The stream was a fine tongue of muddy water languorously coming down the hill. Jin took off his shoes and put his feet in the water. It barely covered them and he could feel little fishes between his fingers.
He heard a splash and turned around. Against the sun, he could see Yamapi with crossed arms and a frowned brow. 'What do you think you”re doing, Akanishi Jin?'
'Refreshing myself, idiot. How did you know I was here?'
'I just knew.' Yamapi shrugged and sat on the sand. 'I'll tell your mom you touched the water. You know you can't touch it. Mom says it's like poison.'
'My granny says it used to be bigger. And there used to be grass.'
Yamapi grabbed a handful of sand. 'Well, it certainly isn't grass now. Come on, Jin, let's go back.'
Jin climbed the hill slowly. 'Let it be said, Yamashita, I'm only going back with you as a favor. It's got nothing to do with my mom being scary, nothing at all.'
Jin laid still on the floor. The sun was inching towards sunset, slowly covering his prison cell in shadows and highlighting the silence. Jin followed it through the cell's lone window. It almost touched the mossy ceiling. It didn't have bars and Jin wondered whether it had had lasers or an energy field once upon a time. It didn’t matter, because it was unreachable anyway.
He could hear faraway whispers and the echoes of low, grave chanting muted by the thick brick walls. The door was sturdy and heavy and Jin had almost dislocated a shoulder trying to open it. Then the guards had come in and given him the beating of a lifetime for his trouble. So he laid still, letting the coolness of the hard concrete ease the pain of his bruises. They hadn't even bothered to give him a bed. Just an empty cave. Like an animal.
The window was out as an escape plan. And the floors were immune to digging - plus he didn't have any tools.
'Hey, pirate. Wake up,' said a gruffy voice outside the door.
He stayed silent.
'You want food or not?'
Food. Gruel wasn't food.
'You ain't trying to escape, right?'
Jin smiled. Had he wanted, he would already be out of there. Had he wanted, he wouldn't have been captured in the first place.
But what laid inside the prison was way more important than anything he had left outside.
Letting himself be captured by the Holy Brotherhood might have been stupid, but there was no easier or saner way to infiltrate the headquarters, except maybe volunteering. And there was no way they'd take a twice convicted Sky Pirate. He snorted. Sky. There hadn't been ships across the skies for at least a century. Sand Pirates was more like it.
He took off his kneecap, lifted his pants and examined his bruised ankle. It was swollen and he wasn't quite sure he could walk. He tried to reach the door and fell down to the ground in one swift motion.
He crawled until he reached the wall and sat against it. He covered his eyes with his bandanna and tried to sleep.
The door's hinges creaked and Jin recognized the sound of the footsteps. They echoed his. They always had. He lifted the bandanna from his eyes and opened them.
A tall robed figure was standing before him. Jin had never seen fabric such as the long, flowy one that surrounded his former comrade and current guard. It was like a living shadow that followed every one of Yamapi's movements, managing to look graceful all the time. His rags probably weren't even comparable.
'Hello there, you honorable Priest of the Seventh Order,' he said, adding a little wave for effect.
Yamapi didn't betray any emotion. 'Eighth, you missed this one,' he said, pointing to his belt. Jin could see seven silver stars and one white symbol that Jin couldn't read. Of course, only priests knew how to read.
'Oh, sorry, I did miss that tiny marksie. You're too faraway for me to see clearly, bro.'
Yamapi stayed in the doorway. 'They're symbols of my prowess and abilities.' Jin yawned. Yamapi went on. 'Honesty, Faith, Honor, Chastity...'
Jin laughed. 'You, chaste? Doesn't sound like you at all.'
Yamapi's eyes opened a little, almost as if he was curious. 'How come you know how I sound?'
'Trust me, I know how you smell, how you taste and how you look.'
'Is that why you are that interested in my chastity or lack-thereof?'
Between bouts of disgust, Jin felt the cold sting of nostalgia, mixed with a tiny bit of warm, warm relief. There was the smartass he knew. 'Ew. No, no! I didn't mean it that way. I'd never do that to you. Or with you. Or your sister.'
'I have no sisters.'
Jin remembered running across town hand in hand with Rina and the girls. 'Metaphorical ones.'
Yamapi stepped into the cell. His strong, heavy steel boots crushed the bones of what had been either a rat or a former prisoner's lunch - or both. 'You do realize, pirate scum, that you make no sense?'
'It's been a trend in my life, yes.' Jin started playing with his bandanna. 'But the one not making sense is you. You always wanted to be a pirate, remember?'
Yamapi got closer and yanked it off his hands. 'I do not. I would never choose such a careless life.'
