Shoes. The first thing I have to do is get a better pair of shoes.
Manjyome had gone a long way in the boots he was wearing - across endless oceans, over freezing wastelands, through dark caverns infested with foul light-fearing things - and they weren't going to carry him much further. If he asked them to cross this infernal bridge twice a day just to get him to class, they would fall apart within a week. How much easier it would be if he was back in his true dorm, where everything was just a leisurely stroll away. He paused for a moment to brace himself against one of the pillars that supported the bridge so he could shake a stone out of his boot. For a moment, his dark eyes scanned the ocean that spread out in front of him. He could look out and see neither the main island, nor the smaller one where the Osiris Red dorm rested - nothing but a vast stretch of water. Just now, it was a deep color, almost purple, highlighted with flashes of orange, red, and gold where the vivid sun was sinking below the horizon. Even he had to admit that as sunsets went, they didn't come any more spectacular.
Sure it looks good now, he told himself, but think what it will be like out here when it rains. Think of what a good windstorm would do to this bridge.
For a moment, he pictured what this graceful bridge would look like under three feet of snow and ice, which it undoubtably would be when the cold weather hit next winter. He thought of all the Red students sitting in that little shack that passed for a dormitory while the snow whipped around. It would be, he thought, like being trapped in a freezer. Any vaguely pleasant thoughts that the sunset might have given him were frozen away by a wave of cold determination.
I'll be out of here by then. I won't be here next year. This is just until the end of the term.
"Hey, Manjyome!" called a voice.
Manjyome turned to shoot a glare at Juudai, who just laughed carelessly.
"Sorry," he he said, grinning. "I mean, Manjyome-Thunder-san! Hurry up! You're getting left behind! What's wrong? Do your feet hurt?"
"I'm fine," Manjyome snapped.
"Then catch up with the rest of us! You'll miss dinner, being slow like that!"
"I'm not hungry," said Manjyome. He followed anyway. He'd been given a good meal on the trip over, the best that North School had to offer, so he'd be fresh for his duel. Nevertheless, it had been a draining duel, and he had a lot of work ahead of him, so he might as well eat something.
They finished crossing the bridge: Daitokuji-sensei in the lead, followed by Juudai, the little Marufuji boy, and that big guy who looked like a koala. Manjyome hadn't bothered to learn all their names, and was in fact determined not to remember them, no matter how often he heard them.
Humph. Juudai is the perfect name for him. That's all he is, just a common teenager with nothing special about him at all. Why is it that he defeats everyone and anyone who challenges him? More importantly, why does he keep beating me?
Wrapped up in his sour thoughts, he hardly noticed that he was being escorted into a large room, where a large number of red-jacketed boys were sitting around tables, talking loudly to each other. The general atmosphere was festive. Why shouldn't it be? The Reds seemed to think they had pulled off some kind of a coup: one of them had been selected as the school champion, and had gone on to victory. Not only that, but now they had Manjyome Thunder on their side now! There hadn't been such a day in the history of Osiris Red dorm, and they were voluble in expressing their delight. Manjyome wanted to tell them to all shut up - that he was not and never would be on their side - but was silenced by the arrival of something on a tray.
"What is this?" he said, making a face.
Juudai laughed. "What does it look like? It's dinner."
Manjyome scowled at the tray's contents: two small fish, some rice, and a bowl of something that was probably soup, though its exact contents were a mystery.
"This is not dinner," he said. "I'm not even sure it's food."
"You're going to have to get used to it," said the koala-boy. "That's what we eat around here."
"You don't think about it too much, after a while," his bespectacled friend added, a bit forlornly.
"Try it! It's good," said Juudai. "It can't be that different in Obelisk Blue, is it? I mean, food is food, right?"
Manjyome thought about the lavish meals they'd had back in Obelisk Blue, with crystal glasses and fine china plates, with uniformed servers to take their empty dishes and refill their drinks, with music playing in the background.
"To you, maybe," he muttered. "You can have this if you want it. Like I said, I'm not hungry."
He got up and stalked off. Behind him, he could hear Juudai saying, "See? He's not really such a bad guy..."
Stupid, Manjyome thought. He's like a dog that doesn't know the difference between a petting and a beating. What's the good of a put-down if he isn't insulted by it? Maybe it's because he can't sink any lower, anyway. Insults don't even matter...
He worked his way to the front of the room, where Daitokuji was supposedly keeping watch over his students. Actually, he seemed to be more involved with reading a book and petting his cat. Manjyome was mildly disgusted. He wasn't fond of cats, and suspected it had to be unhygienic to have a cat at the dinner table. Then again, Daitokuji was hardly what Manjyome would consider a proper teacher - he didn't even bother to tie his necktie properly, much less wear a school uniform.
"I want to go to my room," Manjyome declared. "Where is it?"
"Ah, well," said Daitokuji. "I'm not exactly sure. We weren't exactly expecting you here tonight, you know? But I'm sure we can come up with something."
Manjyome suffered a brief vision of having to spend the night in a storage closet somewhere. However, after a moment of deep thought, Daitokuji stood up and led him around to the back of the dormitory, where he unlocked a door to a dark room. Manjyome put his head inside, and sneezed. Dust lay thickly on everything, and there were cobwebs on the ceiling. The air was unpleasantly stuffy.
