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Tremors

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It started with croissants, which, in retrospect, was probably a bad thing to try and make at 2:57 a.m. when Anzu had no experience baking anything French, let alone a breakfast pastry. She used up the majority of the Mazaki household’s butter supply, but she didn’t care.

She pulled a few vegetables from the refrigerator and opted to make some pickled vegetables with vinegar and sugar, knowing her father’s tastes for meals tended toward the traditional. They had some fish leftover that she could try and grill –or something– a bit later, so in the meantime, maybe she could make some rice balls? And some pancakes, too.

We have chocolate chips in one of these cabinets, don’t we?

Anything to keep her busy. Keep her downstairs, away from her bed, where she’d lain, eyes open, for a good hour after Kaiba —Seto-kun!— left her downstairs with her mind racing. First he’d insisted she call him by his given name, and then he’d gone and acknowledged her embarrassing Freudian slip —“We should get to bed”— by saying that he didn’t want to get executed by her father first thing in the morning by sleeping with her! As if it was the most natural thing to say after she’d accidentally implied that they were– that they were—!

It didn’t matter if it was below freezing outside; Anzu felt hot all over, she felt congested from crying, and every time she closed her eyes, the same nightmarish images bore into her brain: cement bricks falling, two, three, ten at a time. They shattered into piercing shards and crumbed into ash. It filled her lungs, choking her. Nagakura-sensei smiled warmly and pat Anzu on the shoulder, heedless of Anzu’s distress, and joined Atem. The two of them wrapped their arms around the other’s shoulders and held their opposite thumbs up. Then they disappeared through a doorway flooded with light, never to be seen again.

She’d bolted upright after that, unable to close her eyes for more than a minute.

While the croissant dough was resting between folds, Anzu decided to steam a kabocha squash. It would take close to a half hour before that would be ready, so she started on miso soup, removing the red soybean paste from the fridge along with some dried black kelp for the broth.

Does Mokuba like hot dog octopuses? He was almost 13 years old, Anzu knew, so maybe he’d consider himself too old for something so cute. But Anzu liked them, so she boiled a small batch and used a thin paring knife to slice the sausages and carve small faces into the casing.

Is a group of octopuses a school? No, wait, aren’t they solitary?

For some reason, Anzu pictured a blue-ringed octopus with Seto’s eyes and, inexplicably, his hair, bobbing around on a seabed. The image made her snort, but there was no one around to hear the embarrassing noise.

It was a welcome kind of quiet. It wasn’t like the quiet before everything fell apart. But it could quickly become that kind of quiet, if she let it. So Anzu went back to cooking.

The little hot dog octopuses went well with rolled egg omelettes. She was sure there was some ham she could use to wrap them with, just so they wouldn’t be boring-looking yellow ovals. Oh, and omurice. It was always fun to draw with ketchup, Anzu remembered, and it would be a good way to use up the wrinkled bell peppers lying around.

Before long, Anzu had made herself a piping hot extra-large mug of green tea, sipping from it every few minutes as she added increasingly more items to her “ideal breakfast” menu: rice porridge, a small portion of fish, omurice, both plain egg rolls and some wrapped with strips of ham, miso soup, pickled vegetables, a daikon-carrot salad, simmered kabocha topped with slivers of ginger, sliced fruit, pancakes, a pitcher of yuzu juice, a pot of coffee, both green and black tea in separate teapots, some vaguely crescent-shaped croissants, some pickled plums…


“Whoa.”

The next morning, after racing his brother down the Mazaki home’s too-narrow stairway, Mokuba skid to a halt in the kitchen entryway. He’d barely made it to the room when Seto bumped into him from behind, still rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

“Mokuba, why did you st—” Seto’s eyes opened wide as took in the scene before him: every single flat surface covered with different dishes of food, the aromas blending into something distantly familiar.

“Good morning, boys,” Mrs. Mazaki greeted them. “I wish we could stick around to chat, but Ietsugu and I have to head to work.” She smiled apologetically as she pulled on a high-heeled shoe in the entryway, while Mr. Mazaki put his arm through a suit jacket sleeve.

“Emergency call-in,” he explained, “Government contracts and that kind of thing. You understand, right?” He nodded at Seto, who blinked, forcing the tiredness pulling on his eyelids away. He nodded at Mr. Mazaki without replying.

“And our firm is helping to relocate people from the branches near Fukushima, so—” Mrs. Mazaki shrugged apologetically. “In any case, please, eat. Anzu made enough food to feed a small army.”

“You barely ate, Mom,” Anzu replied, her arms buried in a sink filled –somehow– with even more dishes covered in soap bubbles. Her voice was a far cry from what it had sounded like last night, hissing at Seto over the use of his given name compared to his use of her surname. It almost sounded like her head was underwater, not her hands.

“You know I don’t eat that much in the morning, and you made so much! I still don’t understand what got into you.” She looked back at Anzu, her brows knit upward on her forehead.

She’s worried, Seto realized. He didn’t exactly have a lot of memories of his mother’s face, so the only reason why he recognized the look on Mrs. Mazaki’s face was because he’d seen Anzu make it before: at Pegasus’ castle, at various points throughout Battle City, on that godforsaken chunk of rock the others called “Atlantis,” back in Egypt… and most recently, yesterday, in those moments right before a chaos of a different kind consumed their world.

“Well I ate my fill,” Mr. Mazaki said, either unaware of the expression on his wife’s face or trying to divert her worries elsewhere. The barrel-chested man beamed at his daughter, giving her a thumbs up with both hands. “Best breakfast I’ve had in a long time, Anzu,” he glanced back at his wife, who had crossed her arms over her chest and raised an eyebrow at him. The tips of his ears reddened. “Oh, I mean– that is to say, best breakfast you’ve ever made me!”

Anzu turned from the sink to look at her parents, and it was then Seto saw the shadowy crescents underneath her eyes. “Ha ha, Dad. This is probably the first time I’ve ever made you breakfast.” She turned back to the sink, gripping a scrubbing sponge as she went over each segment of wire on a baking rack. “But thanks,” she added, softly. Seto didn’t think either of the Mazaki parents heard. They were already shuffling towards the door.

“Help her eat some of that food, would you two? It’ll probably go bad otherwise.” Mrs. Mazaki smiled at Seto and Mokuba, still standing in their borrowed gym uniforms near the kitchen entryway. “We’ll catch up with you later, okay? Anzu, give us a call if anybody needs anything. We can try and get some things on the way home.”

“Okay, Mom,” Anzu said, her voice echoing more into the soapy sink than it did out to her parents.

Mrs. Mazaki hesitated in the doorway before running up to Anzu and kissing her on the cheek. “I love you, honey. Try and take a second to eat, okay? Those dishes aren’t going anywhere.”

She waved her fingers at Seto and Mokuba, and then followed Mr. Mazaki out the front door.

Soon the only sound was the slish-slish of Anzu moving her hand rhythmically in and out of the water, washing one thing after another. There was a small stainless steel mountain of utensils, pots, pans, and various cooking implements beside her that couldn't fit in the two-tier drying rack crammed in the space between the sink and the refrigerator.

“This spread’s better than the Bellagio,” Mokuba whispered, still in awe of all the food. He lurched forward, finally, and set upon a plate covered, strangely enough, with a glass bowl. He gingerly removed the steamed-up bowl and his eyes lit up: chocolate chip pancakes!

“The what now?” Anzu asked over her shoulder. She gestured to Seto with her elbow at one of the smaller drawers near her; he opened it and pulled out a pair of forks and butter knives for himself and Mokuba and sat down at the crowded table.

“Hotel in Las Vegas,” Seto replied, trying to identify each dish he saw. There were the Western staples of breakfast: pancakes, fruit, scrambled eggs, and a small pitcher of some kind of fruit juice, but a substantial amount of Japanese food, too: rice porridge with what looked like honey drizzled on top and ginger (he could smell it from a half meter away) mixed in, miso soup that had settled to the bottom of several small bowls, some kind of brightly-colored salad, and a dish of pungent pickled...something.

Am I supposed to eat from the serving plates?

There wasn’t enough room for a dish of his own, he supposed. As soon as he handed Mokuba the utensils, his younger brother went to town on the pancakes, smearing them with a generous helping of butter from a small bowl hiding among all the larger platters and dishes.

“Hey, Anzu, do you have any syrup?”

“Mm, maple syrup’s in the microwave,” she murmured. “I wanted it to keep warm.” She withdrew her hands from the sink long enough to dry them off on a towel hanging from the straps of the light pink apron tied around her waist. Her fingertips resembled raisins. Anzu plucked a small carafe from the microwave and tilted its spout toward an index finger. A drop of syrup touched it, and Anzu’s tongue shot out to lick it away.

There are better ways of checking whether your syrup’s warm! Seto thought. He could feel his neck and ears heating up. He chose instead to focus on the array of dishes before him. Mokuba was right: it may have been a while since they’d last stayed at the Las Vegas hotel and sampled from the famous buffet, but the sheer variety of options before them teetered on the edge of mind-boggling.

Judging by the Mazaki parents’ reactions, their daughter cooking breakfast at all—let alone enough to “feed a small army,” as her mother had put it—was not normal.

