Gifts of the Elements
There was a lot of light and noise.
Then there wasn't.
Juudai blinked a little, attempting to figure out where he was, what had happened, and where to go from here. Good questions, all of them. Juudai chuckled dryly at himself - he hadn't had much luck with any of them lately. He was having trouble working out even who he was right now. Juudai. The Haou. A prince. A student. A duelist. A killer. A savior. It would have been nice to be able to pick a persona and stick with it.
First things first. Juudai looked around, attempting to get a feel for where he'd ended up. There wasn't a lot to see. The world around him was a formless twilight place. He could dimly make out something like a road in front of him, stretching outward to infinity. The space beyond the road was a bit less defined. He walked over to the edge of the path and looked down; whatever was beyond the ground he was standing on looked dark and foggy, but with points of light mixed into it, like distant stars. He prodded it with a toe and felt no resistance. He decided to keep clear of the edge. Looking up, he could see a black sky full of stars, though it seemed to be lightening closer to the end of the road. If he looked behind him, everything faded into pitch blackness and the road seemed to vanish, but there was a soft silvery light shining somewhere ahead of him. Well, at least he had some idea what he was supposed to be doing. It was nice to be sure of something.
"Is everyone else okay?" he asked, more to hear his own voice than because he needed an answer. He was met by a reassuring chirrup from Hane Kuriboh. Juudai smiled a little and focused his attention inward to see how his new companion was settling in, and was hit by a wave of joy so intense it nearly made him stagger. Obviously Yubel had no complaints about her new accommodations. Juudai smiled a little. In spite of everything, it was good to know that he had made somebody completely happy.
"Well, guys," he said. "Looks like we've got some walking to do."
He took a few steps forward, resigning himself to a long hike. He didn't know where he was going to go from here, but he had the impression it was going to take a while to get there. However, he had only taken a few steps before he felt himself being pitched forward and he was falling, falling...
He hit the water headfirst and went down. He went down a long way, long enough to make him wonder vaguely just how fast he'd been falling, anyway, and whether or not he was just going to keep sinking through this water forever. At last, however, he stopped falling and simply bobbed there. He managed to open his eyes and look around a little, taking in banks of sand, stone, coral, and softly waving sea plants. Tiny, jewel-toned fishes scattered at the sight of him. Juudai looked up. The sun was shimmering on the surface of the water, what looked like miles above him. He wished he'd had time to take a breath before he'd fallen into this ocean, not that it would have done him much good. No matter how fast he swam, he was sure he would never reach the surface in time, but what choice did he have? He began to kick and paddle his way upwards. His clothing dragged him down, and he shed his shoes, and, reluctantly, his treasured red jacket. He could get another jacket, but it wouldn't do him much good if he drowned. He took another stroke, and another, fighting to pick up speed.
Not gonna make it! he thought, feeling his lungs burning. His head spun with the effort of pushing himself forward, and the surface seemed as far away as ever. His arms and legs felt leaden. He continued to flail, but weakly now. At last, he could hold out no longer, and he gasped and felt water flow into his lungs.
It was not uncomfortable. The water felt warm and light and soothing. Almost immediately, he felt his strength flowing back into him. He coughed a little - or gave the best approximation of a cough he could give underwater - and took another gulp of the seawater. It tasted sweet rather than salty, and he didn't seem to be drowning in it. He had to draw his breaths a bit more slowly and deliberately than he would have when he was breathing air, but otherwise his lungs didn't seem to object to it.
"Where the heck are we?" he said aloud. His voice was echoey and distorted underwater.
Don't you know? asked a voice in his mind. I thought you would recognize it. You've been here before.
"I haven't..." Juudai began, and then his eye was caught by a pod of dolphins swimming by. "Oh! Neospace!"
A ripple of laughter ran through his consciousness. Yubel was amused by him. He grinned in spite of himself. On reflection, it seemed obvious - where else but the birthplace of the elements would he find water so pure and life-giving that he could breathe in it?
Well, now that he knew he could breathe, he didn't have to worry so much about swimming to the surface. In fact, it was rather pleasant where he was. He looked around, wondering if he could find his jacket again, but it had been caught by a current and had drifted off somewhere. He considered this for a moment, and then, with a shrug, removed the rest of his clothes. The water was warm, and he would be able to swim more easily without them. Of course, what he would do when he left the water and reached land was a good question, but some instinct told him that he would be able to find whatever he needed in Neospace for as long as he stayed there. He felt better without it, as though he had kicked free of some restraint.
A chattering noise somewhere nearby drew his attention back to the dolphins. They squeaked at him in a friendly sort of way, and he squeaked back at them. He wasn't sure what he'd said, if anything, but it sent the dolphins into spasms of what sounded like laughter. They swooped around him, twining over and under in dizzying spirals and making it impossible for him to keep up with even such a simple thing as how many there were. He tried to count them anyway, and wound up thoroughly confusing himself to the point where he wasn't even sure which way was up.
They scattered just as suddenly, leaving only one. Juudai stared at it and blinked. It wasn't like the others. He grinned as he recognized it.
"Aqua Dolphin," he greeted.
The Neo-Spacian dipped his head in greeting. "Hello, Juudai. Welcome back."
"Thanks," said Juudai. "So... what exactly am I doing here?"
"Exactly what you are supposed to be doing. Resting. Healing. You've had a hard time of it, as of late. You can recuperate here," Aqua Dolphin explained. "The way ahead may be difficult, but here, at least, you are safe."
"So where is here, exactly? I mean, I know I'm in Neospace, but that could cover a lot of ground."
Aqua Dolphin laughed. "Isn't it obvious? This is the element of Water. All life begins with water. Let it wash away your pain so that you may be born again."
"But..." Juudai began. He was beginning to feel a bit uneasy about frolicking with dolphins so soon after all the terrible things that had happened. It seemed selfish.
Something of what he was thinking must have shown on his face, because Aqua Dolphin stopped swimming to put a comforting hand on Juudai's shoulder.
"It is not selfish to need to be healed after you are hurt," he said gently. "Relax. Swim. Forget everything for a while. Just be. The rest of the world will catch up to you when you're ready again."
Juudai nodded slowly, still not completely convinced. The rest of the dolphins returned and began nudging at him, encouraging him to swim, and he laughed in spite of himself as their flippers and noses tickled him. He gripped the flippers of one of the dolphins and let it pull him through the water. As soon as it realized that he had a tight hold, it took off like a rocket, making him yelp in surprise... and then laugh in delight as he was taken on a wild roller-coaster ride over the sea floor.
He had no idea how long he stayed there, swimming with the sea creatures and exploring the depths of the ocean. What he did know was that by the time he was done, he felt as though the warm water had washed away all the dirt and blood from his body as well as his mind. When at last he began to tire, he let himself drift until a current caught him and began carrying him gently to some unknown destination. It was a relaxing way to travel, so he let himself recline and be carried along, watching the scenery slide by. Sometimes the dolphins swam with him, and sometimes schools of colorful fish. Once he thought he saw a whale the size of a skyscraper, which glided serenely along in the distance. Juudai would have liked a closer look at it, but it was too far away and he was too drowsy to try to swim towards it. He had been awake for quite a while, and had been through a lot of physical and emotional stress...
The next thing he knew, the sunlight was much brighter than it had been before, and he could feel his feet brushing against sand. He woke up from a near-doze to see that he was being washed up on a beach just a few yards away, so he began swimming towards it. He surfaced, and immediately began coughing up seawater as his lungs tried to adjust to breathing air again. The atmosphere felt harsh after the soothing ocean, but gradually he adapted to it and managed to collect himself enough to scramble ashore. There, he stretched out on the sun-baked sand and let himself dry off. A moment later, one of the dolphins surfaced nearby, holding something in its mouth. As Juudai watched, the dolphin flung its burden up onto the beach. It was Juudai's belt, with his card pouch still safely attached.
"Hey, thanks!" Juudai called, waving. The dolphin chattered pleasantly at him before turning and diving into the ocean again.
Feeling much better, Juudai stood up and checked his deck to make sure everything was still where it ought to be. His cards had stayed safe and dry inside their pouch, but he spread them out anyway and looked at them one by one, reassuring himself that each and every one of his monsters was still with him.
While he was sitting there, he felt a ripple of something run through him, and suddenly Yubel was beside him. She turned to face the sun, tipping her head back and spreading her arms and wings, as though she too thought she needed drying off, though she looked try to Juudai.
"There is something soothing about this place," she murmured.
"I know the feeling," said Juudai. He got up to stand next to her. "What do you think we should do now?"
Before Yubel had a chance to even offer an opinion, Juudai's stomach rumbled noisily. He blushed, and Yubel gave him a teasing smile.
"You should eat," she told him. She tilted her head, giving him a considering look. "And you will need clothing soon. But food first, I think."
"Good idea," Juudai agreed. He looked around. "I don't see any burger places around here, though."
Yubel chuckled tolerantly. "Leave that to me. You stay here and rest. I don't think anything will hurt you while I am gone."
She flapped her wings and flew away from the ocean, toward the trees that lined the beach, and within a few minutes she was out of sight. Juudai waited for a moment, and when she did not appear, he sat down on the sand again and began sorting through his cards to pass the time. He thought about putting his belt back on but discarded the idea as being too ridiculous. How silly would he look walking around wearing a belt and nothing else?
A little while later, Yubel returned carrying a broad leaf loaded down with assorted fruits, which she placed at Juudai's feet. The fruits were nothing he had ever seen before, but they smelled good and he doubted that anything poisonous would be growing in Neospace. It occurred to him that he could literally not remember the last time he'd eaten anything. He lost no time in sampling them all. There were tangy fruits with neon pink rinds, and softer blue ones with a taste like cotton candy, and orange ones with a fuzzy outer skin that were so good that Yubel returned to the forest several times to bring Juudai some more of them because he liked them so much. Yubel ate, as well, but slowly, finishing only one fruit for every three or four that Juudai finished; Juudai got the impression that she didn't really need to eat at all, and was only doing it for the simple pleasure of sitting down and sharing a meal with him. He also noticed that she saved all the orange ones for him. He wanted to tell her to stop making such a fuss over him, but eventually he decided that she was enjoying it, and that the best thing he could do for her was to relax and enjoy the attention. At least she was fussing over him in a perfectly harmless fashion.
By the time he could finally eat no more, the sun had set and the stars were beginning to come out. He watched drowsily as the unfamiliar constellations flickered into view, peering out between a pair of twin moons and around the edges of neighboring planets. He supposed that with night falling, he ought to be thinking about finding shelter, but he was warm and full and sleepy and didn't feel like moving much. He burrowed a little into the soft sand to make himself a next of sorts. Yubel, seeing what he was doing, lay down next to him and spread one of her wings over him for a blanket. Juudai curled up a little so he would fit more neatly beneath it. There was a chilly breeze blowing off the ocean now, but Yubel's protection kept him comfortable.
Of course. She was his protector, and if all there was to protect him from in Neospace was hunger and cold, then that was what she would do. There was no job too humble for her as long as she could be there for him.
"Thanks, Yubel," he murmured.
