A/N: For the YGO Fanfiction Contest Season 11 Round 1. The pairing: Toonshipping (Pegasus J. Crawford x Seto Kaiba).
And I must confess. (And warn you, too, I suppose.) For the first time ever, I'm breaking my own self-imposed rule of always sticking to strictly canon settings or, at the very least, canon starting points (Children's card games? Never existed. Sennen Items? What the hell are those? Yamis? What's that and how do you eat it?), and going full-blown AU. A full-blown military AU because there's nothing wrong with kid soldiers, right? Nope, nothing wrong at all. Damn good idea, in fact. Just look at 07-Ghost! Or, hell, Code Geass. Into the military straight out of your regular and completely ordinary school desk! Fun times. Doesn't lead to a disaster at all. No way this could go wrong, right? 'cause teenagers = impeccable logic at all times. Strong morals and sound judgement in the face of every worst nightmare situation. Insta-win, just add mass-destruction weapons. Hey, Nina Einstein? A hole in the ground says 'hi'. It wants its life forms back.
…and now that I've exhausted my vehemence on the subject of children soldiers as such, I'mma get off my soapbox, quietly get out of your way, and let you get to the fic.
Disclaimer: Kazuki Takahashi and all associated companies are the rightful owners of the Yuugiou! franchise and I claim no association with any of them. No copyright infringement intended with this and no money is being made from this. Please support the creator by purchasing the official releases. The quoted lyrics belong to Within Temptation and I have no part there either. (But it's an awesome song though, so give it a listen maybe.)
Warnings: profanity, squick, non-con, violence, general morbidity, and probably a hundred and one other issues that'll probably throw you. Also, my spelling. It has a permanent identity crisis. Is it British? Is it American? It truly hasn't the foggiest. So if somebody's neighbour is wandering around dressed in pants, rest assured that they have more on than just their underwear, and when somebody goes to grab a torch, they'll probably pick up a flashlight.
"'Cause your soul is on fire
A shot in the dark
What did they aim for when they missed your heart?"
- Shot In The Dark by Within Temptation
"So do you think they'll yield?" Second Lieutenant Malik Ishtar drawled, overlooking the 3D battlefield module and the alignment of their troops against the positions of their enemies from his spot at the central control panel. As things stood right now, their opponents were outnumbered three to one. It was going to be a sure victory for the Imperial Nippon as far as anyone was concerned. "Or give us a good fight this time?"
"They should just admit defeat. It's clear we have the technical advantage. Any smart leader would see this." There was a distinct amount of pride in First Lieutenant Kaiba Seto's voice, present every time the Kaiba Corporation cutting-edge military technology was brought up in a conversation. Developed by his adoptive father and innovated by himself; he could say with conviction that anything produced by Kaiba Corporation was unrivalled in all five continents.
From his post on the north-eastern edge of the projection, Second Lieutenant Bakura Ryou added, quite thoughtfully, "They do seem quite determined, though."
Seto snorted, casting a sidelong glance at his more soft-spoken fellow officer. They'd known each other since year one of the Tokyo Military Academy and it seemed to him that he hadn't changed one bit, even after everything they'd been through during the war. "Determined to die. Didn't they learn after the last five times?"
"They were winning before that," Ryou pointed out neutrally and casually stuck his hands in his pockets. Back in their academy days, he'd noted how obsessed with winning Seto was, and now that they had been put on standby for an entire week while the higher-ups finalised all preparations for the upcoming battle, he'd had far too much free time on his hands. They'd all had. Sometimes the war raging on just a few dozen kilometres from their current base seemed unreal. Or would seem that way if new reports of injured and missing-in-action soldiers wouldn't be coming in, if new deaths weren't being reported daily from the lazarettos all over the area.
Seto brushed his comment off with a sneer. "Small, insignificant clashes. They won back a city, we conquered an entire region."
"That's enough to give them hope." Secretly, he also noted that what really mattered in that particular situation was what kind of city they'd won back. What had been so special about it that they had gone through all the efforts of fighting a losing battle and miraculously pulling off a victory? Ryou would have very much liked to know that, but he knew that it was quite pointless of bringing it up to Seto. Such details didn't particularly concern him. It wasn't a strategically important place, so it must have had some sort of sentimental value instead. And Ryou knew that his comrade didn't care much about sentiment.
"But Colonel Crawford sure is something," Malik cut in, quite a bit of admiration in his voice, as he logged into the control panel to access the stored plans for all of their previous battles. He flipped through them, going in reverse order from the most recent to the very first, as far as the memory of the digital card went. The oldest stored plan was from a time when Colonel Crawford had still been just a cadet at the Tokyo Military Academy and Lieutenant General Mutou had been the head strategist. Ever since he had ascended to that position, following Mutou's retirement a decade ago, every single clash had led to the absolute annihilation of their opponents.
"Hn." Seto's expression changed and he turned his back on the 3D projection.
Ryou, ever observant, quietly said, "He'll have to retire at some point."
Malik, having overheard that, grinned and turned his head to glance at the brunet's back. "That's right! You were going to beat him."
"Beat him? I'm already better than him. Any idiot could come up with a strategy like that!" He scoffed and spun back around to face the projection, strode up to stand beside Malik at the control panel and reverted to the most recent battle scheme. He made a wide gesture at it. "Look at that! It's like he's not even trying! This is our chance to deal them a blow they can't recover from and have to declare defeat, but what does he have us do instead? Dawdle here and take it slow like some weaklings! We could have won this months ago!"
"And how would you do it, then?" someone inquired in a smooth voice tinged with the barest trace of amusement.
Equally startled and taken aback, the trio turned around to face the new arrival. Ryou was the first one to recover.
"Colonel," he nodded in greeting, standing to attention while still keeping his peaked cap held at his elbow. Malik followed suit, but Seto still hesitated, caught in the dilemma between following military protocol and remaining defiant according to his own critique of the superior officer's decisions.
Pegasus took care of that for him. "At ease, officers." He suppressed his smirk at the flicker of relief – though it might have been just a shadow – in Seto's eyes and the unease in the postures of the other two lieutenants. He stepped further into the room and, voice perfectly even, prompted a second time, "Humour me, First Lieutenant Kaiba. How would you do it?"
