Note: Kajiki's sailing song is "The Walloping Window Blind" by Charles Edward Carryl.
Malik had been asleep when his plane started to go down.
At first, he'd thought that the banging and shaking were just part of his dream. His inner visions had consisted, as they often did, of an ancient Egyptian temple. In his dream, he'd been dressed rather like Indiana Jones, and had been walking through a long hallway covered in fading wall paintings and hieroglyphics, holding a map in both hands. His guide stomped along beside him, carrying a torch. The shadows parted ahead of them as they walked and closed behind them when they passed, so that they walked in a tiny bubble of torchlight. Suddenly, Malik's foot came down on a tile that sank beneath his weight, and the entire room began to shake. Malik fell, and the map flew out of his hands and went rolling off into the darkness. He cried out in panic and scrambled in a futile effort to grab it.
"Don't bother," said his guide calmly. "You don't need it. The map is on the walls."
"What does that mean?" Malik shouted back at him.
Before his guide could answer him, there was an earsplitting crash, and Malik sat up in his seat with his heart racing. He was not in an Egyptian temple. He was in an airplane, on his way to Domino City to conduct some business on his sister's behalf. When he'd fallen asleep, the weather outside had been pleasant. Now, though, he could see that the world outside had turned nearly black with clouds, and there was rain streaking his window. Thunder crashed again, and the plane shook with turbulence, bringing Malik fully back to reality.
"Please fasten your seatbelts," said a calm voice from overhead. "We are preparing to make an emergency landing."
Emergency...? he thought, still feeling slightly muzzy. Then the thunder crashed again, and he realized that the storm was driving his plane off-course.
The next few minutes bore out that conclusion. The plane touched down in a town Malik had never heard of, one whose primary - indeed, so far as he could tell, only - virtue was that it was the closest town with an airport. Malik collected his luggage and stared out at the driving rain. He had a pocket full of vouchers for meals and a hotel room, a little bit of spare Japanese currency, and no idea how he was supposed to get to where he was going, or when he'd be able to get there.
Today, he decided, is not my lucky day.
A few hours before Malik's plane made its unscheduled landing, Jonouchi was sitting on a bench, eating taiyaki and throwing crumbs to the seagulls. He was in a good mood. It was a beautiful day, full of warm breezes and round fluffy clouds, and he had done well in his most recent tournament. He'd come here to participate in a local competition - not the largest or most glamorous, but the prizes were good and they'd sent him an invitation. He'd found out later that they'd also tried to invite Yugi and Kaiba before they tried him, but hadn't gotten any response. Still, he supposed, it was nice to be thought of at all, and he had won.
Now the competition was over, and he was taking some time to relax and unwind before he caught the train back home. He was looking forward to catching up with Yugi, rehashing the duels, maybe showing off just a little bit. For now, though, it was nice to sit here and enjoy his snack while he looked out at the ocean and enjoyed the cool sea breeze. He was close to a marina, and the yachts and schooners were drifting gracefully in and out of port or bobbing in the peaceful waters. As far as relaxing sights went, it was a good one, and he was more than happy to soak it up.
He was letting his mind wander while he nibbled the last of his snack, when he noticed a young man coming up the sidewalk on his way to the marina. Jonouchi sat up to get a better look. The man looked awfully familiar. Interested now, Jonouchi bounded to his feet, threw the last few scraps of taiyaki to the gulls, and went bounding down the hill for a better look.
"Kajiki! Hey, Kajiki, over here!"
The young man looked up and grinned, his teeth brilliantly white against his deep tan. "Jonouchi! Hey, I wasn't expecting to see you here. How've you been?"
"Doing great," said Jonouchi. "So what's up? Are you in town for the duel?"
Kajiki shook his head. "Nah. By the time I realized they were having a tournament, the tickets were all sold out."
"You missed a great show," said Jonouchi. He preened a little. "Of course, you can guess who carried off the grand prize."
"Oh, is Yugi here too?"
Jonouchi gave him a light shove. "No, you dope! I'm talking about me! I won the tournament! Geez, what's a guy got to do to earn some respect around here?"
Kajiki laughed. "I'm just messing with you. Congrats. I'm sorry I missed it."
"So, if you aren't here for the tournament, why are you here?" Jonouchi asked.
"Just stopping in to get some supplies and refuel," said Kajiki.
"By refuel, do you mean, like, get lunch?"
Kajiki laughed. "I mean, like, buy gasoline. For my boat."
"Hey, you finally got your boat, then? Congratulations!" said Jonouchi, genuinely pleased. "That's awesome. I know how much that thing means to you."
"She's beautiful," Kajiki agreed, his expression misting over slightly. "Hey, do you want to see her? She's just over there."
"Sure, I'd love to," said Jonouchi. "I don't need to be back home at any particular time anyway."
"Heading back to Domino?" asked Kajiki thoughtfully. "Hey, you know, I'm heading that direction anyway. If you're not in any particular hurry, why don't you ride along with me? It'll be fun."
Jonouchi brightened. "Really? You'd do that?"
"Sure," said Kajiki. "I mean, the cabins are pretty tiny, but you'd probably be on deck most of the time anyway. We can duel and do some fishing and maybe go swimming..."
"You've sold me," said Jonouchi. "Just let me pick up my stuff from the hotel and I'll be right down."
"I'll be waiting," Kajiki promised. "My boat is the Steadfast. It's right down there near the end. Give a shout when you're ready to board."
Less than an hour later, Jonouchi had returned to his hotel, scooped all his things into a duffel bag, and hurried back down to the marina. He wandered down the path until he finally found a sleek white boat with Steadfast painted on it in bold blue letters.
This must be the place, he decided.
"Hey, Kajiki!" he shouted. "You up there?"
"Sure, just give me one sec."
A moment later, a gangplank was lowered onto the pier, and Jonouchi wasted no time bounding up to the deck.
"Wow," he said, looking around appreciatively. "It's a lot bigger than I thought it would be."
"She's a beauty, all right," said Kajiki, practically bursting with pride. "She was a wreck when I bought her, but I've got her fixed up better than new. Come on. I'll show you where your bunk is."
He led the way down a narrow flight of stairs that led below deck. This area, Kajiki explained, was where the crew would stay if he had one - enough space for four in all, though at the moment he was the only one occupying the boat full time. The room he showed Jonouchi to was, as promised, small, with just barely enough room for a tiny bed, an even tinier desk and chair, a chest of drawers only slightly bigger than his high school locker, and a pocket-sized bathroom with a miniature sink and a shower with just enough room to stand under it. Still, it was bigger than a seat on a train, and had the advantage of good company.
"It's nice," said Jonouchi. "Does it come with room service?"
Kajiki laughed. "No, but sometimes we get cell phone reception."
"Good enough. I'll take it!" Jonouchi said. They both laughed.
"Great," said Kajiki. "You get settled in, then, and I'll get us moving."
He bounded up the steps. Jonouchi had to laugh. It was nice, seeing someone so excited over a new toy.
Unpacking was a bit of a challenge in his closet of a room. He was still working on the gymnastics required to unpack his duffel bag when he heard the rush of the motor firing up, and then felt the boat rock gently as it began moving out to sea. By the time he returned to the deck, the land was already rolling swiftly past them. He leaned on the railing to admire the view, enjoying the sea breezes and the smell of the spray.
"This," he said, "has got to be the best way to travel."
They sailed peacefully down the coast. Soon they'd left the town behind, and were passing by empty stretches of beach. Jonouchi found himself lulled into a trance, nearly put to sleep by the gentle rocking of the waves. He almost didn't notice when the rocking became less gentle and the breezes less pleasant. He did notice, however, when Kajiki appeared at his side.
"You might want to go down below," he said. "There's a storm blowing up. I'm going to try to get us to land, but if I can't find a safe place to dock, we'll just have to ride it out."
"Anything I can do to help?" Jonouchi asked.
Kajiki shook his had. "Too dangerous. Just keep your head down. I'll be okay."
Jonouchi didn't like it, but he was forced to admit that he knew nothing about ships beyond the fact that they were supposed to float. There wasn't much he could do but to stay out of the way. Kajiki, on the other hand, seemed concerned but not overly worried, so Jonouchi assumed he knew what to do. He went back down to his room to brace himself for a wild ride.
It wasn't long before the little boat was pitching and rolling like some kind of demented theme park ride. Jonouchi could hear the crash of the thunder outside, even over the roaring of the waves and the howl of the wind. All he could do was lie on his cot, gripping the edges to keep from being pitched off by a particularly forceful wave. He tried to stop himself from imagining what would happen if one of those huge waves washed Kajiki off the deck and into the sea. Would he be able to save himself? Would Jonouchi be left to float, directionless, until he was swept out into the sea and lost? Finally, he couldn't stand it any longer, and he rolled out of bed and went upstairs.
As soon as he set foot on deck, he was drenched with water. He couldn't tell where it was all coming from. Between the rain and the waves, he thought he might as well have jumped into the ocean and saved himself some time. He slipped and stumbled his way across the deck and into the control booth.
