A Warm Afternoon
It was not supposed to be cold. Duel Academia was a tropical island; that was one of the many reasons why Kenzan had wanted to go to school there. His saurian nature was such that he couldn't stand low temperatures, and would go running for the safety of the indoors and central heating if the weather turned even a bit cool. He had enrolled in the school with visions of lounging in the warm tropical sunlight all year round.
Unfortunately, the weather had other ideas. A few drifting fronts of air had collided somewhere out on the ocean, and had pushed an unseasonable weather pattern their way, dousing the island in cold rain and stinging sleet. Kenzan hadn't seen the sun in days. He had gotten soaked on the way home from class because the wind had blown his umbrella away. By the time he reached the safety of his room, he was shivering so hard he could barely turn the door handle.
I need a winter coat, he told himself. He didn't have one with him. Even his school jackets were sleeveless, since he preferred not to have anything constricting his brawny arms. Who would have thought he'd need one on an island that normally had weather warm enough for swimming even in January? He sneezed and scrambled to get out of his sodden clothing and change into something warm and dry. All he wanted to do was snuggle up under a blanket and never come out.
Even then, though, he'd have to do his homework. Once he was dry and somewhat thawed out, he opened his backpack and reluctantly began to dig out the assignment that Professor Chronos had given him. Doing worksheets was his least favorite part of school. A man of action, Kenzan much preferred practical dueling, and couldn't imagine how people like Misawa had ever managed to actually enjoy their written assignments.
He allowed himself a moment to reminisce. Misawa Daichi - now there was a lucky guy. After he had not come home from the group's adventures in the monster worlds, his mentor had finally tracked him down and found him living quite happily there, with no desire to return home. Kenzan guessed it probably had something to do with the tiger woman he was living with, but to Kenzan, the primary advantage of being there right now would be that Taniya made her home in a hot, tropical jungle.
Feels like I long time since I've seen the old crew...
Kenzan sighed. He was in his third year now, but sometimes it still felt like he would walk around the corner and run into Juudai or Manjoume. On days like this, it felt like another lifetime entirely, something as far away from his current life as his beloved dinosaurs. It was hard to believe in magic and aliens and all the rest when pellets of ice were crackling against his windows and everything in the world seemed to be frozen.
If this mess gets any worse, I think I'm going to have a nice swim in the volcano. At least then I'd be warm.
He unzipped his backpack and looked with some dismay at its contents. He wasn't always the neatest student, and some of the papers he had hastily crammed in there had gotten slightly crunched. To add to his predicament, the rain had soaked through his bag, leaving them sodden and stuck together. Kenzan gave a groan as he realized that his homework assignment had been reduced to an illegible paper pudding.
"Today is so not my day," he complained to the world in general.
He debated his options. He could try to dry the paper out and write on it anyway, but that was a losing proposition. Even if it did somehow dry out enough that he could fill it in, Chronos would probably dock him points for turning in such untidy work, or make him do it over again, or both. Not turning it in was even worse. That left trudging out into the rain and sleet once more to track down Professor Chronos and ask him humbly for a new paper. That in turn meant trekking all the way back the way he had come in hopes of finding the professor in his office, if Kenzan didn't turn into a popsicle first. Stupid cold weather. First it froze off all the first dinosaurs, and now it looked like it was trying to finish the job.
But there was no help for it, so he reluctantly set out into the cold wet world. The rain had changed to sleet, stinging his bare arms as it pelted down on him. He could feel the freezing pellets slipping down his collar as he ran. He made it halfway up the front walk to the main building before his foot found a patch of ice, and he skidded a few inches before losing his balance and falling hard on his back. He lay there for a moment, stunned, staring up at the black clouds and feeling the sleet pattering on his face as his clothes soaked through with cold water. He sat up carefully, wincing at his newfound aches and pains, and attempted to shake the ice out of his hair.
"I really, really hate cold weather," he said.
With some difficulty, he scrambled to his feet again and managed to make it to the school building without further mishap. Once inside the building, he leaned against the door as if expecting the storm to try to force its way inside after him. He was shivering so hard that he had to thaw out a bit before proceeding any further, because he didn't trust his knees to hold him up. Even after he started moving again, he left a trail of wet footprints in his wake, and he sniffled as he went.
He scrambled up the stairs to the second floor, where the teacher's offices were, and made his way down the hall to the door with Professor Chronos's name on it. He knocked, and, receiving no answer, knocked again.
