I'm sorry this is a little late. I had to graduate and move house this week so things have been rather hectic.
This was the second press conference since it happened. It didn't seem possible to Mokuba that it could already the second time. Surely it was only a few days ago that it was his brother at his side, his real brother, making the Battle City announcements? But, no. It had happened before, and it would happen again. It helped to register the 'first times' of the things Gozaburo did in the guise of Seto: the first time he and Mokuba sat at breakfast together, the first time they visited the KaibaCorp. HQ, the first time Mokuba found himself hungry enough to come down to eat dinner with him. It helped stress the newness, how unnatural it was, to continually register these little differences, as though every instance was a fresh intrusion upon Seto's life. But as the breakfasts turned into part of a daily routine and Mokuba found himself more often than not accompanying the man to the office, simply for something to do, those virgin intrusions became less like ugly black smears on Seto's life and more scarlike, traced over and over again, steadily inscribing permanence.
The first conference, two weeks ago, had been to announce the official reasons for the cancellation of Battle City. The press easily ate up the spin about a virus whose contagiousness prompted KaibaCorp. to shut the entire tournament down once three of the finalists had fallen into comas. That neatly explained away Bakura, Mai, and Rishid's conditions, while highlighting KaibaCorp.'s image as a compassionate company with its customers best interests at heart. Mokuba had to fight not to roll his eyes as the press applauded.
This second conference would focus on the company's shift in focus towards virtual reality and holograms and away from children's games, and Mokuba did not want to be here. The room was crammed with journalists, at least half of whom did not have an official invitation and stood in unprofessional crushes at the sides of the room. One might think this meant that security was lax, but Gozaburo had wanted this. Orchestrated chaos. It certainly made an impression.
Mokuba sat smartly, his chair drawn some distance back from the table. He wasn't required to answer questions. He surveyed the rabble in silence, resentment swirling within him. He never used to mind them the press much. In a strange way, press conferences reminded him of being at the orphanage. He would shrug on his brightest smile and the wannabe foster parents would act as though he was spotlighted in sunshine. He loved the attention, the warmth, how for a few moments a friendless orphan kid could be the centre of the world.
Seto always felt differently.
"And this is my nii-sama," little childhood Mokuba would chirrup, completely and naively blind to his brother's cold, stony eyes, his inward drawn composure, the way he refused to smile at anybody who took an interest in his little brother. Like he had problems. Like there was something wrong with him.
The parents would usually offer him a "hello" and a "So what's your name, young man?" If Mokuba was lucky they might crack an awkward joke about what a serious young man Seto was, but Seto simply stared, arms folded, challenging, daring them to say another word to his little brother. And then they would drift away, and Mokuba would be left alone, his spirits only gently crushed. It never mattered for long. Seto would take his hand and off him a smile, a real smile, and Mokuba's doubts would melt away and the two of them would go off together, alone, their own private paradise that no one would ever be able to breach.
On reflection, perhaps Seto knew exactly what he was doing in driving off the parents who took interest in them.
Press conferences had been the same act, only to different ends. Mokuba would take the microphone and grin and beam and flash the audience the perfect image of joyful, boyish enthusiasm. Meanwhile Seto would glower and smirk and act as though the audience ought to be kissing his feet simply for the privilege of standing in his presence, but it no longer drove anybody away. No, now that he stood tall and mature and attractive the press went absolutely insane over it. "The formidable Kaiba Seto..." "The inimitable teen billionaire..." It got a little tiring.
Different now, of course. So different.
Mokuba didn't grab the microphone. Didn't smile. He sat as quietly and obediently as he knew how in the shadow of the man who wasn't his brother and stayed silent as a seemingly endless hail of questions was delivered. Still, he tried to force himself out of his reverie and pay attention, in case something actually useful to him was said. From the sea of shouting journalists with raised hands, a suited woman with a long notebook and earpiece received a nod and quickly stood to ask her question.
"Mister Kaiba, this will be the second time in three years that Kaiba Corporation has dramatically changed its direction. Aren't you concerned about how dropping the Duel Monsters franchise might affect your already shaky financial standing?"
Ha, shaky, Mokuba thought and, without considering, leaned towards the microphone and cut off Gozaburo before he had a chance to speak.