At least it was dryer in there. Kajiki was sitting in the captain's chair, quite safe from any rogue waves that might try to carry him off. His gaze was fixed intently on the window in front of him while his hands busily worked the controls.
"How's it going?" Jonouchi asked.
"We're getting there," said Kajiki. "Can you see those lights in the distance? There's a town up ahead where we can dock until this blows over."
"If you can get us there without sinking us, I'm all in favor of that."
Kajiki grinned. "You just watch me."
With confident movements, he guided his little boat through the waves and up to the docks, as easily as if he were parking a car in his own familiar driveway. As soon as they were securely moored, he began leading Jonouchi off the boat and onto solid (if not currently very dry) land.
"Come on," he said. "You look like you could use some time inside drying off."
"What, and you couldn't?" Jonouchi retorted. Their dash through the rain had Kajiki looking as wet as Jonouchi was.
"Not me!" said Kajiki cheerfully. "The water is my natural habitat."
The two of them splashed their way up a puddle-filled street into the first hotel they came to that looked inviting. Jonouchi was glad of it. He'd been resigned to sleeping on a cot, but in weather like this, he was just as glad to have a real room that didn't move around. They made their arrangements and then headed for the hotel dining room to get a bite to eat while they dried out.
"Tomorrow, I'll catch us some fish," said Kajiki, "and we can have a real meal, but tonight we're going to have to settle for this."
Normally, Jonouchi would have been ready with a remark about Kajiki's skill at cooking, but just then, his attention was somewhere else entirely.
"Hey, I know that guy!" he said.
Up until that moment, Malik had been sitting alone at a table, eating an overpriced sandwich and contemplating his options. He had tried and failed to find a place in this town where he could rent a car. He'd inquired as to train schedules and learned that no more trains were passing through today that would put him anywhere near Domino City. There would be no more planes out of this town until the weather cleared, and no one seemed to have any idea how long that would be. He had been pondering the possibility of taking a taxi to another city with more trains, but the logistics were bewildering. It was enough to give him a blazing headache. He almost didn't notice when he heard someone calling his name.
"Hey, Earth to Malik!"
Malik finally registered that someone was calling to him and raised his head. Much to his surprise, he was Jonouchi standing next to him, along with another young man who Malik didn't recognize.
"Jonouchi," he said, blinking at him. "What on earth are you doing here?"
"Probably the same thing you are," said Jonouchi. "Trying to stay out of the rain."
Malik sighed. "That's exactly what I'm doing, yes."
Jonouchi sat down at his table, waving for his friend to do the same. "You don't mind us keeping you company, right?"
"I guess not," said Malik. "Who is he, anyway?"
"Oh, right, you two haven't met," said Jonouchi. "Malik, this is Kajiki Ryouta. He's a duelist and a fisherman. Kajiki, this is Malik Ishtar. He's a duelist too, and a friend."
A friend. Hearing someone say that still gave Malik a sense of warmth inside. After everything that had happened in Battle City, he would have understood if Jonouchi had preferred to avoid his company. To be casually called a friend, as if they had been old schoolmates together instead of enemies, was something he found mildly amazing.
"Glad to meet you," he said, offering his hand to shake. "Any friend of Jonouchi's is a friend of mine."
"Likewise," said Kajiki, grinning. The hand he clasped around Malik's was strong and rough with calluses. Clearly he had been working hard at his fishing.
"So what brings you here?" Malik asked. "I didn't expect to see anyone I knew in a place like this."
"You know what they say - any port in a storm," said Kajiki. "We're sailing to Domino City so I can drop off this baggage here." He nudged Jonouchi, who grinned and shoved him back.
Malik sat up a little straighter. "To Domino? Really?"
"Where else would I go?" asked Jonouchi.
"What a coincidence," Malik murmured. "The truth is, I need to go to Domino on museum business, but my plane has been grounded and I have no idea how long I'm going to be stuck here or how I'm going to get back on track. The airline gave me vouchers for another flight, but they didn't sound very sure when that would be or where I'd actually end up..."
"Well, we have room for one more," said Kajiki, and laughed. "Room for two more, actually, but I don't think you'd take up that much room. The point is, you're welcome to tag along with us if you want to. I can guarantee, it'll be less stressful than trying to figure out plane schedules."
"I really don't want to impose," said Malik, but his heart wasn't in it. Right now, compared to sorting out schedules and fares, a serene ride on a boat sounded wonderful.
"Hey, the more the merrier," said Jonouchi. "It'll be fun!"
"It's no problem," said Kajiki. "I mean, it would be nice if you'd chip in a little something to pay for the extra food, but other than that..."
"I can do that," said Malik. "Count me in."
That night, unsurprisingly, Jonouchi dreamed of boats. In his dream, he was a deck hand on a pirate ship, and even in his sleep, he felt mildly cheated that he hadn't managed to be the captain. Instead, the captain was an older man, with the predictable patch over one eye, a peg leg, and a face that was weatherbeaten but kind. He was leaning over a table, showing Jonouchi a map of a small island, with the treasure marked with a big red X.
"The temple is a trap, see?" he was saying in his gruff voice. "It's not just the booby traps you have to worry about. The whole building is a trap. It's easy enough to get into the temple, but it's hard to get out again. Be sure of your exit, and don't take the easiest way offered to you. The right way will be the way that's hard to see."
Jonouchi was about to ask him what he meant by this, but at that point, someone started shaking his shoulder vigorously, and he came awake with a snort.
"Did you know you snore?" asked Kajiki, in a voice that was entirely too cheerful for so early in the morning. "Anyway, it's time to get up. The storm is gone and we're ready to set sail!"
Kajiki continued to hustle him through his morning routine, assisted somewhat by Malik, who also appeared to be an early riser.
Why is everyone around here a morning person?
Still, the combined efforts of the two of them managed to get some breakfast into him and coax him back down to the ship. The sun was rising now, turning the sea to gold and fire. The sky was as clear of clouds as if it had never rained at all. He had to admit, the sight was stirring. Almost worth getting up for - almost, but not quite.
"A perfect day for a sail," said Kajiki cheerfully. "Do you guys know how to fish?"
"Oh, boy," said Jonouchi. "Shoulda known this was going to be a working vacation."
Kajiki laughed. "Hey, I've still gotta make a living. The least you guys could do is help out."
Still, once the boat was moving, Kajiki didn't seem to be interested in forcing his crew to work. He didn't seem to need them at all. The ship's computers were perfectly capable of keeping it going in the right direction without any help from him, and he was free to devote all his attention to his nets and lines. Malik watched for a while before apparently growing bored and wandering off to go sunbathe on the aft deck. Jonouchi enjoyed watching the fisherman at work, though. Kajiki seemed to have an instinct for just where to lower a net to bring it up again full of flapping silver fish.
"By the time we get to Domino," said Jonouchi, "you're going to have to sell all your fish again just to free up some space."
Kajiki laughed. "I'm doing good today, all right. Maybe you brought me some good luck."
Jonouchi grinned. "That's what I do best!"
Having dumped all his fish into the hold, Kajiki abandoned his pursuit long enough to come lean on the railing next to Jonouchi.
"It's kind of amazing, you know? To finally be doing this," he said. "It's what my dad would have wanted."
"He'd be really proud of you," said Jonouchi. "I mean, you're a great fisherman and an awesome duelist and an all-around nice guy."
"I sure hope so," said Kajiki. "I mean, that he'd be proud of me." He stared out at the water. "You know, there's a part of me that never stopped believing that he might still be alive out there somewhere, you know? We never found a body, and he was a strong swimmer. He knew how to survive out on the ocean. There's always a chance he could have washed up somewhere." He raised his eyes to meet Jonouchi's. "Do you think that's stupid?"
"Of course it's not stupid," said Jonouchi. "It's not stupid to give up on your family. I'm still trying to help my dad."
"What's wrong with your dad?" Kajiki asked.
Jonouchi shrugged. "You mean, besides the fact that he's got no sense? Never mind, that's not fair. The thing is, he's got a gambling problem. When he wins, he spends the money on alcohol, and when he's drunk, he gambles. When he loses, he drinks to drown his frustrations. It never ends. I do what I can for him, but..."
"Man," said Kajiki. "I had no idea..."
"It's cool," said Jonouchi. "I'm used to it." He looked away, out at the water. It was strangely easy to talk like this, out where he could see nothing but water and sky. It was as if the rest of the world had gone away for a while, and his problems had retreated along with it. "I kind of envy you, you know? You had a great dad. Even if he's gone now, that's how you're always going to remember him. I know my dad used to be a good guy, but all I can remember is a drunk."
Kajiki was quiet for a while. Jonouchi wondered if he'd said too much.
"You're right," said Kajiki. "My dad was a great guy. I'm really lucky to have him, even if it's just as a memory." He flashed a sudden smile. "I don't mind sharing what I learned from him, either. How'd you like to do some fishing?"
Jonouchi smiled, feeling his spirits lift. "You know, I think I could really go for that."
