfect."
"Hold off on that," advised Yugi. "First I want to hear why he's sticking his neck out for a complete stranger, and then I want to figure out the connection between Kaiba-kun's 'trip' and his sudden interest in neurology. Then I want to know why since then, he's been spamming every communication platform I have with demands to duel me..."
"You ask me, I think he's finally snapped."
"You say that all the time."
"And one day," predicted Jounouchi grimly, "I'll be right."
Perhaps it would be braver to struggle against the guards. Perhaps it would be smarter to try and explain the mistake to the priests. Perhaps it would be a better death to simply leap from the wooden bridge, rather than offer herself up to the monsters on the other side. Kisara does none of these things. When the guards herd her onto the bridge, she crosses it unprotestingly, trembling and unsteady but not looking back.
The platform at the other end of the bridge is studded with rows of large spikes. Splattered with gore from a few impaled bodies, it hangs below and between the two surviving prisoners. The men take a long minute to notice Kisara from their perches beneath their dueling ka.
"What the...? A girl?" mutters the first, the thin man who commands the horned monster. "What's a girl doing here?"
The second prisoner pauses along with his spider-demon, not letting his guard down so much as shifting it in a different direction. "Who cares? If she's here, she's fair game. We can do whatever we want with her."
"Let's take a little break," suggests the first prisoner.
The second smirks at Kisara. "Fine by me."
Kisara's terror, which has buzzed through her like a swarm of locusts this entire time, spikes into a roar that drowns out all other noises as both monsters turn towards her. Their eyes glow briefly, one pair red, the other greenish-yellow, as they fix upon hers.
I will die here, thinks Kisara. I am going to be devoured. I will die.
The last thought occurs unexpectedly.
Better a quick death than a slow one by starvation or thirst; better teeth than stones. No one will mourn me, but death means no more pain. No more struggle. She observes the prisoners, scarred and bloody, their very souls turned monstrous by desperation. There are worse fates.
Kisara does not conquer her fear in that moment, but rather finds some small measure of courage in spite of it. The fear should drown out the courage entirely; it is so much more powerful, a bone-shaking howl in her mind where her bravery is a mere whisper. But Kisara knows how to live on scraps, so a small bit of courage is enough. She cups it close to her heart like a candle flame, shuts her eyes, and, as the demons descend upon her with twin roars, she accepts...
"Duos, my spirit!"
Kisara remains frozen even as a miracle appears between her and the monsters: a humanoid ka, powerful enough to halt the others' advance with few well-placed swings of its mighty sword. The terror falls abruptly silent within her. So does the courage.
She cannot believe her eyes. She does not understand.
Rapidly-approaching footfalls shake the wooden bridge behind her.
"Why won't you call the White Dragon?!" Priest Set cries. Skidding through half-dried blood and viscera from other unfortunate prisoners, he slides to a stop beside Kisara and brandishes his short golden staff in front of them both.
"Set!" shouts old Lord Akhnadin.
Priest Set ignores him. "That's enough, you two!" he barks at the prisoners.
"No, Priest. I don't think it is," returns the owner of the horned ka, a terrible gleam lighting his eyes. "I think we're owed something for the hell you've put us through here." He indicates the arena at large. "Don't you?" he asks his fellow prisoner, who nods.
"Two against one--I like those odds!" affirms the second.
Priest Set mutters a very impious curse under his breath. He grasps Kisara's wrist with the hand not holding the golden rod.
"Trust me!" he hisses to her.
I do, thinks Kisara. She wants to tell him so, but the words will not come. Perhaps I shouldn't, but I do...
His hand is very warm.
The platform lurches beneath her feet then, and, with a rush of noise and motion, the world collapses around Kisara. The last sensations she feels before consciousness abandons her are those of falling, and of Priest Set's hand wrapped firmly around her arm.
Chapter 5: Dragonic Tactics
"We all know how badly you miss him, because you've never shown any sadness about it even for a moment. I bet you don't even let your feelings show in private, because you think Atem might be watching you from wherever he is now, and you want to show him you're okay."
Yugi and Jounouchi were only a little out of breath when they reached the top floor of the hospital. Its halls lay empty and silent before them; none of the doctors, nurses, or patients swarming the building's lower levels appeared to question the boys as they glanced about the deserted ward.
"Well, this isn't creepy or anything," muttered Jounouchi.
Yugi turned on his heel and began climbing the final flight of steps up to the roof.
"Uh, Yugi," Jounouchi called after him, pointing back through the stairwell door, "didn't the secretary say Kaiba'd be on this floor?"
"Whenever I need to find Kaiba-kun, I tend to assume he'll be waiting at the most dramatic spot in any given location. It's saved me a lot of time looking in the past," Yugi explained.
"Right. Makes sense." Jounouchi followed his best friend up the stairs, panting, "Bet he already has his Duel Disk out and everything..."
Together they opened the door out onto the hospital roof, bracing themselves as a gust of wind threatened to push them back into the stairway. Seto Kaiba faced them from the opposite end of the rooftop, a chain-link security fence framing him in a grim lattice. The Duel Disk on his arm glowed blue and hummed with life, as did the matching ear-piece that extended down from Kaiba's left temple.
"Called it," muttered Jounouchi.
Yugi's lips twitched, but no humor colored his tone when he shouted over the wind, "I thought you'd outgrown your kidnapping phase, Kaiba-kun."
"You'll find I haven't kidnapped anyone, so spare me the dramatics," Kaiba returned.
"Spare you the dramatics?" cried Jounouchi. "Are you serious, Mr. Blue-Eyes Jet?!"
Kaiba went on without so much as a glance in Jounouchi's direction, "You really shouldn't bring your emotional support animal with you everywhere you go, Yugi. I understand you're still grieving, but it's poorly trained."
"Please let me beat him up," Jounouchi hissed at Yugi, who shook his head with more than a tinge of genuine regret. "Aw, come on! You let the Pharaoh mind-crush him that one time, why can't I--?"
The ear-piece Kaiba wore must have given him batlike hearing, because he interrupted them, "Speaking of whom, the Pharaoh sends his regards."
Both Jounouchi and Yugi froze. Shock, disbelief, and anger crossed the former's face in quick succession.
"What the hell did you just say to us," Jounouchi demanded flatly.
Kaiba didn't so much as blink. "You heard me."
"Yeah I did, you manipulative...!"
Yugi's hand found Jounouchi's wrist, halting him with a touch.
"That isn't necessary," he told his friend before re-focusing his attention on Kaiba. "None of this is necessary. I'm not here to duel you, Kaiba-kun. I just came to check on my grandfather and his friend. I was going to ask you some questions first, but since you clearly aren't feeling reasonable right now, they can wait."
Yugi turned his back on Kaiba, making to leave. Jounouchi burst out, indignant, "Yugi! You're gonna let him get away with spouting that crap about Atem?"
"Of course he is," drawled Kaiba. "Yugi is a reasonable person. He's so reasonable, in fact, that he can accept the absence of a literal soul mate without shedding a tear. No wonder the Pharaoh didn't ask about him at all during our duel."
"Like hell you dueled the Pharaoh!" cried Jounouchi, who didn't register Yugi's abrupt halt behind him. "Atem crossed over to the Egyptian afterlife--it's not like you can just drop in!"
From a coat pocket, Kaiba produced a silvery cube with a small golden eye inlaid at one corner.
"Yugi," he said almost pleasantly, "shut your dog up. Its barking is annoying me."
Jounouchi and Yugi looked from Kaiba to the artifact and back again, spines tense. "...How do you have Aigami's Quantum Cube?" asked Yugi.
"That's the wrong question. What you should be asking is, what have I managed to do with it?"
Kaiba smiled smugly as grim comprehension lit Yugi's gaze and uncertainty crept into Jounouchi's.
"Yugi, is he saying... does that mean he's telling the truth?" asked Jounouchi.
"Atem is supposed to be at peace, Kaiba-kun! You shouldn't have disturbed his rest just because you can't accept defeat!" cried Yugi by way of answer.
Kaiba's countenance darkened at the word 'defeat,' though his tone remained studiously nonchalant. "Shouldn't I have? He seemed pleased enough by my challenge. Maybe you're just feeling guilty because you didn't try hard enough to reach him. Then again, you were the one who sent him on, so why would you care?"
Jounouchi actually snarled in anger on his friend's behalf. "Shut the fuck up. You have no idea how much Yugi misses the Pharaoh!"
"No, Yugi, you don't get to interrupt me this time. We know! We all know how badly you miss him, because you've never shown any sadness about it even for a moment. You're the sort of person who smiles harder the more things hurt. I bet you don't even let your feelings show in private, because you think Atem might be watching you from wherever he is now, and you want to show him you're okay."
"I am okay," whispered Yugi. "Jounouchi, I am." But Jounouchi was already turning back to Kaiba, ranting,
"Yugi's a real man, so he finds the strength to live on even after he's lost his closest friend. You think not being able to accept Atem's death means that you're better than him somehow? That you're more determined or whatever? Bullshit! It just shows you're a brat who can't handle it when one of his toys gets taken away!" Jounouchi jabbed a forefinger at the Cube in Kaiba's hand. "Congratulations, you got what you wanted: you can duel the Pharaoh now. But you aren't worthy of dueling Yugi, so stop hassling him!"
Kaiba stood silent for a few long moments; Yugi dared to hope that Jounouchi's speech had affected him in some way. But then he said simply, "No."
"What do you mean, 'no?'"
"I mean I don't take orders from anyone, and I certainly don't consider requests from inferior duelists like you."
Jounouchi looked ready to burst a blood vessel. "Gimme a Duel Disk and we'll see who's inferior, you smug bastard!"
"I have absolutely nothing to gain from defeating you," stated Kaiba laconically.
Yugi spoke up: "And what exactly would you gain from beating me?"
Both Kaiba and Jounouchi returned their attention to the shorter boy, who had fixed Kaiba with a calculating stare.
"You've never acknowledged or cared that I beat Atem; you've only ever cared about defeating him, because he was the one who beat you in the first place. So the only reason for your sudden interest in dueling me that I can think of is that Atem won your latest duel and won't let you challenge him again until after you defeat me. That isn't going to happen."
"Let's put that newfound confidence of yours to the test, shall we?" sneered Kaiba.
Theory confirmed, Yugi flashed a brittle smile. "It isn't going to happen," he clarified, "not because I'll win against you--which I would--but because I'm not going to duel you at all. I don't condone what you've done, Kaiba-kun, even though I understand wanting to see Atem again. I'm not going to be a part of it."
Somehow, this refusal carried a different weight from his previous one; Jounouchi and Kaiba both sensed the shift, and Jounouchi breathed, "Yugi," without knowing what else to say.
Kaiba frowned. "If you're a true duelist, you can't refuse a challenge."
"You turned down Jounouchi-kun's challenge just now," pointed out Yugi.
"Because I'm the Duel Monsters world champion!"
"And I'm the King of Games." Yugi spoke without hesitation or haughtiness, only a quiet certainty that Jounouchi knew had been hard-earned: he'd watched Yugi earn it inch by painful inch, through struggle and fear and love and, finally, a grief sharper than Jounouchi could imagine. It filled Jounouchi with bittersweet pride to see the way his friend faced down Kaiba, unwavering.
He always slumped a little when he wore the Puzzle, Jounouchi reflected. He probably misses the weight of it, but his neck and shoulders are straighter now.
"Come on, Jounouchi-kun. Let's go see jii-chan."
Again Yugi turned to leave the rooftop; again Kaiba called after him, this time with a scornful chuckle,
"You might be a king, Yugi; I'll give you that. But you're still hopelessly naive."
"Yugi, the door!" cried Jounouchi. They bolted for the roof's exit, hands outstretched to seize the doorknob, but it locked with an audible snap before either of them could reach it. Jounouchi rattled the knob anyway, then beat on the door with his fist. "Hey! Let us through!"
"Don't bother. My men are on the other side, and they won't unlock that door until I give the word--until you duel me, Yugi," said Kaiba.
"This is a hospital! You can't block the exits!" Yugi cried.
"Can't or shouldn't? Those are two different things."
Jounouchi kicked the door emphatically but ineffectively. "Don't sound so smug, asshole! You're trapped up here now too, you know!" he shouted over his shoulder.
Kaiba laughed again. "I conquered death itself for a duel. You think a few hours on a roof will make me give up?" His face darkened abruptly. "Even if you do manage to get away, I can promise you'll regret it, Yugi. I'll make you pay for every moment you spend avoiding the inevitable. And if I can't bend you, I'll move on to your friends and family. You know what I'm capable of, so make the right choice, right now."
Jounouchi swore at him. Yugi took a deep, steadying breath. He spent a long moment listening to his best friend curse, then said,
"You know, Kaiba-kun, before this spring, I almost thought you'd changed. I've always considered you a friend, and I thought you finally might be starting to consider me a friend, too. Now, I see I was wrong. You never change, Kaiba-kun. You always make the wrong choices, and I'm tired of being disappointed."
"Your point?" snapped Kaiba.
"I will duel you," Yugi said. "Not to get off this roof, or to protect the people I care about, or even to keep you from launching yourself back into the afterlife, which can't be a good idea on any level. I'm dueling you in order to show how much you've hurt me. Maybe it'll help you understand the consequences of your actions," Yugi shook his head, "but I doubt it."
Kaiba regarded Yugi stonily for a moment. Then he unlatched the briefcase at his feet. A second Duel Disk waited, cushioned in foam padding, and when Kaiba removed it, the device unfolded to its full size.
Yugi crossed the distance between them to accept the Disk. "Why are you like this?" he couldn't help but ask Kaiba as he slipped the cuff onto his arm and the earpiece onto his head. "Who made you this way?"
"I make myself," said Kaiba. "I choose my own path, and I never give up, and nothing holds me back or weighs me down. Can you say the same, 'King of Games?'"
"No, I can't," Yugi admitted, "but I don't regret the things that weigh on me."
Yugi returned to the other side of the roof and engaged the Duel Disk Kaiba had loaned him. It glowed violet where Kaiba's gave off shades of blue.
"If I win, I'm taking the Cube," Yugi said, inserting his deck into Disk's the waiting slot, "and you won't threaten me, my friends, or my family again."
"If that's what it takes to get you to shut up and duel, then I accept your terms," replied Kaiba. "I'll even let you go first."
Yugi pursed his lips briefly. "Then let's duel."
Their life points set at 8000, Kaiba and Yugi drew their initial hands. Yugi began: "I place two cards face-down, then play the Spell card Summon Dice, which requires me to pay 1000 life points to activate it."
A large spectral die appeared above the field. As Yugi's life points fell, it clattered to the ground, landing on a 5.
"That result allows me to Tribute summon a monster without sacrificing another, so I summon Berfomet in attack mode. Berfomet's monster effect allows me to add Gazelle, King of Mythical Beasts to my hand." Obediently, the Duel Disk scanned and shuffled through Yugi's deck, automatically bringing Gazelle to the top for him. Yugi drew the card, saying, "Turn end."
"I draw," said Kaiba, doing so. "I place a face-down card, and I summon Vorse Raider in attack position." A horned creature in black armor materialized before Kaiba, brandishing a wickedly curved axe. "I know you probably have a trap waiting for me, because you wouldn't bring such a weak monster onto the field otherwise, but I attack with Vorse Raider anyway. Kill Berfomet!" he ordered his monster.
As Vorse Raider dashed forward to obey, Yugi said, "You guessed right, Kaiba. Magic Cylinder activates, negating your monster's attack and inflicting direct damage equal to Vorse Raider's attack points!"
An arcane cannon appeared before Vorse Raider, interrupting the monster's furious charge. The cylinder fired a beam of light that arced over Vorse Raider's head and struck Kaiba, shaving 1900 life points off his score.
