When Kaiba opened his eyes he was standing in the middle of a ballroom. The lavish room - complete with pillars, curtains and a dark wooden floor - flickered a few times before finally freezing into place.
Kaiba turned around and immediately felt the absence of his typical trench coat. He looked down and found himself wearing a simple black tuxedo that was at least ten years outdated. He smirked at the image he presented and turned around again, suddenly finding the program's main menu floating in the air before him.
As he selected the music and waltz style he wanted to use, he once again thought about the inconvenience this was causing him. He could be going through company paperwork, finishing his homework, or working on his next duel with Yugi. Instead, he was using an ancient virtual reality program he had found in Gozaburo's library to learn how to waltz.
He had recently been invited to dine and dance with Domino's finest. He was a businessman, not an idling aristocrat, but good politics was a part of good business, so Kaiba figured he'd suffer through this one gala and then decide if it was worth it. He hoped it was, because learning ballroom dance was not Kaiba's idea of a good time. With a unhappy sigh, Kaiba reached up to touch 'Start' on the menu.
After a couple songs, Kaiba was getting the hang of it. Most of it was easy - calculated movements paced to a predictable beat. In a way it was just like sparing, except with dancing he didn't have to second-guess his partner's next move.
Kaiba looked around the virtual ballroom. All the dancers here were programmed to be perfect partners: to keep perfect time and follow his lead flawlessly. It was a good environment to learn the basic steps, but it sure as hell didn't prepare Kaiba for the uncertainties of a real dance. For all he knew, he would be required to dance with headstrong girl who would force her own lead, or a tone-deaf woman, or someone with no sense of balance...
The current waltz ended, and Kaiba disengaged from the tall brunette on his arm. She smiled at him rather blankly, showing perfect white teeth. "I'm going to freshen up," she told him politely and walked away. Like clockwork another woman approached him. Kaiba could all but see the programming restart the loop around him.
"Who wrote this thing?" Granted, it was just a dance tutorial, and an old one at that, but Kaiba could do better when he was ten years old. "Pause program."
All around him, the virtual dancers froze mid-step. Kaiba strode across the dance floor, weaving through the bright dresses and dark suits, until he reached one of the internal control panels. All he really wanted to change was the predictability of his dance partners, and that would be a cinch to fix
"Computer, access character files for virtual Duel Monsters game." The screen in front of him was instantly filled with the graphics and statistics for all the monsters he had brought to life for his first virtual adventure game. He had given them all unique personalities - quirks and mannerisms he had somehow come to associate with the different cards. Unfortunately, most of them lacked the limbs required for waltzing.
"Discard all non-humanoid monsters." That was better. He glanced over the list briefly and nodded. This would add variety. Of course, he had programmed them himself, so he might get more variety if he used character profiles he hadn't created. Then it struck him - he should use the profiles created when a person entered his VR world. He had profiles on Yugi, Jonouchi, and Mai, not to mention Otogi, Honda, and Shizuka.
He quickly transferred the files to the tutorial. "Reformat character skins - dress them in outfits from this program. Upload characters and restart dance tutorial."
For an instant, everything went dark, leaving Kaiba with the disconcerting feeling of going blind and deaf all at once. Without anything to focus on, he was vaguely aware of his body lying in the virtual reality pod. Was Mokuba in the room with him? He loved this technology, but he hated how vulnerable it left him when he-
And then the black void materialized into the familiar ballroom, cutting off his line of thought. He was standing alone in the middle of the polished floor, facing away from the small stage where the orchestra played. The room flickered, and then the other dancers appeared out of thin air, instantly transforming the empty room into a full-swing gala.
As soon as he saw Mai, he smiled. Here was a woman who would never blindly follow anyone's lead. If his program had gotten even close to capturing her personality, she should prove to be a challenging dance partner.
She was leaning against the wall, a champaign glass held casually in one gloved hand. She looked bored. Well, his program had at least captured that perfectly.
"Mai," he said and her head snapped up. "Join me for the next song." It wasn't a question, but he managed to keep it from sounding like an order. For a moment she just looked at his outstretched hand, but she finally took it.
They moved to the center of the floor as the orchestra struck up. Mai went from bored to flirtatious in the blink of an eye, and Kaiba quickly found himself pulled closer to the bold female duelist. She held onto his shoulder lightly and he placed his hand on her back, the shimmery fabric of her gown slipping beneath his fingers. Mai laughed.
"You haven't done this much, have you, honey?"
Kaiba didn't bother to hide his glare, which Mai apparently found amusing. She laughed again. "It's all right. You know, we could ditch this party. My deck is in the coat room..." She watched Kaiba expectantly.
He sighed. Well, what did he expect from mixing a dueling program and a dancing program? "Don't you like dancing?" He asked gruffly.