Kajiki was singing to himself as he worked. He was glad to have company for this trip, glad to be out in the open water doing what he did best, and in general happy to be alive.
"Oh, blow ye winds, heigh-ho! A roving we will go!" he sang. "We'll stay no more on England's shore, so let the music play-ay-ay!"
"You have a good voice," someone commented.
He glanced over his shoulder to look at Malik. The young man had found a towel and spread it on the deck, and was now lying on his back there with his face tilted towards the sun. He looked as perfectly content as any human could, and Kajiki had to smile just looking at him.
And why not? Malik was an attractive specimen, with his bronze skin, sunlight-colored hair, and striking lavender eyes. You didn't often see eyes that color. To tell the truth, Kajiki was almost a little jealous. He could tell that there was some history between Jonouchi and Malik that he wasn't privy to. Why should they tell him? He'd spent only a few hours in Jonouchi's company, and had known Malik for even less time than that, so why should they share their life histories with him? All the same, they were both very attractive people - Jonouchi with his rough-and-tumble charm and Malik with his exotic looks and general air of mystery, and a sailor could get lonely all by himself on the empty sea.
"Sailors are supposed to sing," said Kajiki. "It goes with the territory."
"I'll take your word for it," Malik replied. He stretched lazily and closed his eyes again. Kajiki laughed.
"You're a real sun-worshiper, aren't you?" he said.
"What makes you say that?"
"Just the way you look," said Kajiki. "Like a turtle that's come up to bask."
"Well, I suppose it's natural," said Malik. "I'm from an old Egyptian line. The ancient Egyptians worshiped the sun."
"Egypt, huh? I don't think I could live there," Kajiki mused. "Too much desert, not enough water."
"The ancient Egyptians worshiped water, too, in a way," said Malik, unoffended. "The movement of the Nile was the heartbeat of their world."
"The heartbeat of their world. I like that," said Kajiki. "You're a poet."
"Not really," said Malik. "I don't think I'm anything in particular." He sat up and wrapped his arms around his knees with a sigh. "I envy you. You know exactly where you want to be. You know where you belong."
"I guess you're right about that," said Kajiki. "I've never wanted to be anything other than a fisherman like my dad."
"It's strange," said Malik. "When I was a kid, I thought I had no choice but to follow in my father's footsteps, and I wanted nothing more in the world but to be allowed to go out into the world and choose my own path. Now I'm out in the world, but..."
"You wish you could go back?" Ryuouta guessed.
"No," said Malik. "It's just... there are a lot more choices in the world than I ever realized, until I had to start making them."
"Well, if you ever take it into your head to become a deckhand, I'm sure I can find you room on my boat," said Kajiki.
Malik smiled. "Do you want to know the truth? I can't swim."
"Not even a little?" asked Kajiki, surprised.
"Not a bit," Malik admitted. "I grew up in the middle of the desert. There was never anything to swim in."
Kajiki ran a hand through his hair. "That's a point. Okay, I'll tell you what we'll do. There are some little islands up ahead - all rocks and trees, no people at all. We'll stop at one of those, make camp on the beach, and go swimming. Maybe we can camp out. You have time, right?"
"I guess..." said Malik slowly.
"Great," said Kajiki. "It's decided! Don't worry - this will be fun!"
Malik smiled slowly. "I guess I'll have to trust you, then."
"You can count on me," Kajiki assured him.
He headed off to find Jonouchi and tell him about their plan. The thought of a picnic and a swim put him in an even better mood than he'd been in before, and he sang with renewed gusto.
"...I'm off for my love with a boxing glove, ten thousand miles away!"
They anchored the Steadfast just off one of the little islands, and came ashore in a rowboat that Kajiki paddled with swift strokes. Jonouchi was excited in spite of himself. He was a strong swimmer, and Kajiki had promised to teach him the rudiments of snorkeling. In their rowboat, they had an assortment of snorkeling gear, a cooler with some food and drinks, a few spare blankets, an assortment of cooking things, and Kajiki's fishing spear. It was a miracle there was room for the three of them. Jonouchi reflected that it was a good thing that he liked these too, because it was pretty close quarters in that boat for the three of them.
They pulled up on the sandy shore and set up their camp in a place Kajiki said would be dry even at high tide.
"This island is bigger than I expected," Jonouchi said, looking around at the dense trees that grew at the edge of the beach. If he stood in the right place and looked, he could see the top of something that might be the remains of an ages-old extinct volcano, or perhaps just a very large hill.
"It's bigger than it looked from a distance," Kajiki admitted. "It can't be that big, though. It wasn't even on my map."
"Is that usual?" Malik asked. "I would have thought they would mark an island like that, if only to keep people from crashing into it."
Kajiki shrugged. "It happens. Sometimes map makers even leave stuff out on purpose. It helps them know when someone is copying off them. Come on, let's go swimming while there's still daylight left."
So they went swimming. There was a place where two arms of rock reached out from the main island to create a small lagoon, where the water was placid enough even for an inexperienced swimmer to paddle around safely. Kajiki set Jonouchi up with a snorkel and a set of flippers, and then went off to help Malik practice a few basic strokes.
Jonouchi had to admit, snorkeling on a semi-tropical island beat splashing around in the school swimming pool. The water here was a glorious blue, and full of little silver fish that scattered when he swam towards them. He watched the undersea life with fascination. He wondered if he could ever manage to get his sister down here. He knew she would love to see something like this.
Eventually he got tired of swimming and splashed back to shore to sit on the beach and dry out. While he sat there, basking in the sun, he watched his two friends swim around in the lagoon. They were both clearly enjoying themselves - Kajiki shouting encouragement, Malik spluttering and laughing every time he came up for air. Jonouchi smiled in spite of himself. After the way he'd seen Malik in the Battle City tournament, under the control of his darker self, it was good to see him genuinely happy and enjoying himself. He deserved some happiness, after all he'd been through. It was amazing that there could still be such a gentle soul in him, even after all he'd endured. Seeing him like this now gave Jonouchi wish he could somehow make sure nothing ever disrupted that fragile happiness.
Even if right now, it was Kajiki who was making him happy. He really was in his natural habitat, here in the water. He seemed like an integral part of the scene, as much at home in the water as the fish were. It was a pleasure to watch him slipping through the sea as smoothly as an otter. He might not have been as strikingly good-looking as Malik, but he had a quality of genuineness about him, as if this were how humans were supposed to look, before they got corrupted by cities and technology. In an urban environment, he wouldn't have turned any heads, but here in his element it was hard not to watch him.
I've definitely got to do this more often, Jonouchi decided.
As the sun began to set, Malik finally waded up to the shore, looking tired but happy. Kajiki asked the two of them to start a fire for him, and then he dove back under the water and was gone.
"Wonder where he went?" Jonouchi said.
Malik shrugged. "He said something about dinner. How are you at lighting fires?"
"All right. You gather some wood, then, and I'll sort everything else out."
Jonouchi did as he was told. There was a lot of wood around, in the form of fallen branches as well as driftwood. He gathered up a good sized pile of it next to their campsite. They'd made it in a cozy little nook that was half sheltered by a few weathered rocks, and had a couple of old logs that could act as benches. By the time Jonouchi returned with a fresh armload of wood, Malik had already struck up a cheerful little campfire. Now that the sun was setting, there was a cool breeze coming in off the water, and the warmth of the blaze was immensely comforting. The two of them sat across from each other, warming themselves and chatting comfortably, until Kajiki came sloshing to shore. He was carrying his fishing spear in one hand and dragging a fish almost as long as himself with the other hand and grinning from ear to ear.
"I found dinner!" he announced.
Jonouchi grinned. "Have I mentioned lately that you're awesome?"
"King of the seas, that's me," Kajiki agreed.
They feasted on fresh fish roasted over the fire, and on the snacks they'd brought with them from the boat. It was quite possibly one of the best meals Jonouchi had ever eaten. Part of him wished that his other friends were there to share it with him, but mostly he was content for things to be like they were. He was comfortable with his usual social circle. Being with two people who were both friends and slightly unfamiliar gave the night an air of adventure, a sense that anything could be on the verge of happening.
As enormous as the fish had been, there was surprisingly little left of it by the time three hungry young men had eaten their fill of it. When they had all had as much as they wanted, they remained sitting around the fire for a long time, swapping stories and telling jokes until they were too tired to stay awake any longer. One by one, they curled up on their blankets next to the fire. Jonouchi lay there a while, eyes half closed, looking up at the clear starry sky.
This was a good call, he decided. If he hadn't taken up with Kajiki and Malik, where would he be now? Probably alone in a hotel or cooped up in his apartment, planning his next tournament. He certainly wouldn't be sleeping under the stars, listening to the waves splashing gently and the soft sounds of calling night birds. He wouldn't be on a seafaring adventure. If today had been this good, he couldn't wait to see what tomorrow was going to be like.
With that pleasant thought in mind, he fell asleep, and dreamed peaceful blue dreams of swimming deep in the ocean with two friends at his side.
