In the book, 'Dune,' there's a saying of the Bene Gesserit: "Beginnings are such delicate times." I think that's true for stories as well as people, so I'd love to know what you think of this beginning.
DISCLAIMER: I don't own Yugioh. I do admire Kazuki Takahashi for his skill in creating such vibrant characters and for his generosity in allowing the rest of us to borrow them for a few adventures of our own.
SUMMARY: After Alcatraz, Kaiba takes Yami's advice to defeat his personal demons a little too literally and builds a virtual world to do just that. But mixing technology and Millennium Items is rarely safe. Prideshipping (eventual Yami / Kaiba).
THE TIMELINE: This story begins after Alcatraz and takes off in its own direction. The DOMA, Grand Prix, and AE arcs do not exist in this story.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I use the manga version of events, where possible, but I also lean on the subtitled anime versions of the Virtual World and Noa's Arc episodes, simply because they have a lot of the Kaiba brothers and I like them. When necessary, I'll put in a Manga or Anime Note explaining plot or character differences from the dub version.
MANGA NOTE: Yami and Kaiba have two duels that either don't appear in the anime, or appear in a radically different form. Their first shadow game occurs when Kaiba steals Sugoroku's BEWD from Yugi. Yami challenges him to a shadow game (or penalty game) to get it back. Yami wins when Kaiba summons the BEWD, but the dragon destroys itself rather than follow his commands. Yami inflicts a penalty game on Kaiba where he is trapped in the illusion that he is in the Duel Monsters world and is killed by his own monsters. Kaiba creates Death-T to avenge this loss. Mokuba insists on being one of Yami's challengers. Kaiba misreads this as a personal attack on him, and when Mokuba loses he forces him to go through the Death Simulation chamber he had designed for Yami. Yami rescues Mokuba, and defeats Kaiba by summoning Exodia. He shatters Kaiba's heart, giving Kaiba the opportunity to rebuild it without the darkness that was destroying him.
SUBTITLED ANIME NOTE: In the Legendary Heroes arc, where the Big 5 trap Kaiba in a virtual world, they also make an avatar of Mokuba as a princess. In the dub it's implied that Kaiba does it as a compliment to Mokuba to turn him into an awesome character. In the subtitled anime, however, it's suggested that they dress him as a girl as an insult.
STYLE NOTE: Yami and Yugi share a body. Italics are used to show conversations between Yugi and Yami that are taking place in the presence of other people. Conversations between them that occur when they are alone are not italicized since the purpose of the italics is to show this is a conversation that not everyone can hear.
CHAPTER 1: THE DUELIST'S GENESIS
Is there really a collective unconscious? A place where all our dreams and nightmares meet and merge as if they were at a singles bar of the mind? And if such a place doesn't exist, why are so many of our stories the same, for all that each teller is an individual? The hero… the self… the star crossed lovers… the trickster…. The fool… the devil incarnate. We say their names and almost nothing more needs to be said; our imagination fills in the rest.
The tentacles had almost trapped me, almost pinned my arms against my chest. If the Wicked Worm Beast succeeded, I'd be helpless. Hell, I'd be dead.
"It'll take more than you to beat me!" I screamed as I called in my dual kodachi, the twin honed blades gleaming in the sunlight. I spiraled in time with the monster, slicing and dicing as I whirled in a tighter and tighter circle, the sharp blades severing the tentacles, hacking them to pieces as they still reached out to trap me. Then the Wicked Worm Beast was helpless. I vanished the dual kodachi and called in my katana instead. It was time to go for the jugular and end this…
It didn't take long. I wiped the sweat and blood off my face. I laughed, looking at the chopped-up remains of the Wicked Worm Beast at my feet. I couldn't kill it often enough. In fact, I'd been killing it all week. It'd been just as much of a kick each time.
"Anger, bitterness, hatred… these are the demons you must defeat…"
I shook my head, wishing it was as easy to shake the other Yugi's voice out of it. Knowing that I was following his advice was bad enough without having to hear his self-righteous voice while I was doing it. Besides, I was going along with my rival's advice for my own reasons, not because I believed in him. I was going to be a true duelist whatever it took.