"First blood's mine," said Yugi.
"I'll have the last," Kaiba vowed. "I end my turn."
Yugi drew from his deck. "I play the Spell card Polymerization from my hand, fusing Berfomet and Gazelle, King of Mythical Beasts." As he activated the Spell and sent Gazelle from his hand to his graveyard, a blue and orange whirlwind enveloped Berfomet. It dispersed to reveal a snake-tailed, two-headed lion with wings. "I summon Chimera, the Flying Mythical Beast to the field. Attack Vorse Raider!"
The Mythical Beast roared, its dual heads imparting a stereo-like quality to the sound, then leapt for Kaiba's monster.
"Too bad," said Kaiba, flipping over his face-down card. "I activate the quick-play Spell Rush Recklessly, giving Vorse Raider 700 extra attack points until the end of the turn."
Invigorated by a charge of red energy that enveloped its body, Vorse Raider met Chimera's pounce with an upward slash that caught Chimera right in one of its throats. The lion-creature burst into a shower of pixels before the gory result of such a blow could play out in the hologram. Yugi's life points counted down by 500.
"What a waste of a Fusion," Kaiba commented.
"Not a total waste," said Yugi, "because when Chimera the Flying Mythical Beast is destroyed, I can Special Summon one of its Fusion material monsters back from the Graveyard. I choose Berfomet."
The designated monster re-formed from the pixels Chimera had left behind. It bared its fangs and snarled at Vorse Raider before assuming a defensive stance in front of Yugi.
"That ends my turn," said Yugi.
"You can't defend forever." Kaiba drew a card. "I set a card face-down, then attack Berfomet with Vorse Raider!"
Again his monster swung its axe at Berfomet; again, Yugi revealed a Trap card: "Castle Walls!"
Stone ramparts sprang up between Berfomet and Vorse Raider; the latter's weapon struck the wall so hard that its axe blade chipped. Kaiba lost 400 life points for attacking a monster whose defense score had risen suddenly from 1800 to 2300.
"You must not have any decent monsters in your hand, since you're going to so much trouble to protect that one," sneered Kaiba.
Yugi glowered at him. "All my monsters are decent. I notice you haven't summoned any more, either."
"I'm biding my time while you use up all your Traps."
"He's bullshitting!" asserted Jounouchi from the sidelines. "Keep pressing him, Yugi! You can do this!"
Yugi flashed his best friend a quick smile. "Thanks, Jounouchi-kun. To begin my turn, I draw," he glanced at the card he'd pulled, "and summon Silent Magician Level 4 in attack mode!"
On the field between them, the diminuitive sorceress hopped shyly from the glowing four-pointed star that heralded her arrival. She brandished her wand at Vorse Raider with trepidation--understandable, given her mere 1000 attack points. Aware that her power would grow as he drew cards from his deck, Kaiba stated flatly,
"I'm not going to give you enough time to raise that monster's attack."
"I know you won't, which is why I'm also playing this: Card Destruction." Yugi held up the Spell card demonstratively before activating it from his hand.
Kaiba's eyes narrowed. "You...!"
"This forces both of us to discard our hands and draw the same number of cards that we discarded. That means you draw four cards, which increases my Magician's attack score by 2000."
As Kaiba grudgingly fulfilled the Spell's imperative, the end of Silent Magician's wand began to shine with pale fire. She held it more confidently as her attack points climbed.
"I change Berfomet to attack position and attack Vorse Raider with Silent Magician. Go," Yugi urged her. Silent Magician shot Vorse Raider with a beam of disintigrating light before the monster had time to utter a cry. "Now Berfomet gets to attack you directly!"
Kaiba couldn't help but flinch as the horned beast rushed him, its claws glowing dark red as they ripped 1400 of his Life Points away. Afterwards, his Life Point counter read 3200, while Yugi's remained at 6500.
"Turn end," said Yugi.
Jounouchi whooped. "All right! That's how it's done!"
Yugi didn't allow himself to grin, but he felt hopeful all the same. Kaiba will have to draw another card at the start of his next turn. That means I'll be able to level up Silent Magician on mine. But I have no cards left in my hand, and I can't necessarily count on anything when Kaiba's my opponent.
Yugi expected Kaiba to grow sharper and more aggressive after Yugi's turnabout, but the other duelist sounded almost calm when he spoke next: "As ever, Yugi, your cards show up at the most convenient times. Why is that? You can't be cheating, or I would have figured out how you do it by now."
"You know why," Yugi replied.
"I know what you and the Pharaoh always say: the cards reward your trust in them. I thought that was pure lunacy for the longest time. Granted, I mostly still do, but traveling between dimensions has opened my mind a bit." Kaiba smirked. "If your little theory is true, I'm pleased that my trust has been rewarded by the greatest of all Duel Monsters."
Here it comes, thought Yugi, bracing himself.
"First, I draw. Then from my new hand--thank you for that, by the way, Yugi--I activate the Spell card Soul Exchange, which allows me to use one of your monsters for a Tribute Summon. I think I'll take your Silent Magician."
All the attack points in the world couldn't save Silent Magician from the glowing chains that emerged from the ground to encircle her. The chains dragged her to Kaiba's side of the field, and Yugi's heart dropped as his monster struggled ineffectively against her bonds.
"Now I tribute Silent Magician and Vorse Raider in order to summon the Blue-Eyes White Dragon!"
A sphere of light bloomed on the field as Kaiba spoke, growing steadily in brightness and diameter until it burned like a quasar. The light swallowed Vorse Raider and Silent Magician. Then from within the sphere, the Blue-Eyes White Dragon beat its great wings, shattering it like glass. The dragon roared in triumph, taking to the air above the roof. A detached part of Yugi couldn't help but marvel at the technology that gave it life; he could see every blue-white scale on the hologram's armored hide.
"Blue-Eyes, destroy!" commanded Kaiba. All Yugi could do was shield his eyes as the dragon incinerated Berfomet with a stream of its signature white lightning breath. The attack washed over Yugi as well, blowing back his hair and making his skin tingle.
"I really freaking hate that dragon," Jounouchi muttered once the air had settled and Yugi's life points had fallen to 5900.
Kaiba shot Jounouchi a withering glower. "Too bad," he said icily, "because you and Yugi will be seeing much more of her from here on out."
"Yugi's beaten the God cards before; he can handle your overpowered lizard!" taunted Jounouchi.
"Now I really do wish I'd dueled you, so I could've shown you up close and personal--"
Yugi blinked in belated realization. "Did you just call the Blue-Eyes 'her'?" he interrupted.
For the first time since their Duel began, utter silence reigned. Kaiba stared at Yugi; Yugi stared back; for once, they looked equally confused.
"...No," replied Kaiba unconvincingly.
"Yeah, you did!" countered Jounouchi, who didn't understand the significance of the fact but who knew how to press an advantage as only a onetime bully could. "You said we'd 'be seeing much more of her.'" He made air-quotes with his fingers for emphasis.
"Clearly you misheard me. I said 'it.' I always say 'it.'"
Yugi disagreed, "That time, you definitely said 'her.'"
"Then I misspoke!" snapped Kaiba. "I must have been thinking of your simpering Magician. Blue-Eyes is a dragon; it doesn't have a gender."
"You mean it's a card," murmured Yugi, unable to suppress a tiny, shit-eating grin.
A muscle in Kaiba's cheek spasmed. "Of course I meant it's a card!" he yelled. "Now, if you could get back to playing yours...!"
"But you never ended your turn, Kaiba-kun," Yugi said with wide-eyed innocence.
"Now, now, Yugi, don't rush a man while he's fantasizin'," chided Jounouchi. Though he fully expected to get murdered for it, the expression on Kaiba's face alone made the comment worthwhile. Jounouchi and Yugi collapsed into hysterics, the duel's high stakes forgotten.
"I rescind my promise not to ruin your friends and family," Kaiba gritted out as they howled.
Yugi knew Kaiba would duel ten times harder now. Still, he couldn't make himself regret time spent laughing with a friend, even as his self-styled enemy looked on in resentment, the threat of defeat hovering in the air above Yugi on implacable wings.
my brain: hey, you know what we should do? actually write out the duel between yugi and kaiba.
me: but I suck at dueling. also, wouldn't that be really boring to read?
my brain: ...do it anyway.
me: can't argue with that!
Chapter 6: Protector with Eyes of Blue
"I can see that body dying all around you."
Kisara came to consciousness slowly despite the violence of her dreams. If the world of her memories had been dark and slightly blurred with time, then the waking world was all silver and white sharpness, so bright and vivid it made her eyes tear up. She blinked rapidly, glancing to the side to allow her vision some time to adjust, and found a young boy she did not know sitting in a chair next to her bed. Too distracted with his own thoughts to notice she'd woken, the boy chewed lower his lip and stared off at nothing, fiddling with the cuff of his fine suit jacket. Lines of moisture glittered on his cheeks.
"Are you crying?" Kisara asked him.
The boy didn't jump, exactly, but he stiffened when Kisara spoke, his back and shoulders straightening all at once. He scrubbed at his face with his jacket sleeve self-consciously.
Kisara sat up slowly in the bed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you. Can you tell me where I am?" The boy frowned at her in confusion. She tried again, "I need to find someone. It's very important..."
"Are you messing with me?" the boy interrupted.
"I don't--I mean, I'm not," she tried to reassure him.
"Do you understand what I'm saying right now?"
Now it was Kisara's turn to look confused. "Why wouldn't I understand you?" she stammered.
The boy furrowed his brow at her, the aggression in his posture faltering. He and Kisara regarded each other with mutual incomprehension for a moment. Then the boy hopped up from his seat and hurried to a nearby door.
"Mutou-jiisan!" he called through it.
Within seconds, Sugoroku Mutou appeared in the hospital room. "Mokuba-kun, what's going on?" he asked.
The boy gestured at Kisara. "She woke up, but she's talking gibberish. Is that a real language? I've never heard it."
Fear slipped coldly down Kisara's spine. "What does he mean? I'm speaking normally," she said, looking from Sugoroku to Mokuba and back again.
Something like recognition lit Sugoroku's eyes. Wariness followed hot on its heels. "Aoi-chan," the old man said.
Hearing that name, the girl realized all at once that she had not, in fact, been speaking normally--or at least, she had not been talking to the boy or Mr. Mutou in the same language they had used to address her. "Aoi"--that's not my name. But wait, no, that is my name! I'm Shirogane Aoi, and I speak...
"Japanese," Aoi whispered, in the correct language this time. "Was I not speaking Japanese just now?"
Mokuba and Mr. Mutou exchanged glances. "You weren't," confirmed Sugoroku gently, "but never mind. How are you feeling, Aoi-chan?"
"I'm...confused." Aoi glanced around the hospital room, taking in its stark walls and strange medical equipment. An egg-shaped helmet bristling with wires rested on a small metal table in one corner. Something about the sight of it made Aoi feel cold. "What happened to me?"
"You fainted all of a sudden back at the game store. Mokuba-kun and his brother brought you to this hospital for treatment. They've been quite generous."
The note of skepticism in Sugoroku's voice wasn't lost on Mokuba.
"Back to mistrusting us, Mutou-jiisan?" the boy asked, smirking. "Don't worry. We'll only stick you with the medical bills if you keep acting ungrateful for our help."
"You sound more and more like your brother every day," sighed Mr. Mutou.
Movement from Aoi drew both Mokuba and Sugoroku's attention. Partially tangled in electrical cords from the various monitoring devices to which she'd been attached, Aoi rose clumsily from the hospital bed despite Sugoroku's protests. Her hair fell in a curtain over her face as she bowed deeply in Mokuba's direction.
"I'm incredibly thankful for all you've done," she said. "Please understand, though: my debts don't belong to the Mutou family. They've been kind to me, but if any repayment needs to be made, I accept full responsibility. Please don't burden them for my sake."
The girl's dire speech seemed to fluster Mokuba; he blinked a few times before waving one hand in a reassuring gesture. "Uh, hey, don't worry about it. I was just kidding about the money stuff. Mostly," he added under his breath.
Aoi glanced at Mr. Mutou for confirmation. The old man nodded. "Sit down, Aoi-chan. There's no need to worry." He turned to Mokuba. "Though I would like to speak with your brother as soon as possible, Mokuba-kun. The doctors won't tell us anything about Aoi-chan's condition, but Seto-kun has been receiving updates, hasn't he?"
Seto. Aoi's heart flipped over in her chest.
Mokuba gave an unimpressed snort. "Oh, so you're finally willing to talk to him? You're gonna need to wait a little while for that. He's probably busy dueling your grandson on the roof right now."
"He's what?" cried Sugoroku after a disbelieving pause.
"You should have known that your daughter would immediately tell Yugi what happened and send him after you," Mokuba said. "Do you Mutous have some kind of genetic predisposition towards naivety, or is it just a family tradition?"
"No more than conniving is for you Kaibas! Was luring Yugi into a duel the only reason you helped us?!"
"Well, it was certainly an important decision factor," quipped the boy.
Mr. Mutou pinched the bridge of his nose. "And did it ever occur to either of you that simply apologizing to Yugi would be an easier means of getting him to approach you than all this scheming?"
"Maybe not easier." Mokuba's mouth twisted ruefully. "My brother doesn't apologize to anybody for anything."
The boy's unhappy expression reminded Sugoroku of the way Yugi used to look after particularly difficult phone conversations with his father. The old man felt his indignation leech away into pity.
"Mokuba-kun," he began.
"Save it," Mokuba stopped him. "It's none of your business."
Yugi had never wanted to talk about it, either. With a sigh, Mr. Mutou let the matter drop in favor of his original aim: "I don't suppose you could ask a doctor to give us some straight answers, then? Aoi-chan has a right to know about her condition."
Mokuba bit his lip, thinking it over.
"Dr. Dhawan wanted to run some more tests," he said at length, "but she can at least tell you what she's done so far. I don't think oniisama would mind." He turned as if to leave, saying "Stay here and I'll get-"
Mokuba stopped short. Mr. Mutou followed the younger Kaiba's confused gaze to Aoi's bedside. Where the girl had once stood, only empty air and a tangle of loose wires remained.
"Where'd she go?" asked Mokuba.
Aoi regretted her impulsive escape as the door to the roof-access staircase closed behind her. Dashing from her hospital room had left her heart pounding, and her vision spun so badly she needed to shut her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, the poorly lit concrete-and-metal stairway reminded Aoi of the dark passages from her dream, filling her with a dissonant sense of deja vu. She felt as though her mind was a radio stuck between two different stations, neither of which was coming through clearly enough for her to understand. She put one hand to her throbbing head as she climbed slowly up the stairs, her other hand gripping the metal railing to steady herself.
I'm running out of time, she thought without knowing why. Fear, sadness, and a deep, terrible longing battered her heart. Through her confusion and nausea, a single idea persisted: if she could only see Seto Kaiba and speak to him, her mind would clarify and she would know what to do next. The feeling made no rational sense, but she felt more certain about it than about anything she could remember.
She could remember...
"The palace is about to collapse; we need to get out now!"
"Lord Set, why is this happening? Is it because of--"
Aoi doubled over, dry-heaving. Darkness crept in at the corners of her vision as she fought for breath. Distantly, she heard someone rattling the handle of the door she'd come through, but for some reason, the door would not open for them.
"I should have known you would be here as well," intoned a deep, unnatural voice, "woman of the White Dragon."
With effort, Kisara lifted her head towards the speaker. A silver-haired phantom hovered over the shadowed stairs in front of her. Half of its face was covered by a broken mask inlaid with a tarnished golden eye; the other half was a dried mummy's face, lipless and grimacing, its eye a hollow socket.
"Akhnadin," Kisara rasped.
