Harlequin

Five

Mark’s ears suddenly flicked at something in the distance—voices, but they weren’t those of the cat people.

It was almost a relief to hear human voices again, and he longed to be able to just go to the rescuers and let them take him back to his parents and sister. But his magic, overjoyed at finally being with the species it was made for, reminded him that this was impossible. It fought at him to make him change back into human shape, but Mark snapped back at it.

Look you little bastard, just piss off, okay? I don’t care what you think right now. If you try and knock me out then neither of us will be able to do anything. You can’t do squat without me being awake. Just bloody well co-operate for once!

The magic pondered over his words and eventually settled down. Like any young child, all it needed was discipline. Mark sighed with relief, but he could feel that it wouldn’t stay like this for long.

“They’re getting closer,” Malai informed him. He and Llaeka were both peering over the root, each with their hand on their sword hilt.

Mark crawled over to join them, still keeping a firm handle on his magic. His eyes widened slightly at the three men, clad in camouflage gear that would not do them a great deal of good with the kinds of people that lived on the island.

“Shit,” he whispered, “They’ve got guns.”

“They’ve got what?” Llaeka asked, a quizzical expression on her face.

Mark pointed at the three figures. “Those black things on their belts. They shoot bullets that kill on impact. Your swords haven’t got a snowball’s.”

“Right,” Llaeka answered slowly, “I dunno what a snowball is, but I take it it’s not good. How long are they going to be here for?”

Mark shrugged, his eyes on the guns held casually in the men’s waistbands. “Dunno, a week, a month, until they find me…”

“Tell it to me in days, moons and Monsoons.”

Mark blinked, not knowing what she was talking about, but he eventually caught on. A moon must be a month or so, and Monsoons came once a year, he’d learnt that from geography. “K, um, a week is seven days, a month is about thirty, so I guess a moon.”

“Why seven?”

“How should I bloody know?” he hissed back, “It just is.

He heard the metallic ‘shing’ that meant swords had been drawn. “What’re you doing? I told you swords won’t work!” “

Well we have to try something,” Malai objected.

“Best thing you can do is nothing at all. Chances are they won’t shoot unless they’re attacked.”

“How do you know?”

“They’re here to rescue me, not kill anything they come in contact with.”

“You sure?”

“Yes I’m sure.” Mark was getting irritated. He turned on his heal away from the three men and slumped against the tree root again. “Seriously, relax and they won’t know any different.”

“What about your boardies?” Llaeka asked.

Mark shrugged. “Probably won’t notice. They’ll notice my ears more than anything.” He said the last sentence with a hint of bitterness. He still much preferred not to have them there.

“So we just sit here and do bugger-all, waiting for them to find us?”

“Bingo. Try running or attacking and they’ll suspect something. Act normal and they’ll think everything’s fine.”

The cat people didn’t look entirely convinced, Malai least of all. He glared over the root at the men, obviously thinking about something more active he could do. Eventually he stepped up onto the massive root of the fig and, with a flap of feathers, took to the air.

“What the hell are you doing?” Mark yelled out, scrambling over to the root. He lost his concentration on his magic, leaving it open to attack him. He cringed and held his hand to his head again, but could feel it taking him over. Finally it broke through, knocking him back into blackness.

It was still light when he woke again, and a glance at his watch told him he had only been out for half an hour. The first thing he did was slap at his magic. Don’t freaking do that! he yelled at it. He’d have to discipline it eventually.

He sat up and leant back against the tree, a hand to his head. “Have they gone?” he asked the cat people, opening his eyes and blinking back the sunlight.

“Nuh,” Llaeka answered, though her voice seemed more triumphant than worried. “Malai got their… black things… what did you call them? Guns? Anyway, he got them, then we caught them and tied them up.”

“You what?”

“Look!” Llaeka produced one of the small black guns and spun it around on her finger.

Mark’s eyes widened momentarily, then he ducked away from her, his hands over his head. “Don’t do that! You’ll set it off!” He looked nervously around to see the cat girl had stopped spinning it around, and was now looking down the gun’s barrel. Mark angrily snatched it away from her.

