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The Den

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The Den

Part 1

Number fifty-seven was killing himself again. He had dug his fingers into his throat, caught hold, and pulled. His current body was as unnaturally strong as his original had been. More blood coated the once white floor as he slumped forward in a lifeless heap. The body instantly was removed and replaced with a fresh one. The scan of his very last memories was installed and the recording in the room began to play again the moment he opened his eyes.

"Welcome to the Den. You are a clone, a copy, a biological duplicate of your original self. Your life continues in your original world just as you now do in this one. You have been chosen to live forever. You will have no choice as to what you do with this life until you have completed the program. There is no escape. Death is not an option for you. Should your body sustain enough damage to die, your mind will immediately be placed into a new one. This will continue forever until you accept your new reality and complete the program. In order to complete the program and earn your freedom, you are required to..."

Fifty-seven went for the eyes this time. There was no hesitation, just a strange rictus grin and laughter that sent chills down Eagle's back. He had woken up in a room just like that one. As far as he could tell, everyone began in an identical room. And was monitored by someone just like him? He wondered if he would ever meet the person, or people, who had watched over him as he came to grips with his new reality. He had accepted his lot much quicker than most of the numbers he was now monitoring. He had woken on the floor of one of those identical empty little chambers, naked and chilled, but physically whole. He had woken feeling better than he had in years. No cough, no blood, no agonizing vice clamping tightly behind his ears. He woke well rested, refreshed, and...at first...very relieved. Then the recording had begun to play. His recording had been different from the one these people were being subjected to. He supposed the message was different for each program. The core remained the same, however. He was no longer free, no longer real, no longer alive?

His last memory of life was pain, pride in doing the right thing, and hope that somehow he would make a difference. He hadn't truly hoped to survive. Now he hoped that he had survived. If he had died in his original world, then this copy was the only part of him that would continue on. So many wishful scenarios played through his mind as he sat in that empty room listening to the recording play over and over. If anyone could have found a way to save him, it was Hikaru and Lantis. He imagined himself bedridden but alive, enjoying their company during his slow recovery. Heartbreak, when he eventually left them behind and went back to his people alone, pleasure, when he and his people were invited to join the two of them on Cephiro. Any outcome was better than death. He indulged in the daydreams for what felt like years before finally accepting the truth. He might never know what had become of his original self. This current him was all he had left, and it wasn't in him to sit still when he could be moving forward. And so he had accepted his new reality, and begun his own 'program', his own purgatory of watching others work through the same struggle he had. Watching the majority devolve into suicide, madness, grief and fury, he wished he had put up more of a fight himself. Then again, the program he had woken up in wasn't nearly as disturbing as the one he was now monitoring.

"Active suicide? How many are still doing that?"

Eagle was grateful for an excuse to look away. The body replacement was so fast as to seem instantaneous, yet each time he couldn't help imagining storage rooms full of soulless copies. That was nearly as disturbing as fifty-seven's mad tenacity. "Only three left, not including him. I don't think he's going to stop." Lantis placed a hand on his back, and he leaned into the warmth. Lantis was his reward for having given in so easily. He wondered if they were both original scans, lucky enough to have been started in the same program. Or maybe one or both had already finished a program and chosen death as his reward, only to be restarted in another program, and another, until finally they had been placed together in this one. He would never know. That was good because the thought of that was maddening. They were together now. That was all that really mattered. If he kept telling himself that, maybe he would eventually believe it.

"He'll stop," said Lantis. "They all do eventually."

The recording had begun again, barely audible over the psychotic laughter in the chamber. Eagle winced away from both. "He listened once all the way through. Then the laughter..."

"And suicides? It happens. Once he satisfies his need to rebel and accepts, he will be held in stasis until the program starts. If he truly desires death, he will have to earn it by completing the program."

"That isn't death," Eagle bit out. That was the worst part. "This version of him will die, but the original scan will simply be restarted in a new program. He could even be placed into this one again!"

"He won't remember that, so it's of no consequence to him. Perhaps his next incarnation will choose to take advantage of eternal life. If people's choices could be predicted as well as the entertainment value of these programs, there would be no value in them. Don't get attached to the subjects, Eagle. They are numbers for a reason. They won't be people until they officially begin the program."

Eagle turned dull eyes back to the monitor. Wrists this time, though his nails hadn't looked that sharp. "I can't take much more of this."

"Then switch out. There are other monitors. Remember why we're here and return when you're able."

Eagle turned sharply to look up at the dark-haired man looming over him. "Why are we here, Lantis? How can we simply trust what we've been told by people we've never even seen? When the program starts, are we going to wake up in one of those chambers, freshly copied from our own world and ready to experience purgatory all over again?"

Lantis stared for a long moment before dropping to crouch beside his chair. "This is the only purgatory we will experience because we aren't going to choose death. Our scans won't ever be restarted. We will earn our freedom overseeing this program, just as those people in there will earn theirs by participating in it. That is the price of eternal life. Endless opportunities with you by my side? It's worth it."

Eagle gave a bitter smile. "Yes, it's worth it. All we have to do is sell our souls."

Lantis rose abruptly. "That you can still talk like that proves you haven't been monitoring long enough. Give him another ten before you switch out. He'll accept the reality of this new existence eventually. So will you."

Eagle made a face at his back. "Accepting it doesn't require liking it," he called after him. Getting no response, he resigned himself to seeing how many additional suicide methods fifty-seven could come up with in a barren room without even a piece of cloth to strangle himself with. This subject was as creative as he was stubborn. Just as well that time had no meaning here. The program wouldn't start until the last subject had agreed to participate. At this rate, that would be an eternity in itself.

.-.

Uzumaki Naruto, blonde-haired blue-eyed ninja extraordinaire only had to listen to the recording twice in order to understand exactly what was going on. He was dreaming, obviously. He had gone to sleep with Jiraiya's last book open in his lap and a cup of possibly bad milk on his table. No wonder he was dreaming about being trapped in some weird game thing where he had to have sex with a long series of randomly selected strangers in order to 'earn' an eternity in a paradise of his own making. Since this was all in his head, his partners would be hotties, the sex would be great, and then he'd be Hokage in a world where he was the best ninja around, Sakura was madly in love with him, Kakashi relied on him for everything, and Sasuke was his obedient slave for life. The only question was why he found himself stuck in a featureless white room listening to the recording start its third loop when he should have been sexing up the first of the girls while a groveling Sasuke cleaned up their mess.

"Should you fail to enjoy a match, stimulation will be provided," the recording droned.

"I know," Naruto groaned over the voice. "You already said it twice. I'm too young to have trouble getting it up. That's not even an issue. Just let me out of here so I can get started." He wanted at least a little sex and groveling before he woke up.

"...refusal will result in immediate intervention by means of..."

Naruto kicked one of the seamless walls hard enough to smash his toes. He cursed and hopped and bitched about being nude and barefoot when there was no one around to appreciate it. "I'm not refusing anything," he growled. "You're the one refusing to let me out. How many times do I have to listen to this?" The recording got to the part about fully accepting the reality of the situation and he dropped to sit cross-legged and bare-assed on the floor. It was cold, but at least it was clean. So far this dream was all hype and no hotties. He grumbled under his breath as the recording wound down to the closing question.

"Do you accept?"

"Yes," Naruto said sarcastically. "I accept. I'm in. What, do you want me to sign something to prove it? Just get on with it, already. This is boring." Dreams weren't supposed to be boring!

He closed his eyes. Or maybe the lights went out. When he opened his eyes again the dream had changed. He was dressed now, in the same black and orange outfit he'd worn yesterday. His first thought was that the sex dream had ended, because it made no sense to put on clothes if he were about to take them back off again. He was in the same room, though. Mostly. One of the walls had a doorway in it now. He jumped up and bolted through before his mind could take the exit away and start playing that recording again. He stepped out into an impossibly big circular chamber with doorways all the way around. People were stepping out of the doors, all at the same time. The doorways vanished behind each one. He froze, startled by the sheer number of them, the noise as people spoke, even yelled, and many surged forward till the chamber was a mass of churning bodies. For a split second he could have sworn he spotted Orochimaru, of all people. As if he was screwed up enough to imagine him in a sex dream. Then something exploded, people screamed, and a crackling blonde giant rose up to float in the air above the crowd. Naruto gaped, rubbing his eyes when two more crackling figures flew up to pound on the guy. The milk had definitely been bad, he realized.

"I should have listened to Kakashi-sensei," Naruto grumbled to himself. So much for sex and paradise. He'd probably spend half the day on the toilet once he woke up.

"You should always listen to me," a voice murmured from beside him.

Naruto whipped around, bumping into a small red-haired boy, who had joined some of the people cringing away from the ridiculous lightshow in the distance. "Kakashi-sensei! What are you doing in my dream?"

"Dream...?" Kakashi stared down at the boy for a long while, then drew him further to the left. A tall black-haired teen had come to hover near the frightened redhead and was glaring at the oblivious Naruto. "You would think this is a dream," he sighed, mostly to himself. Naruto had spotted the angry youth and was now gaping at his black feathered wings. Convincing Naruto this was not a dream would be much harder with individuals like that one sharing the room. Just as well. He almost envied Naruto for accepting this so easily.

"Is anyone else here?" Naruto asked excitedly. He scanned the closest faces. Strangely, most of them looked blank, confused by the lightshow and the crowd of weirdos, maybe. Even Kakashi didn't look happy to see him. Actually, no one looked happy. Another glance around gave him an idea as to why. "Kakashi-sensei," he blurted, "Why are there only guys here?" Was this still the sex dream? He spotted a pretty one with long pink hair, but his chest was as flat as could be. No girl in a dream of his would be anything less than a jumbo.