A horrible scraping noise like a tomb door sliding shut filled the staircase chamber; it took Kisara a moment to recognize the sound as Akhnadin's laughter. The phantom pointed a long-nailed finger at her.
"Your human shell is finely made, but fragile," observed Akhnadin. "I can see that body dying all around you. It will expire soon, and you will belong to the Shadow Realm once more."
"Not before I warn Kaiba-sama about you," she vowed.
"Such a harsh tone from one who I greet not as an enemy, but as an ally."
Kisara made no reply.
"We should be allies," continued the dark priest. "We have experienced the same heartache: neither of us can reach Set while his soul dwells in the Pharaoh's afterlife. I stood outside that realm's doors for three thousand years, clawing at the barriers that keep me from my son, to no avail. And because the true form of your soul is inhuman, you cannot join him, either. We must therefore content ourselves with the sliver of his spirit that reincarnated into this time and place. Seto Kaiba is not my son any more than he is your rescuer, but a part of Set lives on in him. For that part's sake, we both devote ourselves to his well-being."
"Well-being," echoed Kisara. "If you mean that, you must help me warn Kaiba-sama not to return to the afterlife."
"I will not dissuade him from fulfilling his destiny."
"Destiny? It could kill him!"
"His body and soul are strong enough to endure travelling between dimensions," said Akhnadin, waving away her concern.
Kisara shook her head. "You only want to use Kaiba-sama the way you tried to use Lord Set, to satisfy your ego and your need for conquest," she accused.
"Stupid girl, can you not see that the need for conquest is his? The Pharaoh's wretched soul has finally departed from this world, and still Seto Kaiba seeks to defeat him. He followed him into Death itself to do so!" Akhnadin laughed again, this time in amazed joy. "All this he did without so much as a whisper from me. I need not impel Seto Kaiba to battle; he strives for that on his own, more than my own son ever did. You are the one who defies his will and seeks to manipulate him."
"I came here to save him!"
"From what? From power and glory? From the dearest wish of his own heart?" Akhnadin pointed at Kisara once more. "If your love for him was truly selfless, you would have remained as his servant and continued to do his bidding. I think you are jealous-jealous because you realize that Seto Kaiba will not throw away his kingly future for you as Set did."
"You're wrong about me, and you don't understand anything about love," said Kisara quietly.
"Perhaps," allowed Akhnadin, surprising her, "but I am not wrong about Seto Kaiba. The moment you reveal your identity to him, you will see that he prefers you as the White Dragon, a tool to bring him victory. He will reject your so-called help."
"If you're so certain of that, why try to stop me from speaking with him?" The phantom hesitated a second too long in answering the question. Kisara continued, answering it herself, "You see the same goodness in him that I do. It's buried deeper in Kaiba-sama than it was in Lord Set, but it's there. There's more to him than the desire for victory. Seto Kaiba could be a good man--"
"'Good' men do not build dynasties or change the world! 'Good' men are weak. They are forgotten. Seto Kaiba has a greater destiny, the same destiny my son once had-to defeat the Pharaoh and live as a king without equal! You will not interfere with his fate again," thundered Akhnadin. It seemed the darkness in the stairs deepened as he spoke.
"Kill me again, then, if you can," Kisara dared him shakily. Ill, alone, and clad only in a thin hospital gown, she nevertheless drew herself up defiantly as she faced down Akhnadin's vengeful ghost. "Only I think you would have stopped me already if you were capable of doing so."
The darkness in the stairs deepened as she spoke, and an eldritch hum indetectible to most living ears began to build around Akhnadin, threatening violence. If Kisara had learned anything about magic during her three thousand years in the Shadow Realm, that knowledge was gone now, sacrificed with other memories in a deal she did not recall making for her human body. However, a part of Kisara still remembered how to do battle on the planes of existence between thought and reality, life and death. If necessary, she would shed her corporeal form prematurely to put herself between Seto and the twisted remains of Akhnadin's spirit. She braced herself to meet the specter's first assault, but Akhnadin surprised her again by backing down from the confrontation with another horrible laugh.
"Maybe you understand me better than I first thought. In which case, we could perhaps reach a compromise," he said.
Kisara did not respond. The dark priest continued anyway, as she suspected he would,
"We both want Seto to be happy. I am not short-sighted; I realize that even if he becomes the king of this time and place, there will come a day when he has nothing left to conquer, or when his triumphs are so assured that he will grow bored with them. On that day his heart will likely turn to tenderer desires: he will want companionship, a family, and worthy heirs to cement his power. As a human woman, you could give him all of those things."
Kisara stared at Akhnadin in utter dumbfoundment. She couldn't help it; she hadn't felt this level of surprise since she'd first glimpsed giant monsters doing battle in an underground arena.
"Zorc Necrophades is gone, but even a scrap of his power is more than sufficient to sustain that body of yours. Return willingly to the Shadow Realm to serve Seto Kaiba as the White Dragon. In return, I will keep your human body safe and healthy, and when Seto's conquering days are behind him, I will reunite your soul with it so that you can reign as Seto's queen."
"Why should I believe that you would go to all that trouble for me?" demanded Kisara.
"Because I know that as misguided as your priorities are, your devotion to Seto has never wavered. A loyal wife is worth almost as much as a loyal dragon," Akhnadin replied. "Do as I suggest and we will not need to fight, because Seto will receive both of the things we want for him: glory and love, hand-in-hand."
"Now you value love?"
The phantom shrugged. "I discounted its allure the first time around. And if I were you, woman of the White Dragon, I would not discount the importance of glory this time around--not if you wish to succeed with Seto Kaiba. Think on my offer as your body breaks down and he refuses to listen to your well-intentioned pleas."
So saying, Akhnadin's ghost vanished, taking much of the stairwell's darkness with him.
Aoi gazed for a long moment at the space the phantom had occupied. Then, still clutching the metal railing, she threw up inelegantly on the stairs.
Chapter 7: Dragon's Mirror
"It was easier for him to jump out a fucking window than live with the fact that he'd lost, and it's the same for you. You're just going about it in a different way."
The door to the maintenance stairwell finally opened for Sugoroku Mutou, its hinges giving a single shriek as it admitted him into the dingy vertical passage. He furrowed his brow at the knob he'd been rattling, baffled, but all thoughts of strangely uncooperative doors fled when he saw Aoi huddled at the bottom of the stairs. Her skin looked almost transluscent under the cold industrial ceiling lights: blue-green veins stood out on her arms and the backs of her hands, while her cracked lips had gone nearly colorless.
"There you are, Aoi-chan. You gave us all a scare, running off like that." Mr. Mutou approached her carefully, noting a small splash of vomit halfway up the staircase. "Did you try to go get some fresh air?"
When Aoi made no answer, the old man took a seat next to her, settling himself onto the lowest step with a slight oof.
"I'm not fond of hospitals, myself. My wife's final illness required me to spend a lot of time in them. The doctors did their best for her, but...well." A wry smile crossed Sugoroku's lips. "Omocha is worse than I am; she can't stand to be in a hospital or a doctor's office. I barely got her to the delivery ward when she went into labor. Yugi-kun was premature, you know, so Omocha kept shouting, 'It's not time yet! I don't have to go if it's not time!' But even she was glad to have all those doctors around when Yugi-kun showed up. He was so small..." Trailing off, Mr. Mutou scratched at the back of his neck. "I apologize. You're feeling poorly and I'm going on about old memories."
"No," whispered Aoi, "I'm sorry. For all the trouble I've caused--for everything."
Something in her voice made Sugoroku study Aoi more closely. Though Aoi's face and eyes were dry, she trembled as if she were wracked with sobs, and Mr. Mutou realized that what he'd taken for vague misery in her demeanor was, in fact, fear--a terror so deep and profound that it defied conventional expression.
"What's the matter, Aoi-chan?" the old man asked softly.
A long moment passed before Aoi responded in a whisper, "You'll think I'm crazy."
"I highly doubt that," snorted Sugoroku. "I've seen and heard plenty of unbelievable things in my lifetime. Most of them turned out to be true."
Another silence. Then, with visible effort, Aoi blurted, "You were talking about memories. Your wife's death, your grandson's birth."
Mr. Mutou nodded.
"I've been thinking about them, too. Memories. I don't--I don't think I have any." Aoi darted a glance at Sugoroku as if expecting him to question or protest her claim. Mr. Mutou simply waited until she elaborated, "I know things. I know my parents are dead. I know I wanted to move to Domino City. I know I must have had a childhood. But I don't remember how my parents died, or where I lived before I came here, or what my childhood was like. I have just enough information to make myself think I can remember, placeholders in my mind where memories should be. I didn't even realize anything was missing until now."
She lapsed into quiet again.
"What's the earliest thing you can specifically recall?" Sugoroku asked.
"Riding on the train the other day." She hesitated before admitting, "I've been having dreams, too."
"And these dreams feel like memories to you?"
"Yes. They can't be my memories, though. Even if they didn't have monsters and magic and other impossible things in them, the 'me' in my dreams isn't me. She's not 'Aoi.'"
The girl shivered so hard now that her teeth chattered. Mr. Mutou grasped her arm in an attempt to ground and soothe her.
"It's all right, dear. We'll figure out what's going on. There's no need to be afraid," he assured her.
"But I am afraid," blurted Aoi. "I don't feel like I'm insane, or brain-damaged, or sick. I think..." Aoi pressed a hand to her mouth as though attempting to physically hold back her next words, then, with a dry sob, she moved it away and forced out, "Mutou-san... I don't think I'm real."
Two flights of stairs above Aoi and Sugoroku, the door leading out to the roof burst open. Voices tumbled into the building like leaves riding a gust of wind:
"That's right, you empty suits, open the hell up!"
"Kaiba-kun, wait! Where are you going? What's wrong?"
"He's just throwing a tantrum like always, Yugi!"
"No, this is..."
Mr. Mutou and Aoi rose as footsteps clattered down the stairs. Seto Kaiba and two of his bodyguards appeared on the landing above them. Bedecked in his full dueling gear, the blue lights on his disk and headpiece glowing, Kaiba cut the figure of a cyberpunk warrior. He wore a hunted, thunderous expression. Hot on his heels, Yugi and Jounouchi stumbled into view.
"Jii-chan," greeted Yugi breathlessly, ducking sideways to meet his grandfather's gaze rather than attempting to look over Kaiba's much taller shoulder.
"What happened?" asked Mr. Mutou.
Jounouchi spoke so quickly that his words ran together: "A draw! Their decks both got down to their last few cards and Yugi returned Card Destruction to his hand with the Magician of Faith and...!"
Kaiba's gaze locked on Aoi as Jounouchi talked. With a wordless growl, he descended the stairs two at a time until he stood directly over the girl, taking advantage of both his natural height and the few inches afforded by standing one step above her.
"Where is it?" he barked.
Back at Kame Game Shop, Aoi had been drawn to Kaiba as though magnetized; now, that magnet's poles reversed, she shrunk away from him, pressing herself closer to the stair wall. "W-What?" she managed to squeak, wide-eyed.
"Where is my Blue-Eyes White Dragon? You did something--that light earlier...!"
"What on Earth are you talking about, Kaiba-kun?" demanded Sugoroku.
"I drew every card in my deck during that duel, and only two of my Blue-Eyes were there!" Kaiba continued, still addressing Aoi. "I had them all when I reviewed my deck this morning. You're the only thing that happened in between!"
Yugi and his grandfather exchanged a glance that managed to convey mutual confusion while simultaneously acknowledging the irony of Kaiba's predicament. Mr. Mutou asked,
"How could Aoi-chan have gotten your card? You said yourself that she never touched your things."
"I don't know!" Kaiba burst out. He shot Sugoroku a glare that could have stripped paint from the walls. "I don't know how she took it, and if I was living in a logical world, I'd believe that she couldn't have! But I don't live in a logical world anymore. Thanks to your grandson, I live in a world of ancient magic and haunted jewelry and dead women from my dreams walking around in the flesh! So I'll ask you again, Shirogane Aoi, if that's even your name: where is my Blue-Eyes White Dragon?"
"I don't know," stammered Aoi. "I-I didn't take it, I didn't do anything, I swear...!"
Kaiba loomed even further into Aoi's space. "You're lying!" he snarled desperately.
Several things happened at once then. First, yelling, "You asshole, you don't bully girls!" Jounouchi lunged at Kaiba's back, only to be intercepted by the bodyguards, who attempted to put him in a headlock amid Yugi and Sugoroku's vehement protests. Second, with the bodyguards and Jounouchi out of the way, Yugi got his first proper look at Aoi. His eyes widened in recognition. Third, Mokuba and Dr. Dhawan entered the stairway through the door Sugoroku had utilized. Mokuba saw his brother menacing the pale, weird girl who had run away from the hospital room, his face a rictus of irrational fury, and he had a strange thought in response to the sight. He didn't wonder what had enraged his brother to that extent, or consider whether the rage was justified. He only thought, Nii-sama looks just like Gozaburo.
Then Dr. Dhawan stepped forward and shouted, "Enough!"
The authoritative pitch of her voice managed to penetrate the hindbrain of every individual in the stairwell. Even Kaiba's gaze snapped to the neurologist, who surveyed the suspended chaos before her with pursed lips and a thoroughly disapproving stare.
"This is a hospital, not a football pitch!" she barked in accented but serviceable Japanese. She pointed at the bodyguards and at the still-struggling Jounouchi. "You and you, unhand that boy immediately. You, boy, control yourself! And you, Kaiba-san, may step away from my patient. Whatever you need to speak to her about can wait until after I've finished the tests you requested."
The first three men did as she instructed. Kaiba merely narrowed his eyes. "You're fired," he snapped.
"Technically, I work for Mokuba-kun now. We just renegotiated my employment contract," Dr. Dhawan informed him calmly.
Kaiba transferred his glare to his little brother. "Tell her to leave, Mokuba. This isn't her business anymore."
Mokuba swallowed. "No."
Surprise and irritation flickered over Seto's face. "Mokuba," he warned, "you don't understand what's going on right now. Stop this."
"What are you going to do if I refuse?" asked Mokuba. "Call me a loser again? Fire me? Or maybe you could lock me up or hit me!"
Shocked silence fell over the stairs. Then Seto hissed, "How dare you. You know I would never!"
"Do I? Because you're talking and acting an awful lot like the guy who did it to both of us!" Mokuba lifted his chin. "I love you, nii-sama, and I'm not just going to stand by and watch you turn into him!"
"I would never let myself become anything like him!"
"You already have! It was easier for him to jump out a fucking window than live with the fact that he'd lost, and it's the same for you. You're just going about it in a different way."
Mokuba looked contemptuously at the pocket of Seto's coat where he kept the Quantum Cube. Seto grasped the implication.
"That's not the same and you know it," he snarled.
Mokuba's voice cracked along with his composure: "The hell it isn't! You left me! You left me and you couldn't even promise me you'd come back! You don't get to do that and then say it's not like killing yourself! You could have died for a duel, and you aren't sorry! You--you're a coward, nii-sama!"
Everybody stood frozen as Mokuba's words rang through the stairwell. Holding their collective breath, no one dared to move or speak. They watched Seto's rigid countenance slowly settle into an almost neutral glower. His shoulders relaxed. His spine straightened. Then he stepped around Aoi in order to make his way down to the landing, his bodyguards following him after a long moment. The older Kaiba walked past Mokuba and Dr. Dhawan without so much as a glance in their direction. Boots echoing on the concrete, he exited calmly through the door to the top floor of the hospital, which shut behind him and his two guards with a resounding click.
Hurt and humiliated, Mokuba flushed bright red. He gritted his teeth as the tears that had pooled in his eyes spilled over. Somehow, in that moment, his fine bespoke suit and loafers made him look more like a child rather than less.
