Bloody Roar Fanfiction: Unity Painted In Snow - 7. Guests
Disclaimer: See Chapter 1.
Chapter 7: Guests
Nagi had made the most of spending a full day cooped up in bed, though it had involved copious amounts of groaning with misery into her pillow. Her stomach had settled given the welcome rest, and had thankfully stopped sounding like it was churning concrete. She had taken in food and water when ShenLong had spared a thought to check on her, plus some antacids during the evening, which had been sent over by Alice after she had learned of her condition. She was at least in a much more energetic state come the night time hours to ‘entertain’ her beau, though she’d had to be a little more tender with him than she usually would with their love making as he was heavily bruised across the shoulders and torso from so-called ‘training’. She asked if he’d really been training or if they’d been beating each other with baseball bats. He was somewhat bemused by her question, and had silenced anymore teasing when he’d latched onto a breast.
The next morning – around sunrise – she rose, leaving ShenLong to enjoy another hour of sleep while she treated herself to a hearty breakfast. She prepared herself the full works with grilled fish, tamagoyaki – a rolled omelette, steamed rice, miso soup, pickles and a dressed green salad. She had made a plentiful batch, enough for ShenLong and a couple of others to enjoy, leaving the extra to keep warm on a hot plate, minus the salad – nobody wanted warm, wilted greenery. It was never worth just making food for one with such things, and it seemed as good a time as any to go all out. It was better than a cup noodle when she’d run out of day old bread to make toast.
As she was just sitting down to eat, Shina and Cronos emerged from their room. Nagi could clearly see that ShenLong wasn’t the only one with bruises. The leopard Zoanthrope had a purplish mark on her jaw line, and some smaller less-ugly welts marring the skin of her arms. She seemed in good spirits despite her physical appearance.
“Good morning, stranger,” Shina greeted. “How are you today?”
“In a better condition than you it seems,” Nagi remarked, taking a bite of her fish.
Shina brushed a thumb across her jaw. “Yeah well, come tomorrow, they’ll be barely visible.” Nagi nodded knowingly. Being a Zoanthrope had its benefits. “Though, I’m kind of glad for the ache. It makes me feel like I’ve got a good workout!”
“Workout?!” Nagi shook her head. “I know workouts are tough, but you’re not supposed to come out of it looking like a building collapsed on you. You may as well just have slapped each other around with bricks and called it a day.”
“Put it this way, I’m sure that’s exactly what he wanted to do after the amount of times I beat him down.” She went over to the counter to switch on the kettle while Cronos slid onto one of the stools. “Tea?” She asked him.
“Please,” he said, glancing over at Nagi’s meal. “Did you prepare all that food this morning?”
“Yeah,” she said, before taking a sip of miso soup. “It looks a lot, but when you’ve had plenty of practice throwing it altogether it doesn’t take all that long to prepare. There’s plenty left to go around if you’re interested?” She motioned over to the hotplate. “Help yourself.”
He looked over at the food then back to her. “Are you sure?”
“Of course; I made plenty just in case.”
“Do you want tea, Nagi?” Shina asked.
“Yes please. Anything but coffee.”
The Frenchwoman cringed, grabbing some cups from the overhead cupboard. “Coffee is the equivalent of slurry in my books. I honestly don’t know why people drink it.”
“After yesterday, I’m inclined to agree.”
Cronos helped himself to some tamagoyaki and salad and brought them back to the island bar. “Thank you. It smells very good.”
“Do you mind if I have some miso soup?” Shina asked, thumbing over to the pot.
“Of course not; go right ahead!” Nagi watched Cronos taste a bit of the tamagoyaki. His approving nod brought a smile to her face. She was glad her food passed muster with the likes of royalty. She glanced over at Shina. “So, what did you guys do yesterday while I was vegetating?”
Shina leaned against the counter, nursing her bowl of soup. “Trained with ShenLong – as you know – and then I sat around watching Long and Uriko run through some routines. To say how good that girl is at her style, she can be so damn clumsy. Maybe she’ll grow out of it one of these days.”
“We can only hope.”
“Later,” she continued, “I drove to town to pick up some supplies. I saw that restaurant owner – Taro, I think it was. He was telling me about some events the town is holding in the next few weeks; some charity stuff mostly and a mini food festival, which sounds alright. He kept me chatting for a while, probably to avoid work… and his wife.”
Nagi smirked. “I’ll bet.” Nagi turned to Cronos. “Did you go to the town as well?”