Malik snatched up his peaked cap from the edge of the monitor where he'd hung it before browsing through the stored data and moved aside to make room for the Colonel at the control panel. He took a few respectful steps back, trying to tell himself that he really wasn't retreating to a safe distance. Seto's cap remained resting on the edge of the panel.
Seto hesitated. Pegasus waited, amusement playing in his one good eye. The other he'd lost during one of his first battles in the Altair region where a shrapnel from a land mine his fellow soldier had stepped on had hit him in the face. He wore a custom made eye patch in the uniform colours to cover the hollow and deformed skin there. He'd been called lucky for surviving that with minor injuries by most everyone who had tended to him after the battle, and so many other fellow soldiers and later – fellow officers, that he'd lost count. Though if he'd truly been lucky, his wife Cyndia would have still been alive.
The trio currently before him was a curious one; all of the higher-ups had taken notice of them during their time at the academy. Their high scores and overall performance had made them rise through the ranks quicker than their peers. With approval from the top-ranking officers, they had been geared towards becoming the future elite of the military forces, often enrolled into extracurricular courses and regularly moved to programs with an increasingly higher difficulty.
It was true that every attendant of the academy was closely monitored; several reassessments of their skills and character conducted in the privacy of a closed door office with only the leading elite of the army and the academy attending. The differences between future regular foot soldiers, technicians, medics, and leader potential were observed from day one and the students' schedules underwent constant updates and revisions to quickly and efficiently root out the ones not fit for service. A surprising part of the cadets were wildcards. Taking, as an example, Mutou Yuugi, Lieutenant General Mutou's grandson. Everyone in the top ranks had laid great expectations on the boy, considering how brilliant his grandfather had been, but he had turned out to be quite unsuitable for the army life. Well above average with firearms only for as long as he didn't have to point them at living humans, he had returned from his first real fight on a stretcher, crippled for life. The latest reports on him said that he was making a slow recovery and working in his widowed mother's pawnshop.
Kaiba Seto, as one of the far too many war orphans, hadn't been expected to make it far, but the twist of fate which had brought him into the Kaiba family had proven to be crucial. Though he wasn't a true-born heir to the Kaiba empire, he, alongside his younger brother Mokuba, had been raised in the Kaiba family spirit. He showed off his skills as a prime strategist during his first year at the Academy; a genius in his own regard, striving to surpass even the current strategic mastermind. Some of the high-ranking officers had said that he was reaching too high, being a decade too young to try and outshine Colonel Crawford, but others argued that, for Kaiba Gozaburo's heir? It was only to be expected. A brief moment of silence always followed the latter statement because the true-born Kaiba heir, Noa, was gone and everybody had placed high expectations on him as well. The official version for his disappearance was an assassination attempt gone awry when the boy had entered his father's limousine, prompting it to explode, while his father had been caught up in a business meeting that had dragged on for too long. The true version, whispered around backdoors and behind closed shutters: a debilitating disease that had robbed the little boy of movement, which had made his father move him away to some nursing home where nobody would know his name. Whichever version one elected to believe, both concluded that, at the present time, the poor boy was already dead. And the weaponry tycoon had adopted two new perfectly healthy boys, one of whom would be sure to inherit the company. With each passing day, Mokuba seemed like the most likely candidate, and with Seto so devoted to the military, the elite believed to have a strong backing for all of their upcoming operations years in advance.
Seto had finished all the mandatory years at the Academy with the highest scores across the board. Only one person had come even relatively close, falling behind by fifteen points in only two subjects – Bakura Ryou, another wildcard. He was an unassuming teenager, son of a museum owner and a devoted archaeologist, slightly awkward and rather withdrawn, who changed completely once he entered a battleground simulator. There, he was on par with Seto, often giving him a run for his money and still managing to tie with him on more than one third of the tasks. Therefore, it was small wonder that, after the first few months of animosity from Seto's side, they mostly kept each other company, their discussions centred only on studies and the life they would have after becoming full-fledged military members. There was safety and camaraderie in having a shared goal, foregoing all need to talk about past; something they both had a great appreciation for.
During their third year there, a new student from across the empire joined their group: Malik Ishtar, an all around above average student, who, like Ryou, was a natural in the battle simulators. During the first month after enrolment, he beat one third of Seto's scores and pushed Ryou down to third position in half of his, respectively. What started out as a vicious competition, eventually turned into companionship, courtesy of their tutors who usually put the three of them into the same workgroup, forcing them to overcome their initial differences. He was being monitored more closely than others, hailing from a territory the army of Imperial Nippon had freed from occupants a decade ago. Though their citizens were given the option of moving to any place within the empire and to join their army at will, there was no saying if one of them wouldn't eventually turn out to be a spy or a traitor. So far, nothing in Malik's behaviour had pointed to such tendencies. His sister and older brother both had moved away from their old home, though remaining on the outskirts of the empire to work for one of the many museums it had, appraising and cataloguing the artefacts collected during the war, particularly from their own country. The contact between the three was the standard minimum and with all of their correspondence always under great scrutiny, the leading officers had deemed their Egyptian recruit acceptable for his current position. They truly had nothing to worry about.
"I would deploy troops here," Seto pointed out a location on the map with a laser pointer he picked up from the small adjacent compartment of the control panel, gaining back his confidence with each spoken word. "While all of their forces are focused to hold their position here," he continued, tracing a line with the pointer along the tiny digital enemy soldiers before switching to the places deeper in the enemy territory, "there will be barely anyone left to guard the cities here and here. One of them is sure to have some of their generals overseeing the battle. If we strike out at them, we have a chance of taking them hostage." Or killing them. Whichever came first, he supposed. Either way, it would only be to their benefit. "It is unlikely that they would manage to provide backup in a timely manner, leading to an easy victory for us."
"And if their leaders are not there?" Pegasus asked calmly, following the lines he was tracing on the map with an expressionless face.
"Then we'll still have control over their cities. And their surviving troops," he said that in a way which implied that there shouldn't be any survivors to begin with, "will be caught between our divisions with no path of retreat."
