Let's get this clear up front: I don't own any of the non-original characters. You already knew that - it's true by definition. If you take umbrage with that act, economically or otherwise, send me a message so we can talk it over.

For everyone else, please post comments on what makes my writing good or bad - I want to be a better writer, but it's easier for me to learn what the audience wants when someone actually *says* something. (I'm also a beginner at honorifics, and I definitely don't know Japanese culture, so feel free to set me straight there.) Any other footnotes/disclaimers can be found on my profile.

Thanks for visiting, and enjoy the show!

"Takuya-kun, slow down before you knock something over!"

The boy slowed to a stop, setting his bowl of chopped potatoes on the counter before looking back at his instructor with his eager brown eyes. "Sorry, Martha. But the water's almost ready, isn't it?"

The other, a woman with simple dark brown hair, cinnamon skin, and a no-nonsense stance, smiled back and answered, "Yes, but there's no need to hurry. We've got plenty of hands here to get everything done." Indeed, the kitchen was crowded with kids slicing vegetables for the soup and mixing ingredients for Martha's special bread. Chatter mingled with the noise of cooking, and a bowl of carrots had already been dropped because of a surprise traffic jam.

"Well... I can get the onions."

"Atsumi-chan already has that job," said Martha, looking to the taller girl across the room, who was working as energetically as she always did when she and her sister visited for dinner. Martha had given her this task because she was the only one who could cut five onions without stopping to clear her eyes, and today Atsumi was looking to break that record.

Takuya was still looking around the kitchen for a job, and Martha admired that a boy barely half her height could have such energy. She patted him on the shoulder and said, "You've done a good job already. Don't worry - there's enough help to make more than enough food for everyone."

"Don't forget Kazumi-chan, too."

"Of course, her too. Go on outside - we'll be done before you know it."

Arriving outside, the sunset shone through Takuya's shaggy dark hair. The older kids might still be back in the kitchen, but the rest of the younger kids under Martha's care were still outside, enjoying the last rays of light coming through the clouds overhead. Some were playing ball, and the littlest kids had all grouped together for a game of tag. There was plenty of space in Martha's yard, and Takuya had just decided to practice on his skates when he caught sight of the boy running up the street. "Hey, Shun!"

But his friend didn't stop until he got to the front stoop. Hands on his knees, he gasped for breath, sweat running from his tan hair down his face. "Takuya... it's..." Shun had to cough, "it's Micchan..."

"Huh? What about him?"

Pulling one big breath, Shun blurted out, "That Kobayashi guy found him! They're dueling now!"

"What? No!" The kids nearby who hadn't heard Shun's words definitely heard Takuya, who immediately added, "Where are they?"

"On... on the road to the dump... there's a subway entrance near... Wait, Takuya!" But the other had already run off.

As Takuya tore down the pavement, all the stories came back to him. Kobayashi Ichiro... For the last couple months, kids had come running back to Martha's after this guy found them and challenged them to duels. He always promised that, if they won... well, then he'd leave them alone. The fact that he was older and bigger than any of them made sure that no one had ever asked what would happen if they refused to duel at all. But Kobayashi had won every one of those duels, and every time, he took a card from the other kid's deck.

Of course, they'd told Martha about it, but even she couldn't do anything. She had her hands full taking care of them at the house, and the few kids who had met Ichiro's father said he was scary, touchy, or just plain mean. As a result, the best they could do was try and stick together. Kobayashi didn't ever come near Martha's house, and all of his challenges had been against kids who were alone. The fact that not all of them had duel disks - or even full forty-card decks - didn't stop him. Most of the kids had lost track of how many were beaten. Takuya hadn't.

Takuya thought, There's no way I'm letting him get away with this! Why... why did it have to be Micchan's turn borrowing that duel disk? Pausing for a second, he listened, and he heard noise from the next street over. Running to the source, he rounded the corner and found the fight. "Micchan!"

The stout boy with brown hair and overalls looked back, calling, "Takuya-kun?"

"Are you okay?"

"Oh yeah. I'm winning!"