"Kaiba Corporation has been more profitable manufacturing products for the Duel Monsters franchise than it used to be even at its height of weapons manufacture," he announced quickly and enthusiastically, then immediately had the microphone tilted away from him.
"Unlike our previous shift in direction, Kaiba Corporation will not be starting with a blank slate," Gozaburo said smartly, not even throwing Mokuba a single warning glance under the eyes of the dozens of cameras. "We are simply going to expand our virtual technology beyond the constraints of the gaming industry while shifting our focus from-" He paused infinitesimally. "-children's games. This shall mark a broadening of our horizons, not a narrowing of them."
A swarm of shouts flowed into the brief silence left by his words, several journalists standing in an effort to have their questions chosen. A short, slickly-haired man else received a nod and he fought to shout over the clamour around him.
"Mister Kaiba, was this change in direction prompted by the failure of the Battle City tournament and your subsequent inability to win back the Duel Monsters title from Mutou Yuugi?"
The shouting that followed this was almost deafening.
Gozaburo neatly tilted the microphone towards him and gave the crowd a genial smile. "No further questions."
Mokuba gave the swarm of flashing cameras a few cursory, wan smiles before allowing his face to fall into its usual empty, faraway expression. He tarried by the limo door and waited for Gozaburo to finish posturing, watching the cameras watch him, wondering if a single photographer would ever notice that they were fawning over the wrong Kaiba.
They didn't usually call his name. Seto's, sure, but not his. The word was clear but distant, shouted audibly even within the clamour, and there was an odd ring of familiarity about it. Mokuba's eyes distractedly roamed the crowd, trying to see who was calling to him, and he gave a start when his gaze alighted on a pair of bright, violet eyes, staring out at him from the monochrome crowd of subdued suits and shades of black.
Those eyes were wide and desperate and Yuugi's lips were indeed clearly mouthing his name, though quieter now that Mokuba had seen him. Was he in trouble? Did he think Mokuba was in trouble? Yuugi was quite a way back in the crowd, trying and failing to fight his way to the front through the hoards of journalists. Mokuba watched him struggle, oddly transfixed, but soon he regained his rationality and sharply turned his back. No. He couldn't risk meeting with Yuugi, and even if he could this was certainly not the place, with a thousand cameras on them and Gozaburo mere inches away.
Mokuba's body jolted as a warm, familiar hand gripped his shoulder. Speak of the devil. He concentrated all his energies on not flinching as Gozaburo drew him close, pivoting him as they turned to face each angle of the encircling cameras. More camera flashes rained upon them and Mokuba tried to force a smile, willing himself to play the role of dutiful little brother. His stomach churned as Gozaburo's fingers gripped him, but within the rolling nausea there flashed a warm twinge of familiarity.
Nii-sama is hugging me, the wild, desperate part of his brain sounded, and Mokuba tried to zero in on that, pleading with himself to believe it, just for a moment.
He raised his shaking arm and slipped it around his brother's torso, holding it the way he would if Seto still inhabited it. He felt the body stiffen against his side for an instant, though if it was from surprise, irritation, or genuine disgust Mokuba didn't know, and then the hand encircled him tighter and returned the embrace – although the grip on his arm was tight enough to bruise. They paused like that for a moment, the perfect image of brotherly affection, and then the pressure on Mokuba's arm increased to a stinging pitch and he was steered helplessly towards the open limousine door.
Mokuba was pushed firmly inside, but not roughly, thanks to the hundreds of cameras. He slid across the seats into the far corner and pulled down the screen to cover the window, blocking out the eager faces crowding for one last rare shot of the smiling CEO. He felt the seats shift with the weight of his brother's body and then heard the limousine door slam, smartly mutely the overwhelming crowd noise into a muffled drone.
"You talked too much."
Mokuba turned around, though his body and mind protested from exhaustion. He gave his father – brother? what? – a tired, complacent look. "I'm sorry. I won't do it again."
"Children are to be seen and not heard," Gozaburo said distractedly, turning his attention to his cellphone. "That was something your brother mercifully understood."