"Hmm." Pegasus studied the young officer out of the corner of his one good eye. "If we were to proceed that way, it would leave those lands barren."
Seto shrugged nonchalantly, turning his head to look at his superior officer. "So? We have enough of good, usable lands in our empire."
"Ah, dear boy, but the point is that they don't." Suddenly, his expression shifted to one of true mirth and he turned on his heel, heading for the door. Whatever he'd come here for was long since forgotten. "Think on that and find me tomorrow with a better answer than this. I'd like to continue this conversation."
He laughed to himself as he strode down the corridor, and only after he'd begun descending the stairs did he remember that his reason for going to the control room had been to update the battle plan to account for the most recent movements of their enemy. Oh, well. That would have to wait till tomorrow.
Back in the control room, Ryou walked up to Seto, in his mind retracing the lines he had drawn upon it with the pointer. He tilted his head in contemplation, studying the outlay of the terrain.
"What is that supposed to mean?" the brunet muttered to himself, infuriated at how his suggestions had been shrugged off. His strategy was far more efficient. It was superior in all aspects and it would speed up their victory, if not outright grant it.
"It would destroy their land," Malik said in a very odd tone, also stepping up to assume his position on Seto's other side. His eyes had dulled, an overcast look to them as he remembered something from his past that made his eyebrows furrow and his lips press in a thin line.
Seto laughed incredulously and pulled himself away from the control panel to start pacing around the room. "How is that any different from what we've been doing all this time?"
"If they don't have any suitable land left to make a living off, where do you think they'll turn?" his voice dropped low.
"If they start a rebellion, we'll just crush them and execute everyone who thinks to lead a guerrilla war against us."
This declaration was met with a frown from Ryou, while the Egyptian beside him still seemed to be lost in a world of his own. He glanced at his fellow Second Lieutenant briefly, then turned around to lean back against the control panel to watch his superior-in-rank moving around like a cornered animal. For him to be this restless…
"Won't that just lead to years of cold war?"
"We have the resources to spare."
Ryou frowned at his flippant tone even more, but said nothing.
Currently, there was barely anyone left who remembered how the war had started. It wasn't quite true, though, because anyone would say, on the off chance that somebody actually bothered to ask, that it had all begun during World War 3 and had merely continued from there. Bouts of confrontations spontaneously cropped up soon here, soon there, because exiled nations tried to regain their old territories and any number of small incidents could provoke one neighbouring country into attacking another. The grudges were numerous; perceived and actual, equal parts empty propaganda, centuries old debates over who had more rights to a certain piece of land, and honest attempts to reclaim stolen homeland. What it had truly stemmed from – well, that was a different matter entirely and by the time these three men had become the youngest lieutenants of the decade, the conflicts had already been watered down to 'our side' and 'theirs'. Imperial Nippon and Ural-Eurasia had split the continent in half and struggled for each foot of land. Two neutral sides had sprung up during the last two years: Freedom Alliance of the North and Southern Independence Union, with Egypt, Malik's homeland, breaking away from Imperial Nippon and becoming a part of the latter two years ago. This had caused quite a bit of tension between Malik and other officers, but after it had become clear that he and his family would remain loyal to the army of the nation which had freed them from the occupants of their land, it had all settled down. At least on the surface. The undercurrents still ran strong and they all were quite aware of them, though wordlessly agreeing to never bring it up.
"I'm hungry," Malik said out of the blue, breaking the tension in the room. He put his peaked cap on and adjusted it before logging out of the system. "Isn't it lunch time already?"
"Yes, let's go," Ryou agreed, straightening up and instinctively smoothing down his already impeccable dark blue uniform. It was a habit hard to break, as well as a sign that he was trying to distance himself from something upsetting. "Before we run into any other superior officers."
Seto muttered something nondescript under his breath and was the first one out of the room, leaving the other two to follow after him. He was still replaying the conversation with Colonel Crawford in his head, frustrated at what kind of answer the other man had expected from him. He supposed it had to do something with sentiment. After all, their Colonel was a sentimental man. Everyone in the military and outside it knew that he had married for love. Everyone knew about the breakdown he'd gone through seven years prior when his ailing wife had passed away while he'd been recovering after the Altair battle. He'd blamed himself, his injury, and the fact that his wife had been told about it as factors which had added the final straw to his weak-hearted wife's already unstable condition. She'd always had a poor health and the worry of her husband being deployed to the active war zone had confined her to her bed. She'd died in it, never rising from it, one month after Pegasus had returned home on the army doctor's leave as part of his recovery program. Seto's mouth twitched in disgust. Sentiment. Sentiment had made Pegasus marry her. Sentiment had killed her. Sentiment was a weakness. Kaiba Seto didn't have weaknesses and that's why he was far superior.
The next day came and he still didn't have an answer that would satisfy his superior officer, but he sought him out anyway. He was hard-pressed to believe that the army generals hadn't had any other, better candidates for the spot of the head strategist. There was no doubt that Pegasus J. Crawford was a genius with an unprecedented vision, but Seto was certain that, as a military force, they would have gotten much further if they would have found someone less sentimental and more practical and ruthless for the job.
After a brief inquiry on the Colonel's whereabouts and a small goose chase around the base, he finally found himself in front of the closed door of his living quarters. He hesitated but a second, in his own mind insisting that it was only to make sure his uniform was as impeccable as the regulations demanded before knocking on the door, and forced himself to relax. He counted seconds until it opened. Fifteen.
"Ah, First Lieutenant Kaiba," Pegasus said instead of a greeting and opened the door wider while stepping aside and motioning for him to enter. He was dressed in his uniform, sans the peaked cap, which sat on the edge of a small cabinet beside a picture frame with his late wife and some other personal items. A few medals, a handful of letters neatly tucked into an ornate holder. An open bottle of wine and a half-empty glass on the table in the centre of the room. His smile was grating. "I've been wondering if you were going to come at all. Some wine, perhaps?"
"I don't drink."
