The ice held no beauty for Ryou Bakura.
It was a shame; the wide outdoor skating rink formed by the frozen lake was smooth and perfect, and the light dusting of glittering snow that covered it gave off a surreal beauty that seemed almost wasteful upon the eyes of mortal men. That anyone could see it and not be transfixed by its magic was simply impossible.
But to the nine-year-old who hesitated on the edge of the snow, wobbling on his skates, there was only fear. He had tried to learn to skate – he really had! But no matter what he did, it didn't work. Even the supports always slid out of his grasp.
He sat down dejectedly. He had come down here by himself to try and practice without his friends seeing; it was so embarrassing to keep falling over in front of them. But now that he was here, he wondered why he had even bothered. It wasn't as though learning to skate was overly important; thousands – millions – of people out there couldn't skate, and most of them were older than he was.
But there was something about not being able to skate that made him upset. It wasn't that he couldn't do it; it was that he had tried it, and he had been unable to learn. Maybe it was just because he was being a stubborn little boy.
Sighing, he decided that now he was here, in his skates...he might as well try. Tentatively, he stepped out onto the ice.
Instantly, his feet slid out from underneath him and he hid the ice with a resounding thud.
After his initial yell of pain, he forced himself to be quiet; there was nobody here who would care if he fell. His legs shaking, he got to his feet again.
He didn't bother with the support; it never seemed to help. He moved one of his feet forward, slowly. The other tried to go along with it, and it ended in another fall.
Ten minutes later, Ryou's eyes were filled with tears. His whole body was aching and there was no way he could possibly learn to skate with the bones in his legs turned to jelly. After falling down for at least the twentieth time, he didn't get up.
He lay on his side, with his head on the ice. The cold seeped through his entire body until he was shivering. He felt a tear slide down his face and land on the ice, where is began to freeze. He was miserable; it wasn't about skating anymore, it was about himself. Why couldn't he do it? It wasn't fair!
Slowly, he raised a shivering hand to push himself to his feet again. His gloves were filled with snow and chilling him from the inside, but he didn't care anymore. He stood on his knees and prepared to stand up again, on his skates.
Closing his eyes, he leaned back, pushing his feet out from under him. After a shaky moment, he was on his skates again.
But not for long. He could already feel his balance slipping, and he started to topple forward again, his feet giving out below him. He waited for the inevitable impact with the ice.
It never came.
Ryou felt the person into whom he fell begin to slide backwards on her skates, but the slide came to a smooth halt as she swiftly flipped one of her skates sideways.
For a moment, Ryou stayed totally still, taking in what had just happened. Then he realised that he was still holding onto the girl. He let go and tried to back off, only to almost fall over yet again, as he would have done had she not grabbed his arms to steady him.
"Um...thanks," Ryou said, embarrassed.
The girl smiled. "That's okay. You could have hurt yourself. Are you alright? You were just lying there on the ice before..."
"I'm fine," Ryou said instantly, trying to sound grown-up.
The girl, who was at least two heads taller than Ryou, was wearing a fur lined hoodie pulled up over her head. Under it, he saw that she had long black hair and eyes of an unusual shade of blue. Her pretty tan-coloured face was framed with icy hair, but she was beaming a warm, friendly smile at him.
"That's good; the ice is pretty hard. You could easily have hurt yourself. You were very brave to keep getting up every time you fell."
Ryou glowed under her praise. "Well...it didn't hurt that much."
"I couldn't help but notice, though; I think that what you're having trouble with is just your balance. You're either putting all your weight to far forward or too far back, and that means that your skates try to go in the opposite direction."
Ryou looked at his feet. "No...I'm just really bad."
The girl laughed. "Of course you're not bad – you just haven't found your centre of gravity."
Ryou scowled. It was easy for her to say! She already knew how to skate. "That's not it at all!" he insisted.
The girl looked taken aback. Suddenly, she let go of Ryou. Caught off guard, he started to fall backwards again, until she caught him. "See what I mean?"