"Professor?" he called. "Hey, Professor, are you in there?"
"Oh, are you looking for Professor Chronos?" asked one of the orange-clad teacher's aides, who had been strolling down the hall. "He was afraid the weather would take a turn for the worse, so he went home early."
"Great," Kenzan sighed. "I need another copy of the homework. Hey, you wouldn't happen to have...?"
"I think so," said the aide. "Um... wait, are you a second or a third year?"
"Oh, never mind, then. I'm only in charge of second years."
Kenzan sighed; he should have known it wouldn't be so easy. "Oh, well. Thanks for trying."
Defeated, he slunk back out of the building and began the long trudge toward the Obelisk Blue building. The day was getting on, and even through the thick cloud cover, Kenzan could tell that the sun wasn't far from setting. If there was one thing he wanted less than to be out in the rain and ice, it was to be out in the rain and ice after dark. The cold was making him feel sleepy, but he forced himself into a weary jog. By the time he reached the school's grandest dormitory, he was not only wet and bedraggled, but his nose was starting to run. Even so, he hesitated before entering the front doors. Obelisk Blue had standards, and he hated to walk in looking like something that had been used as a chew-toy. Unfortunately, there wasn't much he could do while he was standing out in the rain. He wiped his nose and straightened his clothing the best he could and pushed his way inside.
He was in luck. Several Blue students were hanging around the main lobby, drinking hot drinks and chatting with each other, while a waiter circulated with a cart bearing tea, hot chocolate, and snacks. Those looked very welcome, but what looked even more welcome was a friendly face. Kenzan waved.
"Fujiwara-sempai!" he called.
Fujiwara smiled at him. Despite being so much older than most of his classmates, he had chosen to remain at the Academy to complete his schooling. In fair weather he could often be seen outside, helping Ryou in his training, as the former pro duelist worked to rebuild his strength and fine-tune his new deck. Kenzan didn't know Fujiwara well yet, but the older boy was always gentle to those around him, even those younger and less talented, or those who didn't wear blue jackets.
"Hello, Kenzan," he said. "Won't you sit and join me for a while?"
"Can't. I'm on a mission!" said Kenzan. "I need to find Professor Chronos. Know where he is?"
"I think he's in his rooms," Fujiwara replied. "What did you need him for?"
"Aw, my homework for tonight got soaked. I need another copy."
"Homework?" Fujiwara repeated, looking faintly puzzled. "But there is no homework tonight."
"Huh?" said Kenzan.
"Didn't you get the message? All assignments for tonight have been cancelled. There won't be any classes tomorrow. Inclement weather," said Fujiwara. "Since no one can safely get to the library or the computer lab or the practice arena tonight, they just cancelled everything. You should have gotten an e-mail about it."
Kenzan blushed. "I guess I forgot to check."
"No harm done," said Fujiwara soothingly. "Why don't you stay here a while? I'll get you a drink, and you can thaw out."
The offer was tempting, but Kenzan could see the other Obelisk Blues looking at him suspiciously across the room. Relationships between the three houses were improving in the wake of Juudai's reign at Duel Academia, but there were always going to be a few Blues who would look down their noses at a scruffy Ra Yellow in their territory. Even the friendship of the illustrious Fujiwara Yusuke wasn't going to make him popular with the likes of them.
"Nah," he said. "I'd just get cold and wet again soon as I got outside. I'll head home. Maybe the headmaster'll have made curry!"
Fujiwara smiled. "I've heard good things about Ra Yellow's curry. Invite me to join you sometime."
"Sure thing," Kenzan promised. "Anyway, I'd better get going. Gonna be dark soon."
Fujiwara nodded gravely, agreeing that being outdoors in the dark in this weather would not be pleasant. They said their goodbyes, and Kenzan hurried to escape the critical stares of the less friendly students.
Outdoors, it was sleeting harder than ever, a steady gray rush that filled the air with the rattle and snap of it. With the sun going down, Kenzan could only see a few feet ahead of him before the world was overshadowed by a frosty blur. He felt constricted, trapped by a wall of ice, and he shivered violently as a gust of wind whipped around him. Why had he ever thought anything was worth this misery? Better to get a failing grade than to freeze to death in this awful slush.
I'm a goner, he decided, as he trudged grimly down the path. We're having another ice age. I'm going to end up trapped in a glacier or something.