Kajiki's first clue that he was dreaming was that when he had fallen asleep, the fire had died down to embers. Now it was freshly piled with wood, and the flames were licking up at a fine fat fish that was roasting on the flames above it. The second, more compelling clue, was that his father was sitting on the log across from him, watching the fish cook.
"Dad?" said Kajiki softly. He knew he was dreaming. It was still good to see him.
His father smiled. "Hello, son. Good to see you again, too."
"Are you really here?" Kajiki asked, "or am I just dreaming you?"
"I'm always with you," said his father. "In everything you've learned from me, all your memories of me." He stirred the fire with a stick. "Beyond that? Hard to say."
"I just want to know if you're alive or not," said Kajiki. "Did you really drown when you fell off your boat? Are you still out there somewhere trying to find me? I want to know!"
"If you really want to know," said his father, "then follow in my footsteps."
He stood up and stamped one foot, hard, on the log he'd been sitting on. It rang out as loud as a rifle crack, and Kajiki sat up with a start.
Jonouchi was standing next to him, whacking two chunks of driftwood together. They made a nice loud thumping sound.
"Rise and shine!" he shouted cheerfully. "Hey, I thought you were the early riser here!"
"I was having a dream," Kajiki mumbled.
"About what?" asked Malik, sounding mildly curious.
"Just stuff," said Kajiki. Now that he was waking up, he was finding that his dream felt a little too personal to talk about. "Come on, let's make breakfast and get cleaned up."
They had a quick breakfast and began tidying their campsite. Kajiki was insistent that they not leave behind anything that hadn't been there before, so all three of them made a careful search of the ground where they'd been camping. Without really thinking about it, Kajiki found himself examining the log they'd all been sitting on, the one his father had been using in his dream. He hadn't paid much attention to it yesterday - it was just another piece of flotsam, scoured clean by the sea - but now that he thought about it, wasn't there something just a little too smooth about it to be natural? Weren't those flecks of white paint still showing there? He leaned a little closer.
"This isn't a log," he said aloud. "It's part of a boat."
"Izzat so?" said Jonouchi, clearly not interested. "Guess somebody had a wreck."
Kajiki continued to examine the chunk of wood. It looked, he thought, like it might have been part of a mast. There was something carved into the wood, on the side touching the ground, and Kajiki dug away some sand for a better look. Yes, there was definitely something there - some letters and some sort of symbol...
He gave a yelp.
"What is it?" asked Malik, hurrying over. "Are you hurt?"
"No, but... look at that!" said Kajiki. He could feel his heart pounding.
Malik crouched in the sand to get a better look at the carving. "It looks like someone's initials. And... is that a fish?"
He was right. The letters K and A had been carved deeply into the wood, along with another set of lines that formed the rough shape of a fish. Now that the last of the sand had been scraped away, they were unmistakable.
"Those are my dad's initials," said Kajiki. His voice sounded high and thin in his own ears. "His initials, and a fish."
Malik looked up at him with serious eyes. "You think he carved them?"
"Yes," said Kajiki. He shook his head. "I know this sounds crazy, but I had a dream last night that my father was sitting there on this spot, and he told me if I wanted to find him, I had to follow his footsteps. He put his foot down right here." He sighed. "You probably don't believe me..."
"No," said Malik, standing. "I've believed a lot of strange things in my life. I'm willing to believe this one."
"I guess it can't hurt to look around a little," said Jonouchi. "At least up and down the beach."
"Thanks," said Kajiki. "I know it's crazy, and you guys probably really want to get to Domino..."
"But this is important," said Malik firmly. "Let's split up and look."
The three of them spread out along the beach and began poking around, turning over pieces of driftwood and studying the trees. Kajiki felt a rising sense of frustration. There was so much ground to cover, and he didn't even know what he was looking for. For all he knew, that broken mast could have washed up from another island entirely. Or maybe his imagination was just playing tricks on him. Surely there were a lot of people in the world whose initials were K.A. Maybe this was just a wild goose chase...
"Hey!" Jonouchi shouted. "I found another one! Over here!"
Kajiki ran down the beach until he found Jonouchi, standing next to an old tree and pointing proudly. Carved into the side of the tree were the same initials, the fish, and an arrow pointing into the forest. Kajiki gave a whoop.
"I was right!" he said. "He left me this trail to follow! Let's go!"
He started to run into the trees, but Malik caught his arm and held him back.
"Wait," he said. "Before we do this, hadn't we better go back to the boat and get some supplies? We don't know what's in there."
Kajiki wanted to argue, but he couldn't deny the sense of it.
"All right," he said. "But let's make it quick?"
"Fast as lightning," Jonouchi agreed. "Come on."
They hurried back to the Steadfast, where they quickly filled bags with food, bottled water, and assorted other supplies. Only once they were certain that they had everything they might need did they return to the little island and relocate the carved tree. Kajiki lined up a compass needle with the direction the arrow on the tree was pointing, and the three of them went trudging into the jungle.
After a while, Kajiki was glad he'd listened to his friends and brought supplies with him. The going was rough, and it was hot and humid beneath the trees, getting more so by the minute. He and his companions stopped often to rest and sip from their water bottles. Nevertheless, his spirits were high, because every few yards, they found another carved tree to urge them onward.
Eventually they came to something like a paved road, heavily overgrown with weeds and cracked by time and weather, but still passable. They picked up their pace. The marks on the trees were less frequent now, as if the man who'd left them had been hurrying, too, or else trusted that whoever was following him would be able to keep to the path. At last, they came to the entrance to a stone building cut into the side of the mountain. They stopped and stared at it.
"I don't think your dad built this," said Jonouchi.
"It looks ancient," said Malik, touching the stone walls.
"He probably didn't build it, but he might have taken shelter inside," said Kajiki. "One way to find out, anyway."
He fished his flashlight out of his bag and snapped it on. It was a good flashlight, strong and bright, and capable of working even under deep water, with straps that let him fix it to his arm so his hands would be free. Now its beam lanced into the darkness, illuminating the entrance to the building. The three of them walked slowly inside with Kajiki in the lead.
"Hello!" he called. "Is anybody home?"
His voice echoed around them. There was no reply.
"Guess we're going in," said Jonouchi. He didn't sound happy about the prospect.
"You don't have to go if you don't want to," Kajiki told him. "This is my quest, after all. You guys barely even know me..."
"I know you well enough," said Jonouchi firmly. "We've dueled. We're friends."
Malik nodded. "Even though I'm a stranger to you, you've gone out of your way to be kind to me. If there's anything I can do to help you with this, I will."
Kajiki felt himself warming. "You guys..."
"Come on," said Jonouchi. "Let's get going, before I change my mind."
They stepped into the entry hall. It was a lot larger inside than it looked on the outside. The walls were carved with strange writing and pictures of people and sea creatures. Some of them still had traces of long-faded red and blue paint. Malik wandered over to gently touch the walls with his fingertips.
"I think," he said slowly, "that this place used to be a temple."
"How do you know?" asked Kajiki, curious. "Can you read the writing?"
"No, but... it just has that sort of feel," said Malik. He shrugged. "I think we should be careful. You never know what you might find in a place like this."
Kajiki nodded. "Let's all watch our steps."
They picked their way cautiously to the back of the room and through a smaller passage. Kajiki was beginning to feel nervous. Up until now, he'd been following his father's arrows, but there was nothing to carve on in this lightless stone place. How would he know if he made a wrong turning?
The passage led deep into the heart of the mountain, and then, quite suddenly, stopped. Kajiki stared. There was a door in front of him, apparently also made of stone. He could see the outline of it, feel the faint flow of cool air when he put his hand to the crack, but he could see no handle and no way to make it open. When he pushed on it, it wouldn't budge.
"Now what do we do?" he asked.
"Let me try," Jonouchi suggested. "There's gotta be some way to make it open."
He pushed his way to the front of the group and began inspecting the door. It was carved like the rest of the walls, with figures of fish and plants and geometric designs. He began poking and prodding at it. Some of the sections moved when he pressed them. Jonouchi grinned.
"Yeah, I think I got this," he said.
"Are you sure?" asked Kajiki.
"Positive," said Jonouchi. "I'm good at this kind of stuff."
Malik half-smiled. "What kind of stuff? Unlocking secret doors in lost temples?"
"Kinda," said Jonouchi. He pressed his ear to the door and fiddled some more. "See, the thing is... well, back before I got to be friends with Yugi and all that, I used to be part of a gang. I got a lot of practice at getting into places where I didn't belong."
Kajiki was surprised. "You mean like stealing?"
"I don't do it anymore," said Jonouchi defensively.
"It's all right," said Malik softly. "I don't hold it against you."
Jonouchi gave him a grateful smile. He pushed a fish an inch or so forwards, pressed firmly on a circular carving, and twisted something that looked like a sea urchin. The door gave a satisfying clunk and began to swing gently inward. Jonouchi beamed.
"You gotta admit it," he said. "What I do, I do right."
Kajiki laughed with relief. "You're the man, Jonouchi."