"You're welcome," she replied. She smiled at him, an incongruously sweet expression in her mismatched eyes. "Goodnight, dear Juudai."
He laughed a little. "Goodnight. Sweet dreams."
"Can I watch you sleep?"
"For a little while, but then you have to sleep too."
"All right, then."
Juudai closed his eyes and let himself drift. The last thing he was conscious of before he fell entirely to dreaming was the sound of rushing waves.
In Fubuki's dream, he sat by the ocean. His surfboard rested nearby, spiked into the sand, but though the waves were inviting he had no inclination to go and ride them. There didn't seem to be any point in it. His love of life - of everything - seemed to have had a pall thrown over it. Ever since he had returned from the Dark World, he had been quiet and withdrawn, barely able to muster up a smile. It wasn't like him, and he knew it wasn't like him, and that made the sadness even worse. He looked pensively down at the sand at his feet, watching the waves roll up to nearly touch his toes and then roll away again.
Then he heard the sound of footsteps on the beach, and he looked up. Someone was walking towards him, and as their eyes met, the newcomer gave him a friendly smile. Fubuki blinked.
"Juudai!" he exclaimed. "You came back!"
"No, not yet," said Juudai casually. "You're just dreaming."
"Oh," said Fubuki. He looked around. It didn't look like a dream to him - it looked like the beach at Duel Academia. Of course, he couldn't remember how he had gotten there or what he had been doing beforehand... He shook his head; he wasn't too good with metaphysics. "But you are going to come back, right? You're still alive, right?"
"Yeah, I'm still alive!" Juudai assured him. "I'm fine, I promise. I don't know if I'm coming back, yet, but I'm okay. Don't worry."
"But it's hard, not worrying," said Fubuki. "So much happened..."
Juudai's eyes darkened. "Believe me, I know. I'm really sorry. I wish I could undo what I did to you... all of you."
"It's okay," said Fubuki. He didn't sound convincing, even to himself, and Juudai shook his head.
"No, it's not," he said, "but I'm going to try to make it better. Here. I have something that belongs to you."
He held out his hand, and Fubuki could see a sphere shimmering there, looking sort of like glass and sort of like light, and he couldn't figure out which of the two it was. It couldn't be both, could it? It was glowing softly, and had some sort of symbol etched into it. It looked familiar. Fubuki recognized it and reeled away.
"Oh, no, we're not going through that again!" he said. He remembered those orbs all too well. He'd never forget what had happened in Brron's arena when the bubbles were extracted, either.
"This will be different, I promise," said Juudai. "Look at it. I mean, really look. It's not the same thing at all."
Fubuki overcame his mistrust enough to step a bit closer and examine the bubble. Now that he looked at it properly, he could see that it was not dull white as the other orbs had been, but a bright blue, like the sky. The symbol on its surface was "water". That seemed safe enough...
While he was still thinking about it, Juudai reached out and took his hand, pressing the bubble into it. It felt like nothing at all as it sank into his skin, but suddenly his vision was filled with the rippling blue light that fell deep beneath the ocean. For a moment, he was swimming in the crystal water surrounded by jewel-bright fish and gently undulating forests of seaweed. Dolphins sported around him, their eyes bright with the sheer joy of being, exulting in their freedom. He took it all in - the endless, nurturing, life-giving ocean, the joy of living of the dolphins - and made it part of himself. Then it was over, and he was standing on a beach with Juudai in front of him.
"Feel better?" he asked.
"Yeah," said Fubuki, surprised. "Yeah, I really do."
Juudai grinned. "Well, what are you waiting for? Those waves aren't going to wait for you forever!"
"Right! Thanks!" said Fubuki. Filled with newfound energy, Fubuki picked up his board and began splashing into the ocean.
When it occurred to him to turn around and look back, Juudai was already gone. He stared for a moment, and then shrugged. You had to expect something like that in a dream. Humming softly to himself, he turned his attention to the waves.
Juudai awoke to the sound of waves lapping on the beach, and to the sound of singing, and for a moment was unsure if he was waking or dreaming. Then he felt the water lapping around his feet and decided that the waves, at least, were real, which meant the music probably was too. Which meant he probably wasn't dreaming anymore, which meant he probably ought to get up. He rolled over and brought himself to a sitting position, shaking sand out of his hair and looking around for the source of the song.
He found it a few feet away from himself. Yubel was sitting on a stone, all three of her eyes closed and her face turned towards the rising sun. She was singing, sometimes in a male voice, sometimes in her female one. It was not a beautiful sound, but it was a stirring one, like the sound of distant thunder. At first, Juudai thought she was using a different language, because he could not understand what she was singing, but he gradually got the feeling that it was only something different about the inflection or the dialect that was stopping him, and the more he listened, the more he began to feel he knew what she was saying. Something about gratitude and peace and rest...
She stopped suddenly, in mid-line, and opened her eyes to look at him.
"You don't have to stop," he said. "I kind of liked it. What was that?"
"It was a... a hymn. A song to greet the morning and to bid the shadows to rest easily until night returns," she answered dreamily. "You used to know it, too, a long time ago... I had almost forgotten it. Being near you makes me remember... what it was like to be human."
"Yeah... I think having you around is making me remember things, too. You know, from the other time," he said. "I hope I'm remembering. I want to be able to remember everything about you."
Yubel flushed with pleasure. "Flatterer."
"No, really!" Juudai told her, wide-eyed and innocent. "Will you at least teach me the words to the song?"
"That, I will do," she said. "After you eat breakfast. And perhaps take a bath. They brought you clothing."
"'They'?" Juudai repeated. "Who's 'they'?"
"Little crawling creatures. Friends of yours, I suspect," said Yubel. Her tone of voice communicated just how little she cared about anyone who wasn't Juudai. "I left the clothing on the rock for you, so it would not get wet."
"Thanks," said Juudai. "Come to think of it, I guess a bath would feel pretty good right now. And breakfast. I'm hungry!"
Yubel looked amused. "After all you ate last night?"
"That was last night!"
"All right, then. Wash and dress, and I will find food."
She flitted off into the forest again, and Juudai stepped into the ocean to let it wash the sand off of his skin. There was nothing to dry himself with when he was done, but a brisk morning breeze took care of that fairly quickly, and he was able to pull on his new clothing with little difficulty. The new outfit was so like the one he had abandoned in the ocean that he thought for a moment that it was the exact same. The jeans were a bit darker, though, and the fit of the jacket and cut of the shirt was slightly different. The whole thing felt more comfortable than the old and slightly-too-small jacket he had been wearing before, and he decided it looked good on him.
Yubel apparently thought so too.
"Quite handsome," she said with a smile, as she emerged from the trees with an armload of fruits.
"Of course you would say that," said Juudai. He walked over and took the leaf that Yubel was carrying the food in, and helped himself to one of the bright pink fruits. "You'd think that no matter what I looked like."
"That doesn't mean it's not true," she said.
Juudai decided to ignore that comment, and concentrated instead on his breakfast. Fried shrimp was still his favorite food in the world, but he could have happily lived for weeks on the sweet fruits that grew here. He wondered if he could get his Neo-Spacian friends to bring him some once in a while, when this was all over. Assuming it was going to end.
"I know where we're going next," he said instead. "Kind of."
"Through the rest of the elements. We've gone through water. We've got five left."
Juudai shrugged. "Who knows? I'll be done, I guess."
Yubel considered that idea and nodded. Apparently she didn't care a great deal where they went, or why, as long as she got to go with Juudai.
"Whenever you're ready," she said.
So they went. It was a good day for traveling, warm and sunny, with a brisk breeze. The path Juudai chose took them around the edge of the dense forest, climbing over a row of rocks that might have been all that was left of an ancient lava flow. On one hand, it sloped upwards into the clouds, but Juudai found a ledge that was easily traversable with a bit of athletic ability. From time to time, they would pass under tiny waterfalls that spilled water down on their heads, but Juudai didn't seem to mind them, and of course Yubel could avoid them whenever she pleased. She kept flicking in and out of sight, merging with Juudai and re-emerging again as the whim took her.
Happy, happy, so happy... The words weren't formed coherently in her mind, but the feelings were omnipresent. Never had she imagined, in this life or her human life, that she could ever be so full of joy. After all those years, countless eons of waiting, loneliness and pain, she had begun to think that she might never be happy again. But even in her wildest, most hopeful dreams, she had never envisioned anything so wonderful, so perfect. Juudai belonged to her now in a way that he would never belong to anyone else - he had given her his very soul for her own. She would be a part of him forever, now, and even if he died and was born again they would still be together and he could never forget her because all her memories would be his. She was free to walk alongside him, if she wished, to gaze at his perfect face and listen to the sound of his voice, his laughter, his breathing. He would even let her stroke his hair, or put her arms around him when he stopped to rest. Or, if she chose, she could return to her place in his soul and enjoy the sensation of being a part of all of his thoughts and feelings, of being closer to her beloved than even the air he breathed. She couldn't decide which she liked better, and spent a lot of time flitting back and forth without coming to any sound conclusions. She was enjoying herself more than she could remember ever enjoying anything.
After they had been walking several hours, Juudai grew weary and stopped in a sheltered cranny, where one of the miniature waterfalls had created a small pool. Juudai stopped and kicked his boots off. His socks followed soon after, and he sat down to dip his feet in the water.
"Man, I'm bushed," he said. "I wonder how much further we have to go? This jungle seems to go on forever."
"I'll look," said Yubel. She spread her wings and floated high into the air, looking around in all directions. The jungle did spread far and wide, but she could see that in one direction, it tapered off and became a rockier, more mountainous region. Looking another way, she could see grassy plains. Looking back where they had come, the ocean was still faintly visible. She swooped back down to the ground and reported her findings to Juudai.
"Which way are we going to go?" she asked him.
"No idea," said Juudai. "I'm guessing we'll figure it out as we go along. First, though, I'm going to have lunch."
Yubel immediately prepared to go find food for him, but he reached out to stop her.
"Come on, you don't have to do that. I can find something for myself, really!"
"Are you worried about me, Juudai?" asked Yubel, touched by his concern. "I like making you happy. I haven't been able to do things for you in so long... Besides, you are tired and I am not. You should rest and regain your strength."
"Well, when you put it like that..."
Yubel laughed at how easily he caved in. "Thank you, Juudai. Don't go anywhere - I'll be right back."
And she was, of course. Even if it made her happy to be able to help him, she wasn't inclined to spend even a moment away from him that she could be at his side. She returned with the food and watched as he attacked it with gusto. She was beginning to remember - he had been the same way as a child, and in his first life as well. While he ate, she lounged comfortably next to the pool. She had been designed to be as much of a help and as little a hindrance as possible to her master, and therefore had been created to have no need of solid food. She could live indefinitely with only darkness as her sustenance, and could therefore get all the strength she needed just by being close to Juudai. She could enjoy a "lunch" of her own while doing nothing more than lying there. She managed to tear her eyes off of her beloved long enough to glance into the water, mostly out of a curiosity to see if there was anything in it.
