Title: The Cost of Doing Business
Author: bnomiko
Rating: PG-13
Pairing(s): Yami + Seto, Noa + Mokuba, Jou + Mai, Yugi + Anzu, Malik + Ryou, Rafael + Valon + Amelda
Spoilers: none
Warnings: swearing
Disclaimer: Virus Buster Serge is the creation of Masami Obari. Yu-Gi-Oh! is the creation of Kazuki Takahashi. This is a not-for-profit fanwork and I do not own any of these characters.
Summary: A big leap forward starts with small steps, one after another.
Status: 10 / ?
Archived at: http://www.phenixsol.com/Miko/FF/

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The Cost of Doing Business

Ch. 10: Behold Change or Die

* * *

Noa hadn’t expected Seto to be awake when he walked into the bedroom to check on him. He wouldn’t have stuck around if he had known. But the brunette had looked like he was sleeping or maybe even passed out when Noa had first poked his head in, so the green-haired teen had swallowed whatever trepidation he had felt and approached the bed. After all, he had told himself, Mokuba and Yami would kill him if he didn’t make sure Seto was okay, even though neither one of them had left explicit instructions for him to keep an eye on Seto. But he didn’t need to be told; he knew what they expected of him, even though he definitely wasn’t the best person for the job.

Yami had unexpectedly left to buy groceries an hour earlier, pointing to the fact that he’d been neglecting that responsibility in light of Seto’s illness. And Mokuba had been called into a meeting even earlier since apparently some Kaiba Corp. execs were getting worked up about something or other. Mokuba hadn’t explained what the problem was, but Noa could guess… either they didn’t like the fact that he and Yami were involved in things, which was dumb, or they didn’t approve of a teenaged V.P. running the company, which was even stupider. It wasn’t like it was the first time that had happened… and Mokuba had been even younger back then. Hell, even Seto had spent more years as a teen at the helm of the company than he had as an adult! But they were "concerned," and so Mokuba had decided to make an appearance to hopefully allay their fears.

Noa could understand why Mokuba had to attend the meeting, but wasn’t sure why Yami had decided he just had to go to the market when they’d been fine with take out and such. It wasn’t like he’d have time to cook anyway. So why the sudden rush?

Part of him couldn’t help but wonder if Yami’s timing was deliberate. Maybe he was just testing him or something, to see if he could trust him with Seto. Noa supposed he could ask him about that later. But for the moment, he had other things to worry about…

There was a pair of blue eyes staring at him, assessing him, and Noa found himself wondering if he was standing far away enough to be out of Seto’s reach in case the brunette suddenly lunged for him. But despite the urge to flee, he stood his ground. He wasn’t a coward… and he wasn’t going to back down and give Seto the satisfaction of routing him.

Eventually Seto had to blink, breaking the unintentional stalemate. He was tired; unbeknownst to Noa, he had been awake for the past hour, waiting to see if the teen would stick his head in to check on him. It didn’t matter if he was only doing it out of a sense of duty… that at least was something Seto could understand and respect.

Besides, Seto had needed that hour to himself. He knew he had to talk to Noa and needed time to himself to think over what he wanted to say. And he knew that was something he needed to do on his own, without interference… things would never really be okay if Mokuba and Yami kept having to play mediator. And since Mokuba was already out of the house, it had seemed like a good time to begin considering apologies for what he’d done…

Yami must’ve sensed it as well. He had left voluntarily, before Seto even had a chance to suggest that he was long overdue for a break. The former Pharaoh had offered to go fetch Noa too, just before he left. But Seto had wanted the teen to approach on his own; even having Yami ask, "Please check in on Seto," seemed too pushy. And so Yami agreed to simply inform Noa that he’d be out and would be back soon.

And now here he was, looking like a cross between a frightened child and a jaded adult, too stubborn to back off but too hesitant to say anything either.

Seto sighed. His eyes sought out the faded bruises on Noa’s neck. The marks were almost too faint to see now, but since he was deliberately looking for them, they seemed so obvious that they might as well have been outlined in neon. Seto frowned, seeing not only evidence of his attack on Noa, but a reminder of his previous incidents with Noa and Yami as well. He would’ve liked to think that he’d learned a thing or two since then, but apparently the cycle was destined to repeat, unless he did something to end to it once and for all.

