Summer in the Dark World was very warm and very sunny, which was ironic in ways Juudai didn’t let himself think about for too long. They were two days away from the nearest village, and starting to run low on food, but Juudai wasn’t worried yet. If they really got in trouble, they could always fly. Juudai’d only insisted on walking so he didn’t miss out on anyone who might need his help. It was a decision Yubel had initially been reluctant to follow, but after almost four years of traveling, it had become a habit, comforting in its familiarity. Here in the Dark World, Juudai tried to avoid any actions that would mark him as anything but a traveler. His reign as Supreme King hadn’t yet been forgotten, and more than one person would gladly kill him when given the chance. Juudai didn’t even blame them for it. So a little past noon, when the sun was at its highest point, they were following the river that should lead them to the next village. Yubel had opted for walking, and she seemed to be suffering from the heat as much as Juudai was. Only Daitokuji-sensei looked perfectly comfortable. Being dead had its advantages.
“Let’s stop for a bit,” Juudai said with a quick glance at Yubel. She nodded and pointed him to a rocky outcropping up ahead. It made for an ideal resting place. Juudai fished a reluctant Pharaoh out of his bag and grabbed a bottle of water and a package of food they’d received two villages ago. He passed on the water to Yubel and unwrapped the package. All things considered, the Dark World was very beautiful. He tended to avoid this world more than any of the other eleven dimensions, but on days like today, he could forget about the past for just a little bit. He rested his feet in the water while he ate, watching as Pharaoh wandered off towards a nearby group of trees. The cat would come back, and if anything went wrong, they had Daitokuji-sensei to warn them.
“How much further do you think we should go?” he asked.
“Another two days at least,” Yubel said, a slight frown on her face. “Don’t you think it would be better to go back home?”
Yubel had never really considered Japan her home, Juudai knew, but it made for a convenient base of operations. His parents tried their best to be around if they knew Juudai was coming, and were even starting to get along with Yubel. Sometimes he did miss Duel Academia, but he didn’t think the school would be happy with him claiming the Red Dorm for himself.
“Just a bit longer,” he replied. “I just want to be sure that this area is doing fine.”
He finished his part of the food and watched as a couple of fish went for the crumbs that had fallen into the water, then scrambled to get his feet out of the water when a passing Rainbow Fish took too much of an interest in them. Johan can have that one, he thought sullenly as Yubel giggled behind him. What kind of fish has tusks anyway?
He’d just put on his socks and shoes again when Daitokuji-sensei reappeared, looking agitated.
“Juudai-kun, can you come for a second? You might want to see this.”
“Something wrong with Pharaoh?” Juudai asked, jumping up and grabbing his duel disk. Daitokuji-sensei shook his head and led him to the small group of trees Pharaoh had disappeared into. It was significantly cooler here than next to the river. Maybe they should relocate. He almost walked straight through Daitokuji-sensei when his teacher stopped next to a large oak tree surrounded by bushes. Someone had left a large backpack next to the tree, but Daitokuji-sensei didn’t look very interested in it.
“So what’s wrong?” Juudai asked.
“Under that bush here,” said Daitokuji-sensei, pointing. Juudai crouched down. “I think there’s a child down there.”
“What, really?” Juudai immediately spotted the bundle hidden away under the bush. For anyone else the constant play of shadows would have made it difficult, but shadows were one thing Juudai didn’t have trouble with. He got up and parted the branches, careful not to disturb the bundle underneath them. It didn’t look like a child, but if Daitokuji-sensei said so…
“Well, what do you know,” he muttered when he finally got a good look at the bundle. Serious, blue-gray eyes stared up at him. “How did you get here?”
He picked up the child and got up again. The baby was watching him without making a single noise.
“Pharaoh found it,” said Daitokuji-sensei. Pharaoh chose that moment to appear. He meowed when he saw Juudai, then again, more plaintively, when Juudai failed to pay attention to him.
“Maybe the parents are still nearby?” Juudai looked around, and his eyes fell on the backpack he spotted earlier. “This might be theirs.”
Ah, Yubel. She was probably wondering what was taking him so long.
Everything’s fine. We, uh. We found a baby.
… I’m coming.
