Part One: The Locket
Out on the still ocean, a small speedboat drifted slowly to a stop. Its only passenger, a person whose features were difficult to discern in the thin moonlight, stood perfectly still for a moment, straining to hear any sound at all. There was no noise but the lapping of water against his boat, and the softest of night breezes. He sighed a little, his shoulders slumping with relief.
"Finally threw them off," he said. "Now if only I knew where I was... Not that knowing that would help much unless I was close to shore." Even in the darkness, he could see that the small boat's fuel gauge was nearly at empty.
He stared out across the featureless ocean, and then up at the clear night sky. There was nothing that could tell him which way to go next. Still, he had to go somewhere, so he started the engine and began cutting across the waves one more. Luck was with him, and in a few minutes he became aware of a bright light on the edge of the horizon that blinked too slowly and regularly to be a star. It was a lighthouse, which meant land was close by. There was only one place he knew that was in this area: the island where the famous Duel Academia stood. The man sped up, thinking only of the chance of reaching solid ground and safety from his pursuers. The little boat moved swiftly across the water, but a few hundred yards from shore, the engine sputtered and died, and the man swore as his ride slowed and finally stopped. The island was tantalizingly close, but his boat obviously wouldn't move another inch closer unless he wanted to wait and hope that the tides would sweep them in. He wasn't in any mood to chance that. His hand went to his throat, reaching for a pendant that hung on a chain around his neck. It was a large metal locket held shut with three latches, showing nothing that would reveal what the object inside was, beyond its general size and shape. He stared at it a moment before taking it off and hanging it off a hook on the side of the ship which would have ordinarily been used to tie it to a mooring. Satisfied that the locket was safe, he took a deep breath and leaped overboard.
He disappeared underwater for a moment, but in the next instant, he bobbed back up to the surface. He paddled over to the side of the boat and unhooked his locket, and then turned his back on the craft to let it fend for itself. Holding the locket above the waves with one hand, he began swimming laboriously towards the island.
There was a knock on Manjoume's door. Wondering who would be bothering him at this time of night, Manjoume looked up from the gaming magazine he'd been reading and looked up, wondering who was out there who would be knocking. The only people who ever came in here were Juudai and his followers (it had never occurred to Manjoume that lately he'd followed Juudai around almost as much as Shou and Kenzan did), and they never knocked. He wondered if it was some new emergency, and whether he could get away with hiding under the bed until it went away.
"Manjoume, are you there?" called a feminine voice.
"Asuka!" he exclaimed. He leaped up, pausing only long enough to smooth his clothing and run a hand through his hair before answering the door. "You wanted to see me?"
"Oh, you are home! I was afraid you might have gone out somewhere," said Asuka. "I was just going to ask if you wanted to come with me down to the cliff to see the stars."
"What?" he said blankly, uncertain he'd heard right, and then he said, "Yes! Of course! Absolutely!" because you just didn't pass up chances like that.
"The others are going to be there, too," said Asuka quickly. "It was Misawa's idea first. There's going to be a meteor shower tonight, and he's invited us all to see it."
"Oh," said Manjoume, disappointed.
"You really ought to come," Asuka persisted. "Misawa says they're unusual this time of year. It's a special event. You shouldn't be the only one left out."
Manjoume did some mental calculations and decided that even if Asuka wasn't planning this as a romantic outing, it still would be safest not to leave her unsupervised. He wasn't the only one who had noticed Asuka's charms, after all, and it didn't hurt to keep an eye on the competition. You just didn't leave a girl sitting out under a romantic starlit sky and expect that nobody would even think of making a move on her.
"Sure, I'll come," he said. "Wouldn't miss it for the world."
They went out. It was a pleasant night, warm and mild, with just a hint of a breeze to keep things from being stuffy. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, and only a slight silvery sliver of a moon. Better weather for stargazing couldn't have been asked for. Manjoume followed quietly, wondering how one went about finding out when meteor showers happened, and whether or not Asuka could be persuaded to come out at night and sit by the ocean with him if he were the one who invited her out. He suspected she wouldn't. Misawa had the air of someone you believed when he said there were going to be meteor showers or comets or lunar eclipses or any of that kind of thing. Manjoume didn't have that kind of scientific authority going for him.
