This piece was written as part of an attempt to explore what Isono's role might have been in Seto Kaiba's life before Gozaburo's death. While it doesn't overtly contradict anime canon, it is set during pre-manga canon with the intention that Seto would follow his emotional development as depicted in the manga rather than the anime.
Warnings: child abuse, moderate violence.
Isono's apartment provided sanctuary. The Kaiba Mansion was long rotten and thick with a kind of primal foulness that stuck to your tongue and settled on everything like a layer of tallow. It poured into the everything of the place and burnt the air. But there were two dark little rooms, bedroom and bathroom, which belonged to Isono. Somehow, they alone remained uninfected.
Perhaps that was a vanity. Perhaps other members of Mr Kaiba's private staff had their own subterranean apartments that remained untouched; perhaps, somewhere sharing with him the space beneath the earth, there were people just as unspoiled, just as sweet, just as stupidly naïve as he was. But if such people existed, then Isono hadn't met them. He stared into the eyes of his badly lit reflection as he shaved his jaw and knew, with granite certainty, that he was very much alone.
Then the razor nicked his skin and displaced his indulgent daydreaming with inconvenient, stinging reality. He dabbed the spot of blood on his jaw with a corner of tissue paper and stared himself down.
"This is not a bad omen," he told his reflection sharply. "This means nothing."
Isono cut himself shaving on an almost weekly basis. It bothered him. Shaving was his little moment of Zen: it cleared the debris of the day in the evening and swept away the dust of sleep in the morning. It was an act of preparation, of readying himself for rest or work, and work for Isono primarily concerned an elaborately constructed façade of invulnerability. Be impressive. Be strong. Be the silent suited threat at your employer's side and promise instant death to anyone who dares approach.
Isono watched the minute drop of blood soak through the tissue. Sometimes he felt life as a bodyguard was more than someone like him was cut out for. So many days he woke up shaking.
He replaced the blade neatly on the sink and gave his reflection a brief wink before donning his glasses. Alone in the cool comfort of his bathroom, the shades lent him, at least, a thin veneer of indestructibility.
"There. The consummate professional."
The shades, the charade, the pathetic attempts to embody a child's idea of cool – it wasn't really about fooling the public. If his thirteen-year-old charge believed for one moment that he was safe and protected then it would all be worth it. Yet Isono often thought that Seto found his bodyguard's attempts to impress upon him a sense of reliability rather on the weak side. The best Isono could hope for was for Seto to find him endearing.
Isono noted that the gravity of inadequacy had started to weigh down his features, and so he took a calming breath to smooth them out once again. Another clean slate.
Isono flicked off the light in his cramped en suite and returned to his bedroom. Being part of the Kaibas' personal security team he was required to live on the premises and had been allocated thirty generous square metres to that effect, complete with bed, kitchenette, and a single dining chair. Isono didn't mind the Spartan conditions: he had all the little that he needed.
His eyes drifted to his bed, thoughts of sleep dissolving before they had even formed, and there his gaze stopped. Sometimes less is more.
The unmistakeably small body of a child had cocooned itself in his sheets. Aside from the top of the boy's head only a single closed eye was visible, black lashed and large, twitching as it roamed through some vivid sleepy dreamscape. Was he having nightmares? Could Isono do anything to stop them?
Isono stepped closer. He discerned a single tiny hand curled tightly around the corner of the sheet and then in a further step he saw its bloodied knuckles. Old cuts. He didn't know where they came from. He hadn't even noticed them before. His career was protection and yet his charge had four anonymous scabs on his knuckles? Isono thought of honour deaths, of exile, and other melodramatics. Who would replace him if he left? Someone worse? Probably.
He checked the clock. Twelve minutes until breakfast. He couldn't let him stay.
Isono forced his fingertips to disturb Seto's shoulder. The touch sent a shudder through the boy and he retreated, frowning, into the nest of sheets and limbs. Isono wanted to leave him here, to abandon him to sleep and comfort and the warmth of his own bed. But he couldn't. Not after last time.
"Master Seto? You need to wake up."
The words shot the boy with shame and fear before he had even opened his eyes. He inhaled tightly through a body shrinking from terror and the word Pavlovian floated unbidden through Isono's mind. Then Seto's eyes found the tinted glass that hid Isono's and the fear washed away in a gentle wave of recognition and polite apology. Isono wanted to tell him that no apology was necessary – not to him, not ever – but something in the half smile of Seto's mouth and the way his focus slid away made Isono wonder exactly how genuine that heart-breaking little expression was.