The adrenaline vanished as if it too was an illusion in my virtual world. I kicked at the Worm Beast's severed limbs, suddenly impatient with this game… with everything.
It had seemed simple at first.
I hadn't needed Yugi's sanctimonious other self to tell me I had to find a way to defeat my own anger and hatred. I thought of my duel with him on Pegasus' tower, of my dragon rotting from the inside just as hatred had eaten me hollow. I thought of the way Pegasus had so easily turned my Crush card against me when we'd finally dueled, just as I had let bitterness run unchecked through my system, destroying everything it touched. Finally, I thought of my rival again, of how he'd diffused my Ultimate Dragon, had broken it back to its basic components at Alcatraz, just as he'd done to me, leaving me to wonder: without my anger… would there be anything left?
It had made sense to create this virtual world, where I could go back to the things that had built up such a reservoir of hatred and rage and defeat them once and for all, where I could beat anything that had ever tried to stop me, that had ever stood in my way. So many of those moments seemed to come with duel monsters attached. And so I had created a world where I could fight them … a world of endless battles and challenges. And all of them… every monster… every danger… generated by my thoughts, by my moods, by my nightmares. It was exhilarating.
Or, it had been.
I kicked the Wicked Worm Beast's disembodied remains again. He'd been the final monster I'd faced in that penalty game where the first Blue Eyes White Dragon I'd ever held in my hands had decided I wasn't worthy of him. The Wicked Worm Beast had killed me; he'd been the symbol of my first defeat. Why did beating him suddenly seem so inconsequential?
"I expected better from you. You can not build anything lasting with anger and hatred as your foundation."
"Shut up!" I yelled, even though I knew there was no one around to hear me.
But sometimes my rival, even as a voice created by my memories, was just as persistent here as in any duel outside. I wondered… since the inhabitants of this virtual world were created out of my thoughts, since the setting changed with my moods, did that mean I could bring my rival or some imaginary version of him (as if he wasn't imaginary enough to begin with) into this virtual world?
I scowled. I hadn't made it this far in life by listening to other people, much less relying on them. And it's not like I needed his help to figure this out. Besides something about finding a technological way to turn him into a new kind of shadow, to exchange his Puzzle for a virtual prison, left a bitter taste in my mouth. Preachy as he was, he deserved better.
And he was right. This didn't feel new, it felt like more of the same. Once again I was using my anger to try and shove past it, trying to blast through my demons with the force of my hatred. Even the excitement I felt at beating them, at winning, was familiar, seductive.
So was the danger.
The game could kill me. Oh not physically of course, at least not right away. But brain death is death nonetheless. A permanent coma to replace the temporary one following Death-T… until my body finally gave out from lack of direction, everything that made me Seto Kaiba long since gone. I hadn't told Mokuba. And I didn't want to die. But I wanted an answer that would lead me to my true future. It seemed only fitting to risk that future in return.
But at Alcatraz, the other Yugi had told me that losing didn't have to equal death. In the end, I guess I'd agreed. I hadn't died in the ruins of Alcatraz; I'd chosen to live with my defeat instead. So why was I returning to the last lesson Gozaburo had taught me as if I was still his pupil? How could I reach a true future if even in the virtual game I'd designed to help me sort things out, I was marching backwards?
I grimaced as I saw the Armed Ninjas moving through the trees. They were going to try and capture me just as they had when my treacherous Board of Directors had tried to take me down in the first virtual reality game I'd designed. I'd beaten the Big Five, but that hadn't taken the sting out of having been imprisoned by them in the first place, having ended up bound and helpless. And I hadn't taken the Big 5 down myself; my victory had been tainted by losing Mokuba, by losing even a virtual reality avatar of my brother, by needing the other Yugi's help to win, by having to merge my monster with his, no matter how satisfyingly powerful a union that had been.
The Armed Ninjas were closer now. I pretended not to notice them even though the game had picked up on the increased rate of my virtual heart, the quickened movements of my avatar's eyes, and knew that my ignorance was a sham. This virtual world allowed me to call in weapons or summon the cards from my deck. I usually took care of things myself; I hadn't wanted to rely on anything, not even my monsters. My losses had been so personal; I wanted my victories to match.
