The voice from the speaker box crackled, and I imagined Seto Kaiba crackling, like an angry blaze, at having to deal with someone waking him up at midnight. And it was definitely his voice, not some security guard or maid or even Mokuba, because I recognized the irritation in his voice. At least I thought it was irritation. I'd heard him be irritated more often than I heard him be basically any other emotion —well, except maybe angry?— so I figured it was his default state.
This was a bad idea. I should have known. Why did I decide to sneak out of my house –at midnight, no less!— clad only in my pajamas and the first coat I grabbed from the closet (an itchy pea coat the color of barf) and trudge my way to Kaiba's ridiculous mansion at the edge of town just to apologize to him?
I took a shuddering breath and pressed the button on the speaker box next to the Kaiba Mansion gate.
"I said... I'm sorry. And thank you. And before you go and call my crazy or anything, yes, I know I could have waited until I saw you at school or something, but I never know when you're going to show up, and even if I know your address, I can't imagine you actually read any mail you get —you probably have a secretary or something for that, right? Or maybe some guy that checks your mail for toxic poisons?— and so this was just the best thing that came to my mind. Ugh, I rambled. Sorry. Thank you. Sorry."
I took my finger off the button at last and shuddered, at last. The courage to actually come here, to say what had been running through my head for the past several weeks since the nightmares started, had kept me warm. For a few minutes, at least. Now I was back to shivering in my threadbare pajamas and ugly coat and trying to figure out if I should just go or wait for a reply.
But seriously, what kind of guy lets a girl stand alone outside of his house, at midnight, shivering and apologizing through a damn gate speaker?
But then again, what kind of a girl goes to Seto Kaiba's mansion at midnight and decides to apologize and thank the guy for something he did months ago, and probably doesn't even remember doing?
Yours truly, the barf-colored, itchy pea coat-wearing Anzu Mazaki, that's who.
The box crackled to life again, and I pivoted back to the gate, mildly surprised.
Suddenly there was this ee-err sound above me, and I glanced up to see an old camera focusing on me. A faint red light blinked in the corner of the lens, but it was somewhat misted over by the night's condensation --and the fog that had started to roll down Domino's streets. Suddenly, a brilliant crack of light burst from the dark clouds overhead, scaring me out of one of my slippers. Oops. It went flying into the gutter and what should have been a small puddle, but was rapidly morphing into a thin river of rainwater. Great. Soggy shoes. I hate that.
A breath later, a rumble sounded from just beyond the hills —those same hills that separated the rich and famous of Domino from the plebs like me. Oh, a thunderstorm. It was as if the universe wanted to cement it into my head: this was a bad idea. I should have known from the moment Seto Kaiba's affronted voice came from that damn speaker box. It was probably all old and crackly because no one ever came to visit grumpy Seto Kaiba. Why should one of the world's youngest gazillionaires bother with state-of-the-art home security when he's probably only home, like, 20 percent of the time?
"...get in here already?" The speaker crackled again, followed by the whining sound of metal. Oh, the gate was opening. On its own. Count on Seto Kaiba to have creepy haunted house tech in need of some lubricant.
There was another flash of lightning and I swear it was closer; I'm not afraid of storms or anything, but I already had one soaking wet slipper, and I had no real desire to head home in the middle of a thunderstorm. Though... talking to Kaiba? Face to face?
I hadn't planned this. I hadn't planned any of it.
I just remember acting on instinct, on the fear and adrenaline leftover from the nightmare I'd been having for weeks: getting crushed under a shipping container, the dock splintering, everyone drowning. And then everything rewound.
Jounouchi stopped struggling with the chain around his ankle; a cloud of bubbles surrounded him as something yanked him back.
Yuugi's hair dried out, spiked up, and the wooden dock around him re-formed, whole.
My own bones, thrusting out of my skin and covered in blood, snapped back into place, the skin melting over wounds as pieces of concrete and metal shrapnel flew out, up, back to the platform, back to the shipping container.
I was back in that chair, my gaze roving back from my friends, chained to a massive anchor and a bomb overhead, to the shipping container above mine, swinging.
I swore with each swing, the container dropped by a few centimeters. It wouldn't matter if it came slowly or all at once; it would still kill me. I'd never get to go to New York, never get to dance on stage with everyone watching. I'd be a pile of mangled bones and torn clothes: nothing more.