"The hell you are!" This other voice made Takuya spin around to stare open-mouthed at the speaker. He was also a big guy, but he had muscle as well as fat on him. His dirty-blond hair was cut short, and his sharp eyes flashed as he yelled, "No way am I going to lose to you!" Takuya turned away to size up the playing field. Each of them had a duel disk, so holographic versions of their playing cards loomed in front of them. On the one side, Kobayashi had 1600 life points remaining and one monster. Takuya recognized it as Koumori Dragon - a purple serpentine dragon with yellow claws.

Koumori Dragon - Dark Dragon LV4 (1200 DEF)

But Micchan's field had a few cards, the sole monster being a snail-like spirit. It was shrouded in mist, which Takuya recognized as the Mist Body spell that protected monsters from defeat in battle. Furthermore, Micchan had 2200 life points left - a nice advantage. "Whoa... good job, Micchan-kun!"

"Ha, thanks."

"Hey, I'm not done yet!" Kobayashi placed a couple of the cards held in his hand onto his disk, calling, "I set one card and summon Oni Tank T-34!" A projection of the first card appeared, remaining face-down, but the second conjured a bright glow that revealed a massive tank with a distorted red mask for a face.

Oni Tank T-34 - Earth Machine LV4 (1400 ATK)

"I end my turn."

"Ha, now I can use my trap card again. Go, Labyrinth of Nightmare!" Takuya watched as the already-face-up card emitted howling clouds of smoke that shrouded the opponent's field. The dragon moved from a defensive stance to a combative one, and the tank did the opposite.

Koumori Dragon - 1500 ATK

Oni Tank T-34 - 1700 DEF

"Now it's my turn - draw!" Eagerly looking at the card he drew from his disk, Micchan called out, "All right! I play the equip spell, Elf's Light! I'll use it on my Servant of Catabolism, and I'll switch that monster to attack mode." The aquatic spirit raised itself up, and light began to glow from within it as the spell's power took effect.

Servant of Catabolism - Light Aqua LV 3 (700 ATK... 1100 ATK / 500 DEF... 300 DEF)

"Now my monster uses its effect to attack you directly!" The coiled creature sprang into the air, swooping down to smash into Kobayashi head-on.

Kobayashi - 1600 LP... 500 LP

"I end my turn, so my trap activates again." The glowing monster dropped back into a defensive stance. "Just one more attack and I win!"

Takuya shook his head in surprise. For once, he's got a good combo! In the end phase of each player's turn, Labyrinth of Nightmare switches the positions of all that player's face-up monsters. Now that Servant of Catabolism is in defense position, Micchan won't take damage if a stronger monster attacks that monster. And with Mist Body, his monster won't be destroyed by the battle either!

"Heh... too bad you won't get another turn. Draw." Kobayashi didn't even bother looking at his next card before calling, "Activate trap card, Meteorain!"

Takuya gasped as the face-down card lifted up, but Micchan just stammered, "What... what does that do?"

"For the rest of this turn, if my monsters attack your defending monster and they have more attack strength than your monster's defense, the difference in power is dealt to you as battle damage."

"No... no way!"

"I switch Oni-Tank T-34 to attack position! Attack his monster!" The tank fired a barrage of missiles that burned all the brighter with the meteor trap's power. Battering their target mercilessly, the wave of explosions engulfed the aquatic monster and his owner. Even as the smoke cleared, the surviving monster showed every mark of defeat.

Micchan - 2200 LP... 1100 LP

"Game over. Koumori Dragon, attack!" The lithe monster breathed deep and launched a stream of flames at the limp target, incinerating it with the decisive blast.

Micchan - 1100 LP... 0 LP

"No!" Takuya cried out as all the cards vanished from the field and Micchan dropped to the ground in shock. But his voice wasn't the only one that had called out, and he looked around to see that quite a few of the kids from Martha's had made it to the scene. Even Shun had caught up with them, spurred to run the remaining few meters

As the winning duelist deactivated his disk, he looked around, glaring at the extra witnesses. Even so, he strode across to Micchan, saying, "You lost, and that means I get one card from your deck." Thinking for a second, a glint came into his eye. "You have a Spirit of the Harp. That sounds good."