But even as he was thinking that, he became aware that his misery had lessened somewhat. The ice was no longer pelting down on him, and the wind had been buffered somewhat. Kenzan looked up to realize that someone was holding a slightly bent but serviceable umbrella over him. He grinned, deciding that he was no longer sorry the sun was setting. He couldn't be, not when he was protected by a darkness that was better than sunlight.
"Aniki," he said softly.
"Hiya, Kenzan!" said Juudai cheerfully. "Hope you don't mind me dropping in! Whew, it's cold! Anyway, it's great to see you!"
"It's great to see you too! Where have you been?" asked Kenzan.
"Oh, you know, here and there," said Juudai, waving vaguely.
"Uh... yeah," said Kenzan. "Well, anyway, I sure am glad to see you. You're the only good thing that's happened all day."
"I know," Juudai replied. "That's why I'm here?"
"Never mind. I just had a feeling, that's all."
"Oh..kay," said Kenzan. There were few people in the world he loved more than the "big brother" he'd adopted, but even he had to admit that Juudai and his powers-of-darkness routine could be slightly creepy at times. He decided not to ask any questions.
"Anyway," said Juudai cheerfully, "the important thing is that I'm here to help!"
"I don't suppose you could make all this rain go away, could ya?"
"Nah," Juudai replied. "But I did find something that'll cheer you up! I've got some friends who want to meet you."
"Friends?" asked Kenzan. "What kind of friends? Why do they want to meet me?"
Juudai laughed. "Because they're friends!"
"Right," said Kenzan. He really was going to have to learn to stop asking questions.
"So, are you coming?" asked Juudai. "I promise, it'll be warmer where we're going. Besides, everybody's really looking forward to meeting you."
"You had me at warmer," said Kenzan. "Which way do we go?"
He began tugging at Kenzan's arm, pulling him off the path, in the direction of the trees. Kenzan followed willingly. For one thing, it would probably be drier beneath the cover of the canopy. Once Juudai was satisfied that his friend was following him, he released Kenzan's hand and forged his way ahead, pushing his way through the undergrowth. Kenzan lumbered along behind him. Juudai seemed to be having no trouble navigating his way through the dense plantlife, but Kenzan found himself getting snagged on every branch and slapped in the face by wet leaves. His feet caught on roots or skidded on the wet earth. He was forced to concentrate on following closely in Juudai's footsteps, tracing the path he had broken for him. So intent was he on this task that he barely noticed when the cold dollops of water that had been trickling through the trees ceased to fall on him, or when the ever-present patter of falling sleet was replaced by the gentle rush of wind through the treetops. He did notice, though, when the temperature began to rise. Particles of melting ice dripped from his hair and clothing. He paused a moment to brush himself off, noticing as he did so that the air around him had become warm and humid, scented richly with flowers. He raised his eyes. Shafts of sunlight were slanting down through the boughs of trees that were a lot taller and leafier than they had been a few minutes ago.
"Hey, Kenzan, hurry up! We're almost there!" called Juudai from somewhere up ahead.
Kenzan broke into a run, following the sound of Juudai's voice. He raced past the unfamiliar trees with their strange shaggy bark, pushing his way through trailing vines growing enormous pink and orange flowers. He forced past a particularly thick growth of shrubbery, finding himself briefly enshrouded in lush greenery that surrounded him with the scent of aloe as he broke their stems, and then he burst into a clearing.
The sun blazed down on him, clearer and brighter than he had ever seen it. The air was hot, humid as the stickiest summer day, and Kenzan grinned, relishing the warmth, feeling his cold-dampened senses coming alive again. The sky was so dazzlingly blue it might have been freshly painted. All around him, he could see a profusion of palm-like trees and extravagant flowers, and in the background, a row of looming mountains, some of them smoking faintly. A lake rested a short distance away, glittering invitingly as it lapped against the shore. Juudai stood in the middle of the clearing, grinning from ear to ear.
"What do you think?" he asked.
"Well, it's warmer, all right," said Kenzan, "but where are those friends you promised? I don't see anybody."
"They're here," Juudai promised. "It might just take them a minute to find us. I wasn't really sure where we'd end up. I'm still getting the hang of this..."
He was interrupted by the arrival of a small fluttering thing. Hane Kuriboh appeared from the trees and chirruped at Juudai. Whatever he was saying, Juudai seemed to like it, and grinned brightly.