He wasn’t sure if apologizing would be enough to fix things. Noa didn’t look like he was in the mood to listen, never mind chitchat. Maybe it was already too late, their relationship beyond salvaging… But that wasn’t the right attitude to have, and in any case, Seto knew what it was that he had to do.

The young CEO sat up with a grimace, then lifted a hand to beckon to Noa. "Come here…" His throat was already getting tight and scratchy; he was unsure if his voice would hold up for a conversation of any length.

As if I’m going to get anywhere close to his hands… "I’m fine right here," Noa quickly replied, his narrowed eyes fixed on Seto’s outstretched fingers.

Seto slowly let his arm drop, then gathered his hands in his lap, shaking his head at himself. "I suppose… I deserve that."

Noa just stared at him. At least he hadn’t moved away either.

"Will you at least hear me out?"

There was a part of the teen that wanted to say no, wanted to just say "Fuck it" and leave the room, but Yami and Mokuba expected better of him. He expected better of himself too. "Yeah. Sure."

"Regardless of what may have contributed to it – being sick, being on medication – I can’t excuse what I did. I’m sorry."

Noa didn’t say anything for a few moments. He seemed slightly stunned that Seto had come out and apologized so quickly, but then the expression on his face soured. "Did Yami put you up to this? Is that why he left?"

"No. I wanted him to take a break, and he..."

"Uh huh. Knowing that at the same time, Mokuba was out? That I’d be the one left here with you?"

"… he knew I wanted to talk to you. That’s all," Seto croaked, finishing his previous statement. He tried to clear his throat, but it just felt so dry…

There was a sound of snapping plastic coming from Noa’s direction. Seto slowly turned his head to see a newly opened bottle of water floating in front of his face. He gratefully accepted it and began slugging it down, half choking on it in his haste. A second later, a hand began slapping him lightly on his back, encouraging him to cough up whatever liquid had slipped down his trachea.

"Why?" Seto managed to gasp once he’d stopped coughing. Noa was perched on the edge of the mattress now, still looking a little wary, but making no effort to move further away either.

"Why what? The water?" Seto gave a slight tilt of his head. Noa shrugged. They both knew he was asking about more than just the bottle of water. "You sounded terrible. And I do feel obligated to take care of you, you know." The brunette looked at him, surprised that, despite the harshness in the teen’s words, his voice had softened somewhat.

"Obligated, huh?" Seto studied the water bottle with disinterest, then let out a short, humorless laugh. "Like how I took you in because I felt obligated to?"

Noa froze, not expecting a response like that. He had never asked why Seto had taken him in back then, figuring that there was no reason to rock the boat, that it didn’t really matter, but… to hear him coldly say that… "Is that how it is?" he managed to ask stiffly.

"That’s how it was."

Huh? "I… don’t understand…"

"Mostly I did it for Mokuba, because he really wanted to have you around. That shouldn’t surprise you. But also… I didn’t trust you. I didn’t think you could change. So this ‘arrangement’ made it easier for me to keep an eye on you." Seto took another sip of water. "I’m being unfair, I know."

Noa just blinked owlishly at Seto. The elder Kaiba wasn’t making much sense; he seemed to be swinging between moods. That made Noa nervous. An unconcerned or unapologetic Seto was at least predictable and therefore, preferable… but it looked like he was stuck with a weirdly introspective / blunt Seto instead. Yami… Mokuba… why doesn’t someone get home already?!

"I was wrong about you. Before today, I mean," Seto said, vague as ever. He sounded like he was thinking aloud. Noa wondered if Seto was hallucinating again…

"… What’s with you?" Noa finally had to ask. There was a big difference between standing up for one’s self, and utter stupidity. If Seto really was going crazy again, he wasn’t going to risk staying in the room with him. He’d call Yami and tell him to come home and deal with it instead.

Seto paused. Noa could see him mentally fumbling for an explanation, but he looked like he was having a hard time of it. Just as the green-haired teen was about to suggest that they talk later instead, when Seto was more able to focus, the brunette blurted out, "I didn’t really notice you back then, in the virtual world. I didn’t care, actually. At most, you were a cheap copy of Gozaburo. An irritation and an inconvenience… just another in a long line of people with a grudge against me. And I certainly didn’t expect to see you ever again after that. I should’ve known better though… nothing ever stays buried for long."

