The phone was ringing. This was possibly a sign that someone ought to get up and answer it, but so far, nobody had taken the initiative. Juudai could have answered it, though why he would was anyone's guess, since this wasn't even his room. He had just turned up, probably out of his innate sociability, and had flopped himself down on Manjyome's sofa and started chattering about how his exams had gone and wondering who was going to grade Daitokuji's exam papers now that he was gone. Only once did he interrupt this entertaining monologue.
"Aren't you going to get the phone?" he asked.
Someone else could have gotten it. Shou, for example. He was there, because of course he followed his "big brother" wherever he went, so if Juudai wanted to invite himself over, then Shou had no choice but to tag along. He had been sitting in one of the few available patches of floor space in Manjyome's room, owing to the fact that he was the only person small enough to fit in it, going over his cards and second-guessing his exam answers.
"It's not my phone. Make him answer it," he said.
Manjyome could have answered his phone, but he didn't. He was busy. True, it didn't look like he was busy, since he was lying in the middle of his bed, staring at the dusty ceiling and not doing anything in particular, but he was still busy. He was busy not answering the phone.
A ghostly voice in his ear shouted, "The phone is ringing, Aniki!"
Manjyome sat up with a snarl and batted away the Ojama - he didn't get a good look at which one it was, but he could guess it was Yellow, and said, "All right, all right, I'll answer it!"
He made a dive at the dresser and grabbed his cell, which was still bleeping insistently at him, and snapped, "Hello!" at whoever was on the other end of the line. Not that he had any doubts.
"Hello, little brother," said a voice dripping with sarcasm. "Pass all your exams?" There was a strong intimation that this question was highly in doubt.
"Yes, I passed all my exams," said Manjyome through clenched teeth. "See, unlike some members of my family, I actually know how to duel."
Juudai and Shou glanced at each other and remembered that they had somewhere else to be. They were out the door and gone before Manjyome even had time to glare at them.
"I wouldn't take that tone of voice with me, Jun," said Chosaku. "See, we're going to be seeing you again really soon, and I don't want us to get off to a bad start."
"Save yourself the trouble. I don't want to see your face, and you don't want to see me. I'm staying on the island. I've already asked permission, so there."
"You're not staying," said Chosaku, with an edge creeping into his voice. "The last thing we want is you running around unsupervised and embarrassing the family any more than you already have. You are coming home for summer break, and you are going to behave. Someone has to keep an eye on you, and that school of yours isn't doing a good enough job."
"Nothing doing," Manjyome snapped. There was no way on earth he was spending the school holiday, short though it was, trapped in the same building as his brothers. He didn't want to spend five minutes with them if he could help it. "I'm not going and you can't make me."
"Now, now, don't be like that. I don't want this to get ugly," said Chosaku. "I am still your legal guardian, and I do have a say in your life. For example, I can pull you out of duel school, and all the money in the world won't buy your way back in. Do you want to make me do that, Jun? Because I will if you push me."
Manjyome winced. Unfortunately, Chosaku was right - Manjyome had his own money, but he couldn't stay in school without his guardian's signature on the forms. He supposed he might be able to forge something, but... why risk a scene? If it came down to a choice between spending a week with his loving family or leaving Duel Academia forever and going to a school of his brothers' choosing (or worse yet, being home schooled) there was really no choice to be made.
"Well, if you're really so afraid of me ruining your reputation that you won't feel safe unless I'm close by, then I guess I might as well do it just to make you feel better."
"Don't get smart, Jun. That's a bad way to start your trip home. We'll be there to pick you up in a couple of hours, so don't go anywhere."
"I won't, I won't," Manjyome muttered. "I'll just sit right here and wait." Privately he wasn't sure he liked the idea of cluing his brothers in that he was living in a glorified shack, but it amused him to think of his immaculate siblings in their impeccable suits and neatly groomed hair (how had he missed out on the good hair genes?) wandering around in this creaky old building and tripping over the cat looking for him. No way in the world was he going to come out and meet them.
"Good," said Chosaku, and that was all.
Manjyome threw the phone across the room, and the batteries popped out and rolled off somewhere. He was a little sorry he hadn't broken it. He spat out an edict that he would not have dared to say had his brother actually been listening, and then slunk out of the room.
Being outside felt a little better. Juudai and Shou had vanished, and the area outside Osiris Red was pleasantly quiet and uncluttered, a nice change from his overstuffed room. If he had to go home, at least he would enjoy the last couple of hours he had on the island before he found himself confined to the family home for a week. Maybe he'd hit the card shop and see if there was anything left there to buy (he'd heard talk of a clearance to get rid of some of the older booster packs to make room for next semester's stock). Or maybe he'd just walk. He could go somewhere - to the lighthouse, or up on the volcano, or into the forest, or anywhere - just so he could be an inconvenience by making his brothers have to search the island for him. Maybe if they couldn't find him, they would just forget about this nonsense about going home and leave him here.
Right. And maybe the Ojamas would start wearing suits and ties.
Well, he'd feel better if he was out and moving around, anyway. It would make him feel a bit less like he was just tamely waiting to be led off to prison, even if the prison he was going to had servants and a private movie theater and an indoor pool. At least here he was more or less free to do as he pleased without anyone breathing down his neck. There was no head of Osiris dorm to enforce the rules on him, and he was so far behind in everything that the teachers didn't even much care if he went to class or not anymore. He mostly did anyway, but still, it was sometimes very liberating to have no expectations.
On the other hand, there had been good things to say about Obelisk Blue, too, which he sometimes found himself missing. Some of his old dorm-mates might not be happy to see him there again, but Asuka was there, and Fubuki, and he even suspected that the Kaiser might stand up for him at a pinch. He'd always seemed like a decent sort, if a bit aloof. And the food was better, and the rooms weren't so cramped. Perhaps it was those half-conscious, wistful thoughts that turned his steps in the direction of his old dorm. Even as he passed into its shadow, he hardly noticed it was there, his mind being concerned with far more vital concerns.
Okay, so I have to go home. I'm not getting out of that. Maybe I can at least think of something to make it bearable. It would be okay if I just didn't have Chosaku and Shoji looming over me the whole time. If only I had some excuse to be out of the house all day... nah, they'd see through that in a minute. What I really need is a distraction - something that will occupy all their attention so they aren't bothering me. Hm. What would be distracting...
Before he could pursue that line of thought very far, he found himself distracted. There were strains of music floating on the air, and he stopped and listened a moment. Someone was playing a guitar and singing, and he thought he recognized the voice. Intrigued, he followed the sound around to the back of the building, where he found roughly what he thought he'd find: Fubuki was sitting on a picnic table and strumming, crooning out the words to some ballad of love. The meaning was hard to discern, but it seemed to have something to do with the singer saying that he didn't have the money to buy the girl expensive gifts but that she ought to come away with him anyway because he loved her and that was worth more than anything. The lyrics had a distinctively Fubuki-ish sound to them, and Manjyome had a suspicion that the boy had written them himself. He couldn't catch every word from where he was, but he thought he heard the word "diamonds" repeated several times. It sounded as if Fubuki had been unable to think of a word that rhymed and so just kept using it over and over. Despite any poetic lack, the song still appeared to have captivated a number of the local girls, who sat on the benches of the picnic table or knelt in the grass, listening with dreamy expressions. Manjyome stood in the shadow of a large shrub, staring at Fubuki in his Hawaiian shirt, warbling love songs.
Hmm... I wonder...
The song ended, and immediately a sea of girls surged up around Fubuki, begging him to begin again, but he laughed and brushed them away, saying something about not overdoing a good thing. Seeing that this would be a good time to interrupt, Manjyome began easing closer to the group and trying to catch Fubuki's eye. He was eventually rewarded by a sunny smile, and Fubuki abandoned his stage to come and chat with his favorite protege.
"Manjyome-kun!" he greeted, chummily slinging an arm over the younger man's shoulders. "All ready for summer break?"
"Kind of," said Manjyome. Usually he would not have cared to have people put their arms around his shoulders that way, but he minded the gesture less when Fubuki did it, and he wasn't about to make a fuss over it now. "Shishou, can you do me a favor? Pleeeeeeeease? It's just a small thing but it's really, really important."
"Sure, Manjyome-kun! I can always do a favor for you!" Fubuki answered cheerfully. He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Does this have anything to do with Asuka?"
"Not today. Maybe later," said Manjyome.
"Pay attention," said Manjyome with frayed patience. He still worshiped Fubuki and knew he was brilliant in his way, but he had to admit his "master" didn't always seem to be completely plugged in. "I want to know if you'll come stay with me over summer break. Please?" He tried to make his eyes go wide and pleading. It wasn't something he had a lot of practice with, but he thought he'd give it a go.
"Hm... I don't know," said Fubuki. "I'd really like to, but I haven't been home in a long time. My family might not like it."
"It would make me happy," said Manjyome. He continued his attempts to look pitiful.
"Aww, don't worry! It'll be okay!" Fubuki said hurriedly; he looked a bit as if he might cry. "Listen, let's ask Asuka. If she thinks it'll be okay, it'll be okay. She's smart like that."
"Oh. Okay," said Manjyome, but inside, his stomach gave an uneasy lurch. He hadn't been able to look Asuka in the eye since that debacle with the seven keys. He wasn't sure she'd be willing to share her brother with him over summer break after what happened last time the two of them spent any significant amount of time together. Besides, talking to Asuka meant, well... talking to Asuka.
But it was too late to change his mind, because already Fubuki had grabbed him by the arm and was hustling him off towards the dorm.
"Er... boys kind of aren't allowed in the girls' quarters without supervision," said Manjyome.
"I'm allowed to visit Asuka. She's my sister," said Fubuki. "They wouldn't stop a guy from visiting his sister."
"Well, no, I guess not, but..."
"And a guy isn't going to let some other guy take advantage of his sister," Fubuki continued.
Manjyome rather doubted that was true, at least in this particular case. Well, maybe he wouldn't let anyone take advantage of Asuka, but if she were willing, well... she and Manjyome could start ripping their clothes off in front of him, and Fubuki would just smile and wander out into the hall to give them some privacy. If he didn't try to join in... No, no, that was the wrong thing to be thinking right this second. Mind on business!
Fortunately, it seemed the teachers were too busy grading exams to keep up with any stray boys that might have wandered into the wrong side of the dorm, for Fubuki and Manjyome passed through unmolested. They arrived at Asuka's door, and Fubuki flung it open without any preamble. Asuka was standing beside her bed, putting clothes into a suitcase. Manjyome caught a glimpse of something satiny and lacy in her hands before she quickly shoved it into the suitcase and shut it, her cheeks faintly flushed. He quickly looked at the floor.
"Fubuki! Don't burst in here like that!" she exclaimed. "Especially not when you've got other people with you!"
"What?" said Fubuki. "Don't tell me you're all embarrassed just because he saw your panties!"
"Fubuki!" she said warningly.
"I mean, it was bound to happen sooner or later..."