"He hates me now," Mokuba choked out. "He hates me."
"Nonsense," murmured Dr. Dhawan.
Mokuba shook his head violently. "Y-You don't know what he's like! Once he loses faith in you and writes you off, that's it, there aren't any second chances! He's n-never going to want to see me again!"
"You're family. That is stronger than hurt feelings or judgments. Your brother will let go of both."
"B-But nii-sama never lets go of anything," croaked Mokuba.
Yugi spoke up softly: "Mokuba-kun, I-"
Despair transmuting into anger, the thirteen-year-old spun on his heel and glared poisonously at the King of Games. "I don't want to hear anything out of you, Yugi! As far as I'm concerned, this is all your fault--yours and the Pharaoh's! Our lives would be better if you had never solved that stupid Puzzle!"
"Hey, don't blame Yugi because your brother's a jerk!" cried Jounouchi.
"Shut up!" Mokuba shot back. "And why are you crying?!"
It took everyone a moment to comprehend that the boy's question was directed at Aoi. The white-haired girl blinked at Mokuba owlishly. Raising a hand to her face, she found her cheeks damp with tears she hadn't realized she had been shedding.
"...I don't know," she whispered distantly.
An awkward silence descended over the stairwell at that. Clearing his throat, Sugoroku broke it.
"Aoi-chan has had a difficult day. I'll take her back to her room." Then, in slightly rusty Hindi, he asked, "Unless there's a more suitable place I could bring her, doctor? You mentioned additional tests."
"You know such interesting people, Mokuba-kun," Dr. Dhawan commented in English. Mokuba surfaced from the choppy seas of his own anger and sadness in order to roll his eyes and mutter about old show-offs. To Mr. Mutou Dr. Dhawan said, "Her original room will serve nicely. And your effort is appreciated, but I am Punjabi."
Sugoroku smiled, shook his head, and returned to Japanese. "I never had the pleasure of learning that language!"
"I know more than him," Mokuba mumbled in Punjabi, glaring at Sugoroku.
"Am I going crazy, or is your grandpa flirting with that lady doctor? And is Mokuba jealous about it?" Jounouchi asked Yugi lowly as he rejoined his best friend at the top of the stairs.
"I think he's just trying to distract Mokuba-kun, but if he was seriously flirting, that wouldn't be the weirdest thing to happen today," Yugi whispered back. He gestured at Aoi. "Speaking of which, am I going crazy, or...?"
Jounouchi did a double-take as he registered the girl's appearance for the first time. "She looks just like that chick from the Memory World RPG! The one those villagers beat up..."
"Yeah." Yugi sighed. "Makes me think that there's more going on here than just Kaiba-kun being Kaiba-kun."
"You can say 'being an asshole,' it's fine," deadpanned Jounouchi, grinning as Yugi snorted a laugh in response. Then, more seriously, he asked, "Hey, what about you?"
"What about me?"
"Are you okay?" Yugi started to reply, but Jounouchi cut him off, "I mean really."
Yugi bit his lip. "I'm... angry at Kaiba. And I'm confused, and I'm worn out," he admitted slowly. I miss Atem, he did not say. "But, I mean, if I'm not okay now, I still think I'll be okay, eventually."
Jounouchi gave a short nod. "We'll figure this out together. You aren't alone here, Yugi."
As Yugi smiled to himself, quiet and genuine, he failed to notice the single golden eye watching the scene unblinkingly from its nest in the stairs' deepest shadows. Its owner might have smiled too as Sugoroku led Aoi back into the hospital, Mokuba and the doctor trailing behind them.
Chapter 8: Cards of Consonance
She wanted to warn Sugoroku and Yugi, "You mustn't keep being nice to me. I'm not real."
Close to a week after his duel with Kaiba, Yugi hurried into the library situated between Domino University's Computer Science and Engineering buildings. Geared more towards technology than academic research or the arts, the library boasted almost as many computers as it did bookshelves, though Yugi paid attention to neither as he made for the back of the building. He found a single vacant private study room and darted inside, effectively stealing it from another group of students who'd been angling for the space. They glared at him as he kicked the door shut with his heel, but for once, Yugi didn't care. He spilled most of his textbooks onto the floor in his haste to remove his laptop from his backpack. This, too, he ignored; he left them lying on the dingy gray carpet in favor of placing his computer on the table in front of him, booting it up, and opening his preferred video-chat program.
"C'mon, c'mon," he muttered, clicking furiously, "don't have gone out already, I need to talk to you..."
To his relief, Anzu's face appeared on his screen. "Yugi, you're late!" she scolded him. "I was about to leave and do some grocery shopping!"
"I know. I'm sorry. Class ran long," Yugi apologized, then greeted her as their tradition dictated: "Hello from tomorrow!"
"Hello from yesterday," replied Anzu. Even in a low-resolution image, she looked radiant as always; six months in a strange country hadn't dampened her spirit in the slightest, though if pressed, Yugi would have said Anzu had matured since the beginning of her journey. Thoughtfulness and self-confidence attended her more closely now, though energetic optimism remained at the forefront of her personality. She grinned at Yugi, and his stomach turned the little somersault it still tended to do whenever Anzu regarded him affectionately. The King of Games had mostly gotten over his crush on his childhood friend--his trials over the past few years had led Yugi to value Anzu infinitely more as a platonic companion than as a potential romantic partner--but years of pining had left a mark on his subconscious that wouldn't disappear anytime soon. Perhaps a part of him would always be a little in love with Anzu Mazaki, the same way a part of him would always love...
Yugi pushed that train of thought away; now wasn't the time.
"How are you? Were you up very late practicing last night?" he asked. "You and your classmates are still preparing that big routine, right?"
"Yeah, but Susan and Diego had to leave early to work on another project, so last night's session didn't last very long. Normally that would annoy me, but I was kinda grateful for the break this time." Absently, she twirled a strand of her hair around her index finger. Anzu had been letting it grow since she'd arrived in New York, and it fell just past her shoulders now. "What about you? Any more coding all-nighters?"
"Fewer now that midterms are over. School's been pretty stable compared to everything else."
Anzu's brows drew together with equal parts protectiveness and worry. "Has Kaiba challenged you again?"
"Not yet." Which surprised Yugi. He could only assume that fighting with Mokuba was currently claiming the bulk of the CEO's attention. Anzu must have been thinking along similar lines, because she asked after Mokuba next. "I haven't heard from him at all. I'm worried about him, but I think he'd push me away if I tried to reach out to him just now," said Yugi.
Anzu nodded. Then, eyes widening, she cried, "That girl! I completely forgot about her! How is she?"
"Did you get...?"
"The photo, yes! She really does look just like that woman we saw in Ancient Egypt. It's wild! And you said she has amnesia?"
"Yes, though the doctor couldn't find any neurological reason for it. Shirogane-chan's tests all came back fine."
"She's still living with your family, then?" Yugi nodded. "It was kind of your mother and grandfather to take her in..."
"It's weird, Anzu-chan. She's very grateful to us, but she acts like she expects us to kick her out any minute."
"Like she's...scared of you?" Anzu's facial expression went on an incredulous journey as she tried to imagine anyone feeling intimidated by the Mutou family.
"Not quite like that. It's hard to explain..." Yugi considered for a second. "For example, every morning, she hides her futon away before any of us get up. Okaa-san told her she could keep it in the living room, but she always puts it back in the linen closet. She never leaves anything lying around, not even dishes or a cup of water."
"She's just being neat and polite."
"Well, yes, but I think it goes beyond politeness. I haven't seen her sit down and take a moment to herself at all. I mean, she has tea with jii-chan every day, but that's the closest she gets to relaxing. She's always doing chores or helping at the game shop. She's almost frantic about it, like she thinks we'll throw her to the curb if she isn't useful to us."
"Maybe," said Anzu. "Or maybe it's not about you guys at all. Maybe she's just freaked out because she's alone and she can't remember anything. You remember all the weird stuff Atem did in the beginning, when he wasn't even sure if he was a part of you or not?"
Yugi paused, half taken aback at how casually Anzu could reference the Pharaoh, half skeptical of her connection between Atem and Aoi's respective behaviors. "...I don't think setting people on fire is quite the same as compulsively mopping floors, Anzu-chan."
Anzu did a double-take. "When did Atem set people on fire?!"
Oh, damn. Losing his other self also meant that Yugi had lost the voice in his head that would remind him which of his friends knew about what drastic actions Atem had taken in their name.
"No one died! ...I mean, I'm pretty sure no one died, and anyway, most of them were going to kill me or you or Jounouchi-kun first!" Yugi scrambled to explain.
"You are going to tell me more about this very soon," growled Anzu, pointing at Yugi with a flinty stare, "but because a homeless man took his pants off in front of me today, I'm not emotionally equipped to drag the information out of you just now."
"A homeless guy did what?"
"Relax, he was old and harmless and I would have scratched his face off if he'd tried anything." Anzu held up her French-manicured nails demonstratively. "Back to Shirogane-san. Have you told her anything yet?"
Yugi opened his mouth to press her for more details, but then he sighed and let it go in favor of reflecting on Anzu's query. He had witnessed firsthand the emotional toll amnesia had taken on Atem; he wanted to spare Aoi similar pain, but so far, he'd failed to confide in her about the Memory World RPG. His hesitance was partly due to the fact that he didn't have much to tell. Yugi had seen Aoi's ancient doppelganger a grand total of once, and though Atem had given Yugi summaries of the game's events and of his own memories, only the former had included the white-haired girl's sad story; the Pharaoh had known Kisara solely as the Blue-Eyes White Dragon. There was also the more obvious problem:
"I don't know if she'll believe me about the whole magic-glimpse-into-the-past thing. Whether she's Kisara's reincarnation or not..."
"She must be! It's too much of a coincidence for her to be anything else." Anzu got a faraway look in her eye as she mused, "According to Atem, the Ancient Egyptian version of Kaiba saved Kisara, and then she saved him after she died. Now their souls have found each other again after thousands of years... It's actually very romantic when you think about it. And it makes Kaiba's fixation on the Blue-Eyes White Dragon seem almost sane."
"The situation would be more romantic if it didn't involve Kaiba," Yugi snorted dryly.
Anzu came back to her senses, making a face. "Point taken. But you should still tell Shirogane-san what you know, Yugi."
"I know I should. I'm just not sure of the best way to do it."
His friend recognized the plaintive note in Yugi's voice from their middle-school days; it was his help me, Anzu, people are difficult and I don't know how to talk to them tone. Younger Anzu might have rolled her eyes and acquiesced to his unspoken plea, enjoying the sense of altruism and superiority she gained from helping shy, dorky Yugi Mutou navigate the messy world of human relationships. Older Anzu realized that Yugi actually understood people quite well. One had only to watch him duel in order to see his insight at work: unlike Seto Kaiba, whose tactics involved powering through any curveballs his foes could throw at him, or even Atem, who had kept challengers off-balance through innovative combos delivered for maximum shock value, Yugi worked within his opponents' own strategies, maneuvering them inexorably towards defeat even as they thought they were steering themselves toward victory. He couldn't have dueled in such a manner without a bone-deep understanding of human psychology; he simply had a hard time translating that knowledge outside of a game's framework when it involved people he didn't know well.
But Anzu, too, understood people, and more than that, she understood Yugi better now than she ever had. So instead of giving him straightforward advice, she asked,
"Well, what would you do if this was a game?"
Yugi, who had been staring off into space and rubbing the back of his neck agitatedly, blinked at Anzu in surprise. "Huh?"
"Say this was a roleplaying game-the kind Bakura-kun likes-and Shirogane-san was an, uh," Anzu cast around for the proper jargon, "an NPC, a stranger, who you wanted to help. How would you approach her with unbelievable but necessary information if you weren't sure how she'd respond to it?"
Yugi frowned and crossed his arms. Most times, he looked like a child when he assumed that posture, his lower lip pushed out and his large eyes narrowing thoughtfully, but in that moment, Yugi reminded Anzu of Atem, calculating odds and pursuing victory conditions with single-minded determination. At length Yugi said,
"Well, I'd have to give her a reason to trust me, first off, in order to lower the DC for persuading her. So I'd probably try to build a relationship between our characters somehow-see if she needs me to go on a quest for her or something. Then after showing her I'm trustworthy, I'd give her a small piece of the information and see how she reacted. If she seemed willing to accept it, I'd feel better about sharing the rest."
A soft smile broke over Anzu's face, but she managed to keep her tone matter-of-fact as she concluded, "So you need to do what you do best: make friends. Show Shirogane-san your intentions are good, and she'll be more likely to believe what you tell her, especially if you break it to her gradually."
"Right...yes, of course!" Yugi's eyes widened as he made the connection between the hypothetical and reality. "Anzu, you're brilliant!"
"Uh, you realize you're the one who figured out what to do, right? I just summed it up."
"Still," said Yugi. Then he chuckled and rubbed at the back of his head. "Making friends isn't what I do best, though. I'm the King of Games, not of friendship."
"Are you kidding me? It absolutely is what you're best at! You make friends with playing cards, Yugi; who else can do that?"
"Atem," blurted Yugi without thinking. "Atem did, too."
"Well, yes," agreed Anzu hastily, "but he was also a three-thousand-year-old sorcerer-king. You make friends just by being Mutou Yugi. I call that more impressive."
Now it was Yugi's turn to smile softly at her. "Thank you, Anzu-chan," he said.
They spent the next half-hour taking about other, less consequential things (Anzu's immature roommates, Jounouchi's new part-time job, Otogi and Honda's continued rivalry for Shizuka's affections and whether or not it actually constituted an elaborate framework of flirtation between Otogi and Honda), and by the time Yugi bid Anzu farewell, his mind felt clearer and his heart fuller than it had in a while. He knew his next moves, now, he thought as he left the library and pulled out his cell phone. All that remained was to make them.
He dialed Jounouchi's number with a determined grin.
The middle-aged woman's impeccable makeup did nothing to soften her pinched, suspicious scowl. The corners of her mouth went tight with displeasure as she regarded the box Aoi had given her.
"You're certain you don't have any blue ones?" she asked.
Aoi straightened from her apologetic bow. "Yes, ma'am. Unfortunately, we've sold out of blue consoles."
"Because my son was very set on the blue. It's his favorite."
"I understand. I'm very sorry, but we don't have the blue in stock right now," said Aoi.
A part of her wished that the woman would order her to check in the back again, if only because it would give her an excuse to hide away for a minute. Kame Game Store had been enjoying an unusually busy afternoon; Sugoroku was helping some schoolchildren pick out booster packs in one corner of the store, while Omocha manned the cash register, ringing up a pierced, tattooed group of duelists who had dropped in hoping to get a glance at Yugi Mutou (contrary to their rebellious aesthetic, they'd proven polite enough to buy a few things even after being disappointed). That left Aoi the mother attempting to find a birthday gift for her son. Over her short time working in the store, Aoi had encountered far ruder customers, but a headache made her current situation feel more difficult to manage than normal. In her heart of hearts, Aoi just wanted the woman to go away, but losing business for her rescuers was out of the question. So instead she went on,
"If the silver isn't acceptable, we have black, red, and purple as well..."
The woman's distrustful gaze flicked from the box to Aoi herself. "You have all those colors, but not blue?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Ridiculous!" snorted the woman.
"I-It's a very popular color, so--"
"You should have ordered more of it, then, shouldn't you?"
Ignoring the rhetorical question, Aoi hazarded, "Perhaps I could take your number and call you when we get more in?"
"I came all the way here from the westernmost borough of the city, and I'm not eager to make that trip again," said the woman. "Clearly I should have just gone to the electronics superstore closer to my home."
