Edo sighed and put down the cards he'd been holding. For the last hour, he had been going over his most recent duel in his head, trying to figure out where it had gone wrong, and he was tired of thinking about it. Nothing was going to change the fact that he had lost. It wasn't even that he had made mistakes. His play had been as flawless as ever; the other player had simply been luckier, or more determined.
Maybe it was Destiny, thought Edo wryly. But I don't think so.
If it was true, than Destiny had turned against him. He'd been losing duels lately - not all of them, or even most of them, but enough to have him worried. And as far as he could tell, he wasn't doing anything wrong. He hadn't drastically altered his tactics, though he was constantly fine-tuning. He didn't think the new players in the League were that much superior to the ones he had faced earlier in his career. He had not slacked off at all in his training - if anything, he was working harder than ever. Something was just missing, and he was not certain what it was.
He didn't look back to see if someone was listening to him or not; even in his own home, he usually had attendants nearby waiting to cater to all his needs.
"Send for the car," he said. "There's somewhere I want to go."
"Yes, sir, right away," said the attendant. Edo nodded and put his cards back into his briefcase, and got up and left them behind. He wasn't going to need them where he was going.
Within moments, he was settled comfortably in the backseat of his private car (he'd earned his license a few months ago, but he still preferred to let someone else do the driving on long trips), watching the city scenery roll past him. It was going to be nearly night by the time he got where he wanted to go, and there was no telling what absurd hour of the morning he would get home again, but at least he knew that where he was going he would be welcome any time of day or night.
The miles passed, and Edo put on a pair of headphones and closed his eyes, letting himself doze while the city fell further and further away and the mountains rose up in front of him. He didn't rouse himself until he felt the road become sloping and twisty, and he knew he was almost there. He sat up and looked out the window with more eagerness in his expression than he would have wanted to admit to. Somewhere above him, near the top of the mountain, was a small house that was rapidly drawing nearer. It was Japanese in design, modest in its proportions but elegant in its details - the home of someone who was living simply because he chose to and not because he had to. As the car glided gently to a stop, Edo flung open the door and bounded outside.
"You go on," he told the driver. "I may be here a while. I'll call you when I need you." He left the driver some money to stay somewhere overnight if the meeting lasted that long, and sent him on his way. Satisfied that he was alone, Edo walked up to the front door of the house.
It opened before he'd even raised his hand to knock.
"Edo," said a familiar voice. "This is a pleasant surprise."
Edo smiled in spite of himself. "Hello, Saiou. Nice to see you too."
"Come inside," said Saiou, "and tell me what brings you here. There's tea waiting."
Sure enough, there was tea. It was sitting out on the living room table: one pot, two cups, already steaming invitingly. Edo's smile widened a bit, and he turned to his old friend.
"I thought you couldn't do the seeing-the-future bit anymore."
"I can't," said Saiou factually. "My eyes, however, still work just fine, and I can see a long way from the top of this mountain. I recognized your car."
Edo laughed. "See, that's why I listen to you. You're one of the last people left on Earth who knows how to think."
He wandered inside, letting himself bask in the peacefulness of Saiou's mountain home. It was very much a bachelor's apartment - furnished with minimal fripperies, but what furnishings were there were simple and elegant. Nearly every wall was lined with bookshelves, each one laden with comfortable old books with venerable leather covers and crackling pages. The air was lightly scented with incense, green tea, and the smell of old paper. Saiou had moved into this house about a year ago, after he had resigned from his position as Edo's manager. He had managed to parlay his experience and connections into a job with Industrial Illusions, working as a researcher in occult subjects. He was a natural choice, as he not only believed in them but had some previous knowledge and experience. He seemed happy enough to be here, far away from the rest of the world, pursuing his studies. Edo visited as often as his schedule would allow, and he always found it soothing.
"Shall we take our drinks out to the porch?" Saiou suggested. "Then you can tell me what's on your mind."
"Good idea," Edo agreed.
They drifted out to the back of the house, where a wide porch offered a view of the landscape below them. From their perch atop the mountain, they could still see the setting sun, but in the valley, the lights of the city were already twinkling on one by one. Saiou took a seat in one of two wooden chairs and sipped silently at his tea while he waited for Edo to make himself comfortable. This was not just a matter of settling down physically. Edo wasn't much of a one to talk about his feelings; he needed time to sort out his thoughts before he could say anything about them.
"Did you see my duel today?" he asked at length.
Saiou nodded slowly. "I saw. You played well. There were no mistakes in your strategy."
"I still lost."
"It happens, even to the best duelists."
"Well, it's been happening a lot lately," Edo muttered. "More than usual. I don't know why."
