It's been so long, I hardly remember what I was doing the last time I updated this main story. "Blue Eyes, Violet Eyes" and "Lightbringer" have taken on lives of their own, and I guess on that front they've served their ultimate purpose of keeping the series alive while I struggle my way through plotting this behemoth.
A lot of this was inspired by a long discussion with my best friend, and a lot of it came from just letting the work take me in its own direction. With my first draft, I tried to actively plot it out, and realized a long while later that it wasn't working at all. I didn't like the result; it felt lifeless, perfunctory, and not at all what I expect out of myself after so many years.
All that said, I'm getting back into the proper groove, I think. So I'm sure the next chapter won't take nearly as long as this one. Even on the rather ridiculous off-chance that it does, I assure you that I'm not done with this series.
Now, then, may I welcome you to "The Fear of God," Part II: "This is the Madness in Me."
"Sir, I don't pretend to be wiser, or more experienced, than you are."
But I do.
"We're not trying to tell you how to live your life, Mister Kaiba."
But we are.
The most powerful man in Domino City slouched in his office chair, staring listlessly up at the ceiling. It was only when he was irritated that he managed to lose his impeccable grip on his own self-control. Normally, he sat ramrod straight; the only part of him that ever moved in this office were his hands; and every once in a long, long while, his eyes.
It was only when emotion clouded his better judgment that his body lost its razor edge of focus, and the only emotion that clouded his better judgment on an even halfway regular basis was disdain.
Seto leaned forward and leaned his head against one palm, not bothering to look at the other occupants in the room. In fact, he very pointedly ignored them. Eventually, once silence had reigned for an era, he said, "…I did not hire you to be my therapists. I'm perfectly capable of managing my own mental state."
"That's…kind of the point, sir," Roland said. "What you've managed is to twist yourself around into something—you work in spite of yourself, sir. Your job is to provide entertainment and fulfillment to children. You make videogames for a living. You designed a theme park. Yet I hesitate to think that there is one person in this country more miserable than you are."
Seto sighed long-sufferingly. "You seem to think that I haven't heard this before."
Helen took a step forward. "You've heard it before, Mister Kaiba. You haven't listened to it. There's a marked difference, and I'd like to think that your genius intellect has been refined enough to know it."
A second sigh. "…Fine. Let us assume that I am listening. Speak your minds."
Helen seemed to calculate something for nearly thirty seconds before she spoke: "Do you remember, a while back, you asked me to take a vacation? Your brother was still struggling, and you wanted me to research your materials to see if I could find a new…plan of attack, so to speak."
Seto raised an eyebrow; a clear sign that, in spite of himself, he was listening. "I remember."
"Then answer me this, Mister Kaiba: could it be that one reason that it took Mokuba so long to find his feet again is because the example you provide as his role model was too much for him to handle?"
Something struck; Seto's face lost its irritated pinch, and his eyes widened slightly. "…Elaborate."
Sensing that she'd found an opening, Helen continued: "I believe that the reason you returned to work so…promptly was to show him that you'd moved on enough to take control of your life back. Is that correct?"
"Don't you think it might have been healthier for him to come to grips with not forcing his life into submission? Might it be that he had so much trouble because he couldn't muster up the…the…" Helen gestured randomly. "…cojones, let's say, to do what you do?"
Seto leaned back. "I'm going to pretend you didn't just try to make a serious argument while using the word cojones."
"Think about it, Mister Kaiba. He's spent his whole life looking up to you. Using you as the prime example for how to act. But haven't you been fighting that for years? You've told Mister Ackerman several times, I believe, that the last thing you want is for Mokuba to become you. Even you know that you're not in the right place."
Seto lowered his head, closed his eyes, and let out a deep, slow breath.
Roland said, "No one is questioning the way you raise your brother. Even if you're still convinced that Miss Aarden doesn't understand how hard you strive for his sake, you know well enough that I do. But like your job, you excel in spite of yourself. You keep him on the right track in spite of the fact that you're on the wrong one. All we're saying is, imagine what could happen if you finally figured out how to work in harmony with yourself."
