The king of Duel Academia was stretched out on the floor, laughing and laughing...
Ryou was conscious of a great noise: people cheering, applauding, stamping their feet in excitement. Obviously the duel had gotten a good response from them, but he couldn't see anything but the ceiling right now, and was really not feeling inclined to move. He took a deep breath, attempted to compose himself, and broke out laughing again -- not because anything was funny, but from the sheer good feelings of knowing a job had been well done.
He didn't know how much time he had lain like that, sprawled on the floor with his regal uniform in disarray, before he became aware of a shadow looming over him. He blinked to clear his vision, and became gradually aware of a pair of familiar faces looking down at him -- Asuka with worry written on her features, Fubuki with his characteristic grin.
"Ryou? Can you get up?" asked Asuka.
"No," he said.
Fubuki shifted position, and Ryou felt hands gripping his arms and hauling him to his feet. Asuka moved to his other side to shore him up. He needed it; he managed to get his feet underneath him, but that was as far as his strength went. He let his entire weight rest on Fubuki's strong arms. His head drooped down onto his chest. He was still grinning, a bit drunkenly; his eyes didn't seem to want to focus.
"Somebody's a little punch-drunk," Fubuki opined.
"No, I'm not. I'm just... a little tired," Ryou managed. "I feel fine, really. Never felt better. I could do this every day."
"Definitely a little punch-drunk," Asuka declared. "You're not yourself, Ryou."
He chuckled a little. "Maybe not. But I promise you, I really do feel fine."
He wasn't sure how to articulate, in his current drained state, that he felt better than fine - he felt wonderful, in a way he had never imagined he could feel after a defeat. He had never had a victory that felt this good. For his entire dueling career, he had always played in a serene state of security, always knowing that no matter what, he would come out the victor. No one had ever really rattled him like this, not even Vampire Camilla with that wretched Phantom Gate of hers. That had been just cheating. This had been the first time he had run up against someone with skill to match his own. To really have to struggle, to face against someone who could match him move for move, to have to push himself to the very limits of his strength... it was everything he'd ever wanted in a duel. He'd been telling Fubuki the truth: he really could do this every day.
Asuka and Fubuki tried to help him off of the dueling platform, and he lost his balance and would have pitched face-forward onto the floor, if Fubuki hadn't caught him.
All right, maybe I can't do this every day. I am really going to feel this in the morning.
While he was sorting himself out, he managed a look over his shoulder at his worthy opponent, who was being peeled off the ground by his own set of admirers. Shou and Misawa were helping him to his feet, while Manjyome stood a little to one side, unwilling to help and unwilling to be left out. Misawa was doing most of the work, as Juudai was significantly taller than Shou was. Ryou watched, not without a slight feeling of wistfulness, as his brother threw his arms around Juudai's middle.
"You were awesome, Aniki!" Shou declared.
"It was an impressive show," Misawa agreed. "Perhaps a little unusual, but it was certainly interesting to watch."
"I guess I can't say I've seen that before," said Manjyome grudgingly. "You and your rice cakes..."
"Hey, if you had to fight the Kaizer, you wouldn't want to do it on an empty stomach, either!" said Juudai. "Speaking of which, when's dinner? All this dueling takes it out of a guy."
"You just ate!" said Manjyome, rolling his eyes.
"Hey, I worked hard today!"
"No one can say you didn't." That was Principal Sameshima, who has just come down from the stands. He smiled broadly at Juudai and Ryou. "I would personally like to shake both your hands! In all my years as principal of this school, I've never seen such a duel! This will go down in the history of the school - no, of dueling itself! A freshman from Osiris Red and the top graduate of Obelisk Blue, dueling together as perfect equals... it's truly symbolic of what we are trying to achieve here at Duel Academia. Don't you think, Professor Chronos?"
"Ah," said Chronos, who seemed to be having difficulty believing everything he'd just seen.
"Thank you, Principal Sameshima," said Ryou, who could be conscious of his dignity even when he was too tired to stand.
"Yeah, thanks!" Juudai chimed in. "It was fun! A super-awesome duel."
"So what happens now?" asked Shou.
"Now," said Misawa, who always knew everything as a matter of course, "we go back to our dorms to pack and get ready for the farewell dinner party. At least, that's what I intend to do. I don't know about the rest of you..."
Ryou was suddenly struck by an idea. He was surprised, considering the state his mind was in right now. Perhaps it wouldn't have seemed so important if he hadn't had all the usual lofty thoughts knocked out of him by an attacking Duel Monster.
"Principal Sameshima, I have a small request," he said.
The principal beamed. "Anything you want! You deserve it."
"In that case, I would like to ask to have dinner with my friends," he said.