Juudai grinned. He could almost imagine her shaking her head. He studied the child in his arms more closely. It looked… Well, it looked like a baby. Juudai frowned. He’d never really been in close contact with children. He didn’t have siblings, and he didn’t know whether there were any young children in his family. Still, the baby was kind of cute. It wasn’t crying, at least.
“How’d you manage to find a baby?” Yubel asked, walking up to him. She put Juudai’s bag down and studied the child. “They don’t grow on trees.”
“I didn’t go looking for it,” Juudai protested. “Anyway, I think the parents might still be around. They left their backpack here. We should just wait for them to come back.”
“Why would they leave their child on its own?” Yubel said softly, a peculiar look on her face. Juudai shrugged.
“They can’t have gone far.” The baby had obviously been cared for recently. It didn’t look hungry, and the cloth it had been wrapped in was clean, except for a few patches of dirt. Juudai stared at the backpack. However curious he was, he shouldn’t open anything that didn’t belong to him. He sat down carefully and brushed the few wisps of light brown hair away from the baby’s forehead. It was still staring at him, eyes wide. How old would it be? No more than a few months, clearly.
“So,” he asked contemplatively. “Do you think it’s a boy or a girl?”
It turned out to be a girl. It also turned out that Yubel was remarkably proficient in taking care of children. By the time the sun started setting, no one had returned yet, and the baby, who’d been sleeping peacefully for most of the afternoon, had started snuffling. It had turned into a full-blown crying fit within minutes. After several minutes of watching Juudai’s panicky attempts at calming the child, Yubel had smiled and plucked the baby out of his arms. By the time Juudai caught up with her at the river, she’d already unwrapped the bundle and was cleaning up the girl.
“See if there are any clean things in that backpack,” she instructed Juudai when he emerged from the trees.
“It’s not our stuff.”
“It’s their baby. They can’t blame us for taking care of their kid when they’re not around.”
Hard to argue with that logic. Juudai retrieved the left-behind backpack and rummaged through it. Yubel had guessed right. Whoever the girl’s parents were, they’d stocked up on enough material to see their daughter through the next several days. He found a dark red gown and watched over Yubel’s shoulder as she changed the baby with quick, efficient movements. By the time she’d been dressed again, she was looking sleepy once more.
“Where’d you learn to do that?” Juudai asked in a hushed voice.
“I’ve done it before,” Yubel said, rocking the baby softly. “See if you can find food, okay? She’ll need to eat soon.”
Yubel shrugged. “Within the hour, I’m guessing.”
“No, I mean, when did you learn to do that?” Juudai said. He was sure he would’ve remembered Yubel taking care of children.
“Oh.” Yubel’s face gained a faraway look. “It was back before we met… I was still living at the city orphanage. The older kids were supposed to help take care of the babies. There were worse chores.”
Yubel didn’t often tell him about the time before they’d met. All Juudai really knew was that she’d been left at an orphanage as a baby, and spent most of her life there before meeting him.
“So then you ran away.”
“Yes. You know the rest of the story.”
Juudai did, both from Yubel’s stories and his own memories. Still. He grinned down at her.
“Tell me again.”
Yubel sighed and looked at the baby in her arms. The girl was fast asleep.
“It’s not that the people at the orphanage ever mistreated us,” she began, “but it wasn’t a nice place. You were stuck there. Once you turned fifteen, you’d end up working at some place they chose for you, and that was it. I didn’t want to follow orders for the rest of my life. So when I was ten, I ran away. I don’t think I’d actually expected to stay away for good. I thought they’d find me after a day or two and then I’d be back at the orphanage. But still, I needed to do something for myself. Just once, I wanted to make my own decisions.
“So I ran off, and hid close to the palace, though I didn’t know that at the time. It actually worked out quite well for me. When I couldn’t beg, I stole. There were enough rich people who didn’t pay attention when some kid ran into them. The people of the orphanage never did come looking for me, and I was quite happy like that.”
“And then I came.”
Yubel smiled. “And then you came. Little rich boy, all alone. Easy target. You never even noticed when I made off with your money. Your guards did, though.”
Juudai laughed sheepishly. He hadn’t even known that there were guards following him that day. He’d just wanted a day outside the palace and thought he’d made a clean break for it. When his bodyguards had shown up with Yubel, he hadn’t even realized he’d been pickpocketed.
“I thought it was weird. Why would you steal?”
