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Shou wasn't the only junior high student headed for the building where the written exam waited. He was, at least in his own opinion, just the only one terrified of actually taking it. He wasn't hyperventilating, but everything he'd ever learned or thought about Duel Monsters spun through his head at an ever-increasing state, jumbling all together into a mess that convinced him he might be able to answer what his own name was correctly, if he were lucky. And wrote it down beforehand.

Still, his feet kept carrying him toward the building with little hesitation. He stared at the others streaming toward it; some of them he recognized from his own school, while others wore other uniforms he'd only vaguely heard of. He even caught sight of one or two wearing Academy uniforms, probably there to wait for their own siblings.

Ryou wasn't there for him, of course. Shou hadn't even considered asking if he'd come. He didn't know where his big brother was, either. He tried to think about that and not about the look on Ryou's face if he failed this exam.

Not that he would know if he had right away. The results would be e-mailed out in another week's time, giving him that much longer to agonize over it.

With all the students there to take the exam, several rooms had been reserved, each with a number of desks waiting. Shou didn't bother counting; his focus was all on the computer screens set up at each desk. As soon as he'd entered, one of the assistants, clad in orange uniforms that much resembled Academy outfits, gave him a spherical badge.

"Your room and desk are on that. Turn it back in before you leave." Each assistant repeated that to everyone when they handed out the badges, gesturing down the corridor to show them where to go.

Shou stood in the door only for a moment; he couldn't have for any longer than that, since other students behind him insisted on pushing by him. A familiar laugh echoed from behind and he twisted around to see Fukazawa there, smirking down at him.

"So you really are going to try. Good luck." Fukazawa laughed harder. "You're going to need it!"

Shou's fists clenched and he shook his head as hard as he could, cheeks burning. "You're the one who's going to need good luck!"

"Sure I will." Fukazawa passed him, glancing at his own badge before he settled into a chair. "Are you just going to stand there all day or are you going to actually do this?"

Shou managed not to yelp and quickly hurried to his own chair, staring at the screen before him. The Duel Academia logo gleamed back at him from it, though there wasn't any sign of anything he should do. The other chairs in the room quickly filled with hopeful students, as the clock ticked closer and closer to the hour. The moment it struck, the screens all changed, revealing a form.

It wasn't difficult; one merely had to input their badge number, along with name, and all the other information on the original application form. Shou breathed a little easier; this much he was certain he could handle. Once everything was there, the screen wiped itself clean and what came up instead was a list of multiple choice questions.

Choose the correct attack and defense points for Black Magician. Shou relaxed more at that. He knew that. He didn't know it with the same sort of dreamy-eyedness he would've associated with Black Magician Girl' stats, but he knew it anyway.

One by one he plowed through the test. The questions grew harder after that one, involving not just correct points, but noticing which cards weren't included in certain sets, deciding which would be the most correct move when given a certain situation, and anything else one could associate with dueling.

Halfway through it, or so Shou presumed since he hadn't looked at the clock and didn't want to for fear of how little time might be left, he stared instead at one of the situational questions.

You have five hundred life points left. Your opponent has fifteen hundred. Your field has defense position Armored Warrior Zombie and Holy Barrier-Mirror Force face-down. Your opponent's field has Angel Knight Perseus and an activated Bloody Marsh Lands. You have one card in your hand; your opponent has none. It is your turn; you have not summoned a monster this turn. Name three cards your one card could ensure a win for you. Your choices may not include Cyclone.

Shou's mouth went dry as he read it over and over again, the images rising clearly in his mind. Armored Warrior Zombie had zero defense points, while Angel Knight Perseus not only had the piercing effect, but nineteen hundred attack points. On the other hand, if his Mirror Force could be activated, then the answer was simple.

Destroy their Bloody Marsh Lands. There were certainly plenty of cards that could do that. No traps though; Bloody Marsh Lands wouldn't allow it. So, spell cards and monster effects. He racked his brain, trying to remember anything that would qualify. He'd watched enough duels to get some kind of idea, not to mention all the cards he'd sorted through hunting for his Vehicroids.

A faint memory flickered and he grinned to himself, typing one answer in. Magical Warrior Breaker. Just summoning it would put a Spell Counter on it, and removing one counter could destroy a spell or trap card on the field.

He still needed two more. They said we couldn't use Cyclone. What about Double Cyclone? That would destroy one spell or trap on his side of the field and on his opponent's. No, that wouldn't work. Even he could see that. Dozens of other cards ran through his mind, none of them workable with what he had to work with.

Shou couldn't help himself; he looked over to see what Fukazawa was doing. They were too far apart for him to see where theo there was in the exam, but from the cocky, satisified grin on his lips, the taller boy wasn't having nearly the issues with it that Shou was.

I'm going to pass this! Determination burned brightly in Shou's heart as he stared back at the screen. Two more answers. He would do this!

Again he racked his brain. The answers existed; he didn't think the test would ask the question if it couldn't be answered.

But then again, what if it were a trick question? What if there weren't three and that was what one was supposed to answer? Chills shook him. Kaiba Seto wasn't just one of the finest duelists of all time, he was one of the trickiest. Would something like that be something he'd allow?

Shou bit his lip. It didn't matter. He would find three even if three didn't exist! This wasn't a trick or a trap! This was a test of what he knew!

A trap...

His eyes lit up for a moment. Double Trap! He'd seen it in a booster pack he'd bought and given to Kai for a birthday present. It specifically destroyed cards that negated trap cards' effects! One more and he could move on!

He stared harder at the screen, running over every kind of plan he could think of in his mind. He had to remove that trap! Get rid of it altogether! Then he could win!