Mokuba remained silent, though it was more out of weariness than obedience. He watched Gozaburo rapidly hit keys on the phone, entering memorised numbers or who knew what. Mokuba wondered about muscle memory, things that you didn't learn consciously. It was the same brain, wasn't it? Gozaburo hadn't physically extracted anything of Seto's; it was all virtual. Copies of copies. Data. Could there be some part of that person that was still Seto? And, if so, what did that mean for the creature that existed on the computer in the basement? Was that just a mess of algorithms programmed to act like Seto? Could you even copy a person?
Your brother probably can't even remember what you look like.
"Nii-sama?" Mokuba said abruptly, unable to stop himself before the word was out of his mouth. Well, what would he say instead, anyway? Gozaburo? Dad?
Gozaburo kept his attention focused on the phone for a moment, then he dragged his eyes away to Mokuba. He didn't look particularly angry or irritated. Bored, maybe. Tired. Seto always looked so tired.
"I..." What had he intended to say? "Sorry I messed up your press conference," he finished weakly, but with a genuine ring of remorse. But he was putting that on, right? He didn't really care, surely?
Gozaburo stared at him for a long, icy moment. Then he said casually, "It's alright," and returned his attention back to the phone.
And Mokuba, hating himself for it, felt a little bit better.
Every game that had survived Gozaburo's purge lay in one lopsided pile before the computer in the basement. Chess, checkers, a deck of regular cards, a Rubik's cube, an old game of backgammon with most of the pieces missing, and six Duel Monsters cards. They had slipped down his bedside table where, any other time, they would have lain forgotten. They were the only ones that Gozaburo hadn't burned. Well, all but the Blue Eyes. Mokuba had burned those.
"Throw them into the fire," Gozaburo had said to his, a vicious, lopsided smile cutting through his face as he traced the outline of Mokuba's kneecap with the barrel of a gun. Mokuba had done as he was ordered.
He hadn't told Seto. He couldn't.
Mokuba positioned the microphone over his mouth and spread the games about him in a little crowded half circle.
"Okay," he said brightly. "Got any preferences? We don't have a massive selection. Most of it's been-" Burned. "-put away, but the chess set is good to go, and there's checkers, though I know you hate checkers..."
WE NEED TO TALK, MOKUBA.
Mokuba spared the screen a glance, but pushed on, trying to ignore the quivering electronic text and whatever it might lead to.
"I know you usually kick my butt at chess, but I swear I've been practising," he said rapidly as the guilt ate through him. He shouldn't be taking advantage of his brother's disorientation just to keep the conversation grounded. "I bet I stand a decent chance, and..."
He fell silent despite himself, staring at the words on the screen. The name began to repeat, stuttering, misspelling, the grammar dissolving, but always at the centre Mokuba could make out his name, even as the moniker became hopelessly warped. Was this string of nonsense really more his brother than the living, breathing being upstairs?
Mokuba stared at his fragmented name and recalled Gozaburo's warm arm around his shoulders. Would it be so bad if...
Mokuba felt as though his blood had been replaced with something cold, slimy, oozing.
If I abandoned my brother?
He felt like punching himself. He settled instead for viciously biting the side of his mouth. Then he took a sharp breath, one audible over the microphone, and immediately the text stabilised.
MOKUBA ARE YOU?
Am I what? Here? Okay?
"I'm here," he breathed, questing his fingers to the screen where light stabs of static momentarily connected him to the same plane as his brother. His real brother, not the thing upstairs that wore his face and talked like him and could hug him back. "I just zoned out for a moment."
It took a moment for the reply to come. Mokuba wondered if Seto was thinking, but no, Seto didn't think any more, not the way he did.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THE PROCESSING ERRORS.
Something heavy and black fell through Mokuba's stomach. "What errors?"
He sat in mute, attentive silence as line after line of technical explanations appeared, well beyond his expertise. Seto knew he didn't understand these things, didn't he? Maybe he'd forgotten.
"Seto," Mokuba interrupted, staring helplessly at a line of text in which he only understood every other word. "Can you simplify?"
Another moment of delay, longer than the first.
NEURAL MAPPING IS ONLY 76% REPLICABLE.
Mokuba's brain worked in overdrive as he tried to translate the message into something he understood. He didn't think about whether or not Seto had a reason for making it difficult for him to understand, or if he was just distracted, or if, maybe, it was easier for a computer to think like a computer.