He shook his head. “I waited here while she went. There were some fascinating television programmes on about renaissance art and Egyptian architecture. Long and I decided to watch them together.”
“So Long took over your duties for a few hours?” Nagi directed at Shina with a wry smile.
“Honestly, if anyone was going to turn up try and harm him, they’d be in for an unpleasant surprise. Soldiers, martial arts masters, ninjas, killer nurses…” She grinned, leaning over to pat the young man’s shoulder. “Besides, he’s quite capable of taking care of himself. Just don’t tell his father; otherwise I’ll never hear the end of it.”
“He won’t hear it from me,” Nagi assured, giving her a salute.
“Jeanne brought back sushi for dinner,” Cronos said. “The eel was delightful.”
“Lucky you,” Nagi said with a sigh. “I ended up eating cereal. It was the only thing ShenLong was willing to throw together.”
“If I’d have known, I’d have brought back extra,” Shina said. “Not exactly the domesticated sort is your ShenLong.”
“No. I don’t have him trained yet.” She sipped more soup, savouring the taste. “Did you guys do much after dinner.”
“Most of us went to the other cabin to play cards for a couple of hours,” Shina said. “I gave up with it to watch a movie Yugo had put on.”
“I was taught how to play Rummy,” Cronos brought up, a child-like glimmer in his eyes.
“My father’s idea,” Shina input offhandedly. The kettle finally boiled and she turned to fill a teapot full of piping hot water before placing a tea diffuser inside full of fragrant tea leaves. She set it aside to brew, suddenly scowling to herself. “Shit,” she sighed. “I forgot to pick up more tea leaves.”
“I’m sure the others might have some in stock,” Nagi proposed.
“Yeah, I’ll go ask in a while.”
“So you were saying. So, did everyone play cards?” Nagi asked before taking a bite of fish.
“Mostly. Though, I have to say, ShenLong is a bit of a sore loser. He got a little bit too competitive. He almost started a fight between him and Long; well, it was mostly ShenLong fighting. Long was pretty much indifferent the whole time, which probably made it worse. Luckily it didn’t come to blows thanks to Alice – ever the voice of reason.”
“He didn’t mention it when he came to bed,” Nagi said, chopsticks momentarily hovering over her rice bowl thoughtfully before she dug in.
“I’m sure you were the only thing on his mind when he got to bed,” Shina said, giving her knowing eyes. Nagi’s face lit up bright red, pretty certain that they must have heard some of what they were doing that night.
“Yes well…” Thankfully Uriko appeared to divert the attention and Nagi keenly turned to greet her. “Ah, good morning! You’re up earlier than usual?”
“I smelled fish!” She said, taking in the scent in the air. Her eyes went instantly to Nagi’s meal, which lit up instantly with hunger.
“There’s more on the side. Make sure you leave some for ShenLong.”
Uriko’s eyes lit up and she hugged Nagi. “Thanks! You’re the best!” She quickly scampered over to the hot plate to serve herself some breakfast.
“Kenji not up yet?” Shina asked the cat-girl.
“He was sitting in bed reading.” She took her food to the island counter and sat down. “He had his headset on, which I think was playing some audio study thing for foreign languages.”
Shina blew out an astounded breath. “He’s going to burn himself out studying all the time. Not much of a vacation if you go back more tired than when you arrived.”
“I think he is very admirable,” Cronos said, stirring his salad. “Such dedication deserves immense praise. Though I do hope he knows that trying to force so much knowledge into your brain is not always a good thing. I remember when I attended school that-“
“You went to a school?” Nagi cut in somewhat surprised.
He looked astonished at her question. “Yes, of course. You thought I would not attend school?”
“I thought you’d be home schooled or something,” she said with a shrug.
“I attended a very prestigious school in Dubai. Only the most esteemed families were accepted there,” he said with assurance. “Most were international students, like myself, so I got to meet a lot of people from many different cultures. The school building had such a beautiful view of the ocean. I do sometimes miss those days, though not the regimental nature of how we were educated. They crammed your head so full of information you could barely remember your own name.”
Nagi stared at him for a moment before asking: “Were the toilets made of gold?”
Cronos was flabbergasted. “What?! Why would you think that?”
“Sorry, I just thought everything in Dubai was made of gold. It’s like one of the most luxurious places to live apparently.”
“I think we’ve gone wildly off topic,” Shina verbally stepped in, seeing Cronos was somewhat stumbling over the conversation.