"I'm very sorry for the inconvenience," Aoi told her, bowing again despite her head's protests. Inspiration hit her suddenly; she straightened, retrieved another product from an adjacent shelf, and showed it to the woman, explaining, "We do have blue protective cases for the consoles. Would one of them be acceptable?"
The woman didn't turn her nose up at her suggestion right away, which made Aoi's chest swell with hope. It deflated quickly, however, when the woman said, "I assume it's deeply discounted."
"Because otherwise, I'd have to question the business practices of a store that not only fails to supply its customers with what they need, but tries to hoodwink them into paying more to make up for its shortcomings."
Aoi felt nervous sweat gathering at the small of her back. "I'm not... That is, I can't promise any kind of-"
"Is everything all right over here?"
Aoi almost failed to recognize the overly-cheery voice as belonging to Yugi, who had materialized quite suddenly at her side; he must have just arrived home from university, but somehow, he'd managed to don a green Kame Game Shop apron and sneak into the store without anyone noticing him. He wore the most impeccable customer-service smile Aoi had ever seen. She envied him for it; she always wound up looking half crazy or vaguely pained whenever she practiced her own fake smile in the mirror.
Clearly the woman knew who Yugi was, or else she noticed the excited sussurus that had swept through Kame Game Shop when he'd spoken up, because she paused, her face reddening, before explaining the situation in far more subdued tones than she'd used with Aoi. Yugi listened attentively, and after the woman finished, he told her,
"I'm afraid we're not offering any discounts on the cases today, but--does your son happen to play Duel Monsters?" When the woman nodded, Yugi said, "I would be happy to sign something for him in order to make up for your trouble."
The whispers around them grew louder. Aoi knew from Sugoroku that Yugi almost never gave out autographs. He was doing so now in order to help her, she realized, abruptly understanding what Omocha had meant when she'd said Yugi had inherited his grandfather's kindness and then some.
Yugi steered the mollified woman to the cash register and personally rang up her purchase. He wound up signing the console case itself, using a metallic gold marker to draw a round, fuzzy creature with big eyes on the clamshell plastic. After that, the kids Sugoroku had been helping swarmed him, and Yugi good-naturedly autographed Duel Monsters cards for them and for every other customer in the store, though he politely declined requests for photos. The last to get his autograph, one of the punk duelists, asked him shyly,
"You used to draw an eye for your signature. Why the change?"
Yugi smiled; Aoi thought it looked a bit more like his customer-service grin than the previous few he'd given. "Kuriboh and I have been through a lot together, and he's more fun to draw."
The duelist bowed and thanked Yugi, then rejoined her group. They left the shop as one buzzing, excited mass. Sugoroku locked the door behind them.
"Once word gets out that you're handing out autographs, we'll have another mob on our hands. I can't afford to replace any more display cases, so we may as well close early," he grumbled. Yugi almost apologized, but then he noticed the proud twinkle in his grandfather's eye. "You made those kids' collective day, you know."
Sugoroku patted Yugi on the shoulder, then went into the back storeroom to begin the end-of-day organizing; Omocha followed after giving her son a kiss on the cheek. Stretching, Yugi stood, pushing the stool back from the check-out counter. Aoi approached him then.
"Yugi-san, thank you. I apologize for not handling that woman better," she said.
"Do you know how many times I've had pushy customers walk all over me?" Yugi asked. "More times than I can count. I get how awful it feels, so please don't worry about it."
Aoi nodded after a long moment. She looked tired, thought Yugi; her shoulders drooped and livid dark circles stood out under her eyes.
"Have you not been sleeping well, Shirogane-san?"
"Oh, yes. I mean, no. I mean, the futon is very comfortable," Aoi assured him hastily. The last thing she wanted to convey was any dissatisfaction or ingratitude.
Sensing his misstep, Yugi amended, "I only meant that you seem a little tense. Have you relaxed at all since coming to Domino?"
"Um... I suppose not," said Aoi, doubting that her time spent passed out in the hospital counted.
"Would you be up for doing something fun tomorrow night, then?" asked Yugi. "A group of friends and I just made plans to visit this giant arcade near the business district. It's been around since we were kids, but none of us have gone there since junior high. I'd like it if you could come, too."
Aoi stared at him for a moment with a vaguely lost, hunted expression, like Jounouchi when presented with a Calculus problem. "You want me to spend time with you and your friends?" she whispered. She didn't sound reluctant or skeptical; merely bemused, as though she lacked fundamental context for the idea.
"If it wouldn't be a bother..."
"N-No. No bother. Of course--yes. I'd like to." Aoi nodded jerkily. "Thank you."
"What a wonderful idea!" cried Sugoroku. Both Yugi and Aoi jumped as the old man sailed back into the main shop, a huge grin stretching his face. He didn't even try to pretend he hadn't been eavesdropping as he exclaimed, "Aoi-chan, you'll like Yugi's friends. They're a good bunch. And the timing couldn't be more convenient!"
He took Aoi's right hand and pressed something into her palm. She nearly dropped it when she realized what it was. "Mutou-san, I can't accept-!"
"Pish-posh! Of course you can; you earned it, and I already factored room and board into your wages. We can formalize an agreement later if that will make you feel better, but this is the going family rate."
Any further protests died in Aoi's throat as she devoted all her available mental resources to not breaking down in tears right then and there. A part of her wanted to fling her arms around Sugoroku and hug him as tightly as she could, while another part of her, a darker part, wanted to throw the money back at him and run from the game shop, never to return. Because even now, in this moment of overwhelming gratitude and happiness, she could not forget her experiences in the hospital: the confusion, the sickness, the fear, and above all, the persistent suspicion that her lack of memory wasn't due to amnesia at all, but rather due to having nothing to remember in the first place.
"Your human mask is well-made, but fragile." The statement had returned to her in one of many troubled dreams she'd had following her hospitalization; it was the only recollection she'd been able to pull from her subconscious related to the time she'd lost there. Accompanying it was a certainty that she was not the 'you' to which the speaker had been referring. She, Aoi Shirogane, was the mask.
She wanted to warn Sugoroku and Yugi, "You mustn't keep being nice to me. I'm not real. I'm like the layer of ice that covers the top of a leaf after a sleet storm--I only resemble what lives beneath me, and soon I'll probably melt or break away from it. The more I value, the more it will hurt when I do." But she could not force the words through the writhing mass of emotion she was only barely managing to hold back. Instead she merely nodded, hoping that her feelings of love and appreciation showed more clearly than her sorrow and dread.
"Well, that settles that!" decided Sugoroku, clapping his hands together. "Now, with all of us working together, we should be able to get the shop closed up in no time. I'll reconcile the cash register balance; Aoi-chan and Yugi, you're on cleanup duty."
Cleaning was good; cleaning she knew. Aoi spent the next thirty minutes imagining that she was neatening her mind as well as the store. She straightened the disorganized shelves of her anxieties, swept crumbs of fear from the floor. She bagged up her anger and sadness and imagined removing it from herself the way she removed the trash from Kame Game Shop. She paused at the store's dumpster to gaze at the sky, which late afternoon had tinged pink and gold, and tried to let the beauty of it fill her in place of worry and despair.
Things will be better tomorrow, she promised herself, and held Yugi's invitation firmly in her thoughts: a small light to drive back the seemingly endless gloom inside her.
Chapter 9: Bingo Machine Go
"We need to talk."
As the digital numbers on the wall clock switched from 5:59 to 6:00 AM, a ghostly pale figure entered the Mutous' kitchen. She turned on the overhead ceiling light and checked the rice cooker to ensure that its auto-steam function had worked correctly. It had, and she took a moment to inhale the subtle, comforting scent of fresh cooked grains before closing the machine's lid.
After retrieving a tub of Omocha's home-cooked miso soup and a package of salmon from the refrigerator, Aoi poured some of the soup into a pot, which she set on the gas cooktop to warm. She pressed and turned a knob to preheat the shoebox-sized broiler oven beneath the stove. From the oven, she removed the interior metal grill and the tray on which the grill sat. Then she cut the salmon fillet into four thin pieces, laid them on the grill, and slid the whole thing back into the broiler to cook.
"You're starting breakfast already?"
Aoi jumped, but she turned to regard the speaker with relative calm. "Yugi-kun. Good morning."
"Good mo--" Yugi interrupted himself with a jaw-cracking yawn. "Sorry. Good morning, Shirogane-chan."
"I haven't made any coffee yet..."
"That's all right, I'll do it."
The girl nodded and moved out of the way so Yugi could access the cabinets and counter. She watched him out of the corner of her eye as he poured water to heat in the family kettle. Yugi was a puzzle to her: by turns guileless and cunning, energetic and somber, he clearly harbored a complex inner life. Sugoroku had intimated to Aoi that Yugi had recently suffered a difficult personal loss that cast a pall over his meteoric rise in the gaming world. Aoi's heart went out to him, and while curiosity nagged at her, she'd long since resolved not to pick at that particular wound. She liked Yugi very much, though she'd spent the least amount of time with him out of all the Mutous; he had a way of putting people around him at ease which Aoi appreciated. She never felt uncomfortable with simply being quiet in his presence, though he readily chatted with her if she initiated conversation.
"Yugi-kun, how much does going to an arcade cost?" she blurted after spending a few moments gathering her courage.
"It's up to you! I mean, it depends on what kind of games you play and how many. Most cost 100 yen a go. Nowadays, some of the games require that you buy a memory card for storing your results on, but those are only about 300 yen apiece. There's no charge just to get into the arcade, if that's what you mean."
"It'll be easier to budget once you actually get to the arcade and figure out the kind of games you like best. We all have our favorites: Shizuka likes the claw-grabber games; Anzu liked the rhythm games best; Jounouchi prefers the coin-pushers and the other gambling simulators, and he and Honda like the fighting games, too. Otogi enjoys the strategy games and Ryou likes the RPGs, though they both prefer the tabletop kind..."
"I didn't realize how many different types there are."
Yugi nodded. "There's something for everyone. This place has darts, pool, and karaoke, too. It's a pretty big building--five stories."
"And your friends really don't mind my tagging along?"
"Of course we don't! The more the merrier. It'll be especially nice for Shizuka. She's been kind of outnumbered since Anzu went overseas."
"Kawai-san is Katsuya-san's sister," recalled Aoi.
"Yep, though they aren't much alike."
Sugoroku wandered into the kitchen rubbing his eyes then.
"Do I smell salmon?" he asked happily.
Aoi hastily checked the oven and was relieved to find the fish hadn't burnt. She'd singed more than her share of food over the course of her stay at the Mutou residence. "It'll be ready shortly," she said, turning off the burners; the salmon would finish cooking in the leftover heat.
"Morning, jii-chan. Is Mom up?"
"I am indeed," said Omocha, entering the room. Both Yugi and Aoi's eyes widened to see her dressed in far more stylish clothes than she typically wore around the shop; she even had on earrings and makeup.
"Omocha-san, you look..."
"Especially dressed-up," finished Yugi, an unspoken question in his tone.
"Why, thank you, Yugi," cooed Omocha. She said no more about it until after Aoi had plated their soup, rice, and salmon, and they'd all seated themselves at the kitchen table for breakfast.
"Yugi-kun, since you don't have class on weekends, I'm giving myself and Aoi this morning off. You can help your grandfather at the shop while she and I run a few errands."
"Uh, okay," said Yugi. Normally he would have protested: the store would be packed full of people who'd heard about his impromptu signing the previous day, and in such situations Yugi generally made himself scarce so as not to encourage the gawkers. But Omocha, knowing this, had made the decision to ask Yugi for help anyway, so whatever task she had to complete was evidently important enough to warrant it.
"I don't mind staying at the store," said Aoi.
"That's very kind of you," Sugoroku said, "but Yugi-kun and I can manage. Omocha needs your help more than we do."
The whole thing reeked of conspiracy to Yugi, but again he hid his skepticism, sipping mildly from his soup bowl as Aoi assured Omocha she was at her disposal.
Aoi failed to suspect what Yugi had guessed from the beginning until, about an hour after breakfast, she and Omocha disembarked from the city bus in an unfamiliar part of town. In hindsight, the fact that they took a bus in the first place should have tipped her off: Omocha usually visited stores within walking distance when she shopped for groceries or ran other day-to-day errands. A quick glance about the area confirmed that theirs was no ordinary expedition: the shops lining the street all displayed clothes, shoes, and accessories rather than groceries, appliances, or other practical goods.
"The errand you need me for is...clothes-shopping?" Aoi asked Omocha.
Mrs. Mutou beamed. "That's right! It's been ages since I've gotten anything for myself, and you need some clothes as well."
She had a point. Besides the outfit Aoi had worn the day she came to Domino City--a navy jumper-dress over a periwinkle blouse--the girl owned only a pair of black pants, a white shirt, and some underthings. Omocha had graciously lent her a few additional articles of clothing from her own closet, but after a week, the shortcomings in Aoi's wardrobe were growing more apparent. Aoi had been planning to save every yen she'd earned in order to move out of the Mutous' house as soon as possible, but Omocha was clearly set on her buying a few items.
I don't want to embarrass her by wearing the same clothes over and over when I work in the game shop, Aoi reasoned as Omocha led her into the first store. Conscious of her budget, the girl stuck to the basics as she browsed, selecting socks, underwear, simple layering camisoles, and a couple work-appropriate shirts and slacks. She thought Omocha would approve, but the woman frowned when Aoi showed her what she'd found a few minutes later.
"Don't you want to get some fun things as well?" Omocha asked.
"Fun?" Aoi echoed.
"Of course! Fashion is supposed to be fun, a way to express yourself. You should choose some clothes you like as well as things you need."
"I'm honestly not sure what I like," Aoi hedged. If she'd wanted to discourage Yugi's mother, that was the wrong move; Omocha's eyes brightened, and she exclaimed,
"Well, then we'll just have to try a bit of everything!"
She took charge of the expedition after that, eventually leading Aoi back to the store's dressing rooms with a veritable armload of clothes. She encouraged the girl to model each piece for her in turn, which made Aoi feel a bit shy.
"Didn't you want to pick out some things, too, Mutou-san?" she asked a couple outfits into the fashion show.
The woman shook her head, holding out a shirt for Aoi to try on next. "This is much more fun than just shopping for myself. I've always wanted a daughter or a niece I could play dress-up with," she said wistfully.
"Oh," breathed Aoi. She accepted the shirt and darted back into the changing stall so Omocha couldn't see how deeply touched she was.
Armed with the knowledge that Omocha was enjoying the process, Aoi allowed herself to enjoy it, too. The more she tried on, the better sense she acquired for what she preferred; Omocha eventually declared that Aoi favored "classic silhouettes and romantic details." Aoi had no idea what she meant, but she largely approved of the items Omocha found for her after reaching that conclusion.
"This last one is a bit plain, but I thought it would look nice on you," said Omocha, passing Aoi a final garment about a half-hour later. Aoi tried it on in the changing stall. A wide-necked shift that finished above her knees, the tan dress came with a thin belt around the waist. Its roomy sleeves belled slightly at Aoi's wrists after she donned it. Meaning to straighten the dress before going out to show Omocha, Aoi checked in the stall's full length mirror, but her reflection stopped her cold.
She had never seen herself--or, rather, Kisara--in her dreams. The strange visions played themselves out through Kisara's eyes, and because Kisara didn't have access to a mirror or any other adequately reflective surface, Aoi had gleaned only bits and pieces of her overall appearance. Still, Aoi's mirror-image struck a chord of recognition in the girl, if only because the dress's general shape and color matched the one Kisara wore in her dreams exactly. In that moment, gazing into the dressing room mirror, it was as though Kisara was staring back at her.