“Still good,” Anzu said, setting the carafe down in a small gap between what was now Mokuba’s plate of chocolate chip pancakes and a dish with a variety of rolled eggs and rice balls on it. She looked like she was trying to smile, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes.

“Do you want coffee, Kai–” she stopped herself and her cheeks reddened. She bowed her head and refused to meet his amused gaze; instead, she looked up at him through the curtain of her bangs. “Or do you prefer tea?”

A smirk tugged at the corners of Seto’s lips. She couldn’t bring herself to use his given name. She’d said it last night, but she couldn’t say it now, not in the presence of his brother.

I should have known.

Except… how could he have known? For all the madness that regularly flung Anzu and Seto together—with Yuugi and Jounouchi, inevitably, and others, typically—there seemed to be a great deal he still didn’t –couldn’t?– understand about her.

“I can get it,” Seto said, rising from his chair. He didn’t expect Anzu to push him down firmly by the shoulder, given how exhausted she looked. He assumed she wouldn’t have had the energy to bother.

“Coffee or tea?” she repeated. Anzu wasn’t looking at him. She seemed to be staring at the wallpaper across on the wall leading toward the living room. But whatever she was seeing– that was something else altogether.

“Black coffee’s fine,” Seto acquiesced. It was one thing to have employees wordlessly bring you coffee. Sometimes they even bobbed their heads nervously around him, like those little dolls people sometimes put on the dashboards of their cars. Here’s your coffee, Mr. Kaiba. And then they’d run away like little mice. But this? From Mazaki? It felt… wrong.

Anzu turned and made her way to an electric kettle that just finished boiling. She poured a steady stream of hot water through a pour-over strainer fitted with a paper filter and into a cup. A heady aroma wafted towards Seto: notes of chocolate, black cherry, and an unknown spice. He could feel his mouth watering even before she placed the dark blue Domino University mug down in another small gap between the plates on the table.

The school’s ridiculous mascot, a panda that went by the name of “Domi-guo,” emblazoned the side. Its name was meant to be a pun off the name “Domino” and the Japanese word for a bear’s roar. Seto wasn’t sure pandas made the same sound as regular bears, but he wasn’t about to point that out to anyone even loosely affiliated with the university, lest they roar in his face or something.

The coffee’s clearly not instant, Seto realized approvingly. Of course, it wasn’t as if she’d prepared it just for him. The house had to have coffee around; there was no way Mazaki could have gone anywhere at 2 o’clock in the morning to get coffee beans and a grinder. After all, it was one thing to take them in like this, but to go even further…?

Then again, Anzu already had gone further than he ever would have expected. The proof was in the pour-over, at least.

Seto expected her to turn back around and go back to her dishes, even though it was clear that she needed to sit down and eat something, if not get some rest.

Has she slept at all?

Considering there were actual croissants—and were those sliced almonds on the outside?—on the table, Seto doubted it. None of the food on the table looked like it had been reheated or pulled from a box, and he wasn’t about to check the trash can in front of her. Even if he was wrong about the meal, he knew what else was in the garbage: heartbreak in paper form, ripped into shreds and covered with chicken grease. Mazaki didn’t seem like the type to “get over it” overnight.

Instead of going back to the sink, Anzu stood there, wobbling ever so slightly. Seto pulled out the chair beside him and reached up to her shoulder so he could press her into the seat. She almost slipped when her legs gave out sooner than he’d expected; maybe all the grace she had left her last night after he’d read that letter and told her that she hadn’t gotten accepted into Juilliard.

Anzu blinked, her head pitching forward slightly as her eyes widened. “Oh, sorry, I got… a little lost in thought, I guess. I should get back to the dishes—”

Again he reached out. This time Anzu turned to him, a question in her eyes.

“Sit.” He wasn’t trying to command her or anything, but a split second after the word left his mouth, an acrid taste coated his tongue. This was Mazaki; of course she would take it the wrong way. She’d spent a good chunk of time last night doing just that, after all. A lack of sleep wasn’t going to make her think any clearer about this awkward situation they were in.

To Seto’s surprise, Anzu inhaled sharply through her nose and nodded once, like she’d made some mental decision to not snap at him like she normally did. Though, “normal” was relative, after yesterday.

After… everything.

She sat and for the first time, seemed to actually see some of what she’d put together: omurice here, little sausages there— Seto wondered, were they supposed to be octopuses or something? Why else would they be cut up so strangely?—along with a bottle of ketchup and some seaweed seasoning. Seto helped himself to one of the other plates of pancakes, these plain, along with a selection of rolled eggs and fruit.

“You should eat,” he said, and then he opted to practice what he preached, so to speak. He wedged the side of his fork into the golden pancake, stabbed the tines into the slice, and lifted it to his mouth. He glanced at Anzu, whose gaze had drifted now, to him. She seemed to be staring at his lips.

Seto popped the fork into his mouth, but his ability to eat and hold Anzu’s gaze diminished as soon as the taste of the pancake hit him. It was quite possibly the butteriest, perfectly tangy pancake he’d had in years. And he had a personal chef who liked to go overboard every Sunday morning for an ostentatious brunch.

Had’ being the operative word.

The man himself was fine; none of the Kaiba Mansion household staff lived there. Or at least, they hadn’t for years, since Seto had taken over Kaiba Corporation. But the chef had still worked at the mansion for eight to twelve hours a day, in a kitchen that Seto had taken no small amount of pride in keeping up-to-date with the latest appliances. He’d never gotten around to actually gutting the place and updating it completely, but that was a moot point now, wasn’t it?

Seto preferred not to think about everything he’d lost yesterday –again– and instead focused on eating his pancakes before Mokuba would think to steal them off his plate. And he would, Seto knew, judging by how quickly he’d gone through the chocolate chip ones and was now inhaling the scrambled eggs. A quick glance at Anzu revealed she was still sitting beside him, still quivering ever-so-slightly, but now a tiny smile crinkled the corners of her eyes. The shadows underneath them seemed a fraction less prominent.

A moment later, Anzu sighed and pulled a croissant from a plate and bit into one flaky corner. Her eyes widened, as if she were surprised by her own baking talent.

“These turned out okay,” she murmured.

“‘These?’” Mokuba repeated, once he’d finished swallowing the latest of whatever had been on the third plate to Seto’s left. It was empty now, with nary a crumb to indicate what it had held only moments before. “What are you talking about, Anzu, all of this is amazing!”

She bowed her head down again, which Seto realized meant she was embarrassed.

Funny, I never took her for the humble sort.

She’d always met his intentionally intense gazes head-on, refusing to blink where others cowered or looked away. Seto had seen her blush before—back at Pegasus’ castle, and in that damned Virtual World—but then, it wasn’t because someone had just complimented her.

No, he remembered, it was because I

Another forkful of pancake. He added a slice of mikan orange underneath it, just for variety’s sake. The flavors melded particularly well, and served to distract him from his own meandering train of thought.

“Thank you,” Anzu whispered, but only after she’d spent a few minutes chewing on her croissant, heedless of the snow of layered pastry that rained onto her lap. “I should get back to washing everything. I’ll need to pack up all these leftovers somehow.”

“I’ll eat more so you don’t have much to pack!” Mokuba piped up again. Of course he would think that was an ideal solution. Seto rolled his eyes, but neither his brother nor Anzu commented on it.

For the next several minutes, the only sounds were of Mokuba eating (it was impossible to chew quietly with the sheer amount of food he was cramming into his mouth), and the slish-slish of Anzu washing more dishes, pausing, drying a few dishes here, putting away a few more there. For every item she put away, she seemed to take two more out. A pot replaced with a square glass container; a baking tray substituted with a plastic tub missing its lid. Eventually she’d amassed a small collection of containers and an assortment of multicolored lids on a countertop off to the side of the kitchen table, but she’d wandered back to the sink before putting anything in them.

The sink somehow still foamed with soap bubbles, but considering the pile of still-drying bowls and pans next to Anzu, Seto didn’t see how there could possibly be more in there for her to wash. And why didn’t they have a dishwasher? This place had seemed like a new enough build from what little he remembered of the outside from his arrival last night….

Seto started to stand after collecting the few plates he’d eaten. That was when he saw Anzu stumble slightly: leaning against the sink, it was an almost imperceptible movement, but for the forward thrust of her shoulders. Her hands emerged from the soapy water, one hand holding a chef’s knife while the other—

“Stop.”

His chair made an obnoxiously loud squeak against the kitchen flooring as he bolted upright. He hadn’t really thought about what he was doing; he’d just wrapped his arms around Anzu and pulled her hands apart before she could slice her hand open with the knife. She seemed completely oblivious to the fact that it wasn’t a sponge she held in her other hand, but a sopping wet, thin fabric produce bag, the kind used when washing a bunch of freshly purchased vegetables or fruits before using them in a meal.

Anzu jerked back and looked up at him, startled. “What? I—” He pried the knife from one of her hands, releasing his grip on her wrist to do so. He hadn’t ever held her—held anyone, really—like this before. She’d always seemed like such a substantial presence: wherever Yuugi went, there she was, bright and shining. But in his arms right now, she seemed slight. Frail, even. It made no sense.

“You almost cut yourself open, you’re so exhausted,” he murmured. He’d wanted to keep his voice low, but it wasn’t as if the morning radio were on or anything. After that squeaky chair, only the sink drip-dripping made a sound.