And they passed through the door together, further into the darkness. It swung silently shut behind them, locking firmly in place.
Malik was trying his best to stay calm. He might have grown up underground, but that didn't mean he liked being there in that chilly, lightless place. He had spent a fair amount of his life trying to get out from the underground, and he had promised himself that now that he lived in the sunlit world, he was going to stay there, come hell or high water. Now here he was, moving deeper and deeper underground, with no clear idea of his destination. There was something else, too, something he couldn't put his finger on, but which nevertheless was making his skin crawl. This was a temple, he was certain, but one that was devoted to the worship of the sea. It didn't care for the presence of a sun-worshiping desert dweller, and Malik felt as though eyes were staring at him from the shadows.
If that flashlight goes out, he thought, very calmly, then I am going to scream.
To say that Malik did not like the dark was an understatement. Even now that he knew in his mind that his darker half was gone, being in complete darkness left him with the feeling that his other self was lurking, as close as the shadows touching his skin, just waiting to insinuate himself back into the mind he'd been born from. He could even be here now, just out of sight, and if the lights went out...
No, he would not think of that.
I'm safe, he told himself. Jonouchi and Kajiki won't let anything happen to me.
He had to smile a little at that. He knew Jonouchi of old and knew he could trust him. He might not have been the invincible powerhouse that Yugi was, but there was something essentially unsquashable about Jonouchi. No matter how bad things got or how improbable the odds, he kept right on trying, certain that luck would come through for him. Having him around was very heartening. He wouldn't have admitted it aloud, but he actually found it a little reassuring, hearing Jonouchi talk about being in a gang and breaking into places he wasn't supposed to be. After all, his past was hardly spotless. It was encouraging to think that he could still do as well for himself as Jonouchi apparently had.
As for Kajiki... well, Malik had only known him a short while, but he'd formed the impression of a good-hearted man, generous and willing to make friends. To tell the truth, Malik found himself envying him a little. Kajiki lived in a world of freedom. If he wanted to go to France or South America or India, all he really needed to do was get on his boat and go. To someone who had spent the majority of his life living in a hole in the ground, that sort of freedom sounded downright intoxicating. Maybe that was why Kajiki seemed to have such an accepting nature. What did he have to fear when he was so in control of his own destiny? Even now, in this dark place, he still seemed to carry the glow of the sun on his tanned skin...
This was a pleasant thought, and gave him something to contemplate other than the darkness and the increasing chill in the air, so he thought about it. It took him a while to register that the glow he was seeing wasn't all in his imagination, or even due to the glow of the flashlight.
"Stop," he said. "Do you guys see something?"
The other two stopped and looked around.
"Looks okay to me," said Jonouchi. "Stone floor, stone walls, stone ceiling..."
"No, wait," said Malik. Trying to keep the quaver from his voice, he said, "Turn the flashlight off for just a few seconds."
Kajiki obediently snapped the lights out. The passage immediately became dark... only not totally dark. There was a faint blue glow emanating from the carvings on the walls. It flickered and pulsed gently, so that the images seemed to be moving slightly of their own accord.
"Oh, man, that's freaky," said Jonouchi, voice taut. "Please tell me this place isn't haunted..."
"It could be bioluminescence," said Kajiki. "It's probably damp enough down here for all sorts of weird mold to grow."
He reached out a hand to touch one of the glowing images. Quick as a striking snake, a hand reached out of the wall and grabbed Kajiki's wrist. He shouted and tried to jerk away, but the ghostly figure held him fast. Jonouchi gave a whimper and slumped to the floor, apparently in a dead faint.
More figures emerged from the walls, glowing blue and green and sickly yellow. They were wearing elaborate headdresses of bones and seashells, and their faces and chests were painted with swirling designs like waves or whirlpools. Their eyes were fathomless, blacker than the shadows around them.
"We are the priests of this temple," one said, in a voice like distant waves. "We have sworn to guard this place eternally from those who would defile it."
"We aren't here to defile your temple," said Malik. Strangely, he was not afraid. He knew a thing or two about spirits. He wasn't foolish enough to think something couldn't hurt him just because it was only a spirit, but he didn't think these things were evil. If they were basically well-intentioned, it was possible he could reason with them. "We're just trying to find out what happened to Kajiki's father. Have you seen him?"
"And why should we tell you?" one of the ghost-priests asked. "You are a trespasser on this island. Why should we permit you to pass?"
"Because I'm the last of the line of the tomb-keepers," said Malik. "It's my bloodline to protect the legacies of the dead."
The ghosts hissed among themselves. One of them stepped forwards.
"You are a sun-worshiper," it whispered. "You are not one of our kind. We are servants of the Mother Ocean. What place have you in the Temple of Waves?"
Malik thought fast. "Because, I'm here on behalf of my friend, Kajiki Kajiki. He loves the ocean and knows its ways..." He swallowed, throat dry. Then he found he confidence and continued. "And he's teaching us to love it as well. Before I met him, I didn't know how beautiful the ocean could really be."
There was a susurrus among the spirits as they weighed his statements.
"You speak the truth," said one of them at last. "Your friend is not one of us, but he has the same interests at heart. We will let you pass."
"Thank you," said Malik humbly. "We appreciate your kindness."
"One of the ghosts drifted closer to Kajiki, who backed away uneasily.
"You seek the fisherman who washed ashore on this island, yes?" the ghost asked. "He passed this way. We did not hinder him. We can say no more than this."
"Thank you!" said Kajiki. "Thanks for telling me, and thanks for letting me and my friends go."
The ghosts nodded solemnly and receded back into the walls. Kajiki flicked the flashlight back on and scanned it around the room. Jonouchi was still out cold on the floor.
"Hey, are you okay?" Kajiki asked, kneeling on the floor to shake him.
"Urgh," said Jonouchi. He shook his head without opening his eyes. "I dreamed there were ghosts..."
"There were ghosts," said Kajiki. "Lot's of 'em."
"Ack!" said Jonouchi. He scrambled backwards, crablike, until he ran into the wall, and sat there cowering. "I hate ghosts!"
"It's okay! It's okay!" Kajiki assured him. "Malik talked them down. They're all gone now."
Jonouchi warily opened his eyes. "Are you sure?"
"Positive," said Malik. "Really, they weren't so bad, once you got them talking."
"If you say so," said Jonouchi. He scrambled to his feet. "All the same, what do you say we go somewhere else for a while? Like, far away from here? Please?"
"Fine with me," said Kajiki. "Let's keep going."
They began walking quickly down the hall again, keeping close to one another.
"You know," said Jonouchi, "that was pretty brave of you, standing up to those spooks like that."
"It wasn't much," said Malik. "I just talked to them."
"It was brave," Kajiki insisted. "Believe me, I know. I was there."
Malik didn't say anything, but inside, he was glowing.
They had come to a standstill.
Partly this was because they had gotten hungry. It had been some time since their hasty breakfast, and slogging through the jungle had given them an appetite. All three of them were glad for an excuse to stop and have a quick bite to eat.
Mostly, though, they had stopped because they'd met another roadblock.
Ahead of them was a wall, carved with what was presumably the personification of the ocean, with various people and sea creatures bowing down to her. It was rather beautiful, in its way, and also completely impassable. There was no sign of any door or other passage that could be used to proceed. To further complicate the matter, there was a wide trench in front of the wall, about ten feet wide and filled with water. There was no obvious sign of how the water flowed in or out, so swimming in it didn't seem to be an option. Jonouchi had picked up a bit of broken stone and tossed it into the water, and it made a soft splash and disappeared out of sight. No sea monster reared up to attack them, and no hidden passages emerged. It seemed there was no way to proceed.
Kajiki scowled at the water. He felt betrayed. Water was supposed to be his element, and he couldn't believe it was stopping him now. He had not come this far just to be turned back by someone's swimming pool.
"I'm going in," he said.
Jonouchi looked up from the granola bar he'd been munching. "Huh?"
"I'm going to dive down into that water and see what's down there," said Kajiki.
"You can't," said Malik. "It could be dangerous. There could be traps or... or sharks or something."
"I'll be careful," Kajiki promised. "I've got my knife with me. This pool doesn't look big enough to hold anything I can't handle."
"I still don't like it," said Jonouchi. "There's some really weird crap in this temple, and it just keeps getting weirder the deeper we go. I don't want to see you get hurt."
"Look, guys," said Kajiki. "I've only made it this far because you two have been helping me out. I feel like I'm not pulling my weight here. This is something I can do, and I'm going to do it."
"Just be cautious," said Malik. "I really don't want to see you get hurt."
"Me either," said Jonouchi. He flashed a grin. "I didn't come all this way just to see you get eaten by an octopus or something now."
Kajiki gave him a shove. "Octopuses don't eat people. I'll be fine."
"You'd better hope so," said Jonouchi. "Because if you aren't, I'm coming in after you."
"Me too," said Malik firmly.
Kajiki smiled. "You two are the best. Listen, no matter how this adventure turns out, I'm glad I got to do this with both of you. You're the best shipmates a guy could ask for."
