EARNING AN ACCOLADE
Part I: Recognition
March 31st, 2007
What do you have, Seto Kaiba?! What do you have at the end of the day?!
They just didn't get it.
Later, when he would have the time to sit down and think about that, when his heart wasn't bouncing around in his chest like a crazed animal caught in a hunter's net, and his breath wasn't catching in his throat every four seconds, and he was actually able to think instead of relying on instinct, adrenaline, intangible anger and an unspoken promise deep in the recesses of memories he would have liked more than a little to erase, he would think back on that thought and realize just why it was used so often, why that phrase was so clichéd.
People, as a general rule, were fools.
Another cliché, perhaps, but life's rules became, by their very nature, as much.
Clichés existed for a reason.
And Seto Kaiba now stared at one of those reasons, his face impassive in response to the young woman's fury. Though the gathered people standing on that beaten balcony that had become an impromptu arena would have considered his expression one of haughty indignation, because apparently he was known for such displays, the reason he took so long to respond to Téa Gardner's likely rhetorical outburst was because he honestly couldn't fathom for several seconds that it had been uttered in the first place.
Yugi Motou, the boy who had miraculously risen to the top of the gaming world (as frivolous as such a world might have been considered by the majority of people, it was still a surprising accomplishment) overnight, by virtue of a single, technically unofficial victory, had several friends that he had taken to the top with him.
He and his close-knit band of cohorts were as close to each other as humanly possible without the use of cosmetic surgery, and Gardner specifically, about as stereotypical a teenage girl as could ever be found, spouted often the importance of friendship, of love and trust and bonds and being there for one another.
She, of all people, would ask him such a question.
A question so unbelievably dense and insulting because the answer was so obvious.
Yagami Kohaku worked a lot. It wasn't that he was a workaholic so much as he just plain needed to. He worked two jobs, one at a pizza parlor and another at a local grocery store, and because he most certainly did not possess the incomprehensible brilliance of his son, not even close, he could not get very far up the ladder with either of them.
His wife, Yuki, usually worked part-time as a florist in a small shop not far from their modest home, but was at that home most of the day. Both she and Kohaku believed it important that one of them be there when their child came home from school.
One of them needed to be there, at all times, when Seto was home. It was important for a child to know that, no matter what happened, no matter what time it was, at least one of his parents were at hand. And that was why Yuki had not even begun working until her son had entered into the first grade.
Yuki had quit her job, though, when time began nearing for her second child to be born. Though it was clear they really couldn't afford expanding their family from three to four, Seto had been so excited upon hearing that his mother was pregnant, that he would become a big brother, that abortion or adoption was completely out of the question.
The brightness in Seto's eyes, the bounce in his step, the unrestrained excitement in his voice, whenever he thought about having a younger sibling, told his parents all they needed to know.
Money wasn't relevant.
Comfort didn't matter.
It was a burden they would have to endure.
Because it was the first time either of them had ever seen the young genius they had brought into the world act overtly excited about anything.
Being an older brother was the first thing Kohaku and Yuki had ever seen their beloved boy actively, seriously prepare for; everything else came easily. Schoolwork came so easily to him that he was one of the only children on the face of the planet whose parents always believed when he said, "I finished it at school."
When he did his chores, he did them with machine-like efficiency; his room was always spotless. The dishes and laundry were always clean and put away, the latter folded so neatly it seemed like a professional had broken into their home each night, offended by their own work, and had taken it upon himself to fix things.
That was how Kohaku had put it once, which had caused Yuki to giggle slightly; it was funny in a strange sort of way.
Seto had simply shrugged.
Both had their assumptions as to why Seto was the way he was; Kohaku thought of it as simple luck. He didn't complain, he didn't whine, he didn't get into trouble, and his grades were so good he never had to check on them. Kohaku attributed that to good parenting and a streak of luck.
Yuki was much closer to the mark.
He was lonely.
Family was a strange thing, she knew. When one is young, one's parents don't count as friends. Mom is Mom and Dad is Dad, and that's all there is to it; maybe a Mother or a Father thrown into the mix sometimes in formal situations.