"Oh, that's right, you're not of age yet," Pegasus' smile stretched a bit wider and he shrugged, returning to the table and gesturing for his guest to take a seat as well. "No great loss there."
Seto grit his teeth and bit back the retort he'd used several times before with other, lower ranked officers when they'd invited him for a night out. He didn't drink because he saw no point in it and not because he was still a few months underage.
Grudgingly, he took a seat across from the Colonel, taking stock of the room on his way. The room was outfitted in the same modest and Spartan way most other officer rooms were, lacking in notable decorations. Unlike Seto, Malik and Ryou's respective quarters with a bed to one side, a narrow wardrobe at the foot of it, a table and a couple of chairs with some shelves aligned above them on the other, his was split into two rooms. Shelves filled with folders, books, a few antique weapons and even more folders took up the entire wall on the right, while the left side was reserved for the cabinet with Cyndia's picture atop it and the door leading to the adjacent bedroom.
They sat at a plain dark brown table with chairs to match. There were neat stacks of paperwork on one end, a simple glass vase with dark red roses rising between them. Pegasus followed Seto's gaze and smirked at the momentarily shifting expression on his face. Though he'd managed to keep himself mostly in check, what he thought of those flowers had slipped through the cracks in his stoic mask and he found himself on the receiving end of a severely amused gaze.
"Cyndia's favourites," he explained though no question had been asked. He reached to brush his fingertips over one flower absently. "Do you like them?"
The corner of the First Lieutenant's lip twitched. "I didn't come here to discuss flowers."
Pegasus smiled in a way that clearly said that he didn't expect a green boy like him to understand something that was only for grown men to know. The fascination with a dead woman's favourite flowers, for example. One had to have felt love at least once in his or her life to understand it.
"So you have. And have you come up with a better answer to my yesterday's question?"
Pegasus laughed at his blunt honesty. "You would conquer their land and leave it barren?"
"We could," Seto allowed, though grudgingly, "permit them to not pay war reparations."
"A small consolation," the Colonel commented dryly, picking up the half-empty glass and toying with it. He studied the almost a decade younger inferior officer through lowered lashes. He had shown great promise during his years at the academy. Great, reckless promise. He kept a light smile on his face. "Their people will never agree to it."
"They will if we leave them no other option."
"And how long do you think we could sustain a peaceful situation that way?"
"Peaceful?" Now it was Seto's time to laugh. He grinned broadly, seeing the eyebrow rise in his conversation partner's face. "You have the backing of Kaiba Corporation and you worry about peace?" His expression turned scornful at the very notion. He tended to forget that Pegasus had been the owner of Industrial Illusions – the leading force in developing digital projectors, LEDs, and everything holographic – up until the death of his wife, at which point he had sold it to a conglomerate company from the central Indo-America with branch structures all around the world, and fully devoted himself to the military.
At the mention of the Kaiba Corporation, the Colonel sobered, all mirth disappearing from his eye. "Ah, yes. Your father's company. It must be making quite a profit right now."
Seto shrugged. He supposed it did, though he didn't particularly care about that. He'd have to ask Gozaburo or Mokuba for the exact sales data to make an estimate, but for the time being, warfare had his full attention, regardless of what his stepfather thought of that.
There had been quite a confrontation when he'd announced his plans to pursue a career in the military instead of learning how to run a business the way his stepfather had initially planned. It had taken the effort of all of the Academy's council members and the army leaders combined to convince the man that it would be his smartest investment yet. A way to keep his finger on the pulse, so to speak, of all the military affairs of their country. And considering the boy's scores, he would eventually go on to become a general; perhaps even the leader of the entire army. The praise, the future prospects, the long-term commitment, and an over the top order of assorted military technology and machinery had been just barely enough to sway him.
Pegasus drained his glass in slow, measured gulps.
Four, Seto counted.
Once empty, it was put aside with a tinkling sound upon the light impact with the wooden surface. "Well, then, dear boy…"
Seto was really starting to hate that way of address.
"…I suppose I shall indulge you, just this once. After all, it wasn't too long ago when I was just as green and convinced that the world was going to turn any way I wanted it to."
The brunet thought he'd misheard. He stared. "What?"
Pegasus smiled. "We'll try it your way, Lieutenant Kaiba. But what will you do when you see that I was right?"
"With all due respect, Sir," Kaiba emphasised each word and balled his fists under the table, half disbelieving and half irate because of the edge in his smile, "you won't be."
The Colonel chuckled, amusement glinting in his eye. "I guess we'll just have to wait and see."
Seto swallowed the angry comeback playing just at the tip of his tongue.
"You will be notified of all further details within the next twenty-four hours, but for now you're dismissed, Lieutenant Kaiba."
Still slightly reeling, he rose to his feet, back kept ramrod straight, as he gave a stiff, curt bow to excuse himself, turned on his heel, and marched out of the Colonel's living quarters. His head spun; mostly from the amount of self-control it took him to keep himself in check and acknowledge the people he passed by.
His feet somehow led him to the control room where, much to his own surprise, he saw the battlefield adjusted as per his suggestions the other day. He stared at it for a while, taking in the scene before him, soaking it up and letting the thought sink in. He grinned, threw his head back and laughed. He laughed for a long time because this was it. This was the defining moment. This battle would reveal his far superior strategy. The higher-ups would have to acknowledge him and let him advance in rank. They had to. No. No. They would.
For the best part of the following hour he pored over the battle plans, though he'd long since memorised all of them. He'd committed to memory everything on the map, satellite images of the terrain included. It was as if he'd already been there in person, as if he'd seen it all with his own eyes. Now he just had to imagine the battle raging on, their troops marching on the enemy, forcing it to flee, bleed, yield. And then the cities would fall and they would scour them from cellar to attic, making sure no enemy officers, no enemy anything remained hidden. Once the decades-long war was finally over… well, perhaps he'd humour his stepfather and take over as the CEO of Kaiba Corporation. But only after achieving everything the military offered.