Aoi could not avert her eyes. Nor could she say when her reflection actually began to diverge from what she knew to be herself; however, the more Aoi looked, the more differences she picked out between her and the woman reflected in the mirror. Their faces and body shapes remained identical, but the mirror-woman's skin and hair had an almost luminous quality despite being dirtier and less cared-for than Aoi's own. Her eyes were more vivid than Aoi's, a deep sapphire made more striking by the whiteness of the lashes and brows that framed them. Aoi's own eyes were a nondescript gray-blue, her eyelashes and eyebrows dark and ordinary. The woman in the mirror looked just as confused as Aoi felt, but calmer and more determined in spite of it. She harbored a general air of sorrow and mystery that Aoi had never observed in herself.
Unable to look away, Aoi covered her mouth with one hand. Her reflection did not do the same, but mouthed a single word-or, rather, a name-before Aoi shut out the vision entirely by squeezing her eyelids closed. When she opened them again, her own fearful countenance stared back at her. Aoi nevertheless whirled from the mirror and scrambled to disrobe. She all but tore the dress in her haste to remove it from her body, after which she left it lying crumpled on the floor, as threatening as a coiled snake. She backed away from it until her shoulderblades hit a far wall of the changing room.
Omocha called from the other side of the stall door, "Aoi-chan? Is it not working out?"
Aoi felt sick and light-headed. She took a few deep breaths and forced her emotions to calm.
"I'm fine, Omocha-san," she called back as evenly as she could. "The dress just...wasn't me."
Despite her encounter in the dressing room, Aoi managed to enjoy the rest of her shopping trip with Omocha. Yugi's mother insisted on paying for half of Aoi's purchases, claiming that it constituted payment for Aoi's help around the house. Aoi lacked the will to argue very fiercely with her, and so from the inexpensive and secondhand stores they visited, she accumulated a healthy selection of skirts, tops, and even a couple pairs of shoes appropriate for both work and leisure. She changed into her favorite piece-a short-sleeved indigo dress patterned all over with strawberries-as soon as she returned to the Mutou residence. When she descended to Kame Game Shop to take over for Yugi, Sugoroku noticed what she was wearing and chortled,
"I see that cake made an impression!"
Aoi smiled at him, recalling the first meal they had ever shared-a memory more precious for being all her own, unhaunted by Kisara. "Strawberries are my favorite food now," she told Mr. Mutou.
She worked in the game store for the rest of the day, anticipating that evening's trip to the arcade as a means of distracting herself from what she'd seen in the mirror. Yugi, who had spent his afternoon working on various university assignments, came down from his room shortly before the shop closed.
"Ready to go?" he asked Aoi.
The girl glanced at Sugoroku, who laughed and made an encouraging motion. "I'm fine here; Omocha will help me close. Go have fun!"
Aoi hurried upstairs in order to wash up. She changed her shoes, put on a cardigan, and slipped what remained of her money into her dress pocket. She was surprised to find Jounouchi and Shizuka waiting in the shop when she returned a few minutes. Both spoke animatedly to Yugi's family members. They all looked so close that Aoi felt shy about intruding, but Yugi brightened when he saw Aoi and drew her easily into the conversation. After introducing the siblings to Aoi, he announced they were leaving. Sugoroku and Omocha waved at them as they departed for the bus stop.
Even in the relatively quiet borough the Mutous called home, the streets of Domino bustled with excitement that Saturday night. Jounouchi and Yugi took point as they walked, chatting with and teasing one another; Aoi spent a moment feeling thankful that Yugi was closer to her and Shizuka in height, as otherwise the boys might have left them behind in their eagerness to get to their destination. As it stood, Jounouchi modulated his long strides with the ease of habit, keeping abreast of his friend. Occasionally Shizuka offerred her input to their conversation, but for the most part, she stayed as quiet as Aoi. Only when they reached the bus did Shizuka lean over to Aoi and whisper,
"I love your dress."
"Oh, thank you," stammered Aoi. "I love your jacket."
Shizuka's outermost layer was a green knit button-up embroidered with white flowers. She thanked Aoi with heartfelt delight, the extent of which puzzled the other girl until Jounouchi explained,
"She made it herself, so she's happy you noticed it."
"Onii-san," Shizuka chided, blushing.
Aoi's eyes widened. "You made that jacket? By hand?"
"Yes, but it's nothing special."
Aoi shook her head. "It's amazing," she said, and Shizuka blushed even redder, if possible.
On the bus ride and subsequent walk to the arcade, Shizuka spoke shyly about her desire to become a professional clothing designer. "Omocha-san has taught me a lot about it," she said, flashing Yugi a thankful smile.
"My mom wanted to be a fashion designer, too, when she was Shizuka's age," Yugi explained. "She actually worked at a clothing company in Tokyo for a while."
Omocha's ability to assess and characterize Aoi's personal style suddenly made more sense. "You enjoy fashion, then, Kawai-san?" She winced inwardly at the obviousness of her comment, but she'd felt the need to say something and hadn't been able to come up with anything more interesting.
"I do love it! That's not the only reason I want to become a designer, though." Jounouchi's sister fiddled with the cuff of her jacket, self-conscious, but she went on determinedly, "When I was younger, I had some problems with my vision, and they reached a point where I had trouble picking out clothes for myself. I only wore pajamas for the longest time. I got better," Here she shared a grin with Jounouchi, "but my experience made me think about all the people in the world who have health problems or disabilities that limit what they can wear. I want to make clothes for those people--fashion that's beautiful and accessible."
Aoi stared at her, lost for words.
"She'll manage it, too!" Jounouchi piped up, clapping Shizuka on the shoulder. "My little sister can do anything she sets her mind to." He sounded as proud as if she had reached her goal already.
Shizuka flushed again, groaning, "Onii-san..."
"I think that's a beautiful dream," Aoi said, so gravely that Shizuka, Jounouchi, and Yugi all blinked at her in surprise, "and I think you'll definitely achieve it, Kawai-san."
"...Thank you," said the other girl, "and please, call me Shizuka!"
Sandwiched between an office building and a laundromat, the Bright Star Arcade was a tall, thin structure that shone with neon and LED lights. Besides the multicolored sign bearing its name, glimmering stars festooned the arcade's exterior. The building itself looked rather old, but Aoi was impressed all the same when she saw it.
"Whoa, this place really hasn't changed at all!" laughed Jounouchi, rubbing his hands together mischievously. "Wonder if any of my old tricks still work..."
"Games aren't any fun if you cheat at them!" Yugi sounded more offended than Aoi had ever heard him, but Jounouchi just laughed,
"It's not cheating, it's evening the odds!"
"Shizuka-chan!" The chorused cry came from underneath the building's front awning, where two lanky individuals waved at the group--or at Shizuka, at least.
"Honda-kun and Otogi-kun," Yugi told Aoi quietly, first indicating the serious-looking young man with an undercut, then the man with sly green eyes and a ponytail. "They both like Shizuka-chan very much."
"I see," whispered Aoi. She felt a bit out of her depth--the only love triangles she had any experience with were the ones that occurred on Omocha's favorite soap opera, and those generally lead nowhere good for the characters involved. Both Honda and Otogi seemed like nice people, however. They introduced themselves without being prompted, greeted Aoi courteously, and didn't ask her too many questions.
If Aoi had thought the exterior of Bright Star was attention-grabbing, it was nothing compared to the sheer sensory overload of its interior. A riot of color, light, and noise greeted the group when they entered the building. Aoi jumped and might have scuttled back if she hadn't had people behind her to consider. Glancing over her shoulder, she found Yugi and Jounouchi's eyes shining with childlike glee.
"Didn't the first floor used to have all the crane games and picture booths?" asked Honda.
Otogi glanced around, taking in the lay of the land. "I think they moved the vintage games to the first floor, and the claw-grabbers down to the basement."
"Vintage? I played these all the time as a kid!"
"Like I said," smirked Otogi, who was nine months younger than Honda and never let him forget it.
"Oh, man, they still have the Zombire fighting game!" shrieked Jounouchi suddenly. He took off running without another word.
"What? Really?!" Honda followed close at his heels.
As they left, Otogi leaned over to Shizuka. "Seems we're free to make our own way," he said to her huskily, but then Honda reappeared, grabbed the back of Otogi's shirt, and dragged him off in the direction Jounouchi had gone. "Hey!"
"Well, we've lost them for the next forty-five minutes," sighed Yugi as he watched them leave. "Shizuka-chan, was there anything you wanted to do?"
"Umm, well, I wanted to win a plush toy, but I should probably save that for later so I don't have to carry it around all night. What about you, Shirogane-chan?"
"I really don't know," replied Aoi, hoping that she didn't look or sound as panicked as she felt. Bad enough that she practically had to shout over the game music. "There are so many!"
Like his mother in the clothing store, Yugi took charge: "Well, let's just try some out! We'll start with a classic." He led Aoi and Shizuka over to one of the oldest-looking game cabinets on the floor. "Ms. Pac Man!"
He slid a 100-yen coin into the machine's payment slot. "By moving the joystick to direct the circle-shaped character, you try to eat up all the pellets in the maze without letting any of the ghosts touch you. You have a certain number of chances, so it's fine if you mess up once or twice," he explained.
"What do the little fruits do?"
"You get extra points if you eat them," Shizuka said.
Yugi nodded. "And if you eat one of these power pellets, the ghosts change for a limited time, and you can eat them for bonus points."
He demonstrated. He made it all look quite easy, thought Aoi, her gaze shifting from Yugi's hands to the 8-bit graphics screen and back again. The King of Games didn't need any extra lives in order to complete the first level, after which he stepped to the side.
"You try now," he said to Aoi.
"B-But I'll mess up your game!"
"It's fine! Hurry, it's starting!"
Aoi dove for the joystick. "Um, okay--aah, they're everywhere!" she yelped, frantically trying to maneuver Ms. Pac Man around the screen. She didn't even care about eating the dots; she just wanted to get away from the ghosts. Nevertheless, one of them soon caught up, costing her a life. Aoi cringed. "I'm no good at this..."
"No one is at first. Keep going!" urged Yugi.
"Go, Shirogane-chan! Oh, watch out for the blue one," Shizuka cried.
Aoi gave a prolonged squeak of anguish. She jerked the controller. "No, no! Not that way!" she cried as another ghost changed direction and Ms. Pac Man ran right into it. She glanced anxiously at Yugi. "I'm sorry."
"You don't need to apologize. Just try to have fun."
"It looked a lot simpler when you were playing," said Aoi.
"With Yugi-kun, most games do," giggled Shizuka.
Aoi played until she'd lost all of her remaining lives.
"How is that so difficult?" she panted, hanging her head.
"You were really into it, Shirogane-chan."
"No, no," Shizuka assured her, "I had fun just watching you! Did you enjoy it?"
"I'm not sure. I don't think I like games where you get chased."
Yugi beamed, not disappointed in the least. "Luckily, there are plenty of others to choose from."
They tried Mario Brothers next. While the controls were more complicated than those of Ms. Pac Man, Aoi liked Mario better, if only because she could more easily dictate the pace of the game. Shizuka turned out to be almost as skilled as Yugi at it.
"Onii-san had this on his Game Boy when we were young, and I would steal it from him constantly. It was the one thing we fought over," she laughed as she jumped on a Goomba, squashing it flat. "The arcade version's controls are different, but I guess I still remember how to play."
After that, Shizuka, Yugi, and Aoi went up to the second floor, which was dedicated to rhythm games. If possible, these were louder and even more obnoxious than the games on the first floor, but Aoi had gotten used to the noise. She enjoyed playing the rhythm games much more than the classic ones, though she had even less talent for them. In that, at least, she wasn't alone: she and Shizuka and Yugi stumbled their way through a three-player version of Dance Dance Revolution, and were almost crying with laughter by the end of the song.
"Anzu-chan would be so disappointed in us." Yugi leaned heavily against the railing behind his game pad. "Oof, my back."
"You sound like your grandfather, Yugi-san," Aoi giggled.
"No-o-o," groaned the youngest Mutou, and they all fell to laughing again. It was the most perfect moment of happiness Aoi had ever known. She wished it could go on forever.
The other three members of their group joined them shortly after that. No one needed to ask how their impromptu Zombire tournament had unfolded: Jounouchi had scratch marks along his jawline, Otogi's ponytail looked less than artfully disheveled, and the sunglasses Honda kept in his front jacket pocket had lost a lens. Yugi was just grateful none of them had gotten kicked out for fighting. Shizuka sent the three troublemakers a sharp, knowing look that she'd picked up from Anzu. Coming from her, it had a more profound effect-all three of them shrank a little under her displeasure. Then just as quickly she smiled and suggested,
The boys took out what remained of their frustrations on the drumming game. After that, Shizuka said she wanted to see what kind of prizes were available from the claw-grabbers. Otogi and Honda both leapt at the opportunity to accompany Shizuka and possibly win her a present. Knowing better than to leave them to their own devices, the others decided to visit the basement as well. It was much quieter there than in the rest of the arcade. Crane games dominated the middle of the vast floor, while bordering them were a number of brightly hued, closet-like structures.
"What are those kiosks near the walls?" Aoi asked Yugi.
"They're purikura--photo booths. You go in and take pictures, either by yourself or with other people, and you can add all kinds of effects to them afterwards. They're just a way to remember fun times."
Aoi said, "Do you think the others would mind if we all took some photos together? After we finish with everything else, I mean."
"I'm sure they'd be happy to. In fact, let's do that right now."
Jounouchi grumbled a little at being forced to participate in the "girly" activity, but Anzu had press-ganged him into photo sessions frequently enough that he didn't really put up a fight. The greatest challenge consisted of squeezing all six them into one booth, the largest of which was designed to contain four people at maximum. The resulting pictures were therefore a bit crowded and chaotic, but Aoi liked the way a few of them turned out; with Shizuka's help, she spent a long time touching them up, and couldn't stop staring at the copies she eventually printed out for herself.
Aoi wanted to watch Shizuka play the claw-grabber games, but prior to that, she had to pay a visit to the restrooms on the first floor. She avoided looking at the mirror above the sink as she washed her hands afterwards; she kept her eyes on the counter, and whenever she felt the urge to see herself, she looked at her smiling face in the purikura photos instead. Aoi couldn't help but smile back, remembering how Shizuka had rested her chin on Aoi's shoulder and how Yugi had threaded one of his arms through hers in order to shift over a precious few millimeters.
Everyone looks so happy. I look happy, she reflected, studying the picture. I'm here, and I'm happy. These photos will prove it even if I forget.
She held the photos against her chest as she left the restroom. Her small smile faded as an unfamiliar man approached her on her way to the basement staircase.
"Excuse me, miss," he said, so politely that Aoi paused, blinking up at him. He wore a very fashionable, close-tailored blazer and a round pair of pince-nez glasses tinted a smoky gray shade. His shoes were made of snakeskin, and he seemed only a little older than she. "I'm sorry to bother you..."
An expectant silence ensued. "Th-That's all right," said Aoi before it stretched on too long; she sensed that this was how the stranger wanted her to respond, and didn't want to disappoint him.
The man beamed. "I just couldn't help but notice your look," he continued.
"Your coloration is very striking," explained the stranger. "I haven't seen anything like it outside of Harakjuku."
Aoi didn't know what Harajuku was, but she blushed uncomfortably at the compliment. "Oh, um, thank you," she said, glancing around for her friends, but seeing no one.
"More importantly, you have a certain air about you--a certain wide-eyed innocence. It's very compelling! Models tend to cultivate a more remote, jaded attitude nowadays."
"I'm not a model," Aoi told him.
The man's eyes widened deliberately behind his glasses, and Aoi realized then that he'd known what she would say--had counted on it, even. "Really? But you'd make a wonderful one! I work in the industry, and I'd love to feature someone like you in a photoshoot."