Ryou bit his lip, not knowing what to say.
Smiling, the girl led him back to the edge of the lake. "I'll show you," she said, skating backwards a few feet. "See, if you disperse your weight evenly, it just becomes a matter of moving your skates in the right way – that's really easy to pick up on." She demonstrated by skating a quick circle. "That's me. This is you:"
She leaned forward a noticeably long way. "This would be fine, but if you lean forward too far and try skating..." She leaned forward even further, and her skates slid out from underneath her. Ryou panicked, jumping forward to try to help, but miraculously, she regained her balance and straightened up. She skated back to him. "See? That's what you look like when you're skating. You can't stand too straight or you'll loose balance too easily, but you can't lean too far forward or you'll just loose balance full stop."
Ryou hesitated. Looking at her demonstration, it was easy to imagine himself doing it the same way. But was that really his problem?
"Come on; try it out!" The girl smiled and grabbed his hand, carefully leading him out onto the ice. Ryou had to place almost all his weight on her to keep himself from falling.
"Um, wait!" Ryou exclaimed. "I don't think I...I mean, I can't...what's your name, anyway?"
She looked amused. "I never did tell you, did I? My name is Ishizu."
"Mine's Ryou. Ryou Bakura."
She smiled and patted his back. "You really don't have to be scared, Ryou; it will get easier, and I'll catch you if you fall."
Ryou hesitated. "You...you don't have to do that! I can learn by myself..."
"But you might hurt yourself in the process," Ishizu insisted. "You're only little; you'll get hurt really easily."
"I'm not little! I'm nine!"
Ishizu smiled again, but didn't answer this comment. "Come on, you. You're a little man; you should be showing me how to skate."
Ryou looked uncertain, but tried none the less. Ishizu let go of his arms.
Ryou skated forward a couple of feet before overbalancing again and toppling forwards, only to be steadied again by Ishizu. Feeling safer, he tried again, concentrating on keeping his balance. This time, he travelled forward at least three metres before his foot slipped forward. Once again, Ishizu was there to catch him.
"Just a bit more..." Ishizu encouraged. By this time, she was several feet ahead of him and skating backwards. Her arms were still poised to catch him if he fell, but it hadn't been necessary in nearly –
"And that's one full lap of the lake all on your own!" she exclaimed. "You've done it!"
Ryou was grinning smugly. He was starting to understand what Ishizu had meant by finding his centre of balance. It was getting easier and easier to stay on his skates. He still had a long way to go before he could even consider backwards skating like Ishizu, or even simply skating at more than walking pace, but he didn't care; he was skating. He was skating, and he wasn't falling over or clinging to anyone or anything. He had finally done it!
"I'm going to go for two!" he announced, starting off another lap. For a second, he lost his balance again, but managed to save himself after a somewhat ungraceful stumble. Ishizu stayed a few feet ahead of him, skating backwards with a natural ease. But now, she was merely there as reassurance; Ryou was skating independently.
Two laps later, Ryou hadn't done worse than a few more clumsy stumbles. Almost subconsciously, he was speeding up.
"Do you think you can manage without me here?" Ishizu asked.
Ryou froze up instantly. He stopped – staggered a little – and stared at her. "What? Why? Are you leaving?"
"Of course not – I just don't think you need me in front anymore. Don't you want to see what's in front of you?"
Ryou bit his lip again, but after a bit of coaxing, he let Ishizu skate beside him instead of in front.
It must have been at least an hour before Ryou's painfully cold fingers forced him to leave the lake. He and Ishizu headed back to the shop to return Ryou's rented skates.
"You've gotten much better," Ishizu said, while she and Ryou put their boots back on.
Ryou nodded excitedly. "I never thought I'd be able to do it – thank you so much, Ishizu!"
She ruffled his long white hair. "I told you you were good! It's easy once you get the hang of it."