“Give me the other two,” he ordered, holding his hand out. Malai and Kayil were both inspecting the remaining two guns and reluctantly dropped them in Mark’s hands, leaving him to put them on the ground beside him.

“You do know you could have easily been killed, don’t you?”

“But we weren’t,” Llaeka argued, “They would have recognised you.”

“Well they definitely will now,” Mark mumbled, glancing at the three men out of the corner of his eye. They were huddled with their wrists bound as far from the cat people as they could get and talking nervously amongst themselves. Well, two were talking, the third was just sitting and looking at the ground.

Mark’s ears involuntarily pricked up to try and hear what they were saying.

“How could he possibly know?”

“How should I know? But he obviously does. You saw how he reacted.”

“I know, but it’s just… Far as I know poachers don’t come here, let alone guns.”

“Well, he knows what a gun is, and does. Think we need to up the patrolling on… Is he listening? I swear he’s listening.”

Mark turned his ears away and lifted his hand to his face so they wouldn’t recognise him.

“Don’t be stupid, he’s just a cat boy, they don’t speak English. Even if he was listening he wouldn’t have any idea what we’re saying.”

The second man sighed. “I know he’s got something to do with Mark. He knows what a gun is, he’s got Mark’s boardshorts on, red crew cut. If he didn’t have ears and a tail I’d think he was Mark.”

The first snickered slightly. “Whatever you reckon.”

“If it’s not, then where is he? And what’re they going to do to us?”

His accomplice stopped laughing. “Don’t think I want to know,” he said finally, then they both went quiet.

“What were they saying?” Llaeka asked.

Mark shook his head. “Not a lot. Guy on the left reckons I’m me, other guy hasn’t got the faintest, but they’re both pretty worried about what you’re planning on doing with them. Which brings me to another point, what’re you planning on doing with them?”

“I dunno,” Llaeka answered with a shrug, “Just keep ‘em here, I guess.”

“And?”

“Get you to talk to them?”

“‘Hi, I’m Mark, sorry to disappoint you but I’m not human.’ That’ll go down well.”

“Well, maybe you could be a little more subtle than that.”

Mark sighed and rubbed his scalp. His magic was itching to let him talk to them; it hadn’t been used at all in the last three days. Okay, whatever, but only if you promise not to knock me out anymore. Otherwise I won’t let you out for a month.

He stood up and made his way over to the three men and held out his hand to shake theirs, but instead they shuffled back out of his way. He awkwardly took his hand away and sat in front of them. He looked to the man who suspected he was Mark.

“You’re right, I have been listening,” he confirmed.

The men just stared at him, then the first cleared his throat. “Y—you speak English?” He was obviously not happy with how squeaky his voice had sounded.

“Yep, and I know what your guns are for.” He held out a hand. “Got any walkie-talkies or anything? I mean, there must be more than three of you looking for me.”

The man dug a hand into his pocket and brought out a piece of paper, glancing at it, at Mark, then back at the paper.

Mark raised his eyebrows. “Recognise me yet?”

The man shook his head, not in disagreement, but in disbelief. “This can’t be real,” he whispered.

“That’s what I said, but it’s about as real as it gets. Honestly, I’d prefer to go back home and just forget about it all, but I can’t do that until I at least get control over my magic.”

“What the..?”

“Don’t try to understand it, I don’t get it either.” He sighed and looked down at his fingers, flexing them slightly. He could feel his magic rearing up again. Don’t even think about it. “Tell you what,” he said finally, “Come back in a year or so, I should get it by then.” He held a hand to his head and swallowed hard, clenching his eyes shut against the rising pain.

“Are you okay?” the second man asked anxiously.

Mark nodded and swallowed again. “I’ll be fine, it’s just…” He collapsed before he managed to finish his sentence.

“Well, at least you’re waking up quicker.”

Mark ignored Llaeka’s words. He felt like kicking something, and mentally took it out on his magic. “I’m getting bloody sick of this!” he yelled. “What is its freaking problem?”

“Just get control over it.”

“It’s not that simple. It won’t listen to a thing I say.”