It had been a very long time since Yubel had looked at her reflection. She normally didn't think much about her body - it was a creation, a tool, a weapon to be used in the service of the Haou. It was not meant to be looked at and admired. How could it be? It looked like it had been put together out of whatever was lying around by someone who wasn't sure what a human or a dragon should look like and just put the pieces wherever they would fit. She didn't look like anything - not human or beast or male or female. Even all her colors didn't match.
"Juudai," she said, "do you think I'm ugly?"
"What?" said Juudai, looking up from his lunch. "No, of course you're not ugly, Yubel! You're just different, that's all. I think you look pretty good."
Yubel positively glowed with pleasure at his words. "You really think so?"
"Yeah! Your eyes are really cool. How come they're two different colors?" asked Juudai. He gave her the kind of trusting look that suggested he was sure she actually knew why, and that it had never occurred to him that anyone might not know why their eyes were the color they were.
How very like him, thought Yubel, amused.
"My eyes are not like human eyes," she said. "They see things that other people can't see. They can see through illusions, see auras, even see the difference between lies and truth. Sometimes they can even see the future."
"That sounds... really useful!" Juudai commented, sounding impressed.
"It is," said Yubel mildly. She looked thoughtful for a moment. "Would you like to have eyes like mine, Juudai?"
Juudai laughed. "Well, yeah, that would be kind of fun!"
"Then I'll share them with you."
"Huh? How can you...?" Juudai began to ask, and then stopped, because Yubel had slipped back into his soul. He blinked a few times. The world looked different than it had before - the shadows seemed to lie differently, and there was a sort of sparkle around the plants that hadn't been there before, as though they had all been sprinkled with glitter. Juudai tilted his head this way and that, trying to accustom himself to this new way of seeing. Out of curiosity, he peeked into the water (which now had its own misty glow about it) and studied his reflection. One green and one orange eye looked back out of his face.
"Ha," he said, grinning. "That does look cool."
He looked up, watching the way the shadows shimmered around him. He decided he liked the way it looked; it seemed natural to him that it should be that way. As he looked, he noticed that in one direction, the shadows were deeper in a way that seemed to have no bearing on how much sunlight was shining there. In the other direction, they looked thin and weak, as though they were only cobwebs that would blow away with the first strong breeze. He turned away from them and walked into the cool reassuring darkness in the shadow of the hills.
After less than half a mile, though, he began to change his mind. The way became harder and rockier, the path steeper, and the plant-life more stunted and spread further apart. At last, the forest was gone altogether, and Juudai found himself walking across a flat and barren plateau covered with rusty rocks. The sun was very warm there, and within a few minutes, Juudai's new clothes were drenched with sweat. He began to wonder if this was really one of his better ideas.
I think you should have gone the other way.
"No, this is the right way, I'm sure of it," he told Yubel. "Nobody ever said going the right way would be easy. I've just got to keep pushing."
There was a moment of silence - considering silence, he thought. Then he got that shivery feeling again, and Yubel appeared hovering above him. Her broad black wings cast a welcome shade over him.
"Better?" she asked.
He grinned. "Much better! Thanks!"
She smiled back and reached down to ruffle his hair. "Just because you have to do it does not mean you have to do it alone."
His smile turned a little rueful. He'd been trying to do far too much on his own lately. "Yeah, you're right about that."
After a moment's thought, he took out his cards and drew Hane Kuriboh's.
"Hey, aibou. Come on out," he urged.
There was a familiar cooing sound, and Hane Kuriboh phased into view - not a spirit, as he normally appeared, but a fully formed ball of fluff. His tiny wings fanned a soft breeze that cooled Juudai's sweaty face. The boy laughed.
"Great to see you too," he said. "Hey, how about doing us a favor, huh? Think you could look up ahead for us and see if there's anyplace we can find some shade?"
Hane Kuriboh chirruped agreeably and fluttered off. Juudai watched him until he became invisible, nothing more than a brown dot against the brown landscape. Even then, he kept staring at a particular speck for a while, wondering if it was Hane Kuriboh or just a rock. Yubel waited patiently until he finally started walking again.
Time passed. Juudai wasn't sure how much; the only way he could tell time was moving at all was the way the shadows slid slowly across the ground. Otherwise, it was possible that nothing was happening at all. The landscape didn't change, the horizon didn't seem to grow any closer, and the sun beat down as fiercely as ever no matter what angle it shone from.
At last, sunset grew near, and the rocks around him took on a vivid reddish glow. Juudai, tired and thirsty as he was, still couldn't help but think they were pretty. The color reminded him of home. He wondered if he would ever spend the night in his beloved Osiris Red building again. It may not have been much of a building, but it had always meant home to him in a way no other place had. He almost couldn't imagine going back to the house where he'd once lived, after school was over. He wasn't sure what he was going to do...
"The furry creatures are back," said Yubel. It was the first thing she had said to him in hours.
"Furry creatures? What furry..." Juudai began, and then stopped, because even without Yubel's superior vision, he could see something moving towards them. One shape floated above the others, its white wings glinting pinkish in the sunlight. The others trundled across the ground on heavy paws. Other than the size, which were close to that of the average cocker spaniel, they looked like...
"Moles?" he wondered aloud.
Sure enough, within minutes, he was being approached by half a dozen rusty- furred moles, who sniffed him over with their sensitive noses, making him laugh. Hane Kuriboh chittered, plainly proud of itself. Juudai pulled his partner into a hug, and Hane Kuriboh squealed with happiness.
"Who are all these little guys?" he asked.
"Offhand, I would say they are assistance," said Yubel. "These are the ones who brought your clothing, so I assume they are here to help now."
"I'm all for that!" said Juudai. He turned to the moles. "You guys want me to follow you?"
The moles nodded. Moving as one, they turned and dove into the ground, digging deep into the rocky earth and sending up plumes of dirt. Juudai yelped and tried to cover his face until Yubel shielded him with her wings. He listened until the sound of falling dirt had stopped, and then looked cautiously out again. There was now a gaping hole at his feet, leading down into he-couldn't-see-what.
"I guess we go that way," he said.
"I'll go first," said Yubel. Something in her tone suggested, to see if it's safe, but it remained unvoiced. Juudai felt that the Neospacian creatures weren't likely to lead him into a trap, but he didn't bother to try to stop her.
They went down. Juudai quickly discovered that he was grateful that Yubel was ahead of him. Once he got well beyond the tunnel entrance, he couldn't see a thing, and was obliged to cling to her to keep from tripping over something or walking into a wall. Hane Kuriboh fluttered alongside him, cooing encouragement, but he wasn't very good to hold on to if Juudai should happen to fall over something.
After a while, though, they came to a place where the walls began to be studded with large crystals, some larger than Juudai's head, and each of them emitted a faint greenish-blue light. There weren't enough of them to see by, at first, but more and more of them appeared the further the trio traveled, until soon the walls and floor were covered with them, and the tunnel was filled with light. They made a gentle chiming noise when struck, especially when Yubel walked on them with her taloned feet. She seemed rather amused by this, and rapped on the walls with her claws as she walked by. Juudai tried flicking him with his fingernails, but the notes wouldn't ring as clearly for him, which plainly amused her all the more.
At length, they came to a place where the tunnel opened up into a huge cavern. There, the six little moles were waiting, gathered around a large rock and looking pleased with themselves. Seated on the rock was Gran Mole himself, who smiled at Juudai and beckoned him to come closer. Juudai climbed up and sat next to him, while Hane Kuriboh frolicked on the floor with the other furry creatures and Yubel watched from a safe distance.
"Welcome, Juudai," said Gran Mole. "You've reached the heart of the element of Earth."
"It's beautiful," said Juudai, gazing wide-eyed at the crystalline walls.
Gran Mole nodded. "This is the next step in your journey. Learn this: the Earth is that which nurtures the life that is brought forth from the Water. It is steady, supportive, strong. You have proven your determination; its strength is now yours."
"Thank you," said Juudai humbly.
Gran Mole patted him on the back with one of his massive paws. "You earned it. Now is the time to prepare for the next step of your journey. Stay here tonight, and we'll take care of you."
That seemed to be a signal. The little moles gave a series of squeaks and scampered off, and reappeared a few moments later carrying an earthenware jug and a set of bundles, which on inspection turned out to contain mushrooms and roots of various sorts. Juudai opened the jug and discovered that it was filled to the brim with clear, cold spring water, which was more than welcome after a long tramp across the desert. It was only after his thirst was slaked that he turned his attention to the food. It wasn't as tasty as the fruits had been, but as he ate he felt something of the strength of the earth fill him. He shared his meal with his monster friends. Hane Kuriboh gobbled his share with chirps of delight. Yubel seemed disinterested at first, and accepted it only to please Juudai, but after she tasted it she showed more enthusiasm; apparently the food grown in the deep darkness where the sun never shined agreed with her. She seemed to like it better than Juudai did, in fact, and he willingly gave the remains of his share up to her.
When they were done, the moles showed Juudai to a place deeper inside the cave where the shining crystals had been dug away save for a few on the walls that could be covered with clever flaps. There were rows of some kind of massive shelf fungus, striped in white and red and brown, each of them as long as Juudai was tall, or longer. He could stretch out on top of one and be quite comfortable; its spongy surface molded itself to his body almost as though he were sleeping on a cloud. He felt his eyelids growing heavy almost at once. He didn't fight it. With a contented sigh, he dropped into a deep sleep.
Most of the students who lived on Academy Island thought of it mostly as a tropical place. When asked to describe it, they would have spoken of the trees, the beach, and the oceans. Maybe they would have remembered the volcano lending its stately presence in the background, or the hotsprings that it generated. But very few paid attention to the side of the island where the trees didn't grow and the ground was bare and rocky.
Kenzan liked it there.
During daylight hours, when he wasn't in class or dueling or following Juudai around (activities that took up most of his time), he could often be found there, prowling amid the stones. He often found fossils there - usually not his beloved dinosaurs, but sometimes fish and shells could be found, and the occasional small amphibian. He never tried to dig them up; he would just sit and admire them, and make a note on his private map of where he had found them so he could go visit them again when he wished. He had never tried to take any of his friends there, not even Juudai. He understood without having to ask that it wouldn't be the same experience for them. It was nice to have something that was his and only his.
So he was surprised to be walking there near sunset and find Juudai sitting on a rock staring thoughtfully at a collection of old bones.
"What is this thing, anyway?" he asked Kenzan.
Kenzan boggled at him. "Aniki! When did you get here? How did you get here?"
"I'm not here. You're dreaming," Juudai told him. "So what is it?"
"It's a fish," said Kenzan automatically. "Are you sure this is a dream? It doesn't feel like one."
"It's a special dream, I guess," said Juudai. "Pretty cool fish. You should show it to me, if I make it back for real."
Kenzan shook his head. "Don't talk like that. You have to come back. You just have to."
Juudai met his gaze, his own eyes dark and serious. "Are you sure? You really want me to come back, after everything I did?"
"I..." said Kenzan. He meant to say that of course he did. Juudai was his big brother, his idol. He'd wanted to be just like him, except for that one time when he hadn't. Somehow, seeing Juudai face-to-face for the first time in who knew how long was reminding him of things he had been trying hard to forget. He wanted so badly to just remember the happy times, but...