“Anzu, are you okay?” Mokuba shot up from his seat, half an octopus sausage still dangling out of one corner of his mouth. If he’d noticed the cute faces Anzu had carved into them, he hadn’t mentioned it. Instead, he sucked the remainder of the sausage into his mouth and stumbled over his chair and the one beside him, trying to check on Anzu, his eyes wide with worry.

Anzu blinked and shook her head back and forth, as if exhaustion was the sort of thing you could fling away from yourself. “I’m fi–”

“You’re not fine. You’re exhausted. Get some sleep,” Seto interrupted, his tone brooking no argument.

“How did you—” Anzu mumbled, actually staggering this time, backwards into his chest. He spun her around to face him, keeping the grip on her shoulders firm.

“You look like a raccoon,” he said. “Your eyes are bloodshot, you’ve got bags underneath them, and you’re shaking like a leaf. And now you’re going to pretend like you’re not about to pass out?”

“I’m not, I…” Anzu stopped herself. Her voice dropped to a thin, dull whisper. “How did you know?”

Seto shrugged, his arms falling to his sides, the electric tingle in his palms subsiding. Anzu wobbled forward, but she didn’t fall.

“Big Brother’s no stranger to staying up all night,” Mokuba piped up. “I should tell you about the time I switched his coffee to decaf right before the Duel Disk II launch so he could get some sleep.” He chuckled a little too loudly, likely trying to diffuse the tension that suddenly filled the room. Off Seto’s sidelong glare, Mokuba quickly amended, “But only after you get some rest!”

Anzu seemed to realize this was an argument she couldn't win. She sighed again and started to pull on the straps of her apron, groaning audibly when the knot stubbornly refused to come undone. Again Seto placed his hands on her shoulders, but this time he pivoted her gently, his hands drifting to her waist so his deft fingers could work at the Cthulhulian knot she’d somehow tied around her waist.

Once undone, he draped the apron over a chair, unsure of where it was meant to go and, for the time being, anyway, not caring.

“Mokuba, clean up your plates and start putting the leftovers away, please.”

“Okay, Big Brother,” Mokuba replied and set to work. Seto lucked out; Mokuba had agreed without putting up a fight. He’d been… more stubborn, lately. Breakfast the day before at the Kaiba Mansion felt as pleasant as a quarterly revenue meeting with Kaiba Corporation’s executives. Then the earthquake changed everything. Mokuba was still Mokuba, he just seemed more obedient over the past sixteen hours.

“Oh man, I’ve got such a food coma…” Seto and Anzu heard Mokuba complain as they headed toward the staircase. Anzu didn’t seem to take offense to the statement, if the tiny smile pulling at the corner of her lips was any indication. She glanced back at Mokuba shuffling around the table before she headed upstairs, Seto following closely behind.

Halfway up, Anzu glanced back at him. “You don’t have to escort me to my bedroom, you know.”

“You’re no better than Mokuba,” Seto replied archly, “If I tell you to go to bed and I don’t make sure you do, you’ll just find something else to keep you awake.”

What would that be, for Mazaki? More sit-ups, perhaps?

Anzu snorted a puff of air out of her nose, and Seto thought he saw the ghost of a smirk on her face before she turned away and continued heading up the stairs. She didn’t say anything as he followed her down the hall and through her door. He’d glanced in last night, when she’d started thump-thumping on the shared wall between their rooms with her late-night exercise routine. But he hadn’t actually looked around.

The room suited her. Bright, with a full-sized Western bed and desk, all in bold colors: sunshine yellow walls, an ocean blue desk with a matching uncomfortable-looking chair, and fuschia curtains to match her—um, perhaps a bit outdated—orange and pink checkered comforter. She had a pair of Black Magician Girl: Jewel of the Sage Broadway posters pinned to her wall, and a calendar above her desk. A somewhat sad little plant—Seto couldn’t tell if it was real or fake from this distance—sat in the corner, its leaves faintly dusted with gray.

Anzu threw back the comforter without any fanfare and crawled in, pulling everything up to her nose. “I just… I needed to do something,” she whispered, her voice muffled by the various sheets and blankets. “The food, it– it was all I could think of. That’s all.”

Seto considered what to say. “If you can’t even tell when you’re about to slice your hand open—” he began, then course-corrected. “You’ve already done something. A lot of somethings, actually.”

“But—” Anzu started to protest, tossing back her comforter as if to get out of bed, at which point Seto came fully into the room and pushed her down into the bed. He didn’t realize that his previous gesture—firmly gripping Anzu by the shoulders—worked very differently in a bedroom. At some point in the past few breaths, he’d put a knee up on the edge of the bed to keep his balance, but now he was pinning Anzu to the bed, and she was staring up at him, wide-eyed and flushed, unable to do that thing where she bowed her head and tried to hide behind her bangs.

He swallowed. Her eyes followed the movement of his Adam’s apple in his throat, but flicked away to who-knew-what as soon as his gaze shifted from her eyes down the curve of her neck to his hands, fixed on her shoulders.

“What more do you need me to say, Mazaki?” Seto sighed and removed his hands from her shoulders. They tingled slightly, like they were already missing Anzu’s warmth. He chalked it up to his hands falling asleep because of… something. He shifted to a sitting position and flicked his hands a few times, hoping the fuzzy feeling in them would go away.

He had no right to be in here, no right to sit on the edge of her bed and act like— like Yuugi or something.

“Don’t call me that.”

The crisp clarity of her tone startled him; he’d thought she was teetering on the edge of exhaustion, but she’d managed to get those words out sounding like she was reciting an answer in class, loud enough for even the idiots in the back row to hear.

Of course she’d throw my words back at me.

It was her way, wasn’t it? No, maybe not her way, but their way. Back and forth it went, for more than a year now. Could it be considered routine by now? Or was “habit” a better word? Regardless—

Two can play that game.

“What do you want me to call you, then?” Seto deliberately dropped his voice—not a whisper, but not a grumble or a growl, either. He could still hear Mokuba clattering away downstairs, so it wasn’t as if he was worried that his brother would hear this “conversation.” Instead, this was purely for his—no, wrong again: their—benefit.

He could lean back over her. Trap her between his arms again and hover just over her, just to see the look on her face. As for right now, her expression was… something. He didn’t know the word for her expression off the top of his head. It wasn’t cute or embarrassing or anything so basic. But for all his education, Seto couldn’t find the right way to describe it.

“‘A-Anzu,’” she said in a stuttering whisper. “It’s only fair...Seto-kun.”

He raised an eyebrow at her and nodded once. “Very well. What more do you need me to say, Anzu?” He deliberately left off an honorific, knowing exactly how she’d react. And true to expectation, she blushed brilliantly this time, a few shades off from matching her obnoxiously bright bed covering.

“Just promise me you won’t leave without saying anything,” she said, the words coming out hoarse. “Cooking is one thing, but I—”

She needed to help everyone. Help more. Unsurprising. Trying to stop Anzu from helping someone in need would be as plausible as him… well, as him dueling Yuugi again and winning, to be honest: a futile effort, most likely.

“Fine,” Seto responded, standing. He didn’t like where his thoughts went. He had too much to actually get done before he could pursue that line of thinking.

“Promise me, Seto-kun!” That desperate tone. She’d used it on him only once, back in the Virtual World. Back before—

We want to help...Let us help...Please!”

He almost shook his head a few times, about to do the exact thing he believed was a ridiculous gesture on Anzu’s part just minutes ago. You couldn’t fling bad thoughts out of your head any more than you could shake exhaustion out. She’d misinterpret the motion, in any case.

“I promise.” The words came out harsher than he’d intended, and he turned to glance at Anzu, to see if she was staring at him with her eyes wide and watering, like one of those sad-looking stuffed Duel Monsters he saw at gift shops. Instead, she was fast asleep, the tiniest of pleased little smiles curving the corners of her mouth.

Of course.


“Is Anzu finally asleep, Big Brother?” Mokuba asked as soon as Seto re-entered the kitchen.

Seto gave an affirmative sort of grunt and pulled out a kitchen chair to sit in before he collapsed into his folded arms. After a moment, he looked up, realizing all the leftovers were gone.

“Thanks for taking care of the leftovers, Mokuba.”

Mokuba shrugged. “It’s the least I could do. I mean, they’re feeding us, giving us a place to stay….” He trailed off. He opened the fridge and gestured to three tall stacks of containers crammed with all the leftovers from breakfast. Seto nodded approvingly.

“Well.” Seto heaved a sigh. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

“Are we going to go to work?” Mokuba asked. If the grimace on his face was any indication, he really didn’t care for the idea.

“Promise me, Seto-kun!”

“...No.” He’d lost his cell phone in the fire along with everything else. Seto glanced around and spotted a cordless phone hung from the wall separating the kitchen from the living room. He headed toward it and removed it from the receiver. “We’ll work remotely.”

He hadn’t used his secret dial-in number in… what, nearly five years? Maybe more? It took him a moment to remember each of the digits. After a moment, it rang.

“...Kaiba Corporation,” a male voice answered, hesitating, “How may I direct your call?”

“Isono. It’s me.”