The words brought Micchan back to his senses, and he scooped his cards together. "No - not that one! That's my best defense monster!"

Takuya turned to everyone else, saying, "He... he can't do this! We have to do something!" But the others were either looking away or in shock, and no one's answer was louder than a mumble. "Guys? Come on..." He even turned to Shun, who was still gasping for breath, too numb to say anything.

Micchan tried to crawl away, but he stumbled and fell in the effort. Kobayashi was about to pounce when he noticed a pounding noise - a running noise - He turned, catching the tackle on the shoulder, staggering back but still standing. But the other guy was trying to grab at the disk on his other arm, so Kobayashi pushed forward and threw off the offending weight.

Takuya hit the ground hard, but he rolled with the impact and stopped in a kneeling position, eyes burning as he glared at his opponent. He leapt up again, bouncing a bit on his feet before dashing forward again. When he was a couple feet away, Kobayashi lanced out with a punch, but Takuya dodged aside and went for the other's deck again. A rapid spin barely kept the disk out of reach, and Kobayashi went to grab him with his free hand. Takuya squirmed away before the grip could tighten, falling back in time to see the other going for another punch. He ducked under that one, but he was too close, so he stepped back quickly, moving in front of Micchan.

Kobayashi wheeled around and caught his breath enough to yell, "Hold still a minute!"

"No way! You're not getting any more cards from us!"

"Yeah? Who's gonna stop me?"

"Me!" The single word set everyone else stammering and protesting, but Kobayashi just laughed.

"A small fry like you? Who do you think you are - Fudo Yusei?"

"I... I'm Maeda Takuya, and you're not going to beat me!" He stood as tall as he could, hoping that he wasn't really tired or scared.

But the other looked past and caught sight of Micchan huddled on the ground. "Well, I know how you won't be able to run away. Duel me!"

"What?" The words put Takuya off balance, but only for a second. He had an idea, and hopefully it wasn't too crazy. "Fine, but we'll raise the stakes. If I beat you, you give back every card you've stolen from us!"

The air went dead silent. Kobayashi was completely speechless, and he blinked a few times before his sneer came back. "You... you little... all right - deal." Everyone else's amazement at this agreement vanished when he added, "But if I win... if I win, I get to take that many cards from your deck!"

Takuya's glare broke, and for a second, his eyes fell as he thought hard about all that. Shaking his head, his gaze drifted to see all the others standing silent and motionless, so far away. They were all afraid, but they were also all looking at him. He took a deep breath and stared back at Kobayashi. "Deal!"

The other kids chattered anxiously as the two opponents moved a good distance apart, Takuya having borrowed the disk from Micchan, who stood by Shun, calling out, "Go, Takuya-kun! Beat this guy!"

Takuya barely heard them, shuffling his deck with hands that he tried to keep from trembling. Settling down, he got an idea and picked out an extra card from his pocket. Adding it to his deck and shuffling again, he whispered, "Ushio-san..." His glare burned forth, and he and Kobayashi loaded their decks into their duel disks at the same time. The disks activated, and they each drew five cards as they received 4000 life points each.

They began their fight with one combined word: "Duel!"

Takuya called, "I'll go first. Draw!" Checking his cards carefully, he continued, "I'll set one card and then summon Giant Rat in attack position." From the summon's glow, the massive rodent appeared, clutching a human skull that seemed a toy in its paw.

Giant Rat - LV4 Earth Beast (1400 ATK)

"I end my turn."

The kids were surprised to see such a strong monster off the bat. One boy wondered, "Are all of Takuya's monsters this strong?"

Shun answered, "A few of them, yeah."

Hearing this, Kobayashi only smirked. "Draw!" Picking out a card from his hand, he called, "I summon Girochin Kuwagata in attack position!" This monster was a huge insect, pincers gnashing as it stood tall.

Girochin Kuwagata - LV 4 Wind Insect (1700 ATK)

Takuya grimaced when he saw it, but everyone was caught off guard when one kid yelled, "Hey, that's my card!" They turned to the boy who had spoken, who went on, "That's the card he took from me!"