"Fubuki, I'm warning you..."
"Don't make her angry!" Manjyome begged. He wished there was a way to tell her that this really wasn't his fault, and then realized that it didn't make any difference if it was or not.
"Oh, you're right, you're right," said Fubuki, nodding wisely. "Sorry, Asuka." Then he looked at Manjyome, his expression perplexed. "What did I do, anyway?"
Asuka sighed. "Just knock next time. So, what is it you boys want?"
"Er, we had a favor to ask," said Manjyome. "A small one. Really small."
"Not even so much a favor as a question," Fubuki chimed in.
"All right. What is it?" Asuka asked warily.
"Manjyome-kun wants to know if I can spend summer vacation with him," her brother answered. "I just wanted to know if you thought it was a good idea."
"Hm. I don't know. You've been away from home so long already..."
That didn't sound good. Manjyome realized he would have to take matters into his own hands, despite all personal risks.
"Maybe you would understand better," he said delicately, "if I explained it to you privately."
"Oh," she said, looking somewhat baffled. "Okay... Fubuki, a minute, please?"
"Hey, if you two want to be alone together, don't let me stop you!" he said cheerfully, and stepped out of the room. Asuka rolled her eyes but didn't bother to correct him.
"Okay," she said when he was gone. "What is this all about?"
"My brothers are telling me I have to spend the summer with them," Manjyome said, "and they won't take no for an answer. They'll be here in a couple of hours to drag me back with them. They'll spend the whole week watching every move I make to make sure I don't do something to embarrass them again, and it's going to be torture. I want Fubuki to come with me to keep them distracted. Nobody can pay attention to anything else while he's around."
"I see," she murmured. "Well, you're right about that - he is distracting. So how come you haven't told him that?"
"I don't think he knows about my brothers yet," said Manjyome. "He was kind of out of it the last time they were here. I don't know if I want to have to explain all of that to him. I don't even know if he'd get it."
"You might be right," said Asuka. "Well... you deserve to have a good summer vacation. I guess we could call home and say Fubuki's staying with a friend for a while. He hasn't got a lot of close friends, so the family might be glad to hear it."
"So you think it'll be okay?"
Asuka smiled. "I think it will be just fine."
"I wish I could hug you right now."
"I'll settle for a thank you," she answered. Turning back towards the door, she called, "Fubuki! You can come back in now."
"Done already?" he said as he opened the door. He sounded a little disappointed.
"We came to a decision," said Asuka. "Go ahead and leave with Manjyome-kun. I'll make your excuses for you. Just be sure to call home and let everyone know you're doing okay and you'll come home to visit some other time, all right?"
"You got it!" Fubuki agreed. "When do we leave?"
"In... about an hour," said Manjyome, glancing at his watch. "Get packing."
"You boys have fun. Call and tell me how it goes, all right? Both of you!" said Asuka.
"Will do! Bye, Asuka-chan!" said Fubuki.
"Bye," said Manjyome, and then, quietly, "Thanks."
As they emerged into the hall, "This is going to be fun! I've never slept over at someone's house before. Oh, hey, I've got something for you. I filched it from Asuka's suitcase while she wasn't paying attention." He handed Manjyome a piece of soft, lacy fabric. Manjyome stared at it and felt himself blushing.
"This... this is Asuka's bra."
Fubuki grinned. "Just my way of saying thanks."
"There is something seriously wrong with you somewhere," said Manjyome. "But thanks anyway." He tucked the prize under his jacket. After all, there was really no way he could give it back now without embarrassing everyone involved. For the first time, he began to think that he might actually enjoy his summer break.
Chosaku and Shoji were standing in front of the helicopter, uncharacteristically silent. They were staring. Manjyome was pleased to see that their stares went straight past him and landed squarely on the young man standing next to him - the one wearing purple sunglasses and an electric blue shirt with vivid pink flowers on it, and who had a guitar slung over his shoulder.
"What is that?" said Shoji at last.
"This is Fubuki Tenjoin. He's my friend," said Manjyome. "I told him he could spend summer break with me."
"We didn't say you could bring anyone with you," Chosaku replied.
"You didn't say I couldn't, either," Manjyome retorted. He hefted his bag and looked at Fubuki. "Come on, get in."
Fubuki began walking toward the helicopter. He walked between the two elder brothers, who stood aside to let him pass, rather as if they were afraid to touch him. He beamed at them.
"Thanks for letting me come visit," he said.
Neither brother said anything. Fubuki opened the door and climbed inside, and still nobody said anything. Manjyome glided serenely after him, staunchly resisting the urge not to smile. He had never seen his family looking quite so much at a loss. He got into the back of the helicopter and shut the door behind him. It was a few moments longer before his brothers finally made it back into the aircraft with him, and it amused him to imagine just what they had been thinking as they stood there on the dock trying to work out a reaction to Fubuki.
"Quiet, aren't they?" said Fubuki.
"They're just shy because they don't know you," Manjyome told him.
"Ahh, I see! Okay! I'll remember that," said Fubuki, nodding agreeably. Manjyome stifled a chuckle as he imagined Fubuki's attempts to make friends with Shoji and Chosaku. It was bound to make a good show, whatever happened, but it was going to have to wait until later. The older brothers had confined themselves to the front of the chopper and didn't show any signs of wanting to come back and check on their guest. Fortunately the helicopter was as comfortably furnished as such a thing could be, so once it was properly in the air, Manjyome went to a small fridge and pulled out a couple of canned drinks and passed one to Fubuki. Might as well make the trip in comfort.
"Thanks, dude," said Fubuki. "You've got a nice ride here. Do you guys always travel this way?"
"Eh, sometimes we take a plane. I kinda destroyed the boat, but they've probably got a new one by now."
"You broke a boat? How did you do that?"
"I just borrowed it for a while, and it sank!"
"You sank it?" Fubuki repeated. "Rock on! That must have been exciting."
"It was kind of wet," said Manjyome. "Cold and wet."
"Well, still. Not every day you get to sink a ship and get away with it."
Manjyome didn't reply, and covered his silence by opening the soda and taking a long drink from it. Fubuki, whose attention span never lasted long anyway, picked up his guitar and began to play a tune on it.
"This is my new song. You like it?"
"Yeah, It's great." It was the same one Fubuki had been regaling the girls with earlier.
"Thought so. Hey, Manjyome-kun, do you play any instruments?"
"Umm... I did have some piano lessons when I was a kid..." Not that he'd learned them very well, but he'd taken them, when he couldn't get out of them.
"Great! We can start a band!" Fubuki said.
Manjyome didn't see himself being in a band any time soon, but he didn't object because he knew his brothers were listening. Instead, he listened to the music and sang along as best he could, just to be annoying. Fubuki seemed very pleased by his cooperation. Manjyome had to admit that despite the simplistic lyrics, it was a catchy song. He sang loudly, hoping it would get stuck in his brothers' heads. They staunchly ignored him.
Eventually Fubuki got tired of singing and turned his attention to staring out the windows, which thoroughly baffled Manjyome, as there was nothing out there but water to look at. That didn't seem to bother Fubuki; he babbled happily about surfing and jet-skiing without seeming to care if Manjyome knew what he was talking about or not. That was just as well, because he might as well have been speaking Martian for all Manjyome understood. He nodded and made encouraging noises and sipped at his drink, trying to seem like this was all very commonplace.
At last, the helicopter touched down on the family's private airstrip, which was just within view of the main house. Fubuki bounced out as soon as the door was opened, apparently not at all taxed by the long trip, while Manjyome and his brothers got out in more dignified fashion. Servants appeared as if they had sprung out of the ground to start collecting Manjyome and Fubuki's luggage. Fubuki looked around eagerly.
"How are we getting to your place?" he asked. "Is there going to be a car or something? I always wanted to ride in a limo."
"That's my house up there," said Manjyome, pointing.
"Dude," said Fubuki. "You live in a seriously big house."
Manjyome shrugged. "It's not that much bigger than the Obelisk dorm."
"Yeah, but that's a dorm."
"This way," said Chosaku impatiently, and began waving the boys towards a pathway. Manjyome started, and then stopped again - Fubuki had gotten into a minor altercation with a servant who was trying to relieve him of his guitar. Manjyome intervened and assured his friend that the instrument would be safely delivered to his room, and that he didn't think it would get out of tune just because someone other than Fubuki carried it for a short distance. Eventually Fubuki consented, and the group marched up the path - Fubuki frolicking ahead, Manjyome walking resolutely behind him, and the two elder brothers bringing up the rear, making sure Manjyome didn't escape. Manjyome pretended to ignore them.
When they reached the house, Fubuki looked around admiringly - not gawping, but simply as if he rather liked the scenery, and was perhaps considering buying the place. Chosaku and Shoji looked mildly put out by his lack of awe.
"You!" Shoji snapped at a passing servant. "Show this boy to the guest apartments and get his things put away. We need to have a talk with Jun."
Uh-oh, here it came...
"Okay!" said Fubuki. "See you later, Manjyome-kun!"
"Yeah, bye," Manjyome replied waving weakly.
As soon as he was gone, Chosaku collared Manjyome and glared down on him.
"What in blazes is going on here?" he demanded. "Tell me what asylum you dredged that lunatic out of, and what makes you think we're going to let him stay here?"
"He's not a lunatic," Manjyome lied staunchly. "He's one of the best duelists in school. He's a third-year Obelisk - they say he's the only one in the school who ranks with Kaiser Ryou Marufuji. They don't come any better than that."
"So that's what it is," said Shoji. "You can't manage to be a decent duelist, so you just suck up to one instead."
"I don't suck up," Manjyome snapped. "He hangs out with me because he likes me."
"He's an idiot," Chosaku said.
"He is not!" said Manjyome. He thought, He writes music, and he can get in and out of anyplace on campus when he's not supposed to be there, and he always knows exactly what to say to girls. And he can duel.
"You're not one to judge," Chosaku said. "But fine. Whatever. I just don't want to be the one to have to put up with him."
"Me either," said Shoji. "Just keep him out of my way."
"Gladly," said Manjyome, with perfect truth. If they didn't want to be near Fubuki, all he had to do was stick close to Fubuki and he'd have no problems.
"And keep him out of trouble," Chosaku added, "or I'm packing him up and sending him back where he came from!"
Fubuki? Out of trouble? That could be difficult. But on the whole, probably less difficult than dealing with Chosaku and Shoji. At the very least, he could buy some time.
"Guess I'd better go start keeping him out of trouble, then," he said, and turned and hurried off towards the guest rooms before they could think of anything else to say to him.
The guest rooms could have been a house all by themselves - Manjyome really had no idea why there were so many, since his brothers rarely invited guests over, and never enough to fill all this empty space. He harbored a vague notion that his parents must have been more sociable, but that area of his memory was blurry. In the meantime, he had to figure out exactly where Fubuki had finally ended up in all this, assuming he had actually stayed where he'd been put instead of wandering off on his own. Manjyome hadn't really been gone that long, but you could never tell with Fubuki...