"Naruto," Kakashi started, in a strained tone, "from what I understand-"

"Oh! There's Shikamaru! Hey, Shikamaru, over here!"

Behind his mask, Kakashi grimaced as Shikamaru waded through the crowd, a panicky-looking Lee close on his heels. If Gai were here as well Kakashi was going to thoroughly test the limits of the 'body-replacements' this 'program' could supply. It was bad enough to see so many children present without the possibility of a match with Gai. He watched the boys greet each other, and then looked over to where another masked man was staring at them from across the way. Zabuza had his pretty partner tucked close to his side. If those two were here, all bets were off. They had been dead for over three years. Maybe he really had glimpsed Minato on the other side of this crush. For Naruto's sake, he hoped he hadn't.

"He's here, too," Shikamaru muttered to Naruto. "They both are."

"Who?" Naruto looked around when Shikamaru jerked his head. "Iru-" He cut himself off. It was Iruka, all right. The familiar brown-haired man was crouched near the wall next to a seated...Sasuke. And not two feet away from them stood none other than Itachi, watching the pair with a blank face and sharingan-red eyes. Naruto stumbled back a step, knocking into an unusually quiet Lee. "What the hell? What the hell kind of dream is this?"

"The best kind," a smug voice answered.

Naruto glanced over just in time to be punched in the face. It didn't hurt that bad, but it did sting. He even tasted blood on his lips. Nothing ever hurt in his dreams. He licked the blood with stunned confusion as he stared at the two silver-haired men. Kakashi had his attacker in a careless headlock. As if he needed to. Mizuki was trash. Naruto had kicked his ass back when he was still in the academy. It was random luck that the guy had even landed a hit. That could never happen in real life. It shouldn't happen in a dream, either. Even his nightmares weren't this stupidly bizarre. "What is this...?"

"Justice," Mizuki spat. "Get off me," he tossed back at Kakashi. "What do you plan to do, kill me? I'll just be brought right back. No death, no consequences. Don't think you can protect him. I'm going to enjoy watching you get what's coming to you," he sneered at Naruto. "From every single man here! You better pray you aren't matched up with me because next time it won't be your face tasting my fist." He laughed, a crazed sound that had the nearest people edging away.

"Get lost," Kakashi growled, shoving him away. He wasn't surprised when Mizuki slunk away like the coward he was. The man might have bulked up since his time as a teacher at the academy, but he was still the same snake he had always been. Just another enemy back from the dead. "Come on," he said to Naruto. "We might as well get this over with." He led the way over to the lost member of his team and the older brother his former student had, according to all reports, finally managed to kill. Itachi was alive and well enough to nod at him before turning to vanish into the crowd. There were far too many corpses here. It was no wonder Sasuke appeared to be broken.

Iruka was too mentally drained to feel surprise. He wasn't ready to even acknowledge Naruto's presence and what that might mean. For now all he could do was stare blankly up at Kakashi. "Mizuki, too? Your former teacher is here as well. He brought me to Sasuke. Strange that the dead should have a chance at eternal life. Do you believe any of it?"

If the chunin instructor was hoping for a lifeline to sanity, Kakashi had none to extend. "I haven't decided yet," he admitted. "This has a lot in common with the Tsukuyomi, to be honest." Although, if Minato was alive here then he could no longer dub this a living hell. That would depend on whether or not the man was matched with his own son. "There are some sick minds behind this. That's all I can say with confidence at this point."

"This is real," said Sasuke. His black eyes remained fixed on the textureless floor beneath him, but his lips twitched. "As real as you make it. Or utter nonsense, if you prefer. Whatever keeps your sanity intact."

"How is yours?" Kakashi drawled. The smirk that flitted over Sasuke's lips was less than reassuring.

"This can't be real," Naruto blurted. If this were real, then Sasuke wouldn't be sitting on a floor as casual as could be - eerily casual, in fact - and talking to them. Real Sasuke would have completely ignored this weird situation and single-mindedly set out after Itachi to kill him again. And Naruto would have ignored everything to single-mindedly chase after him again. Because that was what they did in the real world. This was obviously something else. Naruto scowled down at Sasuke, annoyed that he hadn't even glanced up to acknowledge his presence. Would the bastard still be a bastard if this were his own dream? He frowned at Kakashi. "Is there any chance we really are clones? There was this recording when I woke up that said-"

A yellow blazing humanoid missile came rocketing toward them. Naruto froze, his mind once again rebelling at the idea of glowing flying people. Sasuke glanced up, reached over to snag the wrist of the person standing to the right of him, and yanked him off his feet. The flying man crashed into the wall with an impact that should have shook the entire room. Since the wall didn't crack, let alone crater inward, the man should have splattered like an overly ripe tomato. He certainly shouldn't have immediately rose, shaken himself, and launched back into the air. Naruto was still struggling with the insanity of that when it occurred to him that Sasuke had just played the part of hero and had a lap full of flushed pretty-boy for his efforts. Naruto bristled in pure outrage.

"Be more careful," Sasuke said blandly. "Death might be meaningless here, but it hurts just the same." He watched the boy flush and scramble up before offering a stiff thanks. Despite the bright green eyes, this blonde looked more like the Fourth Hokage than Naruto did. Or maybe it was the boy's proud bearing that leant that impression, the fact that he didn't immediately default to defensive blubbering at having needed help. Sasuke glanced to the side to take note of the way Naruto was fuming. Jealousy? Anger that he had, as usual, not acted quickly enough to be of use? Sasuke went back to ignoring him. Naruto's presence here changed nothing. No one's presence here changed anything. As Itachi had rightfully noted, this was merely a form of purgatory, an endurance exercise and nothing more. Only what came after this would matter.

"Perhaps you should stay with us," Lee said, when the rescued boy started to move away.

"That isn't wise," Kakashi cut in before someone else, Iruka most likely, could second the invitation. It was bad enough they knew people here without voluntarily forming new attachments. "Safety in numbers is a concept I doubt will hold true in this situation. Certainly not once the matches are made." Lee flinched at the reminder and dropped his eyes, Iruka looked sick, and Shikamaru grimaced. Only Naruto appeared eager to argue. Kakashi was beginning to wonder if Naruto had been given a different 'explanation' from the rest of them.

"What's wrong with safety in numbers?" Naruto demanded. "If we gang up on those...fying weirdos, I bet we could take them down no problem." It had to be better than relying on antisocial bastards to randomly do the right thing. Jerks like Sasuke were hardly hero material. He scowled at his foremost rival, and then promptly gaped. The rescued pretty-boy had apparently decided he didn't need permission from the rest of them and was now sitting by Sasuke's right side. He had been joined by a skittish black-haired boy and a blank-faced teen with shoulder-length white hair. As Naruto stared, the flat chested pink-haired pretty-boy joined the little group. Sasuke glanced over at him, raised an eyebrow, and smirked. Naruto exploded. This had to still be the sex dream because that smug bastard was forming a harem! There was no way Naruto was going to let Sasuke show him up in his own dream. "If the rest of you want to be cowards, fine. I'll stop those freaks myself!"

"Naruto!" Iruka exclaimed.

Kakashi put an arm out in front of the man to prevent him from giving chase. "Let him go. If he's killed, he'll be brought right back. You discovered that yourself, didn't you?"

Shame twisted in Iruka's stomach until he had no choice but to turn and walk away from that knowing gaze. He had resorted to suicide. Just once, but once was more than enough. He had finally accepted the terms of this 'program' as the only way of getting out of that room by telling himself that since his true self continued on in the real world nothing he did here would affect who he really was. He would know no one and no one would know him and so nothing that happened here would matter to anyone. Once this was finished he would have the option of erasing every last memory of this entire experience, so there were no consequences to any of this. None of those rationalizations made the prospect of enduring this any easier. What comfort was there in knowing he could regain his true self later when he had to compromise himself in order to achieve that end?

He was buffeted by the crowd, catching snippets of conversation as people searched for familiar faces...or hid from them. Gasps and cries were all the warning he had before the crowd surrounding him surged closer to the wall. Another fight had broken out. An orange-haired youth was wielding a slender black sword against a pale blue-haired...humanoid. The man looked almost feline. Iruka's view was blocked before he could do more than wonder how the youth had come by that sword. He certainly hadn't been provided with any weapons. Not that he would have used his weapons even if he had them. Not here, where death didn't take. This was pure madness. No death meant no consequences. It was the weak and vulnerable who would suffer for that. And he had agreed to it. He closed his eyes, letting the skittish crowd shove him along. He was pushed back forcefully into someone and a hand caught his shoulder to keep him there.

"Giving up already, Iruka-sensei?"

He didn't have to look to identify the owner of that voice. He only looked to confirm his suspicions. It was Asuma. And, as he had feared, the man wasn't alone. Standing close to him were Neji, Kiba, and...Gaara. Well, why not? There were too many strangers here for Konoha to have been singled out. Iruka met Asuma's weak smile with a bleak one of his own. "If I hadn't given up, I would still be in that room listening to that recording on its endless loop."

"Fair enough," Asuma agreed. He drew Iruka to the side before he could be knocked over by another surge of the crowd. "Anyone else here we know?" A sudden eruption of orange above the crowd answered that question. He winced when a lone green flicked amidst the exploding clones. "Lee's here," he informed Neji. "Sorry."

Of course Lee had joined Naruto. Iruka should have expected as much. His shoulders slumped miserably, but he didn't bother to look. "Kakashi is here as well, along with Shikamaru. And Sasuke. And Mizuki, Itachi, and Minato."

"The Fourth?" Asuma exclaimed. "But he's been dead for years!"

