A year ago, if you told Joseph Wheeler that he'd be standing here dumbly, raising his head so he could give the KC Corp security cameras a better look at his face, he'd have laughed. Then called you an idiot. Maybe punched you in the gut, if you so happened to be named Seto Kaiba.
But there he was. And there wasn't anything spectacular about it.
A whole summer spent moving boxes full time in a meatpacking plant did much to lessen Joey's taste for his fist powered, teenager tantrums. When his baby sister made him promise not to quit school for her, he had no choice but to give up on processed meats and sign up for a part time janitor job instead. In a hospital. The hours were all kinds of crazy, but at least the pay was the the best a high school senior could afford, and working conditions were rather good thanks to the union. Benefits.
The creaking hinges of the massive metallic gates drew Joey from his reverie. A security employee of imposing stature beckoned him inside. Joey jogged a bit to catch up with the man's long strides. Once he matched the man's pace, Joey let his eyes wander on the KC land only a few mortals had been given the privilege to see with their own eyes.
The Kaiba estate wasn't the pastoral type. Merely a vast, empty expanse of minutely cropped green grass. A sparsely lit alley split it in two symmetrical halves. At the epicenter lay, as if enthroned on the barren land, the lone Kaiba mansion.
Joey was made to wait in a lobby the size of his stepfather's crowded bungalow. Except that this room didn't feel small, with cathedral ceilings, exquisite furniture. In front of him hung a painting taller than himself. The house family portrait depicted a sober trio. The austere figure behind the KC empire, Kaiba's deceased father, a modern day Stalin look alike, was posing with his two adoptive sons. Joey's eyes were glued to the painting, intent on deciphering the look on Seto's younger face, when a mature female voice beckoned him.
"You are to be escorted to Kaiba's quarters."
The woman was about his height. She looked older than he was but too young to be his mother and was dressed in the traditional black and white maid outfit, frills and crisp collar and all. Joey resisted the urge to roll his eyes, taking a deep breath instead to calm himself down. Even retrieving his dad's alimony required was a less bureaucratic process than paying Seto Kaiba a visit. Well, he wasn't exactly visiting. This was the only time slot and place Kaiba could afford meeting up with Joey to work on a school assignment. Yes, just that. The prodigy billionaire CEO was having a friend over to work on a school assignment. Except that what binded them wasn't friendship. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The woman Joey temporarily dubbed 'the Maid' led him through carpeted hallways decorated before the two World Wars.
Cast iron chandeliers actually lit aflame (real flames, not light bulbs). Epoch photographs in reverse chronological order. Black and white rows of men standing in front of a factory. Tired faces. A bonnet clad, young but stern woman sitting in front of a mustached industrial. The couple was cropped in a claustrophobic, oval frame. Sepia. Joey couldn't quite imagine Seto Kaiba living in an environment like this. Kaiba wore several hats, but he didn't quite look like the aristocrat he was made out to be in this decor.
Well Joey, for one, certainly didn't blend in, with his scruffy hair and shoes, his ragged jeans, his distinctive, unrefined strut. He had lost track of where they were, how many corners they'd turned, how many closed doors they'd walked by in silence.
They passed through a thick, ebony door that creaked. The maid's heels clicked on the marble floor of the new room before them.
It was an impressive, octagon shaped room, with slightly taller walls and two huge windows that gave into the blackness of the night outside. Joey couldn't see whether there were trees beyond them, or whether they gave to vast, hilly green terrain. The maid walked to the other side of the room but Joey remained, taking in the livelier part of Kaiba's mansion. Potted trees. Probably rare ones, too. Davenports and antique little pieces of furniture he couldn't find a use for.
There were paintings, too, Renaissance-like, that he vaguely remembered having seen in history books. Too bad he knew nothing about any of them. The maid produced a keyring from her frilly apron and unlocked the door, naturally expecting Joey to come along. Before walking into the aisle with her, he looked back one last time at the unusual room they were about to leave behind. to see a striking painting hanging above the door whence they came. Joey recognized it to be the binding of Isaac. His mother would be congratulating herself if she knew that she hadn't sent her son to Sunday school throughout childhood for nothing.
The painting gave a lasting impression on Joey. Vivid at first, then somber. Abraham's fingers were sprawled over Isaac's face, holding his son's head in place. A knife was held in the father's other hand. Isaac's body was weak and naked; his limbs, contorted. Joey felt a chill run up his spine. He closed the door behind him and jogged to catch up with the maid. Didn't anyone take time to stop and smell the roses in this house?