A crackling, shuffling sound came from the speaker.

Did he drop his phone out of surprise or something?

Normally, Isono came across as unflappable. It was part of the reason why Seto had retained him, unlike much of the staff from Gozaburo’s days as President and CEO of Kaiba Corporation. Few people who worked for a defense contractor seemed keen on the idea of having a teenage boss, let alone one who insisted the company pivot to focusing on gaming technology and social causes. Isono, on the other hand….

“Seto-sama, I didn’t know where you and Mokuba-sama went after the fire. I’m glad to hear your voice.”

“With the mansion gone, a lot went with it. I’ll need you to get us our personal effects from the office. Any clothing, personal care items, laptops… that kind of thing.” Seto could feel a headache coming on just thinking about everything he and Mokuba would need just to feel a fraction closer to the “normal” they’d known for the past few years. At least he could count on Isono to think of the things that he couldn’t name.

“Yes, Seto-sama. Anything else?” Isono paused. “I noticed you calling from a different number, sir.”

“I’ll need a new cell phone, too,” Seto added, refusing to acknowledge Isono’s subtle inquiry. “Just get me something functional, I don’t care about the details.”

“Of course, sir. And… where should I have these items delivered, Seto-sama?”

Isono’s first veiled attempt at figuring out where he and Mokuba were staying had failed, so he’d resorted to the direct route. Then again, he would have to ask, one way or another, wouldn’t he?

I don’t know why I care so much. It’s not like Isono will tell anyone.

A paragon of secrecy, Isono was one of the few people Seto trusted with handling the most sensitive of information within Kaiba Corporation. It was why the man accompanied him almost everywhere, and acted as the Master of Ceremonies during Battle City. It was why he’d been given a substantial raise after Dartz had bought out most of Kaiba Corporation’s stock, sending the company’s valuation into a tailspin. He hadn’t cared about who held the most stocks. Isono had stuck by his side. That mattered.

Seto cleared his throat.

“Mazaki.”

He hoped that would be enough of an answer, and that Isono could figure out what he was trying to say. For whatever reason, he couldn’t bring himself to tell Isono that he was staying over at his nemesis’ would-be girlfriend’s house after the Kaiba Mansion had burnt to a crisp.

Isono coughed, a not-too-subtle way of indicating that, no, he didn’t know what Seto was talking about. Before Seto could say anything though, Mokuba’s voice came through the line.

“Isono, you remember Anzu Mazaki? Her address should be in the database!” Mokuba walked into the kitchen, a second cordless phone from parts unknown pressed to the side of his face, his head tilted into one shoulder.

Seto glared at the mischievous grin spreading across his younger brother’s face. His brother just smiled more and plopped himself down on the nearby living room sofa.

After a moment, Isono responded. “Yes, Mokuba-sama, I found the address. I will ensure everything reaches you within the next hour and a half. Is there anything else, sir?”

Mokuba looked over his shoulder at Seto. “Anything you can think of, Big Brother?”

Seto paused, his gaze sweeping across the room. While it was far from his ideal workplace, it was serviceable: bright, with decently comfortable seating, and, judging by the blinking modem underneath a small table, ready access to the Internet.

It was more than he would normally expect, given the circumstances. He’d never voice those expectations aloud, however; at this point, everyone just assumed he demanded excellence. And he did, it was just that he demanded excellence so that people could be excellent. If he didn’t push people to their limits, they’d never take risks. Everything that Kaiba Corporation did, at some level, was risky. He needed people to constantly believe they could do more, become more, be greater.

If the people Seto surrounded himself with nearly everyday didn’t believe it, how could he?

“Isono, has the latest testing from the Electrics Division been completed?”

Another pause and a shuffling sound. “Ah… yes, sir. It looks like completion for all of the main projects was completed last week and is awaiting final approval before getting sent to the factories for scale production and marketing.”

“Hn. Have Electric bring one of the prototype dishwashers, too. You have the specifications available?”

Seto didn’t bother looking at what was almost assuredly a gawking stare from his younger brother across the room. He’d already heard the other line plunk from where it had probably fallen from Mokuba’s ear onto the sofa.

He rose from his seat at the kitchen table and leaned on the counter nearest the sink, where Anzu had spent much of the morning washing dishes until her fingers looked like dried fruit and her attention dissipated faster than a soap bubble. He stretched his arm across the countertop, stretching his fingers slightly until they reached the edge of the sink.

“The model’s no more than 61 centimeters wide, right?”

“Ah… correct, sir. The prototype of the standard model is exactly that width. We also have the compact and slimline models available too—”

“The standard will serve, Isono,” Seto interrupted him crisply. Better to get this all dealt with now so he could get more work done sooner rather than later.

“Very well, sir. Should I… arrange to have an installation technician come along with the unit?” Another one of Isono’s veiled questions-within-a-question. What could Seto Kaiba possibly want with a dishwasher? Seto had hoped it would be obvious, but he didn’t have the time or wherewithal to explain himself. What was he supposed to do, explain everything to Isono, starting from the thumping sound he’d heard from Anzu’s bedroom last night?

Absolutely not.

He might trust the man with all sorts of personal information, but he had to draw the line somewhere.

“Yes,” Seto replied. “Just make sure they’re the most competent, quick, and… trustworthy technician we have.” The last thing he needed was some upstart installation engineer gossiping about where his boss was staying after the events of yesterday’s quake and subsequent fire.

“Understood, sir. I’ll get everything to you as soon as possible.”

“Good.” He was about to hang up the phone, but for some reason, the pleading expression on Anzu’s face came to mind. “...Thank you, Isono.”

“...Sir?”

“I’ll see you soon,” he added, and then Seto Kaiba hung up the phone.


Just over an hour into Anzu’s nap, she started to dream.

She dreamed about Gandora, the jeweled black dragon of destruction Yuugi used against Atem in their fateful duel. She saw herself reflected in the dragon’s blood-red gems, each mirrored version of herself different: one that looked crushed at Atem’s departure, tears streaming down her face; another that looked overjoyed, her face flushed and bright, her eyes only for her best friend. She saw an Anzu with her brows knit to the center of her forehead and her lips curved downward in a frown, an expression mirrored on Kaiba’s face in the hazy background.

Her dream self turned around, daring to look away from the Ceremonial Duel for a split second to see what Kaiba was so angry about when the earth burst beneath his feet, swallowing him. The pillars within the temple teetered and fell, stones arcing one after another.

Anzu screamed, but it didn’t matter: Honda fell next, a stone crushing a leg as he ran, hindering him just long enough to fall victim to a falling pillar. Then Bakura—poor Bakura, only recently freed from the manipulations of a dark being almost beyond understanding—a stone clipping the back of his head and staining his pale hair crimson.

The dirt and dust flying everywhere made it impossible to see, and before long, everything went dark.

Her limbs felt heavy, but not from anything crushing them. Rather, they felt heavy from within, as if the iron in her blood multiplied, weighing each vein down until there was no “Anzu” anymore, just a human-shaped bruise. The ground roiled again, a storm beneath her, and then she was ejected —no, spat— out of the quiet oblivion she’d only just accepted as her fate.

Anzu found herself herself again, her hands unbroken, unbruised, and curled into tendrils of damp grass and moist earth. Every joint in her body ached, but she managed to crane her neck to look at the sucking cold behind her: she’d just fallen out of a forgotten coffin, an unremarkable wooden box with no ornamentation on it at all.

Yuugi? Jounouchi?... Honda! Bakura!” Anzu’s hoarse queries quickly turned into screaming cries.

Alone.

Except… she heard crying, somewhere in the foggy distance. She fought the heaviness in her veins, rising to her feet and stumbling past headstone after headstone until she found the source of the heartbroken sounds: Mokuba, desperately trying to lift up one bar of a dark, shiny coffin.

Without a doubt in her mind, she knew who was inside.

No!

Anzu tried to move toward Mokuba, but the fog had grown so thick it was like walking through water. The heaviness in her limbs multiplied, and she crumpled to her knees. She saw two familiar silhouettes, shadowed in the mist: Yuugi with his unmistakable hair, and Jounouchi beside him, hands casually stuffed into his pockets. Neither of them seemed to hear Mokuba, or if they did, they couldn’t be bothered to care.

They’re not like that. Even if they never got along with Kaiba, they would never—

Except they were like that: ignorant and unfeeling. Yuugi and Jounouchi’s forms receded into the fog, even as Mokuba continued to struggle, trying to pick up his brother’s coffin entirely on his own. With each attempt, more of the coffin crumbled into black ash, each clump settling and mixing with the wet grass until it formed a textured shadow, one that undulated as if alive.

Yes! Accept your fate!

Anzu didn’t recognize the voice; it was rumbling and low, hissing and quavering: a cacophony of unpleasant sounds somehow forming words. Goosebumps snaked down her arms and legs; everything felt so, so cold….

Again, the earth roiled, this time birthing a familiar, terrifying shape: that of the “High Priest of Darkness,” a rotting mummy clad in dark armor, threads of white hair still sprouting from the former human’s face and head. One eye seemed on the verge of popping out of his skill, coated in a thick sheen of blood, while the other…

The Millennium Eye!