There was a merry gathering waiting for them when they reached the cliffs. Juudai was already there with his two sidekicks, though Kenzan was giving off the distinct impression of one who had only agreed to come because everyone else was going to be there - after all, he was less interested in stars and more interested in things that had been in the ground for a few million years. He seemed to be delivering a sulky discourse on how the dinosaurs had all been wiped out by a falling space rock, and he didn't see why he needed to look at more of them. Misawa sat a short distance away, fiddling with a telescope mounted on a tripod. It looked nice, and also expensive, and Manjoume wondered if it belonged to Misawa himself or if he'd borrowed it from the school somehow. Fubuki was sitting on a blanket with Junko and Momoe, one on either side with a arm around each of them. Their attention seemed to be less on the cosmic phenomenon going on above them and more on Fubuki as he told them in his curiously platonic way that the stars in the sky had nothing on the stars in their eyes.
"Quit flirting," Asuka told him, with the tired air one might use to swat away a fly that continued returning to the same spot.
"I'm not flirting!" Fubuki protested. "I'm just telling the honest truth."
"Let's go sit over there," said Asuka to Manjoume. They moved over to the area furthest from Fubuki and closest to Misawa and his telescope, and in a stroke of gallantry, Manjoume shed his jacket and spread it out on the grass so Asuka wouldn't have to sit on the damp earth. She took the gesture as her due and offered no more than a small smile as she took her place. Manjoume sat down next to her at a careful distance - not so close that she might feel crowded, but still close enough that there was a chance that they might carelessly and accidentally brush against each other.
"Keep your eyes looking in that direction," Misawa advised, indicating a patch of sky out over the ocean. "If we see any meteors, that's where they are most likely to be."
Everyone kept their eyes obediently trained towards the sky, awaiting the ephemeral flashes of meteors. Misawa finished adjusting his telescope and began allowing people to take turns looking through it. Manjoume tried not to yawn as he watched everyone else take a turn. The stars were not very interesting. Seeing Asuka lean over to get a better view through the telescope had been interesting, but he didn't dare stare at her for more than a moment. That was the kind of thing that got a guy in trouble. Instead, he looked out at the rippling ocean and let his mind wander. Once in a while, he would catch a flash of movement as the meteors flared by, but he wasn't really looking for them.
He did, however, see the person floundering around in the water.
"Hey, look at that!" he exclaimed.
"I know, they're beautiful, aren't they?" said Junko.
"No, not the stars," Manjoume snapped. "I mean that down there in the ocean. What is it?"
Kenzan stared out over the waves. "I can't see. A dolphinsaurus?"
"That's not a dolphin - it's a guy," said Juudai. "I wonder what he's doing down there?"
Manjoume crept closer to the edge of the cliff so he could see better. The mysterious swimmer was clinging, fully clothed, to a large rock. From time to time, a crashing wave would submerge him, and it was a question how much longer he would stay there, because he was only hanging on with one hand.
"Drowning," Manjoume answered succinctly.
Shou peeped over the edge as well. "Maybe we should do something about that?"
"I think there's a rope in the tool shed," Juudai offered.
"I'll get it!" Kenzan offered. He hurried away toward the Red dorm, and returned moments later carrying a coil of rope.
"Hope this is enough," he said.
Juudai nodded his approval. He leaned over the edge of the cliff and bellowed, "Hang on, guy - we're coming for you!"
The man on the rocks waved weakly. The rest of the group hurried down to the rocky ledge closer to the water - still too high to be climbed up to from sea-level, but close enough that they could toss the rope down to the forlorn swimmer.
"Just hang on!" Kenzan called. "We'll have you outta there in no time!"
The man caught the rope and clung to it weakly; it appeared his strength was just about exhausted. The students on the other end of the rope began to haul, and were able to slowly pull him close enough to the cliffside that he could help them by digging his feet against the rocks to climb a bit. At last he was on solid ground, panting and dripping. Everyone stood respectfully aside, except for Fubuki, who had dragged along the blanket he'd been sitting on. He set it around the man's shoulders to help ease the chill from being in the water. Even though it was summer, the water still got cold at night, and the man was shivering slightly.
"Thank you," he said. "I thought I was a goner for a while there."
"What were you doing down there?" asked Fubuki. "That's not the best place for a midnight swim."
"Trust me, I wouldn't have gone swimming if I could help it," the man replied. "I was out on a boat, when I ran out of gas. I saw this island in the distance and thought I could swim for it. I was aiming for the beach, but the current kept pushing me away, and I had to grab onto that rock just to keep from being swept out to sea. Tell me, is this Academy Island?"
"It sure is!" said Juudai cheerfully. "Are you going to join the school here? You look kinda old for it, but that's okay!"
The stranger laughed. He had a pleasant laugh with a hint of self-deprecation in it, as if he thought his being "too old" was just as funny as Juudai's tactless outburst.
"No, I'm not here to continue my education," he said. "To tell the truth, I wasn't planning to come out this way, but I was... forced."
