Title: Inheritors of Flame
Summary: The virtual reality world of the game "Inheritors of Flame" was a chance to become anyone. It was a place where even an ordinary teenager could end up in a battle with the world's greatest hitman, among other incredible things.
Notes: I wanted to write a virtual reality MMO AU for KHR. I don't even know? Also, everyone is addressed by their ingame names until their real world selves are introduced. Urgh, it gets so awkward. I didn't think it through...
The first time Reborn heard of it was from Dino. The young Cavallone boss had blurted it out while trying to escape Reborn's wrath when his former tutor caught him messing around with a video game, of all things.
"It's not just a video game!" Dino protested, cowering behind the leather couch he had been previously reclined on and holding up the visor-like headgear as a shield. "It's cutting edge virtual reality technology! It feels like you're really in another world! You can be anyone! I bet even you'd like it, Reborn!"
Reborn had snorted and shot the contraption out of his hands. Dino's screams had echoed through the mansion as Reborn set about reeducating his lazy former student.
The second time was when Reborn received a whining phone call from Federico. Apparently, Timoteo's spoiled youngest didn't appreciate Reborn taking away one of his favorite playmates.
"It's not just a game!" Federico declared hotly. "But not like you'd know the difference. Old people are always so bad with technology… You probably couldn't even figure out how to turn it on."
Reborn hung up without bothering to reply. He would need to remind Nono not to let his brat use the business line for his complaints, not that Timoteo would ever really reprimand Federico. Unfortunately, Federico knew not to go past certain bounds, and everything else was forgiven for Vongola Ninth's youngest son.
Federico was also very good at getting under anyone's skin, and despite realizing how childish it was, Reborn couldn't help but brood over his taunts.
Technology was something of a weak spot for him, in as much as Reborn had weak spots. It wasn't quite that he was behind the times. He just… liked tried and proven, reliable methods. Not this newfangled digital nonsense. He knew how to sneak past any security system. What else did he need?
The third time was the tipping point.
"Come on, Lal, it'll be fun! Like the good old days! Messing with rookies never gets old," Colonnello whined, doggedly following Lal. "Don't tell me you don't miss it. You loved it! …A bit too much."
Lal sighed heavily, finally reach the limits of her patience. "Listen, I'm not in the mood," she said. "I could put up with making those arrogant little shits take a woman seriously. I got used to that. But making them take a baby seriously? Not everyone's like the mafia, especially the rookies. They don't know about the Arcobaleno…"
"You don't need to worry about that!" Colonnello declared. "That's why I chose this session. They're going to be doing it through VR!"
"Did they finally crack it? Last I heard only that one company had it, and they weren't sharing," Lal said, frowning.
"Nah," Colonnello snorted. "They're still trying to make heads or tails of it. But they managed to get a couple fields in the game set aside for the training. The system is already very realistic, and all the special effects are being disabled in the area…"
Reborn, who had just happened to be passing by and was in no way eavesdropping, scowled. That cinched it. If even Colonnello had figured this Vee-Ar thing out, like hell Reborn couldn't.
For something that was above cutting edge, top of the line technology, the headgear, system and subscription were surprisingly cheap, not that price was an issue for Reborn. The greatest difficulty came in getting a visor small enough for his cursed form's head.
That, and making his peace with leaving his body so vulnerable while his mind was otherwise occupied.
As the VR system activated, Reborn's vision — previously just the darkness at the back of his eyelids — burst into color.
Link start, a floating display read. Connection established.
More text passed by quickly, and suddenly Reborn found himself standing in the middle of an illusionary chamber. A small screen floated in front of him.
No existing account could be found. Create new account, Yes/No?
It took Reborn longer than he was willing to admit to realize he was supposed to touch the Yes key.
Please create your avatar, read the screen next. But Reborn wasn't looking at it any longer.
In front of him, a painfully familiar figure had appeared. Tall, clad in a black suit that was just a little outdated by modern standards, sideburns curling from under the shadow of a fedora… It was him. The real him.
When asking a new player to create their avatar, the VR system automatically loaded the player's real appearance — or rather, how the player believed themselves to appear. For most people, it would be the face in the mirror, their physical selves.