I started to call in my weapons then stopped. What would that prove? That I was still tied to the same old battles, to my need to prove myself? I moved into the open, waited for them to surrounded me, then called in my Blue Eyes White Dragon. Now that I knew they were just a distraction, I wanted them out of the way. My mood was so unexpected the game didn't have time to compensate. My dragon was fast; its fire was deadly. I watched it flame the area until nothing was left. I saluted my dragon. I could have sworn it dipped its head in acknowledgment before it vanished.
I was alone, but that wouldn't last. If I sat still for too long, the game would throw in another attack. I had to look into changing that. The time I'd spent here, the Wicked Worm Beast at my feet, had been more useful somehow than killing it. I'd had time to think. I hadn't done that since I'd been in that coma.
"Great," I laughed to myself. If I needed some time to figure out what to do next, all I had to do was threaten or insult the midget and get his more interesting other self to shatter my soul again. I'm sure no one would mind except for Mokuba.
That sobered me. I'd created a game I'd never let my brother play. I'd never told anyone, not even Mokuba, why I designed games. But it all came back to him. He'd smile… even at our relatives' house, even at the orphanage, even at Gozaburo's mansion, when I made up games for us to play, when I told him about the rides I was going to design, when we'd build them together in our heads.
This virtual reality game had started out as something personal, as all the best games do. But maybe it had commercial possibilities as well. With a proper safety system and expertise levels added, maybe other people would want the chance to fight their own personal demons – if they could find them.
I certainly wasn't about to give up looking for mine. But it would have to wait for another day. It was time to get back.
"Exit game," I called out.
Mokuba was waiting when I got out of the VR pod. I must have been playing longer than I realized. He looked worried. I wondered if he'd been checking up on me. And he shouldn't. I was the older brother, not him. But I'd catch Mokuba watching me when he thought I wasn't looking, urging me to eat, reminding me to sleep, trying to sit up with me when I refused to do either. His concern reminded me of my failures, of just how far I'd fallen. If I'd held on longer after Gozaburo had died, he wouldn't have these doubts. That's why I didn't say anything, didn't tell him to knock it off. I'd earned his estimation of my weakness.
"How long have you been here?" I asked, frowning.
"Not long, Nisama. This game's pretty important, huh?"
I knew what he was asking. He wanted to help. He wanted to join me. He wouldn't ask directly. He never insisted on helping over my objections, not anymore… not since Death-T.
What would it be like if it was a two player game?
Mokuba was my heart. Duelist's Kingdom had proven that. I was never as strong as when he was at my side, as when I was fighting for him. I didn't have a clue what to do next; it was time to admit it. Maybe we could figure this out together. Of course the game had no safety system now…it could literally kill…
"I've got a couple of things to fix up," I said. "Then do you want to play this game with me?"
"Nisama! That would be awesome! Like our own adventure?"
"That's how it was designed to work," I said. 'Just as soon as I make it a little less lethal,' I added to myself. It struck me that adding a safety system wasn't a bad idea. If I adapted it for multiple players and Mokuba liked it, it would probably make sense to develop a commercial version to pilot as an attraction at our new KaibaLand.
We headed back to the office. I wanted to get started.
"The first thing we have to do," I said to Mokuba when we were seated behind my desk with a pair of laptops open in front of us, "is to update your virtual reality avatar."
"As long as I'm not in a dress," he grumbled.
"No dresses," I agreed. That stunt had ticked me off too. Nobody dressed my brother like a girl. At least the Big Five had gotten trapped in cyberspace. They'd deserved it. I started to copy the outfit Mokuba was wearing: striped shirt, hooded sweatshirt, jeans. It was practically his uniform.
"Could you put a red stripe in my hair? It'd match the one on my sneakers," he asked.
I frowned. That didn't seem like an adequate reason to me, but I wasn't about to start questioning his fashion choices.
"You can put it in yourself," I said, highlighting the coding that would have to be changed.
"Cool!" He grinned.
"We need to upload weapons for you," I added, hoping it would distract him before his head looked like a rainbow… and an imperfectly groomed rainbow at that.
