It was a very long line. The boy fidgeted, torn between an impulse to try to run to the front of the line and a fear of getting lost in the crowd. His pudgy hand closed around his mother's skirt. He was five years old, a bit chubby and awkward for his age, and with a tendancy to trip over things. The other hand clutched the arm of a rather battered-looking toy koala.
"Are they going to let us in?" he asked, peering at the line. From his perspective, it seemed to go on forever.
"Yes, dear, it will be fine. Our seats are reserved," his mother answered.
"Oh," said the boy. He didn't know what that meant, but he trusted his mother knew what she was doing. "And Daddy is in there, too, right?"
"Yes, that's right. We'll see him soon. You'll be a good boy and cheer for him, won't you?"
The boy nodded. Some people's fathers had jobs. He had seen them when he went to play with his friends - their fathers went out all day and came home at night. Most of them wore suits and ties, and carried briefcases. His father didn't have a briefcase, and he never seemed to wear a suit and tie. He went out and did something sometimes, but it was usually in the evening, and he never dressed up for it. Some times he would come home tired and grumpy, but most of the time he would be loud and happy, and have money with him. On some of those nights, he would buy the boy ice cream to celebrate, so that was good. The boy wondered if tonight he would get ice cream.
Eventually they came to the front of the line and showed a man their tickets, and they were allowed to pass inside the building. At first it was all right - just lots of people and hallways and people trying to sell things, a little like being at the mall. Then they went through a door, and the boy hid his face in his mother's skirts to avoid being confronted by the sheer enormity of it all. He had never seen such a huge room, or such bright lights, or so many people in one place.
"Come on, it's all right," his mother coaxed. "We have to go up some stairs now."
They climbed up and up. The boy stumbled a few times, until his mother was forced to carry him the rest of the distance to keep him from ending up black and blue by the time they reached the top. They got him settled in a seat, where he sat kicking his legs back and forth and clutching his koala.
"He'll be here soon," his mother assured him.
A few minutes later, the lights went down in the stadium, except for a number of spotlights that focused on the center arena. The crowd became still as an announcer's voice boomed down at them.
"Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, welcome to today's duel! Our first contestants for this evening will be newcomer Kentaro Kurosawa versus our longtime champion, Kumazou Maeda!"
The crowd applauded wildly, and the boy leaned forward in his seat to see better as his father strutted out into the ring. He had never seen a duel before, not one like this. He had seen his schoolmates playing with cards between classes, but he had never seen anything like this. As the two men stood proudly in the center of the arena, summoning monsters with nothing more than a wave of their hands, shouting confident orders while the crowd cheers and the lights blazed down on them, the boy held his breath in wonder. His mother, seeing his rapt expression, thought with pride that her boy was caught up in cheering for his father. In fact, he was thinking mostly of himself. He was imagining what it would be like to stand out there with the lights shining on him and people cheering for him - to be something other than a roly-poly, clumsy boy that the other children laughed at. He wanted a part of that excitement and glamor for himself.
"When I grow up," he told his mother, when it was all over, "I want to be a duelist like Daddy."
She smiled. "I'm sure your father will be proud to hear that, Hayato."
The boy was ten years old. His father had once been a famous duelist, but that was all in the past now. He had saved up a tidy sum of money and opened a liquor store, which did good business. It wasn't very interesting, though, at least from Hayato's perspective. While his father seemed happy enough to sit up at the counter and chat with customers about the good old days, Hayato wished that he was still dueling, so at least there would be a chance to go see more competitions in the arena. Instead, he was stuck helping unpack shipments and watching over the cash register.
"How come you never duel anymore, Dad?" he asked.
"I play sometimes," his father answered.
"I don't mean with your friends. I mean like you used to, in the stadiums."
"It got to be too much work," his father replied. "Dueling is a fine thing, but it's just a game. It's not something you do forever. The best thing to do is get in a few good years of dueling, make some money, and then get yourself a little place like this where you can take it easy."
"If I were a duelist," said Hayato, "I'd never give up. Not ever."
"So you still think you're going to make it as a duelist? Not a chance," said his father. "Look, I've seen you duel. You haven't got it in you. The best thing for you is to stay right here and run the store while I'm gone. Duel all you want in your spare time, but don't expect to go pro."
"I will be a duelist," said Hayato, folding his arms stubbornly. "You just watch."
"Fine, fine. Have it your way," his father replied. "Well, in that case, maybe you ought to look into going to school."
"School? But I go to school," Hayato protested.
"Not that kind of school. Duel school. They're starting one - I got a thing in the mail about it," said his father. "Maybe if you went and got some schooling, you'd learn enough to get by. Not likely, but you could try it."
Hayato's eyes lit up as he mentally seized on that chance. "I'll go!"
