Shadow: Third 'shot in now what's become part of my Dragons universe. Follows on chronologically from Data Recovery and Random Access, overlapping with the latter.
Notes: Shonen-ai (boy x boy) – Chibishipping, Yugi x Mokuba – and two het pairings. Don't like, don't read.
This is post-canon, a few years in the future.
One of the greatest benefits about virtual reality was just how quiet it could be at times. Kaiba Noa, technically dead for a good few years both physically and legally, could find solace in the silence inside a machine, sliding streams of data through insubstantial fingers as he moved to the furthest corner of the wide array of the KaibaCorp systems. Nothing could touch him there, his computerised mind protected from maladies both technological and bodily as he whiled away the hours when the rest of Japan lay sleeping.
One of the greatest downsides to virtual reality was just how quiet it could be at times. Virtual reality, in Kaiba's systems anyway, reflected the whims of the inhabitants, and when one was feeling particularly morose and so very non-whimsy, the surroundings remained quiet, dull, when perhaps a spark of life would've done wonders for the ill-temperament of those within.
It was two o' clock in the morning according to JST, the KaibaCorp headquarters at the heart of Domino City cold and empty. The only movement came from the lonely flickerings of the Blue Eyes White Dragon holographs in the foyer, and the occasional security guard on his rounds. The system there was quiet.
It was two o' clock in the morning according to JST; Rebecca Hawkins curled up fast asleep in her bed at home, tired out after a long day at work. Her laptop was recharging, the wireless system inaccessible for the time being. Not that Noa would disturb the girl when she was sleeping anyway.
It was two o' clock in the morning according to JST, and there was a sole user interfacing with the system in the Kaiba manor, the two mainframes carefully entwined so that they ran independent of each other, and yet information could be passed along the data streams freely – well, as freely as dense layerings of passwords, firewalls and security traps would allow, anyway.
Kaiba Seto, and ah, still how odd it felt for Noa to be calling the other that name, even within the depths of his own 'mind', is an extraordinarily paranoid person. Though, judging by the amount of hostile takeover bids KaibaCorp had faced – Maybe with good reason.
"You haven't been sleeping much." Noa's voice echoed oddly from the depths of the computer, speaking out from the screen to a familiar pair of cold blue eyes.
"You've noticed." Kaiba's answering smile was mirthless, the brunet refusing to be fazed by the sudden appearance of his adoptive brother's form on the many screens in what Mokuba laughingly dubbed his 'lair'. "Been keeping tabs on me?"
"I don't sleep." Noa shortly replied. "I have little to do in the dark hours but notice those who join me."
Kaiba's lips curled back on instinct, canines gleaming in the computer's white-blue glare. Sharp, hostility rolled off of him in thundering waves. "I'm not here to keep you company."
"I never presumed to think otherwise."
It was over half a year since Rebecca had reintegrated Noa's mind in the KaibaCorp system, over half a year since Kaiba Noa had mentally become a recognisable person once more. He'd made his peace with his youngest adopted brother, Mokuba, but Kaiba Seto was still unapproachable.
The man bears an impressive grudge.
"Leave." No trace of compassion touched Kaiba's expression, his voice steely. A chill ran down Noa's spine at the tone – ridiculous as, as he was, he didn't feel the cold.
"Afraid I'll see something?" Noa didn't know why he pushed; perhaps it was innate, lashing out at the one who was, effectively, infringing on what was supposed to be his territory. Perhaps it was instinctual, a soul trying vainly to clutch onto its sanity, its own existence, by clarifying itself by the relationships it formed with others.
Perhaps it was just sheer stupidity and stubbornness, because Kaiba was being rude and an ass, and Noa just felt like it.
A lightning bolt almost, streaking through blue at the green-haired youth's statement, the flash of a stricken nerve – and then it was ice, all ice again, alarm vanished. That didn't matter, however. Noa had a computerised memory. He had 'action replay'.
For the first time since his arrival in that particular section of the network, Noa looked at the data around himself. And frowned, confused, binary shifting when he stretched out to touch it, morphing into the image its creator intended – but not for show. Somehow, Noa had a hard time imagining Kaiba wanting to show others just what he'd been making in the dark hours of the morning –
"Why?" The voice of the dead boy was quiet, his eyes clear and focused as he looked at his foster sibling once more, ignoring the grim line of the brunet's mouth.
