This fic takes place after the Virtual World arc, specifically after episode 121, and diverges from canon there.
Warnings: language, child abuse, dark themes.
Counterfeit of Blood
The man wearing Kaiba Seto's skin stood naked before a full mirror and assessed his reflection. He gave due interest to each body part, each pale skinned plane of flesh, each smooth groove of bone and cartilage, and judged each in distasteful turn. He ran experimental fingers over the hip and rib bones, disappointedly noting their prominent slopes and grey, wasted shadows. He looked instead to the lean muscles, the cold, handsome face – these he found satisfactory.
His attention turned to the scars, only vaguely more faded than they had been when he had last seen them. The rough, haphazard lashings on his back – these he gave a cursory glance, but he lingered with memory and affection over the deep, delicate marks that decorated the arms. Each with a story to tell, each a new lesson learned, placed so that Seto would see them every morning when dressing and be forced to revisit those lessons. Here, this one – thick, ugly, red – teaches you the value of restraint: do not talk back. And this, the pepper of infinite needle pricks, these tell you about obedience and submission. Your body is a classroom; it always will be.
If he had better learnt his lessons, perhaps his body would still be his own. Seto was long gone, now, of course. Every inch of his skull scrubbed clean – metaphorically speaking – and filled anew with someone stronger, someone better, someone who had refused to lose to the boy a third time.
Which made the victory just a little bitter, didn't it? When the father triumphs over the son, that victory always carries with it the knowledge that you've failed to teach them how to be better.
"Ever the disappointment, Seto," the man told his reflection.
The man laughed a laugh that he found pleasantly similar to his own.
It will have to do.
The three lilies floated on the skin of the ocean for some time before dipping under. Mokuba watched them from plane window for a little while, tracing their uneven path across the low waves. It was so strange to think that he had found and lost a brother in the last few, short hours, and stranger still to think that that brother had wanted to have them all killed. Yet he felt no resentment. Noa was just a lost thing, much like they had been. Perhaps Seto would have done the same, had he been in Noa's position.
Seto hadn't said a word about Noa since they had returned, but that was his way. Sometimes it was so difficult even for Mokuba to tell when his brother truly didn't care about something, and when he was only pretending not to. In fact, he hadn't said a word since they had escaped the Virtual World, not about Noa and not about anything – or anyone – else. Perhaps he was grieving. But for whom?
The lilies shrank into small, distant, delicate spots of white, the green blending away into the grey waves. He tried to keep them fixed in his view, but he soon lost the white flecks of the petals among those of the foam.
Well, grief was a private business, and not his to intrude upon. Mokuba forced himself to look away from the view of the ocean below, feeling a rare vertigo start to creep around him. Seto dealt with emotions practically. Mokuba tried to, for his brother's sake, but funerals were one of the things he still needed. Death rituals. Seto would have everybody cremated the moment their time of death was declared if he could. "Don't dwell on the past," he would say. Mokuba had not yet tried to explain that funerals were supposed to be a way of moving on from the past.
He made a slow, winding path towards the cockpit, trying to walk off his own thoughts, though his legs felt oddly heavy. Once he stepped through the door he cast his eyes about for Seto, expecting to see him stood among the pilots and working to set the plane back on its course to Alcatraz. He was instead greeted by Isono, standing at the console but bent at the waist so he could frantically enter commands into the computer before him. Flanking him, the two pilots seemed equally engaged in rapidly and clumsily flicking switches and pressing buttons on the panel before them. Not one of the men noticed his entrance.
"Mitsuaki, contact the mainland in case we need to refuel," Isono snapped at the pilot on his right, one-handedly typing something into a laptop. Mitsuaki began to protest, but several angrily flashing lights distracted his attention and he redirected his operations to another part of the panel.
Mokuba walked up slowly behind them, confused and mildly unsettled.
"What are you doing? We're going to go completely off course."