I saw three short chains hanging from one of those industrial hooks. Above the hook, another bomb. My gaze rightfully should have stopped there, should have been fixated on this thing that was going to end my life, no question, but it didn't. I remember looking beyond the hook, past the arm of the crane, past even the cab where one of Malik's dark-robed mooks sat with a menacing smile.
For the briefest of seconds, I remember wondering if this guy had been brainwashed like I had, or if he was in that chair willingly.
How did I miss it before? Seto Kaiba, staring intently at the man in the cab with his remote control, at the crane's arm, the bomb, the hook, the chains-- all of it. He said something into that lapel microphone of his, not even glancing down at Mokuba, staring up at him with a pleading expression on his face.
Then Seto Kaiba grit his teeth, drew a card from his Duel Disk, and sent it flying toward the hand of the Rare Hunter that had emerged from the crane's cab.
I don't know if Seto Kaiba sleeves his Duel Monsters cards in carbon fiber alloy sleeves or something, but that card stayed in that guy's hand. The remote toppled out of it, and the guy dove for it but there he was again, body slamming the mook to the side.
I remember the sound of the helicopter appearing out of nowhere, somehow grabbing onto those three chains: thunka-thunka-thunka-kreeeee...
The shipping container swung wildly, then launched into the bay, the imbalance causing the whole contraption to fall in a whining roar of metal.
I'd been keeping track of the countdown Malik established for this awful duel. For once, I didn't know how Yuugi could win.
It looked like he would give up, if it meant Jounouchi would live. Yuugi's like that.
It didn't matter if the container was in the bay now, my heart still felt like it was being crushed. I didn't know if it was Malik's doing somehow, or if it was just what I felt in that moment, watching my two best friends play a card game with their lives on the line. My life's like that.
The sound a bomb makes when detonating underwater isn't the "boom" you might expect from movies. Apparently, quite a lot of what we hear in movies is actually sound designed, where explosions are a combination of what a real explosion sounds like coupled with things like lions roaring and car engines revving.
A real bomb detonated underwater sounds like a dull thoom coupled with this growling, staticky whisper.
Not unlike Seto Kaiba's voice coming from an old speaker attached to his mansion's gate at midnight, at the start of a thunderstorm.
Another crackle and boom! and suddenly there was a hand on my shoulder, tugging me inside from where I'd stumbled in my waking nightmare. Oh, the portico. Patio? Whatever, Kaiba had some fancy columned area right outside the front door, with a big stone roof and tall potted plants on either side.
Kaiba opened the giant wooden door like it was paper, dragging me by the shoulder all the while. He tried to close the door like a normal person would, I guess, but the wind sucked the door and it slammed with a resounding doom!
We both jumped a little. Don't let him tell you otherwise. Me, I started to laugh uncomfortably, but Seto Kaiba looked like fury incarnate or something, and I had to look away. My face felt hot, my shoulder sore, and my slippers –why the heck hadn't I put on a pair of normal shoes? Oh yeah, because I would have had to sneak out the front door, which was IMPOSSIBLE— like sponges.
"Are you insane, Mazaki? What the hell are you doing here at midnight, on the night of what is supposed to be the worst storm in Domino's history?"
I blinked up at Seto Kaiba, the two of us damp from the rain that had started pouring only moments before.
Had he looked like this after the bomb exploded underwater, and we all got showered with bay water? I squeezed my eyes shut, going back to that moment still on the peripheral edge of my consciousness. He was there, close, maybe a meter or two away. But he hung back, and then Mokuba, Otogi, Honda, and Mai were all there.
Mokuba pressed the button that released the restraints around my wrists and ankles, and it felt like I could fly. My legs tingled with relief, but I knew then that I'd collapse if I stayed there, in that spot, where Malik made me feel like dirt, like the scum crawling up the edges of the dock.
"Thank you, Mokuba! Let's go save Yuugi and Jounouchi!" and then running off with them, away from that spot, from that cold, wet, lonely place where Anzu Mazaki could have ceased to be.
I hadn't even glanced at Kaiba, at the man with the Duel Monsters card jutting out of his hand or the bloodied scrape on the side of his head from when Kaiba had kicked him to the ground. Hadn't wanted to focus on anything but the road ahead of me.
But right now, I wanted to sink, into a place deeper and darker than Domino Bay. Could you go to hell for being an ingrate? Was that why I felt so hot right now?