Kaiba didn't bother with excuses. "I told you to leave."
"Why?" Noa wasn't querying the command, only repeating his question of before. "Why are you making…?" Words failed him for a moment – a wonder, considering the endless resource of the technological world he had to draw upon. "…Isn't it a little odd to be making a computerised image of your little brother's lover?"
There was a heavy pause, a pregnant pressure too weighty for that unearthly hour of the day. Then, Kaiba smirked.
"It's not Mouto."
"Then who is it?" His companion demanded. The figure made of numbers before him looked exactly like Mouto Yugi, only slightly younger, an echo of the days of Battle City and the duel Noa remembered fighting against him.
"It's not the Mouto you know." Kaiba amended his earlier declaration slightly. "At least, not the Mouto you profess to know."
"How many Moutos are there?" Noa was, much to his own chagrin, confused by the CEO's words, and so he looked closer at the created form before him, the hollow doll of a memory.
As far as he could see, Kaiba had created the replica of Mouto Yugi, aged seventeen. The same brightly-coloured hair, longer and taller in the male's youth, the penchant for leather encasing a slim form in smooth black. Silver metal at the wrists and throat, the snaking chain leading to the pyramid of gold on the other's chest. Closed lashes long and dark on pale skin, expression neutral without the fire visible in the male's eyes.
Noa looked at Kaiba again, not seeing anything before him that proved he wasn't looking at a copy of a younger Yugi. "How many Moutos are there?"
"Ask Hawkins," said Kaiba, and shut his computers down.
Noa's edge of the world went black.
She was eating tiramisu at her desk when he found her the following day, typing with both her hands as a fork hung from her mouth.
"Rebecca?" He approached her as a holograph, his footsteps and form insubstantial, soundless.
"Hm?" Brown eyes looked up, startled at the sound of another voice, before the nineteen year-old smiled, clearly pleased to see the other. She stopped typing, reaching up to take the fork out of her mouth. "Noa!"
"D'you want some cake?" The offer was an impulsive one, Rebecca snatching up her plate and offering it sincerely, as bright as usual. "It's tiramisu; it has coffee in it and keeps me perky -"
"I can't eat it." Noa cut off what looked like was going to be a fairly lengthy babble on the joys of Italian cake and coffee, his smile vaguely wistful.
"Oh." Rebecca faltered, drawing the plate back to her chest. Noa quietly hoped she didn't pull it back too far, and get cake on her white blouse. "Sorry. I forgot, I -"
"It is alright." He went to stand at her side, peering at the strings of code she had on her screen. It was a social gesture more than anything else; Noa only had to think of the screen and he'd see it, being integrated into the system as he was. "How goes the SolidVision?"
"The skin of the larger monsters still has a tendency to go transparent at times," Rebecca clicked her tongue in thought, setting down her dessert. "And by larger, I mean anything bigger than a Kuriboh."
"Most of the monsters, then."
The SolidVision system was KaibaCorp's latest innovation, a system by which the various holographs already in production by the corporation could literally be turned solid when in range of a specialised projector. SolidVision was the basis for the new attraction at Kaibaland, a new game, designed chiefly by Mouto Yugi, the universe in which the monsters would move and react. It was a pain to move data between the systems, changing code and script, but when it worked –
"The launch is just over a week away." Rebecca looked vaguely despairing.
"It'll be ready in time." Noa's tone was soothing. "Both Kaiba and Yugi are working on this with you."
"Yugi can't code to save his life." His companion pulled a face. "And he's never in KaibaCorp half the time. Stupid freelancer…"
"You don't have to stay in the building either," Noa gently pointed out.
"But this is the easiest place to see you." The statement was an absent one, Rebecca already returning to her work.
Noa was touched. He smiled, instinctively reaching out a hand to touch the girl's shoulder, only for the limb to pass straight through. Alive, but not alive. They could only touch in VR – he'd forgotten.
"I'll leave you to your work." He took a step back, disintegrating back into the main system. Rebecca raised a hand, acknowledging his words, already busy once more.