“Sorry, but don’t mind me if I daydream about having a golden toilet, okay?” Nagi got up to serve herself more soup, grinning at Uriko as the girl snickered over her statement.
“I am sorry,” Cronos apologised all of a sudden, slightly flustered. “I sounded very arrogant just then.”
Shina had to laugh, patting his shoulder. “It’s okay to be a little arrogant sometimes. But I don’t think any of us thought you were really showing off intentionally. I think you were just trying to make a point. But you were right about education. It’s the same in a lot of places. I went through it myself at school. And half the stuff you learn you never use in the real world anyway.”
“There’s a lot of pressure in Japanese schools,” Nagi told them as she sat back down with a refilled bowl of miso soup. “There are too many expectations placed on kids shoulders to do well. That’s why there are all these cram schools for extracurricular studying. I suppose it’s good to instil a desire to do well in school and get a good education, but the system is just so hard and unforgiving. Our society also makes it harder, like, you’d be letting your family down if you don’t do well. It always feels like you hang on every exam paper, fearing that one single mark could derail your future.”
“School is hard,” Uriko said between bites of fish and rice, which were being systematically demolished by her hungry mouth.
Nagi finished her miso soup. “You’re telling me. I barely passed my exams to graduate high school. Doesn’t help when you’re in a coma for months as well… I was lucky to get the marks I did.”
“Kenji is so smart,” Uriko said slightly enviously. “I don’t know why he studies so hard. He seems to know everything already.”
“I’m sure the only way he knows stuff is by actually studying,” Shina said, flicking the young teen’s head. Uriko gave her a playful hiss and went back to eating. Shina turned to grab the teapot, the brew at its optimum, and she began to serve it out to her companions. “Though, to say you have to have good grades to get anywhere in life, that’s not always true. Look at Yugo! He didn’t even finish high school and he’s now the CEO of a company.”
“How does a guy like Yugo even get such luck?” Nagi wondered idly. “It’s not like he’s the brightest bulb in the box.”
“I’m sure he’d agree with you.” Shina pushed a cup of steaming tea towards Nagi. “It’s his charisma that got him to where he is; that, and all the smart people he surrounds himself with, too. Yeah, it is part luck, but if he wasn’t the type of guy he was, then he’d have probably been flipping burgers like the rest of the high school dropouts.”
“That’s true. I kind of admire him in some ways.”
“Don’t tell him, though,” Shina said with a grin. “You’ll only go give him an inflated ego.” Nagi mirrored her grin, shaking her head.
“So, what’s everyone doing today?” Uriko said, changing the subject, bored talking about school related things.
“My father said not to make any plans,” Shina recalled from the night before. “He seemed to be pushing that on everyone. I suppose you didn’t hear because you had your headphones on pretty much all night.” Uriko shrugged sheepishly, flicking a grain of rice at the woman. It missed completely.
“Why didn’t he want us making any plans?” Nagi inquired.
Shina shrugged. “Who knows? I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough.”
The cabin still smelled strongly of cakes, a sugary-sweet perfume that hung in the air teasingly. Yugo had been curious as to why Alice had spent most of yesterday evening baking. It wasn’t anyone’s birthday that he could recall; then again, he was terrible at remembering birthdays anyway. He only remembered Alice’s because she’d probably never speak to him again if he forgot.
What was worse, he wasn’t even allowed to sample any of the delicious treats that kept stacking up across the sideboards; and his attempt to sneak away a single cupcake had earned him a thwack around the ear with a wooden spoon.
“No you don’t!” She’d scolded like a mother to a naughty child. “They’re for tomorrow!”
He’d tried to pry out of her why the cakes were needed for the next day, but she had told him not to be so nosey. He was still deliberating come the morning if it really was someone’s birthday or they were just having a special picnic or something, though a picnic in snow didn’t sound particularly enjoyable. He didn’t like the idea of getting wet buttocks and eating frozen sandwiches.
Gado seemed to know the reason why Alice had suddenly turned the cabin into a bakery, but he was keeping deceptively quiet as well. All he’d said was that nobody was to make any plans. Yugo wasn’t quite sure what scheme had been put in place, but he hoped it didn’t involve another barbeque in the snow, even if the food had been exceptionally delicious. Then again, he wouldn’t have put it passed is older friend to come up with something equally bizarre.