Seto had no friends. No companions.
His genius was a curse.
At night, before Kohaku collapsed into an exhausted sleep and Yuki had finished reading a story to Seto, they would sit out on the porch together.
"Nobody at his school likes him," Yuki told her husband on one of those nights. "I've been on field trips with him. They all pick on him, calling him names or, worse, flat-out ignoring him. They don't see it or don't care if they do...but it hurts him."
Kohaku, taking a slow drag on one of the cigarettes he only allowed himself because a friend loaned them to him (they were too expensive otherwise), sighed. "Yuki, it's a fact of life that kids are cruel to each other. Seto's a prodigy. The only reason he isn't far ahead of his grade is because he doesn't want to skip, remember? Quote-unquote 'normal' children don't like being shown that there are people their own age that are so much smarter than they are."
"That doesn't make matters any better," Yuki said with a frown. "I don't care if their reasons are as normal and expected as breathing; they're hurting my son and I don't like it."
"What've we taught him, honey? Work at what can be changed, accept what can't be. Human nature can't be changed."
"...That's why we can't give up this baby," she said. "I know, God, I know, that we can't afford it. And I know you think it's a bad idea. Better to put him up for adoption, and deal with Seto's disappointment for a while, still living the way we are...but I can't stand the idea of telling him that his little brother or sister won't be living with us, and that he probably won't ever meet them."
Kohaku sighed. "...I know. He's bouncing off the walls waiting for it. God knows it's a welcome sight, seeing Seto anticipate something."
"He's excited because now he'll have somebody. Bringing someone outside of the family into it is a tough step, and something that he won't be able to do because none of the other kids will let him try to take that step...but if someone else comes along who's already tied to him, it's different. That first step will be taken already."
"I dunno. I think you're being too optimistic about this, Yuki. Seto might resent the attention we're going to have to devote to the baby, you know. I did when I was little."
"I don't think so," Yuki said, looking up at the night sky. "I think Seto will make a wonderful brother. And there's no doubting that he's an impeccable role model."
Kohaku nodded. "True...it could work out like you say. I'm just trying to be realistic about the whole thing."
"Pessimism is just as far removed from realism as optimism," Yuki replied.
"I err on the side of caution."
"What point is there to caution for a pessimist?"
He honestly had no idea.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Yagami Seto knew his mother wouldn't survive this visit to the hospital. Somewhere in the back of his mind, it registered that this would probably be the last time he saw her alive.
And Seto loved his mother. She was the only one who really understood him. Or, if she didn't, she was the only one who made a real attempt at trying.
She always asked him how school went, if he did well on his last exam, if he'd managed to get any extra credit points, and any number of other things that his father had long since stopped asking about.
And that was nice. For Kohaku, Seto's good grades had become the norm. For Yuki, they were always a delight, always something to celebrate. And that mattered to Seto. His accomplishments still mattered to her.
He thought that marked the crucial difference between his mother and everyone else. Anyone who ever met him labeled him as "Seto, the smart boy."
But Yuki didn't label him as anything. To her, he was "Seto." Her son. Her baby. And he happened to be smart.
To her, his intelligence was only important in that it helped shape his character. It wasn't what defined him.
She was the only person, at that time in his life, that he could say with absolute certainty that he loved. Even his father, as much as he respected him for working so hard for his wife and son, didn't make that list.
And he thought, in that part of his mind that knew Yagami Yuki was dying, that that should mean he would focus on her in these final moments.
But he couldn't.
His eyes were locked on the tiny bundle in her arms.
Yuki was smiling through her weariness. "Seto, honey? This is Mokuba. Your brother."
The expression on the seven-year-old prodigy's face could be described as nothing less than awestruck, as if this creature his mother held was some sort of mythical being come from another world entirely.
He reached out a thin hand.
A small, chubby, cherubic hand reached out and gripped his finger. The baby looked at him, blinking, as if unsure of what to make of this thing that was smaller than the big thing holding him but still so much bigger than himself.