“Mark?” He turned his head angrily to the man’s voice. “We’ve got a doctor back at the boat if you want to come with us.”

Mark shook his head. “Nothing to do with anything like that. Like I said, don’t try to understand it, it’s just confusing.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. You guys can go now if you want,” he told them, standing up and slicing through their binds with his sword. “Tell your head guy whatever you want, I’m not fussed, but don’t come back to get me ‘til the same time next year, got it?” He tossed the guns back to their owners.

The three men nodded and made their way back into the trees in silence, neither fully believing what had happened.

“Why’d you just let them go?” Llaeka demanded, “They’ll come back with a net or something now.”

“No they won’t. I told them not to come back for a year… erm… Monsoon, whatever. They won’t be back ‘til this time next… Monsoon.”

“How do you know?”

“They looked too petrified to want to come back,” Mark answered with a grin, but it quickly faded. “Is it ever going to stop attacking me?”

“Soon as you get control over it.”

“Goody.”

“If it helps,” Malai cut in, “try to think of it as being like a human. That might give you some ideas as to how you can control it.”

“Whatever.”

Lee was the first of the three to break the silence. “Did that happen?”

Chris and Alan said nothing. They were still too shocked.

“Well? Did it?” Lee was desperate for conversation.

Chris nodded slowly. “Yeah, it happened. Any ideas on how we explain it?”

“Tell the truth?” Lee suggested.

“That’ll go down well. It’d seem like we’re all just lazy bastards and couldn’t even think up a decent excuse as to why we’ve stopped looking.”

Lee sighed. “Well what else can we say?”

“How should I know?” Chris retorted.

Alan finally stepped in, having not said anything since they had been captured. “Calm down guys, I recorded it all.”

Lee and Chris looked at each other and grinned, slapping the younger man on the back. “Onya, Alan,” Lee said heartily.

“Still probably won’t believe it,” Alan sighed, “Be hard pressed to get me to believe it, and I was there.”

Chris shrugged. “Better than nothing. Why’ve you got the recorder with you, anyway?”

Alan looked at the ground. “Taping bird calls,” he said sheepishly.

The other two men snickered and ruffled his hair. “Lucky you had it with you anyway,” Lee laughed, and Alan couldn’t help laughing with them.

When they got back to the boat, no other groups had returned; only the medic was there.

“Any luck?” she asked.

“Um, sorta,” Lee replied.

“You found him?”

“Tell you when everyone else gets back.”

The various groups trickled in over the course of the afternoon, and had all assembled by five o’clock.

Kevin took out a clipboard and pen. “Right, group one, found anything?”

“Nup.”

“Group two?”

“Nothing.”

“Three?”

“Uh-uh.”

“Four?”

Lee cleared his throat. “We found him. Or rather he found us.”

Murmurs circulated through the other nine groups. Kevin looked up from his clipboard. “Are you sure?”

The three men nodded. “Definitely,” Chris confirmed.

“So where is he?”

Lee cleared his throat again, then recounted everything that had happened, ignoring the looks he was getting from his colleagues.

“Lee,” Kevin said when he had finished, “That is the biggest pile of bull shit I have ever heard. You might as well say he’s turned into a hippo.”

“I know it’s pretty unbelievable, but it’s true. Alan recorded the conversation we had.” He gestured nervously to the blond-haired man, who produced his small recorder and played the conversation out to the group. It was muffled, as it had been inside Alan’s pocket when he’d started recording, but it was still good enough to make out the words.

When the tape clicked over, Alan explained that this was where the boy had fainted. There was quite a discussion when the same voice started yelling out angrily in the language of the cat people, though most of the group was still not convinced, Kevin included.

“Still reckon you set the whole thing up,” he said with arms folded.

“D’you want us to show you then?” Chris asked.

Kevin raised his eyebrows. “If it’ll make you happy. Not like we’ve got anything else to go on anyway.”

The groups set off again the next morning to their respective areas of the island, but Kevin split from his group and came with Chris, Lee and Alan. The three led him deep into the forest, and made it to the place they had talked with Mark the next afternoon.

“So where is he?”