The young billionaire stopped just long enough to catch his breath, then went on. "When you came back, it was like the same thing all over again. I didn’t like you, and I sure as hell didn’t trust you. But it was easier to not think about that. Besides, I had a debt to pay; in spite of everything you did to us in the virtual world, you got everyone out in the end, and you returned Mokuba’s body to him. So even if Mokuba hadn’t asked, I would’ve…" He shrugged, as if to discount what he had nearly admitted. "Since things went smoothly enough at first I figured I could live with it, having you simply exist here. It made Mokuba happy at least."

"But every time I looked at you, I saw your father’s shadow. It was like playing ‘games’ with him all over again. I was determined not to let him win, not realizing that I was playing right into his hands by fanning the flames of my hatred until it blacked out everything else. The more I struggled, the more I became mired in that darkness." Seto let out a tired snort, and dropped back down on the bed, scrubbing at his face as if that would clear away all the confusion. "I’ve fallen into that trap before. I really should've known better – you aren’t Gozaburo. Hell, if anyone’s the old man’s shadow, it’d be me."

Noa swallowed, hearing in the pregnant pause the faint echoes of the words Gozaburo had uttered in the virtual world: Seto is to blame. Hate him if you have to. He shook his head, realizing for the first time that that was the endless trap that Seto had just spoken of. Had he fallen into it as well?

"It was bad enough that I attacked you once. Twice, unforgivable. I know it’s not enough to say ‘I’m sorry,’ and I’m not making excuses, but I thought if I tried to explain…" Seto exhaled, his breath coming out like a hiss. "I’m not good at this. I’m not good with talking about these things," he ended up muttering.

"But… you’re trying at least," Noa pointed out, when he realized his brother was on the verge of clamming up again. "You’ve never said this much to me before."

"Guess not. I don’t like talking. And I never knew what to say to you anyways…" Seto shook his head at himself, letting it roll around on the pillow. "Damn, I really need to work on that. I think I just told you that I didn’t like you…"

"Didn’t. Past tense, both times now. Which would imply that something’s changed. And you’ve apologized twice too. You wouldn’t have bothered doing that if you still disliked me that much."

"Smart kid." Seto let out a bitter laugh that trailed into a coughing fit, then closed his eyes. "You’re right. I didn’t even realize… Maybe I do like you, then. But it’s not fair. You weren’t supposed to forgive me."

"I didn’t say that either. I haven’t decided. I’m just hearing you out, like you asked."

"It’s okay. I won’t hold it against you, whatever you decide. I just thought you deserved to hear the truth…"

Noa frowned at Seto’s assumption. "It’s not okay! I don’t *want* to hate you… And what makes you think this is all about you, anyhow? You haven’t even asked me to explain myself yet!"

Seto slowly opened his eyes and turned towards Noa, catching him a little off guard. Not because of his lack of response, because that was simply his way of telling Noa to go ahead and have his say, but because at that moment, he seemed a little… vulnerable, caught between the pains his illness and guilt had wrought. But there was strength and resolve there as well; exhausted as he was, Seto wasn’t going to shortchange his younger brother. He would give Noa his full attention simply because he had asked for it.

It felt like it was the first time Seto was seeing him… really seeing him – not as a reminder of Gozaburo, nor as a reflection in Mokuba’s or Yami’s eyes – but as himself. It made Noa want to match Seto’s bold honesty with his own. And so he did.

"Yami told me… he pointed out, that I never apologized to you for my actions in the virtual world. I didn’t see why I had to. I thought I was being generous in not making you apologize actually, and that I would just get over it… the resentment I felt for you stealing the life that should have been mine." Noa laughed nervously at what he was saying. "I know, I know… you didn’t really steal it. My father had… already moved beyond his need of me by that point. But when he told me to blame you, to hate you… it was easier that way. It was easier to make you the scapegoat, because I…"

The green-haired teen shook his head as he paused to gather himself. But it wasn’t enough to keep him from choking out the next few sentences. "I know he wasn’t very good to you; Mokuba… told us about some of what happened. But… he’s still my father. I couldn’t hate him like that. I still can’t."