"Yeah? Well, it's mine now. I activate the continuous spell, Banner of Courage! This card gives all my monsters 200 attack points each battle phase. Go, Girochin Kuwagata - attack his monster!"

Girochin Kuwagata - 1700 ATK... 1900 ATK

The insect pounced at its target, crushing the rat in its clutches. With a cry, the rat burst into a thousand shards of light.

Takuya - 4000 LP... 3500 LP

But Takuya rallied back, "When Giant Rat goes to the graveyard from battle, I can summon any earth-attribute monster with 1500 attack points or less from my deck!"

"Hah - a limit like that means you can't beat my monster."

"Really?" Sifting through his deck, he called, "I summon Prevent Rat in attack position!" The blue-armored rodent appeared on the field, claws poised for combat.

Prevent Rat - LV 4 Earth Beast (500 ATK)

Such a low attack level caused several kids to groan in disappointment until Shun reminded them, "Hey, don't underestimate it! That monster has 2000 defense points, so all Takuya has to do is put it into defense position next turn."

Kobayashi shot back, "Yeah? That's too bad, because my next turn's gonna give my monster 200 more attack points, enough to-"

Girochin Kuwagata - 1900 ATK... 1700 ATK

"-wait, what? Why'd my monster get weaker?"

Empty faces answered him until Micchan choked back a laugh. "Even I know that one! Banner of Courage only works when you battle - after that, it goes away."

Everyone else burst out laughing. "It's his own spell and he didn't know that?" "What an idiot!"

"Knock it off!"

The voice silenced all of them, and Takuya continued, saying, "He made one mistake - so what? That doesn't make him an idiot!"

Kobayashi stammered, "Hey, I... I don't need you arguing for me!" Snatching a card from his hand, he spat, "One card face-down. I end my turn."

"Draw." This new card brought a smirk to Takuya's face, and he called, "I release my Prevent Rat!" His monster vanished with a shimmer, and he finished, "I set one monster in defense position."

The anticlimax left the other kids whispering, "I didn't know he had monsters of that high a level..." "Why didn't he attack?" "That must be a really strong defending monster! This is gonna be awesome!"

Kobayashi just smiled. "High-level monster, huh? Let's see what it is. Activate trap card, Shadow of Eyes! This works when you set a monster in defense position. Your monster then gets forced into face-up attack position, and it can't use a flip effect!" His trap generated a cloud of perfumed vapor that shrouded the hidden card. All at once, it glowed, and a colossal mechanical monster stood up from the summon.

Woodborg Inpachi - Fire Machine LV 5 (500 ATK)

"Hah, got you! Too bad your monster's got no attack strength."

Takuya swallowed his disappointment, shook his head roughly, and looked back at the cards in his hand. "I set one card. I end my turn."

"Draw!" This time, only one person was smiling with the new draw. "Perfect - I activate the spell card, Double Summon! This gives me an extra normal summon this turn." Seizing two cards from his hand, Kobayashi called, "I summon Great White and Dark Elf in attack position!" The muscle-armed shark and dark-skinned sorceress appeared to his field, fighting fit.

Great White - Water Fish LV 4 (1600 ATK)

Dark Elf - Dark Spellcaster LV 4 (2000 ATK)

More shouts of protest came from the crowd. "That's my monster!" "Mine, too!" "You got a lot of nerve using our cards like this!"

"Winners keepers - they're helping me now!"

"You sure about that?"

Takuya's confident tone made his opponent look back. "What did you say?"

"Activate trap card, Gift of the Mystical Elf! This gives me 300 life points for every monster card on the field. Thanks to you, there are four monsters, so that's 1200 life points." Even as he spoke, the glow around him boosted his score significantly.

Takuya - 3500 LP... 4700 LP

"Go, Takuya!" "Yeah, our monsters helped him after all."

"But it's still not enough for you to save you! Time to battle, so my spell card makes all my monsters stronger."

Girochin Kuwagata - 1700 ATK... 1900 ATK

Great White - 1600 ATK... 1800 ATK

Dark Elf - 2000 ATK... 2200 ATK

"That's 5900 points in all, so you're done!"

Takuya, still looking between the three monsters, eventually answered, "Huh... you're right, it is 5900. That's some fast math!"