"Death doesn't seem to mean much here," Iruka muttered.

"That explains Orochimaru, then. I thought I spotted him."

"It explains you as well," Kiba pointed out frankly.

"Don't start that again," Asuma said dismissively. "Before I woke up in that room, I was enjoying some well earned private time. I wasn't even on a mission. I sure as hell wasn't facing off with a pair of Akatsuki." He gave Iruka a friendly shake and prodded him into motion. "Take me to my kid. Want to make sure he isn't getting himself killed any more than necessary like those two fools."

Iruka grudgingly led the way back to the others. He caught a glimpse of an orange-clad clone spiraling through the air only to poof out after being swatted by an annoyed looking giant with impossibly upright spiky black hair. He kept his eyes down after that. Naruto had always learned things the hard way. Since he was no longer the boy's teacher, he didn't have to play witness to this particular lesson.

.-.

"Are we supposed to do something about this?" asked Eagle. He watched the screens with a combination of dread fascination and horror. Even Lantis couldn't mask his disapproval of the spectacle unfolding before their eyes. The overweight and beady-eyed controller just laughed and dug another handful of chips out of the bag next to him. Since Eagle had yet to experience true hunger, he could only assume the man ate for the pleasure of it. That his pleasure wasn't dampened by this bloody spectacle said a lot about his nature. Eagle was fast coming to loath him.

"Are you kidding?" Milluki scoffed. "For some people, the violence is even more entertaining than the sex. See? There goes another one. Bet he gets trampled to death at least twice before he stays alive long enough to get out from under that herd. And not one of them bothering to jump over him, forget going around. I swear, this is the best part. Take away consequences and they're just animals. They know they can't really die, yet they'll happily let others die in order to avoid a little pain. This part separates the people from the sheep. Gives you heroes and villains, too." He made a face when one of the younger would-be heroes had his head ripped off for his efforts. He shoved the chips into his mouth and grumbled around them. "Not that any of these stand out so far. That rat brother of mine could have shut the big guy down in seconds if he weren't so damned lazy."

Eagle shifted uncomfortably as he looked at the boy in question. Milluki's little brother was tucked safely against a wall, shielding his companions from the crowd with careless ease. He was tiny compared to some of the people he was holding at bay. Far too young to be subjected to such violence, let alone what was yet to come. "How can you stand to see him participate in a program like this? He's just a child."

Milluki rolled his eyes. "I forget you're a conscript, just earning your freedom. It's different once you've been around forever. This is his eighth program. The brat chooses death every single time. So what if he's young? At the rate he's going, he'll never live to be old enough by some people's standards. Besides, he's got his loser 'friends' with him this time around. Not to mention Illumi and the old man."

"Your father," Lantis stated coldly.

"Bleeding morals," Milluki squinted. "Fuck off with that. Every program has a few ringers. If the old man wants to help out his favorite, what's it to you? I'm the one who should be bitching. He'd never have done that for me. Let me tell you, paradise isn't all it's cracked up to be. Sure, you can be treated like a god by the people who used to look down on you, but unless that's their idea of paradise, too, it's not really them. Their personalities might be based on the original scans but they're still just AI's. That gets old fast when you live forever. Much more satisfying to see the originals fight their way through stuff. Why do you think these programs are so popular? Immortality goes hand in hand with boredom induced insanity. We're feeding a need here." He scowled over his shoulder at the two uptight newbies. "Speaking of which, you have work to do. Grab a seat and get to it. Our viewers will be picking favorites at this stage. They'll bitch up a storm if one of them gets neglected."

His helpers took the seats to either side of him. He rolled his eyes at their reluctance. "Keep dragging your feet and you can serve your time by joining them instead of monitoring them. Then you'd really have something to complain about." He would never understand why it was so hard to get volunteers for this particular program. Illumi had been great at making sure every last bit of sadism and drama was captured on screen. It was a shame the snooty bastard had gone and joined the old man in this stupid shit. Sure, Killua had been the family heir in their original world, but he was just a passive-aggressive brat now. Why so many of their loyal viewers kept hoping he would finish a program and choose a happy ending was beyond him. It was a ratings boost, though, so he wouldn't complain too much.

Now that the noobs were back on the clock, he turned his attention to preparing the alcoves. A big chamber was great for exposing the pacifists, sullen resistors, and wimps to random violence, but there were far too many people scanned from the same worlds who hadn't even noticed they weren't alone in there. The easiest drama played off preexisting bonds. He had personally picked as many connected scans as he could before the random generator supplied the rest. Audiences rebelled when programs were too scripted, so he couldn't intervene directly to gather the lost sheep back into their original flocks. He could, however, design the environment to make convenient encounters more likely. The big screen wouldn't come into play until the first round of matches, which was handled by an entirely different department. He had to stick with prepping his alcoves with small screens and numbers. Good enough. Once they were up, anyone entering one would know exactly who was occupying each of the others. That ought to help get the flocks back together. He smirked and grabbed another handful of chips. Ten to one he got bonus points for screwing over any attempt to hide in plain sight. He hoped Illumi was especially pissed when he noticed that. It would serve him right for bailing on him. As if Milluki could have missed the bug that had placed Hisoka's latest restart into this particular program. He wasn't the hacker of the family for nothing.

By the time he got back to the action, things had gotten completely out of hand. So far as he knew, the big guy wasn't a ringer. He had sat black-haired and blank-eyed through an eternity of loops before finally stirring himself to accept the terms. It was only when he spotted others from his own world that he had snapped. Rarely did a random pick cause so much carnage at this stage. It helped that at least one of his opponents cared as little about the bystanders as he did. Those energy blasts cut entire swaths through the sheep, the best kind of overkilll. Unfortunately that was going to get old fast. Viewers couldn't get invested in participants who were incinerated as quickly as their bodies were replaced.

"If they don't figure it out soon, you'll get your intervention," he informed his tight-lipped helpers.

"Figure what out?" asked Eagle. He didn't appreciate the way Milluki sighed and rolled his eyes. This was unpleasant enough without having to deal with someone like him.

"Just keep an eye on fifty-seven," Milluki snapped.

"He isn't doing anything," Lantis pointed out.

"Exactly."

.-.

Haku was impressed by Naruto's tenacity. The first death had clearly shaken him. Perhaps it was the violent intimacy of being torn apart by his opponent's bare hands. He was quicker to shake the second death off, probably because hesitating would have gotten his green-clad comrade killed. By the third death, he was in motion the moment his body was replaced. Having vast experience with clones no doubt helped him adapt. Haku couldn't imagine being assaulted by the death-memory of every single bunshin that was dispatched, much less being able to continue fighting with those constant distractions. The only questions in his mind were what Naruto hoped to achieve and why none of his other companions were joining or stopping him.

"Pathetic," Zabuza muttered.

"Having been defeated by him?" Haku returned Zabuza's quick glare with a sweet smile.

"Knowing we wouldn't fare much better. This is like watching bulls take on a rabid dog. They're as stupid as he is."

"Knocking him out could be far more difficult than we assume," Haku said fairly. "Perhaps that's why they persist in killing him despite the fact that doing so merely causes him to be revived at full strength again. Or maybe they're simply enjoying themselves too much to have it end so quickly. Some people would rather fight than win." That, he believed, was the real reason Naruto kept jumping back into the fray. He was more of a hindrance than a help to those able to fight the man on equal terms and only a little more clever than those golden muscle-headed bulls with their pointless charges. An energetic fox kit snapping at the mad dog's tail while trying to avoid being trampled by the stampeding hooves. Haku could see how that might be enjoyable.

"If you want to join him, go for it. No one is stopping you."

"I never fought for the sake of fighting." He wouldn't start now that he was right where he wanted to be. They had both died in their world. Zabuza wouldn't admit as much, but it was there in his eyes. Zabuza had experienced failure and wore his newfound humility like a filthy cloak Haku longed to strip away and wash clean for him. He had no right to do so when he refused to don one of his own. His death, far from being a heartfelt sacrifice, had been as meaningless as the deaths taking place around them now. Zabuza had died anyway. He should have felt anger and shame that it was all for nothing. He was too content to feel either. Better this strange hell at Zabuza's side than some idealistic afterlife without him. He was too selfish to regret the way things had turned out. Strange that he had needed to die in order to learn that about himself.

A sudden churning in the crowd warned them that their place near the wall was no longer safe. Haku glanced up at the ball of burning white energy streaking toward them, and then looked down at the tanned hand that had latched onto his shoulder. To keep him close? To support him against the panicked shoving of the people around them? To ensure that whether they evaded or stayed, they did so together? Fanciful thoughts that proved futile. He never had a chance to find out what Zabuza had intended. A young man in the tight pack of bodies raised his right hand over his head and that beam of white heat was sucked into his palm without so much as singeing anyone. Haku was privately annoyed with the intervention. It wouldn't have hurt that badly. Now he might never know if Zabuza had meant for them to stand their ground and die together as they hadn't done in their original world. The hand left his shoulder and his disappointment darkened into resentment.

"I have changed my mind," he decided, sending a quick look back to judge Zabuza's reaction. "This needs to end."

Zabuza raised an eyebrow and then smirked beneath the cloth masking the lower half of his face. It was rare to see Haku truly annoyed. He had to wonder at the cause. So far the boy had accepted their new situation with that patient complacency Zabuza had always found both admirable and irksome. He appreciated whatever had caused this sudden change. "What do you have in mind?"

"A better vantage point, to start with," Haku frowned. They had already discovered that clinging to the walls with chakra was impossible here. He could see the airborne fighters in the distance. Beyond that, there was a small ocean of heads blocking his view. He huffed a self-depreciating laugh. "What I wouldn't give to have your height."