"I'm sorry," Seto said. "I thought I should wait for you out here. I didn't mean to fall asleep."
"It's no problem, sir," Isono said, and as he spoke Seto sat up and revealed to Isono the side of his face that had been pressed against the mattress. Isono was grateful for the glasses. They tempered his reactions and bought him a few precious seconds of stoicism to let him rally himself before an improper expression escaped him. He might have looked scared, or shocked, or disgusted. But he only looked calm. Seto's left eye and cheekbone bore a deep purple blush, speckled with dark spots of blood, as though painted on. Patches of blue and yellow bloomed delicately on the skin of his cheek in a forget-me-not and buttercup chain reaching down to touch the corner of his mouth. The bruises were fresh. He had put Seto to bed unscathed yet he had woken like this. Mr Kaiba must have been in his room last night.
Isono thought about the minuscule cut on his own face, and how he wasn't bruised, and how he might never, ever be bruised like that even if he spent the rest of life working in security. He tried to think of something to say and could not, his mouth forming and unforming a little useless ellipse. Seto patiently ignored him as though he found the whole idea of concern and protection and empathy rather tedious. Altruism was a bedtime story for children. There are no monsters in the closet, there are good people in this life, et cetera, et cetera.
Isono dropped to a crouch that was below Seto's eye level. It was supposed to put Seto at ease, this surrender of height and power, but the boy only looked annoyed.
"Are you alright?"
"Fine," Seto said with the immediacy of one who wants to reject the entire notion of fine out of hand. Isono nodded slowly. But it shouldn't be rejected. They should talk about this. Talking might make it better. He should sequester Seto away somewhere secret and bathe his wounds and rock him and whisper hushes and precious things and you'll never have to hurt again into his ear until everything was alright.
Instead he looked at his watch. Ten minutes till breakfast.
"Well. We're going to be late if we don't run along soon, kiddo."
Seto stared. Isono wondered if it was too late to add 'sir'.
"I'm not going to breakfast. That's why I came to see you. I thought you might be more understanding than the rest of the staff."
"Of course, sir." Of course, sir. That unquestioning acquiescence was his answer to everything Seto said. Seto looked at him as one would at an over eager dog. Isono was getting used to that. "Why aren't you going?"
Disdain, fine and thin and knifelike, cut from Seto's gaze to Isono's. Then Seto tilted his head very slightly and bore clearly the plane of his face that had been imprinted with those artful bruises. "Mokuba mustn't see this."
Isono's head jerked in a motion vaguely resembling a nod. "I understand, sir." The bruises back stared at him. His eyes found fingerprints in Seto's skin and he wanted so desperately to look away, but he couldn't. He was the grown up. He fixed what he could and he coped with what he couldn't. A child surely needed to know that what had happened to him was not so truly terrible that a grown up couldn't look him in the face?
And he couldn't do it. He couldn't cope.
But, if he couldn't cope, maybe he could still fix..?
His voice stumbled in an uncertain staccato. "You know, we might be able to cover it up. If you like."
Seto's face was a perfect zero. "Meaning?"
Now things made sense again. He had a problem he could solve. He could be a grown up.
Isono appraised Seto's marks for another moment and then stood, heading for the bathroom. In the cupboard under the sink he pulled out a bag that might have once been, if not pretty, at least not offensively gaudy. Isono should not have kept this bag. Lesson one in the Kaiba household: sentiment is dangerous. Lesson two: family was dangerous.
Isono walked back into the bedroom and silently forbade himself from thinking about what might have happened to his sister.
Seto was sitting quietly on the bed. Impatience had long been beaten out of him. His hands were white and clasped and the poor light made the bruises glow a dull, unpleasant red. The ghost of childhood. Isono forced a smile. "Alright?"
Seto didn't even return the look, let alone the smile. His eyes alighted on the overnight bag and understanding settled within them. After a moment's awkward silence Isono took that as his signal to sit down. Yet when he did through the mattress he felt Seto shift away. Was that instinct? Was it a deliberate choice to delicately invalidate his bodyguard's attempts at caregiving?
It didn't matter. Isono chided himself for being so selfish. Even if Seto despised him, even if he had arranged for him to be publicly hanged, then Isono would still escort him to the gallows and help him string the rope.