It had been years since the curse of the Arcobaleno took hold, and Reborn had… adjusted. He hadn't had a choice. But to see the real, adult him again…
Reborn barely paid attention to the rest of the set up, flipping through it quickly. Then, another moment of disorientation, and there was only him the illusionary space. Only the real him.
Flexing the large, familiar hand, Reborn reached out and clicked Yes, under the Confirm character model? message.
Welcome, the next screen read, to Inheritors of Flame.
"There's a guy I want you kill!" Federico declared, pointing dramatically. "Name your price, Reborn!"
With a completely flat expression, Reborn grabbed hold of his finger and entire hand, twisting them back painfully. "One, don't point at me. That's rude," Reborn said. "Two, it's Leon here. That's rude too, young Vongola." He stressed the last word — Federico's in-game name — as a reminder of where they were.
"Ow, ow, ow!" Federico wailed, cringing even after Reborn let go. The sensation of pain was heavily dulled within the virtual reality world, but Reborn was very good at pushing the system to its limits. His HP had even gone down.
"If you want to hire me," Reborn continued calmly, "go through the usual channels. This is my personal time, and I don't want to talk business."
He often wished he didn't have to deal with anyone from his real life at all, but unfortunately Federico spent an inordinate amount of time in IoF, and despite being a whiny spoiled brat, he had at least a fraction of his line's famous intuition. Just seeing "Leon" in action once by chance was enough for him to make the connection.
"I don't mean IRL," Federico said, scowling. "I mean here! I want you to PK a guy."
Reborn considered the idea. Inheritors of Flame, the only game that utilized the VR technology, was mostly PVP. There were monsters that could be fought, but most of the action came from players going against each other for experience, items, and control of territory.
Most players joined guilds that claimed bases and expanded their areas of control while gathering more powerful weapons and equipment. In that set up, Reborn as "Leon" stood out for two reasons.
One, he was a loner, who played — fought — only solo. And two, he used none of the high level weapons or equipment.
Reborn didn't need them. Just the basic guns, replicated with surprising realism, were enough for him, even against the strongest opponents.
However, while Reborn had taken down plenty of other players, he had done so of his own volition and for his own amusement. He wasn't a hitman in the world of IoF.
"Name your price. You know my guild can pay it," Federico cajoled. "We can even offer a Sun A-rank Box…"
"I don't want it," Reborn dismissed the last offer. Instead, he smirked. "What did this poor fool do to earn an execution order? Let me guess… He beat you. Soundly. That's why you can't just take him out yourself either. That's no good. You shouldn't be such a sore loser, young Vongola. What would your esteemed older brother say?"
"He didn't beat me!" Federico yelled, shaking his fist at the ceiling. The mention of Enrico especially infuriated him.
However, his flush made it clear that Reborn had guessed more or less correctly. Federico's enemy was someone he didn't think he had a chance of beating. Which was interesting, given that Federico was a powerful player with a large guild at his beck and call.
Federico threw himself dramatically across one of the couches in the meeting room they were using. Like the rest of Federico's guild hall, it was all very luxurious and ostentatious — and clearly modeled on Vongola Headquarters in real life.
"This guy… He got awarded the title of Tenth. I wanted it!" Federico groaned. Receiving no reaction from Reborn, he glanced at the hitman, then sighed. "You… you don't even know what that means? Look, you know how everyone has a rank and that decides how strong a Box you can use? I'm an A-rank, and you are too, right?"
Actually, Reborn was still only a C-rank. That was the rank he had received from the moment he first logged on, and it hadn't gone up. Unsurprising, since Reborn didn't bother with whatever system of special abilities the game in place. He had taken down A-rank opponents with pure skill just fine.
None of this showed on his face, and Federico continued without realizing his mistake. "Well, it's possible to get so strong the system stops ranking you. It's called Over Rank," he explained. "It's so rare that players who reach it are given a title indicating the order they achieved it. This guy is the tenth to do it, so he now has the title "X"… which I wanted."