"Sure. But dueling is better." It was a blunt and honest answer, essence of Mai.
The song wrapped up with the low whine of a cello, and Mai stepped back. He was about to ask her for the next dance when a familiar voice butted in.
"Hey Mai! What are you doing with this loser?"
Jonouchi stood before them, looking much tidier than usual in a black tuxedo. His blond hair was as messy as ever, though. Mai smiled at the other duelist and said, teasingly, "Some people here are gentlemen enough to ask me for a dance."
Kaiba was pleased with his partner's answer until Jonouchi replied with, "Fine. Mai, wanna dance?"
"She doesn't want to dace with you, Mutt, so-"
"Sure, Jou, if you think you can handle me." And just like that Mai was out of his arms and into the arms of his annoying, inferior rival.
Seto glared. Fine. Virtual Mai wanted to dance with virtual Jonouchi. There was no accounting for taste. But that mutt - where did he get off taking Kaiba's dance partner, and in Kaiba's own dance tutorial, at that! With growing irritation, the young billionaire stalked away from the happily dancing duelists.
Of course, he could delete the virtual Jonouchi, but that lacked the satisfaction of actually dealing with the problem. He didn't want to delete his rivals; he wanted to beat them.
He could think of one perfect way to spite the puppy. All it required was a touch of reprogramming.
"Computer, download profile of Shizuka into dance tutorial settings."
There was a shimmer of light and a virtual Shizuka appeared. It was rather by accident that Kaiba even had a virtual profile on Jonouchi's sister - Shizuka and Mokuba had played a few rounds of virtual games while on the blimp, and the pods automatically saved visual and cognitive data on any occupant.
Shizuka looked very different from the girl who had followed her brother onto the Kaiba Corp. blimp back in his Battle City Tournament. This girl had her copper colored hair swept up onto her head in an elegant mess of curls. The style showed off the choker collar of her sleeveless dress, and the dark green fabric made her pale skin glow in comparison.
Kaiba blinked. The girl looked down right doll-like. This was perfect - the prettier she looked, the more her big brother would hate this.
She finally looked up and immediately blushed. "Sorry." She murmured.
"What for?" Kaiba rolled his eyes. She might look different, but virtual Shizuka was just as frustratingly polite as her flesh and blood counterpart. When she didn't answer Kaiba shrugged. "Come on, we're dancing."
"Okay." She agreed, and stepped into the correct position. Within seconds they had picked up the beat and were gliding steadily towards Jonouchi and Mai, with Kaiba carefully steering their path.
Mai and Jonouchi were apparently enjoying themselves. Kaiba didn't know why the computer had deduced that the mutt was a good dancer, but it had. It must have been some kind of glitch, Kaiba thought. Where in the world would he have learned to dance like that?
A moment before, Kaiba had considered his dance with Mai natural and graceful, but not ten feet away Jonouchi was redefining those words. Every step he made was perfectly timed. Jonouchi lifted Mai's arms above her head and she spun once without missing a beat. When she settled back into position, there was just a little less space between her and Jonouchi.
Gripping Shizuka a bit tighter than necessary, Kaiba led them directly into the other couple's path.
It worked like a charm. As soon as Jonouchi noticed he froze, causing Mai to knock into him. The blond boy didn't even notice - he was too busy striding towards his sister, righteous anger pouring off of him in waves. "Shizuka, what - get your hands off of her, you creep!"
Shizuka looked startled at her brother's outburst, but she brought them to a halt and dropped her hands. Kaiba didn't let go of her shoulder, though, and she didn't try to shrug him off. Kaiba raised an eyebrow at his opponent's rage. The mutt was so predictable it was almost cute. "We're just dancing," he said in his most flippant tone, aiming to provoke Jonouchi further.
"Yeah? Well not anymore." The blond boy reached out and grabbed his sister's hand.
Kaiba made no effort to keep Shizuka as her brother pulled her away. "Well then, seeing as you took my partner, you won't mind if I take Mai."
"No way! I'm not trusting you with my friends or family, rich boy! So be a good little bastard and find yourself someone else!" He emphasized his words by stepping between Kaiba and the two women. Shizuka's eyes were wide as she watched the drama; Mai looked bored and was eyeing the buffet table.
Kaiba moved closer. "You can't dance with them both at once, and you can't forbid them from dancing with me. So whoever you choose, there's no way you can keep them both from me."
It had seemed like an airtight statement when it left Kaiba's mouth, but Jonouchi suddenly smiled - one of his huge self-pleased grins - and shook his head. "No, there is one partner I can choose that will keep you away from them both."
And Jonouchi closed the space between them in two quick steps and before Kaiba could react, Jonouchi had roughly pulled him into his arms. "You wanna dance so bad? Okay, we're dancing."
