The bars that made up the ornate, overpowering gates to the Kaiba mansion were quite certainly not wide enough apart to slip through, but they accommodated Jounouchi's arms well enough. He leaned there, draped about the uncomfortable metal as he watched Mokuba leisurely approach down the vast gravel drive that connected the gate to the mansion's grand front doors.
"Do you have to take so long?" Jounouchi called out once he was sure Mokuba was in earshot, but Mokuba only shrugged and gave no reply until he was a few metres from the gate.
"I don't have to open it manually, you know," he said, folding his arms and coming to a halt, regarding Jounouchi with the same proud hostility that so befitted his brother.
"But you felt like lecturing me face to face?"
Mokuba shrugged again, apparently in no mood to also imitate his brother's insults. "You do know he's not expecting you?"
"Yeah, I know."
Mokuba nodded leaned to the side, pressing some hidden button that made something buzz and the gates begin to swing open. Jounouchi extricated himself from the bars and stood back, waiting for a large enough gap to open to accommodate him and then slipped through, coming to stand next to Mokuba.
"I'll take you to him if you want. You know he might not want to see you?"
Jounouchi gave a dry grin. "A risk I'm willing to take."
Mokuba turned towards back towards the mansion with another little shrug. "So long as you're prepared to be turned away at the door."
They walked together to the front of the mansion, setting out in even, slow steps, neither in any hurry to reach their destination.
"I think he'll let me in," Jounouchi said, casting his eyes about the vast Kaiba grounds. "He's too proud to turn me away."
"If you say so, Jounouchi," Mokuba replied before falling quiet.
The gravel beneath their feet ate up the awkward silence in dry crunches, the hum of some kind of garden equipment making a soft, distant background noise. It was peaceful here, great and green, everything neatly clipped and ordered.
"So," said Jounouchi at random, simply for something to break the silence. "How are you doing?"
He watched Mokuba out of the corner of his eye, the little Kaiba's face cool and blank like his brother's. He glanced sharply in Jounouchi's direction and Jounouchi dropped his gaze.
"I'm fine," Mokuba said stiffly, eyes straight ahead. "It's been a little odd. I haven't been to school in a month. I didn't intend to take any time off but..." He shook his head. "People act so oddly around me. The students, the teachers... They treat me like a piece of glass. When I tell them I'm fine they just assume I'm lying or in shock or something. The idea that a thirteen year old might not be upset by his father's death is a bit beyond them."
A lone gardener worked his way across the lawns with a mower, very small and far away. Jounouchi watched him, nothing but swathes of grass separating them. No flowers, no water features, nothing. Just grass and, up ahead, a few sparse trees. It wasn't, Jounouchi suddenly realised, either of the surviving Kaibas' choice in landscaping.
"I didn't want to stay at that school anyway," Mokuba continued, only half addressing Jounouchi. "Bunch of stuck up snobs. A feeder school for the Kaiba school, you see."
"Yeah, you know," Mokuba said distractedly. "Kids from there that do well tend to end up in the Kaiba school. A nice ladder into wealth and privilege. There are feeder preschools for my school, too."
"You don't like wealth and privilege?" asked Jounouchi wryly, shooting another glance around the capacious grounds.
"I like them fine. I just can't stand the snobs and aristocrats that I have to hang out with."
As they approached the main entrance they passed a high line of perfectly cultivated trees, behind which was revealed a vast pile of flowers in various stages of decay. Those at the bottom were wet and rotting, those at the top still fresh as though barely in bloom.
"You tearing up your flower beds or something?" asked Jounouchi, pointing at the pile.
Mokuba wrinkled his nose and made a sound of distaste. "They're condolence bouquets. For Gozaburo, you know."
"Oh," said Jounouchi bluntly. Indeed, as they neared he could make out little cards in the flowers. They'd all been stripped of their plastic sheaths but the condolence cards remained, clearly intended to suffer the same fate as the bouquets. There were a lot of what Jounouchi assumed were lilies, turning a sickly purple as they decayed.
"People just keep sending them so we stopped bothering throwing them out. We only get a couple each day now but they still keep coming. Niisama says it'll be easier to let them rot and use it for compost."