"Hold your horses. You can't go right now. You have to be fifteen, and you have to pass an exam. Tell you what - if you can get in, I'll pay for the school, but you'd better do a good job or you're coming right back here and going back to work. Got it?"
Hayato nodded eagerly. "You can count on me! I'll be the top student in that school in no time!"
The boy was fifteen years old. He was tall for his age, and broad - some might have tactlessly gone so far as to say he was fat - and not particularly graceful. Not especially attractive, either, with small close-set eyes and a large nose. He'd spent a fair portion of his life being teased by schoolmates for one reason or another - because of his weight or his nose or his tendency to trip over his own feet when he tried to join them in their games, or when he was just walking. But that, he told himself was all going to change today. He sat in his seat and fidgeted, waiting for his name to be called.
"Number 115, Hayato Maeda... Hayato Maeda, please report to the dueling arena for the practical exams..."
Hayato got to his feet and scrambled down the stairs as quickly as he could, arriving rather breathless and red in the face by the time he got there. It was quite a lot of stairs to have to deal with, and was already nervous. He checked his Duel Disk, even though he knew it was working perfectly and that his cards were safely in place. It gave him something to do besides stand there and look like he thought he was about to be executed.
The proctor did not look nervous at all. In fact, it was hard to tell how he looked, because he was wearing dark glasses that hid his eyes. Still, he stood tall and carried himself with a confidence that suggested he ate better duelists than Hayato for breakfast. Hayato attempted to look confident, too, but was not very sure how well he pulled it off.
"Duel Disk, ready!" the proctor ordered. "Your move! Let's duel!"
Hayato drew and studied his hand.
"I set one monster in defense mode," he said. "Turn end!"
"Right. My draw!" said the proctor.
Hayato glanced down at his hand and suddenly realized that there was a perfectly good trap card there he could have played.
"Wait! I changed my mind!" he exclaimed.
The proctor laughed.
"Sorry, boy," he said. "Your move is over. It's my turn now!"
Hayato cringed as he watched his monster be blasted to pieces.
So much for me going to duel school, he thought. I'm never going to win this!
But if he didn't win, it would be back to working in his father's store, possibly for the rest of his life. This was his chance, his only chance to be seen as something other than a funny-looking fat kid who wasn't good for very much. More than that, this was his chance to stand in the spotlight, to be admired and envied, to have people say, "I want to be just like him someday!" He wasn't going to get another chance like this, so he had better make good on it.
"My turn! Draw!" he declared.
Somehow, he managed to hold his own. The proctor summoned mainly low-level monsters, and Hayato got the distinct impression that he was using them because he was under orders to make it easy. The fact that Hayato was still just barely hanging in there irritated him.
Not for much longer, though, he realized. He was down to his last two hundred life points, with no monsters on his side of the field and no monsters in his hand. The proctor had one 1300-ATK monster on his side and 1000 life points.
He made his draw, and found himself looking at Pot of Greed. Well, so that was how it would be: everything came down to what two cards he could draw next.
"All right!" he cheered. Saved by the draw! "I play Des Kangaroo in attack mode! Next, I activate Lightning Vortex! By discarding one card from my hand, I can destroy your monster, which means mine can attack directly!"
The proctor watched as the Des Kangaroo bore down on him with all fifteen hundred attack points. His life counter dropped to zero. A few people in the stands started to clap.
"Hey, nice comeback!" someone shouted.
Hayato beamed. For the first time in his life, people were cheering and applauding for him.
"Congratulations, Hayato Maeda," said the proctor. "Welcome to Duel Academia."
Hayato was unable to say anything in return - he was too choked with emotion - so he made an awkward bow instead. Inside, though, he was exulting.
I really did it! Watch me, world - I'm going to be a duelist!
Hayato Maeda should have been in his third year at Duel Academia. He was in his third year, technically - he'd just never gotten around to being promoted. This was supposed to be his last chance, and it was already half-over, without showing much indication that he was going to do any better this time around. He sighed mournfully as he looked down at his midterm report.
An F in dueling history. An F in technique. An F in advanced rules and regulations. A C in gym, but nobody ever fails gym. An F on my practical exam... Even Juudai gets better grades than I do!
He tried to rally himself: these were only the grades for his midterms. There was still time to pull things around to a passing grade, if not an ideal one, before the term was over. He really was improving; he'd just been distracted by keeping up with this business about the Seven Stars. Things would sort themselves out by the end of the year...
Then he gave up. There was only so much a guy could lie to himself.
He wandered aimlessly across campus, not really paying too much attention where he was going, wrapped up in his own misery. Eventually, he found himself walking past the Ra Yellow dorm, and he stopped to look up at it. His first year, he'd been full of dreams of finishing his school career at Obelisk Blue and being one of the elite. In subsequent years, his goal had simply been to win the yellow jacket of a Ra student and live a life of respectable mediocrity. Now he thought he would be happy to stay in Osiris Red, just as long as he got to stay.