"I think something has molded in here," he said, wrinkling his nose.
"It's possible," said Daitokuji, watching as Pharaoh prowled around the room to chase dust bunnies. "It hasn't been cleaned in a while, you know? No one has lived here since the start of the semester. I'll arrange for someone to come clean it tomorrow morning, but for now... perhaps you would rather stay the night with another student? I'm sure someone would agree to let you stay with them..."
"No, this is fine," said Manjyome. He looked around at the dismal, dusty room and thought, I don't believe I just said that. How low can I sink?
"Suit yourself," Daitokuji answered casually.
Much to Manjyome's surprise, he placed a hand on his shoulder in an almost fatherly gesture.
"Don't worry," he said. "You'll be all right here. It's a good place to begin."
While Manjyome was still boggling over this expression of affection, Daitokuji collected his cat and wandered off. Manjyome gave him a suspicious look. Teachers were not supposed to be friendly, much less show signs of even platonic affection. Nobody was supposed to show affection to Manjyome. His family didn't, so why should anyone else?
They are going to go crazy when they hear about this. Me, stuck in the lowest position in the school, and I can't even be promoted this term because I've missed so many days! I must have been insane when I agreed to this. I should have gotten back on the boat to North School. At least there I would still merit some respect...
He dropped back onto his new bed, instantly discovering a number of lumps in the mattress and disturbing no small amount of dust. He didn't care; his coat had been dragged through so much grit and grime that it would probably never come completely clean. Even so, he would have chosen it over an Osiris Red uniform even if they'd offered him one. As it was, there weren't any handy at the moment, and it would take some time to have one tailored for him. He intended to put that moment off for as long as the school officials didn't mind him stalking around the halls in a black coat instead of an official uniform. It was better this way, anyhow. He wasn't in Obelisk Blue anymore, and he was part of Osiris Red only by default, so it was better that he choose no color at all. He certainly didn't want anyone to think he belonged here.
"You'll be all right here...
"I will not!" he declared, hitting his pillow. "I don't belong here! I am an elite duelist, not one of these drop-out students who don't even know which end of a card is up! I will never belong in this place! I am not a failure, I..."
Hot rage choked him, and he closed his eyes tightly, shutting out everything but the darkness, taking deep breaths to steady himself.
I failed. I've failed at everything I've tried to do since I came to this school. Misawa defeats me. Juudai defeats me as often as he wants to, and there's nothing I can do to stop him. My brothers can make a public spectacle of me in front of the whole world and I can't stop them. I ought to be here. Then his natural pride began to reassert itself. I have to be here, because I have to learn how it is a boy like Juudai can win so easily. That was my purpose in coming here, after all. This is my choice, not a punishment.
"Manjyome? Manjyome? Are you sleeping, Manjyome?"
Manjyome scowled. "Manjyome Thunder."
"Oh, good, you're awake," said Juudai, blithely ignoring the correction. "I was done with dinner, so I told Daitokuji-sensei I would show you around."
"What do you need to show me?" asked Manjyome, opening one eye.
"Where the bathrooms are."
Manjyome suddenly realized that his room, in fact, lacked any plumbing other than a small sink.
"All right, maybe I do need to see that," he said.
He reluctantly got up and followed Juudai out of the room. It was dark outside, now. The sunset that had momentarily enthralled him had vanished entirely, and been replaced by an expanse of stars. He had to walk carefully to make sure he didn't trip over anything in the dark.
"Hey, you," he said. "Answer a question."
Juudai gave him a blank look. "Is it a hard question? My grades aren't so good, so you might be better off asking someone else."
"It's a question about you," Manjyome said. "Why do you stay in this termite-ridden place? You could have gotten out a long time ago, couldn't you? They gave you the chance the first time you beat me, so why are you still here?"
"I like the view from here," Juudai replied.
"Well, my friends are here. Shou and Hayato. It wouldn't be as much fun without them."
"Is having fun all you ever think about?"
"What do you mean, kinda?"
Juudai was ignoring him. "Hey, look! There's a seal in the hot springs again! Wow. I haven't seen one of those in a long time."
Manjyome looked at the seal bathing itself in the spring. Words failed him. His life experience had simply not equipped him for discovering aquatic mammals in his bathing facilities.
"What else do you see around here?" he asked at last.
"All kinds of stuff," said Juudai. "You just wait. This is the best place to be."
Manjyome glided silently after him, wondering just what on earth Juudai was talking about. What was there to see here? True, there was a nice lookout over the ocean, but that hardly made this the best place to be. You could see the ocean from the Obelisk Blue dorm, or the Ra Yellow one. So far, the only things he'd seen here that he couldn't see from his old room were seals in his bath water, dust bunnies under his bed, a feline flea-carrier in his dining room, and he-didn't-know-what on his dinner plate.
I don't care how badly I've slipped, I don't deserve this!