“Oh, you said so.” Yubel shook her head, but like Juudai, she was smiling. “You asked why I needed to steal. ‘Can’t you just ask your mom and dad for money?’ I really wanted to hit you right there and then.”
“Yeah, sorry about that.”
Yubel laughed. “You do know you were a spoiled brat, don’t you?”
“Good thing I had you, huh?” Juudai said, resting his head on Yubel’s shoulder. “Hey, look.”
The baby was awake again, and listening to Yubel’s story attentively. She cooed when she noticed them looking.
“Where do you think she comes from?” The sun had already set, and still there was no trace of anyone. Who would just leave their child like that?
“She’s a spirit,” said Daitokuji-sensei. Juudai nodded absently and studied the child. That didn’t exactly narrow it down. Most dimensions contained life, and monster spirits were far more common than humans. The baby was starting to look sleepy again. Why had her family hidden her? Where were they and where had they gone that they couldn’t take her with them? He could think of just one possibility, and he didn’t like it.
“You don’t think they’re dead, do you?”
“It’s possible,” Yubel said, and her face told him she’d thought of the same thing, probably long before Juudai himself had. If the girl’s parents were dead… Juudai knew far too well how death worked in the Dark World. With no body left behind, it would be nigh impossible to find out who the girl’s parents were and where she came from.
“We’ll stay here for tonight. If no one’s come for her by tomorrow, we’ll go on to the next village and ask around,” Juudai decided. He threw another glance at the sleeping baby. Poor kid. If her parents were really dead, what was going to happen to her? What should they do? He got up and opened the pack again. Maybe they could find some clues inside.
What he dug up, apart from more supplies for the baby, was a book in a language he didn’t understand. Far more interesting was the picture hidden away between the two last pages. There was the baby, held by a pretty woman with dark blond hair. He didn’t recognize her right away, but something about her stance made him think of a warrior, even though she wasn’t armed in the picture. Next to her was a man who had to be the girl’s father. He too looked like a warrior, but just like the woman, he was unarmed and relaxed. His hair was a lighter shade of blond than the baby’s mother. All in all, the picture of a happy family. Juudai showed the picture to Yubel and Daitokuji-sensei.
“Ring any bells?”
Yubel shook her head. Daitokuji-sensei stared at the picture for a long time.
“As a teacher I should know them, Juudai-kun, but I don’t recognize them.” He looked disappointed with himself. “They may not be wearing the outfits we’re used to.”
Juudai studied the picture again. Both the man and the woman were dressed practically, wearing dark trousers of the same stretchy material that seemed ubiquitous among the travelers he’d met before. The woman had opted for a forest green shirt with a black jacket tied around her waist, whereas the man had gone for a blue coat. All clothes that left them a lot of freedom to move. Juudai chalked up another point towards his warrior theory. Maybe they traveled around a lot? It would explain why they were out here with their child.
“We’ll ask around,” he repeated. He tucked the picture back into the book and put the book with his own belongings. It was safer there. The baby was still fast asleep in Yubel’s arms and didn’t show any signs of waking up. They would be safe here for tonight. Tomorrow they might find answers.
The night was uneventful, only interrupted twice by the baby crying and a bleary-eyed Yubel telling Juudai to watch, so he could be the one to get up next time. By morning, no one had shown up, and Juudai reluctantly prepared to leave. It looked like their earlier hypothesis had been correct. He still left a note pinned to the tree where they’d found the baby, but he wasn’t getting his hopes up. Maybe the girl still had family somewhere. Their best bet was the village they’d been traveling to anyway.
They reached the place a little past noon. By general consensus, they’d opted for flying to speed things up. They’d lost a lot of time the day before, and walking with a baby was not very comfortable anyway. This village was bigger than the last one they’d been in, but only barely. Two hundred people, three hundred at most. They saw lots of toddlers, but few older kids, much like everywhere else. Juudai swallowed. Consequences. His past still haunted him, and it would keep haunting him as long as he lived.
The village head, a Fallen Angel Marie, greeted them warmly and introduced herself as Miryam. Unfortunately, the baby had her flummoxed.
“I know about everyone who passes through,” she said, “but I’m sorry. We haven’t had any visitors lately. You’re the first ones in weeks.”