"Seto...dear...I have to ask a favor."
Yuki smiled again, but it was a sad smile. "Your father is a good man, but he isn't good with children. Help him, okay? Be a big brother little Mokie can rely on...huh?"
Seto nodded, but didn't honestly hear her.
That part of his mind that knew she was dying now had concrete proof. But he also knew something else: Yuki had done this for him.
He was a genius, after all. And not having anyone to talk to on a day-to-day basis had given him only two alternatives: listening, and watching.
He knew, whenever his parents spoke about the baby, that they couldn't afford it. He knew, just based on the way they lived, that another person in the house would cause problems.
And he knew that it had been his obvious euphoria at the idea of having a younger sibling that had caused them both to simply resign themselves to the fact that the baby was going to stay.
That was their part.
It was what they had done for him, and for the baby.
No...that wasn't right. This child was no longer a faceless concept. No longer "the baby."
This was Yagami Mokuba.
And Seto knew that this was to be his part.
He vowed, then and there, that the sacrifice his mother made for her children would not go to waste.
More to keep his "peers" from asking stupid questions than out of any respect for United States cultural tradition, he took to calling himself by, and writing his name as, Seto Yagami.
And, since Niisama did it that way, so did Mokuba.
Seto couldn't remember when his brother had started using that particular term in reference to him. It was a little odd, he thought, considering that, while they were Japanese and that was part of the reason Seto had taken it upon himself to learn the language, both boys had been taught English from birth.
Once, he had asked the energetic, too-smart-for-his-own-good, five-year-old why he used that word.
"'Cuz that's who you are!" Mokuba had said, as if it made all the sense in the world.
It wouldn't be until much later that he fully understood the implications of that statement.
Kohaku had died three or four months before Mokuba's third birthday. And because he had had to take on a third job in order to support both of his children, even when he'd been alive, he hadn't been much of a presence in Mokuba's life.
It was doubtful the boy even remembered the man who had sired him.
Mokuba's daily life consisted constantly of his brother.
After a long and drawn-out period of various meetings, interviews, phone discussions and what seemed a forests' worth of paperwork on the part of his father, Seto had found himself no longer in school.
That bothered him little.
And so he had spent his days at home, raising Mokuba as best he could, with help from his father during the small windows of time he was home.
When a wayward minivan reunited Kohaku with his beloved wife, Seto and Mokuba ended up in the hands of an aunt and uncle they had never met before; godparents, he supposed.
That lasted about two to three months.
Seto wasn't bothered by that. He wasn't even much bothered by his father's death. That had kept him awake many a night, until he finally accepted the fact that he had simply respected his father...
He hadn't loved him.
For a long time, even after making that realization, Seto was unsettled by that. He hadn't loved his own father. That was just one of the things a child is expected to do.
Whenever he thought too hard on those things, and began sinking into that dark, dank thing called depression, he would remind himself that he had a job to do.
Mokuba needed him.
That became the driving rule of his existence throughout his days as an orphan, and Mokuba knew it, too. He knew, even as young as he was, that his big brother did a lot, a whole lot, for him.
And there just wasn't a proper word for what that meant in English.
So, he found one in another language.
People wondered. Of course they did.
Anyone who knew what that particular word meant always seemed to scoff at it, like a five-year-old couldn't be smart enough to fully understand what such a title should imply. Respect was not to be given out so idly, they would say.
Seto was only twelve years old, after all. Yes, he was almost a teenager by this point, and did an "acceptable" job of caring for the boy (they had no clue), but that still didn't warrant such an accolade.
Mokuba thought they were all dumby-heads.
Mokuba thought the biggest example of just why Seto fully deserved his title was whenever prospective parents came by to talk to him.