Remove the trap. Shou never knew how he stopped himself from smacking himself as he filled in the last answer. So simple. So easy. Remove Trap.

Relief lasted only for a moment before he moved on to the next question, or the next 'what would you do in this situation'. He took a few seconds to close his eyes and breathe. Whatever Duel Academia ended up being like, Shou decided that it couldn't possibly be worse than this test.


Camula's hands clenched before she looked once more into Taniya's eyes. "Excuse me?" She'd not had a chance to speak to the Amazon before now, though several days already had passed since she'd first seen Ryou. Her bats and her own observations increased her desire, but she still needed to understand him more than she did.

Taniya didn't even look up from her workout. "I said, no. If you want to trail around after him, do it yourself."

Camula preferred not to grind her teeth and risk biting herself. Not that she didn't want to, especially now. "What do you want?" Everyone had a price of some kind.

"Nothing." Taniya finally turned to look at Camula head on, arms folded over her chest. "Do your own dirty work. Or get someone to help you who isn't me."

Without another word, she turned back to slamming her fists into the heavy bag, sending it spinning halfway across the room. Camula watched for a few moments, waiting for any sign the other might be willing to listen to reason. Instead, Taniya kept on pounding, sometimes with her fists, others with her legs, paying no more attention to Camula than if she weren't there at all.

Finally the vampire spun on one heel and stalked out of the workout area, seething. How dare she! She promised herself that when Taniya found her target, the one she wanted for a husband, that she would make certain to lay his throat open to the bone before Taniya had a chance to so much as challenge him.

As satisfying as such a thought was, however, Camula knew it didn't help with her own problem. She stalked through the hideout, far more out of sorts than she normally was. She'd never expected Taniya to turn her down so completely. The two weren't bosom companions, but being the only female member of the Seven Stars gave a sort of bond, or so Camula had presumed. They'd spoken to one another more or less compatibly before, though Taniya'd also made it plain she disapproved of Camula's plans to destroy all of mankind.

I don't know why it bothers her. She's not human. At least, she wasn't the same type of human as the humans here were.

Annoying as it was, it did indeed mean Camula had to make other plans to track Ryou through the daylight. Perhaps if I create a slave. The thought was a tempting one. A vampire's slave had none of a vampire's weaknesses or strengths, but they did have intense loyalty, for so long as they lasted. Which was seldom that long, since a slave was created by feeding a few drops of blood to a human. This tended to end in the slave dying, as the drops weren't enough to actually change them.

Easy to make, easy to replace when necessary. The more she considered it, the more she liked it.

"Camula?" A voice edged in nervousness spoke and she glanced up to see Abidos standing before her. He lifted his head higher when she looked at him. "I might be willing to lend you a hand in your endeavor."

She had no idea of how he'd learned about it. But regardless, she shook her head. "That won't be necessary." The very idea of Abidos helping her! Just one look at his clothing, the very highest of royal fashion from three thousand years earlier, would give him away. "I already have a plan."

Camula didn't wait for any kind of a reply from him. Instead, she swept on by, intent on finding someone she could enslave before morning. The sooner she set this into motion the better. Kaiser Ryou, I will have you!

Gathering and running the Seven Stars, keeping them all trained and ready to attack once the proper moment arrived, was something like running a madhouse. Kagemaru wondered more than once if he'd made the right decision picking all of these. And with one more opening still unfilled and the advantageous position of the stars growing closer and closer, he wondered even more.

"Camula's planning something." Darkness spoke from the door. The door that hadn't opened and which hadn't been knocked on. Kagemaru paid it no mind; Darkness did that as a matter of course. What interested him more was what the other said.

"You all are," Kagemaru pointed out. Anyone with half a brain could have figured that out, and Kagemaru not only had a full brain, but close to a century of experience in how people of any species worked. "What could be special about this?"

Darkness's lips twitched. "Very little. She's found someone she wants as a consort."

That did catch Kagemaru's interest. Part of what kept this herd of cats under control was that no one else could answer their desires but him. Whether that was genuinely true didn't matter. They simply needed to believe it was.

"Explain." How was it that even when sealed away from everyone, kept alive only by his tube of nutrients, he still couldn't get away from the petty nuisances of adminstration?

Once all of this was over and he had the power he searched for, he wouldn't have to put up with this ever again. He could hardly wait.

"A young man, shortly to enter his final year at Duel Academia." Darkness's lips twitched again, and while his eyes couldn't be seen clearly behind the blue gems of his mask, Kagemaru recognized a sort of sick amusement twisting all through the other's voice. "His name is Marufuji Ryou."

Kagemaru narrowed his eyes, doing his best to remember the name. He hated the effects of old age; whose idea had that even been? Why did humans have to grow old and die, instead of staying at their peak? Why did he have to depend on these disgustingly healthy young people? Even Camula, centuries older than he was, looked more like a mature woman than an old hag.

The name clicked in his mind suddenly and he stared harder at Darkness. "I see."

They seldom spoke of what, or who, Darkness had been before he'd joined their group. Even Kagemaru wasn't entirely certain of what happened to the young man before him. Yet he did know something about his former life, and he never forgot those who he'd marked for his own schemes, even if he'd never taken them.

"What do you think?"

Darkness shrugged, hints of amusement flickering around his lips. "I think she doesn't know what she's getting into. He's tougher than she can imagine. Or was before, and has probably only improved since then."

Kagemaru turned over what he knew, considering it from all the angles he could think of. "He'll be one of them."

"I wouldn't doubt it at all." Darkness didn't move from where he leaned on the wall, arms crossed over his chest. He said nothing more; he didn't need to.