This isn't even real. He's going to leave me again. He always leaves, every time...
"Kenzan," said Juudai softly. He stood up and walked over to him. "Kenzan, I'm sorry. I haven't been a very good big brother, have I? I understand."
Those gentle words unfroze him. Before Kenzan knew what he was doing, hot angry tears were streaming down his face.
"I don't understand!" he said. "I just don't get it! Why do you keep leaving? Why do I even want you to come back? How can I hate you and love you at the same time?"
"I ran away because I didn't know any better," said Juudai. "I'm gone now because I have to learn. I..." His features suddenly turned harder. "I will come back! I can't promise that I'll stay forever, but I promise I'll be back. Just let me finish what I'm doing and I'll come back."
"I want you to come back now," said Kenzan.
"You don't need me to come back now," Juudai told him. "Kenzan, you wanted to learn to be a leader, right? That's why you started following me in the first place. But if you follow me forever, you need to learn to get by without me. If I can do anything for you, I want to make sure you're strong enough to make your own path. I can give you that. Here."
He reached out and rested his hand on Kenzan's shoulder. Suddenly, his vision was filled with visions of vast rocky plains and sharp ridges of stone, and the places beneath those stones, the deep tunnels where ancient things dreamed of distant times. He felt their rock-solid reliability, the steadfastness that would someday inspire people to trust him. He felt the strength of those stones sink into his heart and soul the way the DNA of the dinosaur's fossil had strengthened his muscles. He took a deep breath as the gravity of it washed over him and his body adapted to this new sense of power.
"Juudai, what was...?" he began, but Juudai had vanished from sight.
"A dream?" he murmured. But it couldn't have been a dream. There were footprints in the sandy earth that had not been there a moment ago. More than that, he felt a sense of peace that had not been there before. Juudai had been there; he would come back again someday. Until then...
Kenzan looked out over the rocks. There was still a lot of area that he hadn't had a chance to cover yet. He had new paths to forge.
Juudai was slow on waking the next morning. When at last he stirred and sat up, he heard something fall away from him, and he rubbed at the surface of his bed with some confusion. Grains of sand were scattered there. Granted, he had slept in the same clothing he had worn when he crossed the desert, but that sand had been brownish, and this was dark, almost black, like volcanic sand...
"Yubel?" he called, and realized that his guardian was missing. "Yubel! Where'd you go?"
A reassuring rush of wings told him that she was returning. He still felt a wave of relief as she reappeared in the chamber.
"I am sorry, I am so sorry," she said. She drew near him and put her arms around him, rubbing her cheek to his. "I thought you would sleep longer. I am sorry I frightened you."
"It's okay," he said. "I just wondered where you went... You can let go of me now."
Yubel reluctantly released him. "The furry creatures were here. They left food and water for you. They showed me the way to the surface, so I will guide you there when you are ready."
She looked concerned. "You didn't really think I would leave, did you?"
"No. Of course not! I was just... I had a dream."
"I understand," she said. "I have... had many dreams. But no longer."
He nodded. There wasn't much he could say to that. Instead, he silently readied himself for the next day's journey, while Yubel waited patiently for him. Once he had readied himself and fed the last crumbs of his breakfast to Hane Kuriboh, he followed Yubel out of the cave and into whatever came next.
As it turned out, what came next was more crystal caverns. If anything, the ones they passed through were more beautiful than the ones they had walked through the day before. The crystals glowed in all the colors of the rainbow, making the colors of everything Juudai looked at seem strange. He looked down at his hands, watching them turn green or purple depending on where he stood. If he looked up at Yubel, he could see that she was changing as well, sometimes seeming blue, sometimes yellow. Only her eyes always seemed to look the same.
After they had gone a mile or so, the ground began sloping gently upward. It took some time for Juudai to realize that the light was becoming steadily clearer and brighter - white, in fact. He blinked at it. It had been several hours since he'd seen actual daylight; he hadn't even been completely sure what time of day it was. Now he gave a small laugh and sprinted forward, eager to be out in the fresh air again.
He emerged into a shining world. The ground where he stood seemed to be made of clear, pure crystal, so that he could look down and see the shimmering lines of cracks and imperfections stretching far away below him. The surface was mostly flat as glass, with the occasional spire jutting upwards like a tree of glass, or some form of inverted icicle. Some of them looked so much like ice that Juudai had to exercise some restraint not to try licking them; others were colored like jewels. As the wind blew past them, they made harmonious sounds. Hane Kuriboh cooed appreciatively.
"Took the words right outta my mouth," said Juudai.
Yubel was less impressed; if anything, she seemed uncomfortable.
"This isn't a good place," she said, shifting uncomfortably. "I think we should go away as fast as we can."
"What's wrong with it?" asked Juudai, genuinely puzzled. "It doesn't look so bad to me. Actually, it's kinda pretty."
"I don't like it," said Yubel.
Juudai looked at her with concern. There did seem to be something strained about her. It was hard for him to put his finger on exactly what it was, other than a sense of tension around her, but he had a feeling that anything that was upsetting her so much couldn't be good. Yet, he couldn't see anything dangerous nearby at all, just miles and miles of crystal stone and a clear blue sky above them. There was no sign of life for miles around. It was a puzzle.
"Just stick close to me," he said. "It'll be okay."
Yubel nodded, still looking none too pleased, and followed quietly in Juudai's shadow. Juudai tried to look confident, but deep down, he was disturbed. He was not used to Yubel being afraid of anything, and the fact that she was acting as though she were frightened of something when there was nothing here to be afraid of was making him nervous. Yubel was invincible. Probably the only thing that could hope to control her was the Haou himself, so what was she so nervous about?
Deciding that the best thing he could do for the both of them was to cross this place as quickly as possible, Juudai started walking at a brisk pace. At least it looked like it was going to be easy going. The ground was flat and smooth as a mirror, without the slightest inclination to it. His only real worry was that he was going to end up going in circles on this vast plane where each mile looked no different from the last. He had already lost sight of the cavern they had emerged from, and there was now no way to tell which way they had begun or where they were going to end up. The horizon looked the same in all directions. The sun seemed to hang motionless in the sky, suspended perfectly at its zenith. Though the air was cool on its own, it wasn't long before the beating of that hot white sun on Juudai's skin was enough to make him feel like he was carrying a heavy weight.
Suddenly, he knew what was wrong.
"Yubel," he said, "maybe you need to go back inside."
The look she gave him was slightly unfocused. Even her third eye was half closed, its pupil contracted to near-invisibility.
"But... I have to protect you..." she said vaguely.
"No. It's my turn to protect you now. You can't stay out here," he told her. "I've figured it out. This is the element of Light. You're going to get sick or something, being out here."
"But..." she began.
"No buts. You come back now."
Before she could do anything to stop him, he reached out and pulled her into an embrace. He felt her sigh with something like relief before she faded back into her place in his soul. He folded his hands over his heart for a moment as though that would somehow give her greater protection from the dazzling light; now that she had returned to his soul, he could feel how weak she had become. Evidently the all-pervading brightness here was too much for her to handle, even with him there to strengthen her.
"Rest," he told her. "I can look after myself for a little while."
He received a feeling of sleepy assent in reply. He smiled a little in spite of himself. It was nice feeling like he could do something good for his guardian.
I guess I need to make things up to her too... It felt like Yubel had suffered a lot for his sake, and he had given her so little in return. The least I can do is get her safely out of this place.
That was easier said than done, however. Not only did he have no idea which way was out, but he was fast realizing that this part of Neospace was less than hospitable. There was no water to be found here, and nothing to eat. There wasn't even a blade of grass or patch of moss growing amid the stones. Unless he could figure out a way to eat rocks, he was going to be awfully hungry before he got out of this place.
Well, if there was nothing to eat, there was nothing to eat! He tightened his belt and went forward with a resolute step. For a while, at least, it wasn't so bad. His breakfast had been sustaining enough to carry him over many miles, and moving briskly through the cool air helped allay the effects of the hot white sun. After he had gone some distance, he even hit upon a stroke of luck: he realized that a particular spot on the horizon was not, as he'd first assumed, just another of the small rock formations, but a crystal mountain rising high enough to spear the clouds that swirled around its peak. It was still so far away as to appear to be nothing more than a dot on the horizon with a few cloudy smudges around it, but it was a landmark that he could use to keep his direction, and something to work towards, even if he wasn't sure what he would do when he got there. Maybe if he climbed to the top, he would be able to see far away enough that he could figure out where to go next.
However, after a few hours of walking steadily as fast as he could, he seemed to have gotten no closer to the mountain, and he was running out of steam. His stomach was protesting noisily about not being fed, and his tongue was starting to stick to the inside of his mouth, it was so dry. He wished he had thought to pack some provisions. As the time dragged on, his footsteps became slower and slower. He was no longer sure how long he had been walking - hours? Days? No matter how long he went on, the sun always stayed in the same place. Its reflection on the crystalline surfaces all around him dazzled his eyes until he was nearly blind. It was getting harder for him to see the mountain, or even what was directly in front of him.
Just before he collapsed, it crossed his mind to wonder if maybe being in the Element of Light wasn't so good for him, either.
It was possible that he'd passed out, or else he simply lost track of where he was for a moment. When he came to - who knew how long afterwards, he was sprawled gracelessly across the unyielding ground, with a chunk of crystal digging uncomfortably into his cheek. He attempted to pull himself upright and managed to get to all fours. He felt blood trickling down his face from a small cut where he'd struck the stone, and he tried to wipe it away and nearly fell over. He made a mental note that he needed both hands on the ground if he was going to keep in balance. The world swum in and out of focus in front of him. He found himself wondering vaguely where he was, how he had gotten there, and where he was supposed to go from here. He was sure he had known a minute ago, but he'd lost his train of thought and he wasn't quite sure how to catch up to it. He blinked stupidly at the fuzzy white world, wondering if it might be best if he just lay down and slept again for a while longer. He was so tired and hungry and thirsty, and the ground felt so nice and cool...
Juudai shook himself. What was he thinking? He had a mission; he had to keep going. Even if he had to crawl the whole way on his hands and knees, he had to keep going.
No, Juudai, said a voice in his mind. You've pushed yourself too hard already. Let me help you now.
"No," he said, gritting his teeth. "This is my job. I don't want anything else to happen to you because of me."
There was something like a laugh that echoed through his being. That is one of the reasons I love you, Juudai. You try so hard to spare pain for others. But it is my purpose in life to guard and protect you. You need to learn to accept help when you need it.
"But," Juudai began, and then stopped.
She was right, of course. That was what had gotten him into this mess in the first place: his habit of always trying to take all the danger onto himself, even if it would be safer in the long run for everyone to work together. Yubel must have felt him relent, because she was suddenly at his side, gathering him into her arms. It felt good to relax and let her hold him, even as he felt a pang of guilt at making her do all the work.
"This place hurts you too," he murmured.
"It does," she agreed, "but unlike you, I have no need of food or water. It is enough to be near you. My strength is replenished now, so it is now my time to help you."