They climbed the steps to the porch, as great and ornate as everything else about this place, lined with ostentatious white columns. Mokuba lay two hands on the extravagant door handle and put all his weight onto it, forcing it open with obvious effort.
"We usually have a doorman," he panted, letting Jounouchi slip through the crack before slipping through himself and releasing the door to let it clang heavily against the frame. "Niisama's fired nearly all the house staff. He's too busy working on replacing all the school staff and keeping the place running to worry about the domestics."
The interior was just as majestic and oddly sparse as the exterior, deep plush crimsons and rich greens forming the basis of the colour palette, but there was no variety to it, no life. Everything metal shone bright and brass and golden tassels hung from heavy curtains. There was a thin but very visible layer of dust over everything. Clearly neither Mokuba nor Seto had opted to take up the cleaning duties in the staff's absence.
"He's keeping the school open, then?" said Jounouchi, following Mokuba up the vast, red carpeted stair case.
"Yeah. He's fixing it."
Jounouchi gave Mokuba's retreating back an uncertain glance. "Fixing...?"
"I know what goes on there, Jounouchi," Mokuba said shortly. "Niisama might think I'm still the naïve five year old I was when Gozaburo adopted us but I'm not."
Jounouchi stared at the back of Mokuba's head, unsure how much Mokuba was keeping secret. He wanted to ask, his curiosity burning through him, but it really wasn't his business. In the end he just said, "Your brother doesn't think you're naïve. He just wants to protect you."
"I know, I know," Mokuba muttered, finally reaching the top of the stairs. He hesitated, standing there with one hand on the banister and staring at nothing. "It's just so weird, you know? The funeral was so strange."
Jounouchi blinked. He hadn't even considered that there would have been a funeral.
"Niisama didn't invite anyone," Mokuba continued. "He didn't tell anyone when or where it would be. We didn't even have a proper ceremony. We got dressed up, went to the crematorium, and just burnt him. No wake or ceremony or anything. We burnt the body and had the ashes put in a cardboard box. Then on the drive back niisama had them stop the car and he dumped the ashes out over a cliff. It was all pretty weird."
He didn't look at Jounouchi when he said this, looking very old for his age as he stood at the top of the stairs, the mansion and what was now partly his property spread out before him. He sounded less and less like the energetic child Jounouchi remembered and more like a young teenager, a teenager who had now lost two parents and a foster father. The resemblance to his brother was more prominent, the tired cynicism more pronounced.
"I didn't think Seto would have wanted a funeral," Jounouchi said awkwardly, simply for something to say.
"I think it was less a funeral to him and more about officially proving he was the victor," said Mokuba absent mindedly. He finally met Jounouchi's eyes with an apologetic expression. "I'm sorry, I don't know why I'm telling you this. I guess you're one of the few people who knew what he was really like."
"It's fine, really. I'm just happy that you're doing alright."
"Mm. You know," Mokuba continued in that odd, slightly distracted voice, "you've been really good for niisama. He'd never admit it but he really does value your friendship."
Jounouchi couldn't stop a sarcastic smile twisting the corners of his mouth.
"Is that why he hasn't been returning my calls?"
Mokuba only shrugged. "You're the only person I've spoken to since I dropped out of school except for niisama and Isono. Don't be too hard on him for it."
Jounouchi winced. "I didn't mean..." he started, but Mokuba had already began leading him down the hallway. He didn't seem very interested in Jounouchi's presence, always looking through him or talking as if he was alone. As Jounouchi followed Mokuba's small form he thought back on what Mokuba had said about not being naïve and had to suppress a shudder. If Mokuba really did know even some of what Gozaburo had done to his brother then dealing with the aftermath of the man's death and the remnants of his life had to be almost as hard for him as it did for Seto.
"Hey, Mokuba?" Jounouchi ventured nervously.
"Watch your step," Mokuba said, not even glancing back, and Jounouchi let it drop, occupying himself with manoeuvring around a sudden obstacle course of boxes, crates, and other storage material, all the more difficult to negotiate in the sudden gloom of this part of the house. They passed tall stocked piles of boxes, each laden with what Jounouchi assumed to be Gozaburo's paraphernalia. Several were packed entirely with portraits, all crammed unceremoniously together in a mess of dreary paints and austere expressions of long dead men.