"You have to be careful what you pick, though," I warned. "This game ties into your brainwaves to determine your opponents and the challenges you face. I'm going to adapt it to recognize and respond to more than one person's brainwaves and to allow an infinite variety of challenges. But the flipside is, you can only use a weapon your reflexes will respond to in real life or through a video avatar. I'll have to create a program to search for avatars as well as one to extract information from online gaming hosts," I mumbled to myself, before adding even more quietly, "right after I make it a lot less lethal."
"No problem. But stop talking about this virtual world like it could really kill you. You wouldn't do anything that stupid just for a game, would you?" Mokuba was smiling, but I wasn't fooled. He was checking up on me again.
"Just for a game? No."
I saw no need to elaborate. It must have satisfied him because he went to the weapons list and headed, as expected, straight for the throwing, launching and aiming weapons.
"Still no guns, Nisama," Mokuba said tentatively. It was an old argument. One we'd never actually had out loud.
"No," I said flatly, and went back to staring at the monitor. Mokuba didn't press the point.
There was nothing to say, anyway. Swords made you face your opponent head on; they made each battle a personal test. But Mokuba would've strapped a rocket launcher to his back had one been available. He figured weapons were weapons so why not go for the heavy artillery? I'd made an exception for bows, throwing knives, sling-shots and shuriken. But guns, missiles, grenades and all the other accessories of modern wars reminded me too much of the old Kaiba Corporation. I didn't blame Mokuba for not understanding; I'd never explained. It would have meant talking about the weapons I'd spent years designing, the ones that had killed thousands of people without giving even one of them the chance to fight back honorably. It was the difference between death and slaughter. I was willing to deal out one, if necessary – but not the other.
I pushed that thought aside, concentrating instead on Mokuba's intent face. As expected he was busy adding shuriken, a bow, and throwing knives to his arsenal.
"What if you get caught at close range?" I asked.
He smiled at me. "Well, I'll have you, right?"
I caught myself before saying, "You shouldn't rely on anyone, not even me." It was true, but Mokuba was joking, and it was too close to the things I'd said after Gozaburo had died. It was the line of reasoning that had lead straight to Death-T, and years later, I was still trying to find my way out of its continuous loop, even in small things. Besides, I reminded myself, Mokuba could use the throwing knives for hand-to-hand fighting if he had to. And I was putting in a safety system – it was the first order of business. It wasn't like there'd be any danger. Just to make sure, as little as I liked involving other people in my affairs, I'd get a duelist to help me with the beta tests before I let Mokuba anywhere near the game.
I frowned, wondering if this new road would finally lead to my true future, or if it was just another dead end.
It would be a shame if all I got out of this was another product to add to Kaiba Corporation's catalog.
"What's all this?" Yugi asked, staring at the papers in front of him on Kaiba's polished conference table.
"I just explained it," Kaiba said, frowning. "I designed a virtual reality game. In addition to the conventional storylines and one and multiple player games, it has a setting where the opponents and contests are the products of the player's brainwaves, where each player's unconscious thoughts and moods help determine the settings and the nature of the challenges. I need someone to test it with me to make sure it will respond to multiple players' brainwaves without getting confused."
"I know. I meant, what's all of this?" Yugi repeated, pointing to the papers in front of him.
"A contract as a temp beta tester for Kaiba Corporation."
"Why? You know I'll help."
"It's how I do business."
"This isn't business. We're friends… kind of. I'd be glad to help."
Kaiba grunted in place of an answer.
"Remind him that at Alcatraz he told us that if friendship was in the cards, his had possibilities. Ask him if he was lying," I said inside of Yugi's head.
Yugi repeated my message, stumbling a little on the words.
Kaiba stared at Yugi, probably reassessing which of us he was dealing with.
"Great. You're starting to sound alike," he muttered.
I was tempted to trade places with Yugi just long enough to let Kaiba see my smirk, but I tried to intrude as little as possible on Yugi's life unless we were dueling. The problem was, every interaction with Kaiba felt like a duel, urging me to the surface.
"What else can I do to help? Do you want me to call some other duelists?" Yugi asked.
"There are no other duelists," Kaiba stated. He turned his back on us and walked to the window. "Go ahead. I'm sure you want to talk it over with your invisible friend. Just make it quick. I don't have all day."