The next wing didn't have the 'museum' feel that the rest of the mansion had. It was all brushed steel, glass, geometrical shapes and jagged lines. If this house had a soul, it would be diagnosed with multiple personality disorder.
They arrived to a halt before an open door. Beyond it, a room dark save for the faint glow of a computer screen. It cast grave shadows on the impassible features of its occupant.
Joey turned to the Maid. From her tone, he couldn't tell whether she was introducing her employer to Joey, or if she was warning Kaiba of the intruder's presence. She bowed to Joey and promptly walked away, leaving him to his own devices. So without further ado Joey stepped into the living room. Office. Bedroom? He wasn't sure which.
Kaiba didn't acknowledge his presence. Or flinch, either, when Joey walked past him without a word, then unceremoniously plopped down in one of the luscious couches (these must cost at least two months' rent, Joey exclaimed internally).
Joey breathed out and closed his eyes. Man, that couch was something else. More comfortable than his own bed, even - not that his mattress set a standard for anything besides resilience. Joey's body wanted to doze off but Joey knew he was cursed with consciousness for the next ten hours at least, because of the energy drinks he'd gulped down in the taxi ride to the mansion. He couldn't risk falling asleep anyway; too many short nights in a row. There would be no coming back if he allowed himself to close his eyes now. He just had to keep going.
"You're early." Kaiba's voice rose as if from the depths of a cavern. Reproachful.
Joey sat up and turned to Kaiba, who kept typing away at his laptop. Perhaps because he was in his natural habitat, the teenage CEO first class student extraordinaire wore his shoulders slightly hunched forward, neck craned towards the blinking screen in the most inelegant fashion.
"At least I'm not late." Defensive.
The tone was set. So be it. Joey regretted getting himself in what clearly would end in a mess. Maybe a few bruises. But that wouldn't be so bad. There was always some enjoyment to be had in a good fight - and somehow Kaiba always delivered in that regard, without the hassle and intricate aftermath of getting tangled with gang members. Joey was rusty, but he'd sure welcome the adrenaline rush.
"I'm not ready yet. You will have to wait," Kaiba replied, his voice not exactly cold but distant, as if deeply focused on something.
Don't talk back. Be the better man. Gotta be the better man.
Being ordered around had never been Joey's forte, but right now that was not what Kaiba was doing. The apparent lack of snark or disdain, the neutral tone in which Kaiba spoke was almost... frustrating for some reason.
Perhaps because it gave Joey no legitimate reason to be angry at him.
Perhaps it was because Kaiba was plain ignoring him.
Okay, so moneybags had learned some manners.
Or was it a new manipulation tactic?
I'm thinking too hard about this.
At any rate, Joey still didn't enjoy being in Kaiba's presence. The flat screen TV on the wall was calling to him. It was about ten; one of the shows Joey used to watch, before he got the part time job, was on right now. Joey considered leaning forward to grab the remote, then thought better of it. Heck, he didn't have to watch that show. He could watch nothing. Or he could watch any show on the friggin' planet. No doubt in his mind that Kaiba had premium membership to every channel in the world. Well, maybe not. He wasn't the type to throw money away. Something he respected him for. Perhaps the only thing. It was funny. Joey tried to imagine Seto sitting down to watch TV, and couldn't. Kaiba plus fun just didn't add up together. Maybe that expensive toy was for Mokuba.
Joey eventually convinced himself he didn't really want to watch TV after all. Instead he focused on the certainty that no matter what he attempted to do, as long as he was in Kaiba's vicinity, he would wind up being shot down with a nasty remark. It sucked to be held up by Kaiba like this, but things could be worse.
Joey's eyes watered a little. He was tired and... Not quite sure he could hold on until morning for the work shift to come at the hospital. His body starting misbehaving because hey, why not. His knee was the first insubordinate limb.
Bouncing up and down.
When it wasn't sufficient a release, Joey began biting his nails - absentmindedly, mind you. He might have gone a bit too strong on the energy drinks, but he needed them. He had a night shift to cover after this homework session - the very reason why he'd arrived here early in the first place. At midnight sharp - a little less than two hours from now - Joey was to be in his overalls, scrubbing hospital floors.
But telling Kaiba about the nature of his upcoming date - a mop with green tape plastered around the handle - was out of the question. No way he'd give himself on a silver platter. Joseph Wheeler, the working class boy, washing sick people's excrement for a living! Too good a reason to laugh for Kaiba. The mocking wouldn't stop, and maybe the mutt jokes would come back, too.