Alice had climbed out of bed before Yugo that morning and was currently decorating cookies and cakes with extreme focus. He’d never seen so many colours of icing before. Despite overtaking the kitchen, she’d left a space on the island counter for breakfast for everyone, making it clear that she wasn’t to be disturbed and they could help themselves to the cereal and pastries on offer. He wasn’t particularly enthralled with the croissants, but he wasn’t going to risk being kicked by an angry rabbit if he complained.
He scoffed down his breakfast with a mug of hot coffee and went for a quick lap around the block to burn off some steam. He noticed Gado’s car was gone on his return to the cabin. This perked his curiosity even more, but when he’d asked both Alice and Jenny – the latter who’d appeared briefly downstairs before going off to preen, as she’d said – both had told him that he was just running errands and would be back soon.
Showered and in more comfortable clothing, Yugo lounged about in front of the television, sneaking a peek back now and again at his girlfriend, who seemed to be in joyous state as she set out plates full of pretty treats that he wasn’t even allowed to touch. His inner wolf felt like whimpering with dismay. Whatever had her giddy must have meant something good was about to happen, not that he didn’t stop feeling suspicious about it all. Despite comforting himself with a Super Sentai show – which was a lot like ones he used to watch as a kid – he was still distracted by the thought of something going on. The more he thought about it, the more he realised he didn’t like surprises.
He cast a glance towards Long and Xion, who were – as usual – reading their books. Both were relaxed and unconcerned that something was being set up behind their backs. He’d prodded them earlier over it, trying to see if they knew anything, but it was clear they were just as in the dark as he was.
“If you wait, you will find out,” had been the last thing Long had said on the matter before giving his book his complete focus.
He messaged Kenji in a last ditch effort to see if it was anyone’s birthday. All he got back was one word: ‘No’.
As much as dynamic robots and explosions should have been entertaining, he wasn’t particularly in the mood for it. He didn’t know whether he was just grumpy that Alice was forbidding him from having cake, or that he just didn’t like the idea that he wasn’t in on whatever secret was being withheld from him.
His ears peaked as Alice let out an excited clap.
“There! Done!” She exclaimed, drawing all eyes from the lounge to the kitchen. Yugo immediately hopped up, going over to the island counter. She sharply pointed a finger at him without turning. “But no touching.”
“I just wanted to see,” Yugo said, his tone a little whiner than he wanted it to be. But maybe it was all the delicious items laid out before him that made him feel like a kid being locked out of the candy shop.
There were plentiful amounts of frosted cupcakes, animal-shaped cookies and larger cakes with pretty iced decorations. There were even multicoloured jellies set in small dishes, topped with whipped cream, which Alice was promptly moving into the refrigerator.
Long and Xion even decided to put down their books temporarily to see what Alice had been putting so much effort into making.
“I am impressed, Alice,” Long admired. “You made all these last night?”
“Most of them,” she said, inspecting her creations with a keen eye, making sure they all met her exacting standards. “Some things I waited to make this morning. The jellies needed to set overnight, and other things just needed to be cold before I decorated them.” She sighed to herself, tapping her lip thoughtfully. “I hope I have enough.”
“Are you hoping to feed an army?” Xion asked, not sure what to make of her cooking efforts, though he did seem intrigued by it all.
“Some people have the stomach of an army,” Alice said, her comment pointed towards Yugo.
The wolf grinned. “I’m a growing boy.”
Just then, the front door opened and Uriko trotted in, followed by Shina.
“Knock, knock!” The girl exclaimed.
“You didn’t even knock,” Yugo pointed out.
Uriko glanced at him, slowly walking backwards to the entrance, never breaking eye contact as she knocked on the door, mouthing ‘knock, knock’ again.
“We’re not here,” Yugo said, turning away.
“You’re so silly!” Uriko said, closing the door behind them.
Shina saluted the group before taking note of all the sweet treats. “Whoa, did you rob a cake shop?”
“Nope, this is all down to Alice’s cooking skills,” Yugo said, still finding it hard to resist against pouncing on a cupcake just across the way. He had to be good otherwise she wouldn’t let him have any at all.
Uriko gawked with clear delight. “Wowie! It all looks so good! Can I h-“
Alice put a hand up. “No. Nobody touches anything just yet.”
Uriko deflated instantly, pouting. “Aww, why not?”
“It’s not time yet!” She said, moving a few spoons over to the sink to wash. “Later! And if anyone even thinks of stealing any, I will personality beat you unconscious with an ice cream scoop.”
“Is there going to be ice cream, too?” Uriko beamed, ignoring the threat.