"That one's easy." Despite years of training, Haku had remained a slender little thing. Zabuza caught his waist and lifted him up to sit on his shoulder. The loose cloth of his hakama against his cheek was annoying, but Haku's horrified expression made it tolerable. Zabuza snorted, wondering again just how long it was going to take the boy to realize he was no longer a tool.

"Zabuza-san..."

"Get to it," Zabuza muttered. "Unless you'd rather I make a hill out of these wretches, this is the best you'll get." The boy still blushed easily, he noticed. That wouldn't do him any favors here. He sneered at the reminder of what was to come. So much for snagging a ride to heaven in Haku's wake. He had known all along where he was headed. It was just a shame he had dragged Haku down with him.

.-.

After a lifetime of being the odd man out, Shino was finally experiencing what it felt like to be the normal one. Three of his companions were dead and none of them, from what he understood, had gotten along while alive. Keeping company with the Fourth Hokage was a privilege. Sharing that company with Itachi and Orochimaru was simply confusing. He was quickly regretting not having joined Naruto in his continuous suicide attacks. Although visibly pointless, they at least made sense. Nothing else here did, in his opinion.

"He's just like his mother, for all that he looks like me," Minato smiled.

"She was ignorant as well?" Orochimaru inquired, with a smile of his own. He didn't seem to mind when his barb received only a mild look of reproof.

"He may never stop," said Itachi.

Minato dismissed that. "Since each revival refreshes his energy, he'll never have to stop. But he will. Once he gets bored. Besides, this can't go on forever."

"Can't it?" Orochimaru drawled. "Time has no meaning here. Or haven't you noticed?"

Shino noticed that Orochimaru and Itachi were ignoring each other completely. He would have picked up on that sooner if he hadn't been focused on trying to stay close to the Fourth while staying as far from the other two as possible. Given that the three had him nearly pressed into the wall, his efforts were in vain. He gave up and slipped off to the side. Itachi's side, as the lesser of two evils. He hoped.

"I'm sure you're ecstatic," Minato sighed, sending an annoyed look at the gloating Sound ninja. "You'll never have to switch bodies again."

"Nor be limited to what a mere shinobi can master," Orochimaru purred. "I feel rather sorry for my original self."

"I should say so, considering he died at the hands of your prey." Minato sent a sidelong look at Itachi, who remained as blank-faced as ever. "You two do have that much in common. Perhaps a truce? You know what they say about keeping your friends close..."

"Kisame is currently occupied elsewhere," Itachi murmured. "As is the only one here tedious enough to be considered an enemy of mine."

Minato glanced up at the pony-tailed blonde riding a giant bird of clay and maniacally lobbing bombs down at the area Itachi's little brother had chosen. Upon last check, everyone in that area had been shielded by sand, yet the blonde was apparently as undaunted as his own son when it came to fruitless endeavors. Tedious, indeed. Still, Orochimaru could be very nasty when riled. Itachi would do well to remember that. "I suppose I'm lucky to never have personally slighted anyone here."

"Aside from your son," said Itachi.

Minato's eyes narrowed at that low blow. Perhaps there was some truth to Orochimaru's sly claims about Konoha having degraded since his death. But even if the village had treated his son badly, that was hardly his fault. He'd been dead, after all. "I did the best I could for him. At least his seal remains active here."

"For now," Orochimaru agreed, far too readily.

There was a strange undertone to this unlikely threesome that Shino was astute enough to grasp and sane enough to recoil from. He edged further away. He had been told often and at length how his insects gave people the creeps. He was now experiencing the creeps himself and finally had some sympathy for the people he had unwittingly inflicted them upon. It was a prickly, uncomfortable, and...rather dirty feeling. He decided lingering near the Fourth wasn't worth this. He turned, determined to seek comfortable anonymity amidst the strangers. He stepped to the side to go around the outstretched leg of a white-haired man seated against the wall and walked right into a spray of blood. The body hurtled by so quickly he barely saw it. He both saw and felt the remains as the body splattered against the wall. He jerked back, stumbling over that outstretched leg and blinking blearily at the freshly revived body that picked itself up out of the blood smear and ducked back into the crowd.

The white-haired man came to his feet, blood dripping down the side of his face and into the v of his chest, which was exposed by his long black coat. Pale seagreen eyes flicked to Shino for a split second before the man strode into the crowd. Shino immediately lost sight of him. He had a good view of the giant maniac who had sent that body flying their way, though. He was staring right at the man when he turned to gray stone and dropped out of sight. A gray foot with part of a leg attached bounced back up into view, making him wonder how badly he had shattered upon impact. Shino gave a slow blink behind his black sunglasses.

"What sort of technique is that?" Orochimaru demanded. "Being turned into a statue should certainly be considered death. A body can't survive once the heart stops. My own experiments have proven that even external paralysis can-"

"I doubt this place operates according to the same science as our world," Minato said quellingly. "It appears to have worked. If he were dead, he would be up by now. A shame, really. I was hoping someone might consider using an illusion to calm him down and settle this peacefully."

"I was never going to do that," said Itachi. "You could have suggested it to Sasuke, however."

"Would he have done it?" Minato frowned when Itachi gave him a blank look. "I can't believe your brother turned out worse than you." He sent an exasperated look at Orochimaru. "Is my son really fixated on him?"

"Possessive, even," Orochimaru gleefully informed him. "He once warned me never to refer to Sasuke-kun as if I owned him. He then lost his mind to the fox when I refused to yield to his ownership of him. Calling it a fixation is putting it mildly."

"But, why?"

"Because Sasuke ran away," said Itachi.

"Because Naruto's only instinct is to chase," said Orochimaru.

"Well, I don't like it one bit," said Minato. Neither Orochimaru nor Itachi told him to join the club. They didn't need to. All three of them knew very well what things they had in common. Having all died in their original world didn't even rank highly on that list.

"Is it over?" Shino asked, enduring the returning creeps in order to get close enough to catch the Fourth's eyes. Those blue eyes which were so similar to Naruto's moved past him, and Shino turned to see that the blood-splattered white-haired man had returned. The man was smiling. It was a small smile, barely visible, really, but it somehow magnified the creeps prickling all over Shino's skin.

"It hasn't even begun," the man said ominously. He didn't seem to mind the four stares that followed him as he resumed his seat next to the bloody mess. The smile faded away, his gaze once again dropping to the little black orb lying in the palm of his hand.

Shino made a full retreat this time. From the sound of things, there were still some fights going on, but dying a few times was better than staying near those...people. Keeping an eye out for Naruto, Lee, or any other non-creepy face, he headed directly for the other side of the room. He judged himself near the center when he was sideswiped by orange and blue and blonde. Naruto was such refreshingly normal company he resolved to never comment on the boy's clearly questionable bloodline. What Naruto didn't know, Naruto couldn't be creeped out by.

.-.

"Damn," Milluki spat in disgust. "Not even a summon to cap things off. I hate magic. I keep telling them they need to block that shit."

"Is he dead?" asked Lantis.

"Of course not. That's the problem. They didn't even bring him down first. He'll probably start up again the second that shit wears off, assuming they don't just replace his body anyway for his first match. That'll be great for ratings," he said sarcastically. "No one would ever see that one coming." He hefted himself out of the chair, which reminded him he was overdue for a body replacement. Bigger chairs weren't in the budget. As if money was an actual thing. What bullshit. "Keep monitoring," he tossed over his shoulder. "I have a call to make." They would have to fix this fast to avoid cries of the program being fixed. Nothing like a random pick to make viewers accuse them of implanting predictable ringers. At this rate the actual ringers were really going to have their work cut out for them.

.-.
TBC

Chapter Text

Part 2: Souls

Some believed that packaging the sexual antics of random strangers into a tasty menu for the consumption of insatiable, if less than discerning, consumers was an artform. Syazel preferred to view it as a science. Each program was simply another test in which to validate his theories and improve upon his methods. Art was a subjective medium judged by fickle masses who latched on to whatever fad was most popular at any given moment. Science was an indisputable system based on enduring truths. He could have argued at length on the subject, but frankly their ratings spoke for themselves. Those ratings had jumped since his involvement in the program. He wasn't about to let them drop now.

He waved away the screen-bearing minions dancing around his throne and directed his annoyance to the large screen before him and the unsightly man featured there. The bodies they used might be little more than disposable containers, but that hardly excused letting them get to such a state. Had the number crunchers not proven Milluki's usefulness, he would never have deigned to work with the man. Just looking at him made his upper lip curl. "How is this any concern of mine?"

"What if he's set up to bottom?"

Syazel threw his head back with laughter. The sheer absurdity! But what else could he expect from a man who had clearly never experienced intimacy in his original life? He could only imagine how much an artificial intelligence would have to be dumbed down in order to willingly service someone like Milluki. He shook his head in what would have been pity had he been the sort to feel such emotions. Contempt bled from his tone. "Who in this program could possibly top him? Assuming anyone would even want to see that, which I highly doubt."

Milluki scowled at the pink-haired poof. He didn't mind sadists as a rule, but the sexual ones irked the hell out of him. Narcissistic bitches with ice skewers up the ass, if you asked him. The poof had a point, though. While he hadn't spent as much time monitoring this batch of participants as his helpers had, he had noticed the majority of them were small to average in size. There were a few giants in there, though. One in particular stood out in his mind. He grimaced and felt his stomach turn over. "There's my old man."

Syazel made a prettily pursed face. "On behalf of our loyal viewers, I am compelled to say 'Ew.'"