"There is always a reason for these things," said Saiou. He gazed off into the sunset, apparently considering the possibilities. "When did you begin to notice there was a problem?"
"Hm... probably about the time I lost that duel to Manjoume. I was too busy before then to notice if anything was different or not. It might have been." Edo frowned. "Maybe before that. The last duel I can remember feeling really good about was... well, weird as it sounds, it was the one I played against that Amon Garam."
"I see... Actually, that makes sense."
Edo raised an eyebrow. "Well, it doesn't make sense to me."
"The duel against Amon Garam was the one you fought to save that woman's life, if I recall correctly. Before that, you dueled to defeat the Haou's armies, and to repay your debt to Juudai. Before then, it was to avenge your father's murder. And now..."
"Now I'm dueling because I'm a duelist," said Edo, a bit defensively.
"Yes. Because it is what you are good at. Because it is what you are used to. Perhaps because it is what you enjoy. But the fact remains that you no longer have a purpose in dueling beyond the dueling itself."
"And you think that's what's causing this slump?" asked Edo. He was beginning to warm to the idea somewhat. Not that he liked it, because he didn't, but he was beginning to see how it made sense.
"I offer it as a possibility."
"You're not good at definite answers," Edo complained. "All right. Suppose that's what's wrong with me. What do you suggest I do about it?"
"The way I see it," said Saiou, "you have three choices. Your first choice is, naturally, to fight to overcome this obstacle. You could do it, if you put your mind to it. I know you well enough to know that you are capable of doing anything you truly desire to do. You may have to apply yourself more than you have in the past, but given that you focus and make the effort, there is no reason why you cannot fight your way back to the top of the League."
"Nice to hear you say so," said Edo doubtfully. "What's my second choice?"
"The one I think least likely," Saiou replied. "That is, to do nothing. To continue as you are, on a slow slide towards mediocrity, and be content to be neither the best nor the worst, until you are finished with your stay in the League for good."
Edo shuddered. "Definitely not. What's my third choice?"
"To stop," said Saiou simply. "Retire from the dueling scene entirely. Go out in a blaze of glory while the world still remembers you as one of the greatest duelists of all time, and then find something else to do that offers you more fulfillment."
"That's no good either," said Edo. "What am I supposed to do? Dueling has been my life almost since I was old enough to walk."
"What are you supposed to do? Anything," said Saiou. "Edo, I may no longer have my gifts, but I still have no doubts about your future. You are one of those rare and lucky individuals who literally lives a charmed life. I know it sounds like the kind of trite foolishness that they tell small schoolchildren, and usually it isn't really true, but you really can do anything you put your mind to. You have talent, looks, intelligence, and a healthy amount of fame and fortune. There is literally no path you can choose that will not open to you."
"Well, that helps a lot," said Edo, grimacing. "It would be nice to narrow down my choices a little bit. Assuming I even wanted to quit dueling, and I'm not sure I do." He met his friend's eyes with a wry smile. "Getting advice from you was a whole lot easier when you could just ask your cards everything."
Saiou returned the smile. "I may not be a seer anymore, and I can't advise you as your manager, either, but I am still your friend. I still want what is best for you, and I think I still know you well enough to make some guesses as to what might make you happy. So if you are asking me what I would suggest..."
"Very well," said Saiou. "Have you ever considered going into law enforcement?"
That stopped Edo short. He considered a moment, trying to make that idea make sense. "You mean like a police officer?"
"Not exactly. Something a bit more specific," said Saiou. "I was thinking of duel law enforcement. The world is full of card thieves and forgers and Rare Hunters. Someone has to put a stop to them. I see no reason why you should not do professionally what you used to do... freelance, as it were."
"Hm," said Edo. He turned the idea over in his mind. It had been a while since he'd done one of his nightly sweeps for small-time crooks and card thieves. There was no real reason for it, now that his Bloo-D card was safely restored to him, and his sponsors had not been pleased with the idea of him risking his life on the streets when he could be doing any number of safer and more profitable things. When Saiou had been his manager, he had tolerated it because he knew how important it was to him, but Edo's new manager was far more strict. Edo realized he'd missed it.
But enough to give up the Pro Leauges for it?
"It's worth thinking about," said Edo slowly.
"There is time to decide," said Saiou. "You don't need to decide everything all at once, or even tomorrow, or next week. What is meant to be will come clear in time."
Edo flashed him a grin. "Destiny, right?"
"Old habits die hard?" Saiou suggested with a half-smile. "Just because I can't see it doesn't mean it's not there."
Edo settled back and sipped his tea as he watched the stars come out. "You know, it's been a while, and I still can't get used to the idea that your powers are gone. They were so much a part of your personality..."