"They're on their way!" he said. "I told you they'd be here."
Sure enough, a moment later, there was a crunching in the forest. Kenzan turned to see the shrubbery behind him rustling. There was something back there - something big. It was snuffling and grunting in a way that made Kenzan back up instinctively, imagining everything from bears to rhinoceroses. Then the thing behind the bushes made a resonant sound, something between a moan and the sound of a French horn. It sounded a bit like, "Whong?"
The leaves parted, and a large scaly snout poked its way through. The creature looked at Kenzan. Kenzan looked back. The creature gave a delighted "Whong!" and burst out of the foliage towards Kenzan. It opened its mouth wide, protruding a pink tongue, and pounced him to the ground.
"Hey, whoa!" Kenzan yelped. "C'mon, cut it out, that tickles!"
The dinosaur paid no notice, but continued licking his face like a friendly puppy. Juudai laughed.
"I told you they were looking forward to meeting you!" he said. He moved towards the dinosaur and nudged it. "Easy there - let him breathe."
The beast reluctantly backed off and let Kenzan sit up. He wiped his face absently, staring up at the scaly creature that was looking down at him with an expression of adoration.
"Is that a... You're a Hyper Hammerhead!" he exclaimed.
"Whong!" the dinosaur agreed.
"Man, I can't believe this..." said Kenzan, beaming. He clambered to his feet and reached out to stroke the Hammerhead's nose. The delighted dino responded by playfully butting its head against his chest, an Kenzan laughed and hugged it. The two of them tussled happily while Juudai looked on.
"You like my surprise?" he asked.
Kenzan didn't answer, but then, Juudai hadn't been expecting him to. He was totally caught up in getting to know his new saurian friend. That was all right - it was as it should be. Several other crunching noises from various directions indicated that more dinosaurs were coming, following the invitation they'd received from a little fluttering creature. They may not have ever seen a Hane Kuriboh in their corner of the monster worlds before, but they could smell Juudai's scent on it, and they knew what it meant. Their memories were old, and they remembered the primal darkness. Now they arranged themselves in a rough circle in the clearing, watching Kenzan and his new friend with interest.
"Hi, guys," said Juudai. "Glad you could make it!"
They gathered nearer - the great long-necked ones and the sharp-toothed ones and the ones with plates and horns, all of them intrigued by this small scale-less creature that was nevertheless one of their own kind. They whuffled at him, and he attempted dinosaur-noises back at them, making them rumble with saurian laughter. One of them, an imposing Element Saurus, crouched down on the ground in front of Kenzan, its forelegs and chin resting against the ground. It grunted at him.
"You want me to get on?" Kenzan asked.
The dinosaur made a noise of assent. Kenzan scrambled up its neck, situating himself on its shoulders and wrapping his arms tightly around it. Once it was sure he was safely in place, it began hauling itself to its feet, lurching forward clumsily as it attempted to regain its balance. Kenzan yelped and hung on even tighter, but within a couple of strides the great beast had collected itself and was racing forward with steady gate. The other dinosaurs ran with them, roaring and bellowing. Kenzan roared, too. With the wind on his face and the sun on his shoulders, he felt like he was just another one of these scaly giants... just a bit smaller than most of them.
The herd thundered toward the lake, racing around its perimeter, plashing in the shallows or crashing through the plants where they encroached on the beach. Kenzan's mount rushed through the water with its tail stirring up great waves as it ran. Throughout the forest, smaller creatures fled from the noise, and flocks of lizardlike birds flapped off, shrieking, to find quieter territory.
Clouds rolled in - slowly at first, almost imperceptibly, but soon the sky was gray, and the thunder of the dinosaurs' feet was mixed with the sound of a storm. The herd stopped and let Kenzan scramble off the Element Saurus's back and under the shelter of a tree with leaves the size of rowboats. He rested there a moment as the first drops of rain came down. The drips became a steady downpour, and then a deluge. He held out his hand to feel the rain fall; it was warm and soothing as a hot shower at the end of a long day. After a moment of consideration, he stripped off his clothes and stepped into the rain, feeling it sluice the sweat and dust from his body. He laughed and turned his face to the sky, letting himself be washed clean.