Something clicked in Mokuba's head. "The computer isn't simulating human thinking properly any more?"
THIS SYSTEM IS TOO BASIC.
Another pause. Even longer this time.
I'VE TRIED TO FIX IT FROM THE INSIDE, BUT THERE'S NOT MUCH I CAN DO.
Mokuba frowned hard, swallowing. His eyes glazed slightly.
"Maybe Gozaburo will let me buy you a better computer. He's not been so bad lately. If I ask nicely, then..."
The text interrupted him mid sentence: NO COMPUTER WOULD BE SUFFICIENTLY POWERFUL.
"Well, we could get a supercomputer. It's not as though we can't afford it. This one was doing fine until..."
Another interruption, as though Seto was hurrying him. But Seto didn't have a sense of time, so...
IT HAS BEEN DEGRADING FOR WEEKS. IT'S JUST BECOMING MORE NOTICEABLE. NO COMPUTER CAN ACCURATELY REPLICATE THE HUMAN BRAIN.
"Noa's computer could. It was KaibaCorp. technology; we must be able to rebuild it."
This time the pause went on so long that Mokuba began counting the seconds. One, two, three...
He fidgeted, wishing he had a watch so he could track time properly. Down here, time passed as inscrutably for him as it did his brother.
"Noa," Mokuba repeated clearly, wondering if the word hadn't registered correctly. No reply came. "Our step-brother," Mokuba added hesitantly. Still there was no reply. "Gozaburo's son."
The pause went on for at least nine seconds this time. Mokuba was sure he was counting too quickly, that his heart was racing too fast.
I AM GOZABURO'S SON.
"Yeah," Mokuba said cautiously. "So am I. But Noa was his biological son."
I AM SETO KAIBA.
The reply, thankfully, had come quicker this time, but it didn't seem to have any relation to what Mokuba had just said.
"Yeah. Yes, you are," he said, his mind drawing a blank. "And I'm Mokuba."
YOU'RE MY BROTHER.
"And so was Noa," Mokuba finished uselessly, feeling like the logic of the conversation was running in circles. This time the pause was easily double the length of the last one.
Mokuba sat and stared at the screen. The dread that had been droning within him for weeks intensified, spiking with panic. He helplessly recalled Gozaburo's words:"Data degenerates, little brother." Mokuba had thought, or at least hoped, that he was lying. If he wasn't...
Mokuba pushed it out of his mind.
"Let's play chess," he said, swallowing the lump out of his throat and reaching for the board. "I'll be white, you be black." He began to arrange the pieces. It was a nice new set, one side made of clear glass, the other from clouded to represent white and black. Apparently it had sufficiently appealed to Gozaburo's aesthetic sensibilities to survive the purge of everything too Seto about the mansion.
Mokuba finished arranging the pieces. "Okay, pawn to E4." He slid the small, cool glass piece across the two squares. It felt reassuringly solid against his skin.
He had been too busy arranging the pieces to look at the screen, but now his pulse jumped as he looked up.
YOU THINK I WANT TO PLAY CHESS WITH A STUPID CHILD LIKE YOU?
The text flickered silently, white and threatening, staring Mokuba down. When had Seto said that?
"We could..." It's not his fault. It's just some stupid error. It won't happen again. "We could play checkers instead, if you'd prefer..."
Mokuba trailed off as more text appeared. He had never quite realised how indifferent and inhuman that white text could look.
YOU THINK YOU KNOW US?
Mokuba could only stare dumbly back.
YOU THINK YOU'LL EVER BE REAL? NOBODY WANTED YOU. THERE'S A REASON THEY TREATED YOU LIKE A TOY.
Whomever Seto thought he was talking to, it wasn't Mokuba. Mokuba knew he shouldn't be reassured by that, because if Seto couldn't keep track of something that simple then the degeneration was worse than he thought, but he couldn't help feel comforted that Seto didn't mean to direct those sentiments upon him.
"Nii-sama?" Mokuba said.
Immediately a string of nonsensical symbols appeared, pouring out across each line, hashes and asterisks tripping over one another in an incomprehensible mess. Mokuba's eyes flew over them, but there wasn't nothing resembling sense or language to be found.