Alice sighed. “… Maybe.” She could only hope that nobody would attempt to thwart all her good efforts by snatching one away behind her back. She glanced over her shoulder at Yugo, whose eager fingers were rapping the countertop. Noticing her stare, he slowly moved his hands behind his back, showing defeat.
Shina sniffed the sweet scent lingering around her. “Do you think it’s possible to get diabetes through inhalation?”
“At least I’d be getting something,” Yugo grumbled, earning him another harsh stare that threatened to burn holes through him.
“I can already feel the pounds piling on just looking at all these cakes,” Shina joked, patting her stomach. “So, what’s all this for?”
“I am also very curious as to why we need all these delightful treats,” Long said, eying Alice with curiosity. “Clearly whatever had been planned by Gado is at the forefront of any plans made today. If this is not for some sort of party, then maybe we are expecting some guests?”
Alice turned away, hoping not to give anything away. “I’m saying nothing.”
“Suspicious,” Xion said, with a slight teasing lilt.
“Yeah, well, speaking of my father,” Shina cut in. “Where is he?”
“Errands apparently,” Yugo said dubiously.
Shina folded her arms. “No doubt gathering his arsenal or something to launch his surprise…” She glanced at Alice. “Do you happen to have a box of tea going spare? I forgot to pick some up when I was out yesterday. I completely overestimated how much I had left.”
“Actually, we do,” Alice said, moving over to a cabinet to retrieve a small box. “It might not be quite what you’re used to though, but it’s still quite nice.”
“It will do. Anything ‘tea’ is good with me. How much do you want for-“
“You don’t have to pay for it,” Alice assured, offering over the box. “Share and share alike, after all!”
Shina accepted the package gratefully. “Thanks.”
The sound of a car approaching grabbed Alice’s attention and she moved away from the kitchen to the lounge window. “Oh, he’s back!” She exclaimed, heading to grab her shoes at the door. “I finished just in time!”
Yugo cast a glance at an equally confused Uriko and they followed after the rabbit Zoanthrope as she whisked her coat off the rack and bounded out through the door. Car doors could be heard opening and shutting as they stepped out, with Gado appearing seconds later around the side of the cabin, hands tucked into his jacket pockets to fend off the brisk cold.
“Ah, a welcoming party,” Gado regarded, just as Shina, Long and Xion joined the congregation that had already filtered out onto the veranda. Just then, a small head appeared around the corner to regard them, blue hair dancing in the faintest of breezes.
Alice immediately lit up with glee. “Mana!” She exclaimed joyfully. “It’s so good to see you again.”
Mana Kamishiro beamed, bowing to Alice as she approached. “I am so glad to see you again as well.” She was taken a little by surprise when the rabbit Zoanthrope crouched down to hug her enthusiastically, but settled into her arms, returning the gesture with fondness.
Gado chuckled, turning to regard another figure who stepped away from his car. “As I told you, Alice was very excited to hear of your visit.”
Ryoho smiled with a nod. “It is humbling to be welcomed so graciously.”
The group on the veranda were almost speechless, not expecting either as their potential guests. Though, Uriko didn’t remain silent for long, letting out a squeal that sent the local wildlife scattering, and most of her companions flinching.
“MY PAKUPON!” Uriko said, charging towards Mana and Alice like a bull. She almost knocked them over as she leapt on them both to join in with the hug. “Wow! You came to visit us all the way out here! I’m so happy!”
Xion scowled, but not really with regards to the visitors. His ears were still ringing. “Must that girl always be so loud?”
“Unfortunately, Uriko doesn’t come with volume control,” Shina remarked.
“And we can’t send her back for a refund either,” Yugo joked, earning a snigger from Shina and a small smile from Long. Xion just grunted impassively.
“By the way,” Shina suddenly thought. “What’s a ‘Pakupon’?”
Yugo shrugged. “No idea.”
From the other cabin, ShenLong threw open the door, leaning to look outside. “What the hell was that disgusting noise?” He called out across the way.
“It sounded like Uriko,” Nagi said offhandedly, moving to stand beside him.
“What a fucking surprise,” he grumbled sarcastically as he stepped out, deciding to go and see what was happening. Nagi followed after him, closing the door behind him.
Alice managed to unlatch Uriko from around them so she could pull back to let Mana have some breathing space to greet the others, who had left the veranda to meet them. Well, all aside Xion who remained stiffly where he’d previously stood.
“I’m sure most of you remember Ryoho and Mana from Gaia’s Temple,” Gado introduced.