What industry? wondered Aoi. Even to her, the man's word choice sounded suspiciously vague. "That's very kind of you, sir, but I don't think that sort of work would suit me."
"Don't be ridiculous! All girls want to be models."
"No, they don't," said Aoi, so bluntly that it brought the strange man up short. She hastened to explain, "That is, my friend Shizuka wants to design clothes, not to model them."
"But I'm talking about you. I'd like to employ you as a model. Or are you trying to say that you already work for this designer friend of yours, this Shizuka?"
"No, I was only..."
"Trying to drive up your value? Perhaps you're more cunning than you look."
"That's not it at all," said Aoi, anxious sweat prickling her skin. "I only meant--"
Aoi's heart rate, which had already increased a good deal over the course of the conversation, spiked when a new voice interrupted her. New, but not unfamiliar; she knew that authoritative inflection from both within her dreams and without.
"She meant 'go away.' She's just too polite to say it, or maybe too afraid," continued Seto Kaiba from behind Aoi. A note of scorn in the last word made Aoi drop her gaze ashamedly, but Kaiba added in a more measured tone, "Not that I can blame her for being wary of a random stranger trying to accost her."
The man's eyes widened behind his pince nez glasses. "Accost...? You have me all wrong, Kaiba-sama, sir!" He whipped a business card out from an inner pocket of his blazer and bowed as he offered it to the CEO.
Aoi finally dared to face Kaiba herself. He looked more like a company president than a world champion duelist today: he'd shed his coat and boots in favor of a three-piece suit and loafers, all pale tailored silk and supple black leather. His expression was just as cold and impassive as she remembered it, though for some reason, Aoi thought he looked wearier now than he had at the hospital. His bodyguards had long since established a perimeter around Kaiba, Aoi, and the man who'd been speaking to Aoi, and they kept a close watch on all three of them.
"Yukimura Daisuke, photographer and designer," the oblivious man introduced himself.
"Freelance, I assume," said Kaiba as he accepted the business card.
In one smooth motion, without even glancing at the text printed on it, Kaiba flicked the business card over his shoulder. It fluttered to the arcade's worn, somewhat stained carpet.
"I assume freelance," Kaiba continued, "because a professional employed at a legitimate modeling agency or photography studio would know better than to scout for talent at this understaffed hole of an entertainment center, which mostly caters to junior high and high-school aged boys."
By now, a small, curious crowd had gathered at the periphery maintained by Kaiba's bodyguards. Aoi noticed a few people attempting to take photos of the scene with their smartphones, only to frown at their devices--something was interfering with the cameras' operation, it seemed.
Meanwhile, Yukimura Daisuke's mouth opened and closed as he tried and failed to come up with a response. Kaiba turned to Aoi without even bothering to dismiss him.
"Come with me," he said lowly. "We need to talk."
Chapter 10: Tyrant Wing
"Is everyone guilty until proven innocent as far as you’re concerned?"
my brain ten chapters ago: hey, you know what we should do? write a fun little story about Kisara in the modern world.
me: cool, I'll have her and Seto kissing in five chapters!
me, ten chapters later: please... just talk to each other... I am BEGGING you...
What am I doing?
Aoi glanced out the tinted bulletproof windows of Seto Kaiba's limousine as the car pulled away from the Bright Star Arcade. She half expected Yugi and the others to come running out of the building after her, but no one did, and the arcade's glimmering facade slipped away from view.
"They don't realize I've left," she said softly of her friends.
"Can't you message them?"
"I don't have a phone."
Across from her, in the periphery of her vision, Kaiba drew a sleek silver smartphone from his jacket pocket. "Then I'll let Yugi know."
Aoi wondered how Yugi would react to the news that she'd left. She bit her lip and surreptitiously shifted her gaze to Kaiba. What am I doing? she wondered again. He hates me. He thinks I stole his dragon. He's probably going to interrogate me about that, or about Yugi-kun, and it'll wind up being a big mess and cause the Mutous no end of trouble...
"So, what do they think?" asked Kaiba, pocketing his phone after sending the message.
"Yugi and his hangers-on. Do they have any brilliant theories about," Kaiba gestured between the two of them, "how you know me, and I know you, even though we've never met?"
Aoi remembered the look on Kaiba's face when they'd made eye contact in the game shop, the way he'd breathed "But you're dead." So I didn't imagine that he recognized me. But what does Yugi-kun have to do with it?
"I don't understand. I haven't told Yugi-kun anything about my dreams," Aoi said.
Kaiba's spent a moment regarding her, seeming to weigh his options, before he corrected, "Our dreams."
"You have them, too?" breathed the girl disbelievingly. Her head spun. Did this mean she wasn't going crazy? "Then it's--it's real? The magic, the monsters..."
"To my eternal chagrin, yes," confirmed Kaiba. "Yugi really hasn't told you anything?"
"Does he also have dreams?"
"A bit more than just that. He's made no mention of Egypt or of someone named Atem?" When Aoi shook her head, Kaiba threw up his hands. "Unbelievable. He lets all of his dim-witted friends in on the secret, but he can't manage to communicate relevant information to the one person who might be of use to me!" he raged.
Aoi winced a bit on Yugi's behalf. "It's not his fault. I'm a stranger."
"You live in his house. He's put his trust in people for worse reasons." Kaiba heaved a frustrated sigh, then quieted, glaring at the floor of the car. The limousine had all but slowed to a stop in the heavy Saturday-night traffic. A brooding silence stretched between its passengers as the CEO stewed in his annoyance and Aoi wrestled with the implications of all he had said.
"The ka monsters from my dream--they're Duel Monsters, aren't they?" she blurted when it finally hit her.
Kaiba nodded. "The ridiculous man who created the game was a fan of esoteric, apocryphal Ancient Egyptian lore, the sort of legends that no self-respecting archaeologist would mistake for actual history, except in this case, they turned out to be true."
"And Kisara and Priest Set..."
"Are part of those legends." Had he twitched a little, hearing Kisara's name? Or had Set's disturbed him, being so close to his own? Aoi couldn't tell, because Kaiba quickly obscured any discomfort he might have felt with haughtiness. He folded his arms and continued with an air of deliberate superiority, "Kaiba Corp. has recently developed a more reliable type of polygraph machine. I can tell you all I know about the magic and legends behind Duel Monsters, but if I do, you have to answer every question I put to you about your dreams, and I'll use the lie detector to ensure you do so completely and truthfully."
Desperate for information, Aoi very nearly agreed, but she hesitated at the last moment, remembering the strange monitoring and measuring devices that had surrounded her at the hospital. She'd developed an intense dislike for them them by the end of her stay; the prospect of going through more such tests filled her with dread.
"Will you tell me all about your dreams, too?" she asked, stalling for time.
Kaiba frowned. He plainly hadn't expected any negotiation from her. "Only the parts I choose to divulge."
"Then," Aoi took a deep breath, her heart beating faster, "I decline."
If Kaiba had looked surprised at her response moments ago, the expression that flickered across his face then was positively incensed. "You can't decline," he said, furrowing his brow.
Aoi looked down at her hands, which had tightened anxiously around the edges of her purikura printouts, but she murmured, "Yes, I can. You just said that Yugi-kun knows about the magic, too. I don't want to be monitored or tested, so I'd just as soon ask him about it instead."
"The fact that you're protesting such a simple measure proves you have something to hide," Kaiba accused her.
"It proves I don't want to be hooked up to a machine," said Aoi. She wondered from whence this sudden bout of courage had sprung, then realized it wasn't courage at all: she simply feared being tested more than she feared Kaiba's anger.
"It's a lie detector, not a torture device! You can't expect me to just take you at your word," snapped Kaiba.
"I want to figure out what's happening as much as you do. What reason do I have to lie?"
"You could be a con artist trying to screw with me."
"Have you told anyone else Kisara's name?" Aoi asked, trying to find some information that would convince Kaiba otherwise. "Does Yugi-kun know it?"
"I don't know. He hasn't told me if he does."
Aoi was surprised. "You haven't asked him about your dreams?"
"Because the day I rely on Mutou Yugi for intelligence is the day I retire from Duel Monsters," said Kaiba. "What does my having talked to him matter to you?"
"You said he knows about the magic and legends, so I just thought..."
"Well, I haven't. Nor do I plan to," said Kaiba.
Aoi reasoned, "Then you have to take me at my word, unless there's someone else who can help you figure things out."
Kaiba ground his teeth together in frustration. More to himself than Aoi, he muttered, "There is, but she's not speaking to me at the moment."
"...Why?" Aoi dared to ask.
"Because I desecrated a sacred tomb guarded by her ancestors for almost five thousand years," Kaiba answered, turning the full force of his glare onto Aoi, "and I'll do much worse than that in order to get what I want. On that note, you should ask yourself what exactly is stopping me from strapping you to my polygraph machine by force."
Aoi's mouth went dry. She couldn't answer for a good minute; such a long interval passed, in fact, that Kaiba began to look smug, convinced he had won. Then Aoi whispered, "Because you aren't that kind of person."
"How would you know what kind of person I am?" snorted Kaiba. "Maybe you're thinking of Priest Set, that oh-so-honorable soul who saved Kisara from the torture chamber he sent her to in the first place?"
"That wasn't Lord Set's fault," Aoi argued, feeling strangely defensive of the man from her dreams. "Akhnadin forced him to put Kisara in the arena."
"So? Even if the old man hadn't, it wouldn't have changed the fact that Set willingly condemned other people to that dungeon. The fact that he allowed Akhnadin to sway him just means he was spineless as well as cruel."
Aoi bristled. "Lord Set isn't! I mean, he wasn't, or if he was, he changed for Kisara's sake. He risked his life to help her. That means something, doesn't it?"
"Yes: it means he didn't have the courage to watch a pretty girl eaten alive in front of him. That makes him a hypocrite, not a good person." Kaiba's eyes narrowed at her. "And I promise you, I am afflicted with neither his weak stomach nor his pretentions of nobility."
"You can't mean that," said Aoi.
Kaiba crossed his arms with a glower that clearly said try me. Aoi managed to hold his stare despite her inner turmoil. Something told her that Kaiba didn't actually want to drag her kicking and screaming to take his lie detector test, but she also suspected that if she called his bluff, pride would obligate him to follow through on the threat. She couldn't give in, but neither could she refuse him outright. Swallowing around the tightness in her throat, Aoi screwed up her courage and asked,
"C-Couldn't we start with an ordinary conversation? If you think I've lied to you at all by the end, I'll take your test willingly. Just give me a chance to tell the truth on my own. Please," she added.
Kaiba made a tch noise, then settled back into the leather car seat. "Fine, but it'll be a waste of time, because I don't trust you."
"But I haven't done anything to you. I know you think I stole your card, but I didn't. I couldn't have."
"That remains to be seen. Now," Kaiba steepled his fingers, fixing Aoi with an evaluative stare. "First questions: when did your visions start, and were you awake or asleep when you first noticed them?"
With a small sigh, Aoi gave up trying to defend her innocence in favor of replying, "Right after I came to Domino, I started hearing voices in the back of my mind."
Aoi shook her head. "I say 'hearing,' but they weren't that vivid--it was more like I was remembering them involuntarily. I didn't actually see anything until I slept that first night."
"Did anything in particular precede the onset of these memories, other than your arrival here?"
Aoi recalled the Kaiba Corp. Duel Monster holograph machine in the train station, and she hesitantly recounted the incident with the Blue-Eyes White Dragon projection to Kaiba.
"Of course that mess happened because of you," he growled after she'd finished. "You know I spent two whole days last week checking behind my engineers, trying to figure out what went wrong with that model? And I had to apologize to the station manager after the blackout." He all but spat the word apologize.
"You really said you were sorry?" Aoi blurted.
"Not personally," replied Kaiba. "I had the holo-projector's head developer issue his regrets. It was almost as bad."
"What's so bad about apologizing?"
"It's the principle of the thing. If I hadn't been aware of the risks involved, I wouldn't have installed the projector in the first place. The fact that one of those risks became reality doesn't mean I regret my initial decision."
"A lot of people got hurt. You don't regret the part you played in that?"
"Since I paid off their medical bills, no. Do you?"
"If the machine broke because of me, then I feel bad, yes."
Kaiba rolled his eyes. "You and Kisara share a martyr complex. I advise you to divest yourself of it as soon as possible unless you want to end up like her."
"Everybody dies, Kaiba-san," said Aoi softly.
"But not everybody has to die a victim. Speaking of which, have you seen Kisara's death yet?"
Aoi shook her head no.
"Interesting. That was the first thing I ever saw," said Kaiba.
"Was...was he very sad?"
"He? Oh, the priest. He looked it, but I can't say for sure."
Aoi regarded Kaiba confusedly. "You mean you didn't feel what he felt?"
"Why would I have?" Almost immediately, Kaiba answered his own question: "Are you saying that when you dream, events unfold from Kisara's point of view? As though you're in her body, seeing through her eyes?"
Aoi nodded. "I thought it was the same for you with Priest Set."
"It isn't. It's like I'm hovering over his shoulder, following him. I see things unfold from his vantage point, yes, but I can see him as well. I'm very much a third-person viewer." Kaiba drummed his fingers on the seat next to him contemplatively. "We're experiencing their memories in different ways, then. That's useful to know. How do events play out in your visions?"
"What do you mean?"
"Do things happen in chronological order?"
"When I was unconscious in the hospital, they did. Everything felt more vivid, too. But when I dream normally, it's all mixed up. I only see parts and pieces."
"We're alike in that respect, although I've seen enough to get an idea of the bigger picture." Kaiba frowned. "Still, I'm almost certainly missing something—an important piece..."
"Is that why you're curious about my dreams?"
"Partly, but right now it's impossible to determine whether you've really seen something I haven't. You could fabricate a recollection and throw off the data."
"Why would I do that?"
"I don't know, but you could all the same."
Exasperation briefly overrode Aoi's timidity: "Is everyone guilty until proven innocent as far as you're concerned?"
"Yes, so don't think you're special," sneered Kaiba.
"I'd promise you that I don't, but you likely wouldn't believe that, either."
Aoi's own boldness startled her. To her further shock, Kaiba cracked a halfway genuine smile in response to it.
"Someone's learning," he drawled. Then he pressed a button on the car door and said, "Isono."
Aoi jumped when unseen speakers transmitted a man's voice into her and Kaiba's closed-off section of the limousine. "Yes, Kaiba-sama?"
"Shirogane and I will be dining at Ukiyo this evening. Ensure that the usual accommodations are in place."
Kaiba pressed the button again, concluding the exchange.
"I don't think I'm dressed for the kind of restaurant that you're dressed for," stammered Aoi into the renewed quiet. "Also, I don't have any—"
"If you finish that sentence with the word 'money,' I'm going to think much less of you. I make a million yen a day at minimum; I can spring for your damn dinner, so don't be deliberately dense in the name of politeness or humility or whatever insipid moral you feel the need to demonstrate right now." Kaiba rubbed at his eyes briefly, and Aoi realized then that he must be quite tired--perhaps his dreams caused him as many restless nights as hers did. "Also, what you're wearing is fine, and even if it wasn't, the restaurant owners won't complain... What are you clinging to there?"
Aoi turned the photo booth printouts around so Kaiba could see them. He didn't immediately disregard them as she thought he would; rather, he studied them all carefully before huffing out a scornful tch noise.
"Katsuya looks adroit as ever," he observed dryly. Aoi glanced down at Jounouchi's image in the last photo Kaiba had looked at; the poor blond's eyes were half-closed, his mouth half-open, like he'd been about to sneeze. She had to physically bite down on her lower lip to keep from laughing.