Something tackled Manjyome from behind, nearly scaring him witless.
"Where were you?" he said, when he could breathe again.
"In there." Fubuki waved toward one of the rooms.
"But I looked in there already. You weren't there."
"I was in the closet."
Manjyome debated whether or not he actually wanted to know. He decided to ask anyway. "Why were you in the closet?"
"I was unpacking my stuff," said Fubuki factually.
"We have people who'll do that for you," Manjyome said.
"But then I won't know where they put it," said Fubuki logically.
"When you want something, you tell them to go get it."
"Wouldn't it be easier to get it yourself, than to go find someone and make them do it?"
Manjyome couldn't think of an answer for that.
"Let me show you around the house," he said.
"Awesome!" said Fubuki, ever agreeable. "Does this place have a pool?"
"It has three," Manjyome confessed. One indoors, one outdoors, and the new one Chosaku had installed two years ago that had the wave-action built in so he could practice his body-boarding in the winter without having to fly south.
Fubuki beamed. "I'm going to like it here!"
Heh, if only that's all it took! Wish I could be that happy here just because of the three stupid swimming pools, Manjyome thought.
Nevertheless, he'd made the offer and he had to go through with it, so he went about showing Fubuki the house, with the swimming pools and theater and grand ballroom and all the other things his family had seen fit to spend their money on. Fubuki took it in with the simple delight of a child on a trip to the playground. Manjyome got the distinct impression that he would look just as enthusiastic if Manjyome lived in a two-room hut in the middle of nowhere, just as long as it were somewhere new and different to him. It was almost fun, in a way - it had been a while since Manjyome had been to some of the corners of his house that he didn't use very often. It reminded him vaguely of when he was much younger, stuck indoors on a rainy day and looking for something to do, except that this time he was the one looking after the kid.
They were poking around the library (the one full of books hardly anyone ever read, but Chosaku liked to sit in when he was being interviewed or filming political ads because he thought it made him look intelligent) when a servant appeared.
"Dinner will be served shortly," he informed them. "Your presence is requested. You have ten minutes to prepare."
"Yeah, sure, we'll get right on it," Manjyome told him. He sighed a little, thinking he'd rather have rice and dried sardines back at Osiris Red, where he could have a table to himself. "Scram."
The servant scrammed. Fubuki looked a bit baffled.
"What did he mean, we have ten minutes to prepare?"
Manjyome prepared to explain to him that his brothers liked to observe the formalities, which meant that when Manjyome reported for dinner, he was expected to be clean, well- dressed, and probably wearing a tie. It was all right for them, since they were generally suited and tied when they came home from work anyway, but it had been one of the banes of his childhood to have to drop whatever he was doing and get spruced up for a meal, just in case some high- ranking political figure or financial wizard or media personage might end up being invited over. He looked at Fubuki, in his loud clothing, with glints of sand still showing on his skin from where he'd been surfing earlier in the day. He looked at himself in his tattered, weather-stained, threadbare, comfy old black jacket.
"It means we have to wash our hands," he said.
Ten minutes later, Manjyome walked into the main dining room with his head held high, still wearing his black jacket and acting as if everything were perfectly normal. After all, he'd been doing it for the last few months, and had gotten quite used to eating in this approximation of a uniform. Behind him, Fubuki ambled along looking not particularly normal. He still had his purple sunglasses perched on top of his head. Chosaku and Shoji, both already seated, looked up from their conversation and stared.
"I thought we sent someone to tell you to be ready for dinner," said Shoji.
"We are ready!" said Fubuki. "We washed our hands, see?" He held up his clean hands as proof. Three-quarters of his arms still showed faint glints of sand and sea-salt.
"I... see," said Chosaku. He looked at Manjyome. "And what is that you're wearing?"
"My school uniform."
"I thought the uniforms for that school only came in red, yellow, and blue."
"I'm special," Manjyome said.
"Right," said Chosaku, making a face. "Well, I don't feel like waiting any longer, so just sit down and eat already."
"All right! I'm starved," said Fubuki.
He grabbed an empty chair, and Manjyome sat down next to him, purposely keeping as far from his brothers as possible. He succeeded; it was a long table, and there ended up being several yards of space between the two duelists and the two masters of the house. When the servers appeared bearing the dinner trays, they found an interesting tableau: one end of the table occupied by two well-dressed adults, neatly groomed and scented faintly with expensive cologne, while the other end was balanced out by two boys who looked like they'd just gotten back from a long vacation. Manjyome concentrated on his food (which, he had to admit, was a vast improvement over what he got at school) and tuned out the conversation at the other end of the table. In turn, his family seemed to have decided the best way to cope was to pretend he and Fubuki weren't there at all, which suited him just fine. They talked to each other about potential ways of raising funds for Chosaku's next run for office. Fubuki listened in on them with a look of interest.
"So what is it you guys do, anyway?" he asked.
"Beg pardon?" asked Shoji.
"You must be doing something right to have a house like this," Fubuki persisted. "So... what do you do?"
"I'm in politics," said Chosaku tersely.
"Finance," said Shouji.
"Okay," Fubuki answered, "but what do you do?"
There was a tense silence. Manjyome kept his eyes on his plate, trying hard not to laugh. He'd always privately suspected that his brothers didn't know what they were doing, but it was nice to have his hunch reaffirmed.
At length, the brothers collected themselves and offered a rather vague explanation of the worlds of politics and finance while Fubuki listened patiently. When they were done, he said, "That sounds really boring."
The brothers stared at him with utter disbelief.
"I'd rather be a duelist," Fubuki continued. "Or a rock star. Or both! That would be a lot cooler."
"It doesn't matter if we're not cool," Chosaku blurted out furiously. "What matters is..." And then he stopped because Manjyome was spluttering as he tried desperately not to laugh at the outburst. Chosaku turned brilliant red.
"I didn't mean that the way it came out!" he protested.
That was too much for Manjyome. He jumped to his feet, choked out, "Bathroom!" and rushed for the door. He managed to make it out into the hallway before he broke loose and had the best laugh he'd enjoyed in years. If only he'd had a recording of that! He'd give up everything in his bank account for a good video of the look on his brother's face as he realized he's just implied he knew he wasn't "cool". If, in fact, Manjyome had exchanged his share of the family fortune for the hypothetical tape, he could probably earn it all back selling copies to Chosaku's political rivals. He made a mental note to start carrying a camcorder around, if he was going to spend any more time with Fubuki. Assuming his lungs held out. He managed to catch his breath, put himself back in some kind of order, and then walked back into the dining room, trying to look as if nothing had happened. He found he need not have bothered; his brothers had gone elsewhere, leaving their food half-eaten.
"Hi," said Fubuki, waving to Manjyome. "Your brother said he lost his appetite, and then they both left. I don't know what their problem is. Are they always this way, or what?"
"Usually. Don't let them worry you," said Manjyome, taking his place once more. "They're just very busy people."
"Ah. I see," said Fubuki. "Glad I'm never that busy. Hey, after dinner, how about we have a duel? I don't think you and I have ever gone head to head."
"Fine by me," Manjyome agreed, "but let's eat first."
Fubuki nodded agreeably and returned his attention to his food. His face bore an expression of serious thought, probably indicating that he'd already forgotten about Manjyome's "boring" brothers and was giving his mental energy to the upcoming duel instead. Manjyome was content with that. He ate his meal with more than usual enjoyment. For the first time in years, dinner in his home was perfectly peaceful.
Peaceful... with Fubuki around. Who would have thought?
Manjyome began his morning by resolutely sleeping in - not because he was lazy, but because he couldn't get away with it at school, and he was determined to take advantage of the few real benefits he got out of coming home. Besides, dueling Fubuki took a lot out of a guy, and they'd played several rounds. He'd won three out of seven, which wasn't so bad, really, when you considered Fubuki's ranking. Still, the guy had way too much energy, and it was nice to have some time to relax and think of nothing in particular...
Manjyome jolted out of bed.
"Whaaaaat?" he complained, glaring at the door. When it came to wake-up calls, he could think of better ways of doing things than to be yelled at by his oldest brother.
"That crazy friend of yours is in my pool!" Choasku complained.
"So what?" said Manjyome, slumping back into bed. "It's not like we don't have more."
"He is surfing in my wave pool. Get him out."
Ah, so that explained it. Somebody was mad because some other kid was playing with his toy. At any other time, Manjyome might have found it in him to be amused that Chosaku had immediately come running to him to deal with the situation, as if Fubuki were a dangerous dog that only Manjyome knew how to control, but right now he was mostly just irritated that it appeared he was now obligated to get out of bed and deal with the matter. He got up, put on his slippers, and shuffled out into the hall still wearing his pajamas and with his hair still unbrushed (not that it ever made a lot of difference if he brushed it or not). Chosaku waited for him in the hallway, looking even more out of place than his little brother amid the posh surroundings - he was still dressed in his swimming trunks and sandals.
"All right, I'm up," Manjyome told him. "Don't worry - I'll protect you from the big, bad surfer boy."
Chosaku just glared at him. The two of them made their way to the wave pool, and Manjyome stepped inside to see that Fubuki had indeed made himself at home, and had furthermore figured out how to start the wave mechanism. He was now gliding happily across the surface of the water, handling his surfboard like an expert. He caught sight of Manjyome and waved.
"Come on in! The water's fine!" he shouted.
"Not right now," said Manjyome. "Come over here - we need to talk."
"Okay!" Fubuki paddled over to the side of the pool and splashed onto dry land. "What's up?"
"Chosaku wants to use the pool now."
"There's room for both of us," said Fubuki.
"I know," said Manjyome, and added maliciously, "but you're a better surfer than he is, and he doesn't want to embarrass himself." There was some truth in that. Chosaku had taken up body boarding because he admitted he had to take some form of exercise to keep his figure, and it gave him something to talk about that would impress women at parties, but he did not, when it came down to it, have any outstanding talent. Fubuki surfed like he was aiming for a gold medal.
"I can give him lessons!" Fubuki offered.
Manjyome could see the muscles clenching in his big brother's jaw, and was once again sorry he didn't have a camera handy. He should definitely wake up earlier tomorrow so he'd be prepared.
"I don't have time for lessons. I just want to have my swim before I go to work," said Chosaku at last, "and I can't do that if I have to worry about being run over by a surfboard!"
"Oh, okay! Why didn't you say so? You didn't have to get Manjyome-kun to tell me that," said Fubuki. "I mean, it's your house. I wouldn't want to be a bad guest!"
Chosaku looked at him with disbelief.
"Well, see ya!" Fubuki patted Chosaku on the shoulder in a chummy sort of way, fished his board out of the water, and wandered away, leaving a trail of wet footprints in his wake. Chosaku wiped fastidiously at the damp spot where he'd been touched.
Manjyome judged that this was perhaps not the best time to be hanging around his dear brother.