Isono turned quickly around, startled. "Master Seto's orders, sir," he said, looking away again, his attention entirely taken up by the insistent, flickering buttons laid out before him. Mokuba watched his fingers fly over the keys for a moment, too perplexed to react immediately. He watched the little map reorient itself, seeing the little avatar of their plane turn itself around and fly back the way it had come.
"Isono, what is this? We still have the finals at Alcatraz."
"I don't fully understand myself, sir," Isono said, hitting switches at an incredible pace and taking them further and further away from their planned destination. "He just said that it was cancelled."
"What-? Cancelled?" Mokuba fell speechless. He stared at the map and the tiny plane, moving in a gradual line away from the grey circle that represented the long metal spine and smooth, canine spires that made up Alcatraz. "But... Isono, he's been planning this for months! It's Battle City. The Battle City!" He stared, eyes wide and brows tightly drawn together. "He built the duel tower, he had this blimp commissioned, he's spent months organising-"
"I know, Mokuba," Isono interrupted him, dropping the formalities. Mokuba might have been offended if the man didn't look as confused as he did. Confusion, painted over with the faintest layer of fear. Yes, Seto could be impulsive, but he didn't throw away months of work for no reason. "I don't know what's going on either. It's not my place, but you might have better luck trying to talk to him. I don't think there's much I can do."
Mokuba was already moving towards the door. They only had a certain amount of fuel and thus a rather tight amount of time to waste flying back and forth across the ocean. "Where is he? Our room?"
"I assume so," Isono called after him, but Mokuba was already gone, breaking into a run down the metal corridors and skidding as he turned. Something distant and inexplicable deep within him twitched with dread, uncurling itself, whispering danger, danger through his insides as he ran, dizzy with perturbation, through the skeleton of the jet, all that remained of the burnt and obliterated blimp.
Mokuba knocked on his brother's door four times with no answer before running his keycard through the scanner. He usually wouldn't have wanted to risk disturbing his brother's work this way, by forcing him to leave his desk and answer the door, but something was off. A thin but distinct layer of unease lay over everything, like snow, or ash, and everything in his being whispered, tread carefully.
To his relief, Mokuba found his brother seated at his desk, the many computer screens humming blue around him and casting odd, unhealthy shadows across his face. He turned quickly when Mokuba entered, and Mokuba's smile immediately slipped from his face.
"Mokuba? How did you get in?"
Mokuba hesitantly held up his keycard. "The usual way."
"I see," Seto replied, eyeing the card with a strange, unpleasant expression. He gave a small shrug and then turned back to the screens, typing in an odd, slightly jerky fashion. Mokuba watched his fingers stumble slightly over the keys, fingers which would usually flow at speeds envied by even the most proficient of typists.
"Is something wrong, nii-sama?"
He didn't turn around. "No."
"Isono was worried," Mokuba said carefully, coming to stand beside his brother's chair. Seto still didn't so much as glance up at him.
"I don't see how his employer's emotional state is of any concern to him." An odd frown crossed Seto's face and he leaned back in his chair, staring hard at the screen before him. "Perhaps I should replace him."
Mokuba made a strangled, shocked sound. "Nii-sama, he was just concerned. Besides, it's Isono."
"He's only an employee, Mokuba," Seto said lightly, returning to his typing as if they were discussing the weather. "We can always get more."
"I guess," Mokuba said unsteadily, eyes drifting over what his brother was working on. He was even more unsettled when he realised that the page Seto had up was nothing related to Battle City at all. Instead, search results for Kaiba Corporation across several financial newspapers plastered the screens. Not recent entries, either; some were several years old. Mokuba dragged his eyes away and tried to hold onto the thread of conversation. "But Isono's been in the family for years. I thought you liked him."
"Ah." For a moment Seto seemed lost in thought, then he finally looked up at his brother with an expression that had been cut through with a sharp, almost pained cheeriness. "Well, perhaps I do. We'll keep him around, then." He turned once again to the computers, again acting as though his little brother wasn't even in the same room, let alone standing frightened an unsure at his shoulder.