He can't be Camula's toy, not like that. Not if it affects his dueling. Kagemaru would not allow anyone to reduce the fighting strength of the students of Duel Academia. He needed it far too much. He'd done too much already.

Yet he didn't want to hear her complaining, either. This is a matter of delicacy. One wrong move and he could be back to two open places instead of just one. And finding one to fill that still occupied the majority of his thoughts.

"Send her to me when she returns." There was still time; she wouldn't want to spoil her hunt right away. He knew how she thought. He hadn't spent nearly sixty years knowing her without figuring that out.

Darkness bent his head, a ghost of a smile still playing around his lips. It wasn't the sort of smile that had once traced those lips. Instead, it whispered of secrets and dark amusement, of manipulating people and getting a thrill like none other from it.

Kagemaru knew exactly how that felt.

Ryou didn't like this. Something wasn't right. Yet what it was, he didn't know. It had nothing to do with Shou's taking of the test for Duel Academia. His brother had done surprisingly well on that, for certain values of 'well'. He'd passed, if nothing else.

Yet ever since the night Shou'd told them all he intended to take it, Ryou'd not been able to shake the sensation that someone stalked his steps, watching him wherever he was, especially when he walked out after dark.

He watched as best he could, no matter where he went, trying to find out if what he felt actually was someone after him, or something else. Even now he walked down a street he seldom used, taking a longer route to a park he visited now and then.

There. He heard footsteps, quiet and unhurried. He knew better than to think just because someone walked the same way he did that they were following him, but he wanted to know who it was.

Whoever it was, their steps were light and cautious now. Ryou moved forward a little more. He'd had more than enough of this. He wouldn't leave here without knowing who it was that trailed him.

He stopped to look at a newspaper stand, not looking behind him at all. Or at least that was what he wanted his mysterious stalker to think. In reality, every sense he had turned toward catching even the smallest glimpse of who it might be.

A short distance back, a streetlight turned on automatically, and Ryou heard a tiny squeak as a little figure, probably not that much taller than Shou, darted back out of sight. He closed his eyes for a heartbeat and sighed before he turned around.

"You can come out." He'd experienced this more than once. Some bright-eyed boy or girl who wanted to duel the famous Kaiser and yet didn't have the nerve to actually step up and challenge him.

For a few moments, he thought this one would be like so many others, and would flee into the night. He scarcely got the names of half of them when this happened. Then the small figure stepped out, one hand held to pale lips, the other toying with a long strand of dark blue hair.

It took Ryou another moment or two before he could identify his young follower as a girl. Haven't I seen her around before? She did look a trifle familiar.

"And you are?" He asked once she stepped close enough so he didn't have to raise his voice. At this range, he was even more certain that she lived somewhere around where he did; her uniform was that of an elementary school a short distance from home.

"Saotome Rei." She breathed a bit faster, then lifted her head to stare up at him. "And you're Kaiser-sama." Her eyes grew large and round with delight the more she looked at him. "I've wanted to meet you for months."

There were times Ryou missed Fubuki more than others. Those times included moments when he wanted an opponent of a superior quality or sometimes when he gazed out at the ocean and wished for someone there with him.

Those times also included whenever girls started to stare at him with eyes huge and full of hope, hope he knew he could never answer.

"Did you want a duel?" He kept his voice strictly neutral. If she'd yet turned thirteen he would eat his duel disk. Ryou sincerely doubted he'd dine on metal and wire any time in the near future.

She drew in a quick breath. "I would be honored, Kaiser-sama." He wasn't at all surprised to see her pull a duel disk from her backpack. Most duelists kept on one them somehow. He pulled his own out and slipped it on, gesturing to the park a short distance ahead of them.

"We can play there." It would offer much more room than just standing on a street corner, not to mention having a few less people shooting them annoyed looks. Even after all the years of duelists dueling anywhere at any time, some people still couldn't help but be annoyed by it.

He wondered how this Saotome Rei could even walk as they headed that way, given how she kept staring at him instead of where they were going. He could almost hear Fubuki's voice in his mind, laughing about how true love gave clearer sight that one might think.

That was another time Ryou wished Fubuki were there: so he could give him the sort of look ridiculous statements like that deserved. Whenever Fubuki returned, Ryou had already decided the other had quite a few looks that needed delivering.

Finally they arrived at the clear spread of grass and Rei bounced a few yards away. "I hope you like my dueling, Kaiser-sama!" He only nodded; he gave every opponent he came up against the benefit of respectful dueling. He respected her right to win, but only if she earned it.

After all, he also respected his own right to victory.


In truth, while it was a very quick duel, Rei had more talent than Ryou originally suspected of her. She didn't damage him very much, a bare five hundred points scraped off by the end, but talent she had.

"Are you planning to go to Duel Academia?" She wouldn't be old enough until long after he'd left, but she could qualify, if her skills stayed strong.

Rei's eyes all but glowed with the implied praise. "Oh, yes! Yes, I am!"

"Keep practicing. You'll make a fine addition to Obelisk Blue one day." Who knew, maybe he'd even face her again, in the Pro Leagues. It wasn't an unpleasant thought at all.

As he began to put away his deck, he caught sight of her large eager eyes once again. "Kaiser-sama, I..." Her words caught in her throat and he bent a somewhat compassionate look toward her.

"Please don't follow me anymore." He had too much to do, even in summer, to put up with someone trailing after him.

He didn't wait for a reply, just put his disk and deck away and strode onward, not looking back. He knew, without having to do so at all, that Rei stared after him until distance and darkness made it so she couldn't.

Camula stood underneath the shadows of a tree, eyes narrowed, blood coursing through her veins furiously. That little child, coming near her chosen Kaiser? If she didn't want him so much, she would've taken the girl for an early snack.