"Of course you can do that!" said Chronos, laughing a little. "No one would make the great Signor Marufuji miss his final meal here!"
"I didn't mean that. Perhaps I was unclear," Ryou replied. "What I meant was, Asuka and Fubuki are my friends, and they're in Obelisk Blue. But Juudai and my brother and Manjyome are in Osiris Red, and Misawa is in Ra Yellow. We've all been through so much together, this year. We should end it together. Don't you think?"
"Ah! Yes, yes, I see what you mean!" said the principal. "I absolutely agree! It would be wrong to separate loyal friends on their last day together."
"I'm glad you think so," said Ryou. "If you would be so kind as to make the arrangements, I would like for us all to have dinner together in my room."
"I think I can manage that," Sameshima agreed. "I'll go alert the staff right now. Congratulations, both of you, on a job well done."
The principal walked jauntily off, looking quite satisfied with how the day was progressing. Chronos followed him, looking slightly dazed. The shock of seeing an Osiris Red - even such a strange one as Juudai - tying with the school's perfect duelist appeared to be a bit much for him, not to mention the idea of Reds and Yellows having dinner in the hallowed halls of Obelisk Blue. Ah, well. Ryou didn't mind pushing Chronos around a little; he knew he could get away with it, and he was leaving tomorrow anyway. As for those he was leaving behind... he knew firsthand that they could take care of themselves.
"Well, I suppose that's all there is to see," said Manjyome in his grandest manner, "so I'll just be leaving."
"Where are you going?" asked Juudai curiously.
"I," Manjyome replied, "am going to dress for dinner." He turned on his heel and walked off.
"What was that all about?" Misawa wondered.
"Looks like we'll find out at dinner!" Fubuki answered.
"All right! I could use a bath before we eat. I feel like I've been through the wringer," said Juudai. "See you at dinner, Kaizer!"
Ryou managed a smile. "I'll look forward to it." He laughed a little. "I'm sure it will be... in interesting taste."
"Now he's making puns," said Asuka, making a face. "Come on, Ryou. You need to lie down."
"Not nonsense," he insisted sleepily. He really did need to lie down. "Juudai and I talked about it before. It's what I wanted..."
"Naptime for you," Fubuki declared. "Come on, Ryou."
They dragged him out of the arena - literally dragged him, because he was already nodding off.
"Interesting taste." he murmured. The unintentional pun struck him as funny, and he chuckled softly before finally dropping off to sleep.
Sameshima was as good as his word, and by the time Ryou had taken a quick nap and a shower, his room had been transformed to a place suitable for an elegant meal. His furniture had been rearranged, and a table had been positioned in the middle of the room, set with places for each of the honored guests.
I don't know if even I could have gotten away with this at the beginning of the year, Ryou mused. That Juudai certainly has changed things around here... I think I like it.
One by one, the guests began to arrive. Asuka and Fubuki arrived first, owing to their being close by, and carefully ascertained that their friend once again had all his brain functions in order.
"I think I've recovered," said Ryou, giving Fubuki one of his rare smiles. "One of us has to stay sane, and you obviously aren't up to the job."
Fubuki attempted to look affronted, and failed utterly. "I am sane. I just look at things from a different angle."
"Yes. Slightly bent," Asuka agreed.
Misawa was the next to arrive. He looked around with the same studious interest that he gave everything.
"So this is what I gave up when I refused to become an Obelisk," he said. "It's rather pleasant. I suppose one could become used to it, but I'd feel guilty about writing on the walls. I don't think they'd let me do it even if I promised to repaint them afterwards."
"Writing on the walls?" asked Ryou. "Why do you want to do that?"
He was in the middle of explaining about this particular habit of his when Juudai and Shou arrived. Shou looked a little overwhelmed at actually being inside the Obelisk Dorm; Juudai was as cheerful as always.
"Hi, guys!" he said. "'Sup?"
"Glad you finally made it," said Fubuki. "Are we all here now?"
"We're missing one," said Asuka. "Where's Manjyome?"
Juudai shrugged. "Around somewhere. He'll get here."
"Yeah, he'll get here," Shou echoed, grimacing. "He's been going around telling everyone in the dorm that he's been invited to a private party over here - as if he were going to be the guest of honor! He didn't say anything about Aniki and me."
"Aw, they all know we're coming," said Juudai. "I mean, if you invited anybody, it would have to be us. You just about had to invite me after the big duel, and you can't have a party without your own brother. Am I right?"
Ryou became aware that his brother's eyes were resting on him - not fearfully, as they so often had been in the past, but inquiringly, almost challengingly. Ryou smiled a little.
"If I invited anyone, it would be you two," he said. "But if I invited you, it would be wrong not to invite Asuka and Fubuki, and once I invite them..."