"What are you going to do with all this?" Jounouchi asked. Mokuba still didn't turn around.
"Seriously? Some of this stuff must be worth a fortune."
"Niisama doesn't want some weird collectors cult springing up. You'd be amazed how much people obsess over this stuff."
He finally stopped, but stopped short and nearly made Jounouchi trip into him. Mokuba turned to look at him, folding his arms and appraising him in a way that, in the dark of the corridor, was eerily reminiscent of his brother.
"Okay, here we are," he said.
Jounouchi looked around, expecting to see some grand door or a secret entrance hidden behind a bookshelf, but all there was was the blank, unassuming door between them. It might have been a supply closet for all its contrasting dullness in this great house of velvet and expense.
Jounouchi eyed the door warily, prompting Mokuba to roll his eyes and knock sharply on the door.
"Niisama?" he called. "Jounouchi's here to see you." He dropped his voice again. "Be nice to him," he said, smiling ruefully, "or I will have to have you killed."
He gave a wide, joyless grin and then walked back the way he came, silhouetted against the distant light at the other end of the corridor.
Jounouchi watched him go, unsettled, but he doubted that Mokuba wanted to share his business with a stranger like himself, at least for now. Perhaps one day they could talk, if they ever got the chance to get to know one another better.
He forced his darkening thoughts back to the door. He could hear no one moving beyond it, could hear nothing at all but Mokuba's fast fading footsteps.
Jounouchi knocked as loudly as he dared, pressing his ear up against the wood, but there was still no sound.
He tried the handle, finding it unlocked, and pushed the door open.
Bright daylight washed over his eyes, a harsh contrast from the snug darkness of the hall. He was confronted with what appeared to be a bedroom, presumably Seto's, but Seto's bedroom wasn't quite what Jounouchi expected. He wasn't sure what to expect, but sheer, naked walls and only an antique desk and a small futon for furniture weren't it. It was quite the difference from the artfully designed chambers of violets, crimsons, and a thousand other deep colours that Jounouchi couldn't name in which Seto used to sleep. Everything was either white or beige, giving the room a disconcerting, medical suggestion.
No, his first impressions were not quite accurate, there was one other item of furniture – a chair, an unremarkable office chair, so unremarkable that it confirmed Jounouchi's suspicion that none of this furniture had been chosen in relation to one another. There was no attempt at style, not even hyper minimalistic, just a bunch of objects that had been brought together at random in one place.
Jounouchi had only failed to notice the chair immediately because his brain could only register the person sitting in it at the expense of all else.
"Could you shut the door?"
Jounouchi did so, letting the door swing shut behind him and close with an inelegant crunch of weak wood. His skin was tingling with heat at the sudden rush of that low, familiar voice.
Seto was bent over his desk, lit by the vast floor to ceiling window against which the desk was positioned. "It's only temporary," he said, apparently guessing Jounouchi's feelings at the sight of the room. He sat bent over a document, scribbling something very rapidly, surrounded by papers piled in orderly disorder. "I'm redecorating my bedroom. Or moving it. I haven't decided yet."
"Oh," Jounouchi said underwhelmingly, utterly lost for what to say. Now he was finally confronted with Seto, or rather the back of Seto's head. All the conversations he had rehearsed seemed to have lost everything that made them seem witty and meaningful in the comfort of Jounouchi's bedroom. "So," he started with more confidence than he felt, "you didn't return my calls."
"Yes, I know," Seto replied, setting his pen down finally and swivelling his chair around to face Jounouchi. "I've been preoccupied."
He looked better, was Jounouchi's first thought. The bruises were gone from his face, the cuts all but completely healed. It was strange seeing him in something other than the school uniform, dressed as he was in a black turtleneck and black pants. He was not quite so awfully thin, the usual dark circles around his eyes not quite as sunken and his cheekbones not quite so disturbingly prominent, but otherwise he looked remarkably similar. Jounouchi wasn't sure why he was expecting something different. Seto's expression, his eyes, were still the same. Still closed and guarded, something cold and mocking lurking behind them.
"Too busy for a phone call?" Jounouchi ventured.
Seto regarded him in silence for a moment, eyes taking in Jounouchi's still odd looking hair cut which had not yet grown back to normal and his scuffed, dirty jeans.