"Going to get ready for breakfast now! See you later." He couldn't resist patting his brother on the shoulder as Fubuki had before he scampered off. He didn't quite have the courage to look back at Chosaku's expression, but he was willing to believe it was not pleased.
At least breakfast held no danger for him. The only really formal meal of the day was dinner; all the other meals were taken at everyone's own preference. Chosaku ate his early so he would have time for his morning swim; Shoji took his first meal in his study where he could pore over his newspapers in peace, and Manjyome, depending on his mood, either ate in the dining room where he could have the luxury of having it all to himself, or else ate in his own room, where nobody cared if he wanted to sit on the floor and sort his cards while he ate. Today he decided on the latter option, so he swung by the kitchen long enough to tell them what he wanted, and then ducked into his room to change into some actual clothes and to try to do something with his hair.
He was halfway through changing when he heard a knock on his door. Assuming it had to be his breakfast arriving (if it was one of his brothers, they would have just yelled) he went to open it. He was surprised to find Fubuki standing there, still in his swimming trunks.
"Now what?" Manjyome asked him.
"I forgot how to get to the dining room," Fubuki admitted. He gave Manjyome a quick look, and Manjyome had to fight back a cringe. He wasn't used to people walking in on him while he was shirtless. He really didn't have anything on Fubuki's enviably tanned, perfectly shaped surfer's body. "Nobody's told me where to get breakfast."
"Just hang out here a while," said Manjyome. "I'll make sure you don't starve."
"Thanks! You're a real pal." Fubuki flopped down on Manjyome's bed and made himself at home. Manjyome just sighed and started fishing through his closet for a shirt. There was a surprising amount to fish through; for someone who didn't care much about clothes, he'd certainly accumulated enough of them. Life was easier at school, where he was not only allowed but expected to wear the same thing all the time. He finally pulled out a selection (powder-blue silk) and started buttoning it on. Immediately Fubuki was on his feet again.
"Not that one," he said. He started trying to unbutton the shirt again, even as Manjyome continued stubbornly trying to button it.
"What's wrong with this one?" Manjyome demanded.
"It's the wrong color," said Fubuki. "You can't wear colors like that - makes you look all washed out. Doesn't agree with your skin tone."
"What are you, my stylist?"
"You want to impress girls, you've got to know how to dress."
"Says Mr. Hawaiian Shirt," Manjyome grumbled.
"Hey, I wouldn't tell you to wear one."
Manjyome sighed and gave up the fight to keep his shirt on. Fubuki was saying, "Go ahead and take your pants off, too," when the servant with the breakfast tray arrived, found the door open, and looked in to see what was going on. The two boys - one still wearing only his swimming trunks, and determinedly trying to get the other out of his clothes - looked back at him.
"Did you... want me to come back later?" he asked.
"No," said Manjyome deciding the best thing to do was not to dignify anything with an explanation. "Just go get another breakfast for him, too, and come right back."
"Yes, sir," said the servant. He set down the tray on the bedside table and hastened to make his exit.
"He's kinda jumpy, isn't he?" Fubuki said. "Is he new on the job, or what?"
"No idea," said Manjyome. "Guess he just wasn't expecting me to have company."
"I guess so. Anyway, now we get to have breakfast together, so that's okay. Now, let's see what we've got in here for you to wear..."
Fubuki burrowed into the closet, throwing out a stream of clothing the way a mole would toss out dirt. Manjyome stood and watched as most of his wardrobe ended up strewn across the floor - after all, he wasn't the one who had to clean it all up again - and found himself growing curious as to what he was going to eventually end up wearing. At last, Fubuki came up for air, with a few articles of carefully chosen clothing draped over his arm.
"You should wear this," he said, offering him a royal purple shirt. "Hm, what to wear with that... hmm, this might work..."
"Just let me know when I can get dressed again," said Manjyome resignedly. He was at least glad that he didn't have any embarrassing pictures on his boxers. Then again, anyone who wore the kind of shirts Fubuki did was hardly the sort to object to silly designs.
"This'll work," Fubuki said, taking out a pair of slacks in a cool shade of gray. "Brings out your eyes. When you've got a good color like that to work with, you ought to play it up."
"Do you read your sister's fashion magazines?" asked Manjyome.
"No reason. Just thought I'd ask," Manjyome said. "Just don't ask me to put on eyeshadow, okay?"
"Well, you would look kind of cute..."
"I'm joking, I'm joking!"
Manjyome decided the best course of action would be to shut up and get dressed. He tugged on the pants (when had he gotten these, anyway? He couldn't even remember wearing them before) and was just getting the shirt buttoned when the servant reappeared with the second breakfast tray. He looked into the room hesitantly, and appeared almost disappointed to find that other than there being clothes everywhere, and the fact that Fubuki was still in his swimwear, everything seemed fairly normal.
"Your breakfast... sir?" He didn't quite seem to know how to address Fubuki.
"All right! I was starving," said Fubuki, pouncing on the food. "Being in the pool makes a guy hungry."
"Ah. Yes, of course," said the servant. You could almost hear the mountains he'd been making crumbling back down to molehills. "I'll leave you to your meal, then."
Fubuki lost no time in attacking his meal, and Manjyome sat down nearby and settled in to eat at a more dignified pace. It had gotten a bit cold while he was busy playing dress-up, but he didn't have it in him to complain after everything else he'd been through in the last hour. He was going to sit still and be quiet a while, cold breakfast or not. Predictably, Fubuki finished firs and bounced to his feet. He walked back and forth, looking at Manjyome from all angles.
"Do you mind?" Manjyome asked irritably. "You aren't going to make me change my clothes again, are you?"
"Nah, the outfit's fine. It's just missing something," Fubuki replied. "You got any belts?"
Manjyome sighed and pointed at a drawer. Fubuki began rummaging through it and finally pulled out a silver chain belt and tossed it to him.
"There, that's what you need - something with a little sparkle," he said, "to balance out those dark colors."
"Sure. Whatever. Are you done now?"
"Yeah, I think so. Thanks for getting breakfast for me, but I'm going back to my room to change now. Later!"
He scampered off again, leaving Manjyome to do what he'd wanted to do in the first place: namely, eat his breakfast in peace and quiet. He finished at a leisurely pace, and then dumped his dishes and Fubuki's in the hallway, where one of the servants would find them later and carry them off to wherever dirty dishes went to be cleaned. Before he left his room again, he paused to admire himself in the mirror, and preened a bit. He did look like his clothes had been picked out by someone with taste, though not necessarily his taste. He slipped on the belt, mostly because he knew Fubuki would pester him about it if he didn't. He was beginning to realize that his friend was turning out to be a double-edged sword: he was just as capable of bringing trouble down on Manjyome as he was of irritating his brothers. Still, his brand of irritation was at least interesting, unlike anything Chosaku or Shoji was likely to come up with, which was bound to be tiresome at best and devastating at worst. Still, he wondered if perhaps his decision had been a little hasty...
He took one last look at his reflection (making a fruitless effort to make his hair behave) and prepared to leave the room. This time, he remembered to take his camera with him.
The rest of the morning passed with relative ease. Chosaku had gone off to work, which was a guarantee that at least half Manjyome's problems were avoided. He had no idea where Shoji had gone off to, but hopefully it was somewhere far away, or at least nowhere that Manjyome was likely to wind up. Fubuki seemed to have evaporated, which was slightly worrisome, but at least Manjyome had the honest excuse that whatever happened, he hadn't been there and knew nothing about it. He was free to spend his day in peace and quiet.
It was very boring, actually.
The problem, he had to admit to himself, was that he had gotten used to being at school. There was always a class he had to attend or homework he was supposed to be doing, or else he could generally find someone who didn't mind dueling with him, even if it was only Juudai. Somehow or another, there had always been something going on at Duel Academia. Around here, there was nothing. He prowled around the house, watched a little TV, pretended to read a book for a while, and then finally gave up and went back to wandering again.
His explorations were interrupted by the distant sound of music. The song wasn't one he recognized, but the jaunty tune made him think that it couldn't possibly originate from either of his sour-tempered brothers, which left only one likely candidate for its source. He followed the sound to the ballroom and found Fubuki sitting at the piano bench, strumming his guitar and humming to himself.
"Hey, Manjyome-kun!" he said. "I was working on a new song. Do you like it? I really think it expresses the essence of a first romance. You know, the innocence, the excitement, the nervousness..."
"All that?" asked Manjyome, a bit baffled.
"And it has a pretty good beat to it, don't you think?"
Manjyome decided not to even try to understand. "Yeah. Sure. It's great."
Fubuki beamed - and then, frighteningly, looked thoughtful, an expression that gave Manjyome a sudden urge to back slowly away and find some saner company. Like the Ojamas. They were weird but at least they were consistent.
"Hey, didn't you say yesterday that you could play the piano?" Fubuki asked.
Oh, great, here we go, thought Manjyome.
"I'm not good at it," he said. "It's just something they made me practice for a few years until they figured out I don't have the knack."
"But you can play a little bit, right?" Fubuki persisted.
"Uh... I can play 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat'."
"Can you play this?" Fubuki strummed a few chords on his guitar.
"Probably not." He probably could, but he didn't much feel like making the effort.
"Try anyway," said Fubuki.
He scooted over on the piano bench to make room for him. Manjyome, thinking that perhaps if he proved he couldn't do it then Fubuki would let it drop, sat down and stared at the row of keys. Gingerly, as if expecting he might be bitten or set off a trap, he rested his fingers somewhere in the neighborhood of middle C and plonked out a few notes.
"Wrong key," Fubuki informed him. "Scoot up a couple of notches and try again."
"I told you I'm not good at this," said Manjyome. His hands felt strange and clumsy, being forced to do this unfamiliar task. He was much more used to handling cards than piano keys. Nevertheless, a second try produced a somewhat more musical sound, and Fubuki nodded, pleased.
"Now you've got it!" he said. "Just keep on repeating those four chords. Like this." He played the whole thing again, but with a peppy rhythm to them this time, so that it sounded less like a jumble of random notes and more like a song.
"That's too fast! I can't keep up," Manjyome complained.
"Just practice. You'll get better."
Manjyome wanted to say that if it were that easy he might not have given it up in the first place, but then changed his mind. After all, he'd been bored already, and had nothing else to do, so he really had no excuse for not sticking around - not that it looked like Fubuki was going to listen to reason anyway. He repeated the sequence until he had it the way Fubuki wanted it - slowly at first, but then with more confidence. After all, it was just a few chords, nothing fancy. Any idiot could do it if they practiced enough, provided they had functioning fingers. He fell into a pattern without thinking about it. Then Fubuki began playing his guitar again, and Manjyome realized that somehow he'd been playing that diamond song without even knowing it. He stumbled to a discordant halt in surprise.
"Aw, what'd you stop for?" asked Fubuki. "You were doing so well."
"I didn't know you expected me to be making music!" Manjyome protested.
Fubuki gave him an odd look. "What else do you do with a piano?"
"I don't know! I just... never mind. Forget I said anything."