He always asked a single question after the usual pleasantries, wherein Potential Mother would comment on how "adorable" Seto was and Potential Father would comment on how "bright" Seto was and basically just ignore the ebon-headed boy kneeling next to him, concentrating hard on constructing the perfect sand kingdom (because just a castle in the middle of nowhere was silly), or deciphering an oh-so deceptive tome of special secrets that nobody else knew (just where had the puppy hidden his cookie?), or bending an obstinate sheet of parchment (binder paper) to his will, armed to the teeth with diabolical weaponry that no one could hold out against for long (each with a large, bright "Crayola" stamped on the side).
And that question was: "What about Mokie?"
Potential Mother would blink, and Potential Father would frown.
Seto would gesture.
They would look.
And he always had his answer then.
"Well," Potential Mother would say, "we hadn't intended on another—"
"We can't afford to—" Potential Father would try to add.
Seto would turn his attention away from them, and would pointedly ignore any further attempts at socializing.
The discussion was over.
Seto didn't care.
He didn't even say anything. No, "No deal, then," or, "I won't leave without him," or, "Sorry; not interested," or anything like that.
His first test for a potential home was if the people who wanted to claim him noticed Mokuba at all. His second test was if they spoke to him, or even about him, during the course of their usually cookie-cutter diatribe.
The third, and final, was the question.
Much more often than not, all three were big, fat failures.
And so Seto ignored them.
Some just understood that that was that and went on. Some tried to continue the conversation. Some tried to barter with him; maybe their friend who was also looking to adopt would like to take the "other one" (another point against them).
A couple of them had even had the audacity to insult Mokuba, asking what was so important about him. You're brothers, right? You should want to get away from him, then. Come on. He's a brat, isn't he? I can tell.
The glare Seto sent those people's way had held enough venom to make them forget they were speaking to a child. The unbridled fury in it caused them to take the threat behind it as genuine, despite the fact that Seto was thin, without much muscle, and probably wouldn't last ten seconds against somebody three times his age and, more to the point, three times his size.
But he never wasted his breath on any of them.
Because Seto was Mokuba's Niisama.
That meant abandoning him was not tolerated.
The very idea was an insult.
Did he cheat that day?
Seto would never answer.
Somehow, though, he had beaten Kaiba Gozaburo in a game of chess. And if it happened to be that he had cheated, he had done a good enough job that the man hadn't noticed it or, more likely in that given scenario, had ignored it if he had.
And so Seto and Mokuba Yagami became Seto and Mokuba Kaiba, the heirs to Gozaburo's fortune and his legacy. Anybody who owned a television knew his name; Gozaburo was a huge influence on the country...on the world itself.
One of the richest men on the planet, Gozaburo's home was huge, lavishly decorated, densely staffed, and heavily guarded. The place where Seto and his young brother were to make their home was the complete antithesis to anywhere they had lived before.
It was a monument to personal accomplishment; everything in it was there not because Gozaburo needed it, but because he wanted it. The floors gleamed, and Seto could see his reflection in them. The walls were sculpted in such elaborate patterns that they became art rather than barriers. The furniture was rich, elaborate, extravagant.
Gozaburo made a point of never settling for ordinary.
Absolutely nothing in his house was simply functional...
...Except his personal office and private bedroom.
The reason for this was simple.
The rest of the house was seen by others. Employees, reporters, television personalities; any number of people came to the Kaiba Estate in hopes of speaking to such a great man as its owner, and so to appeal to the public, Gozaburo made sure to give them what they expected.
What they wanted.
It just made things simpler.
Gozaburo found stupid questions just as much an irritant as his adopted son did. So he gave the public what they expected of a multi-billionaire.
Because it just made things simpler.
But his private space, the office and adjoining bedroom where he worked, rooms that Seto and Mokuba never even saw until after their new father's death, were bare of any and all decoration. This was where Gozaburo only allowed what was necessary, only allowed what he needed and none of what he wanted, because all he wanted was what he needed in that particular space.
Because it just made things simpler.
That, Seto would reflect on later, was one of only two things he respected about the man, the other being his conviction to his personal beliefs, even when that conviction ended up with him leaping out of a fortieth-story window because "that's what a loser deserved."