Isono placed the bag between them and combed his fingers through it.
"Is this going to look ridiculous?"
"It shouldn't even be noticeable, sir." Isono unscrewed the cap of the foundation and squeezed out a tentative, tester amount. Seto tilted his head again and settled his gaze on some distant point. When Isono's fingertips touched the bruise he took a sudden tight, deep breath and tensed, but said nothing. Isono hesitated for a moment and then continued, massaging the cream over the bruise, reducing its vibrancy. He applied a little more, as gently as he dared, and patch by patch of cream-covered skin he began to erase what had been done. A blank slate.
Seto didn't protest. He just let him, though Isono felt his skin burn against his touch as if with fever. Seto's jaw was tense and there was a black look in his eyes, a blackness that recalled the barrel of a gun. Isono realised that this was the most intimate physical contact they had ever shared.
Isono replaced the cap. It wasn't perfect, but it was close. From the bag he next extracted some powder and then a brush. Seto's eye twitched when the brush caught his lashes and Isono swallowed a smile. Sometimes he was so very like a child. Almost uncannily.
A few moments later, Isono drew back. "Alright, we're finished."
Seto took the powder from Isono and examined himself in the tiny mirror that the compact held. He touched the once bruised area experimentally and kept his face blank and still in the way Isono knew meant that Seto was investing considerable effort into appearing blank and still.
"See?" Isono said. "You look good as new."
Seto snapped the compact shut. He looked at Isono and smiled. Unable to stop the thought from forming, Isono's mind ran: I hate his smiles. He watched, repulsed in a deep and horrible way, as Seto's fingers curled around the hem of his shirt. He raised it gingerly, careful not to brush against his own skin. These bruises were angrier. They burst unevenly around his stomach and ribs in thick smudges of purple and black, like someone had smeared blood and tar over his skin. Someone with fingers too large for a child's body.
"Not quite good as new." Seto kept the shirt held up. His eyes were perfectly empty: just two holes, boring out and into him. He was full of nothing.
Seto looked away. He slowly replaced his shirt, eyes turned away from Isono, and then he blinked again and something resembling a child was sitting in his place once more. He grimaced, stretching his facial muscles underneath the make up. "I feel dirty."
With a soft, genial smile Isono smoothed an almost unnoticeable spot of wet foundation into Seto's skin. "You look fine to me." Seto seemed to let him touch, but after a second of contact he jerked his face away. Isono dropped his hand. "I'm sorry. It looks fine."
Seto was still looking away. Sometimes Isono wasn't even there to him. It was like other people phased in and out of reality for Seto, as though everybody else was on a bad reception and he was the only one in tune. No, perhaps Mokuba was also there for him; and – increasingly, Isono thought – Mr Kaiba. Everybody else flickered.
"Isono, do you think there's something wrong with me?"
"Uh... Sir, I..." Seto's eyes, though still turned away, were large and expectant. "What, ah, what do you mean?"
Seto's eyebrows twitched in a kind of proto shrug. "I don't know. Sometimes you look at me, and... it's like you think I'm ill."
Isono tried to think of something, anything, to say that wouldn't sound dreadful or deceitful.
Seto's lips curled, the way burning paper curls into ash. "Father never thinks I'm ill."
"Well." Isono disguised his discomfort and braced his mouth with an apologetic smile. "That's rather silly of him. Everyone gets sick."
The sharpness in Seto's eyes when he looked up at him was somehow nauseating; like vertigo. "I'm not sick," Seto spat. "I never get sick."
Isono leaned back despite himself. "Okay. Okay."
"Do you think this makes you powerful? Do you think this makes it better?" Seto's voice rang with the smell of sulphur. "It's insulting."
Isono felt frozen, but Seto fell silent. He stared at nothing, as though Isono wasn't even there. Isono ran through every method he knew of dealing with children, tried to narrow them down to dealing with Seto, and came up empty. He thought of the breakfast they were close to missing and remembered (how could he forget?) the bruises. His voice came out with unnatural cheer. "Your face was fine before, you know. I just thought..."
The way Seto could look at you sometimes, it was as though he was hollow, as though there were fathoms of pure void stretching into him, like your words were pennies in a well. Yet also, in a curious, paradoxical way, the way Seto looked at you and made you feel like you were saying all the wrong words and that you would never comprehend a single syllable of his language – it was one of the most peculiarly childlike things about him.