"Nothing new about that," Manjoume deadpanned. "People force us to go to school too."
"That's not quite what I meant," the man replied, with a tolerant chuckle. "The fact of the matter is, there are people who are chasing me. I headed out to sea hoping to leave them behind, and it's pure good luck I passed so close to your island. By the way, you're probably wanting to know my name. It's Hatori. Hatori Uono."
The students introduced themselves, and he listened as if filing all their names away for future reference.
"So, who are you running away from?" Juudai asked, when the introductions are finished.
"Juudai! He might not want to tell people that," Asuka scolded. "Don't ask personal questions."
"Hey, he brought it up!" said Juudai.
"It's quite all right," Hatori said. "The fact of the matter is, I've been trying for days to escape a group of thieves trying to steal my rare card." He tapped the locket he was wearing significantly.
"Ooh, a rare card? Can we see it?" asked Shou, pushing forward to try to get a better view.
"Not now," Hatori replied. "It would be better if no one saw it just yet - I really shouldn't have mentioned it at all, but I think I can trust you, since you were good enough to rescue me and all. But tell me, do you think you could put me in touch with... let me see, the principal's name is Same... it's on the tip of my tongue..."
"Sameshima," Misawa supplied. "I can take you to him. I know where his room is."
"How do you know where his room is?" asked Kenzan.
"I was working on an independent study project for Professor Chronos's class, and Principal Sameshima loaned me a book from his private collection," Misawa answered.
Juudai blinked. "You actually asked for more homework?"
"You say that as if it's a bad thing," answered Misawa primly. He turned his attention to Hatroi. "Be that as it may, I would be pleased to guide you."
"Thank you," Hatori replied. "And thank all of you for helping me. Perhaps we will see each other again soon, if all goes well for me."
The students said goodbye to their new acquaintance - all but Misawa, who strolled along next to the newcomer, feeling a small sense of pride at having a job to do. Covertly, he eyed the man, sizing him up. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties, average to attractive, without being notably tall or short or fat or thin or muscular. Not at all the sort of person one would pick out in a crowd. It was impossible to guess what color his eyes were in the dark, though his hair appeared to be some dark color. Or perhaps it only looked dark because it was wet. His clothes, from what Misawa could see beneath the blanket, were apparently fairly new and well-cared for but nothing that would attract attention. His face was pleasant and intelligent - the sort of person you would feel confident in asking for directions.
Perfectly ordinary, Misawa mused, as far as men fished out of the ocean go. Wholesome as homemade soup. Except for being chased by thieves, of course. I'd give a lot to have a look at that rare card of his...
They reached the principal's quarters, and Misawa marched up to the front door and knocked loudly, wondering if Sameshima was still awake this time of night. It was very late by the standards of people who were expected to get up and go to class in the morning, but he knew the teachers would stay up until all hours grading papers or making lesson plans. He endured a moment of uncertain silence after the knock, to see what would happen, and the knocked again. He was just about to decide that the principal was either not in or sound asleep already, when the door was opened by Sameshima himself in a tattered plaid bathrobe.
"What's all this about?" he exclaimed, and then looked at the guests on his doorstep. "Ah, Mr. Misawa! What brings you out here this time of night?"
"Sorry to disturb you, Principal Sameshima," said Misawa politely, "but we found this gentleman washed up on the rocks near the Osiris Red dorms, and he seems to need your help."
Sameshima looked Hatori over. "Well, he certainly looks as if he could use help of some sort," he said. "What's your name, young man, and what can I do for you? No, don't try to explain it all out here. Come in and have a seat."
"I'll get your furniture wet," Hatori protested, but he allowed himself to be ushered inside. Misawa hesitated a moment, but no one told him he should leave, so he tagged along after the two of them and stationed himself in an out-of-the-way spot where he wouldn't attract too much attention. He'd only been in the principal's quarters once before, and then only briefly, so he took a moment to take in his surroundings while the other two were getting situated. It looked, he thought, like a suitable place for a tea ceremony. The principal always had been a traditional sort.
"You look like you could use a hot drink," said Sameshima. "Can I get you anything? Tea? Coffee?"
"No, thank you, I am quite warm now. One of your students was kind enough to loan me a blanket," Hatori replied. "No, all I needed was to ask a small favor of you."
"Very well, then. Explain the nature of this favor," said Sameshima.
"All I want is permission to stay here a few days - well, hide here, really," Hatori replied. "I'm carrying on my person a supremely rare card, the Jade Serpent of Shangri-La. It's one of a kind and absolutely priceless. There are collectors who would do anything to have it, and lately some less-than-scrupulous characters have been pursuing me attempting to acquire it from me, by force if necessary. Obviously I wouldn't part with it for anything, but... I'm a little attached to all my body parts, and I don't feel like risking them any more than I have to. I was hoping you would consent to let me stay here until they give up looking for me."