Impulsively, he hugged both of them quickly. Then he turned and dove into the water.
It was cold, but not as cold as he'd been afraid it would be. He turned the beam of his flashlight this way and that, trying to get a look at what was hidden in the dark water. It was clearer than he'd been fearing it would be, and in his flashlight's beam, he could make out what seemed to be hateches in the floor that could be opened to allow the water to rise or fall. They were tightly closed now, and he could see no obvious way of making them open. There would be no escape that way. Still, there had to be something...
Eventually, his eye was drawn to what appeared to be a statue sitting in the center of the pool. It depicted a man, rather like the ghosts he'd seen earlier, holding up a large tray. Behind the statue was a tiled path leading to what was indisputably a closed door. Kajiki stared at it, thinking, until he began to run out of air, and he kicked his way back to the surface again.
As soon as his head emerged from the water, Jonouchi and Malik hurried over to the edge of the pool, looking at him worriedly.
"Well," he said, "there aren't any sharks down there, but there is a door. I think there's a trick to opening it, though."
"What kind of trick?" said Jonouchi.
"There's a statue there, holding a plate," he said. "I think to get in, you're supposed to make some kind of offering. I bet it's some kind of pressure latch - you put something heavy in the plate to push it down and make... I don't know. Something happen."
"But we don't have any offerings, do we?" asked Jonouchi.
"No, but we have some rocks," said Kajiki. He paddled over to the edge of the pool and hauled himself out of the water. "Come on. Help me reorganize our stuff."
He took his bag - nearly empty now, the water long gone and the food eaten - and piled what was left of it into the bags the others carried. Then the three of them began filling the bag with handfuls of stone from the crumbling walls and ceiling. When it was full to the brim with gravel, Kajiki fastened it shut and carried it back over to the water. After weighing his options for a moment, he tossed the bag of rocks into the water, as close to the statue as he could get it, and then dove in after it.
His aim had been good. The bag rested just a few feet away from the statue. With some effort, he was able to lift it up and hoist it into the offering bowl. Much to his satisfaction, the result was immediate. The arm holding the bowl sank down a few inches with a slow grinding sound. At the same time, the hatches in the floor opened and the water began to drain.
Immediately, he realized his mistake. The water was draining fast, creating a powerful current, and good swimmer though he was, he couldn't fight against it. Desperately, he clung to the statue to avoid being swept up by the force of the water. He couldn't hold on forever, though, and he'd already used up most of his air supply. If he let go, he'd be swept away and probably trapped in a drainpipe, but if he stayed where he was for very much longer...
Something pale dropped past his peripheral vision, and he turned to see that someone had tied a large rock around a rope and tossed it to him. It was about two yards away from him, out of reach but close. He sized it up for a moment before deciding that he had no choice. He pushed away from the statue and kicked as hard as he could. The current grabbed him immediately, pulling him with such force that for a split second he was certain he would never get free. Then he put on a burst of added effort, reached out, and managed to get the rope in one hand. As soon as he had a firm grip on it, he began to climb for all he was worth. A second later, he felt someone begin to haul him up.
He broke the surface with a tremendous gasp. The water had already dropped about six feet and was still falling steadily, but now he could see that there were footholds carved into the wall. Using those and the rope, he was able to scramble back onto solid ground. He crouched there for a while, dripping and panting, while Jonouchi and Malik hovered over him worriedly.
"You okay?" Jonouchi asked.
"Yeah, thanks to you guys," he said. "I thought I was a goner for a minute there."
He turned to look at the water, which was still dropping steadily. He could see the valves in the floor, now, where the water was draining away. They were more than large enough to suck up a human being and whisk him away to who-knew-where. He shuddered a little. Dying at sea was one thing - a respectable way to go, for a fisherman - but to drown in some lightless underground plumbing system somewhere... He shuddered.
There was a gurgle as the last of the water trained away. A moment later, the valves slammed shut again, and the door began to slide slowly open.
"Well, it looks like that worked," said Kajiki.
Even as he spoke, the statue shifted position, tipping its bowl over and dropping its burden onto the floor. The water began to rise again.
"Make tracks, guys!" Jonouchi shouted.
The three of them scrambled down the side of the wall and ran across the gap, splashing through the rising water. It was up past their ankles by the time they made it through the door. There was a flight of steps beyond it, and they raced to higher ground. A moment later, they heard the door slide shut behind them.
"Whew," said Jonouchi. "I'm glad that's over."
"It's not over yet," said Kajiki grimly.
He shone his flashlight on the path ahead. Up until now, they had been following a straight path with no diversions. Now there were multiple hallways open in front of them, three straight ahead and two on either side of them. All of them extended into identical darkness.
"Okay," said Jonouchi, looking from one passage to the other. "What now?"
Malik did not want to go into the tunnels. It had been bad enough walking through this place when there was only one direction he could go. Even when they'd passed through the water gate, he still at least had the illusion that he could turn around and go back the way they had come. The idea of wandering into what was clearly meant to be a maze made his throat go tight. He wished he could ask to turn around and go back, but he couldn't now even if he'd had the nerve to ask. The one thing that was saving him from completely losing his composure was that they hadn't actually started going into the passages yet.
"Jonouchi, you're the one with the surefire luck," said Kajiki. "Which way do we go?"
"You got me," Jonouchi admitted. "They all look the same from here. Can you get your light on them a little better? Maybe there's a clue somewhere."
Kajiki nodded and fiddled with the settings on his flashlight, adjusting it from a tightly focused beam to a wider, softer light. He turned it slowly around the room, trying to give them a good view of very inch of the area. To Malik, it all looked equally dark and uninviting. He kept his eyes on his companions instead, trying to take some reassurance from their presence.
"Hey, go back," said Jonouchi. "I think I saw something."
"Where?" asked Kajiki.
"Second passage on the right. You didn't see it because you're standing at the wrong angle," said Jonouchi. "Here, move over here and stand where I'm standing."
Kajiki and Jonouchi switched places, and Malik, curious in spite of himself, moved to stand behind Kajiki. Standing this close, he could smell the salt-sea scent that still clung to his skin - perhaps from his earlier dip, or perhaps just because it was basically a part of him. It still reminded Malik of open sunlit places, and soothed his nerves.
"I see it!" said Kajiki excitedly. He hurried forward to touch a place on the wall. Just above his fingertips, barely visible, was a rough sketch of a fish above a pointing arrow. It seemed to have been done in charcoal, perhaps with the remains of a torch.
"Looks like we're still hot on your dad's trail," said Jonouchi, sounding cheerful. "If all we've got to do is keep following the signs, this should be a piece of cake."
"Let's get started," said Kajiki.
They began to walk. The paths branched and branched again, until Malik began to wonder how such a massive and complex structure could have been built. Was this the work of hundreds of generations of water priests? Had it been constructed from existing volcanic vents? Or could it have been constructed by magic? More and more, he was beginning to suspect the latter. If there were ghosts here, why not magic? And if magic was at work, perhaps the signs on the wall weren't going to help them. Maybe they would end up wandering in circles forever without ever finding the exit...
"Guys," he said, trying and failing to keep his voice level, "is now a bad time to mention that I really don't like the dark?"
Kajiki looked at him in confusion. "You're... afraid of the dark?"
He didn't sound like he was laughing, which was a relief. He just sounded confused, as though unsure if Malik was joking or not.
"Give the guy a break," said Jonouchi. "He's got reasons."
"Well, it's okay," said Kajiki. "We're not really in the dark. We've still got the light. Would you feel better if I let you carry it?"
Malik thought it over. "Actually, I think I would."
Without another word, Kajiki unstrapped the flashlight and passed it to Malik, who gratefully strapped it to his wrist.
"Thanks," he said.
"Don't mention it," said Kajiki.
"Seriously, thanks," Malik replied. "For understanding. Some people would have laughed."
"Are you kidding?" Kajiki replied. "You're afraid of the dark and you still came all this way without even complaining just for my sake? You're amazing."
Malik felt a flood of relief and embarrassment. It was almost funny - how many people could hear someone admit to such a childish fear and conclude that he was amazing?
The three of them continued moving, pausing at each branch and intersection to consult the writing on the wall. The carvings on the wall were simpler here, only clusters of geometric shapes here and there. Maybe it took too long to carve so many hallways with the extravagant reliefs he'd seen early on. He'd lost track of how many hallways they'd gone down, now. As they moved further in, they were finding more and more places where a lack of care was taking a toll. In some places, the floor was cracked and buckled. In others, parts of the wall had fallen away. Most disquieting of all were the places where the ceiling was beginning to sag. The group moved as quickly and silently as they could, trying not to disturb anything.
