Fubuki had been friends with Ryou almost since the day they met, mostly because no one else had dared. Even back then, Ryou had the kind of demeanor that warned other people that he was just a little bit out of their league, and that the best way to deal with him was to admire him from a distance. Fubuki, however, was not the sort of person who understood the concept of "distance" - not when it came to other people. All he had seen was a boy who seemed nice enough, and also in need of companionship, and had promptly set about trying to make friends with him. Ryou had been first annoyed, then intrigued, and had finally given in to the inevitable. It didn't matter that the only things they seemed to have in common was a love of dueling and the shared fact of younger siblings that they did their best to look out for. Fubuki was the only person who wasn't just a little in awe of Ryou, and also the only person who dueled anywhere near Ryou's level. He was the only one it was safe for Ryou to befriend without risking the danger of resentment. And after a while, against all odds, Ryou started to like him.
"Big plans for tonight?" he asked as the two of them strolled out of their last class of the day. "If you aren't doing anything, I think the arena isn't reserved. I'd like to get in more practice before next week's test."
Fubuki laughed. "What do you need practice for? You're already the best in the class! You haven't gotten anything less than a perfect score since day one!"
"I know, but I didn't come here to get grades. I came here to improve."
"You know, some people duel to have fun," Fubuki teased him.
Ryou gave him a smile. "You duel to attract girls."
"I do not! I can do that even without dueling," said Fubuki. "You could too, if you wanted to. How come the most popular guy in school hasn't ever had a girlfriend?"
"I don't want to be distracted from my dueling," said Ryou, in the tone of one who has explained this before.
"You're allowed to take a break once in a while. You keep going on without ever resting and you'll burn out."
"I don't need a girlfriend for that," Ryou replied.
"Aw, c'mon. Even duelists need love!"
"Maybe you do. As far as I'm concerned, it's enough to have respect for your cards and your opponent, without having to love them too."
Fubuki shook his head. However, before he could say anything to correct this notion, he was interrupted by the arrival of Professor Daitokuji.
"Hello, hello!" he greeted. "Just the people I wanted to see. How are you both doing today?"
"Well enough, Professor," Ryou answered politely.
"Doing great!" Fubuki said.
"Very good," Daitokuji replied. "I just wanted to see if either of you two were coming to the meeting tonight."
"Meeting?" said Fubuki. "I thought we usually had those on Wednesdays."
"We do, but this one is special. I knew you would want to come," Daitokuji said. "And of course we would be happy if you would attend as well, Mr. Marufuji."
"I believe I'll pass, thank you just the same," Ryou replied.
"Count me in!" said Fubuki.
"All right. We're meeting at the usual place, nine o'clock," Daitokuji replied. "See you there! And if you change your mind, Mr. Marufuji, we'll save a space for you."
He ambled off, murmuring to his cat. Ryou shook his head.
"I don't know why you go to those meetings," he said.
"They're interesting," Fubuki replied.
"But what use are they? I won't deny some sort of magic exists, but it's not for people like you and me to use."
"And you wouldn't use it even if you could," said Fubuki, halfway between admiration and exasperation.
"If I can't win by my own power, I don't deserve to win," Ryou replied, stating the obvious.
"What if you run up against someone like... oh, I don't know. That crazy Malik guy from the Battle City tournament? You wouldn't want to know what he was doing and how he was doing it?"
"If I met someone like that, I'd duel them the same way I always do," Ryou said. "But really, what are the odds of that happening? Maybe in another ten thousand years, there will be another duelist like that."
Fubuki laughed. "You're so cynical."
"And you're hopelessly impractical," Ryou answered. Someone who knew him well might have caught a note of affection in his voice. Fubuki did, and grinned.
"Okay, let's talk about something practical," he said. "Can I borrow your notes from Professor Chronos's class?"
"Why weren't you taking notes?"
"I was writing a letter to Keiko Yamaguchi."
Ryou shook his head. "You're impossible. You know that don't you?"