"Shut up," Milluki grimaced. "You know what I'm saying. Even if he tops, it's not going to change anything. He'll tear up whoever he's matched with. Yeah, you can drug him, but that just means he'll be tearing them up with his cock instead of his hands."

"I fail to see the problem," Syazel shrugged. "What you're referring to is called guro by those who subscribe to that sort of thing. While not aesthetically pleasing, it is a perfectly common kink."

"Common is the problem." Milluki knew better than to get lured into a kink discussion with this freak. "It's predictable. You can see it coming from a mile away. Once the first round of matches is out, they're going to know whoever is put up with him will end up flesh jam. If we give them what they expect, we're predictable. If we don't, we'll be accused of interfering. Either way, we're screwed."

"Not as messily screwed as his unfortunate partner," Syazel murmured. It amused him how easily Milluki went from belligerent to queasy. For someone who had been an assassin in his original world, Milluki had a surprisingly weak stomach when it came to the darker side of sex. "Please cut to the chase. What exactly do you want me to do?"

"Drug him down, not up."

Syazel's golden eyes narrowed dangerously. "I dare you to repeat that."

Great, Milluki sighed. Now the poof was all set to jump through the screen and scratch his eyes out with those pointy blue nails of his. He really did miss Illumi. He knew how to deal with these types. "I didn't say dope him into a limp noodle. Just mellow him out a little."

"I will not-"

"Drug someone who isn't resisting," Milluki finished for him. "I know. But he is resisting, see? If that spell doesn't wear off on its own, he's going to get a new body anyway. And we both know the second he's back, he'll try to kill whoever he's with. So you'll have to dope him for resisting in order to get any sex out of him. All I'm asking is that you switch up the cocktail a little. That's your specialty, right? Getting the best performance out of unwilling subjects?" It was physically painful having to stroke the smug bastard's ego. Syazel was now preening, though, so at least it was working. "A little departmental cooperation is all I'm asking."

It would be an interesting experiment, quelling the subject's rage without inhibiting his drug induced lust. A very delicate mix would be required to achieve such a result. Not that he would agree with Milluki's request so easily. He had a reputation to maintain, after all. "I will consider considering it," he said dismissively. "Begone now. Unlike some people, I have work to do."

Milluki had a closeup view of one of Syazel's gibbering humanoid creations as it disconnected the call. Funny how a narcissist had to surround himself with those...creatures...in order to feel better about himself. Not surprising, though. Only an AI would go near that poof. That was probably what made him such a good sadist. Having no access to the real thing, his fantasies were left to run wild. It made for creative entertainment, he'd give him that much.

.-.

The world famous King of Games bowed out less than a foot from the doorway he had exited. Had the doorway not vanished behind him, he would have ducked right back into the chamber he had wanted so badly to escape. It was just too much. Unlike his other self, Yugi couldn't view this as a game to be played and won like any other. People weren't pieces to be moved over a board at whim. And this wasn't some hellish alternate dimension powered by ancient Gods in which souls were staked purely for the sake of winning. He had never liked those games, but he had accepted them. He knew what they looked like. More importantly, he knew what they felt like. This was a brightly lit room filled with mostly normal looking people. He felt as if he had stepped into a crowded game convention spotted by cosplayers. When glowing men flew above the crowd to engage in battle, his first thought was that Kaiba could have designed a better battle sequence in his sleep. The men were large and loud, but they were still just men. They weren't nearly as shocking as monsters would have been.

'Make no mistake, Aibou, there are monsters here.' Wearing human guise and hiding in plain sight. The strange men in the distance were inconsiderate at best. True threats rarely revealed themselves so quickly.

'I don't want to be here,' Yugi admitted to his other self. He still couldn't bring himself to use the spirit's true name. There was too much power in it, and old habits died hard. For too long he had thought of that other personality as some aspect of himself, the dark to his light. He knew better now. He had been there, seen the past, and understood now that the second soul dwelling within him was that of an ancient king, a Pharaoh, and had never been some hidden dark part of his heart unlocked when he had solved the Millennium Puzzle. He knew that. He would never forget how it had felt bidding that spirit goodbye...even if it had turned out to be a very short parting.

'I shouldn't be here,' Yami agreed. He didn't understand the how or why of it. He had chosen to stay in the past where he belonged. He had chosen to die...for good this time. They should never have met again. To have been revived without the puzzle was impossible. Yet here they were. They had woken together in that room, the puzzle no where to be seen. Even now that the puzzle was once again hanging from the chain around Yugi's neck, he felt only a fond connection to it. He could still take shelter within it, but he was no longer bound by it. Unfathomable.

'I'm glad you're here,' Yugi said quickly, and whole-heartedly. Was it really only yesterday that they had parted ways? It felt as if they had been trapped in that room for days. He hadn't had a chance to truly miss his other self. He was glad for that. If there was one good thing about this impossible situation, it was Yami. 'When this is over, you'll have your own body back. I'm going to hug you every chance I get.'

That was a quite a threat. Yami refrained from commenting on it, though. It had been difficult to convince Yugi to accept the terms necessary to get them out of that room. Paradise didn't appeal to a boy who had been utterly content with his life. Power appealed to him even less. The only thing Yugi had found worth fighting for was the prospect of getting him a body of his own. Yami had taken advantage of that selfless nature. Revisiting the past, he had enjoyed having his original body back. He could easily do without it, though. He was careful not to reveal that to his host. Yugi needed something to motivate him. The boy always fought that much harder when he was doing it for someone else.

'We should investigate,' said Yami. 'Allow me.' Yugi was only too happy to relinquish control. Yami skirted along the wall, his senses spreading out around them. They had no cards, but like the puzzle itself that didn't seem necessary here. As he had suspected, they weren't alone. It wasn't a game without challenging opponents and, despite what Yugi believed, this was most certainly a game. They had been given the rules. Now it was just a matter of playing within them.

'Are you looking for someone?' asked Yugi. The crush was getting rough, with people shoving against them despite there being no where to go except tighter against the wall. He didn't have Yami's confidence. There was so much anger and fear in this place he could have choked to death on it. This would have been far easier to accept had the room at least been dark and smoky and ugly.

'I'm avoiding someone,' said Yami. 'Can you feel it?'

Yugi had trouble feeling anything beyond the incongruity of evil in a brightly lit chamber. He didn't want to test Yami's patience, though. He focused on the air around them and gasped. 'Is that a Millennium Item? But why? I thought they were all gone. None of them should feel like that now!'

'No, they shouldn't. Having served their purpose, they should be little more than relics now.' What he sensed was no familiar relic. It was a dark malicious power fueled by insanity. 'The rod.'

'Marik? It can't be. He's fine now! He's-'

'He was,' Yami corrected him. 'What he is, if it is him, remains to be seen. Take nothing for granted here, Aibou.'

His other self was back, Yugi reminded himself, when that should have been impossible. Was that any stranger than for Marik to have succumbed to madness once more? Or, if their souls really had been 'scanned,' for him to have been 'copied' before his heart had changed for the better? 'Are we going to have to fight him again?' They couldn't. They didn't even have cards to play with. And he didn't want to go through that again. He didn't even want to be here. He suppressed that outcry as deeply as he could. It was childish and selfish and useless. No, he didn't want to be here, but he was here and that wasn't going to change. At least he wasn't alone. He wouldn't wish any of his friends into this awful situation, but he still missed them. It wasn't fair that the only other person from their world might very well try to kill them again.

Yami stopped in his tracks as he sensed another familiar threat ahead of them. Someone shoved against his back, forcing him forward a step. He ignored it. His eyes lifted to a place along the wall where the air was shimmering faintly. Wings. Did anyone else see that? Did he see that? Did he have any idea he was doing that himself? Probably not.

'Is that...?'

'Blue Eyes,' Yami frowned.

'Kaiba!'

Yami's lips twitched in helpless amusement. It was endearing how happy Yugi was to meet up with the one 'friend' from their world who would be the least happy to see them. It wasn't surprising, though. One of the things he and his partner had in common was their refusal to accept defeat. Kaiba was one of Yugi's friends because Yugi wanted him to be. There was no arguing with him on the subject.

'Why are you just standing there?' Yugi demanded. He knew Yami had issues with Kaiba. Everyone had issues with Kaiba, mostly caused and encouraged by Kaiba himself. But he was here. They weren't alone here. One of his friends was here and he wanted to see him right now. 'What are you waiting for?'

'That,' Yami said, his eyes narrowing as that hazy phantom faded away. 'He isn't alone,' he warned him. And there was no guarantee they would have any better luck summoning a monster than his former High Priest had. Hopefully that held true for their enemies as well. If not...well, it would be quite a challenge. A dark smile curved his lips as he slipped back into motion.

'Hurry,' said Yugi. If Marik was somewhere behind them, he could guess who was in front of them. 'Poor Ryou...'

Yami didn't bother to correct him. Yugi would realize his mistake soon enough.

.-.

Kanna lingered long enough to get a good look at some of the people around him. Kids, fems, old guys, alien weirdos who made demons look downright beautiful in comparison. Losers, for the most part. And all male from the looks of them. He made sure the doorway had vanished behind him, then he smirked. 'On second thought, you can handle this. It isn't my scene.' He felt the soul within him recoil in shock. It was enough to make him laugh, which had the added benefit of startling some of the people closest to him. 'You're so naive. I lied to get us out of that room, dumbass. I'll wait till this is finished and you have a body of your own. This is your show till then.' He retreated, which was far easier here than it had ever been in their own world. Ios struggled, of course. The stupid angel had honestly believed he was going to spare him from tainting his pure soul with the sin of fornication. It was almost sad how trusting the guy was. Unfortunately for him, Kanna had standards. 'If you get matched up with someone worth fucking, I'll take over. Otherwise, forget it. It's annoying enough to think some of these losers might get to touch my body without me being along for the ride.'