With a shaky sigh, Noa leaned back to take a breather. It was hard having to revisit the past while trying to see it with different eyes. He’d been so used to seeing Seto as an adversary on one level or another that he wasn’t really sure what other options there were…

He thought about Yami, who called himself Seto’s rival and yet, was his lover too. He thought about Mokuba, who’d been betrayed in the worst possible way, but still looked on Seto as not only his beloved older brother, but as the only father he’d ever known. And then there were all their friends and "extended family": Yugi, Jounouichi, Sugoroku… they had all been participants at Death-T, hadn’t they? And yet, even they seemed to have come to terms with that… Yugi had helped set up Seto and Yami on that first blind date. Jou, even with all the insults that he and Seto regularly flung at each other, had stood up for Seto at the Grand Prix. And Sugoroku, who’d had his precious Blue Eyes stolen and ripped apart by Seto, had even found it in his heart to gift Seto with that very same card, one which no amount of money could buy.

Was it really possible for so many people to overlook so many flaws? Or was he approaching the problem from the wrong angle? Maybe it wasn’t that everyone else was more forgetful or more compassionate or whatnot… maybe instead, it was his own sight that had been corrupted, poisoned by the resentment he’d been harboring. But was it too late to undo the damage that had been done? Or did the answer lay in using that emotional flotsam and jetsam to his advantage instead, to build a bridge between them? Would something like that be stable enough to hold? Or would it shimmer temptingly and then vanish, like a mirage, leaving him disappointed and alone? But illusions were such compelling things…

"I blamed you for making my father cruel. But… that’s not right. He wouldn’t have treated you better no matter what you did. I think he resented that you weren’t me, just as he resented my mother for not being his first wife; she had run off with another man. My mom had the misfortune of looking too much like her I think… maybe that’s why he married her. Maybe that’s why he was cruel to her too – he’d slap her and yell at her, telling her that he couldn’t trust her, that she must’ve been cheating on him too. My mother was weak though… although she thought about leaving him, she was too scared to act on it, especially since there was no way my father would’ve let her take me too. So in the end, I could only watch as the fighting continued on."

He wasn’t one to cry. He certainly wasn’t going to do that now. But Noa’s voice cracked all the same as he went on to whisper, "I shouldn’t have messed with Mokuba. He didn’t deserve it. But I wanted to hurt you so badly, to take away the one person you loved… Besides, I was so lonely. The virtual world was supposed to be perfect, but it wasn’t. Having Mokuba helped me forget about that for a little while too." He let out the breath he’d been holding in. "It hurts to know that Mokuba will never love me as much as he loves you. It’s like losing to you all over again. I know that’s the wrong way to think about it, because like Yami said, love isn’t something restricted to a single person, but… it’s how I feel. I’ll always be the outsider here."

"No. You’re a Kaiba too," Seto quickly retorted.

"In name only," was Noa’s bitter response.

"No," Seto insisted. "You and I are more alike than I ever wanted to admit. And we’ve both inherited Gozaburo’s legacy. Regardless of what I may think of the old bastard, nothing changes that fact."

"That’s easy for you to say, Mr. President of Kaiba Corp.…" He hadn’t meant for it to come out so bluntly, but it had been bothering him for such a long time…

Seto just laughed tiredly. "Ah… You’re right, you’re absolutely right. But this is no longer the company that your father intended to leave you; that Kaiba Corp. passed with him, and from its ashes rose the new Kaiba Corp. I’ve poured myself – my pride, my dreams – into making my company into what it is today. So I’m sure you can understand, I can’t hand it over to anyone… But that doesn’t mean I’m so full of myself that I think I can handle it alone, either. I would like it… if you’d consider an offer of joint vice presidency, with Mokuba."

"Wha…" Was he joking? How could he say it so simply, considering… "How can you say that, when I haven’t even forgiven you yet? When you haven’t forgiven me either?!"

"Are you saying you can’t handle the job unless we forgive each other first?" the young CEO asked, amusement momentarily lighting up his eyes.