As it was, she needed something to drink regardless. She glanced again at the girl as she wended her way back to her home. Another day. When you're older. Camula preferred to feed off those who'd at least experienced puberty. Their blood was just that much richer and fuller than children.

She wanted Ryou's blood. More than just tasting his, she wanted him to taste hers. Not as a mere slave, enthralled and fascinated against his will, but a vampire. Not a pureblood, of course, not one of her kind, but as close as any mortal could ever hope.

I'll have him. Time. It would take time to get everything into position. She had the time; nothing and no one called on her services for months to come.

"Camula." Him. She refused to look away from the Kaiser, moving along to keep him in her sight. "Kagemaru wants to talk to you."

She swore to herself in seven different languages. "Concerning?" What could that ancient fool want?

"Your plans here." Darkness stood just beside her, having risen up from the shadows themselves. It wasn't that impressive of a trick; she could do much the same with the help of her Shadow Choker. Though she wondered at times if he needed his item to do it. She'd never asked and didn't want to. Some things even she preferred not to know.

Her breath hissed out between her teeth. "What I do here has nothing to do with him." What did he think he was doing? She wasn't even certain of which 'he' she meant, Darkness or Kagemaru. Not that it mattered. They both insisted on poking their noses in where they weren't wanted.

"He wants to talk to you as soon as you return." Darkness shrugged, glancing forward to where the Kaiser strode along. "I don't think he approve of your interest."

"As if I care what he approves of." Their bargain was simple: Camula would fight those chosen to protect the Spirit Gate Keys and once she gained the power of the Mythic Demons, then she could use it to revive her people. She hadn't yet encountered anything that would make her want to stop. If anything, bringing Ryou under her wings increased her desire to do so. Vengeance was always better with someone to share it with.

She started to follow Ryou again, when this time she genuinely noticed where Darkness's attention was. "What do you want with him?" She hadn't seen that sort of look on anyone in centuries. It wasn't hunger or greed or possessiveness. She really didn't know what to call it.

"Me?" Darkness lifted one eyebrow, an expression mostly concealed by his mask. "Nothing at all."

She didn't believe that for a moment. No one looked at someone else like that without something going on in their minds.

Whatever he wants, he won't have. Marufuji Ryou belongs to me.

She lifted one hand and flexed a scrap of her power. From one of the trees above fluttered one of her bats. "Follow him again, my sweet little pet," she commanded, running her fingers across his head the top of his head. The creature couldn't purr, but nuzzled against her hand anyway, eager to do what it could to please her. "Show me what I need to see."

With a quick flick of her wrist, she tossed the bat into the air, watching as it fluttered off after the Kaiser. As much as she wanted to, she couldn't follow him constantly and she still hadn't chosen a slave who would be able to track him by day.

Perhaps that girl. The idea appealed, without a doubt, but she was still wary, especially now that Ryou'd met her. Camula didn't want him to know her slave on any level. Being enthralled by a vampire caused certain changes and she wanted no signs alerting him. Whether he believed in vampires or not made no difference.

"Going to see him now?" Darkness wondered. Camula shook her head.

"I have other matters to deal with first." Feeding came to mind, and doing so as far from the Kaiser's stomping grounds as possible. The less he could even suspect about her existence, the better.

She wasted no more time with Darkness. If she had to speak with Kagemaru, she would much prefer doing it after she'd fed full.

Darkness watched Camula leave, following her much farther than he suspected she thought him able of doing. Wheresoever darkness existed, in any form, he could be there, seeing and hearing much as she did through her bats. Only he needed just those shadows, nothing more. And there was nowhere in the world that held no shadows.

He turned his attention back to the Kaiser, out of normal sight by now. He hadn't expected to see him again this soon.

Again. Darkness frowned; in all truth, he'd never seen the boy at all. His host was a different story. The blending of the two of them sometimes made it difficult to tell which memories were his and which were the boy's.

He's held onto more than I thought he would. Tenjoin Fubuki fought hard, Darkness would give him that much. Yet there was no defeating Darkness. He always won in the end.

Without giving much thought to the matter, he moved along after Ryou. Despite his outfit, incredibly strange by most standards, he wouldn't be seen unless he chose. He slipped from shadow to shadow, ignoring Camula's bat as it fluttered from tree to post to bush, tracking Ryou almost as easily as he did.

Do you remember me, Ryou? Again that odd blending of his own thought and the boy's. He decided to ignore it; it would seduce his foolish host into thinking he could do something to escape, which would give him a firmer grip on his mind and soul.

He didn't doubt for a moment that when the time came, Ryou would indeed be one of those chosen to guard the Spirit Gate Keys. Who else might be chosen he couldn't yet guess. Most of those talented enough had either graduated already or were holed up in Kagemaru's prisons, fated to become Camula's dinner or to suffer through endless duel training just to see if one of them might develop enough talent to become the last of their group.

Darkness knew full well that would never happen. If it could have, it would have already. If push came to shove, however, and no other candidates revealed themselves before the opportune moment, he had someone he could 'nominate'.

He spared another glance for Ryou, curious as to what thoughts coursed through the other's mind. If he did remember Fubuki and still counted him a friend, what would he think when the attacks began?

For that matter, what would his reaction to Camula's desires be? Darkness found himself smiling. He could feel the darkness that already existed in Ryou. Could Camula nurture it? Bring it into full blossom? He knew it existed, but he didn't yet know the complete shape of it.