He settled down where it was dark and quiet. He had slept here when his body had first been possessed. Eventually he had gotten bored enough to start watching what the thief did with his body. He doubted he would be watching much of this. Unlike Ios, he wasn't a trusting fool. He wouldn't put it past the angel to try switching right when things were getting nasty. Besides, it would be good for Ios to dirty those wings of his. Whatever paradise they devised when this was over, he had no plans for one that involved fighting demons on behalf of an unseen god. His idea of paradise had no gods. As for demons? Well, Ios could fight his favorite devil easier with black wings than he ever had with white. Using his own damn body for a change. There was only one devil Kanna was interested in. 'If Shiva Garland is here, I call dibs. Just so you know.'

With that parting shot ringing in his ears, Ios found himself in full control. He pressed tightly against he wall behind him and allowed himself a momentary panic. Only a damnable fool would have taken Kanna at his word. Normally he wouldn't have, but he knew nothing about the carnal side of human nature. Kanna's willingness to 'fuck his way to freedom' had rung disturbingly true. Even now, that didn't appear to have been a lie. It was just limited to those who conformed to Kanna's 'standards.' Whatever those were. It was beyond him how anyone could lust after a devil like Shiva Garland. Any male, that was. He had no doubt Shiva had gained as many female followers as Sword claimed to have had during his own reign in hell. Even if Shiva were alive and present here, Kanna would be lucky if the demon deigned to fight him, forget anything else.

He struggled to maintain detached from the violence breaking out in the enormous chamber in multiple places and at varying levels. The most obvious, flying energy-wielding devil-sized men fighting in the distance, were not human. The energy of at least two of them was similar, but it was overshadowed by something else. Neither evil nor pure, theirs was simply power, raw and off-putting. They were injuring, even killing, the people closest to them. But that was a side effect of their battle, not the intent. He clamped down on his instinctive need to interfere. Death was not an end here. Kanna had proven that with an eagerness that still left him disturbed. Someone as jaded as Kanna shouldn't have been so quick to believe the voice in that room. He was forced to wonder if the human had a death wish. He didn't know what, if anything, he could do if that were the case.

A blow was struck mere feet from him. He had turned and taken a step toward the victim before he realized what he was doing. Protecting any of these people from a momentary death wouldn't protect their minds. This boy's mind was already shattered. The one who had struck him grabbed his shoulders, shaking and yelling in a vain attempt to be heard over the hysterical babbling of a tortured soul. The boy had spent an eternity alone in that room. Having lived longer than most angels, Ios knew how deeply such isolation could cut. But there was nothing he could do for him. Not here. He turned away, strengthening his resolve to remain uninvolved. Kanna had completely misunderstood his revulsion. It was the helplessness he hated, the pointless cruelty of an artificial existence in which death provided no escape. It wasn't about the sex. That prospect was crude and distasteful, and the thought of being forced into such a thing was personally insulting. But he had been tortured at length by a sadistic devil with something to prove. Kanna had seen firsthand his ability to withstand physical discomfort. He was an angel, after all. They were by their very nature self-sacrificing. That was the true horror of this situation. Struggling would do nothing but delay the inevitable. Being helpless in the face of suffering was his own personal hell.

He silently edged around another altercation. One of these two had the familiar aura of evil, a demon of some sort, but his opponent's power was nearly as dark. Besides, these two were at least making an effort not to involve the bystanders forced into close proximity with them. He pushed his way around them, trying to get back to the wall. He nearly tripped over a traumatized teen with his knees drawn to his chest and hands clamped over his ears. Had there been tears, Ios's resolve would have crumbled. There were no tears, however, just a thick fury radiating out and keeping all but the most insensitive at bay. It hurt to feel, but it hurt much worse to see. He moved quickly, almost frantic in his need to be away from that. As if there was anywhere to go in this pit of despair. He tried to close his heart to the people he passed, the stricken eyes staring out of innocent faces. He was reminded of Souma, and the thought of him here was almost too much to bear. The crowd parted in front of him for just an instant, and he bolted through...right into a maw of evil. The oppressive malice was a balm to his nerves. This, at least, he knew how to deal with.

.-.

Kaiba Seto was not impressed. This wasn't the first time he had found himself trapped within a virtual reality. Between the continuous advances in technology and the enduring strength of greed, he doubted it would be the last. The most obvious flaw of this admitted program was the lack of a realistic portrayal of the body. He never grew physically tired or hungry or anything else a real body would have experienced during a steady count to two hundred and sixty thousand. Mentally, he could have slept for a year and still felt tired. But the only physical discomfort came from sitting in one position for too long. He didn't test the recording's claim that death offered no escape. Of course replacing the body would be easy when it hadn't been his to begin with.

There were only two disturbing aspects of this. First were his memories. He had just returned from the irritating conclusion of his Battle City tournament. There should have been no opportunity for anyone to have scanned his brain. Had someone gotten past his security in order to scan him in his sleep, he would have tracked down the culprit and destroyed this copy of himself by now. Second was his current body. Unlike with the last virtual reality he had been trapped in, this body was an identical duplicate of his own. Whoever was behind this had pried deeper into his business than even that bastard Pegasus had dared to go. He was more concerned with the who than the how of that. Unfortunately, he would probably have to figure out the latter in order to identify the former.

He accepted the 'terms' the moment he decided there was nothing more to learn in that empty room. Time flowed for the body, enough for numbness from lack of bloodflow, superficial pain from strained muscles. That added a touch of realism to make up for the absence of such cues as hunger and continence. As for the mind? Removed from the physical, the mind had no sense of time. It played tricks on itself, filling an eternity in a heartbeat and other such nonsense. His own dreams had taught him that. After over three days by his own count, he should have been experiencing a loss of mental acuity. All he felt was tired contempt and impatience. Business as usual, in other words.

Things were a little more interesting outside the room. The pyrotechnics were eyecatching, though clearly flawed. That fiery energy should have given off enough heat to be felt throughout the entire chamber, should have eaten away at the available oxygen - or at least given the impression that it would. This chamber was enclosed the same as the last one, yet the only heaviness in the air came from the claustrophobic press of bodies that surged this way and that to avoid the violence erupting among the crowd. It was the crowd that held his attention. On the surface this could have been a scene from any disaster movie. Mass panic in an enclosed space where death by trampling was more likely than being killed directly by the menace facing them. Looking more closely, these were real people, each with his own unique reaction and selfish desire to survive. No developer had the time to put that much detail into so many individuals. Even a team would have visible patterns, stereotypes with slight variations from one character to the next. Which begged the question he didn't want to ask. If these were scans of people as real as himself, where had they all come from? He couldn't dismiss this as yet another attempt to take over his empire when he was merely one among hundreds. Yet the thought that this program might be exactly what the recording had proclaimed was too much to stomach. He was no stranger to power and depravity, but to scan this many people and get away with it? That didn't even consider the amount of time and resources needed to make a program of this size. There was no one on earth who had the skill and capital to pull off such a thing. He stopped that line of thought before it could reach its inevitable conclusion. He refused to go there.

His determination to remain firmly grounded in reality was tested when a fight broke out right in front of him. The two men could have been duel monsters in one of his own game systems. The taller one had pale gray-blue skin, pointed teeth, and gills in his neck. The other one turned into water when it suited his needs. Both wielded swords that appeared to weigh more than they did. They were ridiculous next to the normal - and naturally disturbed - people around them. He was relieved when they took their fight deeper into the crowd and out of his sight. Then a young boy with black cat ears and a bristling tail slunk past him. He felt his left eye twitch. He firmly closed his eyes. He had spent too much effort holding himself apart from the mythical magic Yugi and his friends indulged in to lose it now. He was in a virtual reality. Just because his own body was an accurate recreation didn't mean everyone else's was. For all he knew the stranger individuals could be AI's or avatars being used by the people behind this. That made far more sense than the alternative.

A low chuckle from within his personal space drew him back out. There was a man standing beside him and laughing. At him. His eyes narrowed. He was completely normal compared to this comical figure. The man was tan with wild gray-white hair past his shoulders, a scar down one cheek, and he was bare-chested, wearing a loose red shirt and a blue skirt, of all things. The skirt didn't even cover his knees. Where did he get off laughing at him?

"This realm is just full of surprises, isn't it?" the man grinned. "I barely recognized you. Why," he leaned in close, "you even smell different. It's an improvement."

"I don't know you," Kaiba said flatly. "Nor do I care to." The man threw his head back with laughter that was far from sane. It was too reminiscent of Marik for Kaiba's taste. He had recently exceeded what little patience he had for loonies. He wasn't Yugi, after all. "Fuck off."

"Oh, all in good time. I've lost too much time as it is. I should have known." He eyed him from head to toe and laughed again. "Weak, young, short, and pale. How are you so pale? Has Ra died in this world?" He moved too quickly for Kaiba to react, catching him by the throat and lifting him against the wall. His eyes were pale blue slits of glittering mirth. "Where's your power, High Priest? Did it die along with your original body?"

Kaiba clenched his teeth, instinctively grabbing at the man's wrist. He knew what this was now. This had something to do with Ishtar and her damned obelisk. Would these people never accept that he wanted no part of their legends? Even if there were truth to the tales, the past was gone, dead and buried. He lived in the present and looked to the future. As any intelligent person would do. "That isn't me," he bit out. "It has nothing to do with me."

That grin faded into an a curious expression. His gentle tone was at odds with the way his grip tightened. "Because you've been reborn? Have you no memories at all?" He gave a slow smile that was somehow worse than the grin. "Let's see if I can fix that for you. Memories are engraved more deeply in the soul than the body. Maybe if you lose this body enough times something will come back to you."