Anzu grabbed at the grass, desperately trying to find her footing. The corrupted priest –a mere flesh mask for a dark god– lurched toward her, recessed fingernails resembling claws ready to tear her to ribbons.

She couldn’t move. She couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t feel anything other than cold, crushing loneliness. She’d failed to save her friends, failed to help someone in need, failed, failed, failed, failed, failed!

Anzu awoke screaming.


Minutes before Isono’s scheduled arrival, Seto thought to change his clothes. While he trusted the man with a great deal, Isono had never seen Seto Kaiba in anything less than a button-down shirt and slacks, never mind a 20-year-old gym uniform (with a yeti drawn on it)!

Mokuba, on the other hand, couldn't be bothered. When Seto said he was going upstairs to change, his sibling simply shrugged at him. “I’m pretty comfortable, Big Brother. And it’s easier to get work done in this than in some sooty shirt from yesterday.”

Well, he has a point.

He’d left the former site of the Kaiba Mansion with only the clothes on his back yesterday, and that meant his school uniform. In the chaos that followed the day’s earlier earthquakes, he simply hadn’t had time to get anything else. Luckily, Seto rarely wore his jacket open, so his collared shirt, at a minimum, was still clean, if a little smelly from all-day wear. It –and the accompanying slacks– would have to do.

As he headed back downstairs in his uniform shirt and slacks, he heard a faint whimper from Anzu’s room, the door of which Seto had left open a fraction. He glanced into the gap and saw her turn on her side in bed, but otherwise she seemed sound asleep.

Just before Isono rang the doorbell, Seto opened the door.

“Isono.”

You’re in the right place.

Seto had spied him through the narrow window beside the door, glancing left and right on the thoroughly normal residential street, as if he was unsure that this address was actually the correct one.

The more curious thing was just why Anzu’s name had been in the Kaiba Corporation database—she wasn’t exactly a duelist, last Seto heard—but answering that question would have to come later. Way later.

“Ah, Seto-sama. I have what you requested, along with some other things…”

Seto stepped away from the doorway, welcoming Isono into a home that wasn’t his to welcome other people into. But if Anzu inherited any of her generosity from her parents, then he doubted that Mr. and Mrs. Mazaki would take issue with him handling some brief business affairs with someone Seto trusted implicitly.

Isono introduced him to the installation engineer, a wiry young man in a pair of clean, light blue Kaiba Corporation coveralls. The engineer had the prototype dishwasher—shrink-wrapped to the point where it was almost impossible to tell what it was—on a wooden pallet balanced atop a folding orange dolly he’d pulled from the Kaiba Corporation van parked in the driveway.

The badge fixed to his breast pocket read “K. Takahashi,” quite possibly the most generic name Seto could have thought of, but if Isono said he trusted the man, then so did Seto. When he reached the doorway with the dolly, Seto set out a small sigh of relief that Takahashi hadn’t attempted to cram the dolly –shrink-wrapped pallet and all– through the doorway. Instead, he brought out a box cutter to slice through most of the plastic, and then he carefully undid the remainder, one layer at a time, so as to not scratch the stainless steel exterior.

Once done, Takahashi shifted the prototype to the front of the pallet and the dolly at the edge of the doorway, and with a polite “Excuse me, sir,” accompanied by a nod of his head, Takahashi stepped inside, pulling fabric covers onto his shoes as he went. He slid the dishwasher off the pallet with a smooth thump, and looked to Seto for further instruction.

“We’ll put it in that cabinet, next to the sink. We’ll be removing the contents and the facing drawers, but I want to make sure we can replace any edging that needs to be cut.”

They discussed the installation a bit longer—it would take a few hours, at minimum, and would be somewhat noisy due to the use of a reciprocating saw—before Takahashi got to work and Isono stepped back to the doorway to speak with Seto.

“Sir, would you like me to look into five-star hotels which currently have a penthouse vacancy?”

A question within a question.

Isono’s was one way to get ahead in business: get the information you wanted without being tactless about it. He wanted to know how long Seto and Mokuba intended to stay at the Mazaki home...and probably, if Seto was being honest with himself, why he was staying there in the first place.

No good answer came to mind. Not yet, anyway.

I blame it on the lack of sleep. It wasn’t as if Seto Kaiba slept all that heavily on a regular basis anyway, but he knew he didn’t function at his peak performance unless he got a minimum of six hours, strung out between meetings, coding sessions, tests, school….

He’d tried to sleep last night, after that midnight conversation. And he must have, considering he didn’t recall hearing a single clatter to indicate someone was in the kitchen, outdoing the Bellagio when it came to breakfast options. He just didn’t remember when, amid the fog of thoughts about the mansion, and Mokuba, and Mazaki—‘Anzu,’ she’d told him, her voice a breathless whisper—he’d finally fallen asleep.

Isono wore sunglasses all the time, but Seto knew the man was looking at him, waiting expectantly for an answer.

“Come with me. It’ll be better than trying to stay at some hotel that’s nowhere near school or work, right?”

“No, we’re fine for now, Isono. We have more pressing things to worry about. This should be enough to get us started.”

Isono glanced at Mokuba, who was leaning back on the couch, his lips pursed in a paltry imitation of a koi fish sucking crumbs off the surface of a pond. He shrugged at Isono, whose only response was to raise his eyebrows briefly before turning back to Seto.

“Sir.” He handed Seto a basic black flip phone with the Kaiba Corporation logo etched on it in silver. “I was unable to transfer your existing number to this line, but I set up forwarding with Telecommunications, so all calls to your old number should reach this phone for the time being. At your earliest convenience, you will need to contact the carrier to get a new SIM card…” he hesitated, “And probably a better model, sir. I wanted to get you a working device as soon as possible, so I didn’t think to—”

“Isono,” Seto interrupted. “It’s fine—”

He was about to say more, but a terrified scream interrupted his thoughts. He almost dropped the phone Isono handed him.

In the split second it took him to glance at the source of the sound—upstairs, from Anzu’s room, no doubt—Mokuba did something Seto had never seen him do before: he vaulted over the back of the couch and took off like a shot, up the stairs before Seto had time to do more than blink.

A breath later, Seto saw Isono staring at him wordlessly, both eyebrows raised. The engineer had dropped his measuring tape at the sound of the scream, but true to his professionalism, hadn’t said a word and quickly went back to work.

I shouldn’t leave Isono and Takahashi downstairs alone…. It wasn’t his home, wasn’t his place. But—

Seto set his jaw, angled his head at Isono, and then strode to the staircase just beyond the kitchen, resisting for a few precious seconds, the electric urge in his veins to run upstairs as fast as he could.

All of two minutes passed from the time Anzu screamed to the moment when Seto pushed her bedroom door all the way open, only to freeze a step inside at the sight of Anzu clinging to Mokuba, her whole body wracked with shuddering sobs.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” Anzu kept whispering, her voice hoarse, between gasping breaths. She didn’t even look up at Seto.

Mokuba, on the other hand, craned his head around, still awkwardly hugging Anzu as she kept crying into his shoulder from a sitting position in her bed.

“Big Brother, she just started— I don’t… w-what do I do?”

That was all it took for Seto to switch into automatic. He strode into the room and gently prised Anzu’s fingers from around Mokuba’s back, holding them in his own so his brother could wiggle his way away from the bed.

“Run downstairs and get her some water, will you, Mokuba?” Seto situated himself on the bed, shifting both of Anzu’s hands to one of his own.

Since when were her hands so small?

Earlier she’d seemed frail, almost insubstantial. Now she seemed tiny, a wisp of light about to burn out. The electric tingle that had propelled him upstairs solidified into something firm, familiar, and solid.

It wasn’t until Seto heard the door squeak open that he realized Mokuba had yet to leave. Instead, his brother hesitated in the doorway, his eyes flickering from Anzu’s ashen face to her hands in Seto’s.

“Mokuba, the water—” Seto said under his breath.

Now is not the time to be stubborn all of a sudden!

Mokuba’s brows knit in the center of his forehead. It was becoming a familiar expression on so many faces around Seto, these days.

“Are you going to be okay, Big Brother?”

Before Seto could come up with an answer to Mokuba’s bizarre question, Anzu’s hands shifted; she withdrew them from Seto’s grip and looked up, glassy-eyed. If the dark crescents under her eyes made her look like a raccoon earlier, now she looked like one of those exotic pets Mokuba had wanted once upon a time.

What was it called, an axolotl? The pale thing with bulbous eyes and wild-looking stalks coming out of his head.

“Are you real?” Anzu murmured, her voice a thin, reedy rasp against the quiet.

Seto turned back to her, tempted to smooth out her mussed hair, the way he had for Mokuba for years before this, whenever his brother woke from a nightmare. He resisted, feeling that same electric tingle work its way through his fingertips. Again, the thought came to him: It isn’t my place.

Seto kept his gaze fixed on Anzu, even as he heard Mokuba finally slip out of the room.

“You tell me. What is it you call me?” Now that Mokuba was gone, maybe she’d say it. Maybe she’d remember and realize that whatever had frightened her had no basis in reality.

Anzu exhaled, the sound coming out like a soft chuckle. “It’s really you...Seto-kun.”