In truth, Darkness didn't care if Camula claimed Ryou as a consort or not. What concerned him, as it concerned Kagemaru, were the results when the Seven Stars struck at the Seven Key-Keepers. Unlike Kagemaru, he didn't want just warm bodies (or at least sentient ones) to throw at their opponents. The stronger the duels, the more power the demons would have, and the more power they had, the more power he would have when the time came.

Dismissing the Kaiser for the moment, Darkness slid back into the shadows. Months remained until the stars and planets rode in the correct configuration in the sky for their attack to begin and he had preparations of his own to make.

He fingered the half medallion around his neck, wondering if, or when, he'd find the other half. Ancient power dwelt within it, far more so than that used by the others. Kagemaru hadn't told them where the Shadow Items came from. Darkness wasn't even certain if he knew.

No matter. Before long, it wouldn't matter. Nothing would matter. Ever again.

Ryou thought he'd mostly shaken off that feeling of being watched after Rei. Yet still, the faintest of prickles ghosted along the back of his neck and he cast a few glances back at times, wondering if the little girl still followed along. Only shadows gathered there, growing deeper as the sun slid farther behind the horizon.

He turned his way home again; if anyone still wanted to follow him there, they could be entertained by the sight of him going inside and going to bed, assuming they could even see that through his curtains.

Weeks still remained until the new term at Duel Academia and his thoughts kept wandering back there. His last year, the final countdown before his entrance into the Pros. Perhaps within another two years, he'd be ready to challenge DD for the title.

His lips curved into a content smile at that. He'd already received several offers from sponsors over the last few months, ever since he'd achieved victory at the school duel. He hadn't made up his mind which of them he wanted to take. Time still remained until he needed to. There would be another school duel soon enough as well. If he won that as well, then even more interesting offers could be made.

Perhaps he'd watch a few of the old matches before he fell asleep. He generally taped them while at Duel Academia, going over them at his leisure for enjoyment and research purposes. Sometimes he couldn't believe some of the moves these pros made. He always spent at least part of his time planning how to counter those moves with his own deck.

His hand brushed against his Cyber deck and his smile widened just a fraction. Perhaps before he entered the Pros, he'd spend a week or two up at the Dojo. He hadn't been there in far too long and a quick breather in the clear air would doubtless be restful. Third year would be stressful enough, what with having to find a proper opponent to duel against for his last duel.

I should go to the practical exams. A two-fold reason existed for that. He wanted to watch Shou and see how his brother did in actual combat, and he wanted to see if there was any interesting new blood coming in that might be worth dueling. Not that he expected a first year to have the skills and experience he wanted, but what would it hurt to look?

When he got back home, he wasn't surprised to see a light on underneath Shou's door and to hear his brother's voice murmuring in excitement. A moment or two of listening picked up another voice, this one female, and Ryou recognized it as Kai's.

He chose not to interrupt; Shou wouldn't appreciate it and there wasn't anything he had to contribute to the conversation anyway. Instead, he moved on to his room, making just enough noise so that everyone else knew he was there. Ryou wasn't one for heavy footfalls and chatter, but if it lessened his parents' worry about him being out after dark, then he'd at least give them some kind of warning about having returned home safely.

Soon enough he had one of DD's older duels playing. The champion seldom dueled save for the title match, but once in a while he could be coaxed out for some reason or other. Ryou made himself comfortable and watched, noting the opponent's skills and DD's own.

During a break, the camera slid around to show the audience, most of them cheering for DD. One person didn't however. The few moments the camera was on him, he didn't cheer for anyone, but sat in an isolated box, arms folded over his chest, watching the duel with the most serious expression Ryou'd ever seen outside of his own mirror.

You'd think he was bored by all of that. Ryou wondered just who he was. He had little time to think about it, however, as the duel began again and he was all caught up in the skills of two of the greatest duelists of the modern age. I wonder what it will be like to duel DD...

"I really did it! I passed!" Shou thought about spinning around his room again and decided that having knocked over half of his books and his duel disk was enough for one night. He'd just been lucky his deck hadn't fallen out. Having to pick up sixty cards wasn't his idea of a fun night, not when he could still thrill over having passed.

"What was you score again?" Kai chuckled from his laptop screen. Shou's cheeks burned red as he mumbled it under his breath for the third time. "That's pretty good for you not having really dueled in a few years."

Shou shivered a little and nodded. "I still can't believe it. I feel like I'm going to wake up and never have taken it all or failed it." He wrinkled his nose. "I bet Fukazawa's going to start bragging all about how he scored so much higher than me sooner or later."

"It doesn't matter if he does." Kai shook her head and looked as if she wanted to shake a finger at him. "The practical is where it counts. Want me to come over for another duel tomorrow?"

Shou almost wanted to say no. He wanted to try and duel his brother. But the thought of that distant gaze on him, compared to Kai's warm friendliness, was too much for him. "Sure."

"All right, I'll see you sometime in the morning." She wrinkled her own nose. "And I'd better see some new moves out of you! I know all the ones you already have."

Shou thought he couldn't get any redder. He thought wrong. "Uh, I was going to get some new cards tomorrow. The test gave me a couple of ideas I want to see if I can work out." At least that gave him something to think about that wasn't quite the practical test.

"Got it." Kai nodded, leaning back a little. "So, I heard your brother's been going to the Royal Magical Library?"

Shou's gaze dropped almost at once. "Yeah." He paid a little more attention to the dueling forums now that it looked more like he would be going to Duel Academia, and Ryou's wins were listed all over.

For a few moments nothing but silence held between the two. Kai broke it with a single question. "What is it between you two?"

"Huh?" Shou replied with all the intelligence at his command. "What do you mean?"

She stared at him, brown eyes sharp and unrelenting. "You know what I mean. Half the time you act like he's the most perfect person in the world and half the time it's like you want to kill him...usually for being the most perfect person in the world! What is it?"