I'd only been out in the rain for thirty seconds at best, but maybe there had been enough of it to incite a fever? I wasn't wearing thick pajamas or anything, just the worn-out cotton pair I'd had for years. What little I could save went to my secret college fund, not to stupid things like new pajamas.
Well, if I was about to be delirious from a fever, I might as well say what I came here to say, where Kaiba could actually hear it.
"Thank you. I came here to say thank you."
I turned around and bowed low and deep, the way my sisters at the tea house taught me. Proper, deferential, respectful.
I waited like that, dripping on the foyer tile, my back stiff from the rigid posture I had to maintain. Kaiba, of all people, had to get this, right? That I meant it, that I was being as real as I could be, like this, in sopping wet pajamas and slippers that made an awful squelch sound?
Suddenly a pair of equally wet slippers appeared in my field of vision, the tops covered by rain-soaked flannel pajama hems.
Yes, that was my name. It wasn't a particularly interesting name, but it wasn't common either. It was no "Kaiba."
A groan. "Will you just..." He shuffled from one foot to the other. I thought I heard a soft squelch. Those weren't designer slippers, were they? Was he going to make me pay him back for ruining his expensive night clothes?
Great, I was going to be in debt for the rest of my life.
I would never leave Japan, never study modern dance in New York. I'd be stuck as an apprentice geisha —a hangyoku— for the rest of my life, because the tea house mother would never, ever debut me, not in her right mind. I was lucky enough I was even allowed to stay at the tea house, after running away to Duelist Kingdom and being shown "participating" in Battle City. Never mind that I could never tell okaasan that my "participation" entailed getting kidnapped, brainwashed, and threatened with certain death.
That was why I was here. I'd rather be indebted to Kaiba forever, be stuck in Japan forever than be a squashed pile of bones underneath a shipping container.
"Get up, Mazaki." It wasn't a request, but again: respect. If he wanted me to get up, I would. So I straightened out my stiff back, shifting my weight slowly to avoid that awful squelch sound again.
When I stood straight and opened my eyes, I couldn't help but be a bit surprised; even in the dim foyer light, Seto Kaiba —who refused to look at me even though he'd been perfectly fine issuing orders a second ago—was blushing. I could tell, because the tips of his ears were brighter than the rest of him, and the one cheek that was visible had a faint darkness to it that I was sure wasn't untended stubble.
He swallowed once, blinked, and then turned to me, the crimson gone and his gaze impassive. "I heard you over the gate speaker just fine. Will you get around to explaining just why you felt the sudden compulsion to thank me, tonight of all nights?"
I blinked, confused. What was so special about tonight? I glanced beyond Kaiba's imposing shadow, trying to spy if somehow, some way, Seto Kaiba had snagged himself a girlfriend —a boyfriend, maybe?— and I'd had the unfortunate luck of interrupting some alone time. But nope, there was no one peering out from any walls or furniture, not even Mokuba. My gaze swept back to Kaiba in his navy flannel pajamas with their wet hems and matching squelchy slippers, the drawstring pants hung loosely on his hips. He looked so... ordinary.
Someone ordinary would get it. Ordinary people had nightmares, right?
Actually, I knew Kaiba had nightmares. My best friend Yuugi had caused them. And if I brought them up, Kaiba would shut me down, kick me out, and this feeling of gratitude would probably be stuck inside me forever, leading to all sorts of awkwardness. No, I had to get it out. Now. I just had to... play my cards right, so to speak.
"I had a nightmare," I said. I tried to say it evenly, calmly, but it came out in a blurt, as if the words had been squeezed out of me by some invisible force. Would he make the connection? What connected nightmares with a desperate midnight thank you?
Kaiba stared at me, and it occurred to me his eyes were probably why he had a small group of fangirls at school, even though it seemed like he was never there. He was always off building some new theme park, debuting some new technology, or hosting another amazing fundraiser somewhere exotic and expensive.
He didn't say anything, but I felt like I could figure out what that look on his face meant, even if I'd never much paid so much attention to him —his dark blue eyes, his chiseled face, his dripping hair angled just-so over his brow— before.
"I've been having nightmares ever since..." I swallowed. Was this still a bad idea? I still had no plan. I didn't know what I was saying. Would this make him furious at me, even though all I was trying to do was acknowledge what he'd done for me, no matter how late it was? Late at night, late relative to when all this had happened....