Everything else about him, Seto despised.
He thought his life had become some overused shounen manga subplot for a character teetering on the fence dividing the worlds of villain and anti-hero, when he bothered to think of it at all. He wondered if this was why orphaned children in any number of stories so often had dark pasts.
Perhaps it was, statistically, true.
Or perhaps he was just lucky.
He'd grown used to the taste of blood. He'd grown used to bruises. He'd grown used to having little to eat or to drink, grown used to little sleep.
And while it was a certainty that he didn't enjoy such things, he was logical enough to understand that whining about them wouldn't soften Gozaburo's heart any.
Yep. Cheesy manga written all over it.
Every time he thought he might break, every time he felt tears sting the back of his eyes after another sleepless night of staring into the cold, unblinking glare of a computer monitor, he reminded himself why he was doing it in the first place.
And every once in a while, when just telling himself wasn't enough, he would leave his desk and shuffle out into the hallway, clad in slippers and light blue pajamas, and maneuver his way to one particular room.
Inside, he would walk silently up to the bed and watch his brother sleep, sometimes holding a teddy bear, sometimes a pillow, sometimes a scrunched-up blanket.
Seto would stand there, knowing that he was wasting time that he couldn't afford to waste, that any chance of sleeping at all was being completely dashed, but he also knew that it was worth it.
Because Mokuba was safe.
Mokuba was left alone.
Mokuba was happy.
And that meant everything Seto went through was working.
So he would stand at his brother's bedside like a silent guard, watching the boy's soft, even breathing, every once in a while brushing a stray strand of jet-black hair from his brow, and would allow himself to smile.
Sometimes, Mokuba would wake, gray-violet eyes fluttering open to regard him quizzically, and Seto's smile would widen.
"Hi, Niisama," he would say.
"Hey, kiddo," Seto would reply.
And Seto would sit on the edge of Mokuba's bed, holding his hand, and tell him a story to help him get back to sleep.
When he did, Seto would lean down, gently kiss the boy's forehead, and walk back to his own room, back to the computer, filled with new drive, with rejuvenated purpose, and he wouldn't even notice that he hadn't gotten any sleep.
He wouldn't think about what Gozaburo would do to him when it was discovered that he was behind schedule.
Because Mokuba was happy.
What he went through was working.
That was what mattered.
When Gozaburo died, Seto took over.
And once again, he and Mokuba were alone.
This time, however, it was okay.
Seto gained legal guardianship of his brother, and life went on. No more pretense of finding a family, because now they didn't need one.
They were one.
An unconventional one, perhaps, but enough of one to work.
Seto worked, as he'd been doing for years, and Mokuba went to school. Seto met with employees, clients, potential partners, while Mokuba made friends his own age for once, watching anime and reading manga (because it was the only sort of cartoon and comic he could stand; the rest of it was too stupid, he said on any number of occasions), listening to music and planning sleepovers and playing videogames, and any other hobby he happened to fancy at the time.
Seto wasn't jealous that his brother lived the life he supposedly should have. He didn't resent the fact that Mokuba had plenty of free time to meet with friends and go to arcades and movies, when his entire existence revolved around a tight schedule with little to no breathing room.
One of the few times he had come to pick Mokuba up from school earlier than usual, he had seen the boy with a group of other kids, some his age and some older, apparently in the midst of a heated defense of someone named Ryuuken, who apparently none of the others liked but he did, and Seto found himself curious enough to ask who this person was.
Mokuba had shown him.
Seto did not miss the connection.
He had smiled, ruffled his brother's hair, and driven home secure in the knowledge that he had done his job right.
He had done what his mother had asked of him, so many years ago.
He had earned the title of "Niisama."
He stared at the girl who wanted to be a dancer in New York in shock, but didn't let it register on his face.
He wanted to reply. He wanted to make them understand.
He wanted to say:
"This was not just a game, Gardner. This was a test. A test Pegasus forced on Yugi and me because he's a sadistic prick, and one that I was not about to lose.