"I'm still growing accustomed," said Saiou softly. He looked down at his hands for a moment, as though he thought something about them might have changed with the passing of his gifts. "But I'm all right. The life I have now is a good one."
"Mm-hm," said Edo. He thought privately that Saiou didn't sound much more enthused about his current situation than Edo himself felt about his current situation in the Pro Leagues, and decided not to make an issue out of it. One of the things he liked best about Saiou was his ability to keep quiet and not bring up difficult matters unless Edo was ready to deal with him, and Edo wanted to extend the same courtesy. He stared into his now-empty teacup.
"I guess I should be going. It's getting late," he said, without much enthusiasm. "Maybe I can get some sleep on the ride home..."
"You will do no such thing," said Saiou firmly. "You aren't doing anything so important tomorrow that you can't afford to stay the night here and go back in the morning."
Edo raised an eyebrow. "You sound awfully sure of yourself. Are you sure you haven't been reading my future?"
"I've been reading your press releases," Saiou replied, "and you haven't got any duels or major appearances scheduled for tomorrow."
Edo was surprised into laughing.
"I should have kept you as my manager," said Edo. "Psychic or not, you're ten times smarter than the manager I have now."
Saiou bowed his head modestly. "That's an exaggeration."
"Well, maybe so," said Edo. Slyly, he added, "She's been talking about having me sign a commercial deal with Crystal Point Games. It looks like a good deal to me."
"What? What was she thinking? They have a terrible reputation - they never pay anyone on time. If you must sign a deal with them, make sure you go over the contract thoroughly for loopholes and get everything in triplicate, and make sure the paper that you sign is the same as the one they show you, but there are so many better ways of getting exposure..." Saiou trailed off and looked at Edo, who was now trying very hard to contain a laugh. "All right. You've made your point."
"Of course. I always do," said Edo. He stretched lazily, feeling far more relaxed now that he knew he didn't have to go anywhere for a while. He decided that he really didn't visit Saiou often enough. Something of Saiou's aura seemed to have seeped into the walls of this secluded house; it exuded a peace that Edo rarely felt anywhere else. Just being there was a balm for his spirit. He was glad for the chance to spend the night here. "Well, if I'm staying, I think I have time for another cup of tea."
"Help yourself," said Saiou.
The two of them sat there on the porch, chatting amiably about inconsequential things until Edo could no longer stifle his yawns. He'd been up since the crack of dawn working, and he'd put in a hard duel already that day. As soon as Saiou noticed that his friend was fighting off drowsiness, he chased him off to the guest room.
"I'm not such a demanding host that I'm going to make you stay up all night just to keep me company," Saiou told him. "Get some sleep. We can talk in the morning."
Edo nodded silently and shuffled off to the guest room. He knew where it was. He had spent more than one night there, on occasions like this one when his visits ran late, though he tried not to impose on his dear friend's hospitality too often. Nevertheless, he liked it there and would have been happy to have an excuse to stay the night more frequently. It was the only room in the house that looked as though some effort had gone into decorating it, probably because it was also used when Mizuchi came to visit. At any rate, it had a few pictures on the wall and comfortable furniture, and a shelf full of books that were actually meant to be read and enjoyed, and a window that looked out on a miniature waterfall in the garden outside. Edo shed his clothing and crawled into the bed. It was so quiet here - no city noises, no neon lights shining through his window, just the soft sound of night creatures and rustling breezes, and the distant creaks that meant Saiou was moving around somewhere nearby. That comforted him. It was nice to know someone was nearby, watching over him. It was the kind of peace he had rarely experienced since he was a child. Smiling slightly, he dropped into a deep and restful sleep.
A meeting was held, just as it was every month, between Edo, his manager, his sponsor, and a few other assorted publicists and media personages. They were all talking animatedly, putting forth ideas, asking questions, generally having an exciting time planning out Edo's career... all of them but Edo. He was in the back of the room, leaning back in his chair and staring at the ceiling, not even making an effort to look like he was paying attention. If it came down to something important... well, what was a manager for if not to make sure good decisions were made? This one may not have had the level of prescience that Saiou had, but she was able enough to keep him out of real trouble. Edo had more important things to worry about than business.
Ever since his visit to Saiou, he had been pointedly trying not to think too hard about what they had discussed. He wanted to be certain he didn't make any decisions based solely on the fact that an idea was new and different and therefore exciting. He wanted to make a calm, rational judgement.
If I quit, at least I'd never have to sit through any meetings like this ever again... he thought. Then he shook his head. That was the wrong way to think.