Shou bit his lip and stared down at his hands and the floor beyond his hands. "It's nothing." He couldn't even begin to answer that question. He didn't think he even knew the answer. Not like most people would think of it.

How could you explain someone like Ryou, too perfect in everything he did, without even trying? How could you explain what it was like to know from your earliest memories that you'd never, ever be able to measure up, no matter what?

I could've made any deck in the world. Even tried to get Black Magician Girl. But I made a Machine-Type deck, just so I could use the Power Bond he gave me. The mere thought of Power Bond sent a sharp spike of pain through his heart and he bit his lip harder.

"Shou?" If Kai could've reached through the laptop to smack him, the tone of her voice made it plain she would have. "Stop drifting off there."

His head came up and he stared at her for a brief moment, trying to get his thoughts into something that resembled sense. It wasn't easy; thinking of how much better Ryou was tended to scatter him for hours. He shifted a little, not quite meeting her eyes.

"I really need to go. I've got to get some sleep." It wasn't all that late, but he'd worn himself out being thrilled over his passing of the test. "Hey, are you going to come to the practicals?"

Kai's eyes shifted away, probably looking at her calendar, then looked back to him. "I'm not sure if I can make it yet. But if I can't, call me and let me know how it goes?"

"Right!" Tension eased out of him now that they weren't talking about his brother anymore. "I'll see you tomorrow."

Both nodded, and Shou flipped off the webcam, shutting down the laptop right after. He sagged back on his bed, staring up at the ceiling. Why did she have to ask that? It wasn't as if she knew. He didn't think Ryou and Kai had even met for more than five minutes at a time. His brother spent so much time at Duel Academia and then out doing who knew what...

Winning more duels. What else would Ryou do with his spare time except win duels? Shou sighed. It must be nice to win like that. Maybe he'd know what it felt like one day.

Misawa took a long look around his bedroom, checking off everything from his list. He'd developed a special deck, based off his researches into the decks used for the last five years by the Duel Academia proctors, ready to use for his entrance exam. His mother had washed and pressed the uniform he intended to wear, and it hung just inside his closet, ready for the big day.

Everything he could do, he'd done. He'd run as many simulations as he could imagine and knew what combos would work best and what percentage changes he had of drawing the cards he needed for those combos. He'd even made certain to add in a few counters for other moves he suspected might be used. He would be prepared for anything.

A satisfied smile creased his lips as he looked once again at his test results: the very top of the charts, a position he'd achieved since shortly after he'd begun to duel.

If only I'd been able to get into the junior high school. If he'd done that, he would now be prepared to enter Obelisk Blue. Granted, he like the idea of earning the rank, but it might have been interesting to go the other route.

A quiet tap came on the door. "Daichi?"

"Yes, mother?" Misawa stood up, wondering what she could want. She seldom bothered him this late at night, usually having gone to bed early in preparation of getting up early.

She stepped into the room at his question, looking all around with the same kind of satisfied smile. "I just wanted to make certain you didn't need anything. You're going to make it all right, aren't you?"

"Of course." She didn't even need to ask that. He'd picked up his gift for organization from her, after all. "What about you?"

"I will too." Misawa Saki eyed her son with pride glittering in her eyes. "He'd be very proud of you."

Misawa bent his head for a moment; his mother seldom, if ever, spoke about his father. "I can only hope so."

"Trust me." Saki started to turn around, then looked back. "Call me once you're done with the test?"

He nodded in quick agreement; he would've done so even if she hadn't asked. "I'll see you as soon as I can." Even he couldn't quite pin down when that might be, given how much traveling she had to do for her job and with the start of Duel Academia's new term being so soon. The winter holidays would provide an opportunity, if nothing else before.

"Daichi..." Saki hesitated, then smiled again, a warmer one than he was used to seeing from her. "I'm proud of you too."

Warmth flowered in the deepest depths of his heart. "Thank you, mother." Misawa'd already made up his mind to win his entry duel, but now he was a thousand times more determined to make it the best duel he could. He hoped he was assigned one of the hardest proctors, to make the win even more impressive.

And he would indeed get into Obelisk Blue as soon as he could.

Manjoume Jun lay back on his bed, staring up at the ceiling, ignoring Torimaki and Mototani's chatter. In all the years he'd known them, he hadn't been able to pinpoint a single moment when they said anything that actually mattered. He could let it all flow around him without fear of missing anything.

His thoughts circled around something else altogether: the upcoming entry duels for Duel Academia. He didn't need to take them; they were for lesser students, people who didn't have the money, power, or connections to get into the junior high.

People who weren't him, for example.

Yet he'd heard rumors of one of those prospects, someone whose entry exam marks impressed everyone who saw them.

Misawa Daichi. Manjoume knew little of the name beyond what he'd heard, but that was enough. No one could be allowed to threaten his future ascendency at Duel Academia, least of all some puny boy who got in just because he happend to have a good memory and a good day.

He didn't bother telling Mototani or Torimaki what he had in mind. They wanted to see the entry duels as much as he did, and they'd heard the same rumors. If he needed them to, or just wanted them to, they could research anything about this Misawa kid that he wanted to know.

Not that he wanted to know anything beyond how much of a genuine duelist Misawa was, and the only way that could be seen was to watch him in battle personally. The time drew closer and he'd already made the arrangements for their attendance at the KaibaDome. Being a Manjoume granted one many privileges and he wasn't averse to using every one of them.

"Manjoume-kun?" One of them prodded at his hand and he cracked one eye to see which one it was. Torimaki.