Kobayashi stammered at such a comment, then pressed on. "Forget it! Great White, attack his monster!" Teeth chomping in anticipation, the monster flew at its target, clawed arms outstretched. Just before they could hit, the giant machine dissolved into a swirling cloud of light. "What the-"

"Activate quick-play spell, Mystik Wok! First, I release one of my monsters, and then I choose either its attack or defense points, and those points get added to my life points. I choose defense, and Woodborg Inpachi has 2500 defense points!" The bright cloud surrounded its owner, sending Takuya's score soaring even further.

Takuya - 4700 LP... 7200 LP

"You little... Fine then! Great White, attack him directly!" The monster pounced the remaining distance almost before Takuya saw it move, slashing its claw straight across his face.

Takuya - 7200 LP... 5400 LP

He barely had time to wince before Kobayashi called, "Girochin Kuwagata, attack!" The giant insect's shriek echoed as it bore down on its prey, driving this attack through Takuya's midsection.

Takuya - 5400 LP... 3500 LP

"For my last monster to attack, I have to pay 1000 life points first..."

Kobayashi - 4000 LP... 3000 LP

"...but it's worth it for damage like this. Dark Elf, direct attack!" The last monster held her hands together, conjuring a howling sphere of magic. With a yell, she blasted the dark beam, and it lanced straight and true, hitting the target with a crashing explosion.

Takuya - 3500 LP... 1300 LP

Working hard to regain his breath, Takuya nearly dropped to his knees, but he managed to stop his tilt first. Gritting his teeth, he wrenched himself back to an upright position.

"Had enough yet?"

With a couple deep breaths, he found his voice again. "You wish."

"I end my turn."

Girochin Kuwagata - 1900 ATK... 1700 ATK

Great White - 1800 ATK... 1600 ATK

Dark Elf - 2200 ATK... 2000 ATK

"My turn!" Takuya's eyes focused on his opponent's strongest monster before he called, "Draw!" All right! Here we go... "I summon Sangan in attack position!" The squat, three-eyed imp leapt to the field with an eager chatter.

Sangan - Dark Fiend LV 3 (1000 ATK)

Kobayashi's tense stare broke apart into laughter. "That's your comeback? You really are slipping!"

Takuya just picked out another card. "Thanks for the practice, Shun! I've got it now."

His friend perked up at these words. "Oh man... This is gonna be good!"

"I activate the spell card, Polymerization! I fuse together Sangan from my field and Mystical Sheep #1 from my hand." The field gained a swirling field of light that enveloped both monsters, and the dark blue sheep glowed further from the swaying of the pendulum on its tail. "My new monster can be used as a replacement for any fusion material monster, and I'll replace Witch of the Black Forest. Go, fusion summon!" The forms of the two monsters spiraled together before the final flash of light revealed a new monster: a cloaked wizard with the same buggy eyes as the imp, staff at the ready.

Sanwitch - Dark Spellcaster LV 6 (2100 ATK)

Everyone was talking at once. "No way - a level six monster?" "Awesome!" Shun pointed out, "He's still got another trick left."

Takuya continued, "When Sangan goes from the field to the graveyard, I can move a monster with 1500 attack points or less from my deck to my hand." Going straight to the card and holding it high, he announced, "I choose Card Trooper!"

Thunderstruck, Kobayashi stammered, "C-c- Card Trooper? Where'd you find a rare card like that?"

"Whoa... he got it..." "He got his Rare Card!" Micchan added, "Of course he got it. That's the ace card of his Security deck."

"What?" Nothing had caught Kobayashi off guard as thoroughly as this statement. "You? You want to be in Sector Security?"

Takuya smiled and nodded. "You bet I do. This guy's gonna help me do it, too. He may not be much right now, but all it takes is a little backup." Looking at his deck, he added, "That's why I've got to keep supporting my monsters. They'll be the defensive wall until it's time to team up for the attack!" His clear voice rang out all the more as he called, "Go, Sanwitch - attack his Dark Elf!" With a determined grunt, the wizard leapt at the opponent, firing one beam of magic straight through her heart. With only a transfixed cry, she vanished.