"It was worth it!" said Fubuki. "Have you seen Keiko Yamaguchi? Rawr."
"Is she going to your meeting?"
"Nope. You wanna invite her?"
"No," said Ryou. "Nice try. But I will drop my notes by your room later. Right now I'm going to the library to start on my homework."
"Thanks, pal - you're the best. I think I'm going to hit the beach and catch some waves before dinner," Fubuki replied. "If I don't run into you at dinner, I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"
"All right. Have fun," Ryou replied.
The two went off in their separate directions, waving goodbye. Ryou made his way to the library, thinking quietly about his friend who was in love with love and who believed in magic. Someday, he thought, that was going to lead to trouble. You couldn't go around loving people indiscriminately, the way Fubuki did, without landing yourself in some sort of messy situation. You had to be careful where you invested your emotional energy. As for magic...
Well, maybe he has a point about that. After all, the greatest duelists to ever live all had to deal with it in some shape or form. Even the creator of the game based it on ancient rituals. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to go to just one of these meetings, just to see what it's like.
He thought about going back and finding Fubuki, and telling him that he had changed his mind, but then he decided against it. He had already said he wouldn't, and anyway, he didn't have time in his schedule to spend a few hours on such a dubious pastime.
Next week, he decided. Next week I'll see what it's all about.
"See you all next week!"
At that signal, the club meeting began to break up. Fubuki headed for the door, his mind still filled with lofty thoughts. The meeting had been unusually interesting - someone had convinced a guest speaker to come in and give a talk, and Fubuki had a feeling it would have been very educational if he had understood it better. As it was, he merely enjoyed the feeling of being part of an exclusive group and getting to do something not everyone else could do.
"Mr. Tenjoin, could I borrow you for a moment?" called a voice behind him.
Fubuki looked around and saw Professor Daitokuji coming up behind him.
"Sure," said Fubuki, expecting to be asked to help fold the chairs, or something of that nature. While Professor Daitokuji often attended these meetings - "To keep people out of trouble", he said - he didn't actually run the club. As far as Fubuki knew, it had been started by the students themselves, and everyone who attended was expected to pitch in with the chores from time to time. "What do you need?"
"Well, I'm gathering a few of the top students and asking them to take a little test," he replied. "Not the kind you get graded on, you know - a test to determine magical potential. Since gifted duelists are more likely to have potential than ordinary ones, I thought it would be best to start there to see if it works."
"Sounds exciting! You can count on me," said Fubuki.
"Wonderful! Then just go stand with the others," Daitokuji replied, pointing to a corner where several others were already gathered.
"Okay!" said Fubuki, and bounded over to join them.
It was a boisterous bunch who lingered there, filled with pride at having been specially chosen for this test. Many of them were already boasting about how well they would score, with the confidence of people who always scored well on everything. Fubuki was happy enough to join in. He could keep pace with the best of boasters, and cheerfully bantered and teased the rest of the group in his usual charming way. Most of them were from his dorm, and he knew almost all by name.
When the last of the others had left the building, Daitokuji returned to the handful of people who were left and beckoned them to follow him down a hallway. Fubuki was intrigued; none of them had been this way before. The building that their weekly meetings was held in had once been a dormitory, but so many strange things had happened there that it had passed out of regular use. It was, however, a convenient place to hold meetings. Fubuki's opinion was that it would have made an excellent make-out site, except that for some reason, people felt nervous about being there without a large group of other people to keep them safe. Daitokuji seemed to know his way around, though. He led his students to what appeared to be some manner of dusty parlor and gestured for them all to take their seats.
"I'll be testing you individually, if you don't mind," he said. "The rest of you can wait here, and... Mr. Yoshida, you can come first."
Yoshida left with Professor Daitokuji, and the rest of the group settled down to wait. Two of them started a game of cards on a convenient tabletop, while others chatted or caught up on their homework. Fubuki got up and prowled around.
"What are you doing?" one of his friends asked him.