"You might as well invite everyone!" Juudai finished.
"Well, maybe not everyone," Ryou amended, "but a few more, anyway."
Manjyome finally arrived - fashionably late, Ryou supposed. The boy looked puffed with pride at being back in his old dorm at last, and strutted into the room as if he thought he owned it. If he'd been hoping to make a dramatic entrance, he was in luck. All eyes turned towards him as he took his place at the table.
"Manjyome!" Shou exclaimed. "You can't wear that!"
"Why not?" he answered. He was wearing his old Obelisk Blue uniform, which he'd faithfully preserved through all his trials and tribulations. "If you're going to have dinner in Obelisk Blue, you've got to dress right for it. Besides, who's going to stop me? School is over; I can wear whatever I want."
"Who cares what he wears?" said Juudai. "Let's eat!"
Manjyome looked a little disgruntled at being upstaged by the stuffed flounder and caesar salad, but he couldn't very well say anything against it, especially as people had already started passing plates around. He settled for making a ferocious face at Shou, who was attempting to offer him a dish of glazed carrots.
"Don't you know I hate carrots?" he muttered.
Asuka kicked his ankle. "Be gracious," she hissed at him.
Manjyome sighed and spooned carrots onto his plate.
Gradually, the party found its stride, and the guests settled down to enjoy themselves. Everyone had a good time picking apart the model duel - reliving the dramatic turns, debating over who'd made the best plays, wondering what had been going through Juudai and Ryou's minds. Misawa expounded on the action in mathematical terms, thoroughly confusing everyone, and marking equations all over the napkins. Ryou finally stole his pen from him before he could start on the tablecloth, at which point Misawa laughed sheepishly and apologized for his over-enthusiasm. Juudai did most of the talking, enacting a dramatic blow-by-blow account of the duel, and nearly knocking Manjyome out of his chair with a dramatic gesture. Shou, seeming a little overwhelmed by actually being in his brother's presence in the hallowed halls of Obelisk Blue, ate in wide-eyed silence and kept missing his plate with his fork. Manjyome squirmed uncomfortably and tugged at the collar of his coat.
"What's the matter with you? Are there ants in your pants?" Fubuki teased. "Or are you just getting all hot and bothered because you're sitting next to Asuka?"
Manjyome shot him a glare. "This coat must have shrunk while it was in storage. It doesn't fit right anymore." He peeled it off and threw it over the back of his chair, leaving him in the plain black clothing everyone was used to.
"All things considered," said Ryou, "I think it more likely that you've grown since last you wore that." He fixed the young man with a meaningful glance that seemed to imply more than his words did. Manjyome flushed a little and applied himself to his meal.
At last, the meal wound down, and everyone lapsed into contented quiet. Ryou stepped out into the hall and called for servants, who deftly cleared away the dishes and folded up the table, while the guests made themselves comfortable sitting on Ryou's furniture. A platter of cookies and cupcakes was presented and laid out on Ryou's coffee table instead, and everyone helped themselves to desserts and sodas.
"A toast!" said Ryou, solemnly raising his glass. "May the roof never fall in, and may friends never fall out!"
There were exclamations of "Cheers!" and "Hear, hear!" as everyone clinked their glasses together.
Juudai took a gulp from his glass. "This was a great day. The only thing that could have made it better is if Hayato were here."
"Yeah," said Shou. "Too bad he couldn't come."
"He's better off where he is," said Manjyome. Then, belatedly remembering that this party was supposed to be a no-fight zone, added, "He always was better at drawing than dueling, so he'll be happiest over there in America drawing cards."
"That's true," Juudai agreed. "I'll bet he's making lots of friends in America. Anyway, here's to Hayato! Maybe he'll be the next head of Industrial Illusions someday!"
"Then he can send us cards," said Shou, laughing a little.
"My turn, my turn!" said Fubuki.
"Are you that eager to make a toast, or are you just doing it because everyone else is?" asked Asuka, amused.
"It's important," he insisted. He stood up and contrived to look serious. "Here's to memories - and to people who don't forget."
"I'll drink to that!" said Ryou.
Asuka smiled and solemnly raised her glass. "Here's to big brothers, then - even when they're late to school!"
"Better late than never!" Fubuki said.
"That's the truth," Asuka agreed.
Juudai nudged his best friend. "You go next, Shou."
"Who, me?" Shou squeaked, blushing as he usually did when he was put on the spot. "All right then. Here's to my big brothers - both of them!"
Ryou inclined his head gravely, and Juudai grinned and ruffled his friend's hair.
"I suppose it's my turn," said Misawa. "Well, then - here's to the ultimate study aid."
"And what would that be?" asked Ryou.