"So that you would be Vongola X," Reborn said blandly.
Federico shrugged, smirking unrepentantly.
It was just a joke. Federico had about as much interest in inheriting the famiglia as Massimo, but he also greatly enjoyed teasing his serious, straight-laced oldest brother. "You shouldn't scowl so much, or you'll get wrinkles, and I'll steal all the girls away!" "You better eat up, or I'll take all the cake for myself!" "Shape up, or I'll take over Vongola instead of you!"
Being "Vongola X" in the game would probably have made him chuckle to himself like a loser for months.
"But that guy stole it first!" Federico proclaimed, scowling again.
Well, it wasn't the stupidest reason Reborn had been given for killing someone. And this was just a game. Even being "killed" carried just a small penalty.
Not that Reborn had any intention of accepting. Like he had said, this was something he did for his own personal enjoyment, not as work.
But someone even stronger than A-rank… That sounded interesting. Like a challenge.
"And who is this unfortunate fellow?" Reborn asked lazily.
"He's got a small guild and territory. I can give you the coordinates," Federico said, smiling as he assumed he was about to get his way. "His name is Ieyasu."
Using the information Federico provided — his expression when Reborn refused to take the job and just walked off was priceless — Reborn easily tracked down "Ieyasu" and his guild. The guild's name, incidentally, was also "Reborn," which made him snort in mixed amusement and annoyance. It was a strange coincidence.
The guild was based beneath an NPC city. It was rare to see a settlement of that size in the game, which was mostly comprised of the usual post apocalyptic fare — abandoned structures, wastelands and mutated jungles. Reborn vaguely remembered there were specific requirements for having the guildhall coexist with NPCs, though the details escaped him.
More importantly, because this was a game, there was no way to sneak into a guild's base without using a specific special skill — which required a "Mist Flame" as opposed to Reborn's Sun anyway. It was one of the rare instances where game mechanics couldn't be bypassed in some way — just stepping into the guildhall automatically sent a notice to the "owner" of the territory.
Instead, Reborn simply found an entrance to the base that led outside the limits of the city, set off the alarms, and took a sniping position nearby to lie in wait until someone emerged to investigate. He was entirely prepared to go through the entire guild to get to the leader, if necessary. According to Federico, there were only five of them anyway.
He was in luck. The first person to emerge from the hidden entrance was the one he wanted to see — a young man who appeared to be in his twenties, with messy brown hair that took on a burnished orange tint under the sun. Compared to the kinds of outfits the game allowed, he was dressed rather simply in a shirt, vest, and pants. Only the full cape on his shoulders stood out as something people wouldn't wear in real life.
Well, most people. The mafia was full of weirdos, so Reborn had actually seen plenty of capes too.
As Reborn focused on him through the scope of the sniper rifle, a small cursor popped up, indicating that this was a player, name given as "Ieyasu X," and the master of the local territory.
Reborn pulled the trigger.
Although IoF allowed for things like headshots — increased or even instantly lethal damage based on the area hit — most higher level players carried special items that could negate a single surprise attack or even had innate defensive skills to protect them.
But instead of his bullet being burned away by a shield of Flame or intercepted by a Box Animal, Reborn watched in some surprise as Ieyasu dodged it at the last moment.
"Oh-ho," Reborn murmured to himself. "Interesting…"
The guild leader's gaze had snapped toward Reborn's location, his eyes narrowing. His cape flared out as Ieyasu held his hands out from his body. Armored gloves lit up with orange Flames, and he rocketed off toward Reborn like a streak of light.
Reborn was already unequipping the sniper rifle and pulling out a handgun instead. He ducked aside just in time to avoid a burning punch to the face and in the same motion trained his gun on Ieyasu as the other flew past.
But again, his opponent was able to react in time — no, it was too fast for that; he was actually reading Reborn's moves and predicting his attacks.
Pointing his free hand downward, Ieyasu released a burst of Flame that propelled him out of the bullets' path. He flipped, almost like handstand, and coming down again, aimed a sharp kick at Reborn's head.