Jin lifted his face and stared at Yamapi's eyes. He could see a hint of anger there and, if he kidded himself enough, a glimmer of recognition. 'Oh, come on. It's not careless, it's carefree. Big difference.'
Maybe this whole thing was an elaborate game, a charade so that Yamapi's superiors wouldn't realize the truth. That Yamapi didn't belong there. That Yamapi was supposed to run across the desert, following the whims of the wind.
'You don't even care about being in prison.' Yamapi's voice was slightly puzzled.
'As if. I could escape any day of the week.'
But then Yamapi turned back into Yamashita, the prodigy. The smart, capable, heroic captor of pirates and executioner of rebels. Rescuer of children and protector of virginities as well, probably. Not a shade of his rambunctious, slightly ridiculous best friend. 'Then why don't you?'
Jin crossed his arms. 'I won't leave you behind, of course. Friends don't do that.'
'I am not your friend,' said Yamapi, before turning his back to Jin. 'You are my prisoner.'
Jin closed his eyes again. 'Matter of perspective, really. The only prisoner I see here is you.'
'We're just kids, Jin. The creek is a dangerous place. They say there are monsters out there.' He took a deep breath. 'And that there's a rebel hideout in one of the caves, deep enough so that the tracks don't work.'
Jin took two apples and weighed them in his hands. He gave the heavier one to Yamapi and put the other one in his pocket. 'It's just a walk. Aren't you bored with the town? The same three streets, over and over again.'
Yamapi bit his apple. 'But what if something happens to me? My mom will be left all alone.'
Jin gave him a half-hearted salute. 'I'll protect you, sir. If you promise to protect me, of course.'
Yamapi threw the apple core at him. 'Are you ready?!' he yelled and took off.
Jin followed. 'Always!'
Jin was humming a truly old song that he had caught from Ryo. He snorted. Ryo was probably humming while he worked on some old engine, somewhere off the grid. Last time he had seen him, of course, he was fuming. Something about 'Don't jump, you idiot!'.
But he had had to, once he had learned Yamapi was after him. He felt proud of that. That meant he had made it as an outlaw. He probably couldn't go back home anymore, now. Their old town was way too close to the Priests' Headquarters.
He wondered what Ryo and the crew had done with his glider after his capture. They wouldn't destroy it, would they? Ryo was perfectly capable of selling it, though, as some kind of wicked revenge.
So he had jumped onto the platform and faced his friend. Yamapi had been spectacular, he couldn't deny it. Quick reflexes, quick thinking, steady hand and really painful fists. He hadn't boasted, though, not at all. Just cold confidence coming out of every pore. Jin couldn't even hit him once.
But he had boasted too of course, even when Yamapi pointed a big gun to his forehead and read his rights - none - and his charges. 'Identification... Akanishi Jin, notorious pirate. Three kidnappings, several cases of blackmail, fourteen thefts.'
Jin had expected to die right there. Priests were the Law of the Land. Judges and executioners. Witnesses and jury. And pirates were rightly considered scum - imprisonment was uncommon, actual trials even more so. Yamapi was feared among their ranks - his hand never trembled. You might get away with it in some lost town near the border, but if Priests caught you, the best you could hope is that it was painless.
But Yamapi had lowered the gun and nodded to his partner, Jae-or-something-like-that. Next thing he knew, Yamapi clicked his fingers and then Jin woke up somewhere dark and lonely.
The door opened again. Jin didn't even look at it. Probably his daily gruel.
'Akanishi Jin, you have been pardoned,' Yamapi said.
Jin bolted upright. 'What? I have been what?'
'You will join a mission to the Eastern Tribes.'
Jin gulped. That kind of pardon. 'Hm. In a scale from 'Reckless' to 'Suicide', how does this rate?'
'Don't count on ever coming back,' an older voice said. 'Survive and we might be lenient.' It was one of the Priests with the funky hats. He had seen some once, from a distance, while pickpocketing his way through a parade crowd. He had thought them funny, old and mostly harmless.
Seeing several of them up close now, he realized how wrong he had been.
Yamapi coughed. 'It will be a difficult mission, yes. You have been chosen because of your superior navigational skills.'
Jin opened his mouth. Kame was his navigator and for good reason. Then he shut it. They said Fortune only has one hair and you better hold on.
They had been walking for hours in their minds and Jin was reconsidering his choice of footwear - that is, none at all. Only his apple was left and the sun was slowly setting down. Only the murmur of the stream could be heard and the trees cast eerie shadows in the red limestone.
He tried to steady his voice. 'It's growing darker.'
'I noticed. We have to turn back,' Yamapi answered. His voice was calm, calmer than normal. 'Jin, I don't think we're alone.'