Cons first. Why shouldn't I quit?
Well, there were his millions of fans he would disappoint. It would mean giving up his life of luxury - he didn't know what special dueling law enforcers made, but he was willing to bet it was less than a successful pro duelist. There would be no more penthouse apartments, no more five-star hotels, no more private planes and yachts, no more limousines. If he managed his savings carefully and invested wisely he could probably make shift to live comfortably even on a reduced paycheck, but he'd have to scale back on the luxuries. There would be no more mingling with the best and brightest of the dueling world. He would probably miss that the most - the chance to try his skills against the most powerful gamers alive. He'd have to report to someone else instead of being more or less his own boss. He would have to be on call any time, day or night, instead of having a schedule with plenty of leeway. It would mean giving up everything he was accustomed to and embarking on something completely new and unknown. Right now his world was easy and safe, and it would take courage to upend all of that... but Edo had never lacked for courage.
Okay, what are the pros?
Well, there were his millions of fans... he could really live without those. He was good at charming people but he was not, in reality, a people person, and it could grow tiresome having to constantly put forth his public persona of a gentle, personable, charming young gentleman. At least if he was dealing with criminals, he could tell them exactly what he thought of them without having to worry about his reputation. There would be no more press conferences, no more answering calls at seven in the morning, no more photo shoots and magazine interviews, no more handshakes and autographs. There would just be... dueling. Maybe not with the best duelists in the world, but against people who deserved to be put in their place. He wouldn't have to be gentle with them. He would actually be doing something useful, something besides just putting his skills on display for the entertainment of the masses. And maybe he would have more free time for himself, or to spend with people he actually wanted to spend time with...
His thoughts drifted back to Saiou. It had been too long since they'd been able to spend real time with each other. It was only a few hours snatched her and there, whenever Edo could work it into his hectic schedule. It wasn't like before, when they were practically at each other's elbows every minute of the day. He had always thought of himself as the independent sort, but he missed having Saiou around. He was something sane and sensible in a world that alternately seemed either maddeningly superficial or insanely complicated by crazy things trying to destroy civilization.
"Mr. Phoenix, what do you think of it all?" said a voice, cutting into his thoughts.
Edo sat up and fixed his cool blue gaze on one of the publicists.
"I think this has all been very interesting," he said. "I'm going to need some time to mull it all over before I come to any firm decisions. What do you say we meet again in a day or two and we'll review it then?"
"I think that can be arranged," said his sponsor, "but no later than tomorrow."
"This time tomorrow," Edo agreed. "And now I'm gone."
He got up and walked purposefully toward the door. Everyone immediately realized they had been dismissed and began gathering up their things. Edo smiled a little; sometimes a little star power was a useful thing. He was going to have to think long and hard before he gave it up. Or at least until tomorrow morning.
A walk would do me some good right now, Edo decided. It was evening, but not so late in the day that a quick cup of coffee would do him any harm, not with the hours he kept. He headed for the ground floor of the office building and stepped out into the cool air. The street lamps were just beginning to come on one by one, looking wan and feeble in the twilight. Edo avoided them, keeping to the alleyways. He knew every shadow in the city, every back alley, every dark staircase, every chain link fence that could be climbed, every wall that could be scaled, every roof that could be crossed, and every narrow gap that could be slid through. The dark places were probably more familiar to him than the streets that respectable people used, and he was never afraid when he was walking through them. He could also get to anywhere from anywhere in significantly less time than the people who used the conventional routes.
Tonight, he made his way at a leisurely pace, cutting across an empty lot full of old junk, slipping past a fence that wouldn't have admitted a full-grown man but had a gap in it just wide enough for Edo to slip through, and began walking up a narrow alley. He was still mulling over all his options and not paying much attention to his surroundings. Even so, his highly trained senses were quick to pick out the sound of something not quite right. He stopped walking immediately and pressed himself to the wall, barely breathing, as he listened.
"...it over," a coarse voice was saying. "You ought to consider yourself lucky I don't take your whole deck."
"But... I need that card! I've spent years building this deck - I can't get into the Academy without it..."
Picking on kids, thought Edo with disgust. That was about as low as you could go. Still, anyone who would sink to something like that was hardly any match for him. He stepped out of the shadow and began walking toward the voices.
"Evening," he said casually, strolling up to the pair. "I couldn't help but hear someone is in the market for rare cards. Maybe you'd like to gamble for some of mine? Some of them are one-of-a-kind, legendary monsters. You can't pass that up, can you?"
He smiled his sweetest, most innocent smile, inwardly pleased at the thief's look of pure avarice. This was going to be too easy.