It was good to see Rebecca having fun, even if she was basically terrorising the poor soul she was dragging around the basement levels of the KaibaCorp HQ. Noa watched, silently, from the system as his crush/sort-of girlfriend pulled Mazaki Anzu around by the wrist, the brunette being shown all the latest holograms, simulators and software KaibaCorp had to display. Tapping into the CCTV network and reception register Noa had the exact time Mazaki had been signed into the corporation as a guest, escorted by one Mouto Yugi. She was probably back in Japan for the SolidVision launch; Yugi had to have invited her.
Mouto himself showed up in the programming department around four o' clock, a tray with three cups of coffee on it hastily shoved in Rebecca's direction. The girl took it with thanks and then proceeded to scold the designer for a good fifteen minutes; Noa watching in amusement as the older employee all but cringed before Rebecca's well-merited wrath.
Anzu explored the holographs Rebecca had switched on whilst Yugi was being lectured, the dancer moving easily through the monsters. She looked fascinated; although clearly not extraordinarily knowledgeable about the inner workings of the system she was obviously in awe of its beauty all the same. Noa took shape as a holograph for a little while, following the visitor around. When she glanced in his direction he made sure to move out of sight – history was a hard thing to overcome, and Noa didn't really want someone else running about the planet holding a massive grudge against him. (People always seemed to think better of the – completely – dead, anyway.)
"Rebecca," he came to her in the dark of the night again, voice distorted and strange as he spoke out from her laptop's speakers. Rebecca didn't have projectors set up in her house; this was the only way they could talk when she left KaibaCorp.
"Noa," again, Rebecca looked happy to see him, beaming at the face that had appeared alongside her work on-screen. Then, she frowned, seeing something in his expression. "Is something wrong?" She stretched out a hand, fingers brushing the outline of his cheek. "What's troubling you?"
Noa wished he could actually feel her touch. "…Tell me about Yugi."
His companion looked taken-aback. "What?" The crush she'd carried for the petit duelist was common knowledge, but she thought that it really was water under the bridge – "What about Yugi?"
"Aside from his grandfather," Noa elaborated, "he is the only Mouto in Domino City, isn't he?"
"And always has been, during the time you've known him?"
There was a pause. "Sort of." Noa looked at Rebecca expectantly, and she went on, somewhat tentative. "No-one ever told you about the Spirit?"
"Ohhhh, God." Rebecca sighed. "This is going to be a strange conversation."
Noa smiled, somewhat tired. "I'm sure I'll have heard stranger."
"No," his 'girlfriend' assured him, "you won't."
"I assume you will be familiar with the tale of The Modern Prometheus?" As soon as Rebecca was done with her tale Noa had left her to go to the Kaiba manor, unsurprised to see his eldest adoptive brother back at work in his lair again.
Kaiba, it seemed, was just as unsurprised to see him again as well. "Known more commonly by the name Frankenstein, it was first published anonymously in London in 1818. The author's name, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, appeared on the second edition, published in 1831." The CEO laughed, the sound cold, having caught the other's reference. "Comparing me to a grave-robber and body-snatcher now?"
Although Noa was the one with the computerised form, it was difficult sometimes to tell which of the two brothers was actually the most machine.
Eyes nigh the same shade of blue met and matched.
"Come into VR," Noa asked.
"So you can lay hands on me?" Kaiba snorted. "I think not."
"No," his computerised companion corrected, "so that you can see better what it is that you've made."
There was a long pause, but Kaiba went to fetch a VR helmet, hooking the hardware up to his system and placing it over his skull. A few seconds later, and a shift in position in the system for Noa, and the two men were looking at one another, face-to-face, the created doll of the one Noa now knew to be 'Yami' between them.
Noa gestured to the shell. "Why did you make it?"
Kaiba took a step closer to the husk, pose defensive, possessive. "That's none of your business."
"Was he that important to you?"
"I said that's none of your business!"
Noa looked aside. "He's dead."
Kaiba's jaw clenched. "So are you."
There was a long silence. Kaiba was glaring; Noa refused to meet the other's eyes. Something inside the green-haired male…hurt, his own warped existence flung like a slap in his face. He was dead, true, but…
"It's not the same." His denial of Kaiba's words was quiet, but firm. "Part of me is still here." He looked up, a little braver. "Part of me is still the 'me' I was when I was alive. There's nothing left of the Other Yugi but memories."