Sameshima looked thoughtful. "I don't know... I don't want to get involved in anything that would put my students at any unnecessary risk..."
"No risk at all," Hatori assured him quickly. "At the moment, no one knows where I am, so there's no danger of my leading someone here. If anyone does turn up, I promise I'll leave immediately. I just know this place is secluded and has very little contact with the rest of the world, so I'll be safer here than in most places. I promise I won't be a bother. I'm sure I can make myself useful here. I've won a few duels in my day - perhaps I could be of assistance to the teachers in some way?"
"Hmm..." said Sameshima thoughtfully. "Well, I'm sure we could use the help... We're a little shorthanded since we, ah, lost Professor Daitokuji. So if you're sure there is no risk, I'm sure we can make a place for you. Do you mind taking a place in one of the dorms?"
"Not at all," Hatori replied. "Anything you have to offer would be wonderful."
"In that case, I think there are some rooms open in the Obelisk Blue dorm," Sameshima replied. "So... The Jade Serpent of Shangri-La, you say? I can't say I've ever heard of that card."
"Few people have. As I said, it's one of a kind," Hatori replied. "It's an early prototype card that was never intended to be released to the public. There was even some talk of destroying it, but Pegasus changed his mind at the last minute and decided it should be preserved as a collector's item instead. I won it at a private auction, and wound up trading just about everything I had for it. It was worth it, though." He stroked his locket gently. "I've never risked playing it in a public tournament, so only the most avid collectors and researchers, and those who worked very closely with Pegasus in the early days of Industrial Illusions, know it exists at all."
"I see," said Sameshima. "I wouldn't mind having a look at this card, myself."
Hatori's hand closed over the locket. "I'm afraid I must respectfully decline, for now. You understand it's not my habit to go showing it off to anyone who asks. Something so rare has to be kept safe, you understand."
"Well, then I respect your position," Sameshima replied. "If you will give me a moment to get in touch with Professor Chronos, I will have him assign you a room in the Obelisk Blue dorm and see to it that you are provided with a school uniform. Would you like me to introduce you to the student body - as, say, a teacher's aide - or would you prefer to just blend into the background?"
"A formal introduction will be fine," said Hatori. "If no one says anything, I will appear to be a mystery. People will talk about me less if I'm just a boring and easily explained teacher- type."
Sameshima chuckled. "Very well. By the way, I never did get your name."
"Hatori Uono, at your service," he replied. "And I thank you very much for your generosity."
"No problem at all," Sameshima replied. "And if you'll excuse me a moment, I'll call Professor Chronos and let him know you're on your way over so he can unlock the front gate for you."
He got up and left the room, leaving Misawa alone with Hatori.
"Quite the exciting life you must live," Misawa commented.
"It is, at times," Hatori agreed. "One of these days, I should write a book... but I'd have to change my name and go live in the Tibetan mountains afterwards, because everyone would be looking for me after that."
"Is that card of yours really so spectacular, then?" Misawa asked.
Hatori chuckled. "Well, there's more to it than that. You're probably too young to understand..."
Misawa bristled slightly at being told there was anything he was "too young" to understand, especially from someone who was probably not much more than ten years his senior, if that. He was saved from having to find some polite reply by the reappearance of Principal Sameshima.
"It's all settled," he said. "Mr. Misawa, could I trouble you to walk Mr. Uono as far as the gates? Professor Chronos said he'll meet him there."
What could Misawa say? It was a reasonable request, since Hatori obviously wouldn't know how to get to the dorm without help, and Sameshima couldn't be expected to guide him around even if he hadn't been in his bathrobe and slippers at the moment. It wasn't that long a walk, really. The weather was clear and calm. It would be no chore at all to walk from here to Obelisk Blue's gates. Misawa was just suffering a sudden disinclination to spend any more time with this slightly soggy stranger.
You volunteered for this, he told himself sternly. It will only take five minutes. Just do it and get it over with.
"Certainly, Principal Sameshima," he said, his voice carefully neutral. "It would be my pleasure."
So, with a feeling of reluctance, he led Hatori back out into the world and guided him down the path to the most exclusive dorm on campus. The more he walked, the more annoyed he felt. Why did this character get special treatment? He had just swept up out of nowhere, and he got welcomed with open arms. Misawa had scored among the best students in school for about two years, now, and he still hadn't gotten a promotion to the Blue dorm, so why should this nobody just get to waltz in? He told himself he was being unfair, and that it was only because there were empty rooms available there, but it didn't make him feel much better.