"Okay. Do you want to try again?" Fubuki asked. "C'mon! You could be a rock star! What do you say? The two of us could take the world by storm!"
"I doubt it," Manjyome muttered.
"Why not? You've got a stage presence. Everybody loves watching you."
"I'm going to be a duelist," Manjyome reminded him, but he started playing again anyway. He was gradually starting to remember how this was supposed to be done - apparently three years of lessons didn't completely go away. Just because it was a bit boring playing the same thing over and over again, he experimented with some variations, which seemed to please Fubuki, who sang happily and twanged at his guitar. It was actually sort of fun. Manjyome could almost understand why it was rare to find Fubuki without an instrument in his hand. He still wasn't about to run off and become a rock star, no matter what Fubuki said, but there was something rather satisfying in the fact that this music sounded good.
They were somewhere in the middle of the third verse when Shoji walked in, looking annoyed.
"Just what is all this noise?" he demanded peevishly. "I can hear you all over the house!"
"Just having a little jam session," said Manjyome mildly. He was careful not to even lose his place in the song; if it was annoying Shoji, he'd keep it up as long a he could. "Fubuki's teaching me to be a pop idol."
"...a what?" said Shoji.
"Don't you think it's a good idea?" asked Fubuki. "He's got the talent, he's got the looks, he's got the charisma, and most importantly, the passionate spirit! I don't see what could go wrong!" He beamed up at Shoji. "Go on - tell him what a good idol he'd make! He won't listen to me."
Well, this was an amusing situation! It wasn't every day Shoji was put into the position of having to pay his younger brother a compliment. Manjyome performed the trickiest variation he could manage on the tune he was playing, just to show what a good little pop star he could be if he wanted to, and waited to see whether his brother had the brass to openly insult him in front of a guest. Rough as they could be at times, they did still occasionally hold to such social conventions as being polite to guests, which was probably the only reason Fubuki hadn't been thrown out on his ear yet.
"I suppose," Shoji managed at last, "that if there is something he is suited for, he may as well do it."
"I'm glad I have your approval, big brother," Manjyome answered, so mildly that nobody would have recognized it as a put-down if they weren't already perfectly well aware that Manjyome didn't care whether they approved of him or not. "I'll be sure to keep it in mind."
Fubuki, obviously missing the subtext, just grinned as if he'd scored a point.
"Awesome," he said. "Hey, you don't play any instruments, do you? You could join us!"
"No, I don't think so," said Shoji frostily. "I have things I need to be doing - important things. So keep down the noise while I'm working."
He swept off. Fubuki gave him a rather sad look, shaking his head.
"Some people just don't appreciate art," he said.
"You said it," Manjyome agreed. "It comes from messing with numbers all day. Dries up your brain."
"Yeah, that must be it," Fubuki agreed. "Guess not everyone can be as cool as us, right?"
"You said it." Suddenly Manjyome felt a rush of gratitude that at least someone around here found his company worthwhile. "Hey, you want some ice cream? I could really go for some ice cream right now."
"Now you're talking!"said Fubuki. "Lead the way!"
Manjyome got up from the piano (he was surprised that he felt a little sorry to leave it) and escorted Fubuki to the kitchen. After all, he'd managed to successfully get away with annoying Chosaku and Shoji both in the same day without suffering any damage for it - Fubuki deserved a treat.
The two elder Manjyome brothers noticed that neither their young sibling nor his friend turned up for dinner that evening. When inquiries were sent, the reply came back that neither of them were hungry. Further investigation revealed that the two of them had gone into the kitchen, where between the two of them they had devoured what seemed to be an impossible amount of ice cream, cookies, and various other unhealthy goodies, and had then gone outside to work off the sugar buzz. Looking out the windows of the dining room, Chosaku and Shoji could see the two boys strolling side by side, chatting animatedly about something. Manjyome was doing most of the narration - from the gestures he was making, it looked as if he were reliving a particularly dramatic duel. He gestured as if drawing a card and pantomimed something massive appearing in front of him. He commanded the imaginary creature to attack, slapping his hands together to illustrate something being squashed, and Fubuki whooped with delight, as excited as if he were actually seeing the battle performed in front of him. Manjyome preened, plainly enjoying the admiration of the older boy.
"You know, I don't know what to make of that character," said Shoji, as the two boys wandered out of sight again. "He seems like such a nice boy. He's not rude, he's not defiant - he's actually very agreeable. He's cheerful, outgoing, friendly... I hate him!"
"So do I," said Chosaku. "You know what it is? It's that he's got no respect. He has absolutely no idea that he's in the presence of his superiors."
"You're right! That's exactly what it is," Shoji agreed. "He treats us as if we're his schoolmates. He asked if I wanted to be in a band with him, for pity's sake!"
"A band? You?"
Shoji gave him a deadpan look. "What's the matter? Am I not cool enough to be in a band?" Before Chosaku could be offended, he added, "He apparently thought Jun is. He's teaching him to play pop music on the piano. Jun told me they were having a jam session."
"I shouldn't be surprised," Chosaku said, sighing. "Do you know where I found that maniac this morning? Surfing, in my pool."
"Who gave him permission to do that?"
"No one - he just walked in and made himself at home, as far as I can tell."
"Inexcusable," Shoji muttered. "We are going to have to make it clear to Jun that he can't be allowing this kind of thing to be going on. He has to take some responsibility."
"You trust him to do anything? It's obvious he favors this boy - he'll let him get away with anything if we leave it up to Jun," Chosaku replied. "We should send the boy home."
"And let Jun think we can't manage to deal with one teenaged boy? The last thing we need is for him to start thinking we're threatened by his friends."
"Are we threatened?"
"No. We're taking precautions," said Chosaku. "The boy is a bad influence on Jun. He's teaching him bad habits and disrespect."
"And the piano," Shoji murmured.
Chosaku ignored him. "We're just going to have to teach him a lesson. He'll have to have to learn that there are some people who aren't fit to be associated with by people like us."
"How are we going to do that?"
"By giving him something for comparison purposes. It's one thing when he's here with no one but us, but if we put him out in public with this character and let everyone know exactly whose idea it was to drag him into our midst, the joke will be on him. He can't lie down with dogs like that without waking up to a few fleas."
Sometime later, Manjyome and Fubuki wandered back inside again - not because they particularly wanted to, but because a drizzling rain had blown in and Manjyome had not agreed when Fubuki said being outside in the rain wasn't so bad, really. They were still somewhat damp when they finally made it indoors, because Fubuki actually seemed to be enjoying it and was reluctant to go in where it was dry, so that Manjyome had to more or less drag him in, all the while nodding and pretending to be listening as Fubuki rhapsodized over the glory of nature. Owing to various differences in form and features, Fubuki still managed to look rather good while soaking wet. Manjyome's hair drooped and stuck to his face in odd ways, and the hems of his pants were a bit muddy. The two of them left a trail of wet footprints across the expensive carpet until they were intercepted by Shoji. He looked unusually cheerful. Manjyome began to worry.
"Hello, boys," said Shoji. "You look as if the weather has dampened your moods a little."
Oh, no, he's making jokes, thought Manjyome. This really can't be good.
Fubuki just laughed. "Nah, we're fine! Nothing like a walk in a summer rain to refresh the spirits!"
"That's good to hear," Shoji answered in a patronizing tone. "Wouldn't want you two getting sick just now. There's a big event coming up that I wouldn't want you two to miss."
"Event?" said Manjyome warily. "What kind of event?"
"Why, Jun, you sound so suspicious! I was just going to invite you to a party," Shoji replied. "Well, if you don't want to go, I'll bet your friend here would like to. You look like the kind of guy who appreciates a party," he said to Fubuki.
"Absolutely!" Fubuki agreed. "C'mon, Manjyome-kun! You aren't going to skip out on a party, are you?"
"Depends on what kind of party it is," Manjyome muttered.
"Oh, nothing fancy - just a few of our friends coming over for a little soiree," said Shoji.
Manjyome did some mental translations and decided that "friends" meant assorted politicians, a few investors, and at least three media personages. At least half of these would be wearing suits and talking about things that Manjyome knew very little about and had no desire to learn, and most of them would be working on subtle ways to insult each other. He preferred the company of other gamers, who, if they didn't like each other, could at least be counted on to go out and blast at each other with holographic monsters until a conclusion was reached. He liked that way of dealing people - it was much more straightforward and easy to understand. He was not sure how he felt about bringing Fubuki into the shark-infested waters of his brothers' choice of companions. It took some subtlety to deal with those people, and Fubuki had all the subtlety of a fireworks display.
"Great! Sounds good to me," said Fubuki.
"I don't think that's such a good idea," Manjyome told him. "It'll just be a bunch of old guys in expensive suits. It's going to be really boring."
"Well, in that case, you have to come with me," said Fubuki logically, "or it won't be any fun."
"That sounds like a reasonable decision to me," Shoji said. "I'll expect both of you to be there at seven o'clock tomorrow night. Don't be late!"
He walked off, still looking much too pleased with himself for Manjyome's comfort. Manjyome looked at Fubuki.
"You know," he said, "this party is probably going to be pretty formal. Maybe you'd better check and make sure you have something decent to wear, huh?"
"Good idea," said Fubuki. "See you later!"
He sprinted off, presumably to have some fun going through his clothes. Manjyome hoped his eventual choice would be something that would be halfway publicly acceptable, but he could worry about that later. Right now, he had other things on his mind. He raced off after his older brother. He caught up to Shoji and grabbed his arm.
"Keep your hands off my clothes," Shoji snapped. "I paid too much for this suit to suffer you putting your muddy hands on it."
"Hmph. If you're so worried about it, why are you wearing it at all? You're one of the slimiest people I know."
"That wasn't nice, Jun. You might make me angry if you keep talking like that."
Manjyome rolled his eyes. "It wasn't supposed to be nice. I don't care about being nice to you - especially not when you're pulling stunts like this. Don't think I don't know what you're up to."
"I'm not up to anything. Chosaku and I are preserving vital social contacts. It's good for business."
"Yeah, yeah, you're so worried about preserving vital social contacts, you've decided to throw a party and hand out invitations at the last minute, and just hope somebody turns up. And of course you're going to invite a little brother you don't like and a guy you don't even know, just for the hell of it. Sure. You're just hoping Fubuki will do something stupid and embarrass me, aren't you?"
"Now, why would I do a thing like that?" Shoji answered.
"Because you hate me and want to see me suffer."
"Oh, Jun, Jun, Jun! You know we don't hate you," said Shoji. "You would have to be important to us for us to hate you. We're just trying to teach you a few lessons about life so you can start working on turning around this downward spiral of yours."
"That's funny; I don't see a distinction," Manjyome said.
"That's your problem. Listen: you are going to the party and you are bringing your friend with you. That is not a point that is open for debate."
"Fine," said Manjyome. "See if I care. I don't care what you or your snooty friends think of me - or of Fubuki, for that matter."
"Then you shouldn't have a problem with this," Shoji said. "Goodnight, Jun - I'll see you at the party."