They watched him for a moment, waiting for some indication that this might just be the breakthrough they had been trying for. Seto stood up after a long silence, and walked over to his window, staring out at the city. "I'm an insomniac. You know that. When I am awake at night, and as idle as my various neuroses permit me to be, I consider these thoughts. You mention my genius intellect. This may come as a surprise to you, but I am rather ahead of the curve. I know fully well how unhealthy I am."
"And do you have plans to do something about that?" Helen asked.
"If I did, they would have been placed in action long before now." He glanced over at them, in that pointed way he had, which caused both Roland and Helen to stand up straighter. "Listen to me carefully, you two: to use your phrasing, I work in spite of myself because, at this moment, it is the best course of action available to me."
"And do you have any idea what moment you might be able to find a better course of action?"
Seto actually chuckled, and it wasn't with his usual biting sarcasm. "Not at all."
Serenity Wheeler followed her brother through what seemed to her like a random, criss-cross route across four districts. Joey showed no signs of anger, because he wasn't angry. It was just...nothing. He nothinged this whole situation.
The whole...fucking thing.
All right. Maybe he was angry.
His sister was sixteen now, going on seventeen. She was in high school, dealing with the sociological black hole of puberty in large quantities. There were signs, subtle by design, that she was dating now. Had a boyfriend. Probably she kissed that boyfriend on a regular basis. Went out to the movies, and dinners, and...
Joey didn't like to think about the changes taking place in his sister's mind, body, personality, and—dare he think it—loyalties. She was standing up for herself, voicing her opinions, showing some real backbone. And that was a good thing. But on the subject of their mother, Joey couldn't help but wish rather fervently that she would go back to her old habit of meekly agreeing with everything he said and letting it go.
She was treading on a minefield, and she didn't even know why—because he couldn't tell her.
How was he supposed to tell her that their father had been more than just a deadbeat with a drinking problem? How was he supposed to tell her about all the times Jackson Wheeler had lost his latest temp job because he was too drunk to remember what he'd set his alarm for? Or all the times he'd vented his various frustrations by using his son as target practice?
There was more than enough drama decked onto the Wheeler family history, and the last thing Joey wanted was for Serenity to know about the dark, dank intricacies of it. Let her think that Joey's feelings for their mother—which had grown into something that felt suspiciously like hatred—were unjustified and just plain mean.
It was cleaner that way. And besides, he didn't deserve to be hero-worshipped, anyway. Serenity needed to learn that her big brother was a human being, with human flaws.
Who cared if it took a boldfaced lie to do it?
"I mean, like, look at this place!"
Mokuba found a smile, but there was still a sense of confusion on his face. Frowning curiously at his best friend, he humored Connor's instruction and looked around at their surroundings. "Kaiba-Corp. Everything my Niisama's worked so hard to make."
"It's yours, too, Mokuba! You're the vice president!"
Mokuba's smile turned sardonic. "I'm an intern. I do things that I know how to do, I make more mistakes than a lot of the newest hires, and sometimes I have good ideas. I think if I was anybody else, I'd have been fired by now. But I'm a Kaiba. That means Niisama has to find work for me, if I want it. And…I want it. So I'm here."
Connor's own face was split into an awestruck little grin. "But, like, most kids like us are just going to school, playing soccer and stuff. That's what I'm doing. But you…you're going to a place like this. A videogame development house! You make the stuff most kids are skipping out on homework to play!"
"I'm a mascot. I make speeches. The only game I've ever made is the most polarizing black mark on Kaiba-Corp's history. We've never had more people howling for our blood. Look, I appreciate what you're saying, Connor, really. Niisama keeps saying the same thing. But…I know who I am. At least, I think I do. And what I think I am…is a kid that's got it into his head to do stuff he's not ready for."