"He seems like a nice fellow," Hatori commented. "Kind to his students, I'm sure."
"Quite," Misawa said.
"That's good to hear. I'm not a fan of strict discipline myself. I feel better knowing he gives people second chances. It's good to give someone the benefit of the doubt, don't you think?"
"I suppose so," Misawa agreed carefully, unsure where this conversation was leading.
"Quite right," said Hatori, and chuckled softly. "Everyone should get the benefit of the doubt..."
They reached the gates and found Chronos standing there, looking sleepy and oddly washed-out without his usual makeup, with his hair in disarray and his skinny legs poking out from beneath a silly-looking frilly nightgown. Misawa tried not to make a face; he respected Chronos and knew he was a fine teacher and duelist and a good man withal, but there were some things he just didn't want to see.
"Here we are," said Misawa. "Professor Chronos, this is the newcomer, Hatori Uono. Mr. Uono, this is the head of the Obelisk Blue dorm, Professor Chronos."
"An honor," Hatori said with a bow. He didn't show any signs of being particularly discomfitted by Chronos's appearance.
"Right this way, Signore Uono," said Chronos through a yawn. He was apparently not awake enough to want to observe formalities.
Misawa let the two of them go without bothering with goodbyes. He returned to his own dorm in a thoughtful mood. He found Shou sitting on the front steps of the Ra dorm waiting for him.
"So did you see it?" he asked eagerly.
"See what?" asked Misawa, distracted by his thoughts.
"The card," said Shou. "Did you see it? Did he say anything about it? I wish I had been there!"
"You didn't miss anything," Misawa assured him. "He wouldn't show it to anyone, not even Principal Sameshima. The most he would do is say it was an early prototype card he bought at an auction, and it's called The Jade Serpent of Shangri-La."
"The Jade Serpent of Shangri-La," Shou repeated dreamily. "It sounds really strong! What I wouldn't give to get a peek at it!"
"Well, maybe if you're lucky, you'll see it later," said Misawa impatiently. He hadn't heard of that card an hour ago and already he was tired of it. "He's going to be staying on the island for a while acting as a teacher's aide, so you'll have plenty of chances to persuade him."
"Oh, wow!" said Shou eagerly. "I'll bet if we try really hard, we can talk him into it!"
"Knock yourself out," Misawa retorted, with unusual bluntness. "I'm tired now, and I want to go to bed."
"But wait! You can't do that!" Shou protested.
Misawa fixed him with a quelling look. "Listen, I know you're curious about this Hatori Uono and his rare card, but I've heard all I want to hear about him for one night and I don't feel like talking about him anymore."
"It's not that," said Shou. "I just meant, shouldn't you get your telescope back first?"
Misawa's face turned a bright red that was visible even in the dark.
"Right," he said. "I knew that."
The next morning, the first class of the day was postponed in favor of a school assembly. Most of the students were in a good mood because of this, and chattered happily among themselves as they waited for whatever the announcement was. These things generally tended to be interesting, whatever they were - not necessarily good, but interesting.
"Do you think we're going to have another tournament?" asked Fubuki.
"Nah, it's just that guy again," Juudai answered knowledgeably. He'd gotten the news from Shou over breakfast. "They're going to give him a job so he can stay here a while."
"What does he need a job for?" Manjoume muttered. "If he's such a hotshot duelist, he ought to be able to get by without our help."
"Perhaps you're just jealous of the attention he's getting?" Asuka suggested sweetly.
Manjoume blushed brilliantly and looked down at the floor.
He was saved from having to think of a retort by the arrival of Sameshima and Hatori. Sameshima took up a microphone and addressed his students.
"You will all be glad to know that I won't be keeping you from your classes very long," he said with a chuckle. "I just wanted to introduce you all to the newest member of our staff. Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm Duel Academia welcome to our new student aide, Mr. Hatori Uono!"
The students applauded, and Hatori bowed politely. He looked much better now that he was clean and dry and dressed in a proper uniform. His hair, dry and brushed, was auburn, and his eyes shone a pale green. He managed to look rather dashing in his sleek white-and-blue jacket.
"Thank you very much for your warm welcome," he said. "I'm looking forward to getting to know each and every one of you during my stay here. I'm sure we all have much to learn from each other." He bowed to them all, and his locket dangled freely, twisting and flashing on its chain for a moment until he straightened again.
"Mr. Uono will be assisting your professors and monitoring study hall from now on," said Principal Sameshima, "so you all will be meeting him again very soon. Treat him with the same respect you would give any of your other teachers."