Five minutes later, the mugger was lying semiconscious on the ground with his hands and feet bound up with his own belt, with his cards scattered around him. Edo had confiscated his Duel Disk; while he would never steal someone's deck, no matter how shoddy it might be, he felt that only real duelists deserved to carry Disks. He slipped away before the cowering boy could thank him properly. It was dark in the alley and he was fairly sure that the frightened child had never gotten a good look at his face, and he didn't want that to change. As soon as he was a safe distance away, though, he slowed down a bit. He left the purloined Duel Disk in a flower box for some lucky person to find later and strolled the rest of the way to the coffee shop with a smile playing across his face. That had felt good. He had missed it.
Could I do that for the rest of my life? he mused. He thought about the look on the mugger's face when he'd realized the innocent-looking boy he had decided to tangle with was more than he seemed. Oh, hell, yeah.
Saiou was cleaning. He used to have people do that for him, but he preferred living alone these days, and someone had to take care of the minutiae. Even after he had lived as the manager of one of the world's foremost duelists, and briefly been revered as a god, he wasn't so proud that he couldn't wash his own dishes and do the laundry. The was always a part of him that still felt like the little boy who had run away from home and lived on the streets. Compared to that, this was the lap of luxury.
At the moment, he was tidying up his library, a job he'd been putting off for far too long. Pegasus had put him on a particularly demanding project that had taken Saiou weeks to sort through, and the study area had become more like a disaster area in the process. Now he shuffled through his papers, filing them away in the proper folders, putting all the books back where they belonged.
Someday soon I'm going to make a proper catalogue for these, he resolved, for the umpteenth time. Or at least find a better way to organize them. Library science had not been his study in life. His books were in alphabetical order by author, which, while making sense at the time, left something to be desired when he was trying to find something in a hurry. Or put them back, for that matter.
Now, where did this go...
A difficult question, considering that the books on the shelf were no longer in the right order. With a resigned sigh, he tucked the stack of tomes he was carrying under one arm so he could use his free hand to put them right. That arrangement didn't work very well. He soon felt the books slipping, and he made an effort to grab them - too late. Several of them fell to the floor, and one landed on its spine and fell open. Saiou sighed and bent to retrieve them, and then stopped. The book that had fallen open was now proudly displaying a black-and-white illustration of an old woodcut, showing the Grim Reaper leaning on a tombstone.
Major Arcana XIII - Death, thought Saiou, and then shook his head, more at the idea that he was still trying to read omens into things than any discomfort he had with the image itself. Despite what the uninitiated might think, Death wasn't always, or even usually, a bad card to dra. It didn't represent an actual, physical death, so much as something coming to an end - and in the same stroke, bringing with it a chance for new life. A card to be cautious of, perhaps, but not an inherently bad one.
But this isn't a card and you don't do that kind of thing anymore, Saiou reminded himself firmly, and he shut the book. Back to the shelf... if I only knew where it went.
Maybe now would be as good a time as any to start reorganizing. He could get everything sorted by subject so he could finally find things when he wanted them. With that encouraging thought in mind, he started pulling down books at random and putting them in stacks. He paused over one, trying to remember what it was about. He opened it.
Two hours later he was still in his chair, surrounded by unshelved books, contentedly reading. Nothing disturbed him from his bookish daze until he was roused by the sound of an unfamiliar vehicle pulling up outside. He tucked a scrap of paper into the book to mark his place and stood up to look out the window. A slender rider dressed in white leather and a matching helmet was climbing off a gleaming silver motorcycle. He took the helmet off, shaking out hair that was exactly the color of the bike, and opened a pair of eyes that were visible as clear blue, even at this distance. Saiou smiled a little. Sometimes it was nice to not know what was coming next, when the future brought pleasant surprises like this.
He made his way to the front door, picking his way carefully through the piles of books, and managed to answer it before Edo had knocked too many times. He was greeted by the sight of his old friend grinning at him, his hair still ruffled from being inside the helmet.
"Didn't see me coming this time?" he asked. "You're slipping, Saiou."
"I was cleaning the library," said Saiou.
Edo laughed. "Sure you were. Hope you don't mind me dropping in unexpectedly."
"You are always welcome, expected or not," said Saiou. He stepped aside so that Edo could come in. "What brings you here? This is the second time in two weeks. You must be up to something."
"Nah, not really," said Edo. He sauntered casually into the house and dropped his helmet on the hall table. "I just had some good news and wanted to tell you in person so I could see your face."
"I can always stand some good news."
"Well, then," said Edo. "I quit my job."
Saiou paused, thinking of the book that had fallen. "Somehow, I am not surprised."