The rain ended as abruptly as it had begun, leaving him damp but refreshed. The dinosaurs stirred into motion again. A few of the bolder ones splashed into the lake, and he went to join them, paddling through the shallows or riding on his friends' shoulders as the mood took him. Together, they chased a fish the length of a surfboard onto the beach, where the dinosaurs used their sharp claws to clean and slice it. They dined on it raw, but Kenzan toasted it over a fire and enjoyed it with slices of some sort of yellow fruit that he picked directly off the trees. It was the best meal he'd ever eaten.
When the meal had been cleared away, Kenzan's friend the Hyper Hammerhead indicated that he should dress himself again, which he did with some reluctance. Once he had done so, the Element Saurus once more lowered itself to the ground so that Kenzan could climb on its back again. This time, at least, he knew what was about to happen and was able to keep himself steady as it lurched into a run. In the blazing red light of a setting sun, the whole cavalcade tromped back to the clearing where they had begun. They found Juudai there, dozing under a tree with his rucksack for a pillow and Pharaoh sprawled on his lap. Hane Kuriboh was perched on a tree limb nearby, and just for an instant, Kenzan thought he saw another figure, one with wings, turn and look at him with mismatched eyes before flickering out of view. Kenzan released his hold on the dinosaur's neck and went sliding back down to the ground.
"Hi, Kenzan!" Juudai called, sitting up. "Feel better now?"
"You bet!" said Kenzan. "This was the best day ever."
"I thought so," said Juudai, nodding. "It's getting late back home, though. We'd better head back."
Kenzan cast a longing look at his dinosaur friends. The Hammerhead nuzzled his cheek sympathetically.
"Hey, don't worry," said Juudai. "You'll see them all again. I promise."
"Well... okay. If you promise, I believe you," said Kenzan. "So long, dinos! Thanks for everything!"
"Whong!" said the Hammerhead, and licked his face.
"Easy, easy!" said Kenzan, laughed. "C'mon, I love you too, but lay off!"
One by one, the dinosaurs bellowed their goodbyes and loped off into the forest again. Kenzan patted the Element Saurus one last time and hugged the Hyper Hammerhead. Only after they had disappeared from sight and Kenzan had gotten tired of staring into the distance after them that he turned back to face Juudai. The sun had nearly vanished, now, leaving the sky purple and hazy. Juudai led him slowly into the shadows of the forest, into deeper and deeper darkness, until Kenzan felt the cold air of his own world wrap around him once again. He sighed - and shivered, wishing already that he was back in the dinosaurs' world.
They stepped out of the trees and found themselves once again out on the front walk of Duel Academia. The freezing rain had stopped, and there was a thin white layer of snow on the ground, barely more than a dusting. It would be gone as soon as the sun rose, and Kenzan had a sudden intuition that he and Juudai might be the only ones to see the island covered in snow tonight. The sky above them was clear now, and a few stars glimmered down on them.
"Are you sure you don't know how to fix the weather?" Kenzan asked suspiciously.
Juudai just laughed. "It looks like it's going to be a clear day tomorrow, huh? At least you won't be cold anymore." He shifted his grip on his rucksack. "I guess that's my cue to leave..."
"You sure you can't stay any longer?" asked Kenzan.
"Somebody else might be having a bad day," Juudai pointed out reasonably. "Hey, I'll be back, though! You wait and see - one day when you're not expecting me, you'll turn around and I'll be right there. Count on it! Besides, I'm not leaving you alone. You've got your dinosaurs with you, still."
He pointed at the pocket where Kenzan kept his cards. Kenzan considered a moment, then nodded.
"Just come back soon, okay?" he asked.
"You got it!" Juudai agreed. "Soon as I can!"
He clapped Kenzan on the shoulder briefly before bounding off into the trees again. Kenzan thought he saw him pause in the shadows for a moment before delivering his familiar two-fingered salute, and then he really was gone.
Despite the cold, Kenzan lingered a moment. There was no wind, now, and without the rain and sleet, it really wasn't so bad outside. He reached for his deck and took out the cards, turning them over one by one. Yesterday, they had been cards. Today, they were his friends, living things that he had played with, swum with, eaten with. The thought made him smile.
Yeah, I'll see them again, he thought.
In answer, he heard a sound. It was so distant and faint that he didn't really hear it with his ears, but deep in his bones, and in one bone in particular. And what he felt sounded a lot like "Whong!"
Grinning, Kenzan tucked his cards back into his pocket, feeling as warm as he'd ever been.