Suddenly the couch wasn't so cozy anymore. Joey sprang up.
"Look, can we just get working? I can't stay here all night."
He walked up to Kaiba, standing next to him expectantly.
"Come on man, stop being a dick." He slammed his hand on the desk, hoping to distract Kaiba. Maybe for dramatic effect, too? "Other people have lives, too, in case you didn't know. I already came all the way here" for you, and I had to switch shifts, too, trading my usual for something shittier that'll fuck up my sleep schedule. So let's get going.
"I'd be done quicker if you let me be," Kaiba said, his voice surprisingly not monotone, even akin to that of a parent simplifying a grownup concept for a small child. Kaiba stopped moving for a second, fingers hovering above the keyboard, diligently waiting to be put to use again.
Joey noticed something was wrong with Kaiba's fingers.
Oops. That almost sounded like concern.
"I know," Kaiba bit back, still facing away.
"Uh, so, how come you're shaking?" Seto Kaiba's weakness - made known to mankind - and Joey was the first to witness it. Too good to be true!
"Tell me again why you are here?"
Kaiba laid his hands down on his desk as if to stress his annoyance, but Joey knew very well what the gesture was for.
To halt the shaking.
No- to try to and conceal it.
The index on his right hand kept twitching. Wow. Kaiba, a cripple? The tables were turned. This was going to be fun, regardless of the outcome. Joey felt a rush of everything at the back of his skull, kind of like that time when he realized he'd picked up a fight with five guys instead of three and his gambling gene was yelling inside every one of his cells: YES!
"No, but seriously, answer me. What's going on?" Joey wasn't sure whether he actually wanted to know or whether he wanted to annoy the fuck out of Kaiba. It certainly was not out of concern.
Kaiba stared intently at the screen in front of him. His jaw tensed. "Side effects," he hissed.
Joey's curiosity was piqued - it wasn't like Kaiba to open up like that. "Like what-"
"I've answered your question. Go yapping somewhere else," Kaiba snapped.
Joey considered him for a moment. "Okay. Okay. So that's how it is, huh." Bitching and cussing. Of course it was going to end up like this. Old habits die hard. Joey wasn't sure what to do, whether to cut the tense silence with another insult or to just give in the urge to hit that poster boy billion dollar face of his.
"Okay, just - fuck you, Kaiba."
Kaiba turned abruptly to look up at Joey with cold eyes - not his default cold. His subarctic cold.
Both men stayed still for a moment. Then, when Joey was certain this moment would remain imprinted in his memory, he walked away.
He was leaving his opponent's turf, victorious.
Or was he?
Telling Kaiba off should have felt more liberating. When Joey thought of the countless hours he'd spent brewing hatred for the man, replaying their botched fists fights in his mind and changing them, sometimes inventing new ones altogether, the long moments thinking of vicious comebacks that always seemed to slip away the moment he was in his presence, and the amount of actual f-words he'd told Kaiba to no avail...
No, that particular 'fuck you' just didn't measure up.
Joey stopped right by the door, in the hallway, realizing he had no clue which way to go. He really wished he'd been paying attention to directions when the maid escorted him, rather than wondering why someone would want to live in such a glum place - wasn't Kaiba master and commander of this? Couldn't he tear down those old pictures and paintings if he wanted to? Even Joey's own filthy apartment felt less... harmful than this.
Why on earth did he care whether Kaiba lived in a depressing hell hole?
He heard the squeak of a swivel chair behind him. Kaiba had moved. Joey turned to see. He shouldn't have. But his brain felt all jittery - if he stayed he was sure to lose it and say things he'd really regret. Not things that were meant to attack; things that were meant to hurt.
Joey saw Kaiba standing, tense as if holding back from something, yet perfectly still, his silhouette dark lissome in the weak light. He couldn't make out the look on his face.
"All I'm asking," said Kaiba in a ragged voice, pausing slightly between every word, "is for you to wait."
Kaiba sounded... tired. Joey raised his eyebrows slightly, unsure whether Kaiba noticed, unsure why he cared whether he did.
Kaiba waited. He didn't even appear to be breathing. Joey looked left and right. Shifted on his weight. Put his hands in his pockets.
Kaiba was preaching by example. He was waiting. For him. For Joey Wheeler. It was his move. Joey really didn't have a good reason not to act upon what, in Kaiba's mouth, sounded like an earnest apology. What in the name of the Lord is going on?