Later that afternoon, he informed Ryou and Malik of the fact with no small amount of gloating in his voice. He'd found both his comrades in Malik's quarters, engrossed in a game of Mah-jong. Neither of them knew how to really play it, but they had found the rules on the Web and had attempted to self-teach themselves and each other the intricacies of the game. Ryou had a knack for games, his favourite being Shogi. Malik had taught him Senet during their fifth year at the Academy; a favourite in his homeland. They'd exhausted their interest in checkers overnight while weathering a bombing in the shelters below the dorms near the end of that same year, they'd given up playing chess against Seto during their sixth year, declaring him unbeatable at it, and, guided mostly by Ryou's enthusiasm, had tried their hand at a dozen other games from all around the world. The moment the white-haired Second Lieutenant had tried his hand at Tarot, the other two had drawn a line.
The news made Malik jealous, Ryou – nervous.
"Be careful," he said, lips pressed in a thin, worried line.
"You still think I'm wrong?" Seto scoffed.
Ryou shook his head. "Not wrong. I just think that we don't know the exact situation with their troops."
"But we do," Malik jumped in, taking a chance to try and peek at Ryou's game pieces, which didn't go unnoticed and was awarded with a sharp glance and a friendly swat, "if you just look at the sheer number of deaths on their side. Unless there's an underground continent under Ural-Eurasia – and that's impossible or our aerial scans would have shown it – they're reaching their limit of manpower. They've got women in their army, Bakura! Women. What's that if not desperate?"
"Precisely," Seto enunciated. "The average age of their soldiers is sixteen. The percentage of women in their ranks is thirty-five. They're at the end of their rope. They lost most of their manpower when the North and the South split away."
"We lost allies there too," Ryou pointed out.
"Insignificant. Those were all small countries that held no actual weight. They've been erased from the map since."
"Alright, alright," Ryou raised a hand in surrender. "I'm probably over-thinking this. Congratulations! This is the chance you've been waiting for."
"Don't forget us from your high position." Malik grinned, toying with a game piece before adding it to the line-up in front of him. He promptly turned it over and declared victory.
Ryou stared at it for a moment, then claimed an invalid move and reached for his palmtop computer to scroll through the rulebook to find that one example listed to prove himself… wrong.
Seto frowned at them, annoyed and at the same time not quite caring that they weren't exactly sharing his excitement. It was going to be his victory, after all. He asked, analyzing the game pieces on the board, "How are you even playing it when it's supposed to have four participants?"
"We play two sets each," Malik explained. "Um, there's supposed to be a version for three players too. We can try that if you want to join."
He decided he was in a good enough mood for it. "Fine. Just don't complain when I beat you both."
Ryou laughed and tapped his palmtop computer. "Don't count on it. I'm the master of the guidebook."
"We just saw your mastery," Malik chuckled, rearranging the pieces and setting up the new game, checking back to his own copy of rules every now and then. "You couldn't master yourself out of a sack."
Seto pulled up the stool standing in the corner behind the door and sat down, grinning at how Ryou defended his previous mishap. There had been a few older kids from Chinea at the orphanage who'd known how to play the game and he still faintly remembered most of the rules. Nevertheless, he nodded seriously when Ryou and Malik attempted to give him their version of it, contradicting and disagreeing in every other sentence while Ryou uploaded a guide to Seto's palmtop computer so he'd have something to check whenever he needed to confirm a move. He felt like winning.
Seto paused in his steps and turned to acknowledge one of Colonel Crawford's men who was fast approaching.
"Colonel Crawford requests your presence in his personal aircraft. This way, please."
He exchanged a look with Ryou and Malik who had been walking to their respective battalions alongside him.
"See you later, Kaiba," Malik said, inclining his head in a farewell gesture.
"Best of luck." Ryou smiled, mimicking his fellow Second Lieutenant's nod.
Seto responded with the same curt nod, deeming that no parting remarks were necessary and they went their separate ways, leaving the building through different doorways. He wondered what exactly the Colonel wanted from him now. He'd never even known that he had a personal aircraft, which, he decided, wasn't all that surprising if he really thought about it.
"Ah, First Lieutenant Kaiba! Get it, get in!" Pegasus waved impatiently from his seat inside the aircraft the moment he spotted him approaching. "We're going to oversee the battle in person."
In person, but not on the battlefield, he guessed. He recognised the model of the helicopter. One of Kaiba Corporation's more lightweight passenger types with no battle systems installed and material welded and coated according to the most recent bullet-proofing techniques. Meant for ease of navigation and speed, and for making a hasty escape if the situation called for it. In an all-out battle it wouldn't stand a chance. They'd stopped the production of this model last year because of that.
"Since we didn't have much of a conversation yesterday, we can have it on our way to Astana."
Not something Seto looked forward to, but he wasn't about to pass up on the chance of seeing his strategy play as impeccably as he'd visualised it. Besides, there was that saying about knowing one's enemy…
Most of their troops were already in position and the battle was unfolding at the front line across the banks of the Qarat River. Their forces, passing overhead and well out of reach of any canons on the ground, unloaded a row of bombs on the enemy lines before proceeding onward, rising higher and turning on signal jammers that would help them disappear from even the most modern radar systems. They sped onwards, towards the plains of Astana, splitting apart and heading for their respective targets. The freighters with their soldiers aboard followed suit. Above it all flew the helicopter carrying both officers.
"I've been planning on naming you my apprentice," Pegasus announced with a smile. "I'd like to see your progress first-hand, you see."
"Hn." Seto was at a slight loss. Agreeing to it would give him the kind of position he'd been wanting and yet at the same time… Pegasus hadn't told anyone that the current battle plan was his idea, taking all the responsibility upon himself. Which, if they failed here, wouldn't reflect on him quite as badly, even if the Colonel announced the truth afterwards, but if they won, the Colonel would, again, be seen as the prime strategist and there was no guarantee that he'd give credit where it was due. He needed some more time to come to terms with this dilemma. He needed to see the outcome of this battle and how the Colonel would handle it to make his final decision. "I'll think about it."
"Don't take too long, dear boy." He smiled, seemingly without a care in the world. "Now, tell me, what do you think of our enemy?"