"Oh, looking for secret passages," he said, though the idea hadn't occurred to him until someone asked. "You know they used to study the Shadow Games here, right? There's bound to be secret passages in a place like this."
"You're nuts," said the boy with a laugh, and went back to his homework.
Fubuki, however, was not willing to give up on a good idea like that once he'd thought of it - at least for as long as his short attention span lasted. He knocked on the wall to see if it was hollow and tried pulling books on the shelves to see if they'd open a secret door. When that didn't work, he investigated the backs of picture frames on the wall. None of them covered any secret switches or hidden keys. Most of them, in fact, were too old and dusty for their subjects to be discernable anymore. Fubuki found them rather boring. Seized by an inspiration, he dug through his backpack and pulled out one of the eight-by-ten glossies he distributed to his female fans, signed his name on it with his usual flourish, and tucked it into one of the frames, so that his face smiled serenely down on them all.
"Quit fooling around," said one of the other students.
"I'm not hurting anything," Fubuki replied. "I think it improves the look of the place."
After a few minutes, Daitokuji returned and led away another student, and, a short while later, another. It wasn't long before Fubuki was the only one left in the room. He began to realize why people didn't like to sneak into this building for their nightly trysts. There was something in the very walls of the building that made him feel like it was looking down on him with a disapproving glower. It would have been like trying to have a makeout session in front of a particularly disapproving grandfather, except that this was worse because at least you knew where the grandfather was and why he was so annoyed. The sensation of invisible eyes on him made his teeth crawl.
"You're next!" called Daitokuji's cheerful voice, making him twitch.
"It's about time," Fubuki muttered, taking a breath to steady himself. He shouldered his backpack and followed Daitokuji out of the parlor, glad to be away from it. He almost didn't care where Daitokuji took him, as long as it wasn't that dim, glowering room.
As it turned out, the teacher only took him a short distance down the hall, to a large wooden door that was incongruously not dusty. They paused a moment while Daitokuji fumbled with the old-fashioned door handle. It was very quiet, and Fubuki found himself wondering whether or not the others were still in there, and why they were being so unnaturally silent. He couldn't even hear the shifts and rustles that would have been made by a test-taker in deep thought.
"Now, there's one thing you ought to know before you begin," said Daitokuji, as he unlatched the door.
"Oh?" said Fubuki. "What's that."
Daitokuji turned to smile at him. "That I really don't have anything against you personally, so please don't take offense."
"What? Wait a minute, why...?"
That was all Fubuki managed to get out before the door swung open, revealing utter blackness inside, and then he felt surprisingly strong hands grip his shoulders and give him a push. Fubuki tried to twist himself around as he fell, trying to get away from those bottomless shadows. He managed to turn around just enough to see Daitokuji still smiling at him, the same gentle smile he always wore. Fubuki had never seen Daitokuji's eyes clearly - the man always seemed to be squinting out at the world through his square-rimmed glasses, so it was probably only a trick of the light, or his own imagination, that made him think they were wide open now, and that they were gleaming the color of blood.
Then the shadows closed over Fubuki's sight and mind, and he saw nothing at all.
Taniya was an open-minded Amazoness. In fact, a lot of her tribe's members were fond of quoting the adage at her about how you should try not to be so open-minded that your brains fell out, but since Taniya could still out-duel and out-fight those same people on a regular basis, she didn't let it bother her. She could not have managed to be such a progressive thinker if she had not had a sound notion of her own worth.
The problem seemed to lie in the fact that she had, from an early age, taken a liking to traveling. Her tribe, unless it was marching to war, tended to stay put. The only exception was a yearly ritual when the women who desired children (which was nearly everyone of viable age, since producing daughters was a sure way to win honor in the tribe) would go out to nearby villages and seek a male to pair off with for the night. This was how the tribe was able to continue with only women in it - if the woman was lucky enough to find a man willing to take on a woman who was probably taller and stronger than he was, and if he was able to impregnate her, and if the child turned out to be a girl. Taniya had tried the whole affair a few times when she had come of age, and the whole situation had turned out so unsatisfactorily that she had wondered how the line had continued this long. There had to be an easier way than taking your chances one night a year, hoping that your fertile time would fall on the selected date, and dealing with a man who was most likely drunk and probably couldn't perform very well anyway. She had asked the village wise-woman why they couldn't keep the men nearby all the time, so that they could be called upon when it was convenient.