"Nii-sama," he said again, his voice wavering. There was no effect on the symbols, but he swallowed hard and kept going. "Do you remember the Blue Eyes?"
The text careened on in lunatic nonsense, then came to an abrupt stop.
##############YES. YES I REMEMBER.
Mokuba's mouth broke into a beaming, relieved smile, but he felt tears running freely down his cheeks.
"And you remember riding the jet? How it was just like you always said it would be? The two of us flying together."
He waited for the reply to come. He waited, then waited longer. He began to count the seconds, his foot tapping anxiously against the floor. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen...
He hit twenty and still no reply had appeared, though he was certain he was counting too fast.
The caret remained silent and uncomprehending.
"Nii-sama..." Mokuba repeated, the vowels trembling over his lips. "Nii-sama, nii-sama, nii-sama..." He waited, frozen, for a reply to appear, which it didn't, and then struck his fist against the side of the monitor. The black screen shivered with static, but it had no other effect.
He slipped forwards fell from the chair. His knees cracked against the concrete and sent deep, aching stabs of pain through his legs, but he ignored them. He reached both hands out to the humming computer tower and ran his fingers over it. It was ludicrously hot, probably overheating with the strain of keeping his brother conscious, but it was still whirring as loud as ever. The rough, vibrating metal almost burned his fingers.
"Energy cannot be created or destroyed," rang Seto's voice in his head, a memory from long ago, some impromptu science lesson. Heat was energy.
Mokuba slid his knees forwards, curling his small body around the hunk of plastic. The heat wasn't painful when tempered by his clothing. It filled his stomach and flowed up through his chest, warm and alive, thrumming against him. The corners of the tower dug into his skin, but that didn't matter. He rested his cheek against the dusty top and drew his arms around the plastic casing, holding it tight against him and closing his eyes.
Mokuba left the basement some forty minutes later. He wandered the house in silence, drifting through the empty rooms, pausing here and there to recall a certain spot in which the memory of Seto was particularly bright. It didn't make him feel better. It made him feel like he was in mourning.
As much as he insisted to himself that he wasn't and that his brother was, in some way, still alive, his mind only drifted cursorily over his next possible options. Entreat Gozaburo for a better computer? Try to build one himself? It already felt as though it was too late; and, perhaps, it was.
Seto would never give up trying to save you, a little wormy voice in his head chided. You're the weak child you always were, dragging him down.
He let the voice drone on, too tired to make any effort to silence it. He continued his slow, pointless meandering through the halls, idly wondering if he would just keep walking until he passed out from exhaustion. Unlikely, considering he spent most of his time sleeping.
His directionless travels were finally halted when he reached the main lounge, under whose door sneaked out a narrow strip of warm light. He paused in the hall and listened to the muffled sound of a television on the other side of the door. He knew who was in there, but strangely he didn't feel compelled to turn around and walk away. He missed his brother's face and his scent with a tight, clenching pain, a longing so intense that it dwarfed his fear of Gozaburo.
And so he opened the door.
Absorbed like this in the television, the figure that sat on the sofa really could be Seto. The cold, drawn expression, the burning eyes, the consummate, willing ignorance of anything or anybody else. The decanter of whisky and the cigar were anomalies, but Mokuba was starting to get used to Gozaburo's habits. He looked normal. He looked like Seto. A perfect mimic.
Gozaburo looked up suddenly, sensing Mokuba's presence, and the displeasure which seeped into his features was emphatically not Seto's. It was too intense, too openly emotional.
"What do you want?"
They held each other's cold gazes for a moment, then Mokuba dropped his. He shuffled his feet unconsciously and gave a low, adolescent shrug. "I don't know."
The father-brother-thing stared him down for a moment longer, then looked back to the screen. "Then get out."
Mokuba observed the length of the sofa, the great plane of space between him and the nearest armrest. He took several hesitant steps towards it.
"Can I sit here?"
The man looked at him again with those cool, Seto-eyes. "Why?"
"I don't know. Just to sit. Watch TV." He drew in a hard, thin, fortifying breath. "I mean, if we're going to keep playing brothers then we might as well get used to one another's company."
And again the eyes drifted away. "I don't need to 'get used to you' to pull off playing Seto. Learn to act better."