He shook himself out of his brother's grip and marched off. Manjyome let him go. He suddenly felt a great drop in his desire to associate with anyone, and escaped to his room as quickly as he could. When Fubuki came knocking at his door, he pretended to be asleep already until he went away. He could not, unfortunately, hide from his deck.
"You okay, Aniki?" asked Ojama Yellow, phasing into view.
"My brothers are throwing a party," Manjyome mumbled, "and I have to bring Fubuki."
"But... that's good, right?" asked Ojama Green.
"No, it's not. Anything with my brothers involved is bad automatically. Even parties."
"What's so bad about a party?" asked Ojama Black. "If you don't want to go, I'll go!"
"No, you won't. The only reason they're throwing a party at all is because they want me to bring Fubuki along. They're hoping he'll embarrass me enough that I'll stop hanging out with him." He sighed and flopped onto his bed, ignoring the fact that his clothes were still damp. "I don't know... I don't care what they think of me anymore. I definitely don't care what their stupid so-called friends think of me. But still... Fubuki's about the only guy in the world I actually like, and I don't want him to get laughed at. Maybe I should..." He hesitated, wondering if he was actually considering making such a sacrifice. "Maybe I should just send him home, before Shoji and Chosaku have a chance to make him miserable."
"Have you tried talking to him?" Yellow suggested.
"Nah, he wouldn't get it," said Manjyome. "He might not even believe me. His family likes him. I don't want him to know how messed up my life is - I don't want his pity. I just don't want him to think I'm a jerk for letting him get into this in the first place." He sighed again. "I hope nobody shows up at this stupid party."
Unfortunately, there were too many people in the world who couldn't resist a party, and too many more who couldn't resist public exposure: a fair portion of those who were invited to the festivities called back the next day saying that they would certainly be there. Manjyome had this information relayed to him over breakfast by a smugly smiling Chosaku, which thoroughly put Manjyome off his already weak appetite. His spirits were not raised a great deal by Fubuki's company, unusual though that was. Fubuki kept running in and out of his room, asking opinions on different outfits. At least there was some distraction to be had in convincing Fubuki that he really couldn't wear jeans with glitter on them to a formal party, nor was this a very good time to start considering new hairstyles, much less dye it. He settled for considering himself lucky that Fubuki wasn't asking if he could play his guitar and sing. However, any might relief that these distractions and small mercies might have given him was negated by the fact that his two brothers kept appearing at odd moments to give him an update of the guest list, or to tell him that the decorators had just finished, or that the caterers had arrived. This was nothing Manjyome needed to know or could do anything about; they were just doing it to watch him get annoyed. It was working rather well so far.
It was fifteen minutes before the party would officially start, but people who liked to get there first had already arrived and were checking out the buffet table, and Manjyome was lurking in his room wondering if he could possibly bring himself to arrange an accident for Fubuki so he could take him to the hospital instead of going through with all this. It didn't seem very likely, but he could hope.
There was a knock on his door, and he glared, thinking that it was one of his brothers, come to drag him off. Instead, Fubuki bounded in. He appeared to have finally settled on an outfit: a royal blue shirt made of something that shimmered, and a pair of black slacks with a silver chain belt. Manjyome figured it was probably asking too much for him to show up at a party with nothing sparkly at all. Fubuki's hair had a distinctive ruffled look that came from pulling shirts on and off.
"I finally got it right!" Fubuki declared proudly, and then looked at Manjyome in concern. "Are you really wearing that?"
Manjyome gave him a deadpan look. "No, I'm going naked."
"But..." Fubuki seemed to need a moment to work out that his friend was being sarcastic. "But that's your school uniform."
"Uniforms are acceptable as formalwear. Look it up if you don't believe me."
Fubuki did not look convinced.
"At least get rid of the jacket. And change your shirt. I'll get you a shirt; hang on."
Before Manjyome could object, Fubuki had disappeared again. Manjyome sighed, decided things couldn't get any worse so it wasn't worth the effort of fighting, and stripped off his jacket and shirt. Fubuki reappeared moments later and tossed him something satiny and deep red. He held it up and realized that besides the color, it looked almost like what Fubuki was wearing. There were enough slight differences to persuade him that Fubuki hadn't actually bought the same shirt in two different colors, but the similarity of the material, added to the fact that they were both wearing black slacks, was enough to make them look like they were playing on different teams for some odd sport. Or perhaps like they were the entertainment of the evening.
Well, that's what we are, I guess, he thought. Resigned to his fate, he buttoned on the shirt. It was a little large on him, since it had been originally intended for Fubuki's more muscular frame, but it looked all right when he tucked it in. He had avoided wearing red for some time, simply because it might have been construed as showing some loyalty to his dorm-by- default, but he fleetingly thought it wasn't a bad color on him before he quickly went back to thinking about more important things.
"Ready to go?" asked Fubuki eagerly.
"Yeah, but you aren't. Go brush your hair."
Fubuki ran a hand through his ruffled locks. "Oh. Ha, right. Forgot about that! Okay, see you in a minute."
"I'll meet you there," said Manjyome. He set out slowly, unwillingly, but determinedly towards the ballroom.
Most of the other guests had arrived at this point, and were busy sipping their drinks and mingling with the crowds, attempting to be noticed by the media people if they were important, and attempting to be noticed by someone important if they weren't. Manjyome didn't fall into either of these categories. He made a beeline to the refreshment table - he'd been too irritated and too distracted most of the day to do much in the way of actual eating, and now he was starving. His mission as he saw it was to snag a plate full of whatever his family had ordered in the way of food (at least the caterers they hired were usually good), fill a champagne glass with ginger ale, make a lap around the room to make sure his brothers saw he was actually at the party, and then hide behind a rented potted plant for the rest of the evening, or until his brothers got plastered and/or slipped off to become more intimately acquainted with one of the female guests. That had always been his survival tactic in the past, on the rare occasions when he got roped into these things, and it generally worked well for him. He wasn't quite sure, yet, how he was going to work Fubuki into the pattern, but he'd think of something. Maybe he could find a good vantage point where he could keep watch over him and bail him out if anything went wrong.
Anyway, time to begin with the attention-avoidance tactics! He scanned the room, making sure that his brothers were occupied and weren't about to swoop down on him and ask where Fubuki was. Chosaku was talking to an important-looking man with gray hair and a suit - Manjyome vaguely recognized him as being some political personage, though he was at a loss to remember which one or whose side he was on. In another corner of the room, Shoji appeared to be chatting up a blonde woman in a much-too-tight pink dress. She had a nice body (though it was debatable whether all of it was real), but Manjyome preferred girls who acted a little less desperate. He had a brief fantasy of bringing Asuka to one of these parties. She'd outshine every woman here. Of course, Fubuki might shine, too, if only because of the material his shirt was made of...
Mind on business! He seized on a paper plate and began piling it with cashews, shrimp cocktail, bits of fruit on frilly toothpicks, and crackers with pieces of cheese and artistically cut vegetables stacked on them, and studiously avoided the caviar and the liver pate. Who ate that stuff, anyway? He was just about to get his drink when he noticed a slight disturbance at the other end of the room. He could guess without having to look: Fubuki had made his entrance. Fortunately, he seemed to have been noticed by the unattached ladies first, and he was busy working his magic on them in his usual ingenuous way. He could probably stay safely occupied with that for a while. Certainly the girls at school never seemed to get bored of his companionship.
There, see? I brought him to the party. He's doing fine. He hasn't done anything crazy yet. He's not dressed as a ninja, or carrying a surfboard, or playing the ukelele. He's behaving like a reasonably normal, sane person at a party. Can I go now?
Knowing that the answer was probably "no", at least for the time being, he started for his favorite hiding place. He paused only long enough to make sure his brothers knew he was there (it would have been fun to draw their attention by making rude gestures at them, but he stifled the impulse) and waving to Fubuki from a safe enough distance that he wouldn't feel compelled to abandon his lady admirers, assuming they would let him go. Then he ducked out of sight to devour his meager repast and wait for everyone to go away. He liked crowds, but only when they were there to pay attention to him.
There was a safe spot near the window, where a decorative column and a potted plant conspired to create a shadowed spot where he could hide for a while, assuming no one tried to slip back there and make out, or cut some shady deals, or whatever it was these people did while no one was watching. Hopefully if he ate quickly, he could be finished and ready to move if anyone came his way.
Probably nobody is looking for me anyway, he told himself. No, that would be too easy. They're all watching Fubuki to see what he's going to do next.
Speaking of which...
Having polished off his platter of party food, Manjyome was just debating the merits of stepping out for a retread, when he was accosted unexpectedly by none other than the guest of honor.
"There you are!" said Fubuki. "Come on over here - I need you for a minute."
"For what?" Manjyome asked.
"Just come on!"
Those were never good words. Reluctantly, Manjyome let himself be dragged out of his safe hiding place and out into the mob of people who had already been convinced that he was the degenerate in the family and fit only to be sneered at, if they knew who he was at all. Hopefully whatever Fubuki wanted him to do wouldn't take too long...
"Here, sit down," said Fubuki cheerfully, pointing to the piano bench.
"No," Manjyome said. "Definitely not. Not going to happen!"
"Don't worry - I brought my guitar. You just have to play backup," Fubuki answered, as if that made it all right.
"Don't be shy! You'll do fine! Anyway, I promised I'd play my song. You don't want me to break my promise, do you?"
"Play by yourself!"
"Aw, c'mon. Pleeeeeease?" He gave Manjyome a childlike, pleading look; Manjyome half-expected him to follow up with the child's ultimate bargaining chip: "I'll be your best friend!" Instead he settled for looking sweet and pitiful, which worked entirely too well for someone his age.
Don't you understand anything? This isn't like school! These are important people, and acting like a clown in front of them is not going to work the way you think it will!
And then he decided, To hell with it. He was tired of stressing about it, and anyway, he really couldn't make himself look any worse in front of his family than he already did, so really, who cared? He would rather Fubuki think well of him any day. He sat down at the bench and flexed his fingers.
"Ready when you are," he said.
After that, there was nothing to do but play along, and if he was going to play along, he might as well go all out. While Fubuki warbled happily away, Manjyome hammed it up to the best of his ability and pretended he actually knew how to play the piano and wasn't just mimicking what he'd been taught. He sang along with the chorus, too. He might get thrown out of the house after this, but at least he'd go out with a bang.
At least the audience seemed to like it. Several people had stopped what they were doing to listen, gathering around the piano to listen better, nodding in time with the music. When the song ended, a few people called for them to play it again. Fubuki looked to Manjyome, who nodded, and they broke into an encore presentation. If this was what it was like being a pop star, it wasn't all bad.
They had just reached the bridge bit where Fubuki stopped singing and played some fancy variations on his guitar instead, when Shoji and Chosaku broke in, looking irritated. Manjyome wondered briefly if they looked so annoyed because Fubuki had lured away all the young, attractive women (and a few who were neither), and decided it was safer not to ask... until later, maybe.