Mokuba didn’t often hesitate; he’d been through too many situations where those few split seconds meant the difference between comfort and chaos. But his brother had no experience dealing with scared girls, crying girls, or girls AT ALL. That Anzu was “that girl” made it especially difficult in Mokuba’s eyes; she was acting completely the opposite of how he’d always known her.

But then he heard her call his brother by his given name, something she’d never ever ever done before. Mokuba almost tripped in the doorway, but caught himself just in time by grabbing onto the frame.

Unsurprisingly, Seto had heard—or maybe even seen—the whole thing, and now he was gesturing at Mokuba with a flicking hand to get downstairs already. The look on his face was normally one reserved for researchers that annoyed him, usually by underestimating Seto’s comprehension of complicated subjects.

Mokuba winced and scuttled off downstairs to get Anzu a glass of water.

Once he got there, Isono still stood in the space between the living room and the kitchen, having hardly moved.

“Mokuba-sama.” Mokuba knew Isono’s mannerisms just as well as Seto; what sounded like a stated name, a formal greeting was, in Isono-speak, actually a veiled question: What happened? Is everything all right? Is there anything I can do to help?

Isono had that much in common with Anzu, at least, Mokuba realized. Always wanting to help. But now she needed his help, and so Mokuba didn’t have time to explain things to Isono.

“Everything’s going to be okay, Isono. I think we’ve got everything we need for now. You should probably head back to HQ.” Mokuba nodded in the direction of the installation engineer, who was busy unscrewing pipes under the gutted countertop. “Do you have a way back while he’s at work?”

“Yes, Mokuba-sama, I contacted a company vehicle for pickup a few moments ago. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you need anything else.”

Again, Mokuba hesitated. Isono could get anything to help out right now, but for some reason, the only thing he could think of was cheering Anzu up. But asking Isono to go get Anzu a box of chocolates or a bouquet of bright flowers seemed...weird. Maybe even wrong.

“Okay, we’ll call if we think of something.” Mokuba made his way to the sink—to where Anzu had almost sliced her hand open earlier, if it hadn’t been for his sharp-eyed brother—and filled up a clean glass with cold tap water.

He turned around to head upstairs, and nodded at Isono. “I’ll get the door after I come back downstairs.” Mokuba paused again, remembered something. It felt like it had been a lifetime ago, but it was within the past hour, wasn’t it? Hadn’t Seto uncharacteristically thanked Isono?

It wasn’t that Seto wasn’t polite; Mokuba remembered the unrelenting etiquette lessons Gozaburo had forced them both through. Seto just tended to show his gratefulness in… quieter ways.

“Thank you, Isono,” Mokuba said quickly, and then he dashed upstairs, water splashing against the rim of the cup as he went.

When he got back to Anzu’s room only a few minutes after he’d left, there was a marked change in Anzu’s disposition. She wasn’t quivering in place anymore, but her eyes still seemed glassy, framed in red from all that crying she’d done. She and Seto weren’t—holding hands—anymore, but it also didn’t look like they’d done much in the way of conversation, judging by their faces.

“Anzu, I brought you some water. Here.” Mokuba handed Anzu the glass, wincing as some water sloshed out of the cup when he thrust it at her faster than was strictly necessary. But Anzu didn’t seem to mind.

She smiled a small, tentative smile and took a sip. “Thank you, Mokuba-kun,” she said, her voice sounding far less hoarse than it had just a short while ago, when she’d said—

“Are you real?”

She’d been looking at Seto when she said it. Those words were what seemed to snap her out of her crumbling state, back to a reality where she had nothing to apologize for.

There were a few more awkward moments of silence, as Mokuba and Seto both kept their gazes on Anzu while she sipped increasingly larger gulps of water until the cup was empty. She slurped the last dregs of water from the cup and then settled the cup in her lap. When she looked up, her face was a faint shade of pink, but she didn’t say anything.

“Mokuba,” Seto asked, breaking the silence and turning to look at his brother, “Could you go downstairs and finish checking on everything?”

He wants to be alone with Anzu?

Mokuba could hardly believe his ears. It wasn’t that he knew his brother had a problem with Anzu; probably the opposite, to be honest: she was probably one of the more tolerable members of Yuugi’s friend group, and since she’d help save him from some real pinches on more than one occasion. That Mokuba was never anything less than honest with Seto about those occasions had to have elevated her opinion in his brother’s book, at least a little bit.

That and… Mokuba really didn’t want to leave again. He wanted to understand why Anzu had clung to him like a lifeline, why she’d sobbed out apology after apology until Seto came in.

“Are you sure, Big Brother?” Mokuba didn’t move from his spot, less than a meter in front of Anzu’s bed. He was plenty close enough to just switch places with Seto, to keep her company for a bit while Seto went downstairs and took care of “checking on everything” to his own specifications. But Seto didn’t look like he was going to budge.

“Oh, and could you check the bin for the sleep aid bottle?”

A tacit refusal to answer his question was as good as an order. Lately, Mokuba had been testing the boundaries of those “orders,” and how much they really ought to apply to him, Seto’s brother, Seto’s only family, and Kaiba Corporation’s VP (in training). But what could he say to refuse now? ‘No, you go get it, I want to sit with Anzu?’ Mokuba could envision how well something like that would go.

“Okay,” he murmured, exiting Anzu’s bedroom with a deep sigh.

I guess Seto’s trying to help her too...in his own weird way.

He would just have to trust that Seto could handle helping Anzu with nightmares the same way he’d helped Mokuba with his all those years ago.

 

After Mokuba left a second time, pulling the door behind him as he went, the silence resumed. Anzu’s breathing finally steadied, but her cheeks and neck were still inexplicably rosy.

Seto was accustomed to long periods of silence; it was in that sort of environment that he’d been forced to study until nearly morning. Nowadays, he preferred the quiet hum of a server room, or the soft murmur and clinking of mugs at a coffee shop, where he could sit in the darkest corner with a lap, getting work done without being bothered. He couldn’t really remember the last time he’d worked from his office at Kaiba Corporation’s primary headquarters, let alone his former office at the Kaiba—no, Anzu was right: Gozaburo Kaiba’s—Mansion. Even classical music couldn’t melt away the oppressive feeling that overtook him in those spaces.

Anzu, on the other hand, seemed to fidget in silence, more used to classrooms filled with whispers and the sound of papers shuffling around, pens dropping to the linoleum floor—

Maybe after yesterday, that’s changed.

After all, those sounds came before the earth convulsed and much of the school came raining down on them both.

“Bin?”

“Isono came over with a few things so we could work remotely,” Seto explained. It went without saying: Because you asked me not to go anywhere without telling you.

He could have gotten around it—could have left her a note, or recorded a voice message or something—but he wasn’t that kind of person. Let Yuugi and his other friends think what they would, but Seto Kaiba did not break promises.

Seto conveniently failed to mention the dishwasher or the installation engineer. Instead, he changed the subject to what he saw as the more pertinent matter at hand.

“So. A nightmare.”

Even if he hadn’t walked in on Anzu crying her eyes out on his brother’s shoulder, he would have known that was the case; Anzu’s confession from last night, the profound disappointment of her rejection from Juilliard, and that terrifying scream: all of them clues to the obvious.

Seto Kaiba was no stranger to nightmares.

Anzu exhaled deeply through her nose, collapsing in on herself just a little bit more as she considered what to say.

“Several,” she admitted, her voice quiet but clear. “Some of them I’ve had before. A few bits were…” She remembered the High Priest of Darkness, his body made of slithering shadows, lunging toward her with rotting, clawed hands and a bloodied face. “...new.”

Seto leaned back from his half-on, half-off seated position, situating both of his hands behind his hips on the bed.

“It makes sense. You recently suffered a trauma—” Let her decide if he was talking about the earthquake or something else, “So it makes sense that your brain would try and process things while you sleep. If you complicate the process by not sleeping or running yourself ragged, well….” Seto trailed off meaningfully.

He leaned forward just a hair, noting how the pale pink of Anzu’s cheeks flared up again as she nearly rolled backward against her headboard in an effort to move away from him. Was she remembering earlier, perhaps?

Seto found himself staring at Anzu’s neck as she swallowed uncomfortably, blinking up at the ceiling as if she could see patterns in the drywall. He was surprised by the clarity in her eyes when she finally faced him again.

“Have you had nightmares? Since—” she cut herself off. Had she meant it as a single sentence? Had he had nightmares since...when? But the fact that Anzu started biting her lip, then licking it—that tongue again!—gave Seto pause.

Is she talking about...him?

Or was there more to her question than she was letting on? It wouldn’t much of a surprise, really, if she knew about the other nightmares, the ones he’d had shortly after that first duel with who he now recognized as not-Yuugi. Atem. Maybe he’d told her himself, when they’d met up later. Maybe Jounouchi had something to do with it. For all his loudmouthed brashness, the mutt occasionally intuited something correctly, and it was only in those moments that Seto thought Jounouchi could do passably well as a pro duelist.

Well. Regardless.

“No,” Seto answered honestly. “I haven’t had nightmares in a while. But…” Here his own gaze dropped from Anzu to his own hands, so much larger than Mokuba’s and even Anzu’s, but to Seto, still seeming so thin, so bony, so pathetic. These weren’t the hands of someone who could save anyone.