"I thought you might be busy also," Seto said finally and delicately.
"I called you, what, eight times? You thought I couldn't take a phone call?"
Seto's eyes were hard. "Perhaps."
Then he stood, rolling his shoulders back and regarding Jounouchi coolly, leaning against the desk and folding his arms in the same way that Mokuba had done.
"It's good to see you," he said stiffly, and dropped his eyes. He clenched his jaw, staring hard at the floor for the moment, then looked back up at Jounouchi. "I'm glad you came by."
Jounouchi hadn't expected this conversation to go so cordially. He had expected shouting, recriminations, maybe something or someone getting broken, then getting tossed by Seto's security for intruding on his property. He had imagined he would be angry enough to act on anything, to face anyone, to force some answers out of the boy who had ignored every single phone message of heightened emotion that Jounouchi had left for him. This was most definitely not what he had been expecting.
"So you did want to see me?" Jounouchi said, more confused than anything right now, and fell back against the door to lean in relative discomfort as he waited for something resembling an explanation.
Seto only smiled, warm and unfathomable. "I did. I didn't think you should see me, though. It would be better off if you just left."
"Why?" asked Jounouchi bluntly.
Seto took a very long, thin, tense breath. "Exactly what do you want from me?"
Jounouchi could only stare with blank confusion. "Uh, I wanted to check if you were okay?" he offered, blinking dumbly. "Maybe get a pizza or something? Watch a movie? I don't know, you could come round to Yuugi's and we could all play Duel Monsters or something."
Seto laughed involuntarily, short and uncomfortable, as though spontaneous laughter didn't quite know how to escape his body. "That's it?"
"Well, I didn't have any, like, long term plans. What, how specific did you want me to get?"
Seto held his gaze for a moment longer, then his eyes slipped away. His voice came soft and unsure. "Do you want to fuck me?"
"What? Seto, I..." Jounouchi struggled for mental footing, starting to sense the tone of this conversation. "Well, okay, it's not like I haven't thought about it," he admitted, forcing himself to look up. "It might be nice. It'd be weird, definitely, but I think it'd be nice."
An icy silence rose up and filled the room, making Jounouchi suddenly feel very, very uncomfortable.
"What about you?" he said awkwardly. "Do you want to...?"
A delicately pained expression crossed over Seto's face, Seto's cold eyes still not meeting Jounouchi. "I..." His lips formed an unspoken word. "I don't think I can," he finished, still avoiding Jounouchi's eyes.
"That's cool," Jounouchi said, shrugging, though disappointment sunk weightily through him. "That's fine."
"No it isn't," Seto muttered, lip twisting in a sneer as he directed a deep glare at the carpet. "This isn't what you need."
"Yeah, well, it's really not up to you to call the shots on that." He looked over Seto's face, so smooth and closely folded into himself that not the barest glimmer of affection slipped from it, just indifference and disdain, all directed at the floor as he continued to avoid Jounouchi's eyes. "If you don't want to have me around, then I'll go. I don't want to make you uncomfortable or get in your way. But don't make it about me, because I want to be here, with you."
Seto finally looked at him again, his expression painfully composed. "You're heterosexual," he said tightly. "If you want to experiment you should go find someone who isn't brok-"
"If you dare call yourself broken I'm going to punch you." Jounouchi's voice came harsher than he intended.
Seto faltered. "Fine," he said coldly. "If you want to pretend that everything's alright with me and I've grown up healthy then have it your way."
"Seto, don't take this the wrong way," Jounouchi began steadily, "but I really don't give a shit." Seto's eyes flicked up but Jounouchi forced on. "You've been through a lot of terrible things, more terrible things than any one person should have to deal with, but I want to be with you for you, for everything you are, for the guy who saved my life and protected me no matter what, the guy who did all that because he's a good person and just generally incredible." He swallowed, rapidly trying to collect his thought. "I don't even know if I want to be your lover, though the thought of being with you..." He could feel himself growing hot again, excitement and embarrassment and a hundred other burning little emotions seizing up inside him. "It's weird, and probably insane, and probably a terrible idea, but I think think it's something I want. And if I can't have that, then I definitely want to be your friend. See you every day. Talk to you. Maybe one day, if you want, we could be something more."