"Anyway, those are the bathrooms over there," said Juudai, waving at a nearby door. "For the boys, anyway. The girls' are on the other side of the building. Better not mix 'em up! Shou did that once. It was really something! He only did that once, though. He learns pretty fast. And that's Daitokuji-sensei's office. If you ever need help with anything, you can go ask him. Just between you and me..." He lowered his voice. "Chronos-sensei is nice and all, but I really think Daitokuji-sensei is the best teacher here."
Manjyome opened his mouth, and shut it again as words choked him. Daitokuji, greater than Chronos? Chronos was a master, a legendary duelist! Manjyome didn't even know if Daitokuji even knew how to play at all. Then he remembered how Chronos had snubbed him and practically thrown him out of class after his loss to Misawa. At least Daitokuji wanted him here. Granted, it might just be because Daitokuji was happy to get any students in his dorm who had a modicum of skill, but even so... For a moment, he could feel the memory of a kindly touch on his shoulder, and he shrugged it off uneasily.
"What makes you think that?" he said at last.
"Well, you know, he's just a nice guy. He never punishes anybody. He never bugs me for sleeping through class. He's not stuck up like you think a teacher would be. He hangs out with us just like he's a student himself."
"So he doesn't really care about you," Manjyome summed up.
"He does too care!" Juudai said, plainly offended. "He's proud of his students - I heard him say so. Just because he doesn't make demands on us all the time doesn't mean he doesn't care." He gave Manjyome a serious look. "You're probably better off here. It's much more relaxing."
"What do you mean, better off here? I am not better off here!" Manjyome shouted. "Are you trying to tell me I deserve to be in this dust trap? If you're saying I'm a loser, you should just go ahead and say it straight out! It's not like I can't take it." He glared razors at Juudai, who just looked at him in vague confusion.
"I'm not one of your brothers, Manjyome," he said.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Juudai just shrugged. Manjyome fumed silently.
He thinks he's better than me. Just because he beat me in a couple of duels! I'll show him. I'll show them all...
He barely listened as Juudai continued leading him on his tour of the facilities. He was tired of being patronized. He wanted to crawl back into his dark, dusty, musty room and kick the walls for a while until he had burned off enough of this angry energy to sleep. Sleep would be good. It would allow him to pretend, for a while, that he was somewhere other than here. The least he could do was dream that he wasn't consigned to the bottom of the barrel.
I will move upward. I'll claw my way to the top, if I tear my hands to shreds doing it!
It took him a moment to realize he was going up. Juudai was leading him away from the building and up a hill. There didn't seem to be anything at the top of it.
"Where are we going?" he called.
"To the top of the hill!"
"Oh, sure, I didn't know that," Manjyome spat. "Why are we climbing a hill? There's nothing up there! And it's getting dark. Are you sure it's safe out here?"
"Well, I did see a bear, once. Don't know how it got here - but that was just once, and it didn't hurt anyone."
"Oh, great. First I lose a duel, then I get demoted to this place, and now I'm going to be eaten by a bear."
"You're not going to be eaten by a bear, I promise! I just want to show you the view. You wouldn't want to miss the best part, would you?"
He sighed. He had already made it more than halfway up the hill, anyway. It would be just as much trouble to climb back down as it was to go up.
Well, that is where I said I wanted to go. I wanted to go back to the top - following Juudai. He winced a little at the irony. As if there's any symbolism in climbing a stupid hill.
He was a little winded by the time he reached the top. He stood there, panting, looking down at the ocean. Juudai had led him to the top of a tall cliff. Waves crashed at its base, churning into white foam against an array of jagged rocks. It might have been dramatic in full sunlight, but it was dark now, and the waves were all but invisible in the starlight.
"You dragged me all the way up here for this?" he asked.
"Nah," said Juudai. "You're looking the wrong way. Look up!"
Manjyome dutifully tilted his head back. Above his head were stars - thousands of them, spreading across his entire field of vision. The earth seemed to have disappeared, leaving behind nothing but an endless expanse of darkness studded with uncountable tiny lights. All he could see was the sky above him. It felt like being at the very bottom of everything.
He was amazed how beautiful it was.
This is where I am. The very bottom. That's what being here means.
He thought about that. If he was indeed at rock bottom, it meant the only direction he could go was up. Nothing else he could do could get him into any worse trouble than he was in now. His brothers had rejected him; he no longer had to worry about doing anything that would offend them, because he had done it already and there wasn't anything else they could take from him. Obelisk Blue had rejected him, so he had left them all and come here where he was accepted - where people treated him as a hero, and didn't seem to care if he'd won or lost as long as he'd put on a good show. He'd reached a place where any effort at all would be rewarded, but even if he didn't do anything at all, nobody would care, because that was what was expected of him. There were no more standards or expectations. From here on in, he could do whatever he wanted.
"So, what do you think?" asked Juudai. "Pretty cool, huh?"
Manjyome looked at him consideringly. Juudai wasn't paying attention to him, but looking up at the stars.
This is why you're here, isn't it? I think I understand, now. It's not because you're the worst - it's because you have to have your freedom. And now I'm going to have it too. You'll see. I'll break through everything that's holding me back, and I'll become the strongest - stronger even than you.
"I see what you mean," he answered quietly. "You were right. I do like the view from here."