"Ah, Mr. Maeda," said a soft voice. "What a pleasure to see you here. I wanted to talk to you."
Hayato turned around and realized that Professor Kabayama had walked up silently behind him. Of all the teachers in school, Hayato probably liked the soft-spoken head of the Ra dorm best, but the two of them had never taken time to have a conversation outside of class before. Hearing that the man wanted to talk to him made Hayato a little nervous. He had actually done well on Kabayama's exam, so what could he want to talk about?
As if sensing Hayato's confusion, Kabayama smiled reassuringly.
"Would you like to come inside?" he asked.
Hayato realized he had never actually seen the inside of the Ra dorm. He nodded.
Kabayama led him through the front of the dorm, and Hayato followed closely behind him, trying to make it clear that he belonged here and wasn't just trying to sneak in. He couldn't help but notice how clean and fresh everything inside the building looked, especially when compared to the ramshackle old building he and his friends lived in. For a brief moment, he allowed himself to fantasize that Kabayama had been impressed enough with his skills in art and design that he was going to find a way to get him promoted to Ra, or make some kind of deal with the other teachers to put him into some kind of special program for art students, or perhaps offer to tutor him so that his grades would go up enough that he could stay. It would have been nice to believe in something like that.
They went into the teacher's office, a comfortable little room with white walls and a cheerful yellow tile floor. At least, that was what Hayato thought, but it was hard to tell, because the walls were covered over with paintings, and the floor was strewn with papers, easels, rolls of canvas, framing materials, and boxes of art supplies. There was also a bookshelf tucked discreetly in the corner, laden down with books which appeared to be incongruously focused on cooking.
"Sorry for the mess," said Kabayama. "I tend to get carried away. Please, sit down."
Hayato picked his way across the cluttered floor and sank into the chair with a sigh of faint relief. It would not have gone over well if he'd tripped or stepped on something important. Kabayama sat down behind his desk and settled himself into an attitude of listening. Hayato waited for him to say something.
"You... wanted to talk to me?" he asked nervously.
"Yes, for more than one reason," Kabayama replied. "I've noticed you've been having some troubles in school. Normally I don't get involved with students outside my own dorm, but, well... the Obelisks don't usually need my help, and the boys in Osiris are looked on as lost causes - the faculty here wouldn't consider it a good use of my time if they caught me getting mixed up with them. But I don't think you're a lost cause. Your work in my class has been well above par, and I think you're capable of achieving great things if we could just find a way to channel your abilities."
"You... you mean it?" Hayato stammered. It was the nicest thing any of his teachers had said to him in all his years at Duel Academia.
"Of course I mean it. I wouldn't say it if I didn't believe it," Kabayama replied seriously. "So what I wanted to do was talk to you a little and see if we can't figure out why you're having so much trouble succeeding as well in your other classes as you are in mine. So, do you have any ideas? Are you not getting along with your teachers? Is there something in the subject matter that doesn't appeal to you? Are you bored?"
"No! I love dueling," Hayato said. "I've always wanted to be a duelist ever since I was a little kid."
"Really? Tell me more," Kabayama prompted.
"Well... my dad used to be a championship duelist. The first time I went to see him duel in a stadium, it was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. I wanted to be just like him."
"So you want to follow in your father's footsteps?"
"Well, kind of," said Hayato. "Mostly I just want to do something that people will notice. If I don't make it here, my dad is going to drag me back home and put me to work in his store, and then I'll never get out! I want more than that. I'm sick of being treated like I'm worthless. Maybe it's selfish, but I want people to look at me and think I'm special, and dueling is the only thing I can do to make that happen."
"I see," said Kabayama thoughtfully. He rocked in his chair, gazing up at the ceiling.
"Maybe I'm just wasting my time," Hayato muttered.
"I don't think you're wasting your time," the teacher replied. "Even if you are on the wrong path, you may learn something that will guide you to the right one."
"What do you mean?" Hayato asked.
"I mean, just because you love something - or even if you're very good at something - that does not mean that is the one and only thing you should be pursuing," Kabayama replied. He waved a hand toward the shelf with the cookbooks. "Would it surprise you to know I used to be a master chef?"
"Yes indeed! I went to culinary school for several years and worked in some very fine restaurants. I had quite a reputation at one point," Kabayama replied.
"Why did you leave?"
"Because it was... unfulfilling. I never got to meet any of the people I was serving. It was just me and the undercooks, day in and day out. I was good at the work, and very successful at it. Many times I even enjoyed it, but I realized after a while that it was not the work I was born to do," said Kabayama. "That was a long time ago, when I was still quite a young man. Since then, I've come to realize that what I truly love is working with students. It may not be as glamorous as the work I once did, but it is better suited to my skills and makes me happy."