“No dreams, either.” Seto swallowed the acid lump in his throat. He was grateful when, a moment later, Mokuba returned, a small white bottle of over-the-counter sleep aid pills in his hands, along with a fresh cup of water. At least this time, Mokuba didn’t splash Anzu in his zeal to hand her the glass as soon as possible.

Instead, Mokuba kneeled slightly next to Anzu’s nightstand, reaching out for Anzu’s hand without the slightest bit of hesitation.

“Anzu, are you okay? Is there anything else I can bring you? Anything at all?”

Seto raised his eyebrows at the scene playing out before him: Mokuba, apparently trying to play the part of some fairy tale prince, quite intentionally ignoring Seto and doing his best to look after Anzu by doting on her in his youthful, clumsy way.

It’s not as if I have any more experience than he does, Seto realized. The only person he’d ever “doted” on was Mokuba, and never with gestures quite like this. So where had Mokuba gotten it from?

Anzu smiled, a fluttering little twitch of her lips as she bobbed her head at Mokuba and took the water and the pill bottle from him. She placed both on her nightstand without drinking. “No, I’m okay. Thank you for… for being here right when I woke up, Mokuba-kun. I really appreciate it.”

“It’s no problem, Anzu,” Mokuba beamed back at her, but then he frowned. “You said ‘I’m sorry’ a lot… but what were you apologizing for?”

Seto nearly winced. Mokuba sometimes acted mature for his age, and sometimes his sense and tact were on par with a bulldozer.

Anzu’s gaze drifted again, focusing on some unseen point in the distance. “For not helping you when I should have,” she said quietly. Seto noticed her fingers clenching the comforter until her knuckles turned white.

Mokuba looked at his brother, confused by Anzu’s reply, but Seto only shrugged slightly. A breath later, Anzu looked back at them and smiled again, but it was still a tired, weak little smile that didn’t come close to meeting her eyes.

“It was just a nightmare, though. You know I’ll always help you no matter what, right Mokuba?”

“...Yeah,” Mokuba agreed, but judging by the vexed expression on his face, Seto wasn’t alone in thinking Anzu’s answer was far from satisfactory. “You always have helped, Anzu…. But, let me—let us, I mean— help you too, okay?”

Anzu only bobbed her head in response, a wordless agreement to an undefined promise. She shifted in her bed again, and Mokuba made to leave the room, likely assuming that Anzu wanted to get back to sleep. Seto, on the other hand, stayed seated on the bed, as if waiting for Anzu to give him the answers he wanted, whether he had to wait one minute or one hour.

Mokuba sighed as he sluggishly made his way to Anzu’s bedroom door, dragging his feet to prove a point. Once in the doorway, he turned around and frowned openly at his brother, but Seto ignored his pointed stare and stayed where he was, waiting until the sound of Mokuba’s footfalls receded downstairs once more.


“Mokuba was in your nightmare?”

Anzu didn’t expect that question. She didn’t know what to expect from Seto Kaiba, sitting here in her bedroom like he belonged there.

Like it’s our bed and not just mine!

Anzu wanted to shake the thought out of her head, embarrassed that she was remembering her accidental suggestive turn of phrase last night. She kept alternating between hot and cold, flushed and pale. No wonder why she was so exhausted, her blood was racing from one end of her to the other every few moments she was around Seto Kaiba!

Focus, focus!

Maybe she did owe him some sort of an explanation. It didn’t have to be everything, not all of the gruesome details. Maybe not mentioning the undead specter of his previous incarnation’s father-turned-evil-high-priest was a wise decision.

“I...Yeah. There was a lot of death. And a funeral. Mokuba was crying, but I couldn’t get to him, and—” But the more she tried to be perfunctory about it, the louder the nightmare became in her head, where it dwelled still, separated from Anzu’s everyday reality by only the thin bone of her skull.

“It was like being back there, in that… that tomb,” Anzu spat the last word out, like an unpleasant piece of gristle on her dinner plate. “Everything started falling apart, and people were getting hit or swallowed by the earth, and y-you —” she started to stutter, feeling the whispers turn into screeches, the sound of metal squealing next to her and earth roiling beneath.

You were the first to die, and I couldn’t do anything. I failed, I failed, I failed!

“Hey.” Anzu found herself looking up at Seto, and he was far closer to her now than he’d been just a moment before, on the other end of her bed, with one leg dangling off the side. Right here, right now, he sat less than an arm’s length away, one hand holding her chin up so she could face him directly instead of squeezing her blanket as if it could actually offer her any sort of comfort.

She took one breath.

Then another. She closed her eyes between one inhale and exhale, and in that time, Seto released her chin from his surprisingly gentle grip.

He’s… not going to tell me I’m being foolish? That I should stop dwelling on the past and let things beyond my control affect me?

For some reason, Anzu couldn’t comprehend what was happening: Seto reached past her, his arm brushing her shoulder with an startling jolt of warmth. He wasn’t reaching for her, to brush aside her undoubtedly sloppy hair or to grip her shoulders. Instead, he grabbed the pill bottle Mokuba had set on the nightstand, gripping it in one hand while he worked the cap off in a sharp twist. He tapped out two oblong blue pills onto one hand, folding them into his palm while he fixed the bottle shut once more and set it back on the nightstand.

Then Seto reached for her hand. The whispering, hissing, screeching darkness that started to invade the corners of Anzu’s vision receded, and there was only the rosy haze before her: his long fingers prying her hand open so he could press the pills into them; his arm brushing against her shoulder again, the warmth turned into a sizzling sensation that danced down her elbow all the way to her fingertips.

Am I going crazy? Have I been dreaming this whole time?

Maybe she was getting sick. After all, how else to explain Seto Kaiba in her bedroom, leaning casually on her bed? How to explain the strange feeling when he casually brushed against her in his effort to grab the glass of water Mokuba had brought upstairs only a minute or so ago?

“Get some sleep,” Seto said at last. He started to rise to his feet, but he didn’t leave: not until Anzu looked at him, down at the pills in one hand and the cup in the other, and back up at him. He wouldn’t leave until she’d swallowed the pills and every last milliliter of the water.

“But—” Could you go back to sleep if you were already dreaming? Or was this simply a new, twisted layer to the nightmare she’d been having all along? If she reached out for Seto again, would he crumble into ash?

“No. No buts. If you don’t get some sleep for yourself, then… get some sleep so your parents don’t come home and freak out about you looking like a raccoon or something. And if that’s not reason enough, then…” He looked at the door, maybe sensing something Anzu couldn’t.

“...If not for them, then for Mokuba,” Seto managed, his own voice beginning to sound hoarse.

Not for you?

He’d never say it. Hell, she’d never say it.

“You saw how worried he was about you,” Seto continued. He frowned, perhaps wanting to say more, but no words came.

“How am I supposed to sleep after a nightmare like that, though?” Anzu asked quietly. “I just...I would rather stay awake for a bit longer, wait until I don’t have another choice—”

“You don’t have another choice,” Seto stated bluntly. “One hour isn’t enough sleep for anybody, not even me. You nearly sliced your hand open and could have done serious damage, and I doubt you would have wanted your parents coming home to a sink filled with blood and their daughter laid up in a hospital with stitches in your hand, would you?”

“...You have a point,” Anzu admitted, almost under her breath. It wasn’t often that Seto Kaiba got the best of her. Hadn’t it been their little routine, for her to render him speechless and him to imply that they’d meet on the verbal battlefield again someday?

Well. Maybe that was just my idea of it, at any rate.

After all, since...since Egypt, there hadn’t been any dramatic encounters like that. In fact, they’d had more moments of quiet agreement as lab partners than they’d ever had verbal standoffs, much to the consternation of Jounouchi, who didn’t understand why Anzu hadn’t loudly complained to the teacher about her lab partner assignment. In truth, working with Seto Kaiba in science class wasn’t that bad. It was certainly more pleasant than working with Jounouchi. At least Yuugi could somehow cool Jounouchi’s louder meltdowns into something a little less likely to get them both detention.

“Of course I do,” Seto responded, rolling his eyes. “Look, if you’re worried about nightmares—” He strode back to her side, and before Anzu could blink, his hands were on hers, opening the tight fist she’d made around the twin pills she had yet to swallow. Somehow it still felt like she already had, though, with the way her throat constricted at how close he was all over again.

“They’re the only thing that have helped me sleep when I...when I wouldn’t be able to sleep otherwise,” Seto said quietly.

This Anzu understood, even without the words Seto had so plainly omitted from his confession: You’re not the only one who gets anxious, who wishes your brain didn’t go to such dark places when you get stressed or upset. I might not get nightmares that often anymore, but when I do...they’re just like yours.

But maybe she was reading too much into the look in his eyes, that frank, pointed stare of his. Flowers probably wilted under the burning intensity of his gaze.

“All right,” Anzu agreed with Seto—again! How many times was this, in a single hour? “But I have some conditions.”

At this, Seto raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms over his chest, an unspoken gesture of challenge. He’d probably laugh at how simple her requests were.

“One, no leaving the house without telling me. And notes or voice messages don’t count,” she said, ticking items off on her fingers. This was just a repeat of what she’d asked him to promise earlier, so he shouldn’t have a problem with it—but why did Seto look so surprised? Both of his eyebrows were raised, and he blinked several times, as if he wasn’t quite sure who was the one who’d been dreaming.