Mokuba didn't leave. He just stood and watched the television, understanding the reports probably far better than Gozaburo thought he could. Then, slow and hesitant and uncomfortable, he moved around to the front of the sofa and sat upon it. The man threw him one final disgusted look, then returned to watching the television. The cigar smell obscured any scent of Seto that might have remained and it made Mokuba want to gag as it wormed its way into his lungs, but he shifted closer all the same. He and Seto used to watch TV together, occasionally. Seto preferred to get his news online, but sometimes he would settle with Mokuba to watch some terrible action movie. He would complain for the entire duration of the film, of course, pointing out every single flaw and technological inaccuracy, but that was half of the fun. Mokuba missed that...
"The fuck are you smirking at?"
The profanity made his heart jolt, and then the memory of his brother collapsed back into reality. Seto never swore, not at him. But Seto was gone. Gozaburo was staring at him in disgust.
"Sorry. I just remembered something funny."
"Did I not tell you to get out?"
"I'll be really quiet, I promise. I'll just sit here."
For a moment Mokuba thought the man was going to strike him.
"You think you can disobey me?"
Mokuba's eyes fluttered closed. "Please, nii-sama. I'll just sit." His eyes opened again and he fixed the creature who wasn't his brother with the same gaze he had been wearing all day, blank and grey, beyond exhausted. "I know you're going to kill me. I don't care. You've already taken everything that I loved." Those eyes, those eyes that had been there to echo back into his own since he was born stared back, all cool and blue and beautiful and so terribly, wonderfully Seto. "Please. Just let me sit."
He didn't try to fight the tears this time. He was far past saving face.
The man gave a quiet, so Seto-like chuckle. "I'm not going to kill you, Mokuba. At least, I don't have plans to. You're useful to me."
"I won't be forever," he breathed. "Even if you don't want me dead, what does it matter?" His voice cracked again and shattered. "He's your son. Don't you care? Don't you miss him? Don't you feel guilty?"
"He's not my son, and neither are you." He bared his teeth and in that instant, wolflike pose every ounce of Seto was banished from his face. "You were my tenants. Seto proved himself quite the unworthy failure, in the end."
"Then why don't you delete him?" Mokuba shot back before he could stop himself. Gozaburo's eyes widened, affronted but amused. Mokuba didn't give him a chance to retort. "You don't need him. You already have all the passwords. Why did you even put him in that computer in the first place? Why didn't you just-" His voice strained and twisted at a broken, half sobbing pitch. "-just throw him into the sea?" He paused very briefly, but Gozaburo didn't cut in. He just stared at him with unreadable, icy hostility. "Does it make you feel better to know you haven't really killed him? Does that help you sleep at night?"
Gozaburo's eyes dropped. Mokuba stared at his expression in incomprehension, trying to understand in the brief moment he had before the man punished him for his insolence what that alien expression meant.
"If you would rather I deleted him," Gozaburo said, his eyes flicking back up and wiping away every trace of that dark shadow from his face, "then I will. You haven't been spending much time with him lately. Perhaps you want me to make the decision you're too weak to make yourself."
Mokuba's eyes ran over Gozaburo's face, studying the contours of his brother's expression, searching for the parts of Seto that were still alive within it. That countenance wasn't so very different from Seto, was it? After Gozaburo's death, before they met Yuugi, Seto had often been this cold. The differences, perhaps, were negligible...
Exhaustion finally flowing triumphantly through his bones, Mokuba let his head fall against the back of the sofa and closed his eyes. What would Seto do, if he were here? If it was Mokuba in the computer? The answer to that was simple: he would find a way to save him.
"Nii-sama..." Mokuba's lips shaped the word in near silence. He heard his brother's short, humoured laugh.
"Yes, little brother?"
His eyes opened again to see Seto's face set in a black amusement that, despite knowing that it wasn't really him, that this amusement was at his expense, still sent a warm, familiar shiver through him. He smiled, and thought of every time his brother had saved him, every time they had succeeded, every time he had come for him regardless of the odds. He thought of the burning locket. He thought of the Blue Eyes.
Although he looked at Gozaburo, the answer he gave was not for him. He spoke with a soft, subdued confidence that the passing observer might just mistake for quiet surrender.
"I'll help you, nii-sama."
And that would be quite the mistake to make.