Connor sighed and looked around again. "Every kid does that. Remember Hunter and his gang? That was me, getting it into my head to do stuff I'm not ready for."
"Maybe. But all of this," Mokuba gestured, "is Niisama's temple. I help. I do everything I can. But it's not mine."
Connor started to talk, then stopped, thought about something for a while, then said instead: "…Regal 13's playing the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Wanna go see it? I got my allowance this morning."
Mokuba blinked, stared, then laughed.
"Yeah. I do. I really do."
Seto and Roland were alone in his office. Roland stood near the door, hands clasped behind his back. His sunglasses were off, folded, and slipped into an inner pocket of his jacket. He said, "The point in all this is pretty simple, sir: when are you going to sit back and feel satisfied? We only get one shot at this. We only have one chance to make something of the life we're given. Whether that life was given by a god, by the earth, by your parents, it's the only one you have. Why not enjoy it? Haven't you earned that?"
Seto didn't answer.
"You think that your brother's earned it, don't you? No matter what that boy does for the rest of his earthly existence, won't you be right there, saying that he's earned it? If he works here in this building for his entire career, if he forms his own development studio, if he goes off the grid and lives in the woods for the rest of his life…won't you be right here, saying that he's earned it?"
Seto frowned. "I will. I will fight with everything I have to give my brother whatever life he wants to have. Because, yes, he's earned it."
"Then why don't you give that same privilege to yourself?"
The frown deepened. "Because until I allow myself to listen to what you're telling me without thinking it's a crock of self-indulgent bullshit, I haven't earned it. Now, are we done discussing this topic? I believe that we both have work to be doing."
A knock came at the door.
"Come in," Seto said. He watched with a mixture of emotions in his eyes as Mokuba and Connor slid into the room. The slight ghost of a smirk appeared on his face; like his chuckle, the bite wasn't quite there. "Hello, boys."
"Hi, Niisama," Mokuba said, with a little wave.
"How'd the study session go?"
"I think we're ready," Connor put in. "The test isn't until next week, and I…well, I haven't aced the practice test, but…but I'm close."
The young Kaiba smirked. "It's a Language Arts test, Niisama. Come on, now."
Seto chuckled. "The old Kaiba confidence. Well, then, my confident VP, what can I do for you today?"
Mokuba's smirk faltered the slightest bit, but he kept it on his face. "Connor invited me to the movies. I wanted to see if we could…you know, walk down there. To the theater."
"It's only a couple of blocks away," Connor added.
Seto leaned back in his chair, rubbing his chin. "Mmmm…" He looked over at Roland. "What's your schedule?" he asked.
"I…have a wedding to attend in a half-hour, sir."
"We can make it," Mokuba said.
"It's not that I don't trust you," Seto offered slowly. "I don't trust everyone else. If you two want to go to the movies, then you can go. That's fine with me. But I'm sorry, kiddo…I can't leave you two alone for that long. Look…give Whe—give Joey a call. See if he can't join you."
This seemed agreeable. The two boys gave each other a look, smiled, and nodded.
"Okay, Niisama," Mokuba said, heading back for the door.
"…Mokuba," Seto said, as Connor opened the door to Seto's office, and the two boys made to head through it. Mokuba turned a quizzical look on his brother. "Come back here afterward. We'll all go out to dinner."
Mokuba and Connor both beamed at him. "Okay! Thanks, Niisama!"
"Have fun. Love you."
"…I love you, too."
"…He's not answering his phone." Mokuba looked over at Connor. "It's not off. It still has battery. It's not going straight to voicemail, but he's not answering." He glanced down at his phone again, pressed a couple of buttons, and waited. Eventually, he said, "Hey, Joey. It's Mokuba. Me and Con—Connor and I want to go to the movies." Connor shot his friend a grin; Mokuba rolled his eyes and shrugged. "We're gonna go down to Regal 13 to see Pirates. We were hoping you could come along. I'll pay for your ticket. Niisama says we need someone to come with us. He doesn't trust people. Could you give me a call back? Thanks a lot. Bye."