So saying, she lifted him off the ground with an easy movement and gave a flap of her wings. Juudai felt his stomach lurch as they went up, and up, and up. When he craned his neck to look down, he could see the earth spreading away beneath them like an endless ocean. Only the mountain in the distance seemed to be growing larger as they drew near it. Yubel's wings propelled them far more swiftly than Juudai could ever have hoped to walk, or even run. Watching the shimmering stones rush by made him dizzy, so he closed his eyes and settled more comfortably into Yubel's embrace.
Far sooner than he'd expected, the crystal mountain loomed over them. Rather than cast a shadow, it seemed to reflect and focus the light on them, so that they could not look at it directly. Juudai could hear Yubel's labored breathing as she flew, could feel the way her heart pounded in her chest.
"The air... is growing thinner," she told him between breaths. "It grows difficult to fly. We may have to climb the rest of the way."
"It's all right. You can put me down. I feel a lot better," Juudai assured her, and it was true. He was still thirsty and hungry, but the chance to rest had given him his second wind.
Yubel nodded and swooped in for a landing. The mountain, though it had looked smooth from a distance, was actually covered in myriad plates like scales, which made rows of ledges like uneven staircases going up its sides. Yubel gently deposited Juudai on one of these before she touched down on a narrower one nearby. They began to scramble their way upward, occasionally stopping to lend each other a hand (or wing) when the going grew difficult. The sharp edges cut Juudai's hands until they bled, but he gritted his teeth and persevered, leaving a trail of red marks across the clear stone.
Juudai didn't know if it was only that he was paying so much attention to the climb, or if the cloud just descended on him suddenly. All he knew was that one minute he was looking at the ledges below him, trying to find a suitable foothold to take his next step, and then he looked up and found himself engulfed in whiteness. He almost panicked. Juudai clung tightly to the mountain face, momentarily filled with the fear of falling.
"It's all right," said Yubel from somewhere close by. "I won't let you fall. Don't be afraid. I think this cloud is good for us."
Juudai nodded, knowing she would sense it even if she couldn't see him. The cloud did feel good. It was white as everything else here was, but it was a soft whiteness, welcome after the glaring heat of the sun. It cooled his skin and eased his aches and pains. He began to climb with renewed vigor. The fog made the rocks cold and slippery, but the climb was becoming steadily less steep the higher he climbed. Soon the ledges were wide enough that he could lie on one with his arms and legs spread-eagled, which he did, letting the coolness soak into his tired muscles. Yubel perched next to him.
"Poor Juudai," she said. "Your hands are bleeding."
"It's okay," he said. "It doesn't hurt much."
Yubel didn't seem to hear him. She took his hands and gently kissed each of them before resting them in her lap and stroking them gently. He felt a little silly, lying there like that, but as usual he had trouble telling her not to. It wasn't that bad, really - a bit like when he had been very small and his mother would kiss his scraped knees and elbows to make it better. She hadn't done that in a long time, though. She had gotten a job and worked most of the time, just as his father did. Juudai wasn't really used to being mothered, but he had to admit, it felt good.
He had promised to always love Yubel, but it was in moments like this that he actually did.
"Something approaches," said Yubel suddenly. Her eyes glowed as she stared into the fog.
Juudai had been comfortable where he was, but now he forced himself to sit up and see what was coming to greet them. The clouds seemed to be parting a little bit, just enough that Juudai could see a bright shape moving through it - no, many bright shapes, but one was larger than the others. The smaller bright shapes were fireflies, though calling them "small" was misleading, as each of them was the size of Juudai's fist, and they glowed blue-white like tiny moons. Standing amid them was a glowing humanoid shape. It had no mouth to speak of, but the tilt of its eyes made Juudai certain it was smiling. He smiled back.
"Glow Moss," he said. "Took you long enough."
"I'm sorry, Juudai, but you had to make your own way here," said Glow Moss. "This is the heart of the element of Light. The true Light illuminates that which is hidden and makes it understood. It reveals your flaws and weaknesses so that you may face them honestly. There is no easy path to this place, Juudai, but you have made it here, so now you can rest and recover your strength."
"The true Light..." Juudai repeated. What Glow Moss had said seemed right. He really wouldn't have made it this far if he hadn't been willing to trust Yubel and let her help him.
While he'd been speaking to Glow Moss, the lightning bugs whizzed around, occasionally vanishing into the clouds and then returning with what looked like scraps of fluff in various colors. It was as though they had torn off parts of the clouds and brought them back for him, leaving a heap of downy stuff at his feet. It didn't look solid, but when Juudai reached out to touch it, it resisted him slightly. It felt like a handful of cotton candy, soft and slightly sticky.
"Put it on your wounds," Glow Moss instructed.
Juudai did as he was told, dabbing it liberally onto his damaged hands. It stuck where he put it and soothed his pains away.
"Thanks," he said. "That's a lot better."
"You missed a spot," Yubel told him. She scooped up a handful of the stuff and rubbed it across his cheek where he'd cut it when he passed out. She smiled at him. "You look funny that way."
He laughed too. "Yeah, I guess I do."
Some more of the bugs appeared carrying more of the cloud stuff of a different color, gray instead of white. When Juudai touched it, it felt more solid and heavy than the other kind, more like a damp sponge.
"You can eat it," Glow Moss informed him.
That was all Juudai needed to hear. He quickly shoved a large chunk of it into his mouth. It tasted of nothing in particular, but it was cool and refreshing and satisfied both his thirst and his hunger. Drained as he was, he was happy to have it.
"How does it taste?" asked Yubel.
Juudai took a large bite and swallowed.
"Wet," he said.
They remained there among the clouds for a long time, resting and enjoying the cool comfort of the place. Glow Moss informed them that they could continue their journey from the peak of the mountain, and advised them to stay the night where they were and continue on the next day. From inside the clouds, Juudai couldn't tell if it was day or night, but he was more than happy to stop and rest. He could sleep anywhere, even on the hard stones of a crystal mountain. The lightning bugs floated around him, making a soothing humming sound.
"Yubel?" he said as he closed his eyes.
"Watch me while I sleep, okay? You'll be okay if you watch me all night, right?"
"I'll be fine," she assured him, "but why do you want me to watch you? Are you afraid of something?"
"Kind of. Not really," he said. "I think something funny is happening to me while I dream. I want you to watch and see if something strange happens."
"Then I will watch you." She arranged herself into a comfortable pose, he chin propped on one hand. "I always like watching you sleep. You look so sweet and peaceful."
"I kinda hope so, actually," said Juudai. "Goodnight, Yubel."
If she said goodnight to him, he didn't hear it. He was out like a light.
The light came on. Dreamily, Asuka looked up a the lighthouse as it began its nightly dance. The sun was setting over the ocean. She had watched it set many times before, from her vantage point here by the harbor. It was a scene she never ceased to find soothing, and just now, she felt in need of being soothed.
It had been days since the adventure had ended - days since Juudai had disappeared, and since then, nothing had been the same. The whole school seemed dispirited. Asuka felt doubly weighted down. When Fubuki had returned from the shadows, she had felt it was a miracle, a genuine life-changing experience. She had let herself believe that she was never going to lose someone like that ever again. Now Juudai and Ryou were both gone without a trace, and it was hard to believe another miracle could happen. What felt more likely was that she would spend the rest of her sunsets at this school standing here alone...
She watched the lighthouse swing its beam of light past her, and for a moment, the light dazzled her eyes. Spots danced in front of her, and she blinked rapidly to clear her vision. Slowly, she gained the impression that someone was standing in front of her. A person. A boy. Someone familiar.
"Juudai?" she said. The word caught a little in her throat.
He grinned - the old, careless grin she had seen him use so many times before things had gotten ugly.
"Yeah. Hi," he said, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly. "Don't get too attached. I think I'm not really all here yet."
That didn't make sense to Asuka, but she didn't mind. She smiled and shook her head. "Oh, Juudai, you never really change, do you?"
"I think I might, a little," he replied. He gave her a considering look. "You've changed." Before she could respond to this remark, he'd already walked past her, and sat down on the walkway with his feet dangling over the edge where the spray could lap at them. He patted the cement beside him. "Sit."
Asuka sat. What else could she do? She positioned herself a few inches away from him, not quite touching. Something about the way he said he wasn't all there yet made her afraid he would vanish into thin air if she came into contact with him.
"I was afraid I'd never see you again," she said at last.
"That worries me too, a little," he admitted. He turned to face her seriously. "I still don't know when I can come back. I'm working through some stuff right now, but it's hard, and I feel like it's going to get harder, and I don't know what's going to come after I'm done."
"But... we need you here," she said. She faltered a bit, and continued, "I need you here."
She met his eyes, and felt a shiver run through her, something that made her want to take back what she had just said. Not that there was anything threatening in his expression. He was smiling gently at her, and the expression in his eyes was understanding and kind and... old, as though he were looking at her from the distance of one who has known for a thousand years how this conversation was going to play out. She didn't like it; it seemed wrong for the carefree boy she had known to wear such an adult expression.
"You don't really need me," he said. "Not the way you mean. You're strong, Asuka. You've always known how to live your life without depending on anyone else."
"That's not how it feels, lately," said Asuka with a sigh. "Besides, even if I don't need you, I like you. You're... my friend."
"You're my friend, too, Asuka," he answered. He looked away from her, gazing out at the sunset. After a while, he remarked, "It's pretty, isn't it?"
Asuka, feeling a bit like she'd just missed something, agreed that it was very pretty.
"Yeah," he agreed. "For just a little while, it's day and night at the same time."
"It's my favorite time of day," she agreed.
"It's nice," said Juudai. "But day and night can't be together forever, can they?"
Asuka turned to look at him.
That's right... you're the night. You're the darkness...
Looking at him now, with his face silhouetted against the darkening sky, she felt a sudden shift in perspective. This wasn't the boy she remembered anymore; he couldn't be contained in a neat box, could never be ordinary. He could never belong to one place or one person, no matter how much they cared about him. The constraints of a normal life were just too small for him now, and the only way to stay with him was to give up everything else...
"I still don't want you to go away," she said.
"I know. I don't want to either," he admitted. He turned to face her and said, "I know this won't make up for it, but it's the best I can do for now. Here."
He laid his hand on her arm. As he did so, a shaft of light seemed to fall across her vision, momentarily blinding her. She closed her eyes, but the light stayed there, growing in strength and intensity until it seemed to fill her entire being, and with it came a new sense of strength and clarity. For a moment, she felt as though she could see her future laid out in front of her, as neatly as though it were mapped out in black and white. She could see that it would be difficult and sometimes lonely, but she could also see that her friends would be there with her in spirit even when they weren't there in the flesh, and she knew for certain that no matter what happened, she was going to make it.
"Thank you, Juudai," she said quietly.
The light faded as suddenly as it had come. She blinked, wondering why she was staring into darkness. Had the sun set while she had been in her trance? No, there was light coming from somewhere; she could feel the rays of the sun warming her back. She turned around to see the first pale wedge of light peeking over the horizon. It wasn't sunset at all, but a sunrise, and she was looking into a clear new day...