The pain was real. Kaiba would have been impressed by that if it hadn't come from being crushed against a wall like a bug. He didn't care that death here simply meant his current body would be replaced. It was still a loss and he hated losing more than anything. To be taken out without a fight was infuriating. Everything in him rebelled against the very idea. He choked as that hand crushed his neck. He couldn't breathe, couldn't see, but he could feel the man pressing presumptuously close and then huffing into his ear. The nerve of the bastard.

"Yes, yes. A little deeper now. Can you hear it? That's your soul screaming out. It's all still in there. Darkness never dies. You have ripped enough monsters from human souls to know that. Did you ever wonder what would emerge if your own was brought into the light? I know I did." There was an excruciating pause, then a mocking laugh into his ear. "But I would never have guessed you would claim hers as your own. How surprisingly sentimental of you. Did your pride die along with you, Seto-chan?"

Blood pounded in his ears like the roar of a wounded beast. Beneath it beat the frantic fluttering of disbelief. His heart was going to stop. He was actually going to die, to be taken out of the game without having made a single move. With that name as the last thing he heard? If he was revived and the man didn't immediately kill him again he was going to die of self disgust.

He barely felt himself falling forward. The floor made a much more noticeable impact on him, like a roundhouse kick to the head. Instead of stars, he saw shadows, blurs, that pale ghost of a woman with long white hair who had been flashing through his head ever since he had seen Ishtar's damned stone. He took a breath through a throat that felt the size of a coffee straw and choked. Then he was doubled over, gagging and coughing up blood. No more complaining about how the bodies here had been designed, he warned himself. This felt far too real. Unlike his vision, which was obviously still being effected by oxygen deprivation. His bleary eyes lifted, looking past his attacker to confirm what he had known all along. There were no females here. It wasn't an albino phantom woman in a white dress. It was a young man with straight blonde hair falling to his waist. As for the unearthly glow? Just a translucent serpent rising in front of the guy and bearing its fangs in his face. At least his holograms had the appearance of form, he criticized groggily. That was shoddy work there.

"Do you mind? This is a private matter."

"Then you shouldn't air it in public," Ios pointed out. He would never have guessed the source of all of that evil was a human. Even the beast the man had summoned was more magic than demon. He wasn't sure it could even be killed. "No one can die here. Killing him serves no purpose."

The man scoffed, eyeing him as if he were the one whose sanity was in question. "It serves to amuse me. That's purpose enough." He turned away, crouching down to catch his victim's wrists and push him back so he was sitting against the wall. "You didn't need rescuing, did you, Seto-chan?" A dark blue glare and a rasping growl answered that. "Ah. Right. I crushed your throat." He tossed an exasperated look over his shoulder at the blonde. "See what happens when you stick your nose into other people's affairs? If you had let me finish, he'd be in a fresh body by now. Remember to blame him for that and not me, Seto-chan."

The man turned back to him with a smug grin. Kaiba bared his teeth, closed his eyes, and slammed his head forward as hard as he could. This time he did see stars. The bastard had a head like an anvil. But when he looked up he was pleased to note he wasn't the only one with tears in his eyes. The man was gaping at him with a shocked, almost bewildered expression that somehow reminded Kaiba of Ryou. A ridiculous notion. He supposed that was what happened when a person intentionally cracked his skull after a prolonged bout of oxygen deprivation.

"I can't believe you did that!" the man exclaimed. "Are you a commoner now? What kind of High Priest would-" He cut himself off, his expression blanking suddenly. Then he looked to the side without turning his head. "Just when I thought this world couldn't get any more interesting. Welcome to the fun, Pharaoh. I see you're also looking notably shorter these days. That's saying a lot for you."

Yes, Kaiba thought blackly, because that was just what he needed for his humiliation to be complete. If Yugi were here, the others wouldn't be far behind. He strained against the hands holding his wrists to the wall. Kicking would be awkwardly difficult, would probably earn him a flash up the man's ridiculous skirt, but at this point he no longer cared.

"Now, now," the man murmured to Kaiba without taking his eyes off Yami, "none of that. We'll resume where we left off soon enough, Seto-cha-" Another bash to the forehead had him refocusing to snarl in Kaiba's face. "Stop doing that! What is wrong with you?! Even I never went around smashing people with my head and I was taught no manners whatsoever. You're a High Priest, for fuck's sake!"

Since his throat was too damaged to dispute that, he sufficed with spitting in the man's red face. The sticky blood trickled down the scar, making it look like an open wound. Judging by his stricken expression, it stung like one, too. He hoped so, because one more headbutt and his brain was going to start leaking out of his ears. He doubted even Jounouchi's skull was that thick.

"That does it," the man whispered. "By the time I'm finished with you, you'll be begging me to-"

"Enough," ordered Yami.

"Watch out!" cried the blonde.

The white-haired man snarled over his shoulder. "Both of you stay out of-"

Kaiba squinted against the wall of burning white energy flooding toward them through the crowd of people. He had forgotten about the other people. It wasn't just Yugi and his ghost who had been witness to his humiliation. Wonderful. At least those other people were being incinerated now. Once the energy reached them he would be revived. If he moved quickly enough he might have a chance to beat the hell out of this man. That was something. It was just a shame that Yugi was going to burn up as well. Really, he felt just awful about that.

.-.

Sword was thoroughly enjoying the fighters. True, he regretted not knowing how Souma's training had turned out, but he was once more in control of the body and that was so much better than being reduced to a chibified version of himself attached to the boy's hand. He had been to enough regions of hell to know a good one when he saw it. This one had definite potential. Unmitigated violence with no chance of death? If he weren't a devil, he would have called that heaven. The best part was that he'd finally get his original body back without even having to work for it. If there really was an 'original him' still sleeping inside Souma back in the human realm, he felt sorry for the chump. That poor devil was facing death, Shiva, or death by Shiva, while all he had to worry about was getting it up enough to screw some humans. That was a legitimate worry, considering there didn't appear to be any females here at all. He'd manage, though. He hadn't always been the sexy and powerful devil he was now. He had done his fair share of scrounging in the muck on his way to the top.

Some of these guys weren't half bad. For humans. He had immediately been drawn to the center of the room, zeroing in on the fighters like a moth to a flame. The big crazy guy was too big, bulky and not nearly fast enough for his taste. The man could fly, though, and threw his energy nearly as well as him. Sword still preferred the smaller angry-looking one. A nasty piece who seemed to enjoy missing and taking out the surrounding people with his attacks. He'd be fun to fight if Sword could keep him on the ground. Assuming the others didn't jump in to gang up on him like they were doing with the big guy. Although he no longer had to worry about damaging Souma's body, he was still limited by it. Having to off himself ever so often in order to repair the damage would seriously put a damper in his fun. He supposed he could always limit himself to the grounded guys. A few of them were decent with a blade. But knowing his luck they would turn out to be wimps once he broke their toys.

He flitted to the side, grinning as the rebounded blast tore through the first few feet of people. The crowd was pressed as far from this fight as they could get, but that wasn't nearly far enough. The ones up front were instantly back, physically whole and mentally traumatized. Some of the others, though? Maimed and bleeding out and too stupid to finish themselves off and end their own suffering. Actually, this was more pathetic than entertaining. Irritating, really.

He turned away, scowling when an orange-clad blonde pushed past him. There were a lot of those orange-clad blondes bouncing around and messing up his view of the fight. For some reason, they turned to smoke when they were killed instead of being replaced. He had taken a few out himself after one of them had bounced off his back in order to reach the airborne fight. He wasn't a fucking stepping stone. If the kid couldn't fly he should stay on the ground where he belonged. Sword wanted in on this fight as much as the next guy, but no one would see him jumping off the spectators in order to get high enough for direct contact. He threw his arm out before he could be shoved by another of them. Scentless smoke wafted past his face. He swore if he caught one that didn't turn to smoke he was going to kill him a few dozen times before letting him go. It was the principle of the matter.

'Yes,' he snapped at Souma. 'Even devils have principles.' He scoffed irritably. He knew the boy hadn't actually said anything, but he also knew Souma was watching through his eyes. The damned voyeur had been spying on him from the moment he had taken over the boy's body. For the largely useless and wimpy twin, Souma did share the same twisted blood as that brother of his. The little freak would probably be paying especially close attention when it came time for the fucking. He sure as hell wouldn't be getting any himself now that Nanami was out of the picture. Assuming he ever would have. Between the two of them, Sword was convinced she had the bigger cock. Metaphorically speaking, since he had seen her naked. She was nearly flat enough to be male, at any rate.

Another energy blast distracted him from the disapproval he imagined his host sending hm for criticizing the only girl in his life. He dodged to the side, bringing out just enough energy to shield himself from the edges of the blast. So far he had kept a low profile as far as his own energy was concerned. He wanted to scope out the competition before drawing attention to himself. Someone should have taught Ios that lesson. Sword grinned as a burst of familiar energy erupted across the chamber from him. The blast billowed upward as it struck the shield, burning itself out against the wall. The damned angel was protecting humans again when he should have been saving his energy for him. They couldn't die here. Ios wouldn't be able to use their human bodies as an excuse to postpone their fight. Had he know they were both here he wouldn't have wasted so much of his time checking out the human fighters.

He reached the shield just in time to watch it fade away. Ios had his wings out again. That still pissed him off. If wings were a manifestation of energy, he should have been able to draw his own out as easily as the angel could. Ios caught sight of him, his face lighting up. Sword smirked at that. It was funny how Ios always looked happy to see him now. In their original bodies he'd had to mess him up pretty bad before he'd get anything beyond that arrogant marble battle-angel mask.