It was in one of these areas that the trouble began. They had come to a place where the ceiling actually had managed to collapse, leaving a heap of rubble squarely in the middle of their path. The ceiling was open to impenetrable darkness that even Kajiki's flashlight couldn't do more than outline. Water had leaked down from somewhere, leaving the fallen stone wet and slick. The three of them picked their way over it one by one - Kajiki first, then Jonouchi, with Malik standing behind them holding the light so they could see. Once they were safely across, it was his turn to make the climb. One careful step at a time, Malik climbed from rock to rock. They wobbled under his feet, and he gritted his teeth. All he had to do was keep his balance...
A rock shifted, and he felt himself falling. He slammed hard into the wall, bruising his chin. He heard the crack of the flashlight striking stone, and it flickered and died.
"Oh hell," he muttered. He shook the light and smacked at it, but it stayed stubbornly dark. "Come on, don't you dare die on me, don't you dare..."
"You okay?" said Jonouchi from the darkness.
"The light went out," said Malik tensely. He thought he felt blood on his palms from where he'd caught himself, but that hardly mattered to him next to the overwhelming fact of the dark. Their only source of light was gone, and it was his own fault, as if he'd brought it on himself by worrying about it too much, or as if his darker self had somehow arranged for this to happen... No. He couldn't allow himself to think like that; that way lay madness. But there was no more light, and they were trapped in a maze under a mountain, one that might fall down on their heads at any minute, and they could no longer see to find their way out. They were probably going to be trapped down here forever...
He heard a small whimpering noise, and it took him a moment to realize he was hearing himself, and hated himself for it. He should be stronger than this. The other two were in just as much danger as he was, but they weren't panicking. He told himself this, but the thoughts were swamped by a rising tide of fear. He curled himself into a ball on the ground, shivering.
Immediately he felt hands touching him, and he yelped and tried to pull away. They held on.
"It's okay," said Jonouchi. "It's just us. We've got you, you're safe."
He shook his head. "We're not safe. We're trapped here. It's my fault..."
"It's not your fault," said Jonouchi firmly. "It was an accident. It could have happened to anyone."
"We're still trapped," said Malik bleakly.
"We'll find a way out," said Kajiki. "There's always a way out. We'll work something out. We'll unravel our shirts into a ball of string, if we have to, like that guy in the maze with the bull."
"Minotaur," Malik corrected, but he untensed a little. They were right. Even in the dark, there were still ways. It would be hard, but it wouldn't be impossible.
There was a shifting of stone on either side of him. The other two had sat down next to him.
"So why are you so afraid of the dark?" Kajiki asked. "Is it just not being able to see where you're going?"
Malik shook his head, realized no one could see him, and said, "No, it's more than that. You saw those ghosts, right?"
"I couldn't really miss them," said Kajiki.
"Well, there used to be... well, he wasn't really a ghost, but a spirit of darkness. He... got into my head for a while. I don't like to think about it."
"And you still came in here?" Kajiki said. "Unbelievable."
"He's right about the spirit," said Jonouchi. "I saw it. Sort of. Trust me, it was nasty."
"I believe it," said Kajiki. "If it could scare a guy like you, it must have been pretty bad."
"It was," said Malik.
They sat for a while, with no sound but their breathing and the faint drip of water. After a while, Kajiki began to hum softly.
"What's that?" asked Jonouchi.
"Just an old song," said Kajiki, sounding embarrassed. "Sorry. It's just that when I was a kid, and I got scared of the dark or a storm, he'd sing to me."
"It's all right," said Malik. "Sing. It reminds me of being outdoors."
Obediently, Kajiki began singing loudly. "A capital ship for an ocean trip is the Walloping Window Blind! No wind that blew can dismay her crew or trouble the captain's mind..."
Malik closed his eyes. It was a ridiculous song, but hearing it made him think of the ocean and the fresh air and the sun, and kept the panic at bay. After a couple of verses, he began to hum along, and then to sing with the chorus. Soon all three of them were singing at the top of their lungs, their voices echoing off the stone walls, drowning out the drip of water and the creak of shifting stone, leaning against each other like a trio of drunks. When they ran out of verses, they started making up new ones, mangling rhymes until all three of them were laughing too hard to go on.
"Listen to us," said Jonouchi. "We've gotta be going loopy."
"It could be worse," Kajiki said. "At least we're having fun." After a pause, he added, "You know, if we get out of this..."
"When," said Jonouchi firmly.
"When we get out of this, then. When we get out of this, I hope we can go sailing again together. I don't even care where. After this, we're shipmates for life."
"Egypt," said Malik firmly. "I want you to come to Egypt with me so you can meet my family."
"Good idea," said Kajiki. "I don't think I've ever been to Egypt."
"I have, but I wouldn't mind going again," said Jonouchi. "The place kind of grows on you."
"It's settled, then," Kajiki agreed. "Next stop, Egypt. After Domino, of course. And then, who knows?"
"We'll take on the world." It was possible to hear the grin in Jonouchi's voice even in the dark. "Just the three of us."
"Deal," said Kajiki.
"Deal," Malik agreed.
They clasped each other's hands in the dark, and they held on. It was good to have something to hold on to. Malik thought that Kajiki had the right idea - after this, the three of them were going to be a kind of family. He wasn't sure what surprised him more: that they had accepted him so easily, or that he had accepted them. Either way, he was starting to think he'd do a lot to keep the three of them together. For that, he'd face even the dark, even in this maze where they no longer had anything to guide them...
A thought sparked somewhere in the back of his mind. He stood up so suddenly that the other two yelped in surprise.
"What's up?" asked Jonouchi.
"Something wrong?" Kajiki asked.
"No, I just got an idea. Wait here a second."
Malik began inching his way down the hallway, going back the way they'd come. He ran his fingers along the walls until he felt a corner, and then began exploring the wall on either side with the flat of his palm. He could feel the faintly raised shapes of the carvings there, squares and circles and wavy lines. He moved back down the hallway and touched the wall there as well. He thought a moment, then went back to the other end of the hallway and began patiently investigating the other forks nearby.
"Hey, Malik, you still there?" Jonouchi called.
"I'm finding something out," Malik called back, but he left what he was doing to return to his friends. He'd learned what he needed to know.
"What were you doing?" Kajiki asked.
"Finding us a way out," Malik replied. "Listen, I know this sounds strange, but you said you had a dream of your father telling you to follow him, right? Well, the other night, I had a dream, too. I was in a temple and lost my map, and the man guiding me told me not to worry because the map was on the walls."
"It was on the walls," said Jonouchi, with the air of one who isn't following along. "We just can't see it, because the lights went out."
"I'm not talking about the fish drawings," said Malik. "I'm talking about the carvings. Each corner has different designs carved into it. I think I've worked out what the pattern is. If I'm right, I can led us to the end of the maze."
"Then we'll follow your lead," Kajiki said.
"Go for it!" Jonouchi agreed. "Between you and me, this place is giving me the creeps."
Malik had to smile. "I can't imagine why. Come on."
He began moving down the hallway, running his fingers along the wall until he came to a fork and a new set of carvings. He touched them each carefully. Yes, here were three squares, two circles, and a wavy line, just as he had been expecting. He took the path they marked, and at the next intersection, took the turning that had two squares, one circle, and three wavy lines. At the next turning, he chose the one that had one square, three circles, and two lines. He had guessed that this was the pattern, but he hadn't had enough to go on to make absolutely sure.
Well, he thought,hopefully we'll at least end up somewhere.
They ended up somewhere. After a few more twists and turns, a patch of light became visible at the far end of the hallway. The three of them broke into a run and burst out onto a platform. They found themselves standing on a circle of stone jutting out from the wall of what appeared to be a dormant volcano. The sun had gone down while the three of them had been exploring, and the moon shone down on a pool of water that had collected at the bottom of the crater, far, far below them. There seemed to be some sort of pale shape in the center of the lake, but it was hard to see from so high up. A long, broad flight of stairs led in a smooth slope down to the water's edge.
"We made it," said Kajiki, with a rush of relief. This had to be the end of the maze. Whatever his father had wanted him to see, or find, or do, this was the place he'd do it in. He started for the steps to make the final descent.
Jonouchi put an arm in front of him.
"Wait," he said.
"Why?" asked Kajiki, confused.
"Because it's too easy," said Jonouchi. "After all the crap we just went through, they suddenly stop playing tricks on us and give us a nice smooth staircase to walk on? I don't buy it for a minute."
"Maybe by the time we've done all this, they thought we've earned it?" Malik suggested.
Jonouchi shook his head. "I was thinking while we walked. You two both had your dreams, right? Well, in my dream, the guy told me that the temple was a trap - made to be easy to get into and hard to get out of - and I shouldn't trust an easy path. This sure looks like the easy path to me. We need to check and see if there's another way."
"Are you sure?" Kajiki asked.
In reply, Jonouchi retreated into the passage, fetched a large rock that had fallen loose from the wall, and pushed it down the steps. As soon as it reached about the fifth step or so, the stairs suddenly folded in on themselves, creating a steep slope. A pit opened up about halfway down, leading into who-knew-where. The rock tumbled into it and landed on something that clanged ominously.
"Right," said Kajiki. "Another way down."