Ryou nodded again in agreement, sticking his icy fingers into his mouth, trying to bring the feeling back into them. He hadn't even noticed how much time had passed.
"I think you deserve a reward," Ishizu said. "How about a hot chocolate?"
Ryou's head shot up. A hot chocolate?
They seated themselves at one of the tables in the shop. Ishizu had bought him a large hot chocolate, which Ryou needed two hands just to hold. He sipped it.
"Thanks so much for helping me," he said again, embarrassed. "You must have come down here to skate, not to help me."
Ishizu had bought a somewhat smaller cup for herself, which she sipped too. "You really don't need to thank me," she said. "It was my pleasure; besides, I only came here to pass the time while my little brother went snow tubing with his friends." She gestured out the shop window, past the lake, to the long snow tubing tracks. "He'd spend all day on those things if he could."
Ryou sipped his chocolate again. "What's your brother like?"
"His name is Marik; he's eight."
Ryou looked a little wistful. "He's lucky; I wish I had a big sister. I have a little sister called Amane; she's five."
"I'm sure she's a very nice little girl; especially with a brother like you."
Ryou felt himself redden.
"Anyway, where are your parents? Didn't they come with you? What about your sister?"
At this, Ryou looked away. "Well...I told my parents I was going to my friend's house. But I came down here." He laughed shakily. "It was pretty silly; I wanted to be able to skate...I don't know why. All my friends can, and I...I wanted to be able to skate too. Just because they did. It's pretty silly."
"No it's not," Ishizu said. "I'm glad you came here."
Ryou dared to glance at her again. "You are?"
She grinned at him. "Of course I am. Aren't you?"
Ryou nodded enthusiastically.
After a moment in which neither or them spoke, Ryou broke the silence. "How old are you, Ishizu?"
Ishizu took another sip of her drink. "I'm thirteen."
"Wow! That's really old. I wish I was thirteen."
Ishizu laughed dryly. "No you don't – they start giving you big assignments at school."
"Really? How big?"
"This big!" Ishizu held her arms open as wide as they would go. Ryou's eyes boggled.
"Wow...that's pretty big. Okay, I don't wish I was thirteen now."
Ishizu opened her mouth as if to speak, but was distracted by a sudden call.
They both turned to see a small blonde boy enter the shop. Three other boys as well as a woman who must have been someone's mother entered after him. Upon seeing Ishizu, he waved. "Come on, sis! We need to go home now."
Ryou's face fell. Ishizu had to leave? They hadn't even finished their hot chocolates!
She stood up. "I'm coming, Marik!"
She picked up her things and looked back at Ryou. "Well...I guess this is it."
"Good bye, Ishizu." Ryou looked sad. He felt sad; he had started to like Ishizu.
Sensing his discomfort, she smiled reassuringly and ruffled up his hair. "It was nice meeting you, Ryou. Keep working on that skate; you're really good."
Ryou scuffed his feet as Ishizu stood up from the table. "I'll see you around?" he asked hopefully.
Ishizu looked genuinely sad at this. "Oh...maybe. I hope so."
Ryou blinked. What was wrong?
"I don't live around here; we're staying with our grandparents for a few weeks."
"Oh, I see." Ryou looked away, sad.
"I'm sure we'll see each other again."
"You are?" Ryou looked up at her again.
"I am." She bent and gave him a hug. "We'll go skating again sometime. That's a promise ."
"Ishizu!" Marik called impatiently.
Casting one final look over her shoulder, Ishizu ran to join her brother. "Good bye, Ryou!"
Ryou watched her leave through the door. He didn't move from the table as she and her brother waved Marik's friends goodbye and set off towards...wherever they needed to go.
It didn't matter where they were going; Ryou knew that he would see her again, because she had promised him he would. That was all that mattered.
Ryou hummed happily to himself as he made his way out of the shop. He cast one final look at the lake, and at that moment, he had never seen anything so beautiful.