Seto assessed his bodyguard for a moment longer, delivering a very quiet judgement. Then he broke eye contact.
"Alright," he said, voice tired and dry. His words sounded like shapes in the sand. "Let's go to breakfast."
There was no breakfast. There was no Mokuba. Mr Kaiba sat at the head of the table and ate his own meal in unbreachable silence while Seto sat at the other end and sipped from a glass of water and picked at his vitamins as if he'd been served strawberries.
"Mokuba shan't be joining us today," Mr Kaiba had explained at the beginning of the meal (if it could be called a meal), tall and authoritative in his crisp black business suit. There was nothing strange to him about this situation; it was just another work day. His eyes had been on Seto, but Isono had felt as though it was him that was being addressed. No, not addressed – as though he was a subtext, as though he was being batted between them.
Isono watched them eat, father and son. They seemed neither tense nor relaxed. A silent conversation hung in the air, but Isono couldn't translate any of it. He felt as though he ought to fit here, somewhere. He was the man who spent more effort caring for Seto in a day than Mr Kaiba did in a year. But he couldn't quite find the right niche.
Once Mr Kaiba was finished with his meal – which Seto somehow managed to coordinate with the swallowing of his last pale blue pill – Mr Kaiba nodded to one of the staff. The man, whom Isono didn't know, stepped towards Seto and offered him what looked to be a wet cloth.
"Now clean that mess off your face," said Mr Kaiba.
Seto took the cloth. Now he was looking at Isono. He brought the bruises out again in deeper and deeper shades as he gently wiped the make up away. Isono waited tensely for Mr Kaiba to hurry him, to shout, but he said nothing. He simply watched Seto, watching Isono, as his son cleaned his face and revealed the dirty bruise stains that covered his cheek. The rest of the employees simply stood passively. They didn't even watch. They just existed in this room with their master and the pale creature who was supposed to be his son.
Once Seto's face was clean, Mr Kaiba dismissed them. Isono waited by the door as the rest of the staff flowed silently and efficiently out of the room. He would escort Seto to his lessons, as he did every morning, and then he could offer his charge some form of apology. He didn't know how Mr Kaiba knew about covering the bruise in advance, but security cameras were the obvious explanation. Maybe the sickness had bled into his apartment a long time ago.
Seto was almost out of the door and Isono with him when Mr Kaiba called them back.
"Isono – a word."
Isono half turned. Seto stopped, one foot rocking on the threshold. Something in Mr Kaiba's eyes made the the air taste almost scorched on Isono's tongue. He tried to give Seto a reassuring look, but Seto's eyes were fixed on his father.
Isono stood back from the door and it swung shut. He had to glance down to see that Seto had slipped inside. He seemed so very small. Isono madly wondered if perhaps Mr Kaiba didn't know his son was still in the room. Whatever was about to happen, this wasn't a place for a child any more.
Isono stood still and obedient as Mr Kaiba walked around to meet him. He forced himself to meet the man's eyes. They were molasses black, dull in the low morning light, and fixed inflexibly upon him. Their expression was sickening. It wasn't their disgust, or even the threat that stirred within them that pulled at his guts: it was the familiarity. Seto had looked up at him with identical disdain so, so many times.
What happened next, Isono knew, was a test. He saw Mr Kaiba's shoulder drop and he knew, immediately, what was about to happen. And he knew how to stop it – but that was not part of the test. The test was obedience. The test was deference. The test was to remain limp and take the punch.
Impact. Pain. A sharp crack, a splintering. The floor rushing up to meet him and his head buzzing with the sole thought, I didn't think it would hurt that much.
His vision was uneven. One side was black, the other red. Several desperate blinks cleared the red and revealed the scattered shards of a dark lens on the hardwood floor. At least he could write the glasses off as a business expense.
"Allow me to demonstrate a point to you," Mr Kaiba begun in crisp, oratorical tones. Isono hazily noticed that there were already bloodstains on the floor. "You are my employee. You should consider it a privilege to occupy the position in my household that you do."
With his sense of gravity and orientation beginning to sink back into him, Isono slid a knee beneath himself and pushed up onto his arms. This time, he did not anticipate the blow that crashed down on the back of his neck. Something cracked. Face down, dazed, head throbbing out a dull, rhythmic pain, Isono's seasick vision rested on the little figure standing by the door. He thought he could see Seto smiling.