"It figures you'd be wasting your time with humans," Sword said in greeting. "I challenge you! To our one hundred and third battle!"

Ios sighed, his smile fading slightly. "One hundred and fourth. The fight on the rooftop counts."

"Bullshit," snapped Sword. "that bitch Nanami interrupted us two hits in. You can't count that!"

"Sword," Ios said quickly, "I'd be happy to fight with you in a short while. At the moment, I'm-"

Sword cut him off the quickest way he knew how - by channeling demonic energy into his fist and plowing it at Ios's face. He immediately had the angel's full attention. Even Ios couldn't block that and fuss over humans at the same time. "We fight now, or I'll kill those humans myself. Not that it would do any good since they'd just be brought right back, anyway. Haven't you noticed how this place works?"

"I noticed," Ios conceded. A glance back revealed that the situation appeared to have been defused, anyway. Two of the humans were staring at him with blank faces. The third - the worst - had risen and was walking away with a pinched face. That was probably the best outcome he could hope for. "Not here," he told Sword when the devil swiped at him again.

"Only clear space is in the middle," Sword warned him. "Right in the blast zone."

"Appropriate." Ios released his wings. They were draining to maintain, and the last thing either of them would appreciate was an uneven fight. "I'm sorry for Souma's sake, but I am glad you're here."

"Yeah," Sword grinned. "I noticed. You better not be getting soft on me or I'll rip your arms off and beat you to death with them."

"That wouldn't be very effective in this situation," Ios pointed out.

Probably not. But it would be fun. Sword made up his mind to try it at least twice.

Of the three souls left behind, Yugi was the first to react. He pushed past a bemused Yami, taking control and running over to crouch next to Kaiba. "Are you all right?"

Kaiba gave him a scathing glare for that stupid question. He drew his legs up and thumped his aching head against his knees. Maybe if he ignored him he would go away like the other two weirdos had. It was worth a shot.

.-.

After merging his soul with a dark god, lying dormant in the millennium ring for an eternity, and coexisting within a disgustingly sweet host, Bakura's memories of his original life were naturally a bit hazy. He recalled having been rash and playfully sadistic, but he had no recollection of having been an idiot. It was disappointing to say the least.

"The Millennium Ring is mine," he stated flatly. "My soul has resided within it since your death. You could steal or even destroy it and it would simply reform wherever I am. It is me and I am it. We are intrinsically linked." He scowled when his Thief King self merely raised an eyebrow and continued playing with the dangling charms decorating the ring hanging on his chest. "It's mine."

"And you're me," the Thief King said slowly, as if tasting the words. His lips pulled into a sly grin. "Are you a female version of me, then?"

"No," Bakura snapped. "This is just what my host looks like." He had honestly never had a problem with his current looks. A little smaller and shorter than he would have liked, but this body was graceful and attractive in its own way. He was rather accustomed to it now. He had never realized how broad and coarse his old body had been. That was probably because he had never looked at it from the outside before. "I was lucky to have woken in a host who bears any resemblance to my original form." He wasn't going to even touch upon the identical names. That reeked too much of divine intervention for his taste.

"What resemblance? Even a little bastard girl of mine wouldn't be as white as you." He sent a thoughtful look back in the direction he had come from. "Seto is nearly as pale as that woman was. The Pharaoh isn't much better. Is there no sun in this world?"

"Maybe not in this world," Bakura muttered. He wasn't sure this 'world' consisted of anything beyond this chamber. "It's just genetics and ethnicity at play. Forget it. And forget about Kaiba."

"Who?"

"Kaiba Seto, the High Priest's current incarnation. He doesn't remember any of that. He is no longer the wielder of the Millennium Rod. He's nothing here but an ego-maniacal pain in the ass. He doesn't even believe in spirit beasts."

"Then what about the dragon...?"

"A fluke. Probably having more to do with your expectations and this place than with him. The point is-"

"You want me to let him be. You think I will do what you want simply because you want it." The Thief King grinned menacingly, while his fingers teased gently at Bakura's wild white hair. "Say I believe your claims. What power do you think that gives you, Little Future Me?"

Bakura swatted the man's hand away viciously. "I hold the power of Zorc Necrophades and the wisdom that comes from having outlasted you by thousands of years!"

"And in all that time, with all of that power, you have yet to take revenge on the High Priest, much less the Pharaoh. I am not impressed, Little Future Me. If you were what lay ahead, perhaps it's for the best that I died and was brought here instead. In this arena where death has no meaning, I am free to do everything I failed to do in life. And afterward?" He laughed. "If this isn't some elaborate death vision, I will have a paradise of my own creation. A hell, in other words, in which every man who had anything at all to do with Kul Elna is at my mercy to be tortured for eternity. Or until I grow bored," he said flippantly. "Whichever comes first."

"You wouldn't be satisfied with that," Bakura stated coldly. "Your insatiable desire for power never died. It lives on in me."

"While my sense of humor clearly died a swift death." He leaned close enough to lift a handful of Bakura's hair to his nose. "Lighten up, Little Future Me, before I'm compelled to enlighten you in the best way I know how."

Bakura sputtered, nearly choking on the mind-numbing absurdity of this. "You cannot be flirting with an alternate version of yourself!"

Pale blue eyes widened in a mockery of surprise. "I can't? Have you forgotten that my desire for power isn't the only insatiable thing about me? I foresee great amusement in our future interactions here, Little Future Me."

"Stop calling me that! My name is Bakura."

"So is mine," he shrugged. "Since I had it first, I won't be using it on you. I suppose I could call you Kitten instead. Would you prefer that? Soft to the touch and quick to hiss. I do look forward to pulling your tail...among other parts."

"Screw this," Bakura hissed furiously. "I was a fool to have thought you could be of any use to me. Torment Kaiba to your heart's content. You can summon Diabound for all I care. I hope you draw that rod-wielding maniac right to you. Better you than me!"

"Jealousy doesn't become you," the Thief King called after him with a smug grin. "Come find me when you've finished your pout, Kitten. I'll show you what a real man can do with his rod."

Bakura gnashed his teeth, seething until his hair wafted into enraged clumps. The utter fool. He couldn't possibly have been that insufferable. He refused to believe it. To think, he had been so intrigued to see his old self here. The possibilities! Now he couldn't even tolerate the idiot's company long enough to give him a proper warning. Marik was going to have a field day in this place, making his former self's idea of torture a gentle teasing in comparison. Well, it would serve the idiot right to learn things the hard way. Maybe next time he would hear him out, assuming Bakura ever bothered to give him a second chance. At the moment he couldn't imagine himself doing so. No sense of humor? Hah! When that oversexed buffoon got what he deserved, Bakura would laugh himself sick. Quietly. And from a safe distance. His last memory before awaking here was of being destroyed by Marik's psychotic alter-ego. That wasn't an experience he cared to repeat so soon. Or ever, for that matter.

.-.

Otogi Ryuuji had no sympathy whatsoever for his bickering companions. Although he didn't know how Jounouchi had wound up here, he was convinced he knew exactly what had happened to himself. That fool Honda had obviously lost his grip and dropped them off the side of the blimp. Yes, he did have memories of having been rescued, and watching more of the tournament, but he dismissed those as fever dream flashes between the drop, the splatter, and waking up in this hell. That would explain why one of those supposed memories involved waking up in a bed with these two idiots. Like that could happen. He leaned against the wall with his arms folded tightly over his chest and scowled at the pair. Until Honda accepted full responsibility for their deaths, and Jounouchi accepted at least partial blame on behalf of his sister for cluelessly egging them on, he had nothing to say to either of them.

"How can you not remember Noah?" Jounouchi demanded. "You were a robot monkey!"

Honda scoffed. "Being fried by that God Card must have damaged your brain. You can't upload someone's soul into a computer and expect it to live there forever. That's not how virtual reality works. For this to be real, we'd all have to be hooked up to machines the entire time."

"I'm telling you, that's exactly what he did! We just imagined we got out when really we're still there. Now our souls are trapped in the machine while those goons of his are running around out there with our bodies! There's some guy in my sister's body at this very moment! And who knows where her soul is! We have to get out of here!"

"You're stark raving mad," Honda grimaced. "Cut it out. This is just some kind of shadow game. Marik's probably, since Ryou was in a coma last I remember. If we're in here, you can bet Yugi knows about it. He and Yami will get us out, so just relax and-"

"Don't you tell me to relax, damn it!"

Ryuuji humphed under his breath when the two heathens launched into thug antics. As much as it annoyed him, he was forced to side with Honda on this one. A third previously unknown and very deceased Kaiba brother trapping them in a computer in order to steal their bodies? Like that could happen. He did envy Jounouchi, though, for having imagined Honda trapped in the body of a little robot monkey. From Jounouchi's descriptions, he would have paid to see that.

"So sorry to interrupt, but has anyone seen a Pharaoh around here...?"

Ryuuji's eyes flicked to the side and widened abruptly. Honda and Jounouchi froze mid-tussle, looking for the world like they had been caught dancing. The spiky haired blonde gave a slow smirk.

"Hello, boys. Would you like to play a game...?"

Ryuuji heard what sounded like an 'eep' squeak out of Jounouchi's throat. He saw that 'eep' and silently raised it to an 'oh shit.' Ghostly Kaiba brother and robot monkey were definitely preferable to this. And it was all Honda's fault. The dumbass.

"I told you it was Marik," Honda told Jounouchi in a stage whisper out of the corner of his mouth.

The psycho had better kill Honda first, Ryuuji swore, or he'd be doing it himself.

.-.
TBC