"They're weak. They have no strategy apart from keeping the front lines and the most important roads into their territory well guarded. They're desperate, and at the verge of breaking if we press a little bit harder. And while it might seem like they have the territorial advantage in certain places, they have shown poor management of those so far. Whoever is their main strategist, he is an idiot."
"Hmm." He glanced at the Lieutenant with an evaluating gaze. "They have women in their army. Why do you think is that?"
"They're running out of men?"
Pegasus laughed at the cold cynicism in his voice. It was true that the Imperial Army of Nippon didn't allow women to join; a rule that dated back to the ancient times. Weaponry and battles had always been thought too crude and bloody for the fairer part of their citizens, not to mention that they simply couldn't have carried the heavy armour that was in use during the samurai period. They were still thought of as less physically capable, considering all the extra weight a common foot soldier sometimes had to carry on his back. It wasn't the case with their enemy though.
"I believe," he said sombrely, "it is so that their men would see at all times what they're fighting for."
Seto frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Their women, Lieutenant Kaiba. So they would never have to see them on a battlefield again."
"All they need to do for that is ban women from the military."
"Ah, dear boy, you're missing the point."
He wasn't. He just didn't see how allowing women onto the battlefield to fight a war alongside men would lead to women never having to fight again if most of them would end up dead before this war was even over. He supposed it was another one of those illogical things that had to do with sentiment.
"We'll be in position in fifteen minutes," the pilot announced over the communication system in their headphones.
"Excellent," Pegasus replied. "Keep us on autopilot once we're there."
"We're about to see your plans in the action, First Lieutenant. Excited?"
There was that sharp smile again.
"Ecstatic," Seto replied dryly. In truth, it was only the upbringing he'd received under the tutelage of Gozaburo that kept him perfectly still in his seat even though a tumult of victorious glee raged on the inside.
He saw the aircrafts line up in positions now that their target had become visible. Minutes sped by and they had already zeroed in on it. Their helicopter rose even higher, well out of range of any possible homing missiles, and the first bombs dropped in a line over the positions where ground artillery would be stationed in a terrain like this. The next row of bombs was unloaded right behind the first ones, and the first freighters with their soldiers on board touched down. With several satellites trained on this area, they were provided with a continuous stream of images on the monitors set up on the walls dividing them from the pilot. They showed each of their target destinations on a separate screen. It was almost the same as if being down there, in the fray of the battle. The city appeared to be empty and Seto frowned at that. Where were all the people? Why weren't they evacuating? Where were their soldiers? Why weren't they running to defend the city?
Several bombers exploded below them, rocking the helicopter with the shockwaves from the blast. A flare on the ground well behind them indicated the launch of a yet another row of anti-aircraft missiles and more than half of their freighters went down in flames.
"What?" Agitated, Seto leaned forward, as if getting closer to the monitors would somehow give him a clearer view. He glanced outside the window at the fiery hell raging below them just to confirm that he'd see the same image out there. "How?"
"I believe," Pegasus drawled, undoing his seatbelt, "an "I told you so" is in order." He had that same razor-sharp smile on his face which Seto had begun to hate and… either there was some sort of a disturbance in their communication system or his voice had just changed.
The punch to his gut was unexpected and knocked the wind out of him. As if through a fog he watched Pegasus pull out a gun. "Hey, pilot?" he said casually in a voice that was distinctly not his and pulled the trigger. "You're no longer needed."
The helicopter rocked from the blast and air rushed in through the bullet hole in the pilot's door, but otherwise the aircraft remained put. The pilot slumped forward in his seat, dead.
"What… are you doing?" Seto croaked, fumbling for the clasp of his security belt, then stopped and watched in odd fascination as the skin on Pegasus' face peeled off, revealing a set of foreign features. The curtain of silvery hair slipped to the ground, releasing a shock of red.
"Hello, Kaiba," the stranger said and delivered another punch. "This one's for my family."
He moved to cuff him to the seat while he was still trying to regain his senses before shrugging off the jacket of the enemy army and used it to wipe off the blood spatters from the windshield and the control panel of the helicopter. He wrapped the jacket around the pilot's head, tying it securely around his neck by the sleeves, as he didn't need any airborne objects randomly flying up and getting caught in the rotor of the helicopter. Then he opened the door and pushed the body out. He slammed the door shut, climbed into the pilot's seat, put on the clean headphones from the other seat, and turned off the autopilot.
"I would welcome you to my land," he said, hearing Seto groan quietly in pain, "but I assure you, we will do everything to make you feel not welcome here."
"What do you want?" Seto managed after a while, once he was sure he wasn't going to pass out.
"The end of this war."
"Funny way of going about it."
"Oh, you think?" the redhead grinned, flying over the city just as it caught on fire like a tar-soaked torch and crumbled in a heap of wood and papier-mâché.
Seto could see the other locations do the same on the monitors. Some of them had been full of their soldiers. He gritted his teeth.
"Who are you?" he demanded, pulling at the tight cuffs around his wrists only to have them cut deeper into his skin.
"Your worst nightmare." The smirk he had on his face was almost palpable.
Seto's mind raced through the options available to him only to discard each and every one as useless. If he could get free and overpower the redhead… He'd learned how to pilot a variety of aircrafts; he could easily fly this one back home and alert his superiors of… what, exactly? Treachery? Spies in their ranks? And then it hit him. This was all his fault. The number of troops lost in this battle was on his conscience. If he hadn't brought his idea up so arrogantly to this man… His fists clenched. How long had this man posed as their Colonel?
He watched the terrain below them, taking notice of the direction. When their altitude finally started dropping, he tensed slightly, and glanced at where the redhead sat in the front. He had to be ready to fight him upon landing. To get him out of the aircraft, he'd have to undo the cuffs.
They touched down in a nondescript field beside a shabby-looking shed. An old, beaten truck looking like it had somehow survived from the World War 3 rolled out of it. Seto recognised the model as the Russian-made ZIL; a fossil of a vehicle, compared to the more modern technology wonders. A young white-haired girl in a dark green trench coat draped over a white lab coat jumped out of the back. She ran up to the helicopter before the wings had stopped turning, pulled open the door on Seto's side and beamed at him. He was given just enough time to take notice of her stunning, ethereal beauty.