"What?" Whatever they wanted, he hoped it was worth interruptig his plans to become the unquestioned ruler of Duel Academia.

"Did you want a quick duel? Brush up on our skills before term starts?"

Manjoume considered turning him down; it wasn't as if needed the practice. He'd dueled at least three times a week throughout their course at junior high. He could probably outduel the two of them put together in his sleep.

But why not? He slowly rose to his feet and brushed himself off. "Let's go to the dueling arena."

One of those privileges of being a Manjoume, and Manjoume Jun in particular, was that his family'd installed a state of the art dueling arena just two weeks earlier, as a reward for scoring the highest on his final exams ever.

He stopped and admired it before they went in. A long row of duel disks, some painted in blue (for Obelisk Blue, of course), others with the Manjoume family crest on them, hung on the nearest wall. He chose one of the crested ones; he was quite tempted to take it to school when the time came, to remind everyone who saw him of who he was.

Not that any of them could forget. The Manjoume family name carried respect just by the fact it existed.

Mototani hung back while Torimaki activated his own disk and got into place. The holograms for this arena were twice what could be found anywhere else short of KaibaCorp itself, including a few extras to make the experience more realistic. When Manjoumes built anything, they built the very best.

"Ready?" He shuffled his deck as he spoke, slamming it into the deck slot, ready to stomp all over his opponent. He didn't care that this was one of his friends. When one stepped up to challenge Manjoume Jun, friendship no longer existed.

Besides, anyone who'd go soft on a 'friend' in a duel because of that friendship was an idiot anyway.

Torimaki played a powerful deck, focused mostly around warriors and beast-warriors. Manjoume knew it thoroughly, however, as well as knowing Torimaki's playing style. The trouble with that was that Torimaki knew him and his deck just as well.

Still, Manjoume was the superior duelist and they both knew it. His plays weren't entirely flawless, but he still won in a respectable amount of time. "Next?" Manjoume brushed off some imaginary dirt and turned his attention toward Mototani. I might as well deal with them both.

Mototani's plant deck was a trifle more unpredictable than Torimaki's, but in the end, Manjoume finished him just as well. He noticed only at the last moment, just as the final strike hit to drain away the last of Mototani's life points, his brothers stood in the doorway, watching.

"Chosaku-nii-san. Shouji-nii-san." Manjoume nodded a greeting, doing his best not to show how nervous he was. He couldn't help it; no matter what he looked like, he always felt so clumsy and unkempt next to them. He carefully stacked his deck and put it away, coming over to see what they wanted.

"You're getting better." Chosaku spoke the words gruffly, as if it were hard for him to say them at all. Praise didn't come easily to him, Manjoume knew, which made it all the sweeter when it did.

He held himself up as straight as he could, aware as he seldom was of not just their attention on him but that of Mototani and Torimaki as well.

Sometimes he wondered what it would be like not to care so much about their opinions. To not have to worry about carrying the pride of the Manjoume name into the wider dueling world, to not be the rising star that he knew he was.

Then he shook that off, refusing to show by twitch or word that he'd even thought something that insane at all. He was Manjoume Jun, and he would never fail his family!

"We're both leaving tomorrow." Shouji spoke up, staring down at his younger brother from his superior height. "I have a meeting to handle about the bank's latest acquisition."

Chosaku nodded. "And I have a new campaign manager candidates to interview." His lip curled at the thought of the last one, caught up in some form of sex scandal. Whatever Chosaku's other faults (and Manjoume knew he had quite a few of those), he always treated the people who worked for him decently enough.

"We'll be gone two weeks. Contact us if there's anything you need." Shouji continued. From the tone of his voice and the way he bent his head to stare at his brother, Manjoume suspected that he shouldn't need anything.

Not that he could think of anything he would need to get in touch with them for. He had enough access to his own money to buy anything he needed and all the servants knew to listen to him like they would his brothers.

"I'll be going to Duel Academia soon." Packing for that would be a little difficult; there was a great deal he wished to take along in the way of mementos and decorations. He'd seen the rooms there when his class took a field trip to see what their future accomodations would be like. A little small by his standards, but workable, in his opinion.

"We expect you to do your best." Chosaku snapped sharply. "We have a great deal riding on this, Jun."

He held himself back from twitching and nodded instead. "I will." He didn't see any problems in his future at all. Who in the world could be a better duelist than he was?

Juudai stretched in the hammock in his backyard, soaking up the summer sunlight. The backyard wasn't all that big, not compared to some places he'd seen, but it had room enough for the hammock, a couple of trees (not that they were very big trees) and a small stretch of grass and flowers his mother tended to when she had a few spare minutes.

Those moments weren't as many as she would've liked, given how much she worked, so every now and then, Juudai trimmed a bit of the grass and cut off a few dead leaves. He never wanted to do more than that, not wanting to end up accidently killing something. But the smile he caught on his mother's face when she saw what he'd done made it worth it.

He yawned, not bothering to cover his face, keeping his eyes closed at the same time. He hadn't yet thought of a good reason to actually get up, so he stayed where he was. Soon enough he'd have to, but soon enough wasn't right now. Soon enough wouldn't be at least until the sun set, which wouldn't be for hours and hours yet.

He shifted a little more, trying to get more comfortable, and cracked open one eye a fraction as a cloud passed the sun. He shot it an annoyed look; here he was trying to catch a nap and the cloud got in between him and the sun!

The cloud moved on, the wind pulling it quickly away, and Juudai nodded, closing his eyes once again. The last thing he wanted up in the sky right now were clouds. Clouds could mean rain and Juudai really hated rain. He hated anything that got in between him and the sun, in all truth. He even hated having curtains in his room. He didn't know why. He just knew he loved the light.