Neither said anything. A light breeze was picking up outside, disturbing the fringe of leaves that could be seen from Seto's window.
"Have you seriously been ignoring me because you think I'd be better off without you?" Jounouchi said quietly.
By way of reply Seto tilted his head very slightly to the side, the smallest sign of affirmation.
Jounouchi sighed exasperatedly. "Seto, for a smart person you can be incredibly dumb sometimes." Seto's mouth twitched in a fleeting smile, and Jounouchi broke a grin. "Everything's different now. You finally get to be your own person. I want to be with you for that." He shrugged, feeling as though he'd missed the mark on every hope of eloquence he once had. "I don't know if I'm into guys, but I know I'm into you, whatever that's supposed to mean, and the thought that one day I might get to be with you makes me feel... It makes me feel better about getting through each day. Not a lot better. It's still really fucking hard, some days." He drew a short, sharp breath. "But it makes it a bit better. It makes me feel like there's a life beyond all that shit, that there's a chance it'll all, one day, get a whole lot better. I look at you and see how strong you are and everything you've done and been through, and..." He gave a final, meagre shrug. "It makes it a little better."
Seto didn't even meet his eyes. He just pulled back the office chair and sat in it once again, drawing it close to the desk and resting his hands loosely upon the table.
"You know," he murmured, disturbing the silence, "I enjoyed our time together."
"So did I."
"But think about it, Jounouchi," he continued in that same faint, ghost of a voice. "The worst experience of your life was the best of mine." Face still turned away, he drew a shuddering breath. "I know how awful it was for you, and obviously it wasn't exactly an easy time for me, but at least things made sense. I knew what I had to do. I knew my place."
He shook his head dismissively. "You know what I mean. When it came to sex I didn't have a choice. That made it easier. Now that I can finally live for myself, for myself and Mokuba, now I actually have a choice I feel like... I just shut down at the thought." He screwed up his face in grim disgust. "If I tried to kiss you I think I would vomit. It's like waking up again in my own skin. Just brushing against someone brings all the memories crashing back. It's ridiculous." He barked out a short laugh. "If anything I'm even more fucked up now than I was when father was-" He cut himself off and tell into a brief, tense silence. "When Gozaburo," he corrected, "was alive."
"That's pretty normal," Jounouchi replied, pushing away from the door to walk slowly across the room. "You've finally got room to, I don't know, breathe."
"It's the first time in years that I've been able to go a week without waking up with someone..." He left the sentence unfinished. "It's like learning how to be a human being again." He ran his left hand, which trembled very faintly, over his face. "I don't know what to do about Mokuba. I don't know how to tell him any of this, or if I even should. I just... can't..."
He visibly stiffened when Jounouchi had come to stand behind him. Jounouchi kept a foot of space between them, standing a little to the side so he could see some of Seto's face in profile and so that Seto could keep in view.
"I won't move any closer," he said. "Promise." He wanted to take Seto's hand, just briefly, but he stopped himself. Instead he lay his hand upon the table, not very far away from Seto's; a little gesture of intimacy.
They stood in silence with a slowly growing comfort, a familiar memory of shared quiet and peace growing in the empty sound.
Seto's right hand, resting on the desk, twitched very slightly, then gently and cautiously shifted over the desk, close to where Jounouchi's hand lay. Jounouchi felt sure he could feel the heat from Seto's hand against his own, only a sliver of air separating them. He watched Seto's little finger, awkward but delicate, come creeping over his thumb. And there it stayed, rubbing gently back and forth, and outside the trees were swaying in similar slow, rocking motions, and when he turned to look at him Jounouchi realised that, now, in the vast white light of Seto's huge windows, those eyes were so apocalyptically blue it stung to look at them.
It's strange to have finally finished this, having started it nearly five years ago. It's a difficult ending to write, trying to create a relatively upbeat ending that doesn't trivialise the events of the story. I still have some problems with the premise of this fic but I've tried to do it as much justice as I could. I'll post a blog post about it so I don't clutter the chapter up any further.
Thank you to all my readers and reviewers, your comments have meant a lot to me. I'll be writing more Kaiba/Jou fics in future, likely more angst (nothing as dark as this, I hope), so keep an eye out if you're interested.
Thank you to everyone for reading.