"Hello, there!" She grinned, dug a pneumatic syringe gun in the side of his neck, shot him with a dose of tranquilisers, and cheerfully announced, "You're gonna hate it here, Sweetcheeks."
Her voice haunted him while he slipped into unconsciousness, as well as in the moments before his waking. He couldn't tell how much time had passed, but he felt weak and groggy and the stark white ceiling lights hurt his eyes. The moment he regained his senses, he found that he was restrained. Next came the realisation that most of his clothes were gone.
"Welcome back to the world of the living, Sweetcheeks."
Seto flinched involuntarily when a shadow fell over him, but the girl only laughed.
"Can't say you'll stay in it for long though."
When it became clear that she was only hovering above him, blue eyes as large as a doe's watching him intently, he asked in a rough voice, "Where am I?"
Her eyes widened almost comically. "You have two functioning eyes unlike your precious Colonel. Why don't you see for yourself?"
He tensed at the mention of Pegasus, then squinted at the bright lights that bore down on him again when she leaned back, spread her arms out to her sides and twirled around a few times, laughing in a way he could only describe as sick. She came to an abrupt halt, as if having just realised something.
"But if it's the location you want to know, you'll have to turn into a bird and learn to fly up, up, and out of here~" she said in a lilting sing-song voice, giggled girlishly, and bounded to the row of monitors arranged on one side. She stepped behind them and resumed the work she'd interrupted upon his waking.
"Who are you?" he asked after a moment of silence and several futile attempts to get out of the restraints.
The moment she'd heard him move around on the padded operation table, she'd lifted her gaze to peer at him through her eyebrows, amusement clear on her face. "Someone who could've told you that was a useless attempt. In all of the years I've worked for our Big Boss, no one has broken free."
Years? He scrutinised her, now that his eyes had more or less adjusted to the lighting. She was young; no older than twenty, and barely out of med school. Brilliant doctors at a young age weren't unheard of, but brilliant doctors worthy of a high rank in an army? Impossible. By the looks of her, she shouldn't have had even finished her internship yet. Maybe he had been right after all, thinking that their enemy was already grasping at straws, forced to recruit soldiers and medical personnel straight out of school desks.
She regarded him in a calculating way. "I suppose you're thirsty. Would you like some water?"
His throat was parched, but his mind told him to not accept anything from this woman.
She took care of that dilemma for him though, grinning broadly. "Too bad I can't give you any. See, tap water around here has all sorts of chemicals in it and I have no idea how they'd react with the drug I'm planning to give you in a few hours. Well, there's distilled water, but we're fresh out of that, and I'm not about to boil some water in a kettle and set it to cool off for a prisoner who's not gonna live to see the end of the week."
Seto gritted his teeth at the last bit of information. He strained against the tight leather straps around his wrists, only hurting himself in process.
"Oh, that's no good," she cooed, watching his pointless struggle. "I can't have you releasing any stress hormones before my experiment. And I can't just knock you out with drugs. That'd set me back another day. And I can't whap you over the head with one of these things." She made a gesture at the stainless steel surgical instrument trays lined up on the utility tables on his left. "Because that will cause you brain trauma and make my results faulty. I can't have faulty results!"
She frowned at him. He glared back. She snapped her fingers, a revelation coming to her. "Oh, I know! I'll let you have a friendly chit-chat with your precious Colonel. Don't go anywhere now, Sweetcheeks!"
She breezed past him and disappeared through the door, leaving it unlocked. Sensing his chance, Seto redoubled his efforts to break free. Getting just one hand loose would be enough. There were so many objects in this room which he could use to fight his way out. Or – and this seemed more likely – die trying. His gaze strayed to the computers and he decided to first send a message to his comrades. He wondered how many of them would believe him. He worked his right wrist a little harder, feeling that the strap had gotten a fraction looser than before. He didn't know how the crazy woman thought a conversation with the redhead would calm him; quite the opposite in fact. Who was that redhead anyway?
The door opened much faster than he would have liked and the white-haired woman bounded her way in, a silver-haired figure dressed in white hospital pyjamas trailing in after her. One dull brown eye stared straight ahead while silver hair fell over where the other eye had been, partially revealing the scar tissue. Seto had only ever seen glimpses of the deformed skin above his eyebrow which wasn't covered by his eye patch, but here he could see all of it. The burn marks around his sunken eye socket, the imprint of the metal shrapnel that had cut his cheek to the bone and the pale jagged lines left by the stitches.
"Cyclops, meet Sweetcheeks. Sweetcheeks, meet Cyclops. You've never met in person before." The woman bared her teeth in a grin and returned to her post behind the computers, clicking away at the keys.
Seto stared. Pegasus had his one good eye trained at nothingness.
"Since when?" He rasped, cringing at the sound of his own voice. It had come out far more desperate and broken than he'd intended. They had the real Colonel here and they'd had him for a while if her words held any truth to them. He couldn't imagine a reason why she would lie though.
"Oh, for a while now. Getting our hands on somebody important enough from your end was tricky. But then Altair happened." She bared her teeth at him in a mockery of a smile again and turned to pick up a set of test-tubes, labelled them, and put them into an autoclave behind her. She fixed the temperature settings, adjusted the timer, and marked the date on the calendar hanging beside it.
Altair. Things clicked in place for him. The death of his wife, the following breakdown, the change of personality. He'd changed because he'd been exchanged. And all this time they'd followed and prided an enemy tactician. They'd had a wolf in disguise amid them and they'd followed him around like sheep, but the moment Seto had risen to show off his strategic skills, the wolf had struck. Suddenly he felt like the biggest idiot of the century.
"Cyclops, entertain our dear guest," she ordered, once again back to observing whatever was happening on the monitors.
"What…" Seto started, yanked from his thoughts, and looked from the Colonel to her and then back again. Words got stuck in his throat when Pegasus undressed mechanically like a doll and stepped up to the table he laid on, reaching out to pull his boxers half-mast. "What do you think you're doing?" The words were catching in his throat, scraping it raw, but he managed to get them out anyway.