Mokuba hovered behind him, the uncertainty swelling through him. He stared at the old electronic scans of Kaiba Corp.'s public announcements, their shift from weaponry to gaming, the expected drop and then unexpected, dramatic rise in profits, the photographs of his brother giving his first lone addresses to the press.
"Nii-sama, what are you doing?"
"I'm just refreshing my memory."
"I mean... Nii-sama, Isono said you'd cancelled Battle City. That's not true, right?" When he got no immediate answer Mokuba grabbed the free chair and pulled it close to his brother, sitting in it and trying to force Seto to look at him, without success. "What's going on? Are you okay? They're charting a course back to the mainland. Shouldn't I go tell them to fly back to Alcatraz?"
"That won't be necessary, Mokuba. We're already on course."
"To the mainland."
"But what about the tournament?" Mokuba could hear the embarrassing, broken pitch in his voice. The confusion was boiling within him, clouds of fear steaming off it.
"The tournament is a waste of time. Now, if you don't mind, Mokuba, I'm extremely busy."
"A waste of-?" Without even thinking not to, Mokuba slammed his fists down upon the table. He almost fell backwards at the look in his brother's eyes. Black disgust, hatred, a gaze that hadn't met his own in a very long time. "Nii-sama," he said, stumbling over the syllables. "I just... You spent so long planning this, and-"
"I already told you," Seto cut in, his voice a single serrated shard. "I'm busy."
In one single smooth, violent movement, Seto stood, grabbed Mokuba's arm, and pulled him from the chair. Mokuba would have fallen if his brother hadn't held him easily aloft in the tight vice of his fingers, dragging him across the room in the wake of his uncompromising strides. Mokuba did nothing to protest. He was roughly, insistently escorted him to the door, which Seto opened, and then shoved him through. Mokuba barely had time to turn and look him in the eye.
"Go play in your own room."
And, with that, the door slid shut in Mokuba's face. He stood staring at the featureless plane of metal for some long, stunned moments.
"...but this is my room."
The next several days were spent in the air. Mokuba lost track of time entirely. Away from Japan, sideways, backwards, the sea beneath them, then the land. A stop in China, he and Isono sitting alone in an airport in silent, shared confusion, then back onto another private plane. Seto kept to himself. Mokuba barely even saw him. He and Isono took their instructions from a man Mokuba didn't even know who had inexplicably been appointed Seto's new right hand man, while Isono was demoted to watching Mokuba. And then, after a brief stop in Tokyo, Isono was gone altogether. Mokuba was told he had been sent back to Domino ahead of them, but when he finally arrived back at the Kaiba Corp. HQ, one disorientating morning following several sleepless nights, neither of the two men guarding his brother's office door was Isono, and neither man would allow him entrance.
Mokuba spent most of that morning pacing fruitlessly outside the office door. His feet crossed over again and again the encroaching line of morning sunlight, sliding its way across the carpet towards the opposite wall, leisurely tracking every second that passed in which Mokuba was denied entrance to his only family.
Seto always made time for him. Always. Mokuba understood that Seto needed his space and tried hard not to bother him when he was working, but when Mokuba needed him then Seto was always there.
He hadn't even considered that he wouldn't be allowed in. He had momentarily paused at the sight of the two suited men standing guard outside his brother's door, smartly blocking the entrance to anyone who might approach, but he had quickly shrugged it off. When he had reached out awkwardly around them for the door handle, however, they drew sharply together to cut him off.
Mokuba made a loud, exaggerated sound of disbelief.
"Mister Kaiba's orders, sir," said the first suit. Mokuba didn't even recognise these men. Were they new?
"I don't think those orders extend to me," Mokuba replied, more than a little insulted, and reached out for the door handle again – and, again, was blocked off.
"Mister Kaiba's orders, sir," the man repeated, his intonation identical.
"Are you serious?" Mokuba drew himself up to his full height, which, admittedly, was less than impressive, and stared down the man who had spoken. "As Vice President of Kaiba Corporation, I order you to let me pass."