“I see.” Juudai poked the baby lying on his lap. She gurgled and started suckling on his finger. Yubel took the book out of Juudai’s pack and took out the picture, which she handed to Miryam.
“We found this. Do you recognize them?”
Miryam tapped the picture, deep in thought. “They do look familiar… Can I see that book?”
Yubel pushed it towards her.
“It’s not written in any language we speak here. Not in this dimension, I believe, but I could be mistaken. It’s a large place.” She picked up the picture again, and her face suddenly brightened. “I think I know the woman. Different Dimension Warrior Woman.”
“Different Dimension?” Juudai asked, frowning. That wasn’t good.
“Yeah. I didn’t recognize her without the armor, but I’m sure of it. I used to have a neighbor who came from another dimension. That was before Haou, of course.”
She shook her head with the same faraway expression that Juudai had seen on so many people who’d lost their loved ones. He shrunk into his seat.
“I’m very sorry.”
Miryam smiled at him. “It’s not like you could’ve helped it. None of us stood a chance against him. It wouldn’t have been worth suiciding yourself.”
Juudai looked down at the baby. She tightened her grip on his finger.
“I don’t know if you’ll find more information there, but there’s a town called Marastre near the coast, about a week’s walk from here if you stick to the river,” Miryam told them. “It’s worth a shot. If her family came from across the sea, they’ll have stopped there. The mayor’s an old friend of mine. He’ll be glad to help you out.”
Juudai found his voice again. “We would be very grateful,” he said.
Miryam smiled when Juudai tried and failed to free his finger. “You should stay here for a few days, though. We’re expecting bad weather. It’s not a good time to travel with a child.”
She gave them directions to a small hotel and left them with the instructions to come back if they needed anything. None of them spoke until they were outside again.
“Different Dimension. That complicates things,” Yubel said.
“Tell me about it.” Juudai shifted his grip on the baby. If her parents were Different Dimension spirits, she might not even be a native to the Dark World. There was no way that they would be able to search every dimension for people who might not even be alive.
“We’ll go to Marastre. Then we can decide what to do with her,” Yubel said, holding out her arms. Juudai handed her the baby, and the girl cooed. Juudai smiled. Cute kid. He would miss her when they found a place for her.
Like Miryam had predicted, it rained for the next four days. Unfortunately, the constant rain did nothing to lower the high temperatures, and combined with the humidity, it was making everyone irritable. On their fourth day of being cooped up in the small hotel, the baby spent several hours crying, and nothing they tried could calm her down.
“C’mon, what’s the matter with you?” Juudai muttered. He’d tried to feed her, clean her, even spent a fruitless thirty minutes singing half-remembered lullabies to her. Nothing was working, and he was already resigning himself to the inevitable complaints of the other hotel guests. He sighed and leaned back against Yubel. She wrapped an arm around him.
“Can’t you do something?” he asked plaintively. Yubel was just better with the child than he was.
Yubel tapped the girl’s nose. She didn’t stop crying.
“Come now, Chiyoko. You’re just going to make yourself tired.”
“Eh?” Juudai looked up sharply. “Chiyoko?”
Yubel looked vaguely embarrassed. “She needs a name.”
“Yeah, but why Chiyoko?”
Yubel let go of him and fished for a piece of paper and a pen. The first name she wrote was Juudai’s. Then, underneath it, she wrote three characters.
“Child of a thousand generations,” Juudai read. “Chiyoko.”
“And ten generations. Juudai,” Yubel continued, pointing at the kanji of Juudai’s own name. “See?”
“You’re making it look like she’s my daughter,” Juudai said, grinning. Yubel didn’t smile back.
“She needed a name,” was all she said.
And apparently the newly-named Chiyoko needed a pen as well, because by the time they realized the crying had stopped, she’d already managed to steal Yubel’s pen. The ensuing fight to keep it out of her mouth and avoid ink stains took up the better part of the next five minutes, and by the time they’d finally managed to get her to calm down, Juudai was already used to the name.
They said goodbye to Miryam on the next day. The woman seemed very amused that they’d named the baby, but she didn’t say anything about it. Instead she just gave them supplies for the journey and a letter for the mayor of Marastre.
“He knows you’re coming,” she told them warmly. “Good luck. Take good care of your kid, okay?”