"Getting you relaxed," the woman replied instead of the seemingly mute Pegasus and looked up with a smile that would have made any shark proud, but looked so awfully out of place on her lovely face.
Though generally against violence towards women, Seto thought he would bash this one's head in with great satisfaction. He tensed, though, feeling Pegasus' mouth where it shouldn't be. She finished typing up something in her files, stepped away from the computer and perched herself on the tall bar stool beside the autoclave, settling to watch her new toys. He realised with mortification that she wasn't going to leave. Humiliation burned a path through him like acid through a cloth. He clenched his teeth and stared straight up at the ceiling, eyes soon beginning to water from the bright lights, as he willed his mind to turn to something else. Anything else. He didn't think he would ever hate anyone quite as much as the white-haired girl sitting across from them and watching them with clinical interest. The only thing she lacked was a notepad in her hands and a pencil behind her ear to make that picture perfect.
"Faster, Cyclops," she ordered, tilting her head and studying them as if they would be a recently discovered species. As if watching a fascinating experiment unfolding before her.
Seto would have cursed her, but he didn't trust himself to open his mouth lest a sound he would really regret escaped. Heat rushed to his cheeks and he felt his body involuntarily respond. She didn't miss the tell-tale signs either.
"Enough, Cyclops. Get on top of him."
Like a marionette, Pegasus did as told. He positioned himself over Seto's hips, aligned them with a movement that indicated that it wasn't the first time he'd done this, and slid down on him, rising up again, then moving down once more. He set a steady rhythm, facing forward and staring off into the distance. The one time Seto chanced a look at him, that expression had something twist in his gut. He didn't look at his Colonel again. He tried not to think how this was the man he'd strived to surpass in military brilliance, how this was the man who'd given him a chance only to throw it back into his face, and scariest thing of all? He didn't know who this man was. A shell without a name. Somebody's doll.
Her voice reached him in his thoughts, and he bit back a moan when his world threatened to tilt. White flashed behind his eyes and he did make a sound, which had the woman laughing; he was distantly aware of that, coming back to his senses. But Pegasus was still moving atop him, and it was getting painful now. He winced, drawing in a sharp breath.
"You know, you can tell him to stop, Sweetcheeks," she said in a voice full of laughter. She hopped off the stool and returned to her computers. "At any given point you could have told him to stop and he would have. Genius Boy really was right when he said you're too proud to beg."
His eyes widened involuntarily at her words. It didn't look like Pegasus was going to stop any time soon and it didn't look like she was going to make him stop either.
He swallowed whatever had still left of his pride, cheeks burning in humiliation and whispered, "Stop."
"You're gonna have to be louder than tha~at," she informed him tauntingly.
"Stop." This time he managed a somewhat commanding tone.
Pegasus stopped and remained in an awkward halfway up position. Telling him to get off him was probably the most mortifying thing Seto had done in his life up to that point.
"And clean up after yourself, Cyclops," she added, once again immersed in the data on one of the monitors.
He promptly did. With his mouth. Seto twisted his head to the side, fighting hard to keep the roiling contents of his stomach down. He tasted bile in his throat and it burned it raw. His body unlocked itself only when Pegasus stepped away from him and began dressing himself in the same mechanical way he'd undressed. Seto sunk into the padding of the table, breath hissing out of him as he finally relaxed. He felt worn out as if he'd ran a marathon. Not so much from the humiliating act as from the amount of self-control he'd forced himself to endure.
It said quite a lot about his state when he didn't notice how she sidled up to him and leaned down to coo in his ear, "Nice and relaxed, are we now, Sweetcheeks?" He felt the pinprick of a needle on the inside of his elbow, but couldn't muster up even the will to fight her. "Very skilled, your precious Colonel, huh? See, I suggested Genius Boy to make you the same. He sure could use some company for his lonely nights, now that I own the sweet ass of his pretty little girlfriend."
Seto could hardly make out the meaning behind her chatter. He didn't even cringe when she licked the curve of his ear, muttering something else in it. Heat raced up from where she'd injected him with something and he lost his bearings.
A/N: Somebody once mentioned something about me writing a war epic. People really should be more careful with what they wish for around me. :/ And the title? Heights of a genius, good lord. D:
So, this world is an almost-carbon-copy of ours, except the continents arranged themselves differently, and in the span it took us to get through two world wars, they managed three and then some. Dartz is still an immortal asshole, Orichalcos doesn't exist, the ZIL truck is real and pretty awesome, Yalik never happened, the outsourced Paradius still belongs to Dartz and he happens to own I2 as well since the Altair conflict, Altair is a random fictional mountain range in central Ural-Eurasia and so is the Qarat River, Astana is a real place in Kazakhstan (capital city, actually), Shadow Realm is probably some place where tuna sandwiches go to die, and Amane is still dead. (Sorry, Bakura.)
This also comes equipped with a (partial) world map, which, for those interested, can be found here (warning: huge image): imageshack-com/ a /img607/282/5x8t. png (make sure you edit out all the spaces! And replace the dash with a dot before "com".)
It has no artistic merit, and isn't even essential for the plot. It's just a compilation of angry author snark and cross-fandom references because here's the main reason I never write full-blown AUs: I have the urge to do worldbuilding, complete with intricate maps and laws and politics and governmental systems and military rankings and... You get the picture. It's what I was doing for most of the week instead of, y'know, writing stuff. And speaking of rankings… The Nippon army Seto is a part of is based on the ranks of the Japanese military system circa early 20th century (and can be found here: tinyurl-com /ko6ypj9 (make sure you edit out all the spaces and replace the dash with a dot)), while Ural-Eurasia's is a bastardised version of the same where the ranks go (from highest to lowest) Marshal, General, Colonel, Major, Captain, Lieutenant, Sergeant, Corporal, Private, Recruit, getting rid of all the extra ranks in-between. Simplicity, yo. Also because Dartz kind of fails as a boss.
Senet is one of the oldest (Egyptian) board games in the world, and I'm pretty sure you all know what Shogi and Mahjong are.
Also, drinking age in Japan? 20 years.
I've. Probably crammed in more references which I can't remember off the top of my head, orz.