The two suits exchanged a glance, but neither made any signal that they were intending to move.
"Mister Kaiba," began the other suit, his tone more apologetic, "specifically ordered that you be denied entrance." He threw a sidelong look at his partner, who did not return it. "I'm sorry, sir."
Mokuba made the sound of disbelief once again. He then took several steps backwards, folded his arms, and leaned against the wall opposite in a pose of consummate stubbornness. "Fine. I'll wait."
"He only said we were to bar your entrance for the morning," added the second guard. The first cleared his throat very obviously, a warning to shut up, and then both men fell silent.
Mokuba had maintained his pose until his back began to burn with the discomfort and then took to his present pacing, glaring all the while at that patch of sunlight, trying to reason away his brother's strange behaviour. It had only been getting stranger since the Virtual World. It was as if he had seen something there, as if something had got inside him; infected him, somehow. The press were still waiting for an official line explaining why Battle City had been so abruptly cancelled, which Mokuba couldn't give to them because he didn't have the faintest idea. Rumours abounded, of course. Disastrous technical failure? Possible. Fear of losing against Yuugi? No. The piece of gossip that the ruins of Alcatraz contained a live nuke that Seto had accidentally primed? Ridiculous.
A little, niggling part of him chastised himself for mocking those who spread the rumours. After all, those people were just the public. How were they supposed to know better, when Mokuba, Seto's brother, his only living kin, had absolutely no idea?
"Nii-sama..." Mokuba breathed inaudibly, staring at the patch of bright, burning light that marked the approach of midday. Closer, closer... What was happening? What on earth was happening?
Something loud and static buzzed and Mokuba jumped. The first suit twitched the wire that looped his ear between his fingers, inclining his head to listen, Mokuba assumed, to something being spoken from his earpierce.
The man released the wire then looked to Mokuba. "You can go in now, sir."
Mokuba forgot about appearances entirely as he let out a loud sigh of relief and half ran towards the door to his brother's office. He had forgotten about his brother's cold behaviour on the plane. He just wanted to hold him, to be comforted, to feel the familiar heartbeat pressed against his own. The second suit stood back and opened the door for him, flashing what might have been a genial smile, but Mokuba wasn't paying attention. He pushed past the two men, heart swelling up into his throat. His ears were faintly ringing and his skin crawling like something alive was burying out of him. Why was he panicking? There was nothing to worry about; everything was fine. His brother was fine. Everything was fine. Why did he feel like he was going to throw up?
The office looked almost the same: clean, bright, the desk was a mess – that was unusual – but otherwise everything was familiar.
Except his nii-sama.
Seto always sat so straight, Mokuba suddenly realised. He had never paid it much attention before, but it was true. If there was one thing consistent in his brother's posture it was that fine, straight back, always so smart and attentive, a model of self-discipline and efficiency. Mokuba had seen his brother fall asleep at his desk, yes, and then his fine posture folded up into exhaustion, and Mokuba had seen him momentarily lean back from his desk to roll his stiff neck and stretch his arms, but Mokuba had never seen him lounge. He had never seen his brother, as he sat now, fully reclined in his chair, legs crossed upon the table, one hand behind his head, and the other hand – no, never this, never this – holding a thick, smoke-pouring cigar.
The figure of his brother did not address him. He looked at the cigar as if it held more interest to him than Mokuba ever possibly could, an expression Mokuba had seen a thousand times before on the face of a dead man he had once called father. When the man spoke his cadence was, yes, that of his brother, yet not his, somehow uncanny, like his voice had been shaken out like a sheet and left ugly and crinkled.
"Mokuba," he said, and it wasn't him. It wasn't his brother. "I have a proposition for you."
And then Mokuba knew. And by then it was too late.
This is not going to be a particularly long fic (I have five chapters planned at about this length, some a little longer). Hopefully it will be the appropriate length for the plot and pacing.
I will be updating every one to two weeks. If something delays me I will post a note on my profile.