Disclaimer: Not mine.

A/N: I would never have written this were it not for poking about in the Shipper's List on WikiFic, though it turned out to be a lot less pairing-oriented than I originally intended. Why do I find romance so difficult in YGO fic? Why, damn it? Title comes from an episode of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. Oh, and the 'inexplicable love' comment comes from Eagle in Magic Knight Rayearth 2.

Feedback: Greatly appreciated. No, really. This is the first time I've ever tried to write either of these characters. Reader comments land very much in the valued category.


Conversations With Dead People

© Scribbler, June 2006.


Noa had already died once, but he couldn't remember anything like this before.

He had a sense that the world was suddenly a lot smaller than he'd grown used to in his virtual prison; as though he'd been shoved into a box, knees pushed up against his ears and back cramped over. Then, just as suddenly, everything expanded again, and the world felt far, far larger than anything he'd ever felt before. Even the neural connectors, which had allowed him god-like control over his surroundings, were like the buttons on a videogame console in comparison. He could taste the raw possibilities in the air.

They tasted a little like stale crackers.

He used to sneak crackers from the cupboards downstairs when Subaru, the housekeeper, wasn't looking, and smuggle them into his bedroom along with the few dog-eared manga father hadn't confiscated. This was a memory he hadn't accessed for a long time, and it was so unexpected that for a few seconds he was shocked into a mindset lower than a word processor.

Someone approached, white clothes on white background. It jolted Noa back into the present. Reflexively, he wanted to look down and check what he was standing on, perhaps access a sub-routine and add some shadow to give extra realism so he wasn't just floating on nothingness … until he remembered. Oh yeah. No more sub-routines. No more virtual world. No more him. So he kept his gaze trained on the figure, which quickly coalesced into a tall girl with long hair and skin the colour of milk taken straight from the fridge.

He used to like drinking milk. Father said it was common, but permitted it so his son would grow up with strong bones – a strong back, he said, would be better to one day support Kaiba Corp. …

The tall girl stopped, hands linked demurely in front of her.

"Who're you?" Noa asked, suspicion etching his tone. He didn't recognise her. He felt almost naked with no files to check, no profiles to run through. Was this how it used to be, before the virtual world – this constant sense of helplessness, of not knowing? Was that what every other human endured every day of their pathetic little lives?

It almost made him glad he hadn't looked both ways while crossing the street.

"I came to meet you," the girl said, replying but not answering his question. She smiled a little. There was a small but profound sadness to that smile, but also a great deal of joy. It was an interesting contrast of expectations for such a tiny twitch of the lips.

"Why?"

"Because you're important."

He'd been told he was important for most of his life – his real life, not the hollow shell he'd been left afterwards. He was valuable. He was the future. People depended on him to get better, to be strong, to grow up and be like his father …

Still, the way she said it made him think she didn't mean the word in the same way everyone else had. She didn't mean 'important' as in 'self-sacrificing', either, even though that was exactly what he'd done in order to get Mokuba and his friends to safety in time. He wasn't sure quite how she meant it, and she didn't look like she was going to tell him, either.

He frowned at her. "Where am I?"

At this, the girl extended a hand. "You're home," she said softly, as though this explained everything; as though this marked the end to their exchange, the close of the curtain, and the moment in which they should walk off into the sunset. It sounded like something in a movie aimed at small children. Noa had never cared for those. Even when he was alive, when he didn't know so much, he'd found them patronising, and felt the same arrogant twinge now.

He took a step backwards, part of him marvelling that could even do so with no floor to stand on. Never mind that he'd done it plenty of times in his virtual world. He'd been in control then. Now he wasn't, and anything you couldn't control was dangerous.

The girl's smile melted a little. A new expression pooled at the corners of her mouth and in her eyes. She dropped her hand. "You don't trust very easily, do you?"

"Why should I? Trust shouldn't be given at the drop of a hat. That's, like, a gold-edged invitation asking people to take advantage of you. I don't even know you."

"You knew your father. You trusted him."

Pain bit at the backs of Noa's eyes. His frown became a scowl. "I don't need reminding. What I need are answers. I'm dead. Bit the big one, rode the last train, gone to the big microchip in the sky – however you want to call it. I get that. What I don't know is … what happens next?" He gestured at the endless blank white landscape. "Is this it? For all eternity? Because if it is, then the hereafter sucks rotten eggs."

The girl cocked her head to one side like an inquisitive puppy. "It is what it is because your heart is still closed."

"And what the hell's that supposed to mean?"

"Your heart." She patted her chest with a loose fist. "It's still closed off."

"Oh, of course." Noa rolled his eyes. "That's why I gave up my chance at happiness and died, because I don't have a heart. I'm a heartless killer of small children and innocents. Oh, wait, that's right. I'm not."