“Um, I’d say yes, but I think I was unconscious for some of those events,” Shina said sheepishly, rubbing the back of her neck.
“This is your daughter, right?” Mana asked Gado.
“Yes. This is Shina, as she prefers to be called,” he confirmed.
Ryoho and Mana bowed to her, prompting Shina to make an awkward bow of her own, not really used to performing the greeting despite often visiting Japan. She much preferred a good old dependable handshake.
“So, you guys are the big surprise,” Yugo remarked, feeling somewhat relieved after everything. “I hope you like cake. Like, a lot of cake.”
“Cake?” Ryoho repeated, as he looked down at Mana, who immediately looked up at Alice with bright eyes at the prospect.
“I always keep a promise when it comes to cake,” Alice said with a wink. The young girl giggled.
Long bowed to the pair in polite greeting. “It is a pleasant surprise. What brings you this far out?”
“It is a tradition for us to travel across Japan to visit many shrines and temples to offer the blessing of Gaia, especially when it comes to the New Year,” Ryoho informed them. “We have been travelling since early December to cover as many as we could, starting at the furthest point on Kyushu. This morning, we visited our last shrine to offer prayer and blessings.”
“That is an impressive journey,” Long responded, adjusting his glasses. “You must be tired.”
“The weeks have been very long and busy, though we have enjoyed the experience. But I must admit I will be glad to return home again.”
“It was wonderful that it just so happened the last part of our journey coincided with your visit here,” Mana piped up, clasping her hands together merrily under her chin. “So we had assistance in contacting Mr. Gado to make arrangements to see you all again.” She turned as Nagi and ShenLong approached, the former’s expression reflecting the same level of surprise as everyone else upon seeing them. “Hello, Nagi. I am glad to see you are well.”
“Oh, Mana! This is unexpected!” Nagi greeted. “It’s great to see you.” She heard her beau grunt and turned to look at him. ShenLong eyed Mana charily.
“Aren’t you the girl who sent that ‘fortune teller’ to seek me out?” He asked, making sarcastic finger motions on the mention of the ‘fortune teller’.
Mana blushed sheepishly. “Ah yes, well…”
Ryoho chuckled. “I am surprised at you, Mana,” he said in a teasing tone. “It is unlike you to make such mischief.”
“It was for a good cause, I promise,” she assured, her face bright red.
“Care to explain?” Nagi asked ShenLong, cocking her head with confusion.
“Maybe later,” he brushed off.
It was then Mana and Ryoho took in Xion still stood on the veranda like a placid statue. The glances they exchanged were somewhat tense, though even more so when Nagi turned to stare at Xion, her expression darkening.
“I am surprised,” Mana said softly. “The ‘White Zoanthrope’ of all people.”
“Some may say silver more than white… or maybe ivory…” Xion countered somewhat facetiously in a smooth tone.
Ryoho huffed, ignoring his words. “Still a very cold figure,” he regarded. “Though, not quite the same as before…”
“No,” Mana agreed. “The dark spirit surrounding him is gone.”
“And yet he’s still alive,” Nagi muttered dismissively. “And here I thought Gaia wanted rid of the Unborn.” Xion glanced towards her, saying nothing.
“The mind of the Unborn is gone,” Mana said. “Only the shell is left, controlled by the human psyche. Gaia does not deem him a threat anymore.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Xion said, with the faintest hint of sarcasm. “If you’ll excuse me.” He turned and walked back into the cabin.
“Good riddance,” Nagi huffed quietly.
“Maybe we should go inside?” Alice suggested. “It would be much more comfortable than talking in the snow. I can make a start on food for lunch, too. Everyone is welcome. I’ll make plenty.”
“We are going to have quite the feast today,” Long remarked. “If you wish for any assistance, Alice, I am more than happy to offer my services. You have already done quite a lot with your cake making.”
“I really don’t mind,” she insisted. “But if you want to help, I won’t refuse the offer.”
“I better go let Kenji and Cronos know you’re here,” Shina said, flipping the tea box in one hand. “I’m sure they wouldn’t want to miss out of the food either.”
The group, minus Shina, made their way up into the cabin, happy to shut out the chill. Inside, everyone found a place to settle themselves as Yugo started up the log fire to keep everyone toasty.
Xion was nowhere to be seen – much to Nagi’s relief – having removed himself to his bedroom to stay out of the way. Ryoho settled on one of the seats with Gado and Jenny, the latter of whom had finally appeared after taking an excessive amount of time to dress herself up. Uriko and Mana sat together near the sofa, with the former showing her young companion one of the new games on her handheld console. Alice was already back in this kitchen gathering everything together for lunch with Long at her side, rolling up his sleeves to take some of the burden off her shoulders on the catering side.