They sat back on the couch where they had been haunting the second-floor break room. Mokuba grabbed his backpack and fished out a laptop computer. He turned it on and began to navigate it with nearly the same speed and surety that his brother had.
"…We've got one show at three," Mokuba said slowly, "…and another one at five."
"It's two-twenty," Connor said. "We can make it to the theater in twenty minutes. Do we just…wait for Mister Wheeler?"
Mokuba chuckled. "Call him Joey. Trust me. The last time I heard someone call him 'Mister Wheeler,' he got offended. Like, seriously offended."
A strange look visited Connor's face. "…Like when someone calls you 'Mokie?'"
Mokuba flinched violently, and for a moment there seemed to be a kind of madness in his eyes. He seemed to forcibly calm himself, again looking like his brother, and eventually he managed to say, "…Yes. Like that."
Connor bit his lip as he contemplated whether or not he should ask the question in his eyes. Then he shook his head and forged on: "Why does that…upset you? I mean, people used to call me 'Connie,' and I didn't like that. But you're so much more…more…confident than me."
"It's not that," Mokuba said. "I don't care about that. If I did, I'd be crazy by now." He chewed on his thoughts for a moment. "You're going to be…the opposite of surprised. Niisama used to call me that, when we were little. He stopped, when Otou—Gozaburo Kaiba…adopted us."
Realization dawned on Connor's face. "…Oh. So only Mister Kaiba is allowed to call you that." Mokuba nodded, rather fervently. "I'm…um…guessing he doesn't call you that at all anymore, does he?"
"Not really, no."
"Do you know…why?"
Mokuba shrugged. "Prob'ly because of Gozaburo." The young Kaiba stopped suddenly. "It's so weird calling him that. I haven't talked about him in so long…and you didn't talk to a man like him, using his first name. You basically had three options: 'Mister Kaiba,' 'Kaiba-sama,' and 'Sir.'"
"You started to call him something else. What was that?"
"…Otousama." Mokuba was obviously uncomfortable with the line of conversation, but he forced himself to continue. "It means 'Father.'"
"Kind of like how 'Niisama' means 'Brother?'"
"Technically, yes. But Niisama never forced me to call him that. I think he might actually like it, kind of, if I called him 'Seto.' But…"
"You can't do it, can you?"
Mokuba looked strangely haunted. "…No. I guess I can't."
"It'd be like if I called my dad 'Leo,' huh?"
Mokuba smiled, self-consciously. "Yeah. Exactly."
Roland appeared behind his employer like a ghost, as Seto was pouring a cup of coffee. It was exceedingly rare to find the man in any part of his building other than his office, which likely explained why Roland was out of breath.
"They've left the building," Roland said. "I didn't see Joseph anywhere."
Seto finished pouring, tilted back his head, and sighed. "I suppose he was bound to start doing this eventually. Brinkley has been an…interesting influence on Mokuba's behavior."
Roland chuckled, but his mirth died quickly. "I'm leaving now, sir. Do you want me to fetch them first? Bring them back here?"
Seto contemplated this for a long moment. He took a swig of coffee and shook his head as he reached over to the pot to refill his mug. "No. I'll…deal with it. I suppose if this is how Mokuba's rebellious phase is going to manifest, I should count myself lucky."
"Quite a cavalier attitude. I won't deny I'm surprised."
"It's fine. If nothing happens, then Mokuba will have learned something about independence. If something does happen, well…I got away with murder once."
Seto turned, and Roland seemed to search his face for some indication of the joke.
The elder Kaiba's eyes were frozen over.
He was dead serious.
A note, if you will indulge me: the movie in question is the third in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, At World's End, which hit theaters in May of 2007. You may recall that 2007 is the year in which this main story takes place. It took me a while to find a movie in theaters which the boys would want to see for the purposes of this chapter, and I eventually settled on this one because . . . well, it was really the only one that fit.