Kobayashi - 3000 LP... 2900 LP

As the other kids cheered, Takuya snatched the other card left in his hand. "I set one card and end my turn."

Kobayashi stammered as he looked at the field with fresh eyes. Someone was saying that neither of his monsters could stand up to Takuya's fusion monster, even with the spell's power-up. Looking at these monsters, he realized the truth of this, and neither had any worthwhile defensive power. "My monsters... they're not strong enough..." Looking at his rejuvenated opponent, for a second he had a vision of a strapping officer in uniform and helmet, sirens flashing as the reinforcements closed in...

His eyes shut tight, and he shook his head furiously. Looking down, he caught sight of the last card left in his hand, and his glare hardened again. "No... I won't lose... Not this close..." Seizing the top of his deck, he yelled, "My turn! Draw!"

Eager to see it all fall apart, they watched him closely. His face broke, and he could only stammer. It was a few seconds before they could hear him.

"... I got it... I got it! I GOT IT!" Holding the card high, he shouted with a vengeance, "Take this, Maeda! I activate the ritual spell, Turtle Oath!"

The new card appeared on the field as a staff topped with a wrinkled green stone even taller than its master. When they found words, all they managed was, "Ritual spell?" "What's that supposed to be?" Everyone looked at Shun, who could only stammer, "What? I- I don't know."

Kobayashi smiled, "Guess I'll have to explain it to you. This is a spell that summons a type of monster called a ritual monster. Each monster has its own spell, and to use it, you have to release monsters from your field or your hand, as long as their total level stars equal at least as much as the ritual monster's level."

Shun closed his eyes to remember. "His first monster is level four... and so's his second monster."

Micchan responded, "Then... he could summon a level eight monster?"

This froze everyone up, until Shun added, "Wait, he said at least as many levels! The new monster doesn't have to use all eight stars." Everyone else looked back at the field to see how this could play out...

...until Kobayashi turned over the last card in his hand. The illustration, the power stats - all were ignored except for the level. "Aah! Level eight!"

He swung the card to his disk in triumph. "I release the level four Girochin Kuwagata and level four Great White!" The scaly staff shot out two jets of steam that engulfed the chosen monsters. Each seized up before dissolving into light that became part of the streams, flowing back into the staff. The artifact glowed, and its stem vanished, leaving only the upper portion. With a groaning rush, it began growing until it was twice as tall as anyone else. But it also contorted, becoming more sleek and turning to a crimson shade.

All at once, a pair of spiny legs burst through the shell and planted themselves on the ground. Higher up, two massive clawed arms burst from corresponding points in the shell. Additional claw spikes sprouted from the back, and from the uppermost center sprang a single eye that blinked only once before focusing tightly. The newborn creature towered high as it flexed its new limbs and roared its arrival, with its master calling, "Ritual summon! Crab Turtle!"

Crab Turtle - Water Aqua LV 8 (ATK 2550)

Several of the girls hid their eyes from the distorted creature, and and even a few of the boys preferred to look elsewhere. Takuya and his monster were thoroughly dwarfed by the... thing.

"This is it, Takuya... Crab Turtle, destroy his monster!" Magic surged around the creature as its claws flexed with the spell.

Crab Turtle - 2550 ATK... 2750 ATK

Spiny feet digging into the ground, it charged at the opponent in zigzagging bounds, arms churning with each stride. When its shadow fell across the enemy, it planted its feet, one arm already drawn back.

The exploding crash knocked Takuya off of his feet and set his head ringing like a bell. His monster had been skewered to the ground before it had even had time to cry out.

Takuya - 1300 LP... 650 LP

Crab Turtle - 2750 ATK... 2550 ATK

"I end my turn. You're finished."

The taunts bounced dully in Takuya's ears as he lay on the ground. He forced his eyes open, but pushing himself to his knees only made the dizziness rush back. He slumped forward again, hands barely holding him up. It's not working... nothing's working! No matter how much I fight, he keeps coming back! How am I supposed to stop him when he's so much stronger than I am? Shuddering to look at the field, he squeezed his eyes shut, trying and failing to block out the voices pleading for him to continue.