There was an agreeable murmur from the students. Considering that the other teachers in question included a vice-principal who thought he was a French general and a man who ran around with a paper bag over his head claiming to be a superhero while dishing out curry, this was not a particularly difficult request.
"And now, since I'm sure you're all aching to return to your classes, I'll let you go," the principal said. "Enjoy the rest of your day!"
The students rose up in chattering waves and headed for the door so they could return to their classes. A few people attempted to get closer to Hatori, but he somehow eluded them and slipped out of the room behind Principal Sameshima.
"So I guess now that guy's going to be around for a while," said Juudai. "Huh, a teacher's aide. I don't think we've had one of those here before. Is that anything like lemonade?"
Manjoume rolled his eyes. "Don't be such an idiot!"
"I was making a joke! Jeez!" Juudai protested.
"Yeah, well, if you're making jokes like that, you've been hanging around him too long," Manjoume retorted, jerking his thumb at Kenzan.
Juudai blinked. "Why's that?"
"Because that joke has been around since dinosaurs walked the earth!"
There ensued a scuffle as Kenzan took offense both to the insult against his favorite person and the slight against his beloved dinosaurs. Misawa watched them for a moment - it wasn't every day you saw Manjoume get into a fistfight, and it was likely this one wouldn't last long - before turning away with a sigh.
"Penny for your thoughts?" Asuka said to him.
"I'm not certain I know what I think myself," admitted Misawa. "There's something about that person that doesn't sit well with me, but I can't put my finger on what it is."
"It's probably just because he's new and different," said Asuka soothingly. "Lately, whenever someone new and unusual pops up, it's meant nothing but trouble."
Misawa smiled a little. "Your brother was new and unusual when he first turned up."
"That proves my point," said Asuka, cuffing Fubuki lightly on the shoulder. Fubuki just grinned at her as if he'd been paid a compliment.
"Well, maybe so," Misawa agreed. "Perhaps it was only staying up so late that made me irritable with him. He does seem pleasant enough. I suppose I'll have to get used to him, at any rate - as dull as things have been around here lately, compared to how things usually are, he'll be all anyone can talk about for days."
"Well, if you would rather talk about dueling, maybe we could meet at the arena later and have a quick game," Asuka offered. "To tell the truth, I'm not all that fascinated by him either."
"How come you offer to duel him and not me?" Manjoume protested.
"Fine, you can play the winner," she said, "but you know, jealousy isn't an attractive quality in you."
Manjoume looked sullen. "I'm not jealous. I just don't care about that guy and his rare card either. I'll bet my Ojamas could take it out, whatever it is."
Misawa half-listened to their conversation as he made his way back to class. He was in a slightly better mood, now that he had a good duel or two to look forward to. Asuka was an eminently desirable opponent, and he wouldn't mind facing off with Manjoume again, either. He liked to think their last duel had been inconclusive for one reason and another, so facing him if he won against Asuka would be good entertainment. A good duel tended to make everything look better. Still...
It's not just that I was tired last night. I wasn't. I'm used to keeping late hours studying. And it's not that I'm jealous of the attention he's getting. It's not even that he talked down to me. Could it be only that he was accepted here so easily? That's not so strange - he has a charming manner about him, and his story makes sense as far as it goes. I've definitely heard stranger stories since I came to this island. Still, something isn't clicking...
He paid less than his usual amount of attention in class that day. Down at the front of the room, Chronos was beginning a lecture on the advantages and disadvantages of flip-effect monsters and how to best utilize them, but he could have been lecturing on little green men from Mars for all Misawa knew. He sat in the back of the room and doodled in his notebook, and never raised his hand when Chronos called out a question. No one seemed to notice that he was more out of it than usual, and somewhere in the back of his mind, he wondered if this was how Juudai managed to get through all of his classes without doing anything. When class was over, he left without his usual good spirits, thinking only that he still had three more classes to get through.
Gym class, at least, didn't require a lot of his mental energy - Miss Ayukawa had them doing stretches and running laps, leaving him nothing more to worry about than to make sure he didn't run over anyone or vice versa. He kept to the end of the pack, partly because he was preoccupied, and partly because he was more studious than athletic and running laps was one thing he couldn't strategize his way through.
After that came card design with Professor Kabayama. Today was art day, and Misawa, who had always been a little self-conscious that he was in the house taught by the professor who oversaw the drawing lessons when he wasn't much of an artist, found himself filling his paper with drawings of green snakes. He shook his head at himself and decided he definitely needed to find out more about this Jade Serpent of whatever-it-was.