"So you think I should give up dueling," said Hayato dejectedly.
"I think you should do what is best for you," Kabayama corrected gently. "That could very well mean seriously considering what your other options might be. If dueling makes you happy, then by all means, you should continue. Just don't close your mind to other possibilities. You can always duel without making a career of it, the same way I can still enjoy cooking without being a professional chef."
"But what else would I do?" Hayato asked.
"Well, for starters, you might try this," said Kabayama. He opened his desk drawer and took out a large envelope. Hayato couldn't help but notice that it was stamped with the logo of the Industrial Illustions corporation.
"What is that?"
"This is an entry form," Kabayama replied. "I've been given several of them, but so far I haven't distributed them to anyone yet. Industrial Illusions is holding a contest for aspiring card designers. The entries will be judged by none other than Mr. Pegasus J. Crawford himself, and one winner will be selected to become an official Duel Monsters card. I'd like to see you enter. You have talent, Hayato, and I honestly think you have a chance."
Hayato's eyes widened. "You mean it?"
"Absolutely," Kabayama assured him. "You can even borrow some of my art supplies, if you like. You'll need good materials to do your best work."
"Thank you, Professor!" said Hayato. "I won't let you down! I'll make this my best painting ever!"
Kabayama smiled. "I know you will. I have faith in you."
A few minutes later, Hayato left Kabayama's office with his arms full of art supplies and his mind full of ideas, as he turned over potential images for a card that would impress the creator of Duel Monsters. It was a task that would have daunted most people, but... what did he have to lose, really? Even if he didn't win, it was still a chance to make sure that Pegasus knew his name, and that was a chance not everyone got. And if he really did have as much of a chance as Kabayama said he did, then maybe...
He bounded into his room, nearly bowling over his roommates as he did so.
"Hey, pal, what's the hurry?" asked Juudai.
Shou looked up from his textbook. "Hey, Hayato, where have you been? And, um, you wouldn't happen to know the answer to question nineteen, would you? Because we can't figure it out."
"Not right now!" said Hayato. "I've got a picture to paint!"
Today would have been the last day of school. It had been a busy day, and Hayato hadn't even thought about it in terms of school until he took a break around three in the afternoon, and his gaze happened to fall on the calendar on his wall. It was only then that the significance of the day dawned on him, and he realized that his friends had probably just finished watching the graduation ceremony and were getting read to enjoy a brief break before the next year started. Some of his classmates would be graduating and going on to the Pro Leagues. It was strange to think that if he had passed all his courses, he would be graduating today too, and becoming a professional duelist along with them. He was never would do either of those things, now.
He didn't really mind.
There was a brisk knock on the door to his office, and a cheerful voice called out, "Hello, hello! Is anyone home?"
"Come in, Mr. Pegasus," Hayato called back.
"Don't mind if I do, thank you," Pegasus replied, stepping into the room. "I do hope I'm not interrupting any serious creative deliberations."
"No, sir. I was just putting on the finishing touches," Hayato replied. He got up and turned his easel around so Pegasus could have a look.
"Oh, that is splendid!" said Pegasus, stepping closer for a better look. "I love your attention to detail. So many people think they can get away with taking the easy way out because they know the picture will be reduced on the card, but you always put in your full effort, and I want you to know I appreciate it."
"Thank you, sir!" said Hayato, blushing slightly.
"No thanks necessary. I think hard work should be rewarded," Pegasus replied. "Anyway, if you're done with that for the time being, how would you like to help me with something? I've got a group working on the package design for the latest booster pack, and my creative team has come to a bit of an impasse. I thought perhaps I could prevail on you to offer an outside opinion."
"Sure!" Hayato blurted. "I mean, I'd be happy to, sir."
"I thought so," said Pegasus with a slight chuckle. "Follow me, then, please."
Hayato followed his employer out into the hall, proudly marching along beside him. The other workers they passed watched with expressions of curiosity and a bit of envy, plainly wondering what had prompted Pegasus to take such an interest in his newest and youngest employee. The two of them made their way to a conference room, where a number of other men and women were already gathered, looking over a collection of brightly colored pictures of monsters and arguing heatedly. Pegasus took a seat at the head of the table and waved Hayato to a vacant chair.
"Everyone, I'm sure you all know Mr. Maeda here," he said. "He's going to help us solve our little dilemma. Mr. Webster, would you be so kind as to explain the problem to him?"
Hayato listened gravely to the explanation, acutely aware that everyone at the table - all of them much older and more experienced than he - were watching him, waiting to hear and judge whatever he had to say. The thought didn't bother him. On the contrary, with all eyes on him, he felt like the star of the show, and he knew he'd finally found the spotlight where he belonged.