“Two, you should probably leave one of the cordless phones in here, in case my parents call.” She didn’t want to consider the possibility that Yuugi might call, and there’d be no way she could possibly explain why either Seto or Mokuba Kaiba would be answering her home phone.

Anzu raised her ring finger to make a third point, but before she could articulate it, a loud buzzing noise interrupted her.

“What. Was. That?”

Seto opened his mouth to explain, glancing out of the side of his eye as if someone as stupidly tall and imposing as him could affect a nonchalant pose.

Why is there someone chainsawing something in my house?!” Anzu bolted up from her bed, her eyes wide. The dark red shadows masking her face almost seemed invisible now, under the stark white and brilliant blue of her eyes.

She tossed aside her comforter and looked wildly around her room, casting her gaze about for some proper clothes she could throw on.

“It’s just a simple installation—” Seto began, but Anzu refused to hear it. She spied a clean t-shirt draped over her bedroom chair and a pair of fitness pants sticking out of the gap in her closet door and made a beeline for them. Once they were in hand, Anzu pressed her hand against Seto’s chest, somehow able to ignore the pulsing heat and the surprising definition apparent under his regulation collared shirt for school.

“Out, out, out!” Anzu shoved Seto into the hall before pulling her door shut with a bang!


Well this is going just swimmingly! Seto thought. But maybe once Anzu saw that the noise was ultimately to her own benefit, she wouldn’t try and turn him into one of her octopus sausages?

It was a small hope, at least.

Less than two minutes after Anzu pushed him out of her bedroom, she emerged again, this time dressed in a light cotton t-shirt—without a bra on underneath, Seto realized, his whole face heating up—and a pair of drawstring track pants hung loosely from her hips.

“It’s louder than it is messy,” Seto tried to explain, but Anzu, previously so adorably squeamish about being in close physical proximity to him, just pushed him by the shoulder so she could squeeze past him down the hall to the staircase.

“It’s actually a lot less messy than your cooking,” he began again, but he realized his error when Anzu looked over her shoulder and glared at him.

That’s an expression I haven’t seen on her face in a while.

And yet… it was almost nostalgic, wasn’t it? Maybe not this situation—he’d certainly never personally been on the receiving end of a fierce glare for installing state-of-the-art technology as a present before—but certainly the look on her face, all because of him.

Was it wrong to be a little proud of that?

“I don’t mean your cooking in general, I just meant this morning, with all the dishes, so I thought that—”

Anzu charged down the last few steps and power walked to the kitchen entryway, stopping in her tracks when she caught sight of the installation technician. Seto hadn’t expected her to stop so abruptly, and just like he had with Mokuba earlier in the day, he collided with her backside.

The installation engineer had stopped sawing and was now shifting the new dishwasher off its pallet onto the kitchen floor with cautious steps, not leaving so much as a streak anywhere.

“Excuse me, miss,” Takahashi bowed his head deferentially toward Seto and Anzu. If he noticed her gawking at him, he didn’t indicate it in the slightest.

“No, excuse me,” Anzu replied in an automatic monotone. Her eyes cast about the kitchen, noting the former drawers stacked in a neat pile off to the side of the kitchen, their metal runners and accompanying screws lining the kitchen table. The contents of those drawers were either moved out of sight or sticking out of a few choice containers on the far counter: an assemblage of ladles and straining spoons here, a set of tea strainers there.

“You got us a dishwasher,” she said finally. It was a statement and not a question, and yet somehow Seto still felt she was demanding something more.

“Yes?” He didn’t normally answer statements with questions. Seto Kaiba didn’t normally respond to demands at all! But this was different.

Anzu’s chin dropped to her chest, and because he was behind her, Seto couldn’t tell if she was furious or overjoyed. He gingerly took a step back and around so he was facing Anzu, and when she raised her head, he was surprised to see her smiling radiantly at him, a wide, genuine smile that almost made the dark circles under her eyes disappear for good.

The key word being ‘almost.

Anzu started laughing under her breath and she shook her head a few times, this time out of apparent disbelief rather than the urge to fling bad thoughts from her head.

“I’m not sure whether to kiss you or kill you,” Anzu began, and here Seto knew—he just knew—his neck and ears had gone bright red, if not the entirety of his face. Judging by Mokuba’s snort of a laugh, it was probably the latter.

“But if I don’t kill you,” Anzu continued, “my mom just might.” Then she laughed, a clear, jubilant sound, and she stepped fully in the kitchen to inspect what the engineer had already accomplished.

Isono certainly knew how to pick the right people for a job, Seto knew. Takahashi had done more in a handful of minutes than most people could accomplish in hours, judging by how close everything looked to being ready to go. Then again, Seto had never installed a dishwasher in his life, so it was possible they were still hours away from Anzu never again coming close to giving herself permanent nerve damage.

“So all the stuff from the drawers is around here?” she asked, glancing around the kitchen.

“I moved a few things around,” Mokuba piped up from the couch. “I hope that’s okay. Some of the pots and pans stacked pretty well in one of the other cabinets, and I was able to put most of the tea stuff in with the actual tea.”

“Yes, it’s okay, thank you, Mokuba-kun,” Anzu said for the second time that morning. Everything about her was different from then and now; minutes before, she’d seemed ghost-like, whispering and pale. Now she was brilliant, practically twirling around the kitchen table as she noted where the dish towels had been moved to, where the aluminum foil and parchment paper could be found.

This is the Anzu I know.

Seto hadn’t been trying to get her back; he hadn’t really known she was “gone,” per se, not until she’d startled him out of his conversation with Isono with that scream of hers.

Speaking of which….

“Isono headed back to HQ,” Mokuba explained off Seto’s inquisitive glance. “He got another company car to pick him up, but he said he’ll be available whenever if we need anything else.”

Anzu’s gaze fell on the haphazard workstation Seto and Mokuba had set up on one side of the kitchen table.

“If it’s going to be noisy for a while down here, you guys are welcome to use the desk in the guest bedroom. The Internet works up there, too. I mean, I know it’s no Kaiba Corporation headquarters or anything, but...” she trailed off, her brows furrowing.

Hedging a bet, Seto dared to place a hand on Anzu’s shoulder. His bet paid off when she glanced up at him with a tentative smile. “It’s fine.”

“So… what’ll happen to the drawers? And the other parts of the cabinet that had to be cut away?” Anzu asked. “If Mom and Dad come home to this, they’re not necessarily going to care about the dishwasher, they’re just going to take one look at the mess and…” Anzu trailed off.

One look on her face and Seto knew her anxieties were creeping up on her again. That they’d been on the same wavelength so many times previous meant he could probably hazard a guess at what they were, too: angry parents, worried parents, parents that would kick them out, where would they go? Parents in general, mentioning parents, should or shouldn’t mention parents around them, rude or cruel or just normal?

But before Anzu could get lost in her concerns about Mr. and Mrs. Mazaki reacting badly to a new appliance, Mokuba spoke up again. “Takahashi here only cut into areas that he’s going to throw out, or that we can patch up or replace easily,” he explained. Mokuba lifted up one of the drawers, revealing a small barcode sticker affixed to the bottom.

“See? We already scanned them and if anything does happen, we know where to get new parts really fast.”

“We’re Kaiba Corporation,” Mokuba added, perhaps a bit smugly. “We can do anything.”

Anzu looked around as if seeing the kitchen again for the first time. Though it had only been a little over an hour since she’d been elbow-deep in the once-foamy sink water, the kitchen surely looked like a completely different place to her now, with all the food packed away and a new appliance just waiting to be installed.

“It seems that way,” Anzu dragged a finger along the top of the new dishwasher, her eyes far too glassy to be reading the fine print on each button.

“Let’s get you back upstairs,” Seto murmured into her ear. He’d said it under his breath so as to not draw the technician’s attention—or Mokuba’s, for that matter—but he hadn’t expected Anzu to start and practically jump into the air.

“Oh! Oh yes, that’s… that’s a good idea.” Again Anzu took the lead, but her steps were slower now, more measured. Seto tried not to notice how her track pants moved ever-so-slightly up and down her hips with each step.

Once back in her brightly colored bedroom, Anzu made a beeline for the blue pills and the glass of water on her nightstand, and chugged them down in three swallows.

“Happy now?” she asked Seto, gesturing at him with her empty cup.

“Yes,” he answered honestly. He could feel the beginnings of a smile curving his lips, but he didn’t know if Anzu noticed. She’d started to climb back into bed, heedless of her current un-pajama-like attire.

“Now,” Seto chose not to think about it and strode over to the window. He yanked the curtains shut, enveloping the room in a muted darkness tempered only by the light filtering in from the hallway. “Go to sleep.”

Seto didn’t dare comment on Anzu’s new choice of sleepwear, lest he call attention to the fact that he’d been paying close attention to what she was wearing in the first place. It wasn’t like he cared what she wore to bed.

She can do what she wants!

“I-I’ll close the door so you don’t get disturbed by any further noise,” he told her, gripping the doorknob perhaps a little bit tighter than strictly necessary.

He was about to shut the door completely when he heard Anzu’s soft voice drifting toward him.

“Thank you… Seto.”

He shut the door with a click and smiled.