Moments later, Shina returned, having dropped off her tea and retrieved Kenji and Cronos to greet their guests. Mana instantly stood when she saw them, as did Ryoho as he watched his young companion approach the young men.
“I’m sure you haven’t met Prince Cronos before,” Shina introduced. “Cronos, this is Mana and Ryoho.”
“It really is a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness,” Mana greeted with a deep brow. Ryoho also bowed with the same diligent respect.
Cronos returned the motion. “I am glad to have this opportunity to meet you. Jeanne says that you are humble retainers of Gaia’s Temple. I have heard many great things about the temple and your work.”
“We dedicate ourselves wholly to bringing a peaceful balance to this planet,” Mana said with some air of pride.
“Though,” Ryoho said hesitantly, “I fear that it may not be an easy task with the clash of species.”
Cronos nodded gravely. “Yes, these are not easy times…”
“Pfft! When are there ever easy times?” ShenLong cut in, a little bored with all the formalities. “We’re all just bred to bring misery onto ourselves.”
Someone might have cut in to tell him to shut up – particularly Shina, who was quite eager to remind him that he was a dick – but Mana was quick to respond: “I suppose you are right. That is just the nature of such beings living in close proximity to each other. There will always be someone who is slighted. But we can only try to understand and accommodate each other.”
“It’ll probably take a long time before humans and Zoanthropes get along,” Nagi input, leaning back on the island counter. “You have to look at the bigger picture. Things like sexism and racism have existed for God knows how long. Don’t get me wrong, I always have hope, but stuff like this won’t go away over night. We just need to keep pushing forward and fight the good fight.”
“That’s why W.O.C. exists in the first place,” Yugo refuted, poking at the crackling logs in the fireplace. “And I’m happy to keep fighting for peace.”
“Well, maybe not fight quite in the way you might want to, Yugo,” Alice said, casting him a slightly disapproving look. “I think that’s the problem in the first place. That’s all humans believe we’re here for, to fight… to kill even.”
“Humans will get used to Zoanthropes eventually,” Gado said with a sigh, leaning on the back of the couch to regard the others. “They just have to realise they’re not the only dominate species on the planet now. Having to share such a role has made them defensive.”
“Humans are somewhat arrogant creatures,” Jenny inferred, following up on her beau’s statement. “But they are more afraid than anything of what they don’t understand. They don’t like that there is another strand of evolution, where many of them have been left high and dry. If all humans had evolved this way, there would have been no arguing on the subject. But that’s just how nature is. Complicated and unfair.”
“Wow, you guys got all serious all of a sudden!” Uriko exclaimed with a huff, bouncing to her feet. “Do we have to talk about such sad stuff? We’re on vacation!”
“I suppose we can forget the outside world, if only for a little while,” Cronos acquiesced.
“You all take on the burdens of the world on your shoulders,” Mana said admirably. “I think you have all earned some time to relax.”
“Except ShenLong,” Uriko put in teasingly. “He just spends most of his time drunk.”
“Why you-” ShenLong reached out to grab the nearest thing behind him to throw at the girl, which happened to be a plate with some cupcakes on. But before he could even touch it, Alice slammed her hand onto his, pinning it to the counter. Her eyes were like fire.
“If you even think of touching that, I will castrate you,” she threatened ominously.
In the few hours up until lunch was served, everyone was engaged in activity within the one cabin; despite the room being overly packed, everyone seemed comfortable and at ease. Most of the group had decided to play cards in a repeat of the previous night, which switched between Rummy, Chase the Ace, and finally to Snap, which Gado bowed out of and had insisted anyone who was participating to play it on the floor as he was certain anyone who was too overzealous trying to play it on the table would accidently break it when slamming their hands down.
ShenLong and Nagi had decided to stay out of it, as most of the group were not particularly impressed with the former’s temperament when it came to card games, so they just watched videos on her phone, which consisted mostly of people having comical accidents. Uriko and Mana listened to the cat-girl’s music player, which Uriko had popped her cat headphones on the young girl to experience some pop songs. Mana listened intently, enjoying some of the tracks her companion played for her from her collection.