"You do have a heart. You already touched it once," her voice was kind, her tone deceptively gentle, "at the end. You understood what it means to love, then. You understood the cost of it – and the satisfaction." She lowered her gaze. "You can't love someone, not truly, unless you're willing to do anything for them. Foolish things. Things you can't take back."

Something tickled Noa's memory, the merest hint of an emotion he hastily shoved down again. He didn't regret what he'd done, but hindsight brought a certain clarity of mind. His thoughts were ruler-straight lines, bisected at intervals with precise angles that led to other bisections, other straight lines. He was sharp as a computer code and harsher than any nebulous bit of romantic garbage spoken by nebulous romantic females.

"Love makes you weak and stupid, you mean." It came out a sneer, complete with wrinkled nose. He should have been able to grown into that sneer. It would've made entire boardrooms tremble.

"No. Love makes you strong. It gives you courage to do impossible things."

The something strange tickled his memory again, growing more insistent.

"The urge to protect a loved-one can be the most powerful thing in the world. It can move mountains, strike down evil, and even transcend death. That is the power of love. That is what you briefly connected with, when you gave Mokuba back his body and returned to fight an impossible battle with Gozaburo Kaiba. With your father."

Noa shook his head violently, not wanting to accept what she was telling him. He'd spent so long being inhuman he'd half convinced himself he didn't need any emotions other than bitterness, and resentment, and the desire to punish those who'd deposed him from his rightful place by his father's side. Gozaburo Kaiba loved his son, his real son, and he'd realise that just as soon as those two impostors …

No, wait, that was wrong. Wasn't it?

So much had happened. Events smashed together in Noa's head, inextricably tangling themselves as he tried to unravel them and remind himself of exactly what had and hadn't happened back there, in the … well, 'real world' wasn't quite accurate, was it?

"It wasn't his fault," the girl said, as if reading his thoughts. She wasn't talking about Gozaburo Kaiba. Or Mokuba. Or even that freak, Yuugi Mutou, who had a parasitic entity that defied examination living inside him. "You know it wasn't."

Noa screwed his eyes shut. "Shut up. You don't know what you're talking about."

"I know exactly what I'm speaking of. All he ever wanted was a better life for Mokuba. It's what you wanted, too, isn't it?"

"That was different."

"Was it really?" She was staring at him. "You're really quite alike, under the surface."

"Don't say that!" Noa snarled, eyes flying wide. "I'm nothing like that … that pretender."

"You both love Mokuba. You've both done terrible things in the name of family. You're both decent people underneath it all -"

"Shut up, just shut up!"

"Even as a child, he sacrificed a part of himself to make Mokuba happy; you sacrificed yourself to maintain that happiness. You were both deceived by Gozaburo Kaiba -"

"Shut up, or I'll …" Noa flung out a hand to call down fiery retribution, long years of thought to instant action not gelling with the sudden lack of sensor arrays to make it happen.

There was a petrified moment in which this realisation crystallised in the air between them. Even though there was no breeze, coldness swept across Noa's skin. The moment went on for a long time – long enough for him to grasp just what this meant.

He was dead.

Not just sort-of dead, but really dead.

"Striking at me won't make it untrue," the girl murmured.

Noa brought his hand close, cradling it to him. "You're wrong," he said hoarsely.

"You know that I'm not."

"But I spent so long hating him…"

"And now you can stop. Now you can open your heart again. Now you can be happy, instead of bitter and twisted." She held out her hand again. "You've already taken the most difficult step. The rest is easy."

"You're lying."

"What need have I for trickery?" She had that small, sad smile again.

Noa narrowed his eyes. Suspicion; his natural fallback – the natural fallback of a Kaiba. "That depends. Who the hell are you?"

"Someone who did just as you did. I wanted to protect someone so badly I changed my entire world to do it. I died. I gave myself up to keep someone I love safe. And I would do it again. Wouldn't you?"

Noa started to say "No," convinced his bizarre change of heart had been an aberration caused by prolonged exposure to Mokuba's childish, wide-eyed innocence. Mokuba had been through his own share of hardships, and even though he hadn't died from them, he'd somehow stayed pure. Even Noa had seen that plainly, as well as the fierce bond between Mokuba and his brother.

Between Mokuba and Seto

An image of them frozen in stone, arms reaching for each other without ever touching, suddenly filled Noa's mind. Seto's face had been a study in emotion, broken out of its arrogant mould by the danger posed to the person who meant most to him in the entire world. It had been a moment Noa relished, dangling the prospect of one brother in front of the other, and then snatching it away again. He'd waited years to exact his revenge on them. They hadn't caused his accident, but they'd still stolen his life out from under him. They'd made his father leave him, turned him against his only son. They'd made the world forget about him, leaving him alone in his endless, lifeless prison. He'd wanted to make them pay. It wasn't fair, what'd happened to him. He'd had no chance to truly live. They had taken what was rightfully his; his legacy, the legacy of the Kaiba pedigree, and they had ruined it!