"What do you think?" I asked Yugi.
Yugi smiled. "The question is: what do you think? Kaiba might have been talking to me, but he wants to test his game out with you."
"Then the answer is no! I will not allow him to insult or overlook you!"
Yugi chuckled. Kaiba turned around at the sound, then rolled his eyes and went back to contemplating the view of the sidewalk 60 stories below his window.
"For once, I don't think Kaiba meant to insult me," Yugi said. "I think something's bothering him. Maybe he wants your help and this is the closest he's going to come to asking for it. And you know you're curious, Yami. A game where the challenges are designed by and for each player? How could you resist?"
"Because testing this game should be your place, not mine."
"It's okay. Besides… maybe it'll help you remember stuff about who you are or how you got stuck in a puzzle or how it all got broken up."
"I wonder if Kaiba's game could do that… find something hidden in my mind."
"You won't know 'til you try it," Yugi said with his usual optimism.
I met Kaiba in his computer lab early the next morning. He scanned my face as I walked in, obviously checking eye shape and color.
"It's a good thing I designed two avatars for you," he said. "I loaded your deck too, but you can draw from the entire data base of duel monsters if you want to. At each stage you can pick seven duel monsters to call on. You can rotate them in and out at each resting point. Any duel monster killed is lost for the rest of the virtual reality session. Do you want to start in conventional story mode, with the standard two-player games – or go straight to the brainwave mode?"
"What do you think?" I grinned at him.
"Personal demons for the win," he said, grinning back. He pointed to the touch screen monitor next to the VR pod in front of me. "You need to pick your weapons and monsters for the first challenge. Then we're ready."
I nodded, pleasantly keyed up as I made my selections. The VR pods were sleeker – and much more comfortable – than I remembered from Kaiba's last virtual world. The transition was smoother too… even more effortless than when Yugi and I switched places. As soon as I had donned the VR helmet and was reclining in the pod, the room disappeared.
I was swept into Kaiba's virtual world and onto a tower parapet that instantly crumbled beneath our feet. I had the heady, terrifying sensation of tumbling to earth. I could hear Kaiba's laugh above the wind that was whistling in my ears. I was glad I'd picked Winged Dragon, Guardian of the Fortress as one of my seven monsters. He appeared instantly and plucked us from the sky, carrying us gently in his talons as he drifted down.
"Damn," Kaiba said as we landed. "I wanted to check the safety system, since we were falling to our deaths anyway."
"Your inaction was deliberate? How dare you risk Yugi's life like that?"
Kaiba pressed his lips together, probably to keep from saying, "Better his than Mokuba's."
"I wasn't risking anyone's life. It's called a 'safety system' for a reason," he snapped. "It's set at the highest level right now. It would have returned us to the top of the tower – or exited us – long before we hit the ground. Where were we anyway? It looked like Pegasus's tower, but it fell apart before I could be sure…"
I shook my head in place of an answer. I looked at Kaiba. When I'd met him in the computer room, he'd been all in blue. His trench coat was unchanged, but now his shirt and pants were black. Although they were only a shade darker than the midnight blue of his coat, the difference was noticeable – and disconcerting.
"What happened to your clothes?" I asked, puzzled.
He snorted. "You didn't think we were really here, did you? These are our virtual avatars."
"How come I'm still dressed the same?"
"It's not my fault your wardrobe never changes." Kaiba shrugged. "Well, if we stay in one place for too long, I'll get to check the safety system anyway. There's a minor glitch in the program… and here he is, right on cue."
I took a step back as the Wicked Worm Beast appeared in front of us. He ignored me and reached out to grab Kaiba, immobilizing the taller duelist with his tentacles before reeling him in closer. Kaiba offered no resistance, even when one tentacle wrapped itself around Kaiba's neck. His arms and legs were already enmeshed. I was about to call in my monsters to fight it when Kaiba disappeared. He reappeared at my side a second later as the Wicked Worm Beast vanished.
The Wicked Worm Beast had torn through the sleeves of both his coat and shirt, ripping them partially off at the shoulder. My attention was caught by the pale skin of Kaiba's upper arm. I thought I saw an old scar, possibly a burn. Then I blinked and the image was gone. His clothes had been repaired as if the damage had never existed. I glanced at his face. It was, as usual, unrevealing.