Alice and Long continued their efforts in the kitchen to prepare a plentiful lunch for everyone. She had settled on making a thick, chunky vegetable soup with a side serving of rice. Alice had laid out all the ingredients and given half of the chopping to Long. She had to admire his cutting skills and how adept he was with a knife at making such perfect cubes of the vegetables. He had said offhand that he had much experience with a knife, though there was something about the way he said it that Alice realised it was probably going to go on to a topic that neither would enjoy, so he diverted the conversation to how enjoyed making simple foods even when he lived out in the wilds. Though they didn’t get too in depth on the subject, Alice was always intrigued by how he sustained himself all that time when he lived in a cave.
It took time for the vegetables to fully cook through, and even more time for the soup to reach its optimum consistency. It was just after one that afternoon when Alice started to dish it out to her hungry cabin friends. Those who couldn’t sit around the island bar simply sat on the floor – which Yugo referred to as pretty ‘hip’.
Alice served up the last dish of soup with a bowl of rice, and put it on a small tray, leaving her other companions to freely tuck in as she went over to the bedroom at the back. She knocked on the door.
“It’s only me,” she announced. “I’ve brought you food.”
“Come in,” Xion softly consented.
She opened the door and stepped into the room. The young man was sat on his bed leaning back against the wall, listening to a small radio that he’d set up on his bedside table. The programme he was listening to was in a language that Alice hadn’t really heard much of, though assumed it was probably Swedish when she recalled his place of birth. He shuffled forward as she approached, presenting the tray to him. He accepted it, offering a small ‘thank you’ as he went to take up seat on a chair at the end of his bed, placing the tray on his lap.
“You know, you are welcome to join us,” Alice said, feeling rather sad that he’d isolated himself away from the group.
He gently shook his head. “I don’t think that is really wise. If it isn’t Nagi wishing a curse upon me, I’m certain our guests would not be very enthusiastic about dining with the enemy of their deity.”
“I’m sure they have no ill-will against you,” she reasoned, brushing her hair behind her ear idly. “Not anymore at least. I just don’t want to see you treated so poorly when you’re trying so hard.”
He was somewhat touched by her kindness. “I’m grateful for your support, but I’d rather just let everyone else enjoy themselves than bring a dark cloud over your gathering. Besides, I have things to keep myself preoccupied with. I will not be bored.”
Alice sighed. “Well, if you’re sure.” Though, she quickly became more enthusiast, fist pumping randomly. “Don’t you worry! I will make sure you get plenty of cake!”
He smiled at her firm albeit benevolent declaration. “Thank you. That would be appreciated.”
She nodded, and though reluctant to leave him all on his own, she returned to the main room, closing his door quietly behind her.
Xion looked down at the food laid out on the tray. It smelled good, and he was certain that it would taste exceptional. Alice was a fantastic cook, so he was in no doubt he would enjoy it, though he inwardly sighed at the rice bowl, a part of him starting to get a little sick of eating so much of the grain. It was popular part of Asian cuisine, something he couldn’t seem to escape now he was settled in Japan. He’d tried to avoid it where he could, but in such cases as this, he grinned and bared it. He missed the cuisine of his homeland, which he rarely had the opportunity to experience now. He wished he could have more meatballs, pickled herring, or even rose hip soup.
But beggars couldn’t be choosers after all, and he was grateful that someone had taken the time to prepare him a meal. But before he could pick up his spoon, he heard his phone call for his attention. He’d received a message. Setting his tray aside for a brief moment, he plucked his phone from his pocket and checked what he’d received.
What appeared on his screen left him dumbfounded. It was a picture of a very gelatinous, ugly fish – a blobfish to be exact – that had been taken from a textbook. It had a very miserable expression, if it could be called one – he didn’t think fish could really make expressions in the way humans could.
Uranus had sent him the picture.
‘I was reading a book about sea creatures and saw this fish. I thought of you. He has the same expression you get sometimes.’
Xion scoffed loudly. Uranus was usually such a serious individual, but sometimes the layers peeled back and she revealed the more light-hearted part of herself, which also involved her teasing him about his icy disposition, particularly about how cheerless he could be at times. He did find himself chuckling that she had thought of him enough to want to mock him playfully.
He returned a response to her message: ‘I can assure you, that if I ever start to resemble that fish in a significant way, I will give up on life itself. Though, I will impress myself if when I’m old that I can make my lips sag that low.’ He set his phone back in his pocket and picked up his meal again, retrieving the spoon to dip into the thick soup, bringing the chunky potage to his lips, blowing on it before putting it in his mouth. As expected, it was delicious.