Juudai awoke with light in his eyes, and sat up and blinked at the empty blue sky. From where he lay, he could see nothing but sky, and it disoriented him a little until he turned onto his side and saw the slope of the mountain. He had not realized how close to the top he had been, through the thick clouds of yesterday, but now he could see that the peak was no higher above him than the roof of Osiris Red would have been if he had stood on its front step. There was no reason to go up there, now. The view might have been good if it were at all possible to see the ground, but when Juudai sat up and looked out at the world, all he could see below him was an endless sea of fluffy white clouds.
"Juudai. You're awake."
"Morning, Yubel," said Juudai. He looked at her quizzically; she was sounding more subdued than he had heard her before. "Is something wrong?"
"I watched you as you slept last night, as you asked," she replied.
"Did something happen?"
"I... am not sure," she admitted. "Your soul remained here, but your... mind, you might say... was far away from me. I did not understand. Even if you were dreaming, it should stay here."
"That's what I figured was happening," said Juudai. He pulled himself to his feet. "Every night since I got here, I've been dreaming of visiting my friends... only I don't think they're just dreams."
Yubel looked sullen. "You shouldn't leave me."
"I can't help it! I'm not doing it on purpose," Juudai protested. "Besides, I think the things I've been doing are important."
"How important?" asked Yubel.
"It's for my friends," Juudai told her. "I'm fixing what I did wrong, a little bit at a time."
"Can't they take care of themselves?"
"No," said Juudai. "I broke them and I've got to fix them. That's the way it works."
Yubel didn't quite look satisfied by this explanation, but she didn't question it, either. Juudai was relieved. It occurred to him that it was possible Yubel had been hoping that he might never really go back home to his friends - that it would be just the two of them together forever. But that wasn't what he wanted. More than anything, he wanted to go back and start doing right by them, and sooner or later he was going to have to figure out how to get that point across to Yubel. But maybe there would be time for that later.
"I wonder where we're going today," he said instead.
Yubel took a few cautious steps down the side of the mountain, and her foot met the clouds and stayed there. She prodded them with her toes, and then bent and felt them with one hand.
"I don't believe we're going down," she said. "This is too thick to pass through."
"Really? Let me see!"
Juudai climbed down and performed a similar sort of investigation, and discovered that the clouds gave slightly but didn't let him sink through. He tried standing on them with both feet, and then bouncing on them a little. It felt like standing on a fluffy mattress.
"Hey, this is fun!" he said, as he bounded across the clouds.
Then his feet found a weak spot and he dropped a few feet, instantly finding himself up to his eyebrows in gray fluff. Yubel came and fished him out.
"I would advise just walking," she said, but she was smiling as she said it and Juudai laughed as he picked wisps of cloud of his hair. It felt like the same stuff he'd eaten for dinner the night before. He dipped a hand into the hole he'd made and pulled out a handful of the stuff. He shoved it in his mouth and discovered that it tasted the same too. He looked back at Yubel and put on his most dignified look.
"I was finding breakfast," he declared, and then ruined the solemnity by laughing. Yubel laughed too, and he was glad. He didn't want to begin the day by getting into an argument with her.
Despite his words, he didn't bother with stopping for a breakfast. He simply walked along on the clouds, reaching down to grab a handful of the stuff whenever he felt the need. The taste still wasn't very interesting, but it did give him energy enough to keep going over the rolling cloud-terrain. Walking on the clouds was nowhere near as simple as walking on land was. Not only did it feel like walking across the world's largest trampoline, but there were hidden soft spots that he would occasionally fall into if he wasn't careful - more than once, Yubel had to stop and help him get unstuck. It was also true that the landscape had a way of moving around, so that if Juudai didn't pay attention to where he was going, he would find himself turned around facing the crystal mountain again, or would suddenly walk into a cloud bank that hadn't been there five seconds before. It wasn't long before he realized that even doing a simple thing like walking a straight line was going to take all his concentration. He hopped along in silence, keeping his eyes fixed on what was in front of him. Yubel, untroubled by things like gravity, drifted along beside him.
"Juudai," she said after a while, "You... really do want to go back to your friends, don't you."
It wasn't spoken as a question. It sounded like the words of a student wanting her teacher to reassure her that she had the right answer. Juudai nodded.
"Of course I do," he said. "They're my friends."
"Even now? After everything?"
"Even now," Juudai agreed. "Especially now. They need me."
"What about me?" she asked.
"You're my friend, too."
Yubel grimaced a little. Juudai sighed.
"Don't be jealous," he told her. "It's not like I'm going to forget you again."
She still looked downcast. "You made me a promise, once. You said you would always love me and only me. Aren't you going to keep your promise?"
"I can't," he said. "It wasn't a good promise to make. I didn't understand that, then, but I do now."
"What was wrong with it?" asked Yubel, her tone challenging.
"It's not that there's something wrong with promising to love you," he said, trying to sound placating. "It's just that... it doesn't work to only love one person. I mean, you can do it, but... the more people you love, the better at it you get, see? It's the way you learn how. If I hadn't gotten to know Shou and Manjoume and Kenzan and all the rest, I don't think I could have known how to forgive you."
"I see," said Yubel thoughtfully. She was quiet for a while before asking, "Would it make you happy if I liked more people than just you, Juudai?"
"Huh? Well, yeah! There are a lot of nice people in the world besides me," said Juudai. "If you can't like them, can you at least try to get along with them?"
"I could try," said Yubel doubtfully. "I will try to like your friends. If only because you like them. And... they would protect you with their lives, I think. I can't fault them for that."
Juudai grinned a little. "Well, that's a start!"
Yubel nodded - dutifully, without any real enthusiasm. The student was agreeing to do her homework. Juudai reached out and touched her hand.
"Hey, I really do care about you. You know that, right? And not just because I made some stupid promise," he said. "Just because you're a good person and you take good care of me."
Yubel looked skeptical for a moment and then unbent enough to laugh.
"I can't stay angry at you," she said.
"I know," he said, grinning back at her. "Just trust me on this one. Believe me, I know it's true."
"If you say so," she said.
For the first few hours, Juudai had been walking aimlessly, trusting his instincts to take him where he needed to go. It was pleasant up here in the clouds, almost dreamlike, and it wouldn't have bothered him particularly if they had not reached anywhere in particular by the time night fell. The clouds, however, seemed to have a pretty good idea where he was going, and without even realizing it he found himself heading directly towards a storm-cloud. It looked dark and ominous and potentially wet, and he made a halfhearted attempt to steer past it, but either it moved or the firmament beneath his feet did. No matter which way he turned, the cloud always seemed to be looming up ahead of him. He stood still for a while, thinking hard. The storm cloud rumbled as it drifted relentlessly closer.
"I don't like the look of that," said Yubel. She didn't sound worried, only mildly annoyed, as though she weren't looking forward to getting wet.
"Actually," said Juudai thoughtfully, "I think I know why it's here. Don't ask me to explain but I think I get it. It's a thunderstorm," he added, when Yubel looked at him inquisitively. "Maybe you'll understand later."
"I still don't think I like it," said Yubel. "I have a funny feeling about it..."
"So do I, but that doesn't mean I'm not going to see it through," said Juudai. With that, he began walking resolutely towards the storm.
The winds picked up. The closer Juudai got, the more powerful they were, whipping his hair in his face and tugging at the hems of his jacket. He had to lean forward to walk into it, and Yubel, after struggling futilely for a while to keep her wings out of the way, finally gave up and retreated back into his soul. Juudai didn't mind. He felt like this was something he needed to face on his own this time. Moving slowly but steadily, his feet slipping often on the shifting clouds, he made his way to the wall of clouds. It rose before him, gray and vast, flashing with some mysterious inner light. Its roar was deafening, and the pounding of the thunder made Juudai's chest vibrate with each peal. The winds made his eyes water so that he could hardly stand to look at it. There was an aura of electricity around it, so powerful that it made his hair stand on end and his clothing crackle with static. He stopped a moment, not in fear but in awe that anything could be so vast and powerful and beautiful. Then he took a deep breath and pushed into it.
The cloud gave at his touch, accepting and engulfing him, and he was swallowed up by darkness that was interrupted only by the occasional burst of lighting. There was no path he could follow but the force of the winds that tore through the clouds, and so he let himself be pushed deeper and deeper...
Somewhere, whispered in his ear or in his mind, he thought he heard a voice say, "This is the heart of the element of Air. This is freedom, energy, exhilaration!"
Yes, thought Juudai. I know...
And he opened himself up to it and let it fill him, along with the sadness of knowing that he couldn't keep it.
Manjoume had been sulking. Usually this was something he was quite good at; he could put on a sulk that would have the whole school knowing he was upset, when he wanted to . Lately, though, his sulking lacked some of its usual panache. Tonight, for example, he was just sitting in a glum bundle on the steps of Osiris Red, and no one knew he was there. Why should they? It was the middle of the night, and no one had to know that the one who had declared most loudly that he didn't care one bit if Juudai ever came home or not had been having trouble sleeping lately.
"That idiot," he muttered. "This is all his fault. If he ever used his brain..."
"Yeah, I know. Pretty stupid, huh?"
Manjoume nearly fell off the stairs. He whipped around to see Juudai leaning on the railing a few yards away.
What? Impossible... he couldn't have gotten up here without me seeing him...
"What the hell are you doing here?" he blurted.
"Visiting," said Juudai.
"Visiting! What do you mean, visiting?" Manjoume demanded. "First you keep running away and making us chase you all over creation, then you go crazy and kill everybody, and then you disappear and let us all think you're dead, and now you have the nerve to show up out of the blue and say you're just visiting."
"Well," said Juudai with his usual unreturnable manner, "I am just visiting. What am I supposed to say?"
"How about saying you're sorry, for starters?" said Manjoume. "Or are you even sorry? Do you even care what you put us through? Or does it matter?"
"I'm sorry," said Juudai. "I really am."
Manjoume's eyes flashed in much the same way the storm cloud had. "I don't believe it."
Juudai looked at him, his expression surprised - and a little hurt, but Manjoume was too heated up to pay attention or care.
"You know what? You could say you're sorry until you're blue in the face and I wouldn't believe it! To be sorry, you'd have to actually care about how we feel, and you don't. If you really cared, you wouldn't have kept running away. You wouldn't be running away now."
"I'm not running away. I'm doing something."
"That's how it always is! Every time we turn around, you're off saving the world. Just too big and important to deal with little guys like us, is that it? We're fine to have around when you want someone to admire how cool you are, but as soon as something more interesting comes along you leave us to take care of ourselves."
"That's not how it is! You know it's not like that," said Juudai, sounding a little desperate. "Look, I know I made some mistakes, but..."
"Hell, yeah, you made mistakes!" Manjoume snapped. "And what now? You think you can just waltz in and say you're sorry, and I'll cry and be grateful just to have you back? Forget it. I don't want to forgive you and I don't have to and I'm not going to."
Juudai bowed his head. "I understand."
Manjoume stared at him, feeling so frustrated he could have exploded. He didn't want Juudai standing there meekly, he wanted him to fight. He wanted him to shout back, to make a scene, to wake up the whole school. He wasn't supposed to cringe like a kicked puppy. He looked so pitiable that it was painful to look at them, and when Manjoume was feeling down, he got angry.