Whatever. "Okay. Yeah, sure. I'll wait."
What am I doing?
Joey walked back to where he'd been sitting before the argument, making it a point not to look in Kaiba's direction as he did. He could swear he felt Kaiba's gaze on him. Couldn't tell why - he just knew Kaiba was looking at him, studying him at this very moment. The mere thought made him feel uneasy.
The typing resumed only once Joey was settled on the couch again. The intermittent clicking of the laptop keys meshed with the blood pumping in his ears. His liver was fighting to pump the energy drink out of his system. He wondered if that's how his father felt whenever he went to sleep. The heart, drumming relentlessly, as if to scream 'hey! you're alive!'
Don't think about it. Better not think about it.
Don't think about anything. Just stay here and do the assignment thing. Get it over with, be proud, know you've done the right thing. Wait for Kaiba to be done with whatever. Wait until he's done toying with your nerves. Just accept that you can't win, not this time.
He remembered how Serenity once told him 'you can't always win all the time'. He could hear her voice, see the way she shook her head in resignation in his mind's eye.
The room was bright.
Joey craned his neck to see where the light was from. It was everywhere, bouncing off the walls to the ceilings and off the shiny metal furniture.
His neck hurt from having spent a glorious whole night's sleep on Kaiba's couch. Fully clothed.
Oh shit. Shit. Shit.
Joey's heart was beating like crazy, busy pumping the taurine and mixed feelings out of his system. Sweaty bangs were sticking to the base of his nape. He felt crass dirty. Shower. No. Get out of here first.
Someone had had the decency of draping a body bag over him. It took Joey a solid second to realize it was actually a silk blanket. Something out of a socialite soap opera, or porn movie, black and light and shiny. Oh man. What the heck is going on...
He stood up and stretched, cracking his joints and spine.
Kaiba's office looked different different in broad daylight. Clean, spacious, orderly, functional. Tall windows gave to more greenery Joey had ever seen in his entire urban life. Not only the office was bigger than what it looked like, it was L-shaped with a whole section that had remained hidden from sight. Then there were doors. Many, prohibitively inviting, metal doors. But Joey didn't have time to explore.
The chair at Kaiba's desk was empty, confirming that the child genius turned emotionally repressed CEO was not, in fact, a cyborg. Unless he was charging somewhere else.
Joey was not late for work. He was fucking late for work. Many hours too late. No, worse, he'd probably missed the night shift altogether. Shit.
Joey walked around to see if there was some kind of clock or anything.
Then he heard 'it'.
Urgent goosebumps washed over Joey. He wasn't alone.
He tiptoed towards the sound, half expecting for something to explode. The sound came from the hidden section of the room, the longer end of the L.
In retrospect, he shouldn't have been shocked by what he saw. Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to be alarmed about. Just someone sleeping. In a bed. A human being, lying in bed, his chest heaving up and down.
Kaiba had a bed in his office. A bed. In his office. He was sleeping in it. Joey strained his nutrient deprived brain to stitch everything together.
Seto Kaiba literally sleeps in his office.
Only then Joey noticed a granite countertop, a fridge and some other (kitchen?) appliances he couldn't identify. So he lived in the goddamn thing, too. Everything suddenly felt uncomfortable. And awkward. Overwhelmingly so. Joey couldn't stop looking, couldn't stop telling himself how intimate this situation was. He was no expert on the pop psychology behind people's sleeping positions, but Kaiba's didn't look natural - his neck and arms sprawled in unnatural angles, stretching too far like the stems of a sunlight deprived plant. Kaiba might qualify for vitamin D supplements, if the pallid shade of his bare torso was any indication. The lower half of his body was concealed in a black satin sheet that looked identical to the one that had been lent to Joey.
Jesus. What had Kaiba been thinking? Why hadn't he woken him up? Of course he couldn't know that Joey had to be somewhere at midnight because he hadn't told Kaiba because he'd thought Kaiba couldn't understand. So now they were both stuck in this impossibly awkward situation. Unless of course Kaiba didn't deem this awkward. This in turn added an extra layer of unease to Joey's queasiness, which was bordering on physical ill.
Black and red dots peppered Joey's vision for second. When the dizziness passed, Joey stormed out of the room. Took a left. At random.
He replayed in his mind the regular heaving of Kaiba's bony chest. His too readily exposed, sickly white skin.
Joey felt a cool chill wash over him.
He needed out.