"You wouldn't want them around all the time," the wise-woman told her. "Men are naturally weaker than women. They don't fight or labor as well as we can, they can't nurse children, they're too lazy to keep house, and their big clumsy hands are less than worthless for arts and crafts. They're only good for one thing, and if we kept them around all the time, they'd want to do it all the time. They would whine and nag and complain and make our lives a misery. No, child, we're better off seeing as little of them as possible."
Taniya had believed it at the time, more or less - after all, her only experiences with men had not done anything to prove otherwise. However, she did become less interested in the annual scramble for a mate and the idea of child-rearing. Instead, she spent her free time exploring the lands around the tribe's village in the company of her pet tiger Baz. She befriended other creatures and monsters, spending more time in their company than with the other Amazonesses in her tribe. Inevitably, her wandering led her to other villages full of other people who did things differently. She lingered outside them for a while, watching the people go in and out on business, and finally worked up the nerve to break custom and go in under the full light of day with no intention of doing anything more than watching and learning what went on there.
That was how she had hit on the concept of love.
The Amazoness tribe knew about some kinds of love. They talked about motherly love, sisterly love, the love between friends, and about the love of hunting and battle, or even the love of music and art. Romantic love, however, was something new. Taniya learned for the first time that there were places where a man and a woman lived together as helpmeets and friends in something called 'marriage', and that sex between them was not a burden undertaken out of the necessity to produce children, but something they did for the pleasure of being close to each other. The more she heard, the more she became convinced that this was what she wanted. Somewhere out there, there had to be at least one man who was strong and brave and clever enough to make a fit husband for an Amazoness, and if it meant being an outcast from her village, even if it meant leaving her world entirely...
When the old man spoke to her and asked her if she would help him with a task in exchange for the chance to have her pick of the strongest and handsomest young duelists in his world, she had jumped at the chance.
That was why she was here, in this dark place, awaiting instructions: because before they could undertake the job of stealing the Seven Star Keys and releasing the three Demon Cards, they needed a complete team of seven assassins. Right now, there were only five. Three men, two women, all with needs which were difficult to fulfil. Two more were yet needed. Kagemaru was getting impatient; someone had to be found in a hurry, and the quiet masked man, the one they called Amnael, had suggested harvesting a duelist or two from the students at Duel Academia. Who better to do battle with the students there, he said, than one of their own? Taniya watched impassively as the unconscious bodies were hauled off to cells to await inspection.
These don't look very likely, she mused. She wasn't sure she would have chosen any of them to become one of the Seven Stars. She didn't think any of them would make much of a husband, either. If this was what she had to choose from, she might as well turn in her Shadow Item and go back home. Still, she was optimistic by nature, so she looked to Kagemaru and waited to see what the verdict would be.
Fubuki came around with a miserable headache. In fact, he realized, as he tried to roll over, all of him ached. He hadn't felt this sick and miserable since the time he had stolen a bottle of wine from Professor Chronos's private stash. He had come away from that experience thinking that it was no wonder his teacher acted a little erratic if he drank any amount of that stuff on a regular basis. This time, however, Fubuki couldn't quite remember what he had done to put himself into such a state; his memory seemed to have a few blanks in it. The last thing he could remember was talking to Professor Daitokuji about taking some kind of a test, and then everything went black. He made another effort to roll over and sit up, and somehow managed it without throwing up or passing out. As he rested from his exertions, he became aware of voices somewhere nearby.