"This is not about me and Yugi. This is not about me asserting my superiority over him. It has nothing to do with any of that. This isn't a game. It's a battle. And more than just our pride hangs on that battle.
"Why do you think I'm here, Gardner?" he wanted to ask. "Why do you think I'm wasting my time with a tournament I wasn't even invited to? I'm here for the exact reason Yugi and you are here.
"He isn't the only one here to save someone. This battle was forced on me because Pegasus has only given me this one choice, and since his advantage is one I can't overcome, I'm forced to play by his rules. Those rules state that only one of us will gain the opportunity to play against him.
"It's either Solomon Motou that comes out of this alive, or Mokuba Kaiba. I made my choice. Yugi should have been able to make his.
"That he hasn't gave me a chance that I can't afford to ignore. Do you honestly think I want to win under such cowardly circumstances? Do you think I consider threatening suicide to be a proper tactic in the context of a simple game?
"No. The only way to earn back my title is to earn it, and I haven't done that here. That is not my goal. I'm here to save my brother, and if I have to degrade myself by using such stupid maneuvers in order to do that, then so be it. My pride is inconsequential in comparison to Mokuba's life."
He wanted to say, "If Yugi wanted above all else to save his grandfather, he would have gone through with it. He would have killed me. If he was as convicted as he says he is, choosing his grandfather over me, a man who has shown no kindness to him, and Mokuba, a complete stranger, should have been simple.
"It was simple for me. I chose Mokuba. I have to choose Mokuba. There is no choice for me. I don't need to question; I don't need to choose. Mokuba needs me, and that is all that matters. I'm his Niisama. I can't abandon him. Not for anything...or anyone."
He wanted to say those things, he wanted to have these people understand that he wasn't being petty and stupid and arrogant about this game. He knew it was a hard choice for Yugi, and he did appreciate the compassion the younger boy had shown him by letting him live when he should have killed him, but he had no time to think about that.
Mokuba needed him.
And so he answered the girl's question as simply as possible, because he had no time to elaborate.
"I have all that I need."
"Niisama" is a highly respectful manner of saying "older brother" in Japanese, and since the real meaning behind it is lost in translation, I've used it here.
"Shounen" is a genre of manga appealing to boys, typically with action-filled plots, and my use of it here is mainly a joke considering the true nature of Seto's character.
Lastly, "Ryuuken" is a reference to Kubo Tite's manga series, "Bleach." Ishida Ryuuken, the father of Ishida Uryuu, one of the main characters in the story, seems very close in spirit to Seto, in my opinion, and so I decided to add it in.
This story is a bit of a spiritual sequel to "I Remember," although I suppose it's more of a reworking than a sequel. It's also a response to one of the more irritating lines from the dub (I don't know what Anzu asks in the original version, but I assume it's similar), quoted at the very beginning of Part 1.
I find it ironic and frustrating that Yugi's band so vehemently dislikes Seto, given his history. He's not a bad person, and anything he's done in the anime (by the point in the timeline shown in this story, anyway) has been perfectly within his rights, if not entirely ethical. I don't bring the manga into this because, obviously, his actions at Death-T don't fall with the realms of "within rights."
This ended up longer than I had expected, but I feel it's one of my more in-depth, elaborate character studies on Seto, and the reasons for his actions throughout the series, and so I'm pleased with the results.
Also, I know that Domino City is in Japan, but the dub changed that aspect of the series (for reasons I'm not sure of, but any number of decisions made by 4Kids confuse me), and since I use the dub as my major inspiration regarding this particular series, because it was how I was first exposed to it and I still haven't found the Japanese version, I decided to claim Seto and Mokuba live in the US.
I always thought that Seto's line, "I have all that I need," was a much more loaded phrase than what's really shown in the anime. Eric Stuart's delivery of that line seemed much too harsh and arrogant to really fit what I think it means. It should have been done in a more quiet, reserved tone, as far as I'm concerned.
That, I think, is the main reason I wrote this.
And I hope you enjoyed it.