“Will do.” Juudai waved goodbye. Daitokuji-sensei too looked very amused about something, but he refused to share when Juudai asked him about it.
Even flying, the journey to the town still took them three days. On the third day, blessedly free of rain, they could start to smell salt in the air. The sea was close, and Marastre was even closer. They reached the town only a few hours after noon. After getting spectacularly lost and spending another two hours wandering around, they finally managed to locate the mayor’s office. He was a large fiend with a severe demeanor, but he treated them kindly.
“Miryam informed me, yes,” he said, reading over the letter Miryam had given them. “I have consulted with some hotels in town, but they haven’t seen anyone who matches your description. You can go check yourself, of course.”
“We will. Thank you.”
“Have you considered what you will do with the child if you don’t find her family?” the mayor asked. “This world isn’t always friendly. There’s a good chance that they’re already dead.”
“We know.” Juudai bounced Chiyoko on his knee. “We’re thinking about options.”
“The town orphanage would be quite willing to take her. Their staff are highly trained.”
“We haven’t made a decision yet,” Yubel said abruptly. “It is far too early to think about leaving her behind.”
“Suit yourselves. You’ll be able to find accommodations all over town, depending on your budget.”
And with that, they were dismissed. Once outside, Juudai glanced at Yubel. She looked troubled.
“No, it’s fine,” she said, but Juudai wasn’t sure if he believed her. She was keeping her thoughts locked off from him, and he knew when not to pry.
They found a hotel that allowed babies and fell within their budget. They would be able to afford their room for about a week. After that… Yeah, Juudai didn’t know. When they ran out of money he either went back home or found a job for a bit, but with Chiyoko around, he wasn’t sure if either option was possible. He wasn’t quite ready to give up the search yet.
But after almost a week it was becoming clear that the people in the picture hadn’t been in Marastre either. Juudai was beginning to despair. They would need to move on soon, and he couldn’t spend all his time looking for two people who might be long dead. He still had a duty to fulfill. On the other hand, he didn’t want to give up on Chiyoko either. He was finding himself looking forward to spending time with the baby. Apart from the occasional crying fit, which Yubel had been quick to ensure him was perfectly normal, she was a calm baby, who didn’t mind the large distances they covered every day.
On their last evening in the hotel, Juudai and Yubel slept with Chiyoko in between them. The baby slept through the night.
“I don’t think we’re going to find her parents,” Juudai confessed to Yubel the next morning. Chiyoko was still asleep between them, and Pharaoh was curled up against Juudai’s legs.
Yubel sighed softly. “I don’t think so either.”
“I guess we could leave her here. At the town orphanage,” Juudai said. Yubel turned away.
“They’ll take care of her.”
Oh, not this again. “Yubel, what’s wrong?”
As if I’m going to believe that, Juudai thought. Something was really bothering Yubel about this whole situation, and- Oh. Oh.
He rolled onto his back and stared up at the ceiling. “I’m being stupid again, aren’t I?”
“You’re not stupid, Juudai.”
“Yes, I am. Because you grew up in an orphanage. And you ran away from it.”
He didn’t have to see Yubel’s reaction to know he was right.
“They will treat her well,” Yubel said slowly. “It’s not- It wasn’t a bad place.”
“But you hated it.” No, this wouldn’t do at all. So if they couldn’t find Chiyoko’s family and they weren’t going to leave her behind-
“We could, well, keep her,” he said hesitantly, not looking away from the ceiling. He felt Yubel shift next to him.
“What do you mean?”
“She’s going to need someone to take care of her, and we’ve managed it so far without messing up. And well, you already gave her a name.”
“You… Want to adopt her?” Yubel sounded conflicted. “We lead a dangerous life. What if we have to go somewhere where we can’t take her?”
“Johan can babysit, right? Or Manjoume,” Juudai said. He brightened. “I bet Hayato wouldn’t mind!”
“You really want to keep her.” Yubel sounded almost awed. Juudai turned onto his side again and grinned at her.
“It’s really only logical, isn’t it? If we can’t find her parents, and we won’t leave her behind-”
“-we’ll take care of her. I… Guess. Okay.”
Juudai smiled brightly. “That settles it, then.” He caressed the baby’s cheek. “Looks like we’re going to be your parents from now on, Chiyoko.”