The searched the edges of the platform until Malik found a row of rungs set into the side of the cliff. They were placed so that they were only possible to see if one leaned over the edge of the platform, and even more difficult to get to. It took a bit of careful climbing, but eventually all three men were able to latch onto them and make their slow descent. Kajiki insisted on going first, and tried not to think of what would happen if one of the rungs cracked, and also tried not to think about how far down it was. He had never thought much about heights, having spent most of his life at or below sea level, but now he was realizing that he really did not like them at all. But Jonouchi and Malik had come this far, defying ghosts and shadows, and he could put up with a stupid ladder.
To keep his mind off his climb, he thought back to the conversation they'd been having earlier. He'd meant what he said - his two adventuring companions were something special: Jonouchi with his good heart and devil-may-care attitude, Malik with the sun in his hair and shadows in his past. They were so different, but they had each shown incredible courage and loyalty on this journey. He hoped they were serious about that trip to Egypt. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been on a trip just for the fun of it, and not pursuing a school of fish or some other end. He could imagine them strolling along some distant street full of exotic scents, laughing as the locals tried to sell them souvenirs and camel rides. He imagined they were walking hand in hand, with the sun on Jonouchi's golden hair and striking sparks from Malik's hypnotic lavender eyes...
Kajiki almost missed a step. He made a wild grab and managed to secure himself again, and told himself that maybe he had better stop daydreaming until he was on firm ground.
It took a few more minutes of careful climbing, but at last he was able to drop down onto the ground. It was black with volcanic sand, and warmer than he would have expected, like maybe there was still some life in that volcano, way down deep.
"Everybody okay?" he asked.
"Let's not do that again," said Jonouchi.
Kajiki thought about the fact that they were going to have to climb back up that ladder, not to mention somehow find a way back through that maze and out again, and decided not to mention it.
Instead, they turned their attention to the lake. There in the hollow of the mountain, there was no wind, and the water was as smooth as glass. There didn't seem to be any way to get to the center, but Kajiki wandered up to the edge of the water and peered thoughtfully at it.
"Looks like the water has risen a little since this place was built," he said. "There's a path, but it's a couple of inches under the water. We'll have to get our feet wet."
Jonouchi shrugged. "Not the worst thing that's happened today."
They took their shoes off and splashed barefoot across the lake. The water was warm, and the stone was smooth beneath their feet. As they drew closer to the center of the lake, it became clear that the thing they were moving towards was a statue of the ocean goddess herself, surrounded by a swirl of waves that became indistinguishable from her long hair and flowing dress. There was a scree of odds and ends at her feet - the detritus of hundreds of offerings, now withered away to dust. There was something else, there, as well, almost indistinguishable from the rest of the debris. It was a human skeleton, still wearing the tattered remains of clothing. One leg ended just below the knee, and was bound up in the stained remains of bandages, and there was a visible scratch across the place where one eye had been. His posture suggested that he'd simply curled up for a nap, there at the goddess's feet, and had never woken up again. Kajiki stared at it, feeling a sinking sensation. He didn't want to believe it. He had come this far hoping that somehow, at the end of all of this...
"Dad?" he said softly.
As he spoke, the moonlight seemed to become a little brighter. The statue shimmered for a moment, and light began to coalesce around it, pooling near its feet. The light slowly formed itself into the image of a man. He appeared to be in early middle age, with dark spiky hair caught back with a bandanna. One of his legs was missing below the knee, and there was a strip of cloth bound over one eye. He looked down at the group solemnly. Kajiki heard his friends gasp.
"That's him!" said Malik, and at the same time, Jonouchi said, "Hey, that's the guy from my dream!"
Kajiki's father smiled at them.
"It wasn't easy, getting any sort of message across," he said. "I'm glad I managed to get something through to you."
Kajiki felt tears building in his eyes. "Dad..."
"Hello, son," his father said gently. "I'm sorry we had to meet again like this, but I'm glad you finally found me."
"I was hoping..." Kajiki began, and swallowed hard.
"I know," his father said. "I tried, believe me. But I was hurt and half blind. Infection was setting in. I tried to find help and ended up here. The ghosts knew I was dying and took pity on me. They brought me here to this sacred place where my spirit could remain until you came looking for me. I wanted you to know what had happened to me, and I wanted a chance to say goodbye."
"I'm going to miss you," said Kajiki.
"I know. I'll miss you too, son," his father replied. "But you've done well for yourself. You've become a fine fisherman and a fine duelist, and those are both things to be proud of. And you've found a few good shipmates to keep you company when the seas get rough. You've got a heart as wide as the ocean, my boy. Put it to good use."
"I will," said Kajiki. "I'll make you proud. You'll see."
"I'm already proud," his father said. He turned his glowing gaze on Malik and Jonouchi. "You two look after my boy, you hear? I'm counting on you."
"Yes, sir!" said Malik, and Jonouchi nodded, staring wide-eyed at the ghost.
"Good," he said. "Now, listen. There's a back way out of this place. Go around the edge of the lake and you'll find a statue of a fish carved into the wall. Its fin is the handle of a door - you can turn it to open up a path to the outside. It should be straight and smooth - no traps or surprises. Got that?"
"I think that's everything, then," said the fisherman. He looked at Kajiki. "I wish I could stay longer, but my time is up. Goodbye, son. Remember everything I taught you, and remember that I love you."
"I love you too, Dad," said Kajiki.
His father smiled and rested a ghostly hand on his shoulder. Then there was a flare of light, like strong sunlight reflecting on water. Kajiki thought he heard the distant crash of waves and the cries of gulls, and caught a whiff of an ocean that smelled cleaner and fresher than any water he'd ever encountered. Then the light faded, and his father was gone. He sniffled a little.
"You okay?" asked Jonouchi, coming up to put a hand on his shoulder. It was the opposite shoulder from the one his father had touched, and Kajiki appreciated that.
"I'm fine," said Kajiki. He swiped at his eyes. "Really, I am. I finally know what happened to my dad. I can lay him to rest and move on with my life, like he wanted me to." He smiled a little, even though his eyes were still wet. "And it's thanks to you two that I made it this far. So... thanks."
"We couldn't have done any less," said Malik firmly.
"It was an adventure," said Jonouchi. "I wouldn't have missed it." He looked back at the shore. "All the same..."
Kajiki nodded. "Time to head out."
So they left that place, trekking solemnly back across the lake. The passage was where Kajiki's father had said it would be, and it proved to be smooth and easy to navigate, taking them in a long curve and putting them onto a path outside that led them back the way they had come.
"I'm glad to be out of there," said Malik. "I've had enough adventures to last me a while."
"Same here," said Jonouchi. "But it sure will make a great story next time I see Yugi and the gang again. They'll be jealous I got to have an adventure without them, I'll bet."
"I hope you aren't too tired of the place," said Kajiki.
Jonouchi looked vaguely alarmed. "How come?"
"Because," said Kajiki. "I need to make one more trip back..."
In the end, they did go back, and this time Kajiki brought a square of tarp with him. They passed through the secret exit this time, taking the shortcut back to the lake. When they returned, they were carrying the remains of Kajiki's father, bundled up carefully in the tarp. They spoke very little until they and their burden were safely aboard the Steadfast. Once they were aboard and pulling away from the island, Kajiki very carefully picked up the bundle, now weighted and tied shut, and carried it over to the side of the boat.
"Goodbye, Dad," he said. "Thanks for everything."
He let the bundle slip from his hands and fall into the water. It sank slowly beneath the surface and out of sight.
"Are you sure it's okay, doing things this way?" Malik asked.
Kajiki mustered up a small smile. "This is fine. It's what he would have wanted. The sea is where he belongs. And now I know where he is, so I don't have to keep wondering. I'll be on the sea, where he is, so everything will be fine."
"Sounds like you've got it all figured out," said Jonouchi.
Malik smiled. "Weird as it was, I'm glad I got to share it with you."
"Me too," said Kajiki. He felt himself blushing slightly. "I've gotten to like having you guys around. I hope we can go sailing together more often... only without the ghosts and traps this time."
"Well, you did promise to take us to Egypt," Jonouchi reminded him. "I wouldn't want to miss out on that."
"Me either," said Malik. "I really do want to spend more time with both of you."
"Me too," Jonouchi agreed. "We'll take on the world!"
Kajiki laughed. "Or at least the parts we can reach by boat. Sure, you guys can sail with me any time. Give me a call and I'll turn up."
He felt his smile becoming more genuine. Something told him that the three of them were going to be having a lot of adventures together in the future. What kind, he didn't know yet, but his gut feeling was that whatever happened, it was going to be good.
Even as he cast his mind to the future, he glanced back over his shoulder to get one final look at the island of the sea goddess. He wanted to fix it in his mind, since it wasn't on any of his maps. Then he blinked and looked again. The island had vanished without a trace.
"You okay?" asked Jonouchi, putting a hand on his shoulder. "You look kinda pale all of a sudden."
"Just getting a little emotional," said Kajiki. He turned resolutely towards the horizon in front of him. "Come on guys. It's time to set sail."