Kaiba approached the doll, his face carved from stone as he touched the shoulder of the guise of his rival. He didn't speak.
"Have you made a mind for it?" Noa refused to give the doll a name, a gender. It hadn't been a person. You couldn't just create a human like that, because if you could then he – he might not be –
Kaiba was silent.
"You have, haven't you?" The accusation hung heavily in the illusion of space. "…Don't attempt to place it within that frame." Noa couldn't bear the thought. "It won't work; you'll only create a hollow image, a toy." It would be easier to let the past stay as it was.
Kaiba finally spoke. "I'm not going to give it a mind…" The doll wasn't 'Yami' to the brunet either? "A.I is given its name for a reason – it isn't real. I'm a genius, but I can't give life." Kaiba Seto was human, and humans could only kill.
Noa looked aside once more, still hurting, still raw. To be human… "Finding one has limits is never a delightful experience."
Noa fidgeted. "I hope you realise this is cheating. You're not supposed to use the new system until it's officially launched. At the launch."
Rebecca shushed him, fiddling with the silver net that was holding up her hair. "This is the launch."
"No," her companion corrected, "this is the launch party. The launch isn't until Kaiba stands at the front and does a dramatic speech."
Rebecca smiled despite herself. "It sounds odd to hear you call him that, especially since you share the same name."
"It's more his name than mine now." Noa shrunk back into the shadows of the pillar he was standing beside with the programmer as a party guest went by, still a little antsy about being in public even though he was technically 'in disguise'. "He paid for it."
"Hm." Rebecca didn't query the statement, twisting her head slightly so it came into Noa's view. "Does this look alright?"
Noa stretched a hand, and actually touched the net, felt softness beneath his fingertips. The SolidVision system, perfectly at work. "You look wonderful."
Rebecca smiled at him; warm, happy, and Noa found himself smiling back.
They were at the launch party at Kaibaland, at the far edge of the room from the entrance and pretty much hiding from the majority of the crowds. Noa's hair, for the evening, was blond, his grand 'disguise'. It felt strange when he caught sight of his fringe out of the corner of his eyes, and he'd wanted to go for brown originally, but Rebecca had vehemently forbidden it. Something about looking too much like a certain brunet jackass.
As the evening progressed the crowds grew thicker, until eventually everyone had arrived. Rebecca snagged two glasses of wine from a passing waiter, handing one to Noa (for appearances sake) and finishing the other herself. (Noa discreetly poured his into the nearest available plant-pot.)
The time of the launch finally came. As Noa had predicted Kaiba took to the stage, Mokuba carefully in position at his brother's side. It was strange, to see two so similar and different at the same time, and yet, with those two, it just…worked.
There was a smattering of applause when the Celtic Guardian appeared as a third figure on-stage, applause growing louder (with an outbreak of gasps) when Kaiba placed his hand on the monster's arm, and it stayed there. Yes, Solid meant solid. (Noa, currently crafted of the system, failed to be impressed.)
Kaiba was smug.
Of course, there were questions.
"What about attacks?" There were paparazzi at the party, and they wanted information. "With a solid monster behind them, won't the attacks bring serious harm to players?"
Assurances as to the safety of the system. Noa tuned them out, focused on the woman beside him.
Rebecca was watching Kaiba raptly, sharply, drinking in the suggested criticisms and smiling when every one of them was knocked down.
And then the crowds asked for a demonstration. Even though it was expected, Rebecca drew in a sharp breath, and never had Noa been more grateful for being substantial than when she grabbed at his arm, holding it tightly.
Anzu stepped forward, offering herself as the sacrificial lamb for the demonstration, choosing a magical attack over a physical one. A Dark Magician appeared beside the Celtic Guardian, and everyone saw Anzu take a deep, steadying breath.
The Black Magic attack washed over the brunette like it would in a ordinary duel, shock waves blowing back the dancer's hair. She was unscathed though, uninjured, smiling around at the expectant crowds. Rebecca breathed again, and Noa gently patted her arm. SolidVision was a success.
Anzu and Kaiba had their eyes locked, in the middle of the crowded room.
Noa flickered once, twice, three times as Rebecca fiddled with the wiring inside the projector, the blonde uttering curses under her breath as it stubbornly evaded her dominion.