"What in blue blazes is going on here?" Chosaku demanded.
"You see? You see this? I told you he was teaching him to do this," said Shoji, not entirely intelligibly. His skin looked a trifle flushed; it was possible he had been hitting the champagne harder than he should have.
"Hi!" said Fubuki cheerfully. "How do you like our opening number?"
"Just what do you think you're doing?" asked Chosaku, completely ignoring Fubuki. He fixed Manjyome with a death glare.
"Playing the piano," said Manjyome mildly. "I'm learning new talents."
"Who gave you permission to play the piano now?" Chosaku snapped. "This is not your private party to do whatever you want at."
"Oh, leave the boy alone," said a portly gentleman with an impressive mustache. "He's not doing any harm."
"Eh?" Chosaku looked a little surprised, as if he hadn't realized the man was there. Manjyome guessed whoever this fellow was, he was probably someone influential.
"These boys are the best entertainment you've ever had at one of these parties!" the mustached gentleman continued. "If I were you, I'd make them a regular feature. What are your names, boys?"
"Fubuki Tenjoin!" said Fubuki proudly.
"Jun Manjyome," Manjyome mumbled.
"Oh, you're the youngest brother? Why haven't I seen you before?"
Manjyome shrugged. "I've been going to school."
"He goes to Duel Academia with me!" Fubuki put in. "You ought to see him duel sometime! He's really good!"
"Is that so?" the man murmured. "Well, isn't that something? I'm a bit of a fan, myself. Watch all the games on television, you know. If you ever need a corporate sponsor in the Pro Leagues, look me up. Both of you!"
He handed business cards to both boys, and wandered off to get another drink. Manjyome gave his brothers his most angelic look.
"Can I go back to playing the piano now?" he asked.
"Oh... do whatever you want!" Chosaku snarled.
He turned and stalked off. Shoji trailed after him, muttering something about needing another drink.
"What was that all about?" Fubuki wondered.
"They're just jealous," said Manjyome. "So... take it from the top?"
"Sure!" said Fubuki.
Manjyome smiled smugly as he started playing again. He agreed with the portly gentlemen: the entertainment at this party really was much better than usual.
As far as Manjyome was concerned, the party turned out to be an amazing success. The music was popular. A few people who were followed the dueling circuit asked him and Fubuki to go out into the courtyard to give a demonstration of their skills in battle. Despite the distracting presence of Fubuki, three of the younger women had attempted to give Manjyome their numbers, giving him the pleasure of telling them that sorry, he was already taken. Shoji and Chosaku found that instead of being in control of the situation, they were steadily losing everyone's interest in favor of their two young "guests of honor". After all, Fubuki had his irresistible charm and good looks to get him by, and even Manjyome had his own brand of charisma. What could they do to compare? The night ended with them both getting very drunk and slipping off to their rooms, alone, leaving the two boys as undisputed ringleaders. Manjyome didn't think he'd ever had so much fun at one of these parties - or perhaps any party. He was always happiest when everyone was paying attention to him.
Unfortunately, such things always came to an end. They also had to be paid for.
Despite the fact that he slept until almost noon the next day (he wasn't used to staying up so late, and so much socializing left him thoroughly exhausted), his brothers still seemed to be asleep when Manjyome got up and began thinking that maybe he shouldn't try to spend the rest of the day in bed. He wondered wistfully if maybe the party would be enough excitement to keep Fubuki happy for a while, and he could have a quiet day. Considering how hung over his brothers were likely to be, it was possible that they might just choose to stay in bed, or at least in their rooms, for the better part of the day, and leave him in peace. As long as nobody made too much noise, they probably wouldn't have the energy to come out and bother anyone. Of course, keeping Fubuki from making noise would be tricky, but maybe Manjyome could sneak him out of the house for a while.
He decided that he would prefer to take his breakfast in the dining room today, feeling he would prefer the feeling of spaciousness, after being crowded so much at the party. However, when he got there, he found that Fubuki had not only gotten there first, but was disgustingly wide awake and busily attacking a plate of eggs and bacon. Manjyome didn't think he could stomach that after making a meal on rich party food the night before, and picked up a muffin from a basket instead.
"Morning, 'jyoume-kun," Fubuki said with his mouth half-full.
"Is it?" Manjyome checked a clock. "I guess it is still morning... for another twenty-five minutes."
"Close enough! Aren't you going to eat breakfast?"
"I guess." A servant had appeared at Manjyome's elbow - he didn't always like their habit of coming upon him silently and asking if he wanted something - and he told her to bring him some toast and fruit. Fubuki did not look especially impressed by his choice.
"Man, you're going to starve," he opined. "So, what are we going to do today?"
"I don't know," said Manjyome, as he slathered strawberry jelly onto a piece of toast. "Maybe we'll go into town. I'm bored with just hanging around the house all the time."
"But you've got such a cool house!"
"Yeah, but it's not as cool if you live in it all the time," Manjyome pointed out. "I'd probably think your house was better than mine."
"So come visit us next time."
"I'll try, but no promises." Manjyome was thinking that after this, he'd be lucky if his brothers ever let him go anywhere with anyone, ever again, or at least until they ceased to be his legal guardians and they'd have no choice but to allow him to think for himself. "So I guess that means you don't want to go out?"
"Nah, it's cool. I'll bet you know all the hot spots."
"Not really," said Manjyome.
Fubuki grinned. "So let's find them!"
Manjyome sighed heavily. So much for getting some rest today.
So they went out. On the whole, it wasn't such a bad trip. Fubuki enjoyed the limousine (even if he annoyed the driver by insisting on pushing all the buttons to see what they did). After some consideration on the subject, Manjyome decided it was safest to take him to the mall and let him run around there, where there would be plenty of people and shiny things to keep him busy. There was bound to be something there that would entertain them both.
As it turned out, it wasn't so bad, really. They both gravitated in the direction of the arcade and the game stores, which was only natural for boys who had devoted their lives to gaming. Manjyome steadfastly refused to be dragged into any stores that sold clothing, but he did agree to go into the bookstore and look at comics with Fubuki. He'd had to be literally dragged into a music store, but Fubuki was insistent, so Manjyome stood ill at ease as Fubuki admired the fancy amplifiers and expensive electric guitars that were for sale. One of them prompted Fubuki to stand there and drool over it for so long and Manjyome finally gave up and bought it for him just so he could leave the store. Fubuki had been overcome with gratitude and made a bit of a scene, but that was all right, really - what fun was money if you had nobody to impress with it?
There proved to be enough diversions that they managed to wile away most of the day there, which was what Manjyome had wanted. He even consented to stop by a pizza place on the way home so they could have a reasonable excuse for skipping out on the formal dinner. If he could just keep on avoiding his brothers, it would be a perfect day...
They were waiting for him when he got home.
"Where have you been?" asked Shoji. He still looked slightly run down after a late night and some hard drinking.
"Shopping," said Manjyome tersely.
"Manjyome-kun truly possesses a noble and generous spirit," said Fubuki. "He paid for everything. Don't you think that was generous of him?"
"Sure," said Chosaku sarcastically. "Look, we want to talk to Jun privately, so go away."
"Don't bother," said Manjyome. "I'm not in the mood to talk." He turned and began to leave, but Shoji caught his arm and held him in place.
"We said we want to have a talk," said Shoji. "Tell your friend to go to his room and put his things away."
Well. It looked like there was no getting out of this now. Manjyome sighed; it had been so nice for a while, not having them threatening him.
"Go on," he said to Fubuki. "I'll catch up later, okay?"
Fubuki, looking bewildered, did as he was told. Once they were sure he was gone, Chosaku and Shoji seized on Manjyome and hustled him off to Shoji's office. Manjyome felt a sinking feeling; they only ever dragged him in there when they really wanted to lay into him. As soon as they were all inside, Chosaku shoved Manjyome into a chair, and Shoji shut the door.
"This has got to stop," he said.
Trying for bravado, Manjyome said, "Fine, then," and got up to leave. His brother's shoved him back into place.
"What he means," said Chosaku, "is that you have got to stop these - these shenanigans."
"Tell me what I've done wrong and I'll stop doing it," said Manjyome. "All I've done today is got to the mall. Is there some rule against going to the mall now?"
"You know exactly what the problem is, so stop playing stupid," Shoji snapped, "as if you would actually have to pretend. We're talking about what's going on between you and that insane... person you brought home with you."
"I don't get what you mean by 'going on between' us. We're just friends. All we've been doing is hanging out together. I don't see why you're making a big issue out of it."
"You aren't going to accomplish anything by acting this way. We all know what we're talking about," said Chosaku. "Let me put it another way: That boy is a bad influence on you. Stop dealing with him. Tell him there has been a problem and that he is going to have to go home."
"That's not the answer we want to hear," said Shoji.
"Well, that's my answer," Manjyome replied. "Deal with it. I'm sick of you telling me what to do and how to behave and who I can spend time with, and then chewing me out over it when I don't do everything the way you two want it done. Newsflash: I'm not you. I've got my own life and it has nothing to do with you, so just lay off already."
"Wrong again, little brother," said Chosaku. "You're still bound to us, and you owe us some respect."
"Why?" Manjyome snapped.
"Because," said Shoji, in the false-cheerful way that Manjyome hated, "you're our little brother! You're part of our family! That means everything you do - every mistake you make - reflects back on us. Like, for example, taking me on with that absurd zero-attack deck and making me look like a fool in front of Seto Kaiba. He could have been a valuable ally, but he's never going to take us seriously after that. You have proven time and time again that you are willing to make a mockery of us in front of anyone and everyone, and if you think we're going to let you get away with it..."
"So what has this got to do with... Fubuki-san?" said Manjyome, just barely stopping himself from calling him "Shishou". He was fairly certain that his brothers wouldn't like him calling the boy "master".
"He's a bad influence on you," said Chosaku. "He's teaching you to behave like a common teenaged hooligan, and it's got to stop - if not for the sake of your dignity, than for ours."
"You just don't like him because I listen to him more than I listen to you," Manjyome said. "Well, forget it. You've done everything you can think of to make me hate you - now you can deal with it. You can't have it both ways."
"This is not about whether or not you like us. This is about whether or not you obey us," said Shoji. "You don't need reasons. You have no excuse for arguing with us. We own you, and you will do as we say or suffer the consequences. And now we say that we do not like you spending time with this person, and you will tell him to leave you alone from now on. Is that understood?"
"I understand," Manjyome said sullenly. "I just won't do it."
"Then we'll have to make you do it," said Chosaku. "You've proven a failure as a duelist, so there's no reason to leave you in that school of yours..."
"No!" said Manjyome. He started to jump to his feet, but his brothers pushed him down again.
"Too late now, little brother," said Shoji.
"You blew it," Chosaku agreed. "No more chances. You're going to stay here with us until you learn how to behave. In fact, I think even if you do, you aren't likely to see the inside of that school ever again..."