"Making fun of other people's appearances is unsporting as well as unkind, Kaiba-san," she told him with as much displeasure as she could muster, because she still felt it had to be said.
"I'll stop when he stops making it so easy," Kaiba retorted.
They spent the rest of the half-hour ride in near silence. Kaiba, having apparently run out of questions for the moment, tapped on his smartphone for most of that time. During the last few minutes, he dozed, his head drooping but his hand still holding his device at the ready. Aoi couldn't help but stare at him. In sleep he looked—not innocent, exactly, but certainly less vicious than usual. Kaiba was the most intense person she'd ever met, and what's more, he was that intense all the time. He never seemed to give anything less than a hundred percent of himself to whatever he did, even if that was only talking or answering e-mails. No wonder he's tired, she thought, wondering where he found the energy to fuel the sheer forcefulness of his baseline personality.
Sensing when the limousine was about to pull to a stop, Aoi made certain to be looking out the nearest window when it did. She could feel Kaiba glare suspiciously at her after the shift in velocity woke him up, but Aoi held as still as a rabbit before a fox. He plainly knew she'd seen him sleeping, and she knew he knew it, but she didn't intend to trigger any more hostility from him than necessary. Still, he sounded especially grumpy as he ordered her, "Come on, and try not to gawk."
The limousine driver opened Kaiba's door. He stepped out of the car, and Aoi shifted over clumsily to follow him. She curled one hand around the edge of the limousine's doorway as she prepared to step onto the sidewalk, only to find Kaiba impatiently holding out his own hand to her.
"Don't get fingerprints on the car," he said.
Aoi had been hesitating, remembering what happened the last time she touched Kaiba, but after that comment, she figured it would serve Kaiba right if she fainted on him again, so she accepted his help. To her relief, no dart of light struck her as she used Kaiba's hand to steady herself. She exited the car and straightened. The building before her—the restaurant Ukiyo, she presumed—looked like a traditional inn or bathhouse, all sliding shoji doors, dark wood lintels, and a gently curving tile roof. Aoi was most impressed by the landscaping around the single story, free-standing building. Carefully placed lights illuminated the old, gnarled pines and boulders that dominated the garden, making them look more like hallowed monuments than natural features.
It didn't seem like Seto Kaiba's sort of place, and not just because it was old; from the shadows cast on the paper screen doors and the murmured din filtering out of the building, Aoi could tell that the restaurant was quite crowded, too, which didn't track with Kaiba's paranoid desire for privacy. As Aoi wondered about that, an aproned woman, older than Omocha but younger than Sugoroku, emerged from Ukiyo and approached them with a wide smile.
"Good evening, Kaiba-sama," she greeted him, bowing low. "I've set up your room. Please follow me."
Kaiba and Aoi fell into step behind her. At some point when Aoi had been distracted by the restaurant and garden, another car containing Kaiba's bodyguards had pulled up; two of the suited men exited and followed their employer wordlessly. Each carried a silvery duralumin briefcase and wore sunglasses despite the late hour. Aoi's heart beat faster when they entered her peripheral vision. She increased her pace so the men weren't directly flanking her, as that formation brought up unpleasant memories of being escorted through a different kind of darkness by a different pair of guards. In her hurry, she stumbled and almost ran into Kaiba, who shot a look of annoyance and confusion over his shoulder but who made no remark on Aoi's clumsiness.
The room the woman led them to was small but elegant. It also seemed more secure than the rest of the building: situated towards the rear of Ukiyo, its walls were constructed entirely of hardwood instead of paper screens, and its single door featured a sturdy lock that could be engaged from both sides. Kaiba's bodyguards took up positions to the left and right of the doorway, while Kaiba and Aoi followed the woman into the room itself. Perhaps Kaiba wasn't the only powerful diner who expected a degree of privacy in return for his patronage, but as she listened to the conversation between Kaiba and the aproned woman, Aoi began to suspect the area had been constructed entirely for his personal use:
"Things seem well here, Sae," said Kaiba as he took a seat at the table in the center of the room. Though the table only rose about a foot above ground level, the square recession beneath it allowed Kaiba's long legs to dangle naturally so he didn't have to kneel. Wooden chair-backs behind the floor cushions provided additional support and comfort, for which Aoi felt grateful as she sat across from Kaiba.
"It's as you see, Kaiba-sama. The place is so crowded I can barely keep up! We have a six-month waiting list for customer reservations now, can you imagine?" said Sae.
"Yet you still won't expand?"
Sae shook her head. "There's no other building like this in all of Domino. I'm only grateful that, with your help, I've managed to do enough business in order to maintain it. I wouldn't dream of altering it for any reason."
"I know you don't see the point," chuckled the woman. "I promise I'm not being stubborn just to annoy you, but you're young still, Kaiba-sama. You might yet come to appreciate history as I do."
"I appreciate history so long as it doesn't limit possibilities for the future. Idealizing bygone eras is the practice of weak minds unwilling to change with the times," Kaiba stated.
Aoi glanced nervously at Sae, who only grinned wider; she'd obviously heard this speech before and didn't take offense. "Ah, but there's value in remembering where we came from, as my many customers demonstrate," she said, gesturing to indicate the restaurant as a whole.
"Your customers are here because you make the best ochazuke in the country, Sae."
"If I didn't know how much you hate flattery, I'd accuse you of playing to my ego, Kaiba-sama!" chortled Sae. "As it is, I simply thank you for the compliment."
"Objective fact," corrected Kaiba, but the frown lines around his mouth softened slightly.
"As you like." Sae glanced at Aoi. "Will you indulge an old lady and introduce me to your dinner companion?"
"She's capable of introducing herself."
"I'm Shirogane Aoi. It's a pleasure to meet you," said the girl with a slight bow, then added with genuine admiration, "Your restaurant is beautiful."
"What a sweet girl. Are you a Duelist, then, Shirogane-san?"
"Um, I know how to play Duel Monsters, but I'm not a professional..."
"Shirogane is assisting me with a project," said Kaiba, saving Aoi from having to make up a lie explaining her connection to one of the most powerful men in the world.
"I see." If Sae had suspicions about Aoi, neither her tone nor her countenance betrayed them. Then again, for all Aoi knew, Kaiba brought business associates or fellow duelists to Ukiyo all the time. Perhaps a good many of those dining companions were women. It wouldn't be unusual or wrong, she reasoned, for Kaiba to have such connections, though the idea made her strangely uncomfortable. "Well, I hope you enjoy yourself-both of you. If you'll excuse me, I'll see to your food right away," said Sae.
"There are no menus here," Kaiba explained to Aoi after the older woman bowed and departed. "Sae makes different dishes every night depending on what's locally available. It's all excellent."
"I believe that," said Aoi, then, unable to contain her curiosity, she asked, "You helped her start this restaurant?"
"Sae used to manage Kaiba Corp.'s employee cafeteria. She also volunteered at the Domino City Historical Preservation Society. When she heard from a fellow Society member that Ikeda Construction planned to buy the oldest building in Domino City, tear it down, and turn the property into a retail center, Sae came up with an alternative business plan. She went to some banks first to get approval for a loan, but none of them would take a chance on her."
A bleached-blond, sour-faced waiter brought them some cold water and hot tea. After he left, Kaiba replied, "Take your pick of reasons why not. She's past her prime age-wise, which made people doubt her energy and commitment. She's a woman, and most loan approval boards are made up of conservative old men. She'd never run a restaurant before, and restaurants are risky investments to begin with. Additionally, Ikeda Construction does business with most of the city's major banks; I suspect that had more to do with their stonewalling her than any of the other reasons combined. I wasn't so encumbered, and her business plan was more than solid, so I loaned her the money instead." Kaiba took a sip of water and glanced up at Aoi. "Don't look at me like that."
"L-Like what?" stammered Aoi, caught.
"Like you approve of what I did because you think I was being nice. I wasn't. I knew Sae was a capable manager, and like I said, she had an excellent plan. I also wanted to screw Ikeda out of the property, so my investment in Ukiyo was a logical move, not a nice one." He set his cup down a bit more forcefully than necessary to emphasize his point.
"Can't it be both?" Aoi asked.
"If you fundamentally misrepresent my motivations for helping her, yes."
"But you did help her." Aoi smiled at him. "To the person receiving it, kindness is kindness, no matter the motive."
Kaiba's eyes narrowed. "So by that logic, you'd call Priest Set 'kind' for saving Kisara, even though he was only interested in her powerful ka spirit," he said.
"Ridiculous," spat Kaiba. "You've seen what I've seen. He was a terrible person!"
"He was also the first person to give Kisara a chance. You gave Sae-san a chance, too, even though doing so constituted a risk for you."
"For someone with my income, hardly," muttered Kaiba.
Aoi didn't push the point. She sipped her tea quietly, letting Kaiba mull over her words. Their waiter returned with an appetizer of agedashi tofu and some sake; he set both on the table with a pointed clunk. Kaiba seized the bottle, poured for both Aoi and himself, and knocked back an entire shot before Aoi could so much as open her mouth.
"Um, I actually don't drink..." she protested, eyeing her own porcelain cup.
"Great. More for me." So saying, Kaiba reached across the table and drained her sake as well. He flashed her a sharp, almost cruel smile. Something about it made Aoi's stomach feel funny, and, face heating, she averted her gaze.
"Okay, seriously?!" squawked the waiter.
Kaiba and Aoi swung their heads toward him in unison. Neither had noticed Sae's employee still standing in the room. Kaiba's bodyguards darted through the open door at the young man's shout. They seized the waiter by his arms and pulled him back as the young man attempted to kick their boss's table.
"You don't even remember me, Kaiba, you bastard?!" howled the spiky-haired waiter. "You ruined my damn life!"
Aoi flinched back involuntarily from the waiter's flailing limbs. Kaiba just looked thoughtful. He held up a hand to keep his bodyguards from dragging the young man out of the room.
"I've ruined a lot of people's lives," he said, sounding almost chipper about it. "You're going to have to be more specific."
"Battle City!" shrieked the young man. "Nagumo Koji! You cheated to beat me and made me into a laughingstock!"
Recognition lit Kaiba's eyes. "Hyozanryu," he said. The waiter let out a cry of incoherent rage and redoubled his efforts to break free of the bodyguards' hold. Aoi was thoroughly confused. "I remember beating you now. I understand that competent gameplay must look like cheating to someone at your level, but real duelists know better."
"Cheater! Those so-called god cards you and Mutou Yugi used were cheats!" asserted Nagumo. "They were never sanctioned by Industrial Illusions!"
"Now you care about the rules? As I recall, I initially found you robbing another Battle City duelist and refusing to yield to the referee's judgment," said Kaiba.
Presently, Sae appeared in the doorway, crying, "Koji-kun, what on Earth?"
"Sae, do you know this boy?" asked Kaiba. At nearly the same time, the waiter yelled, "He's a liar and a crook, Aunt Sae! You can't trust him!"
Sae closed her eyes in embarrassed horror. "He's my nephew," she answered. "Kaiba-sama, I am so terribly sorry..."
By now, Nagumo had worn himself out fighting against the bodyguards. He drooped between them, panting, but he still managed to spit at Kaiba,
"It's not fair! Hardworking people like me an' Aunt Sae have to serve rich cheaters like you, while you get to sit there drinking with some whore!"
It took Aoi a good few seconds to understand that Nagumo was referring to her, during which time a tense silence descended on the room at large. Poor Sae dropped her head into her hands despairingly; more worried for the restaurant proprietor than embarrassed for herself, Aoi glanced imploringly at Kaiba, hoping he'd stop toying with Nagumo and bring a swift end to the chaos. She found Kaiba's facial expression essentially unchanged from before the waiter had last spoken, but as she studied him closer, Aoi noticed a certain tightness about Kaiba's neck and jaw that she hadn't seen previously.
For his part, Kaiba didn't look at Aoi at all. His eyes were fixed on the young man in front of him. "Do you have your Duel Disk with you, Nagumo?" he inquired. His tone was light, almost conversational, while Nagumo's went sullen and a bit uncertain as he answered,
"I don't bring it to my job."
"But you must keep your deck with you, at least?" The boy shook his head. "What a shame, although I can't say I'm surprised. You were never a true duelist. You only cared about the game insofar as it gave you power over others."
"Says the biggest bully of them all," Nagumo shot back.
As Kaiba's smirk grew, so did its tight, strained quality. "That's right. In many ways, you and I are similar. The difference is, I actually have power to throw around and talent to back it up..." Kaiba motioned to his bodyguards. One of them kept hold of the young man, while the other passed Kaiba one of the two briefcases they had brought into the restaurant with them. Kaiba undid its combination lock with practiced movements, finishing, "...and I always have cards to play."
Aoi flinched away from the briefcase before she realized it was not the same case that Kaiba had been carrying when he'd invaded Kame Game Shop a week prior--this container looked older, a bit scuffed, and instead of a Duel Disk and Kaiba's personal deck, it was filled entirely with Duel Monsters cards. There have to be ten thousand different ones in there, the girl marveled despite her stress and confusion.
In addition to meticulously-organized loose cards, the briefcase held a product Aoi recognized from working in the game store: one of the official Duel Monsters starter decks put out by Industrial Illusions. Kaiba tossed the unopened deck to Nagumo, who just barely managed to catch it one-handed.
"Look through that. You'll find it's completely ordinary," Kaiba told him.
The bodyguard who had kept hold of Nagumo released him, though he and his counterpart remained close at hand to forestall any more sudden assaults. The waiter tore off the deck's packaging and flipped through the cards. When he finished, he glowered suspiciously at Kaiba. "It's regulation. So?"
"So make your choice: would you like to duel with that deck, or construct one from the cards in my briefcase, just like you did before? Bear in mind, you'll be playing against whichever selection you don't pick."
"Then of course I choose the cards in your briefcase!"
"Fine," said Kaiba. "I'll even give you until we finish our dinner to build your deck. The starter stays here with me, but you can check it again before the duel to make sure that I haven't tampered with it."
Nagumo shot him an ugly scowl. "Without your god card or your white dragons, you'll be no challenge for me."
"Oh, you won't be dueling me--at least, not until you beat her first."
Kaiba looked pointedly at Aoi. The girl froze in her seat, wide-eyed, as his words sank in.
...Uh-oh, she thought.
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.
I try not to comment too much on my own writing because I believe a work of fiction should stand on its own merit and that text should speak for itself. Nevertheless, I wanted to talk a bit about Kaiba's sexuality in this fic, because it's an important issue to me personally. Kaiba considers himself asexual and aromantic, and his experiences with sexual attraction and romantic inclination have largely supported that label thus far. However, Kaiba is also a very black and white person, not given to self-examination or to recognizing potential gray areas in his own mind. I personally headcanon him as demisexual/ graysexual, which means he only feels attraction after he's developed a sufficient emotional bond with another person. Because Kaiba normally goes out of his way not to cultivate intimacy with people, he's never quite reached that point, though one could argue his bonds with Ishizu and Atem come very close in their own ways.
As an asexual person myself, I cringe whenever I come across the idea that "the right person" can "fix" an ace person by providing them with a sexual awakening. I don't want readers to feel that's what's happening here with Kaiba and Kisara/Aoi. Kaiba's view of himself as an ace person is predicated as much on denial and being too damn busy for relationships as it is on an objective understanding of his own wants and needs. I wanted Kaiba's perception of his romantic desires to parallel his views on the role of magic and destiny in his life—he goes from denying the possibility of both to testing their validity to eventually accepting and incorporating both into his worldview. Hopefully I manage to clarify sufficiently in later chapters that he's not an "awakened asexual," but a demisexual with a lot of emotional baggage and an imperfect understanding of himself.
Thank you all for your patience and continued support of this story. I've had a blast writing it, and I hope you enjoy reading it just as much.