"You should know," Misawa replied. "A good rival! There's nothing else in the world for keeping the mind sharp."
"Good point." Ryou took a sip from his glass; it was nearly empty. Toasts tended to make drinks run out quickly.
Juudai seemed to have had similar thoughts.
"Only one left," he said. "You say something, Manjyome!"
"What am I supposed to say?"
"Make a toast! Everyone else did it!" Juudai replied.
Manjyome looked thoughtfully into his glass a moment. After a suitable period of reflection, he said at last, "Well, then... here's to the future!"
"Very apt," Ryou agreed. "Here's to the future!"
Everyone clinked their glasses together a final time and drank the last drops with silent solemnity. After all, on this day, there was nothing better they could have toasted.
The party was over. Ryou had come to that conclusion, primarily because he was the only one left awake. Shou had dropped off first, and was now sound asleep in his brother's best chair. Asuka and Fubuki had followed shortly, almost simultaneously, and were now curled up next to each other on the sofa. Misawa was snoring softly in the other chair nearby. Manjyome had crashed on Ryou's bed, smiling gently, as if in his dreams, he was ruling the school just as Ryou had. He had no idea that shortly after he'd fallen asleep, Juudai had climbed onto the bed and dozed off next to him. No doubt he'd figure it out when he woke up tomorrow morning, which would be an interesting way to wake up on the last day at Duel Academia. No doubt people be able to hear him screaming all over the island. If what Ryou had heard about Osiris Red's most famous student was true, Juudai would probably still find a way to sleep through it.
And me? Ryou mused. I am the Kaizer of Obelisk Blue, the king of the school, the highest ranked student in the graduating class, the perfect duelist... and I am going to sleep on the floor tonight because a couple of freshmen from Osiris Red are in my bed, and all my other furniture is occupied.
Of course, all it would take was a word with one of the higher-ups, and he could have gotten an extra bed. He could have slept anywhere he wanted, if he only asked, but he wasn't going to use that power tonight. He would have been well within his rights to dump Manjyome and Juudai on the floor and take his bed back, but he wasn't going to do that either. He was resigned to sleeping, fully dressed, on his rug, rather than disturb the peaceful scene in his room.
Blue, Yellow, Red... and whatever color Manjyome thinks he is. When I first started going to this academy, I would have thought the lion would lie down with the lamb before a Red and a Blue would sit down to a meal together and sleep under the same roof. Things have changed. People have changed. Are changing. And it's the people in this room who are doing it.
He leaned back against the side of the easy chair where Shou was taking his repose. Ryou's gaze roved around the room, looking at each of his guests in turn. His dream had always been to devote himself to his cards, and he'd been determined to think of nothing else and love nothing else. Now he had done it: his dream was a reality, and he was ready to go on to the pro duel league. He was going to leave behind Duel Academia and possibly not come back. He would no longer have Asuka to talk to, or Fubuki to make him laugh. He wouldn't be around to see if Misawa would ever finish his rivalry with Juudai, or whether Manjyome would ever get out of Osiris Red (or, for that matter, if he'd ever win Asuka's heart). He wouldn't be there for his brother; the brother who would look after Shou would be someone else. Where Ryou was going now, there would be none of Juudai's... whatever it was, that inexplicable quality that had allowed him to laugh and joke his way into Duel Academia and turn everything in it upside down and make everyone love him for it. These people were a strange bunch, some of them. They seemed like unlikely heroes, but they were the life of the school. They would do more for it than Ryou, with his perfect grades and perfect techniques, ever would. He had barely taken the time to get to know some of them. Now he wouldn't have the chance.
"I envy you, little brother," said Ryou softly. "You'll be here to see it all happen. You'll get to watch everything change, and you'll change with it. But as for me... I am the perfect duelist. I can't change. The best I can do is cling to a few minutes surrounded by all of you absurd, irrational, amazing people, and hope you can drag me down to your level for a little while."
And on that note... he probably should get a little sleep while he still could. It was past midnight, and it had been a long day. He stretched out on the floor and tried to make himself comfortable, thanking whoever was in charge of furnishing these buildings that they'd seen fit to furnish Obelisk Blue with good thick rugs. Pillowing his head on his arms, he closed his eyes and let visions of the last year roll through his mind: Chronos's expression when his Antique Gear Golem was destroyed at the entrance exams, himself being turned into a doll by a vampire, little Rei with her Beloved Maiden card, crowds cheering for a loser with a tattered black coat and those ridiculous Ojamas, factual-minded Misawa gazing into space and pining for his beloved Taniya, Shou and the Black Magician Girl, Fubuki and that ukelele...
The king of Duel Academia was stretched out on the floor, laughing and laughing...