Gotta get good and rested. The practicals are soon. He could hardly wait to see what kind of duels awaited him at Duel Academia. They would be spectacular, or so he hoped. Better than what he'd had around here. His nose wrinkled at the very thought. Over the last couple of years, no one had given him the kind of duel he wanted. Not even Osamu-nii-chan.

For that matter, Osamu hardly even wanted to duel anymore. Or if he wanted to, he never had the time. Juudai wrinkled his nose. I guess being a new dad would do that. That didn't mean he had to like it, though. And he really didn't like the smell of baby powder and the fact that the kid kept howling constantly every time Juudai dropped in.

At least going to Duel Academia meant he wouldn't have to deal with that anymore. That, and the promise of awesome duels the likes he'd never had before, definitely cheered Juudai up.

He shifted around again, wondering if he should start thinking about what to get for dinner. Tonight was yet another night when his parents wouldn't come home until late, so it was up to him to decide what to get.

Won't be able to do that at the school. He knew each dorm had their own cafeteria, though exactly what they served he'd never been able to pin down. Everyone said something different. Not that he cared. Juudai liked just about anything that was edible and one or two things that some people swore weren't.

Soon enough he'd find out. For now, Juudai decided this was a good enough reason to get up and swung to his feet. Food was a lot more interesting than thinking about things he'd find out in detail about sooner or later.

Dim blue light was all that lit Kagemaru's office, reflecting from the inside of his nutrient tube, as well as from the screens he used to keep in touch with the outside world. There was little else in the office itself, only the tube and all the computers. He needed nothing else.

For all that he spent most of his time sealed into that tube, holding onto life with a grip of pure forged steel, Kagemaru kept himself amazingly busy. Not only did he have to keep track of what was going on with his experiments, trials, and the Stars, as well as keeping his own duel skills at the peak of perfection, but he still had a full workload dealing with being the Chairman of Duel Academia. Thankfully one of the uses of Samejima was that he kept most of the unimportant nonsense on his own desk. Kagemaru only needed to take care of what was truly vital.

One of those vital bits happened to involve keeping track of the various students who'd once been in the elite dorm. There weren't many left, perhaps half a dozen at most who hadn't yet graduated. One of those was Marufuji Ryou. Kagemaru carefully scanned over the information as it unfolded on the screens just a bare breath outside of his tube. His lip curled upward as he took all of it in, nodding to himself in contemplation.

I thought I remembered him. He'd been aware that Darkness had some sort of connection to him and now he had it in full. Tenjoin Fubuki and Marufuji Ryou, two of the finest duelists the school had ever seen. He'd wanted to lure Marufuji into the dark duels, to find out if he had the potential to become a true dark duelist. Everything he'd learned about the young man hinted it might be so.

Yet he'd never taken the last step of joining Daitoukuji's class, which would've given them the perfect opportunity to snap him up and see what he was good for.

Perhaps it's just as well. If he has this kind of strength, then his dueling will certainly empower the Mythic Demons even more. The stronger they were, the more power they would give to their true master.

This was what he wanted to get through to Camula. He hoped she would listen; he didn't want to outright ban her from chasing the young man. She'd either not listen at all, which would bring too much stress on the already delicate situation, or avoid dueling him altogether when the proper time came, more than likely out of spite. Neither of those was the outcome he wanted.

Of course, if she defeated him, then so far as Kagemaru cared, she could do whatever she liked with him, for as long as possible. But not until then.

"You wanted to see me?" Camula hardly sounded thrilled by the fact as she stepped into his office. He wasn't surprised; she'd never liked being told what to do by anyone, especially a human.

He could tell from the tilt of her lips and set of her head she wasn't in a good mood. He also didn't think he'd actually seen her in a good one. It won't get any better from here. No matter what the ultimate decision was, Camula simply didn't have good moods.

"So you've chosen Marufuji Ryou as your consort?" Best to get to the heart of the issue and deal with it as swiftly as possible. If she chose to cast the human aside, then the sooner she got over him the better.

"Perhaps. What concern is it of yours?"

Her haughty tones were quite familiar to him, and he was scarcely impressed by them. He stared down at her, jaw set. "He'll be chosen to guard one of the Spirit Gate Keys."

"So I gather." Either she was brighter than he'd thought or Darkness had let something slip. Not that it mattered. "What is your point?"

"Do I need to spell it out for you?" Kagemaru hated it when people refused to pay attention when he spoke. Just because he was older didn't mean he was stupid. "We need that kind of strength."

Camula snorted, eyes flaring for a moment. "I had no intentions of killing him. Not this soon. I'm not the kind of fool Darkness is."

For a creature of the night and whatever it was that Darkness himself was, those two simply didn't get along. Kagemaru encouraged this. The less camraderie between them all, the better. This was more than mere dislike, though.

"Perhaps not. If you keep him alive until afterward, all will be well." For certain values of 'well' that didn't need to concern her. "Once it's over, you can have him for anything you choose."

Her lips curved into a heated smirk. "I'll defeat him before I take him. Those will be the stakes of the duel."

"I thought you intended to duel with your Phantom Gate." Kagemaru knew the decks of all of his duel assassins inside and out. He'd seen her use that more than once to steal away the souls of those he set against her during training. She had quite the collection so far.

Camula shrugged. "If I need to, I will. But I can choose what I do with his soul once I've won." She turned one hand to reveal a blank doll. "He'll belong to me then."

Kagemaru nodded; this was likely as good as he would get from her. "Then make certain you win."

"Oh, there's no doubt of that at all." Camula smiled, the tips of her fangs glinting in his dimly lit room. "None at all."

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