“Dunno,” Lee answered, rounding the tree. “Guys, have we got the right tree?”

“Yeah, look, here’re the binds,” Chris confirmed, holding some of the cut vines in one hand.

“Gentlemen, I’m not amused.”

“Neither.” Mark was leaning with his arms folded against a smaller tree about twenty meters away. “Thought I made it perfectly clear to piss off until same time next year. Last I checked there were more than two days in a year.”

“We… um…” Chris began uneasily, “We couldn’t convince Kevin you were actually a cat person… So… um…”

“Tada,” Mark said flatly, spreading his arms loosely. “Enough to convince you?” he asked, raising his eyebrows at the newcomer. When he received no response, he shrugged and pushed himself from the tree to go.

Kevin finally found his tongue. “Wait!” he called after the cat boy.

Mark stopped and turned around, waiting for the man to run up to him. Kevin just stood staring at him in shock and disbelief. The boy raised his eyebrows and waved a hand, urging the man to say something.

“Sorry,” Kevin said, looking away, “It’s just… well… forgive me for saying this, but it’s just freaky.”

“Nah, really?” Mark stared accusingly at the older man. “You don’t have to live this, I do. You can go home tonight and have everything be perfectly normal. I can’t. Not yet, anyway. Just… leave me alone for a year and come back then. Should have figured it all out by then.”

“But… why..?”

“Don’t ask ‘cos I dunno.”

“Is there anything you want us to relay onto your parents?”

Mark took in a sudden sharp breath, put a hand to his head and dropped to one knee. “Yeah, tell them…” He swallowed hard. “Tell ‘em you didn’t find me.”

Kevin caught the boy just as he dropped to the ground, his eyes closed. “Mark! Mark, wake up!”

Within a few minutes, Mark’s eyes blinked open and he sat up slowly, rubbing his head and mumbling something under his breath that Kevin couldn’t understand.

“Are you alright?” the rescuer asked anxiously.

Mark nodded slowly. “Yeah, fine, just this stupid freaking magic—” he broke off into that strange, non-human language again. It made Kevin feel uncomfortable.

“Are you sure? We’ve got a doctor back at the boat if you want a Panadol or something.”

“Seriously, I’m fine.” He sighed heavily, as if trying to think of how to phrase what he was about to say. “Long story short, I’ve got magic and it reckons it’s better than me, so it keeps attacking me. How long was I out for?”

Kevin shrugged. “Few minutes. You couldn’t backtrack a bit, could you? I don’t get it.”

The cat boy grinned dryly, the opals on his face reflecting the rays of sunlight that filtered through the trees. “Welcome to my world,” he said, getting to his feet. “Like I said, come back same time next year, same spot on the beach. ‘Til then, just leave me alone.”

“How will you know what day it is?” Kevin mentally kicked himself for asking such a stupid question.

Mark looked at his watch. “Today would be the seventh of September, so, same time next year then.” And without another word he disappeared back into the trees.

“Told you they’d come back.”

“You saying you know people better than me?”

Llaeka pouted; Mark grinned.

“How goes the magic?” Malai asked quickly.

Mark shrugged. “Getting better. Any idea as to why it’s stronger than normal?”

“Not even Qillan has any idea. Just get control of it quickly. Soon as you do we can teach you how to use it.”

“Will do. Oh God, not again,” Mark muttered, his palm on his forehead. He sucked in a breath and closed his eyes.

What have you got against me? I’ve never done anything to you. You know, you’ve been running rampant for my entire life, far as I know. I even thought I was human for most of it. You’ve had your fifteen minutes of fame, just piss off and leave me alone for once in my life!

He blinked a few times just to make sure what was happening was actually happening. It definitely was. The magic had subsided. He rubbed his head a few times, silently murmuring his thanks to it.

He looked up to see Malai, Llaeka and Kayil looking down at him, vaguely worried looks in their eyes, though it was more curiosity than anything; he’d been knocked out too many times for it to be anything to get too anxious about.

“Think I’ve gotten it,” he mumbled.

But it welled back up again, giving him time only to scream out in agony and clench his skull with both hands before knocking him to the ground.

Six