"You... you're really something else, you know that?" he declared. "After all you went through, you still haven't got any spine. Fine then! You know what? You shouldn't have even bothered with your stupid visit. You shouldn't have come back at all. We're better off without you. All you ever do is make trouble, so just... get out! Get out of my sight. It makes me sick just to look at you!"
Juudai gave him a pleading look. "Do you really hate me that much?" he asked quietly.
"Do I...?" Manjoume spluttered. "Juudai, you killed me."
"I did, huh?" said Juudai. He walked over to Manjoume and knelt next to him, placing two fingers over his pulse. "That's funny. You don't feel dead to me."
Manjoume froze at his touch. A feeling like an electric shock ran through him, and suddenly his vision seemed to be filled lightning, and his ears with crashing thunder and roaring winds... or was it the glare of the spotlight, the roar of the crowd? Was his heart racing from the electric shock, or from the thrill of battle? He was no longer sure, but he savored it. It was the first time in days that he'd felt truly alive. He had missed his rivalry with Juudai more than he wanted to admit. With Juudai gone, he had wondered if he would ever feel that way again...
He blinked a few times, and Juudai's face came back into focus in front of him.
"What was that?" Manjoume demanded.
"A gift," said Juudai. "It was mine. Now it's yours. I gave it to you to... not make up for things, because I know it's not enough, but..."
"Damned right it's not," said Manjoume. "You're going to have to do a whole lot better than that if you want me to forgive you."
"I'm sorry," said Juudai quietly. "It's the best I can do. I'll try to do better some other time, but..."
Before Manjoume could react, Juudai turned and vaulted off the edge of the railing. Manjoume stared a moment - What's he trying to do, break his ankle? - before jumping to his feet to peer over the edge. No Juudai. No sound of footsteps. The night air was still and silent, as night air could be when you were the only person awake on the whole island. Manjoume sighed and slumped against the railing.
"Stupid Juudai," he muttered. "Don't you know what I hate most about you is you're not here?"
"Juudai, you need to wake up now."
"No. Don't wanna."
"I think it's important that you do."
"No," said Juudai, and rolled over, burying his face in the soft clouds. He didn't want to wake up, because if he woke up, he would have to start thinking and remembering, and he had the unsettled feeling in the back of his mind that if he remembered what he'd been doing he wasn't going to like it.
"If you do not wake up," said Yubel, "you are going to fall, and then you will become a messy mark on the ground, so wake up."
Startled out of his depression, he sat up and looked around. The clouds he had been walking on yesterday had broken up, so he was now lying on a scrap of cloud not much bigger than his bunk in Osiris Red. He was, in fact, lying right at the edge, so that he could turn his head a little and see the rocky ground far, far below him. He rolled away quickly and grabbed hold of the cloud with both hands, closing his eyes to blot out the sight.
"Why didn't you say something sooner?" he demanded.
Yubel laughed at him. "You're all right. I wouldn't let you fall. I only wanted you to wake up."
"Very funny," said Juudai. He sighed, keeping his eyes closed. "Yubel, it happened again. I dreamed and went to see one of my friends... at least, he used to be my friend. I don't know." He opened his eyes, his expression filled with pain. "Yubel, what's wrong with me? Why is it that the more I care about someone, the more I seem to hurt them? You, Manjoume, everybody... all I do is make people miserable..."
Yubel knelt next to him and put her arms around him, holding him close as he began to cry against her. He clawed hands were surprisingly gentle as she stroked his hair.
"It's not your fault, Juudai," she said. "You did not fully understand yourself or your powers then. If you had known what you were doing, you would not have done it."
"But I hurt them... what if they don't forgive me? What if I never get them back?"
"Everything will be all right," said Yubel. "No matter what happens, I will always be here for you. Even if you hurt me, I will still love you."
"I don't deserve it."
"You don't have to. I love you anyway."
Juudai sighed. "Right now I feel like you're the only one."
Yubel wasn't sure how to respond to that, so she said nothing. Instead, she cupped her hand under his chin and tilted his head back so that she could press her lips to his. Juudai closed his eyes and accepted the kiss, drinking it in like medicine - not sweet, but healing.
"Thanks, Yubel," he said when it was over. "I think I needed that."
He took a few deep breaths and got to his feet. His eyes were still red and puffy, but there was a calmness in them that had not been there before, and his posture was straight and confident. He had enough strength left in him to finish the last leg of his journey. Just one more friend left to help.
He was afraid the last one would be the most painful one of all.
The cloud had been sinking lower for some time. Juudai sat and watched as the ground came closer and closer - a good thing, as his resting place was still breaking up into wisps and shreds. It had gone from being the size of a mattress to the size of a welcome mat, but the earth was close enough now that he could clearly see individual pebbles and blades of grass, what few of those there were. The land here was desolate, mostly black rock, with only the toughest of plants clinging to survival. The air was heavy with the smell of brimstone, as plumes of smoke and steam rose steadily from vents in the ground. It wasn't a hospitable-looking place, but there weren't any other options, so when Juudai came to a suitably sandy-looking spot, he made a jump for it. The cloud rose sharply, as though glad to be rid of his weight, and sailed off for points unknown. Juudai, meanwhile, rolled to a stop, got up, and brushed the sand off his clothes. It was black and gritty, faintly prickly-feeling, not at all like the soft sand on the beaches of Duel Academia. How nice it would be to be sitting there feeling the warm sunlight on his skin and the cool breezes off the water...
Well, he could hope he would get there sooner or later. He gave a heavy sigh, and then coughed at the acrid taste of the air.
"Are you all right?" asked Yubel.
"Fine, except when I breathe," said Juudai. "Nothing we can do about it. Are you okay?"
"This does not bother me. We dragons are well suited to fire and brimstone," she said with a slight smile. "Let me walk ahead of you. Anything dangerous in this place will have to go through me first."
"Nothing in Neospace is going to want to hurt me," he said, but he followed her anyway.
"Nevertheless," said Yubel, "the fires may not recognize you as a friend, and the fact remains that you burn and I do not."
"That's a good point," he agreed.
They walked. There was no discussion of their direction, for it was obvious to both of them. Not too far in the distance, the peak of a volcano could be seen, putting forth a steady stream of dark smoke. From time to time, the ground under their feet trembled a bit, warning them of an impending eruption. Even without that, it would have been easy to see that such things happened on a regular basis in this place. Everywhere Juudai looked, he could see the hardened remains of past lava flows. The ground was covered in chunks of glasslike rock that pricked at him even through the thick soles of his boots, and when he came to steep places where climbing was necessary he was forced to hide his hands in his sleeves to keep them from being slashed to ribbons.
They came to the mouth of a ravine and stopped to catch their breath - or at least, Juudai caught his breath. Yubel never seemed to have a problem with that kind of thing. There was a small rivulet of water trickling down the stone walls, and Juudai cupped his hand beneath it to scoop up a mouthful of water. It tasted of brimstone, but he lapped it up thirstily anyway. The rumbling of the volcano was a constant thunder in his ears. The air was hot and still, and Juudai's skin was wet with sweat. The sky was dark with smoke, and the space between the cavern walls was thick with shadow.
"It doesn't look safe in there," Yubel remarked.
"Not really," said Juudai, "but I don't see any way around it."
Yubel was silent for a moment before saying, "You could turn back,"
"You don't have to put yourself through this. Why not just turn back? There are safe places here, and friends to keep you company. You said yourself that all you do is bring pain to your friends at home. Why are you forcing yourself to do this?"
Juudai just looked at her and shook his head. "You've got a long way to go, you know that?"
"I think it's a valid question," she said.
"I guess it is, but... The reason I've got to go back is because I have to fix what I did, and learn how to not do it again. I can't grow up if I hide here forever, and I have to grow up. I'm too dangerous to everybody if I don't. Staying here won't keep everyone safe."
Yubel deflated. "You're right. I know you're right. It's just not what I want."
"I know," said Juudai. "It's not exactly what I would have wanted, either." He shrugged. "Come on. I think I've rested enough."
They pressed onward - Yubel with a reluctant expression and Juudai with a look of grim determination. The air was, if it were possible, even stuffier in the ravine than it was outside of it, and Juudai had to stop often to catch his breath. It was so dim there that at first he didn't realize that the top of the crack had closed over, so that they were walking in almost pitch-blackness. The only light was a dim reddish one from somewhere up ahead, which grew brighter as he moved forward. The temperature increased as well, so that Juudai felt he was being slowly roasted alive. His clothes were soaked through with sweat, and clung uncomfortably to him. Yubel looked as cool and unruffled as ever.
"Do you want me to carry you again?" she asked.
He shook his head; a drop of sweat fell from his face and sizzled lightly on the stone floor. "Thanks, but I think I can make it. We're almost there."
"How do you know that?"
"I don't know, but we are. Can't you feel it?"
Yubel looked disapprovingly at the red glow ahead. "It feels hot, that's all."
"Yeah, that too."
At the end of the tunnel they came to an open space, at the center of which was a bubbling pool of lava. Looking down at it gave Juudai a feeling of familiarity.
"Yeah, this is it," he said. "Fire..."
"That's right, Juudai," said a voice. Juudai looked up to see a spark hovering over the lava pool, a spark that was steadily growing and resolving itself into a familiar shape. In spite of himself, Juudai smiled.
"Hi, Flare Scarab," he said. "I figured you'd be showing up soon."
"You were right," the Flare Scarab agreed. "You're nearly at the end of your journey, Juudai. Do you feel ready?"
"I don't feel ready," said Juudai. "But I think I am anyway. What do I do?"
"The same thing you've done every time. Accept the element of Fire as your own and let it become part of you. And then... well, you'll see when you get there. First things first."
Juudai nodded. He could guess what was coming after this. Water, Earth, Light, Air, and now Fire... there was only one element left after this. That thought made his stomach squirm, and he swallowed hard. Flare Scarab was right - it was best to focus on what was directly in front of him.
"The way is through there," said Flare Scarab, pointing at a small crack in the wall that Juudai had overlooked before. It looked like only a shadow to him, barely big enough for a human to crawl through, if it were a small skinny human. Juudai thought he could maybe possibly squeeze through, though he might have to take his jacket off.
"Isn't there another way?" he asked.
"Fire isn't a gentle element," Flare Scarab replied.
Juudai nodded, accepting the sense of that.
"You'd better come back, Yubel. I don't think you'll fit through there otherwise," he said. She nodded and faded out of sight, returning to her place in his soul. Juudai took a breath and started for the crevasse. There was a hot wind coming through it that made him shrink back even in the already ovenlike cavern.
Come on, Juudai, you can do this. You have to, he told himself. He steadied himself and tried again. He could feel the skin on his face tightening from the heat, but he persevered. With a tremendous effort, he pulled himself into the narrow gap, muscles straining as he tried to haul himself forward solely by the strength of his arms. The rough stone walls tore at his clothing. It was too dark to see, but it wasn't long before he felt like his palms were being cut to shreds.
Got to keep going... Got to keep going...