"That's good. I don't think I could handle seeing you surprised," said Edo, laughing. He seemed unusually buoyant, a far cry from his usual reserved mannerisms. "I handed in my resignation this morning. I'm going to finish out my contracts, and then it's over. It'll be all over the news in a few days."
"Sooner than that, I expect," said Saiou. "If your sponsor has any sense, they'll play it up as much as they can."
"Haven't lost your touch for the business, have you?" said Edo.
Saiou ignored the comment. "What do you plan to do now?"
"Various things. I've been looking into how to get a position in lawkeeping. It wasn't hard," he added with a grin. "You might have been right with that charmed life stuff. People were falling all over themselves to get me on the force." He preened a little with understandable pride. "I have to go through some training, but that's mostly just a formality. Oh, and they want to give me a psychological examination to make sure I'm suitable."
"I have it on the most reliable authority that there is nothing wrong with your mind," said Saiou.
"Was that a joke? I really can't tell with you sometimes," said Edo.
"Maybe," said Saiou.
"Should have known," Edo replied, shrugging. "Anyway, right now I'm just trying to get my finances in order so they don't all disappear as soon as the big paychecks stop. You know, selling a few things I don't need anymore..."
"Like the motorcycle?"
Edo raised his chin a bit. "I'll have you know that motorcycle is very inexpensive to maintain. It's extremely fuel-efficient. Definitely more so than the limo and the airplane and the boat. I'm keeping it."
"Of course you are," said Saiou, smiling a little. He suspected the real reason had more to do with the fact that it was hard to feel properly heroic while driving a used sedan. Not that Saiou really blamed him.
"I'm thinking I'm going to get a new apartment somewhere," Edo continued. "The one I have is nice but I can't keep up paying thousands of dollars in rent every month. I might even take something permanent if I can find a place that isn't a complete shack..."
"I already know where you're going to stay," said Saiou, surprising himself.
Edo looked at him suspiciously. "Where?"
"Here," said Saiou.
"What makes you so sure of that?" said Edo.
"Because you need a place to stay, and I have a spare room," said Saiou. "And because I know the job you took is nearby." Actually, he didn't know. That was a guess on his part, but he saw by the expression on Edo's face that he was on the mark.
"How did you know that?" Edo asked. "I haven't told anyone..."
"I know," said Saiou. "If you were to take a job like this, you would not have the leisure to travel all around the world whenever you pleased, and you would not have gone to a place where you couldn't be near me."
Edo smiled and shook his head. "What can I say? You know me too well. Are you sure you're not still psychic?"
"I just have very keenly developed instincts," said Saiou.
"Well, since you seem to have everything already figured out..." said Edo slowly, "I guess it would be a shame to ruin your perfect theory. Who am I to turn down such a generous invitation?"
"It wasn't really an invitation. More like an observation," said Saiou. "You realize I haven't actually put any thought into this idea. It may not work. But you could stay here at least until you find someplace better."
"That sounds fair," said Edo. "And I can get you to help me move my things."
"When did I agree to that?"
"You didn't expect me to do it all by myself, did you?" said Edo cockily. Then he softened a little. "So, you were cleaning the library, huh? As long as I'm staying here, I might as well pitch in."
"That is a generous offer, and I accept wholeheartedly," said Saiou.
They went into the library together. Edo cast his gaze over the books and papers, lying haphazardly in tottering piles, and smirked a bit.
"This is what you call cleaning?"
"I'd like to see you do better," Saiou challenged.
"Fine," said Edo. "You start on that side, and I'll do this side."
Saiou nodded and went to work with renewed vigor, without bothering to think about why he was taking orders from someone else in his own home. That was just natural, when Edo was around.
Besides, it probably would get these books finally taken care of.
The stands were packed. Edo, watching the action through a small screen in his dressing room, mentally gave Saiou points for prescience - not that this was anything usual. The retirement duel of the famous Edo Phoenix was something everyone had wanted a piece of, and prime seats had been going for thousands of dollars, or even tens of thousands. Edo was a little amazed, to tell the truth. Even with that kind of money to spend, why spend it when you could get nearly as good a view a few rows back? It wasn't as if the game would be played any differently depending on where you sat.
"Are you ready?" asked Saiou.
"As I'll ever be," Edo replied. Saiou wasn't really supposed to be in the dressing room with him, since he was technically no longer affiliated with him, but Edo had insisted he be there, and no one was going to quibble with him over such a trivial thing, not on his last night.