Manjyome almost panicked. That was it: the ultimate threat, and he hadn't even gotten fair warning. He struggled to get his mind around the fact that he might have just talked his way out of the one thing he really wanted in life.
"But..." he began.
The door swung open. All eyes turned to see Fubuki standing in the doorway, with an expression on his face that looked as if he'd just seen someone being run over by a car.
"You!" Chosaku barked. "What are you doing? How long have you been listening?"
"I heard everything," said Fubuki. "I thought something bad had happened when you led him away, so I followed you to see what was going on. Why are you picking on Manjyome- kun?"
"That's none of your business," Shoji snapped. "Get out of here."
"It is my business. Manjyome-kun is my friend. Why are you doing this?"
"Because he's a failure," said Chosaku. "There's no reason why we ought to coddle this boy when everything he does comes out wrong. If I were you, I'd give up on him and find yourself some better friends - someone who might actually make something of themselves someday. All this waste of space can do for anyone is drag them down. If it's true what he says that you're a decent duelist, you should be glad we're giving you a chance to get rid of this dead weight."
Fubuki listened to the tirade with an unchanging expression of horror and bafflement. He seemed to be trying to work his way to some conclusion that was eluding him. There was a stretch of silence as Chosaku finished speaking and still Fubuki could not find what he wanted to say. At last, he shook his head, having worked to the sad but inevitable conclusion.
"You don't love him at all, do you?" he asked softly.
There was an awkward silence. No one quite seemed to know how to deal with the question when it was put that bluntly, especially when it was already obvious what the answer was.
And that was too much for Manjyome. Bad enough to be chewed out by his brothers and lose his chance at joining the pro leagues as a duelist, but being humiliated in front of Fubuki was just too much. He got up and dashed for the door, pushing Fubuki roughly aside, and fled to his room. He slammed the door shut and threw himself onto his bed, pulling the bed-curtains shut and curling up into a ball of misery. He was dimly aware of the Ojamas flitting around him, asking what was wrong, but he tuned them out. He wanted to pretend that the rest of the world didn't exist. Being alone because there was no one was there was infinitely better than being alone because nobody wanted him.
And then, suddenly, there was silence. Manjyome warily opened one eye, wondering what had sent his companion spirits packing. The Ojamas didn't usually just vanish unless...
"Manjyome-kun? Are you in here?" Fubuki called.
"Go away," Manjyome mumbled, burying his face in his pillow. "I don't want to talk to you."
There was silence for a little while, which made him think that Fubuki had done as he was told for once, but then the light level shifted as if someone had pushed the curtains aside, and then the bed creaked slightly as someone else climbed onto it.
"I said, go away," Manjyome complained. "Don't you ever listen?"
"Sometimes," said Fubuki. "But not right now. Are you okay?"
"Wonderful. Thanks for asking. Look, they're right, this isn't your problem. I shouldn't have dragged you into it, but that doesn't mean you've got to stick with it."
"It's my problem now," said Fubuki cheerfully. "After you ran off, I kinda gave your brothers a piece of my mind. I think I might have scared them a little."
As bad as he felt, Manjyome couldn't help but try to picture that.
"I'm... a little sorry I missed that," he said.
"Anyway, don't let them get to you. They're just being stupid."
"They're going to pull me out of school," said Manjyome, a little desperately.
"Then we'll convince them not to," Fubuki replied. "It'll be okay. We'll think of something. If they don't want you here, and we want you back on the island, then somehow you'll come back."
He sounded so sure of himself that Manjyome almost believed him. He sighed and let himself uncurl a little, like a snail peering out of its shell to see if all was safe. Fubuki reached out a hand and began gently rubbing Manjyome's back. Manjyome almost told him to stop it - if anyone had ever tried touching him that way, it was lost with his childhood memories of his parents - but then he decided not to make an issue out of it. It was soothing, in a way. It wasn't often he had the opportunity to be soothed.
"So you really chewed them out, huh? Glad somebody did. They're both jerks," he muttered.
"Yeah. Definitely both jerks," Fubuki agreed. "But you know what? You don't need them. You're better than them. All the good stuff they should have gotten - all the talent and personality, you've got enough for both of them. And you know what else? You don't need them because if you ever need a brother who cares about you, you've got me."
Manjyome took a moment to absorb that. "You mean it?"
"Sure!" said Fubuki. He laughed. "I mean, you're going to make it legal someday, anyway, right?"
Manjyome finished uncurling. He managed a slight smile. "Count on it."
"That's what I like to hear." Fubuki flopped down comfortably next to Manjyome.
"So, how are we going to keep me in school?" Manjyome asked him.
"Hmm... that could be a tough one," said Fubuki. "How about..."
He laid out a plan. Manjyome listened, boggling slightly.
"We can't do that," he said.
"Why not?" Fubuki asked. "You are part of the Manjyome Group still, right? You've got some pull. You ought to give it a whirl and see how it goes. I mean, what's the worst that could happen?"
Manjyome thought about it.
"Couldn't be any worse than the trouble I'm in already," he decided. "Let's go for it."
Fubuki enjoyed the part where he got to play ninja. The two elder Manjyome brothers, smarting from whatever lecture he had given him, had slipped off to reorganize themselves and figure out what, if anything, they were supposed to do next. While they were getting themselves situated, Fubuki slipped into the office and stole Shoji's address book, which he proudly delivered to Manjyome. The two of them searched through it and found what they were looking for. That was the easy part.
"You ready for this?" Fubuki asked him, as Manjyome began dialing the number.
"Ready as I'll ever be," answered Manjyome, his mouth dry with nervousness. "You'd better get moving. We don't want to waste time."
"Right. Good luck!" Fubuki patted Manjyome on the shoulder reassuringly, before sprinting off to take care of his end of the business.
Manjyome finished dialing the number and listened to the phone on the other end of the line start to ring. It was picked up by a brisk-voiced woman. Manjyome barely let her finish her opening spiel before announcing as confidently as he knew how, "This is Mr. Manjyome of the Manjyome Group. Put me in touch with Seto Kaiba."
Meanwhile, Fubuki was on the hunt. He slunk through the halls of the manor, tossing his weapon from hand to hand in anticipation. He sincerely hoped that he'd find both brothers in the same place, because it really would be better if both of them were here for this, and he didn't have the time or resources to track them both down. Fortunately, luck was with him, and he found the two of them hiding in a parlor, drinking coffee and muttering darkly to each other. They didn't notice Fubuki as he tiptoed closer.
They did notice, however, when he lobbed a balloon filled with chocolate syrup into the middle of their coffee table, where it exploded stickily on the furniture, the carpet, their coffee, and their expensive suits. Both of them looked up with fury burning in their eyes to see Fubuki standing in the hallway making faces at them.
"If you want to throw me out, you've gotta catch me first!" he told them, and began to run. The brothers predictably chased after him. Fubuki just laughed and ran faster - he was a natural athlete, and could easily outrun two men who spent most of their time behind desks. Still, the idea wasn't to outrun them, but to lead them, so he made sure to stay in easy viewing distance as he made his way back to Manjyome's room.
Manjyome was leaning back casually in his chair with his feet propped on his desk, looking totally at ease. He was talking on the phone.
"Thank you for agreeing to help me with this, Mr. Kaiba," he was saying. "So sorry to have to bother you at this time of night, but..."
"What is this all about?" Shoji snapped. "Jun, look what your friend did to my suit!"
"Would you be quiet?" Manjyome snapped. "It's rude to interrupt someone when they're on the phone - especially when they're talking to someone as important as Seto Kaiba."
"Come off it," said Chosaku. "There is no way in the world you are talking to someone as important as him. Seto Kaiba does not waste his time talking to scum like you."
"Oh? Is that so?" Manjyome replied. "Talk to him yourself, then."
He held out the handset, and Chosaku snatched it up.
"Who is this?" he barked.
"Who do you think?" said a haughty voice. Chosaku went paper-white.
"Mr. Kaiba, I didn't..."
"Look, I'm a busy man and I don't have a lot of time to waste on trivialities like this, so I'm going to make this quick. Your brother Jun is a student of my academy. From what I understand, he is one of the best students in my academy. I don't like people trying to steal my prize students for any reason. I really don't like people who think they can run my academy better than I can, and apparently you didn't learn your lesson the last time I let you two be humiliated. I haven't decided you're important enough to merit my full attention, but if I hear one word about you trying to pull your brother out of my school, I might decide to administer a little education to you fools as well. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Mr. Kaiba! That is absolutely clear," said Chosaku. "So sorry for the, ah, misunderstanding."
"Good. Now go away and stop wasting my time," Kaiba said.
Chosaku shoved the phone into Manjyome's hands as if he suspected it would explode, and then fled the room, dragging a rather baffled-looking Shoji along with him. Manjyome heaved a sigh of relief.
"Thanks for the save," he said gratefully.
"Let's just say, if there's one thing I can't stand, it's manipulative family members," said Kaiba. "Especially when it's older brothers pushing their younger brothers around. Now, stay out of trouble... and don't call me again." The phone slammed down. Manjyome didn't care. He'd dodged a bullet - or more than one, since Kaiba was dangerous in his own right - and he couldn't feel anything but relief.
"See?" said Fubuki. "I told you it would work."
"Once I bullied my way past his witch of a receptionist, the rest was easy," Manjyome admitted. "But I don't think I'd better ever try it again."
"You won't have to," said Fubuki. "Did you see the looks on their faces? Fantastic! I can't wait to tell Asuka about this. She'll be floored!"
"No," said Manjyome firmly. "Tonight is our secret. Got it?"
"Ah, yes, I see!" Fubuki agreed. "All right! I'll keep it a secret until my dying day! No one will ever hear of this but you and me!"
"Well, maybe I'll tell Asuka someday," said Manjyome thoughtfully. He could leave out the embarrassing bits and focus on the interesting part, like convincing one of the most important people in the world to chew his family out for him. "So... now we have the rest of summer break to do whatever we want. What do we want to do?"
Fubuki thought about the question a while. He smiled slowly.
Chosaku had thought it all over and decided that overall, the best thing he could choose to do is to was to just go on about his business and pretend that nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened. There were only a few days of summer break left, so he could ignore everything for a little while. All he had to do was stick to his regular routine...
He opened the door that led to his wave pool and was greeted by the sight of a teenaged boy skimming across the water on a surfboard. He started to walk away, and then stopped and looked again. It wasn't Fubuki on the surfboard; he was paddling around in the water, shouting instructions. The boy on the board was slimmer and paler and had unruly black hair, now somewhat the worse for having been dunked underwater a few times. Even as Chosaku watched, his little brother toppled off the board and went splashing into the water. He came up spluttering, and Fubuki laughed at him. The laugh earned Fubuki a mouthful of water as his protege splashed him, and the two went into a water-fight, shouting friendly insults and attempting not to be ducked under the waves. Chosaku stared a moment, then silently closed the door and walked away, silently thinking to himself that under no circumstances would he ask or allow his youngest sibling to come home next summer.