Reborn caught his leg, reinforcing his body with his own Sun Flames. His next shots were too close to dodge, but Ieyasu threw up one hand, and powerful Sky Flames completely burned the bullets away.
As expected of a high-level player, of course.
Yanking him close by the grip he still had on Ieyasu's leg, Reborn tried to shove the barrel of his gun under the other's chin — blocking something pointblank against the skin with your Flames was almost impossible — but Ieyasu lashed out with his other leg. He managed to nail Reborn in the side of the head, knocking his hat off, and at the same time used the momentum to twist himself free of Reborn's grip.
Reborn let him airdash away. He glanced over his shoulder, in time to watch his fedora dissolve into particles of light. That kick had been enough to knock Reborn's HP down a little and, more importantly, invoke one of IoF's more annoying mechanics — the destruction of equipment if it was attached to the general body area that was damaged.
There were limits, of course. This wasn't that kind of game, and ending up actually naked was impossible outside special events like hot spring visits. But outer clothing was progressively destroyed as players were beaten down, especially since clothing and costumes had very low durability.
Reborn had liked that hat… But fortunately he, like most players, carried spares of his equipment in the invisible, intangible "pocket" they were all granted. (It was supposed to be yet another Box, which every player character came pre-equipped with, but that was really just a thin excuse to avoid inventory management puzzles.)
Another fedora materialized in Reborn's hand, and he placed it atop his head carefully.
Ieyasu had watched him from a distance. Unlike Reborn's real life hits, he looked more put upon than anything. "Why are you coming after me?" Ieyasu asked, his tone weary.
"Hmm… I wanted to see the abilities of the Over Rank I heard so much about," Reborn admitted easily.
"You too?" Ieyasu sighed.
Reborn smirked a little, understanding that he must have been hounded by challengers ever since going up in rank. In the same way, there never seemed to be an end to the idiots who wanted to try their hand at taking down "the greatest hitman."
"But… you're not like the others," Ieyasu noted, his fire-orange eyes studying Reborn critically. Seemingly coming to some conclusion, Ieyasu held up a hand and said, "Would you mind waiting for a moment?"
Raising an eyebrow, Reborn shrugged and gestured for him to go ahead.
As Ieyasu waved his hand, several small screens appeared in front of him, and he began to scroll through them, tapping at different options. The contents were blurred to Reborn — and any other bystanders — but based on positioning of his selections, he was going into a submenu Reborn didn't have.
'Probably something to do with his guild,' Reborn thought. 'Calling his friends for help? Not that it would matter… The more, the merrier.'
In fact, Ieyasu was simply transferring ownership of the guildhall and the territory to one of his guildmates. Next, he unequipped his cape and his gloves, which quickly dissolved into light. Another, older pair of gloves appeared on his hands instead, while the rest of his inventory was also sent to his friend for safekeeping.
Readjusting his weapons in a pointless movement that was all nervous gesture, he faced Reborn again.
'This person… isn't like the others,' he thought. 'He's really, really strong. I don't know if I can win…' But as Reborn raised his eyebrows, asking silently, "Are you ready?", Ieyasu nodded sharply. '…But I won't give up!'
Ieyasu tensed as Reborn's gun snapped up toward him. Yellow Sun Flames lit up the tip of the barrel, and a barrage of glowing arrows shot out. They didn't follow straight paths, curving to pursue Ieyasu even when he shot straight up into the air to get away.
No matter how he weaved or what maneuver he pulled, he couldn't shake them. Ieyasu could have blasted the glowing shots away with his own Flames — it had been quite a while since he had run across someone he didn't outclass in terms of raw power output. But that was a waste, and he had a far better way.
With a burst of speed, Ieyasu managed to put a little distance between himself and the homing projectiles. Spinning around to face them, he brought his hands together and concentrated.
It looked like the shots hit him, bursting apart in a bright flash of yellow Flames, but Reborn immediately knew that something wasn't right. The Flames were drawn inward, disappearing more than fading away, and Ieyasu's unharmed figure was revealed.