"...you could do?" one of them asked. It was low and rough, an old man's voice by the sound of it. It was also disapproving.
Another voice, softer, vaguely familiar but obscured by echoes and the ringing in Fubuki's ears: "I did the best I could..." He said something else that was too quiet and garbled by echoes to hear, and then, "...the Kaiser, but he wouldn't come."
"Then you should have been more persuasive."
"I thought if I could get his friend interested, then perhaps..."
Fubuki managed to blink his eyes open at that point and take a look around. He appeared to be in a cell of some sort. Certainly there were bricks around him, made of some sort of gray- purple stone he had never seen before, and there was a heavy barred door in front of him. The floor and ceiling were strangely vague. Looking down, he could see only swirling purplish clouds and black shadows. Looking upwards showed the same thing. He touched the floor with one hand and felt something smooth and solid and not at all cloudlike. It baffled him. He wondered just how hard he had hit his head, or if he had been drugged. Hoping for answers, he tuned back in to the conversation again.
"...as well look them over," the deeper voice was saying. "You inspect the ones in that hall, and you look over those over there. The ones to the right are yours, and the ones to the left are yours."
"What about Amnael?" asked a woman's voice.
"Amnael is getting a lesson on performing his duties satisfactorily," the old man replied. "The rest of you look this garbage over thoroughly and see if you can find any that show potential. The rest of them will be disposed of. We can't have them going back home and telling tales."
There was a murmur of assent, and Fubuki was certain he heard one person - Amnael? - give a small squeak of fright.
Disposed of... he thought, trying to get his dull brain to function. He's going to kill me... us? Who else is here? ...if we aren't good enough. Good enough for what? Why am I here? I want to go home...
He tried desperately to remember what had happened to bring him to this turn of events, but nothing would come to him but a headache. It didn't matter much anyway; he was trapped, and too sick and weak to even try to get out of this cell, even if he knew where to go after that, even if there wasn't who-knew-what out there ready to dispose of him at a moment's notice. It didn't take long to realize that the odds were good that he was about to die alone in a dark place without ever knowing how he got there. He thought of all the people he would never see again - his parents, Asuka, Ryou, the school friends he dueled and bantered with, the giggling girls who jostled with each other to bask in his smile. He was never going to duel again, never go surfing again, never bask in the sun or play his ukelele or sit through a class or get called to the principal's office over some prank again. He'd never do anything again.
Except maybe one thing.
Fubuki hummed softly and discovered that his voice still worked, and that encouraged him a bit. He hummed louder. All his life, he had loved music - the way the songs expressed things too complex for his simple words to speak, the way they could lift a person's mood or move them to tears, the way they made people listen to him, the way they made him feel connected to others as nothing else could. He didn't have his instrument with him, but he didn't need it.
If he was going to die, he would die singing.
A love song.
The boy in the third cell down was clearly out of his mind. Taniya knew that at once, just by looking at him. Or listening to him, to be precise. His expression was perfectly calm, as if the darkness and the walls and bars didn't bother him. He wasn't ranting or raving like a madman, nor was he crying and begging like one frightened out of his wits. Either of those would have suggested he at least knew he was in trouble, but he obviously had no idea, because he was singing.
"Stop that," she told him.
He didn't seem to hear her. She glared at him, though it obviously would do no good because he had his eyes closed. He went right on singing, and it occurred to her that he wasn't just singing any random song. It was, she realized, some sort of love ballad, a promise of everlasting devotion. He sang it like he meant it.
"Hey," she said, a little more gently. "Hey, you - why are you singing like that?"
The boy opened his eyes and looked at her.
"Because I'm pretty sure you guys are planning to kill me," he answered simply.
"What? That makes no sense," she snapped. "If it were me, I'd be trying to fight back or talk my way out of it or something. What good is a song going to do you?"
"It's all I've got," he said with a shrug.
"But a love song?"
"What other kind of song would you suggest?"