"Having fun there, Rebecca?" Yugi looked up at the girl on the step-ladders, his expression amused. (Noa was suddenly thankful Rebecca had chosen to wear trousers that day.)
"It's fine…" Another jab to the projector, a ripple effect going through Noa's appearance in time with the poke.
"Do you want a hand?"
"Don't help," the comment came from Mokuba, the dark-haired youth breezing through the living room where they were all gathered, heading for the kitchen. "You'd probably fry yourself on the electronics."
Yugi pulled a face. "Thank you for the confidence-booster, Mokuba. It's so wonderful to know I'll always have someone I can depend upon."
Mokuba stuck his head out of the kitchen, grinning. "If you wish to be the one explaining to aniki why there are bits of burnt Yugi on his expensive carpet, by all means, be my guest."
They were in the Kaiba manor, Rebecca having come over to switch the old projectors to the new SolidVision one, Yugi coming in at Mokuba's invitation. It was quite the party – Mokuba, taking a break from work and supplying the others with what he raided from the cupboards, Yugi aiding him and cheerily discussing whatever chanced into his head, Rebecca lurking about the ceiling arguing with technology (this was the last one), and Noa just generally floating around.
"There." Rebecca gave the projector one last smack, Noa distorting wildly at the jolt for a second, before the girl closed the casing she'd been meddling about with, and coming back down the ladders. "SolidVision all up and working!"
"Thanks, Rebecca-chan." Mokuba returned from the kitchen, depositing a mug of tea in Yugi's hands, and offering a mug of coffee to the girl. He then draped himself behind Yugi's back, wrapping his arms around the designer's waist. "I could've called in technicians to get it done, but nii-sama's still pretty picky about people poking around on his property, and he's far too busy to do the job himself."
Rebecca smiled and nodded, taking a sip from her cup. She looked to Yugi. "Where's Anzu today? She hasn't gone back to the US yet, has she?"
Yugi shook his head. "She said she wanted some alone time to wander around Domino, as she didn't want to cling on to me all the time she was here. Said she might go meet up with Ryou or Honda-kun."
"Don't s'ppose she thought it would be fun playing fifth wheel…"
"She doesn't know I'm around," Noa pointed out quietly.
"…Ah." There was a delicate, slightly awkward pause.
"…Let's go stick a movie on!" Mokuba's suggestion was bright, slicing through the uncomfortable silence. He pulled at Yugi's arm, not really leaving time for a response, pulling the other towards the large sofa in the room. "Let's see…action? Horror?"
"Anything but a romcom." Yugi's laughter was gentle, pleasing, the man consenting to being led along, to bow his head beside his lover as the two scrabbled through stacks of DVDs.
Noa watched them, how they always touched, smiled, kissed, held hands… He glanced to Rebecca beside him, the girl raising her eyebrows over her coffee.
"Hm?" She was too good at reading his expression.
"Don't you…" Noa fumbled for words, waving – subtly – in the direction of Yugi and Mokuba, "want something like what they've got?"
Rebecca's expression was quizzical, but she seemed to understand what her companion meant. "I already have." She reached out, touching his arm. "I knew what I was getting myself into when I chose you, all the way back in March."
He looked down at her fingers, the digits encountering a solid and staying still. A solid, not a person. He was just a machine pretending to be human in the way Kaiba Seto often seemed to be a human pretending to be a machine.
"Am I real?" He asked her.
"You are human," Rebecca replied.
They went over to join Mokuba and Yugi in picking a film.
Somehow, it didn't surprise Noa that Kaiba hadn't returned to the coding in his lair, to that part of the system where the doll dwelled. It was eerie to look at, up close, a creation without life, not dead – as it had never been born -, but empty, cold. Ridiculous as the notion was Noa couldn't quite quell the thought that the shell would suddenly snap open its eyes and look up at him. There was just so much…so much stuff attached to this forgotten memory, time, effort and emotion poured into the doll, into every hair on its head, every lash on its eyes.
It didn't seem quite fair, that something that was denied Noa, Kaiba's stubbornness wilfully denied himself. Was it so very wrong to be human? If only they could swap places…Noa would appreciate the life Kaiba hid from. Being human was feeling, surely. Feeling everything, every emotion, no matter how painful. Feeling it openly, and not hiding away pain in dark shadowy places of the labyrinthine KaibaCorp systems.