"You'll do fine," said Saiou. "It's not like you to go out quietly. I have no doubt that this will be a memorable event. Here." He stepped forward and plucked stray bit of lint from the lapel of Edo's white suit, straightened his tie, and brushed his hair a bit more neatly in place. Edo was aware of the touch of Saiou's cool hand across his forehead, and it sent a small thrill down his spine. He normally didn't like for people to touch him, but when Saiou did it, it was... well, he wasn't sure what it was, other than that it didn't bother him the way it did with other people.
"There's no point in fussing," he said, backing away a little. "It's just going to get messed up again once the battle starts."
Saiou bowed his head in silent apology. "You should look your best until that point."
"Well, that's true," Edo relented.
There was a knock on the door, and a man carrying a clipboard leaned into the room.
"Showtime in five," he announced. "Better get ready, Mr. Phoenix."
"I'll be there," said Edo. He checked to make sure his microphone was functioning properly, adjusted his Duel Disk, and headed for the door.
"You'll be watching, right?" he called to Saiou as he departed.
"I wouldn't miss it for the world," Saiou answered.
Edo nodded and made his way to the stage entrance. It was a short walk, but it was all Edo needed to clear his mind of everything in the world but the person he would shortly be staring down in a fight to the finish. His opponent for this last battle was not one he would have chosen - a relative newcomer to the pro leagues, one who had fought hard for this honor in hopes that he could establish himself as an heir of sorts to the great Edo Phoenix. Well, thought Edo, they'd see about that. If Edo was going to go out, he was going to do it in a blaze of glory, not with a whimper of defeat. People were going to remember him winning.
He was dimly aware of the announcer speaking; he heard his name mentioned and realized it was time to make his entrance. The door in front of him slid slowly and dramatically open, to the accompaniment of a lot of dramatic lights and smoke. Edo glided out of this flurry of special effects, aware of the way the light gleamed off his shining hair and his pristine suit and celestial blue eyes. Added to the way he seemed to emerge from a silver cloud, the overall effect was to make him appear to be an avenging angel descending to earth to do a bit of righteous smiting, and he knew it. His less publicized opponent had no such advantage going for him, but he made the best of it anyway.
"Hear you're all washed up, Phoenix," said the boy. "Don't worry. I'll always remember I got my big break by beating you. You should be glad you're going to be defeated by a-"
"Did you come here to talk or did you come here to duel?" asked Edo dryly.
The other player didn't seem to know how to reply to that. He settled for glaring fiercely and powering up his Duel Disk. Edo ignored the glare and casually turned on his own machine.
"Let's do this thing," he said.
The challenger took the first move, and Edo watched dispassionately as he summoned a monster. It was a pretty solid one for a first move, but Edo had no doubts he would be able to punch his way past it. He was more concerned by the facedown cards. Ah, well, those could be dealt with. He drew and studied his hand, and smiled. Time to show everyone how a real duelist did things.
Overhead, the voice of the commentators echoed across the stands.
"...and Edo Phoenix clears the board with a well-planned deployment of spell cards. He's obviously not going to make this easy for the challenger... Oh, but Master K comes back with a counter spell! I tell you, neither side is giving any quarter tonight..."
"That's right, Bob. You have to expect that from top-notch duelists like these to... Uh-oh, looks like Edo had a trap card waiting! Tough luck, Master K."
The game progressed. Edo was pleased with how things were going so far - his opponent wasn't bad, but so far nothing he'd tried had gotten past Edo's impregnable defenses. It was nights like this when he could almost bring himself to believe in destiny as much as Saiou did. It felt as though everything were coming together for him. Every card he drew was exactly what he needed, and he was steadily shaving points off of his opponent's life. He took a moment to look away from the playing field, under the pretense of wiping the sweat from his brow, and let his eyes scan the crowd until he found Saiou on the fringes of it. Even from a distance, even with the spotlights dimming Edo's vision, it was still hard to miss those luminous violet eyes. He flashed a grin in his direction before turning his attention back to the field. This Master K still had two thousand life points left and a formidable monster on the field. It wouldn't do to get overconfident now...
Suddenly, his attention was caught by something - a spark amid the dancing spotlights that didn't look like it belonged there. He stared at it. It danced and twinkled prettily among the ceiling beams, looking harmless, but...
"Hey, what's wrong with you? Wake up and get back to dueling!" Master K shouted. Then he too looked up at the ceiling. "Hey, what the heck is that?"
Edo watched as the light continued to spread, rippling and flashing. Plumes of smoke began to gather around it. Other people in the audience had noticed it now, too, and were pointing and exclaiming.
"Fire," he said.
"Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm," said the voice of an announcer. "We are having minor technical difficulties. We're sending someone to correct the problem, but in the meantime, please proceed to the exits in an orderly fashion..."