Jin gritted his teeth. 'Do you believe in monsters now? Don't let old wives' tales scare you, idiot.' Don't let them scare me.
'My mom is not a widow. And she's not old. And Jin, we are really not alone. I can feel it. Can't you?'
Jin couldn't, but he trusted Yamapi's intuition. His hunches were almost always right. 'Okay, okay, we're going back.'
And then something big and gray and malformed jumped out of a cave. Before he could get a clear image of it, Yamapi was already hitting it with a stone. Perfect accuracy, as always.
It hit the ground without a whimper. Its hands - or whatever those were - twitched. Jin stared at it, transfixed.
'Run, you idiot!' he heard and then there was a tug of his sleeve and then they ran until they got home, out of breath and out of their minds.
Priests' Gliders were something else. Unlike his own makeshift contraption, they were elegant, silent and fast. They seemed light, almost as if they were about to take flight. As he saw the dunes pass by in a blur, Jin understood why they always got everywhere so quickly. He touched the glass. He understood why they didn't have goggles as well. His were at his neck, dangling uselessly.
Yamapi was driving and the desert looked beautiful in the moonlight. He hadn't said a word since they had got on board. It was just the two of them, Yamapi's partner apparently having turned down the offer.
'This... is amazing, Yamapi.'
Yamapi didn't answer. Jin could see his profile in the dark. He tried to guess his expression. Why had he chosen him for a dangerous mission? Why hadn't he killed him when he got the chance?
He started talking again. 'I mean, I could die after driving one of these. The places I'd go to. You could reach the Faraway Cities in this, you know? Across the strait and all. Even the Hidden Fortress, maybe. Or the Golden Pavilion. If it still exists. My grandmother...'
'No, you can't. They're monitored. They stop at the border,' Yamapi said, curtly. 'They're not made to be offgrid. It's too dangerous and they're too delicate.'
Jin knocked on the metal. 'Dunno, looks sturdy enough for me. They have solar panels, right?' Yamapi nodded. 'I had never seen those before. I'll let you know that I'm going to try and steal one.'
'I'd like to see you try.'
Jin turned away from the window and towards Yamapi. 'I probably couldn't make it work, though. But Ryo could, probably, with a little help. He's a genius. You remember Ryo, right?'
'Figures,' Jin said and tried to sleep.
The town was quiet during the midday hours. The sun burnt the earth and there was no breeze to speak of.
All you could hear was a lonely voice singing about the time of flowers and how green a valley was. Probably Ryo's grandmother, Jin thought. She was always going on and on about the Eternal Spring that someday would come.
Jin was tapping the window, following the melody. 'Yamapi, what do you think 'spring' means?'
Yamapi only opened one eye. 'It's when flowers bloom.'
Jin stretched his arms with the carefulness of somebody who's grown quite larger in a short time. 'No, that's rainy season.'
'Same thing, then.' Yamapi shrugged. 'Have you ever seen the rain?'
'Once. I was a kid, still traveling with Dad...'
'How was it?'
'I've forgotten,' Jin said.
The sun woke Jin up. The copilot seat had been much more comfortable than the prison's floor, but that was not saying much. It was still cold, the day just starting.
Yamapi was awake as well, probably, because they were still moving. They were in the middle of nothing, Jin thought. No towns near, no other travelers. Jin felt his gun under his arm and wondered how hard it'd be to escape.
'Very hard,' Yamapi said. 'You're being tracked.'
Jin put his hand on his gun. 'How... did you do that?'
'Priests. We have our tricks. And don't even try to get that gun out. You'll be dead before you even shoot.'
Jin gulped and let the gun rest. 'Are you reading my mind?'
'As I said, we have our tricks.'
Jin got closer. 'Then you know I'm saying the truth, don't you? About us being friends.'
The vehicle stopped and Yamapi stood up. 'It's not that simple. You could be tricking me. Creating fake memories in yourself.'
'I'm not that smart. It's me, after all, I'm not particularly complicated.' Jin stood up as well. 'But if you know, then why come with me? Why did they even let you?'
Yamapi shrugged and opened a cabinet. He rummaged through it and then produced two boxes. Jin took his. It had food inside.
'Mine is a rare talent. I don't think they know how it works or what I know,' Yamapi said.
Jin put a hand on Yamapi's shoulder. 'Then you believe me?'
'No. But my power means I can sense the gaps in my memory. You are my best chance to fill them.'
Goats, Jin thought, knew what was best for them. They didn't complain nor did they wish for something else. He, however, was growing tired of watching them graze.
'We need to leave this place,' Yamapi said, throwing a stone at the corral.
Jin smiled. 'Let's become pirates then, Yamapi. Let's go offgrid and leave this dusty old town behind.'