It was unexpected, to say the least. Kaiba's first reaction was to break Jonouchi's hold, preferably with a move that would cause him pain. But he hesitated, because this close Kaiba could see his opponent's brown eyes shining, and he could see plain as day that this was a challenge.
Then the music started and there was no way Kaiba was going to quit. Jonouchi had grabbed Kaiba's waist with his left hand and clasped their right hands together in the traditional man's position. It should have been awkward, because Kaiba was significantly taller, but the blond made it look natural. As the violins swept into the melody, Jonouchi took the first step. Kaiba hurriedly placed his hand on his opponent's shoulder and fell into step.
"Don't worry - I'll keep this on beginner's mode, just for you!" Jonouchi said with a laugh. Kaiba rolled his eyes. The blonde's smile disappeared. "What, you wanna ante up?"
Jonouchi's next step took them out of the small area where they had started dancing. The music had a strong, fast beat, and soon Jonouchi was leading them in a fast line across the room. Kaiba was keeping up his end, but wasn't content to follow.
Jonouchi, meanwhile, was obviously having a ball. His smirk was constant as he stared at Kaiba, daring him with his eyes to disengage.
Kaiba would have won in a fight with Jonouchi, hands down. But this wasn't a fight, it was a waltz. He had no freedom of movement - where one of them stepped, so must the other. And so Jonouchi continued to lead, his grip on Kaiba's waist much too tight.
Kaiba looked for a break in his rhythm; a chance to turn the tables. This shouldn't have been as hard as it was, he thought angrily, but his concentration was devoted to keeping time to the sweeping music. He would not be the first to misstep.
He would not be the first to break the precarious waltz.
And so when Jonouchi backed him hard into a wall, holding him there for a beat with their faces barely an inch apart, Kaiba did not shove back. He took it and stepped to the side, his steps mirroring his opponent's. Kaiba realized his heart was racing. He was breathing hard and his body was practically buzzing. He felt like he was in the midst of a duel.
Kaiba made his move when they reached the raised stage. He used his longer legs to his advantage, stepping further to the side than Jonouchi could and forcing the blond to compensate in the next beat. He felt the rush of victory and pressed on, subtly shifting their course across the polished wood floor in the next three steps.
"Puppies should follow their masters," Kaiba said smugly. He watched Jonouchi's face, expecting to see him bristle at the insult, but instead the impulsive duelist flashed him a grin.
"Armatures shouldn't play with the big league, rich boy." And before Jonouchi's retort could sink in, Kaiba was violently tugged closer. Caught off guard, Kaiba tried to step back, but Jonouchi's foot was suddenly behind his own, cutting off the retreat.
His balance was completely shot. His only options were to stumble and break the flow of the dance or to rely on his partner for support.
Nothing was going to make Kaiba lose the dance. His grip on Jonouchi tightened as he fell backwards. For a moment Kaiba thought Jonouchi couldn't - or wouldn't - keep them both on their feet. It was when the blond finally stopped Kaiba's descent that he realized that this was all calculated from the moment he gained the lead.
Only the hand beneath his waist kept him from falling the last few feet to the floor. He was nearly horizontal with Jonouchi leaning over him as the shorter duelist somehow supported them both.
All he could see was Jonouchi. He was peripherally aware that the music had stopped, along with the dancers. There was no reason the program would have removed the other characters, but as far as Kaiba could tell, he and Jonouchi were alone. He might have turned his head and checked, but he couldn't move a muscle.
Jonouchi leaned in closer. There was an inhuman gleam in his caramel eyes, something that made Kaiba's heart stop so suddenly he didn't even notice.
"Hey, it's okay," Jonouchi said softly. Kaiba could feel his hot breath on his face. "So I own you on the dance floor. I promise I'll be a gentle master."
Kaiba couldn't move. He couldn't breathe. It took all his will to simply get his voice to work. "Computer," he managed shakily. "End program."
Jonouchi's face disappeared, along with the arms that had been holding Kaiba in the precarious dip. The young businessman fell, but the room disappeared before he could hit the floor. For a split second he wasn't falling - he was floating in darkness - but then he slammed into awareness in his own body.
The top of the VR pod opened and Kaiba sat up, gasping. He put a hand to his forehead, shocked to find his bangs damp with sweat. Brushing them out of his eyes, he glanced around the room. Thankfully, he was alone.
He dropped back in his seat. His whole body was humming, as if all his nerves were straining to feel everything. This is ridiculous, Kaiba thought. His body wasn't supposed to react to his actions in virtual reality. There was no reason why he should feel like an electric current was coursing through him.
He placed a hand on his thigh and closed his eyes. There was no reason why a virtual defeat should make him feel like this. It wasn't worth thinking about. This was good, considering that all he could think about was whether the real Jonouchi could move like that.