Kaiba spoke, seemingly addressing the sky. "Good, the safety system is fully operational. Unhide codes."
Instantly lines of computer commands appeared in front of us. Kaiba scanned them, then said, "Hide codes."
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"I have to be able to access the program from inside it. Or Mokuba, of course." He frowned. "The Wicked Worm Beast ignored you."
"The Wicked Worm Beast was your glitch?" I asked incredulously.
"Yeah. He's picked up the bad habit of following me around."
"Why were we on that tower?" he countered.
"What happens now?" I asked in place of an answer.
"Whatever you want."
"You know what I want. What I've been searching for all along. My memories."
Predictably, Kaiba snorted. "That nonsense again," he said.
"I want to know how and why I ended up here." I insisted. "I want to know who the man who entered this puzzle was, what he felt and thought. How can I face even the tenuous future I have, if I don't know what went into its making? Isn't that what you're doing as well? You tried to seal your past. Once, it was the only way to allow your future to continue. It didn't work out too well, did it? – or you wouldn't be here. Now it's time for me to try to open that door as well. I can face anything as long as I know."
Kaiba nodded, silently conceding the point. I felt as if I'd just won a victory, although I wasn't sure over what. I cupped the puzzle in my hands. Kaiba was wrong, I thought. He had said that our bodies were mere holograms. That much was true. But the puzzle felt real. For an instant it seemed to shine, like a beacon that could draw my adrift memories home. Then the nature of the summoning changed, became harsher, more insistent; it felt unfriendly. I didn't say anything to Kaiba. I knew all too well what his response would be.
When I had first held it, the puzzle had felt warm. Abruptly, it turned blazingly hot. I let go with a gasp and looked at my hands, but they were unsinged. Kaiba gave a matching gasp as flames sprung up around us.
"The flames of Kul Elna," I said.
"What?" he asked.
I shook my head, confused. "I don't know. That phrase just popped into my head. I don't even know what it means, or where Kul Elna is."
"We can find out later. Right now survival is the main priority," Kaiba said.
The blaze followed us as we ran through the ancient town that had suddenly appeared, as if it had come into being only to burn. Its small ramshackle houses fueled the flames. The fire was a living thing; it had a mind of its own – one bent on destroying us. It leapt from rooftop to rooftop, chasing us down. Even the desert sands at our feet didn't stop it. I called in Torrential Rain to try and drown its rage. That didn't work either. The fire rolled over the downpour as if its fury had waves of its own. I felt a tingle when the blaze finally caught us in its grasp. I closed my eyes against the expected pain.
…And then we were in Kaiba's computer lab once more. I took off my helmet and climbed out of the pod. I faced Kaiba.
"What was that? What did it mean?" I asked.
"You tell me. It's your nightmare," Kaiba answered soberly.
"It's one more thing I need to remember," I said.
Thanks to Bnomiko not just for the wonderful betaing but also for listening to me obsess over titles and outlines, and just for making the whole thing so much fun.
Acknowledgements: One nice thing about starting a story is you get to thank your friends for their patience. In addition to Bnomiko, I'd like to thank Kagemihari and Splintered Star for encouragement, friendship and just for listening. Happy belated birthday, Kagi! Thanks to Halowing and Mishiko Shinsei for title suggestions.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: My stories seem to sometimes come with stories attached. This one begins quite a while ago with a poor, little, baby plot bunny – the first idea for a story I had that didn't revolve around a much cooler version of myself, who happened to be a duelist who also happened to have been friends with Seto at the orphanage… believe me, you don't want to know…
Anyway, when this little shivering plot bunny showed up, the one thing I knew was that he was part of a larger story. And the other thing I was equally sure of was that I had no clue what this story was or how to tell it. So being the sensible person I am, I turned him loose and hoped he'd scamper off. But it turns out he was a crafty little plot bunny, because he bided his time and came back with a whole troop of brothers. I looked them over skeptically, checked them for fleas… and realized, somewhat to my surprise, that they actually made a story.
So here we are. I hope you enjoy it.
Comments would be adored…