Noa wandered the Kaiba manor's hallways in the darkness, taking advantage of the new projectors. He could be as solid as he chose to be, interacting with the system to appear as a person, or transparent, as a ghost. He really didn't expect to bump into Kaiba himself, least of all Kaiba with company.
It was Mazaki Anzu, he deduced after a few seconds, making sure to keep himself out of sight. Mazaki Anzu and Kaiba Seto, together, kissing of all things, bodies tight and grips firm on each other. They fit together, but like awkward pieces of a puzzle, an impatient child slamming them together in frustration, uncaring of the mismatch.
Noa had no idea what exactly had led to that moment, and didn't really care. Didn't want to care or see or hear, and have yet again his own inability punch him in the gut. Didn't want to note the way a couple reacted to touch, to pure physical sensation, take stock of all the things a holograph – even a solid one – couldn't do.
As silently as he had come Noa fled, disintegrating to brood in the quiet of the system. He didn't want to think.
He was in the kitchen when Anzu walked in the following morning, turning blue eyes to her just in time to hear her let out a half-shriek, stumbling back.
"Good morning." Noa nodded cordially as the woman clutched at her heart, the brunette's own eyes wide and shocked and – "It's far too early in the day to even postulate thinking about either murdering you or stealing your body, so would you please stop looking at me like I'm suddenly going to whip out a knife and attack you with it?"
"But – but -" Anzu floundered, before closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. When she reopened them, her usual steel had appeared once more. "Why are you here?"
"Because it's the liveliest place in the mornings," Noa replied quite honestly, "and Rebecca shuts down her laptop about this time in case I'd try visiting her when she's getting dressed."
"Rebecca is the one that created the software that drew together the various scattered parts of my mind." Noa took a seat at the kitchen table, Anzu – slowly – following suit. "Yugi knows about my existence, as he walked in whilst Rebecca was modifying my coding one day, as do my adoptive brothers."
Anzu hesitantly reached out to touch his arm, cautious. "SolidVision?"
Noa nodded. "Projectors are installed throughout the house."
"…Kaiba really is a genius, isn't he?"
"It took sleeping with him to work that out?" Anzu flared pink, the colour streaking along her cheekbones. "He was adopted for his intelligence."
"I…saw a little of his past in your Virtual World. It didn't look like it was a very happy one."
A new voice broke into their discussion, a low drawl from the doorway. "…Rather early in the day to be having heart-to-heart chats, don't you think?"
The two at the table glanced up a little guiltily, both a little unsurprised to see Kaiba just entering the room. He just really. Couldn't. Be. Entirely. Human.
"Good morning." Noa repeated his earlier greeting; voice more clipped than it had been when he'd greeted Anzu. "I'll be going now."
"Please, don't leave on my behalf." There was little sincerity to be found in Kaiba's words, the man leaning back against the kitchen bench and eyeing the holograph with perfect contempt. The percolator that he'd just switched on hissed behind him, a waking monster.
Noa glanced to Anzu and saw the girl shiver, eyes tracing Kaiba's somewhat tousled form. Looking at him, but past him too, seeing something not everyone saw. Sexuality was a powerful thing, stirring primal bodily instincts quite involuntarily –
Something I, Noa absently noted, am currently lacking. He felt feelings, but not true sensation, attraction, but not lust. Even with the SolidVision system there was nothing truly physical about him.
What made one human, exactly? Human, and not another animal? Human, and not a cleverly constructed computer program? The ability to mate and produce offspring also capable of reproduction was the trait that defined one species from another; reproduction was one way of telling whether something was alive.
Noa couldn't currently reproduce, so he was technically dead. Technically, physically…
Kaiba's lip curled, and piercing eyes glanced aside. Noa had been dismissed. The theory of sex being a relaxant flew merrily out the window, dropped to the same death sibling bonding between the two brothers had suffered.
So Noa wasn't human. Technically. Despite what certain others said. Fine. He could accept his lack of humanity. He could live with it, so to speak. At least he did a better impersonation of being human and alive than Kaiba did.
Noa left, and went to sit in virtual reality. Life was too complicated; numbers weren't.