'He absorbed it,' Reborn thought. 'Not just neutralizing my Flames, but making them his own…'
He'd seen Box Weapons that could do something similar, but that seemed to be a unique skill used by the player himself. It was certainly interesting, but that pose especially…
Ieyasu had already begun to move the moment he had finished absorption. He twisted sideways, one open palm held out toward Reborn, the other thrust behind him. Intense, pure Sky Flames gathered in his hands, and his eyes narrowed.
Reborn tried to dodge, but again it was as if his opponent could read his movements. The beam of concentrated Flames that shot out managed to graze Reborn's shoulder, the damage bringing his HP down a respectable amount and also destroying his outer jacket, which dissolved completely as it unequipped and vanished from his inventory.
Behind Reborn, a loud crash and explosion of dust marked where the attack bit into the landscape. In real world, it would have left quite the crater, though in IoF the field couldn't be altered with normal techniques.
The return shot came too fast for Ieyasu to dodge as well, drawing a thick red line of "damage" across his side and destroying his vest.
"Hoh…" Reborn drew out, as the two opponents faced each other again. "It looks like I'll have to take you a bit seriously after all. You're not half bad."
The expression that spread across his face was more grin than smirk. This kid was more than not half bad. It was just a game… but it looked like it was going to be a fun one.
Ieyasu's lips twitched into an answering smile, and he nodded sharply. "Then I won't hold back either," he declared.
He took a deep breath… and a Flame burst to life on his forehead.
"I saw the bounty list! You took him down! Wonderful!" Federico's gloating came over the voice chat, followed by self-satisfied laughter.
Reborn could imagine him throwing back his head, his entire torso tipping until he was practically facing the ceiling, mouth parted to release the obnoxious peals of laughter. Just the image alone was infuriating, and the reason Reborn had contacted him through voice chat, instead of waiting for Federico to track him down in person. This was already more than he could stand.
"I felt like it," Reborn said flatly. "And right now, I feel a lot like shooting you between the eyes."
The annoying laughter cut off abruptly.
"W-well, yes," Federico coughed. "Congratulations, and all that. Defeating an Over Rank is no mean feat."
Reborn hummed noncommittally. "He's powerful and has good instincts, but he's an amateur." In the end, someone who had only fought for fun lacked the sort of edge life or death combat instilled, and Reborn had gotten maybe a bit too serious toward the end.
"Yeah. If the circumstances were a bit different, I might have tried to recruit him," Federico admitted.
"To your guild? He's got his own," Reborn said.
"No, to Vongola," Federico said. "It's not one hundred percent, but Flames in the game match Flames in real life. I can tell that much, even if I'm not much for fighting. Meeting strong players is a good way of finding people who have strong Flames in the real world too."
"You've been using the game to recruit," Reborn said, somewhat skeptically. It made sense. Even if using Flames in real life was incredibly difficult without a rare special artifact, people with strong Flames were generally strong in other ways too. And they were often the sort who would join — the kind that didn't quite fit in to ordinary life.
Federico chuckled. "A little. There's things like disposition and other circumstances to consider, but it works surprisingly well. This game isn't just a game, you know."
If it replicated Flames to that extent, then the creator must have known Flames very, very well, and a very select, few people fit those criteria in the entire world. And Reborn couldn't imagine them sinking that kind of time and effort into "just a game."
But Reborn didn't comment on that. "…Have you ever fought him?" he asked instead.
"Ieyasu? No," Federico said. "I've heard a bit about him though. It's pretty easy to tell he's not suitable, in different ways."
"He looks like Vongola Primo," Reborn noted casually.
"I guess," Federico replied, his tone conveying the shrug he must have been making. "I've seen his profile picture. I can see the resemblance, now that you mention it… But it's just a coincidence. The character creation only lets you change your appearance a little, so he must look mostly like that in real life. Things like that happen."
A coincidental appearance. A coincidental fighting style, a coincidental ability.
A coincidental guild name.
That was an awful lot of coincidences. A suspicious amount.
But Reborn didn't comment on that either. Like he had said before, this was what he did to wind down and relax. He had no interest in getting involved in some plot or conspiracy.
It might have been more to others, but to him the game was just a game, one that he planned to enjoy to the fullest.