The foot on the back of his neck eased off. Isono obeyed.
"You seem to be harbouring some delusions about your position in my household. Some delusions, Isono, about your position in the life of my son. Allow me to make this perfectly clear: you are a bodyguard. You receive a pay-cheque for your work as such. I did not hire you to play make believe and pretend that you're a part of this family."
Isono didn't know if he should nod or say 'yes sir' or just lie here and let this happen. Seto was still there, a silent little diagonal. He looked at ease. This was his environment: the establishment of power, the might of it, the smooth erasure of self-worth. Now that he'd blinked the blood away and his vision was clear Isono could make out perfectly the tiny quirk of Seto's mouth, the infinitesimal expression of pleasure. And Isono realised that Seto wasn't on his side. He was alone in this room.
"You can get up now."
Isono wanted to enjoy the simplicity of the floor for a few moments longer, but obedience kicked in and he managed to stand. He felt Seto watching him but he couldn't turn to look.
Mr Kaiba was smiling at him. The whole room was smiling. Mr Kaiba extended a hand and Isono stared at it, wondering why, wondering why any of this. Everything floated without context in empty space. He took a breath. They shook hands. "Thank you, sir."
"Good." Mr Kaiba's eyes flicked to his son. Of course he'd known he was there. "My son needs to work now. Escort him to his study."
When Isono turned, Seto wasn't smiling any more. But he wasn't looking at him either. He was looking at his father with the expression of a child with a secret. He was coded in another language.
Isono bent to pick up the remains of his glasses.
"Leave it," said Mr Kaiba, and Isono did.
They didn't speak to one another on the way to the study. Seto didn't seem to mind. He seemed comfortable and warm in the silence, taking comfort in Isono's discomfort. Isono wanted to say something nice, something that an adult would say, a grown up, a parent, but all that seemed to have left him. It seemed urgent to think of something before they reached the study. Time was running out somewhere. Seto was still a child, and there was still time to save him.
They rounded the corner and the door to the study began to loom towards them.
There's still time. There's still...
They reached the door.
"You shouldn't have disobeyed him."
The words came suddenly. They stopped outside the door and Seto turned to face Isono, looking like a sulky adolescent again, looking not quite so alien.
"I did it for you," Isono said, then winced at the intimacy. "Sir. And I'd do it again."
"You shouldn't have disobeyed him," Seto repeated, and there was a conviction in his voice that reached beyond knowledge and touched a kind of piety. "You'll get worse than a black eye if you do it again."
"I don't mind, Seto. I really don't." He tried to smile but his mouth couldn't quite manage it. "It all comes out in the wash."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I'm sorry, I really don't know, sir."
Seto frowned. His gaze drifted to the spot on Isono's face where Mr Kaiba had hit him. Was he marked? Badly? Did it matter?
Seto steadily raised a hand. Warmth and pain burst in Isono's chest and he thought about hugging the boy. Then Seto, in three light taps, danced his fingertips lightly along the young, pink bruise below Isono's eye. The touch made Isono's stomach flood with something heavy and cold.
Seto withdrew his fingers. "Now we match." He smiled, and the most unpleasant thing about it was that it was wasn't unpleasant. It was deeply genuine. "Try to be less of an idiot, Isono. This whole white knight act is getting rather disgusting."
The urge to hug Seto was completely gone. He was alone with the jackal.
"I'm sorry, sir. I just thought..."
Seto had already pushed the door open. He had stopped listening.
Somewhere in the mansion a clock struck the half hour.
Seto threw him one final, empty look. "I need to study now."
Isono watched Seto walk to his desk while the door slowly swung shut. The shrinking gap between the door and wall framed Seto's thin body in a single slim strip. Isono couldn't recognise even the most familiar parts of him. But it was still Seto. It was still Seto, only with slightly sharper edges.
The door shut and Isono was left alone in the hall. He heard the sound of a twitching security camera. Somewhere, far off in the house, a different clock struck the half hour. One clock was wrong.
Isono turned on his heel and set off to find the nearest clock and to check its time. If it was wrong, he would fix it. If it wasn't, he would find the other and fix that instead. He was doing a job, and he knew that would please Mr Kaiba. He would be in his place. And he also knew, though it made him dissolve with the grief of it, that it would also please Seto.
He wanted to say that he had lost the game, but he hadn't. He had never even been a player.