'I don't know if we could do that. It's dangerous. You know what happens to pirates if they catch them.'
'Oh, but they will never catch us.'
Yamapi rolled his eyes and hit Jin in the back of the head. 'They can always find you, remember?'
'Then we go offgrid. To one of the towns past the border.'
'You know what they say about those, Jin.'
'That they're dangerous? As if that mattered. Don't you want to have an adventure every once in a while?'
'What's next, Jin? Joining the Rebels?'
Jin shrugged. 'Why not? It's better than goats.'
Jin's ear itched and his head hurt. He had been thinking, a lot, way more than he usually did. 'I'm not being tracked,' he said out loud. 'And the mission is an excuse.'
Before he even knew it, Yamapi's hands were on his neck. 'Don't be too smart for your good, pirate.'
Jin grinned and put his hands over Yamapi's wrists. 'Now, now. I'm your only chance to remember. And this is my only chance of getting my friend back. So let's be calm, shall we?'
Yamapi let go of him. 'I am being calm. I'm famous for it.'
'No, you're famous for being a cold-blooded bastard. Completely different things.' It was the truth. Most Priests were cold and efficient in a inhuman way, but Yamapi was legendary. 'Look, I don't know what you said to convince them of this whole thing, but we both know it's a lie. We haven't even gone east.'
Yamapi crossed his arms and stared at Jin. It was better than being almost choked, but not by a wide margin.
'I'm not being tracked. You are.'
'Why are you so sure of that?'
Jin smiled and took off his bandana, pointing at a scar on his forehead. 'See this? Rebel tech. I'm untraceable, my friend.'
Yamapi snorted. 'So you've managed to outwit the Brotherhood?'
'How long have you been trying to catch the Rebels? Years? Why do you think you haven't managed to?'
'I'll tell that to my superiors. I'll drive back there and put you back in prison.'
Jin laughed. 'And then what? You'll let them experiment on me? Really?'
'Why shouldn't I?'
'Because you're my best friend in the world. And I know who can help you remember that.'
Yamapi was serious. That was weird and unsettling, Jin thought. Last time he had looked like that was when Ryo's grandmother had passed away.
'I don't know why you look like that, Yamapi, but I have great, great news.' He made a dramatic pause, waiting for Yamapi to ask. Yamapi didn't. 'Hm, Ryo's found a glider. You understand what that means, right? We can leave.'
'The Brotherhood came to my house last night. They say they want to recruit me.'
'Can you tell me, again, why are we going on foot?'
Jin adjusted his goggles. Walking the desert in the sunlight was a suicide, but monsters came out at night and it was better to die slowly of dehydration than being tore apart by something with many arms and many teeth. 'Your glider is tracked. We can't afford that.'
Yamapi huffed. 'And can you tell me, again, why am I the one carrying the food?'
Jin pointed at his back. 'Because I'm carrying the water, that's why... You know, I'm really thankful my goggles are this sturdy.'
He adjusted them again, trying to zoom in some shadows he saw in the distance.
'Why should I even care about your goggles?'
'Because, despite being a bitch most of the time, Ryo is a genius.'
'I've already told you I don't even remember him.'
'He'd be pretty offended for that, you know? And he's a southerner. You know he'll challenge you to a duel for implying he's not memorable.'
'I was friends with southerners, fantastic. Can you tell me where exactly are we going?'
Jin caressed his gun and mentally estimated how far the merchants were. 'Right now? We're going to hitch a ride.'
Jin gulped. 'And you said no, right?'
Yamapi said nothing.
One of Jin's central tenets in life was that you ought to look more dangerous than you are. So even if he had never planned to shoot the merchants - and, more importantly, even he didn't have bullets - he still pointed the gun at their children the whole trip. Yamapi sat on the back of the glider, playing mindlessly with his dagger.
'We're here,' the lead merchant said and stopped the beasts. Jin had never seen them before, but the merchants had southern accents, so he supposed Ryo would know what they were.
'We won't get any closer to that town,' the woman said.
Jin nodded and jumped off the glider. Yamapi followed him. 'Yamapi, give them your robe.'
'Are you crazy? Why would I?'
Jin shrugged. 'Payment. It'll fetch a nice price in the black market.'
Yamapi stood silent for a while and then carefully took off his robe and gave it to the merchants. They left quickly, trying to put as many sand as they could between them and a Priest. 'So, are you going to tell me, then, where are we going?'
Jin pointed to the town, visible already. It looked like a white mushroom growing on a red mound on the horizon. 'There. The Free Town of Zero, last oasis before the Great Divide. Once we reach it, they won't be able to track you anymore. And you won't be able to turn back either. You ready?'