The heat was almost unbearable. His eyes burned as sweat dripped into them. He was sure that any minute he was going to faint, but somehow he continued to drag himself forward. Then, gradually, a sense of serenity stole over him. It wasn't that he was any less uncomfortable, but that he was feeling more and more certain that this was the right way... not only the way, but the destination. This was the element of Fire - the heat, the pain, the struggle - and by facing it, he could make it his. He dragged himself steadily onward, into the darkness and the burning and the pain. He was getting dizzy, feeling vaguely disconnected from his body. He imagined himself being cleansed, his impurities being burned away, so that when he finally passed out, he smiled a faint smile of satisfaction and hoped that it had been enough.
Shou had not been sleeping in his bed lately. His room in Ra Yellow was being neglected, causing the headmaster to lament, but he didn't care. He was sleeping in the old room in Osiris Red again. No one else objected - Kenzan hadn't had the heart to stay there with Juudai gone, and Manjoume had taken to wandering around at nights and was out of the room more often than he was in it, so Shou was left alone to take what comfort he could in the familiar surroundings. He had, in fact, been sleeping in Juudai's bed, where some of the boy's familiar scent still clung, a ghost of his presence that grew fainter with every passing night.
Yet that night, Shou awoke with the feeling that Juudai was somewhere close by, close enough to touch, and he woke up with his heart pounding with anticipation. The room was dark, and quiet as a room would be if there were no one in it but himself. He took a few breaths, trying to calm himself. He blinked blindly at the dark room, reaching automatically for his glasses even though he really didn't wish to see clearly. If he put them on, he would see that there was only a wooden room, a closet, a desk, a sink, nothing out of the ordinary, but as long as he left them off he could pretend that maybe in that dark shadow there, Juudai might be sitting and watching him, just waiting for him to wake up. A comforting illusion, but not a likely one. If he were really there, Juudai would have said something by now.
Just a dream, Shou told himself. He settled his glasses on his nose, thinking that perhaps he would get a drink of water and open the window for some fresh air before he tried to go back to sleep again.
He looked up. The shadow he had been looking at a moment ago resolved itself into a chair. There was someone sitting in it. Shou stared.
"A...aniki? Juudai?" he said.
Juudai smiled. "Hi, Shou. Miss me?"
Shou was unable to formulate a coherent reply. His vision went blurry again, this time with tears. "Aniki..."
"C'mon, c'mon, don't start with the waterworks!" said Juudai with a quiet laugh. "I'm glad to see you again, too, but you don't have to cry over me."
"But I missed you," said Shou. "Everyone... they think you're dead..."
"I'm not dead. Didn't I promise you I'd be okay?" said Juudai soothingly. "I told you, I just have something to do, but I'm nearly done. I'll be back soon. You'll see."
"But... I want you to be back now."
"You can do without me for a little while longer," said Juudai. "You're strong that way. Maybe the strongest person I know."
"You really think so?" asked Shou. His expression turned doubtful. "I don't really feel that way right now... It's hard to be brave when you're gone. I don't know if I can do it."
"You did it before."
"That was different. You weren't really gone then, you were just somewhere else. Now you're just... gone."
Juudai got up and sat on the bed next to him. The rickety bed gave a protesting squeak at the added weight.
"I'm not gone," said Juudai. "I'm not gone and I'm not dead, and I definitely haven't forgotten you. All I've been thinking about lately is how to get back to all of you guys and try to make things right again. The last thing I want is for you to be unhappy because of me."
Shou sighed. "It's just not the same."
"I know," said Juudai. "I don't know if it's ever going to be the same again. But I'm going to do my best. Especially for you. You're my best friend, the best I've ever had. I want to be sure you're going to be okay, even if I'm not here next to you."
"I wish I was sure," said Shou.
"You'll be fine. I know it," said Juudai. "Look, I can't stay here tonight, but I'm going to leave a gift with you - something to help you get by. Okay?"
"I guess so..."
"All right, then. Lie down and get some sleep," said Juudai.
Shou obediently but reluctantly lay down. Something in him said that if he fell asleep, Juudai wouldn't be there when he woke up, and he didn't want that. He would stay up all night if he had to, to make sure Juudai didn't slip away without him noticing. He grimaced a little as Juudai reached out to take away his glasses, reducing the world and Juudai himself back to dark blurs.
"Goodnight, Shou," said Juudai. "Sweet dreams."
Then he leaned over and lightly kissed Shou's cheek.
Shou yelped, shocked not only by the touch, but by the sudden sensation of being invaded, as though a jolt of electricity had run through him... but it wasn't like electricity. It was hot, burning, as though lava ran through his veins. It should have been painful, but it wasn't. It filled him with a heady sense of power. In that moment, if someone had asked him to do anything, no matter what it was, he would have agreed to do it in an instant, because strength like this begged to be used. He wanted to march off to the Pro Leagues right now and start taking on all comers.
Now that he thought about it, it wasn't a new feeling.
That's right... This is what I wanted all along...
To be strong enough to stand up for himself, to carry on his brother's legacy, to make his friends proud, to make himself proud... that ambition had been there from the beginning. Juudai had fanned the flames, but they had always truly been his.
"Thanks, Aniki," he said. "I won't forget again... Aniki?"
He looked up, realized he couldn't see anything, and fumbled for his glasses. Then he realized he could no longer feel that comforting weight on the edge of the bed, and he let his hand fall again. He lay back on his pillow and closed his eyes.
"I won't forget," he said again. "I'll make you proud. You'll see, when you get back..."
Asleep, awake, dreaming... what was the difference, and how could he tell which of them he was? There was only silence, and darkness, and Juudai alone in the middle of it. He tried to open his eyes and wasn't sure if he had or not, because it was still impenetrably dark. He tried to move, but there was nowhere to go.
There was only darkness, and Juudai, and he no longer knew where one ended and the other began.
I did it. It's done. I made it to the end.
He smiled a little, tiredly. He had done what he had to do to put things right for his friends. Whatever happened to him now was more than he wanted to worry about. Maybe nothing would. This looked like a prime spot for nothing to happen, and Juudai felt he had run his resources dry. If he just stopped in this dark place, would it really be so bad?
Of course it would. He knew that. He just didn't think he had the strength left to do anything about it.
He wasn't sure how long he had been there before he became aware that he wasn't alone. Something was moving in the darkness, something so close to pure black that it could have almost been part of the darkness itself. Juudai stared at it, picking out details, recognizing it. It was about his height, and roughly his build, but encased in dark armor that let nothing but his face show through. His face.
"Hello, Juudai," said the Haou.
Juudai said nothing. When you met yourself, what did you say? The Haou stood watching him with those strange golden eyes.
"You healed your friends," he sad at last. "They'll all be whole now."
"Yes," Juudai agreed. "So what happens now?"
"You tell me," said the Haou. "Answer me this, Juudai. You've given a lot of gifts. What do you have for me?"
"I... don't have anything," Juudai said haltingly.
"You have to give me something. Otherwise we can't leave."
"But there isn't anything. I gave it all away, to my friends."
"Then give me what's left."
Juudai started to say that there wasn't anything left, realized he'd already said that, and decided that arguing with himself over this wasn't how he wanted to spend the rest of eternity. He raised his eyes to meet those of his counterpart.
"Take it, then. Whatever I've got left, take it."
"Do you know what that is?" asked the Haou. "It's your life, your mind, and your soul. Once you give those up, you'll belong to the darkness forever. You won't be you anymore. Or me, either. Just darkness."
Juudai took a deep breath. "I didn't want it to end that way."
"Neither did I. We could do good in this world," said the Haou, "but you already have, haven't you?"
"Yeah. I guess I did. It was good while it lasted, huh?" he said, and smiled. He held out his hands, and the Haou's cold gloves closed around them and drew him forward.
He took one step, and the world was full of shimmering blue light and the rushing of waves, and the sound of someone singing carelessly as he strummed his ukelele.
Another step, and there was stone under his feet. A crowd of people in yellow jackets were crowded around another boy, eagerly listening as he laid out some plan.
Step. The sun was rising. A girl sat in her room, filling out an application. She smiled softly as she watched the light spill over her and thought about the future.
Step. A wind rushed by as something exploded, and a boy in a black jacket laughed as his opponent dropped to his knees in defeat.
Step. The stars burned brightly in the sky as they looked down on a lone boy who waited faithfully for his big brother to come back.
A final step, and there was only darkness, and in the darkness Juudai could feel two sets of eyes watching him, one cold and bright as gold, and the other full of mismatched colors and fierce love. Then the darkness began to brighten into the gray of predawn, and stars began to shimmer overhead. The Haou smiled.
"What happened?" said Juudai. "Why didn't you do anything?"
"I can't," the Haou replied. "You are protected. You had all the powers of the universe at your disposal, and you gave them away, but that gift has been returned to you as love. It's too great to be taken away because there's no end to it. I can't take anything from you, so since the price must be paid... I and all the powers of Darkness must be given to you."
He stepped forward, and Juudai began to flinch away, thinking they were going to collide, but he felt nothing at all as the Darkness passed through him and into him. He felt...
Darkness. Comforter, protector, the sanctuary of those who have nowhere else to turn, the nurturer of new life.
This is me. This is who I am from now on.
Juudai smiled, feeling as though everything in the universe had finally come into balance again. Everything was finally going to be all right, and all he had to do was watch the stars go rushing past...
Time seemed to be moving in slow motion. He noticed the ocean first, spread out below him in rippling waves. Then his eye was drawn to a rocky outcropping in the middle of the otherwise featureless water: an island, with sandy beaches and an abundance of trees, and the rocky slopes of a volcano at the heart of it, all of it thrown into sharp relief by the blue-white light of the moon. He could feel the wind about him as he rushed closer to it, feeling curiously unafraid despite the fact that he was falling at a rapid rate. Now he was aware that he was surrounded by something like flames, and he fell like a comet straight for the ground...
He landed with a thump that should have knocked the wind out of him and everyone in the surrounding area, but he found that he could pick himself up and brush himself off without a problem. He didn't even have a hair out of place. Juudai took in his surroundings with a dreamlike air. It still didn't feel real.
"Aniki... Aniki!" shouted a voice, and Juudai turned and looked as Shou came crashing through the forest, only to stop and stare wonderingly at him. Juudai didn't blame him. He didn't quite know if he was real, either.
Then something important occurred to him, and he smiled suddenly.
"It's fried shrimp day," he said, and just that matter-of-fact realization made him suddenly realize that he was home.
"Oh, Aniki," said Shou, and began to laugh, even as tears streamed down his cheeks. He flung himself at Juudai's side, and Juudai hugged him, letting himself laugh as well.
"See, I told you I'd come back," he said. "Nothing to worry about! Come on, let's go get something to eat. You have no idea how long it's been since I've eaten real food!"
"Sure! Anything you want," said Shou, still clinging to him.
"I'll race you," Juudai offered.
That got a spark of spirit out of Shou. "Oh, no you don't! You're not running away from me again!"
"Then catch me!" said Juudai, and he bounded off into the forest, still laughing too hard to manage much more than a stagger. Shou chased after him and caught him, and the two of them walked together into the welcoming forest shadows. The End