"Ever since that duel at Battle City."
Okay, nice and vague. 'That duel' could be basically any duel, right? Maybe Kaiba wouldn't care to think about which duel I was referring to, would just assume it was some duel where I'd been stressed out on behalf of my friends.
Except I didn't take into account how Seto Kaiba's mind worked, and it was clearly working, because his brow furrowed for a moment before his face relaxed and he rolled his eyes.
"I wasn't about to let someone die during my tournament, Mazaki." As if this was anything but obvious. No one wanted anyone to die during some highly-publicized event that took over a whole city for 48 hours, right? This was basically a small-scale Olympics, only with cards and holograms. And it was the first big event Kaiba Corporation ran, ever since the mess the Big Five had made of the company when they betrayed Kaiba to work with Pegasus.
"I know that. But—" I took a deep breath, trying to steel myself, imagining I was one of those stone columns outside. I would withstand rain, wind, thunder, lightning, all of it. And if that meant withstanding Seto Kaiba's biting wit, his constant sarcasm and derision for all things Yuugi-related, including me, well, then... I would do it. I had to.
"But I didn't thank you for calling that helicopter to knock the shipping container and the crane down. I didn't thank you for stopping that maniac with the remote with one of your precious cards, and..." I swallowed this time. "I didn't thank you for saving my life that day. There were probably a thousand other ways that things would have worked out differently, where there'd be no harm to Kaiba Corporation's reputation or any of that, but the fact is, the way you did it saved me, the way I am, legs and friendship speeches and all. So thank you."
There was a long pause, and then an exhale. "So you're not going to give a friendship speech?"
I couldn't help it; I burst out laughing. It wasn't a loud laugh, so it wasn't as if Kaiba was moving toward me to ssh me or anything, but it was enough of a sudden shift in my body weight that my one slippered foot —I still had my soaking wet one dangling from the fingers of one hand— slipped on the cold tile, and I pitched forward.
I fully expected to crack my head on Seto Kaiba's foyer. The universe liked me that much; I would come as far as Seto Kaiba's front door, thank him for saving my life in person, and then face-plant myself into a concussion or worse. Instead, I fell into Seto Kaiba's arms.
We awkwardly shifted, our soaking wet socks and slippers making all manner of uncomfortable noises, before he finally released me. But neither of us scooted away, and that feeling of being hot enough that I wondered about that fever came roaring back. Finally, Kaiba exhaled so deeply, it was like I could see the weight falling off his shoulders. It was easier to see his shoulders when they weren't being covered up by a ridiculous jacket that looked like it had come out of a 90s superhero movie. He had nice shoulders.
"Look, why don't we just—" He stopped, his gaze drifting up to the ceiling. What was he considering? His brain probably operated on a whole other wavelength than mine. "Just follow me, Mazaki."
Another order. Okay, I could work with that. For now.
Kaiba turned away and started walking down a dimly lit hallway, clearly believing I would trail after him. I did wait for a minute, admiring how thoroughly ordinary Seto Kaiba looked in damp pajamas at midnight. Like a regular teenager, instead of some wealthy, eccentric genius with his own technological empire to oversee. This guy I could talk to.
I thumbed my other slipper off and slip-slid beside Kaiba, following him to some other part of his mansion as the "worst storm in Domino's history" battered the distant windows.
He tried to look like he wasn't looking at me as he inclined his head in my direction, wondering why I was beside him instead of trailing along obediently, like he'd told me to. Yes, I'd been raised to be proper and respectful and all that. I could easily work with people's explicitly-stated requests, even if Kaiba didn't bother with the veneer of politeness most tea shop customers showed. But I was also me, Anzu Mazaki, friendship speech-giver and midnight caller. I was the apprentice geisha who loved modern dance and who wanted to leave the only family I'd ever known to go somewhere different, do something crazy. Maybe I'd be in debt to my eyeballs for the rest of my life, but I'd be me.
I'd be me because Seto Kaiba had saved my life that day, but... maybe there was more to it than that. Maybe he'd saved me that day not just because I'd saved Mokuba, or because one of my speeches —lectures— had finally gotten through to him, but because we had just a bit more in common than either of us thought possible.
A tiny little chip of the dark weight that had been on my chest started to fall away. Maybe, just maybe, by the end of the night, it would fade away completely.