Only now when he reached for that familiar, comfortable anger, all he felt was … disgust.

It was so strange that he actually felt like he might throw up, right there in the hereafter – which was doubly bizarre, because it'd been years since he felt that kind of physical reaction to anything. His stomach had been mangled in the accident, his last meals fed through an IV stabbed into the back of his right hand, the left too smashed to find a useable vein. Any echo in the virtual world had been just that – an echo, which was easy to cancel once you'd figured out the right code.

Bringing Mokuba and Seto into his world had forced Noa to confront the charred remains of his relationship with his own father. It had also made him realise that he wanted what they had – more than anything, he wanted to feel that kind of love, and to have it felt for him by another. He'd longed for it since earliest childhood, snuggled under the sheets with battered manga in his hand, but never known that was what drove him, instead convincing himself that all he really wanted was his father's approval..

Gozaburo must have loved him, once, but it was a harder kind of love. He never hugged him. He never demonstrated affection in public, or made time for just the two of them where they could be father and son, not Kaiba and Kaiba. He'd spent more than some people made all their lives to keep Noa alive after the accident, and then to construct the virtual world for him. That kind of devotion counted for something, but Noa didn't delude himself that Gozaburo had been safeguarding Noa-the-boy more than the son part of Kaiba and Son. Gozaburo's love was more akin to pride, like someone especially pleased with a new possession. It wasn't the all-consuming love shared between Seto and Mokuba.Gozaburo loved the Kaiba name, and Noa as a person would always come second to that. If he wanted to register on his father's radar at all, then it had to come from being the best Kaiba he could be.

That was why the introduction of Seto and Mokuba, the two new sons, had shaken him so much. Mokuba was a silly little weakling, not worth his attention, but Seto … Seto was a Kaiba, in deed if not in blood. He operated in the same way Gozaburo did – the same way Noa had, before his life was stolen by a cruel quirk of fate. Seto was dangerous, not only because he could out-think practically anyone he met, and was ruthless in the extreme, but because despite all that he was capable of the kind of love that undermined everything the Kaiba name stood for. He was a Kaiba, but he also wasn't. He wasn't bound by the same rules as Noa and Gozaburo - the rules that had cut them off from each other, made them isolated and miserable, even with their power and money. Silly, weakling Mokuba grounded his brother, making him human under the eternally steamrollering, Kaiba-flavoured machinery. It was no wonder Seto fought so hard and so viciously to protect Mokuba. Without Mokuba, he was just another Kaiba – just another cog in the austere, unfeeling machine.

They completed each other. Seto was the brains, but Mokuba was the heart.

And for one brief, shining moment … Noa had felt for himself what that kind of love was like.

"Yes," he said throatily, and found to his surprise that he meant it. Even for Seto. Even for that bastard. "Yes, I'd do it again."

The tall girl's smile widened to reach her eyes. She had very blue eyes, the colour of seawater on a clear day.

"I don't understand," Noa snapped desperately. His mind felt like a house with different music playing in each room. He was standing there, talking to her, saying one thing but thinking of many other, different things. Random thoughts and images floated to him out of the ether, sticking to his brain and demanding his attention. He tried to brush them off, but they clung like seeds putting down roots, clogging previously unambiguous reasoning with bits of … of romantic stupidity!

"Love is inexplicable. I believe that if you can explain it, then it isn't really love."

Inexplicable …

He'd never really understood Seto. He'd only had room to hate and resent him.

He couldn't understand how Mokuba was still so innocent after losing everything over and over again.

He understood his father, Gozaburo, totally.

He understood what it was to be a Kaiba.

"Would you like to go home now?" the girl asked.

"I …" Noa thought about what he'd left behind: all the pain, all the suffering, and a young boy with bottomless eyes who couldn't (wouldn't!) accept that he, Noa, was a heartless ghost that should've passed on years ago. "I think I would, now." He took her hand. Her palm was cool, her grip surprisingly strong. "Where's home?"

"Beyond the horizon. Deeper than the oceans. Inside your own heart."

Noa squinted. "You're far too melodramatic." He fell into step beside her, though. Walking seemed a respectable way to get where they were going. "But you still haven't told me who you are."

She nodded, peering into the distance as though looking for someone just out of sight. "My name is Kisara."


FINIS.


A/N: Did you know Kisara/Noa is called Clovershipping? I wonder why. Neither of them seemsIrish, nor especially lucky.