"Ye… no! I don’t know! I mean…" Frustrated, Noa cringed as that train of thought proceeded to wreck itself in a resoundingly disastrous manner. He wasn’t even sure why he was still so worked up. It wasn’t like he’d really expected Seto to step down from his position as CEO… like he had said, it was his company now. He had rebuilt it, given it wings, and let it fly. So why couldn’t he simply say "Yes?" Seto had offered him a position at Kaiba Corp. Wasn’t that the important thing? Being acknowledged, being shown that he mattered? "Vice president…"

"We can demarcate duties later, of course," Seto explained. He knew he was springing his offer rather unexpectedly on the younger Kaiba, but he had made his decision, and hadn’t seen any reason to put it off any longer. "I have faith in your abilities and your loyalty. I don’t need you to apologize for what you did in the virtual world…"

Noa immediately cut him off. "But *I* need to apologize!" he began angrily, and then unexpectedly, he was struck dumb by look Seto was giving him. It was just like the one he’d given him earlier, that mixture of strength and vulnerability… It almost felt like Seto was offering not only the support that Noa needed to face the things he’d done, but also the freedom to do it at his pace, on his terms. It felt… nice, that someone knew him well enough to be that considerate. It made him feel like his feelings mattered, like HE mattered.

And suddenly, Noa became aware of the possibilities that the future held, if only he believed enough in Seto to take that next step. The elder Kaiba had already laid down the groundwork to bring them together by taking the initiative, getting Noa in the room so they could talk. So that he could apologize to the teen. But it was Noa’s own trepidation that had been holding him back from fully embracing what was offered, and bridging that gap…

He looked at the bedridden brunette again. Seto was too young for Noa to ever view him as a father figure, but he hadn’t been looking for one anyway. And he had never thought about wanting a big brother, having been born an only child, but hadn’t he been calling Seto "Nii-sama" too…?

They were a family, but only now was it sinking in what that truly meant. Families stuck together through both good and bad. And Seto really was… a pretty good big brother. Sure, he had made his share of mistakes, but that was almost a requirement in their household… and what mattered most wasn’t the past that lay behind them, but the fact that they all had the strength and courage to keep going forward. What a messed up bunch they were… and how fortunate they were to have one another, because who else could understand them so well? Now that he thought about it, he realized he wouldn’t trade Mokuba, Yami OR Seto, for anyone else in the world.

"Um… wait. I want to start over…" If he was going to apologize, he was going to make sure he did it with the right mindset and the right attitude. No more half assing it. Noa placed a hand on Seto’s wrist, and took a big breath. "I *want* to apologize. Not just for what I did to Mokuba back then, but for what I did to you too. I was wrong to blame you. And I am sorry. And if you won’t forgive me, then I… I…" Noa grimaced and looked away, unable to finish the sentence as a lump rose in his throat.

A hand reached out to lightly touch Noa’s hand, giving it a consolatory pat. The teen started at the unexpected contact. "Come here, please," Seto whispered.

With only the slightest bit of hesitation – mostly due to his wondering about how to best comply with the request – Noa moved over on the mattress until Seto nodded in approval, then turned so that his back was against the headboard and his hip, resting by Seto’s pillow.

"Thank you," the brunette said, then to Noa’s amazement, he rolled over and threw an arm around Noa’s waist, effectively holding him in place. "I accept your apology."

"And… I accept yours, Nii-sama. And your offer of vice presidency," Noa said, while still pondering their strange positioning. It was like being hugged and pinned down at the same time. It wasn’t unpleasant, but at the same time, it felt… foreign. Other than Mokuba, and perhaps his mother, who else had ever held him like that? And Seto wasn’t exactly known for doling out hugs on a regular basis anyhow.

Feeling Noa fidget under him, Seto eventually had to ask, "Does this bother you?"

"Not really. I just wasn’t expecting it." Noa answered truthfully as he began lightly rubbing Seto’s forearm. But... he was getting used to it. There was something comforting about being held like that, and holding in return.

Seto smiled slightly. "Then stop fidgeting," he ordered, before closing his eyes and curling up a little more tightly against Noa’s hip.

The young billionaire was just full of surprises. Noa boggled at him. "You’re going to sleep? Like this?"

"Why not… You’re my brother," Seto sluggishly explained with a touch of irritation, as if Noa had just asked the most obvious question in the world. "’N ‘m tired."

Noa couldn’t help but grin. Seto was right. But he didn’t need to tell him that, and Seto wasn’t looking for a verbal reply anyhow. So instead, the teen wrapped his right arm around his brother’s shoulders, half cradling him, letting his embrace serve as the response that Seto had been waiting for.

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Author’s Notes:

June 13, 2008