Even as he spoke, men with fire extinguishers were hard at work in the rafters, trying to put out the blaze, but nothing seemed to be working. The fire spread rapidly, and soon the workers were forced to retreat as the beams began to warp and collapse. The people in the stands screamed as bits of hot metal tumbled down upon them, and there was a panicked stampede for the exits. Edo's opponent stared at him with wide-eyed incomprehension.
"You - you planned this, didn't you!" he choked out. "You didn't want me to beat you!"
"You idiot, I was winning!" Edo snapped. "Get out of here before you get killed!"
The man still stood there, looking as though he were trying to decide if he was being tricked. Edo made a growl of frustration and rushed forward to push him. At the same time, a superheated chunk of metal fell down from the ceiling and slammed into the floor in the same place where Master K had been standing a few moments before. That seemed to decide him. He threw one last glare at Edo and began running as fast as he could toward the stage exit.
Wait... stage exit?
Edo cast a glance up at the stands, where throngs of panicked fans were trying desperately to press their way to the exits. There were just too many of them, and not enough time. Chunks of the ceiling were already raining down on them, some bits still on fire, and the wails of panic were interspersed with screams and cries of genuine pain. Some of them were children.
One of them was Saiou.
"Hey, down here!" Edo shouted, waving his hands. "There are two more exits down here! This way! ... Damn it, they can't hear me." And it was true. A few minutes ago they had all been watching his every movement; now they couldn't be bothered to remember he was there, even if it might have saved their lives. "Would people just listen to me already? I'm trying to help."
He let his shoulders slump. He could yell at these people until his voice gave out, and they would never hear him over all this chaos. He should just turn and save himself while he still could... but of course he couldn't. Edo was, in his heart, a hero, and heroes just didn't walk off and save their own hides when they were standing in a roomful of helpless people who needed saving. He took a breath, coughed as he got a lungful of smoke, and tried to muster his resources to try again.
That was when his gaze fell on one person in the stands who was not trying to run away. Saiou was standing there, quietly watching Edo. His expression said clearly, I'm not leaving without you. In reply, Edo pointed very deliberately at the stage exits, and then at the crowds of people fighting to get to the doors. Saiou nodded his understanding and went to grip the shoulder of the nearest person. It was a woman, screaming in hysterics, but she seemed to calm down as soon as Saiou leaned forward to speak into her ear. She immediately turned and began heading back the way she had come, towards the dueling field, and Edo reached up to help her down. Saiou moved on to the next person, and the next, until people became more aware that there was a movement in that general direction. Once people began getting the idea, Saiou returned to the edge of the playing field to help the young and infirm over the railing, while Edo eased them down on the other side and directed them towards the exits, maintaining an even flow of people so that neither exit got too crowded. Particles of debris continued to rain down, and the air grew thick with foul-smelling smoke. Edo took a moment to wrap his handkerchief over his face to try to filter some of it out. His white suit was already gray with soot, and there were a few holes in the sleeves and back where hot rubble had fallen on him. So far, he'd managed to avoid some of the larger pieces sheerly by luck, but there were a few stinging spots that made him suspect he'd picked up burns from the smaller ones. He'd worry about that later, though. Right now, he was squinting into the smoke, trying to see if anyone was left.
"That's all of them," said Saiou. "We're the last."
"Are you sure?" said Edo, staring off at the other side of the stadium. The bleachers were almost impossible to see, much less anyone who might be in them. "We can't leave anyone..."
A large chunk of scaffolding fell with a crash, crushing a portion of the seating.
"If there is anyone left, they are beyond saving," said Saiou. "You've done all you can. Go."
He enforced his command by gripping Edo's arm and all but dragging him towards the exit. Edo was more athletic than Saiou, and if he had put up a fight, he probably could have escaped Saiou's hold. He went. The two of them rushed out the stage door and into the hallways beyond. They had gone less than ten yards before there was a deafening roar behind them, sending hot smoke gushing into the passage.
"I think that was the roof," said Saiou factually.
They ran. Through the smoky corridors, past empty rooms filled with things abandoned by panicked workers, and finally out into the night air. It felt blissfully cool and clean on Edo's overheated skin, and he gulped deep breaths of it, feeling his sweat-soaked hair drying on the back of his neck. All around him, he could hear the sounds of people exclaiming over the devastation, still weeping in fear and relief, and over that the sounds of sirens. The sky was red with leaping flames. Edo turned to look at them.
"Well," he said.
Saiou raised an eyebrow. His pale face was streaked with soot, nearly unrecognizable, but those violet eyes gave him away.
"Well, what?" he asked.
"You were right," said Edo. "Nobody's ever going to forget this duel."
To Be Continued...