The last class of the day would have, at one point, been taught by Daitokuji, but since he wasn't around anymore and nobody else wanted his job, the final class had been reassigned as a study hall. Nobody really wanted that job either, so the other teachers and Vice- Principal Napoleon took turns keeping watch over the students. Probably all the staff was glad to have it permanently assigned to someone so they wouldn't have to give up their free time watching over a bunch of unruly teenagers who didn't appreciate being stuck in a classroom when they had technically fulfilled their educational requirements for the day and just wanted to go outside for a while. Today, however, everyone was sitting quietly and attentively in their seats, as if they were about to hear something of vital importance instead of just having to pretend to do homework for an hour. All eyes were turned towards the classroom door, awaiting the appearance of the stranger.
Three minutes past the hour, Hatori himself appeared, looking faintly ruffled and smiling sheepishly.
"Hello! Sorry, I don't know my way around yet and I got a little lost," he said. "So, ladies and gentlemen, I'm sure you've all heard my name at least once today, but since I'm not really a teacher, you can just call me Hatori. I thought perhaps we might take a few minutes to get acquainted, so if there is anything you would like to ask me, just speak up."
One of the students put his hand up. "Is it true you've got a really rare card with you? Can we see it?"
"Yes, it's true," said Hatori, "however, I won't be showing it around. You must understand that it is invaluable, irreplaceable - I have to keep a close eye on it. It never leaves my side." He patted his locket protectively.
"Aw, c'mon, just one little peek?" someone else begged.
"Not one. All I can tell you is that it's a monster card called The Jade Serpent of Shangri- La."
"Do you ever use it to duel?" asked a boy near the front.
"Not hardly!" Hatori replied. "I can't risk damaging it, and I definitely can't risk using it in public and attracting thieves. I do duel with more ordinary cards, though."
"How good are you?" a boy in blue asked.
Hatori grinned. "Good enough! If I weren't more interesting in collecting cards than in using them, I could go pro. I've had some exciting duels in my days, I'll tell you that!"
"Tell us!" said several voices at once.
"All right, let's see..." Hatori looked thoughtful for a moment. "Well, there was the time I was traveling in America and made my way to the lights of Las Vegas..."
Never in Misawa's memory had the class been so quiet and well-behaved during a study period. Hatori had an engaging story-telling style, and of course there was no one in the school who didn't love hearing about a good duel almost as much as they enjoyed having one. It was at least obvious from the tale that he knew a thing or two about how the game was played.
"...and with Gravity Bind on the field, there was nothing in my hand that could attack. Then I drew, and wouldn't you know? I got Monster Reborn, so I used that to summon Jinzo. The Gravity Bind card was destroyed, and I attacked directly and won with only 200 life points left."
The students murmured their appreciation. A few of them began to chatter amongst themselves about the relative merits of the strategies involved and how they would have gone about improving on them. Everyone seemed to have forgotten that they were supposed to be studying, and their "teacher" seemed to be in no hurry to get them back on track. Instead, he continued to regale them with accounts of dramatic duels he had been in or seen, keeping the class under his thrall until the bell rang.
"Well, that's all for today!" said Hatori. "You all be good and do your homework later so I won't get in trouble, all right? I'll see you tomorrow!"
"But you haven't finished the story!" someone protested. "Can't you stay a while longer?"
"No, I'm afraid not," Hatori replied. "They're giving me a tour of the campus today, so I won't get lost next time. I'll finish it tomorrow, don't worry."
Even with this reassurance, a few students still didn't seem to want to leave. Misawa, however, was not one of them. He wormed his way through the crowd toward the relative freedom of the hallway, where he stood and caught his breath for a minute. While he was setting himself in order, Asuka and Manjoume caught up to him.
"There you are," Asuka said. "I thought I'd lost you for a minute."
"Hm?" he said distractedly.
"You know. You said you'd duel me," she reminded him.
"Oh, that," he said. "Look, I'm very sorry, but something's come up. I'm going to go back to my room."
"What's wrong? Are you sick?" asked Asuka worriedly.
"No, I'm not sick," he began, and then realized that he was passing up a good excuse. He amended, "I've just got a splitting headache, so I'm going to go lie down for a while. You two just have your duel and I'll catch up to you some other time. Okay?"
"All right, then," said Asuka, looking a bit puzzled. "Hope you feel better soon."
"I'm sure I will," said Misawa. "I just need a little peace and quiet."
With that, he retreated back to his dorm. He didn't have a headache, of course, but he did have a lot on his mind to work through. The first thing he did when he reached the safety of his dorm was not to lie down and rest, but to sit down at his computer, log onto the 'net, and start looking for information on The Jade Serpent of Shangri-La.