"I don't know," Taniya snapped. She gave him a speculative look. Now that she was looking at him, she could see he was actually a rather good-looking young man, if a bit too "pretty-boy"-ish for her tastes. More curiously, she asked, "Do you really believe in that love stuff?"
"Of course I do," he answered, as if she were asking him if he believed the ocean was wet. "Don't you?"
"Sometimes," she admitted.
"You should believe," he said. "It's the greatest thing there is. That's why I'm not afraid."
"I don't get it," said Taniya.
"Well... It's like..." The boy seemed to be fumbling for the words to express himself. "It's like this. The reason I don't want to die is because I don't want to leave behind the people I love - my best friend and my sister and my parents and my teachers and schoolmates and everyone. But I don't think love just disappears when you die. You gave it to them - it's still there, even if you aren't. Love is immortal. Even if the rest of me dies, that much of me is still going to be here. That's what I think. That's what I'm trying to remember, even if... even if I still don't... don't want to die..."
Taniya was silent for a moment. The boy dabbed at his eyes. He wasn't really crying - not making any noise - but there were tears on his cheeks.
"I'd like to believe in love like that," she said. "I've been looking for it for a long time."
"You'll find it," he said. "Maybe not soon, but someday. It's out there."
He sounded so certain that the only thing she could think of to say was, "Thank you."
The young man smiled, a bit wryly. "Any time."
Taniya wasn't sure whether to laugh at him or not. Any time, he said, as though he would be around later to ask.
"Listen," she said. "This is no place for a guy like you. You're going to hate it here. I don't know if you've got what it takes to survive in a place like this - it might break you. But I'm going to save your life, and maybe it will do some good for you someday. I don't know. We'll see."
With that, she turned and walked away. Behind her, there was a moment of silence, and then the sound of someone humming softly.
When she returned to face her leader, she told him, "The boy in cell three. There's something special about that one. I think we should try him and see what he does."
"Him? I don't know..."
"He is talented," said Amnael. "Almost as talented as the Kaiser. Better than anyone but him. Maybe better, with the proper training..."
"All right," Kagemaru said. "We'll train him, then, and see what comes of it. But I don't like it. It's going to take a lot of work to make him useful. He's going to have to learn to be ruthless, and he doesn't look like the ruthless sort to me."
But he did learn. He did learn how to survive in the darkness, and forgot the ones he loved, and forgot that he had ever wanted to sing. He forgot, but someone else remembered. She had never seen love up close before, and now that she had found it, she wasn't about to forget.
Ryou left his notes on Fubuki's doorstep. He left them there for the better part of the week, even after the rumor got out that several people had disappeared without a trace, even after Daitokuji was questioned about the events of the meeting, even after the old dorm was declared permanently and completely off-limits... even after it became obvious that Fubuki wasn't coming back.
They hadn't been friends for any particular reason. It had been convenient - there was really no one else to pick from. They had almost nothing in common, both in terms of personality and in shared interests. And Ryou had told himself that he wasn't going to get involved with anything that wouldn't further his commitment to dueling. So when the rest of the school was panicking over the disappearances and Fubuki's friends and fans were weeping over his loss, Ryou remained cool and distant. He was above it all.
He did, however, start spending a lot of time by the ocean. Fubuki had always been trying to get him to go to the beach with him, to swim or play volleyball or learn how to surf, and Ryou had always said he was too busy and didn't have the time to waste. Now he took to walking up and down the beach, especially at night when the water was too cold to swim, and all the surfers and swimmers had gone. Eventually he took to standing by the lighthouse and staring out at the ocean, sometimes for hours, motionlessly, held there by some force he didn't acknowledge and couldn't understand. It wasn't something that was really in his nature. It was just something that had been given to him, once, and he had to live with it now. He stood and stared out at the setting sun, watching its warm light being extinguished slowly and be replaced by darkness. This is how it is, he mused. I knew it would be. I knew something like this would happen. For all his talk, his ideals failed him in the end. I could have told him love wouldn't do him any good...