Manjoume, meanwhile, had nothing more serious on his mind than the happy fact that he got to duel with Asuka, which meant that for the next few minutes, at least, she had to pay attention to him. Granted, he would probably lose, because he didn't think he'd ever won a duel against Asuka without some supernatural help (and the less said about that, the better) but it would be exciting anyway. Just the fact that she was voluntarily spending time with him was good enough.
Their first thought was to use the main dueling arena, as was Asuka's privilege as an Obelisk, but they found that the place was already occupied, so they instead wound their way to a conveniently open place near the Obelisk Blue dorm. They took their positions and activated their Duel Disks.
"Ready?" Asuka inquired.
"Ladies first," answered Manjoume graciously.
As it happened, the duel was intense but brief. Manjoume took an early lead with his VtoZ cards, but a clever deployment of trap cards swept the field clean of them, leaving her room to summon her Cyber Angels and trounce him soundly. Manjoume gave a faint groan as he dropped to his knees and his life points ticked to zero.
"Why didn't you guys do something?" he muttered to the Ojamas, who were flitting around unhelpfully.
"We thought she might get mad at you if you beat her," said Ojama Yellow, "so we decided to keep out of it."
"Besides, she's strong, and we didn't feel like getting blown up again today," added Ojama Green honestly.
"Oh, you guys are worthless," Manjoume muttered.
At any other time, there might have at least been a few odd looks directed his way, seeing as how to most eyes he would appear to be talking to empty air, but no one was paying attention to him. This was mainly because there was only one other person there besides Asuka, and she was talking to him.
"That was a splendid duel!" said Hatori, applauding. "Exactly what I would expect from a top student of Duel Academia. I can think of some ways it could have been done better, but on the whole, very nicely played."
"Do you think you could give me some suggestions, Professor?" Asuka asked.
"Hatori," he corrected gently. "I'm not a professor, remember, just someone passing through who knows a thing or two about dueling."
"Well, I'll take advice from anyone who can help me improve my dueling," said Asuka. "What would you suggest?"
Manjoume watched in mute horror as Asuka fell into deep and serious conversation with the good-looking newcomer.
"Hey, what about me?" he protested. "I'm the one who lost - he should be giving me advice."
"You didn't ask," Asuka pointed out.
"That's quite all right," said Hitori "He is correct - if I'm going to be making myself useful here, I should try to help everyone equally." Turning to Manjoume, he said, "The first thing I would do with your deck is to do something about those Ojamas. You've managed to make an interesting set of combos out of it, but really, it's much too dependent on luck in the long run. Do yourself a favor and find yourself something a bit more reliable, and then we'll talk in more detail about how to fine-tune it. Right now, though, they're wasting so much space in your deck, there isn't a lot I can do to help you."
"But..." Asuka began hesitantly.
"Don't worry, I haven't forgotten you," he replied. "Now you've got a splendid deck there, but I'd like to see it in its entirety before I start making any suggestions. It probably doesn't need a lot of help, but there are one or two things I want to check. Is there somewhere we could sit down so we could spread your cards out?"
"There's a study area inside," Asuka offered.
"Wait a minute, what are you doing?" asked Manjoume incredulously. "You're really going to take this hack's advice? He's not even a teacher! He's just some random guy who washed up on a rock, and you're listening to him like he's... Seto Kaiba or something!"
"I'm listening to him because I might learn something," said Asuka frostily. "I told you before, jealousy is not attractive, and I don't like hearing you talk this way. Maybe if you learned to take advice, you wouldn't lose so often - and maybe if you learned to treat me like a duelist instead of a helpless little princess, then maybe... oh, never mind. Let's go inside."
She and Hatori made their exit in the direction of the Blue dorm, talking seriously about deck construction, while Manjoume just stood and stared with his pleasant afternoon in ruins. When they were out of sight, he snapped out of his daze. He turned his wrath on a nearby tree and kicked it until his toes ached and the bark had visible scuffs on it.
"Agh! I hate him, I hate him, I hate him!" He realized he was doing more damage to his feet than to the tree than to anything else, and turned away with a snarl.
"You aren't gonna take us out of your deck, are you, Aniki?" asked Ojama Yellow plaintively.
"No," he said. "Not for that idiot or any other stupid hack who comes along. My deck is just fine the way it is, and everybody knows it." More quietly, he added, "And I don't treat her like a helpless princess, and I don't treat her like a stupid school kid who doesn't know how to put a deck together, either. Unlike some people."
With a sigh, he turned and began walking slowly back to his dorm with his head bowed, thinking to himself that he should have just left the man in the ocean.
To Be Continued...