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Kai was lost in equations when a slight coolness on his forehead, then around his neck told him he should come back to earth. He shook his head slightly, and reached over to tickle Makani under the chin. "Hey Maka," he said, removing his headphones, "what's up?"
Makani didn't need to reply - Kai could hear the faint sound of voices outside now that his ears weren't filled with music.
Kai looked outside, shading his eyes from the sudden glare of sunshine. There was a dinghy approaching, with three men aboard.
"Oh, I see," he said. "I'll deal with it." Makani twined around his arm affectionately, then disappeared.
Kai waited until the dinghy pulled up beside his boat before acting. "Can I help you, gentlemen?" From the deck, he could see the ship from which the dinghy must have come.
The man working on mooring the dinghy to Kai's boat started. "We didn't realise this boat was occupied," he said.
"I was below deck," said Kai. "Is something wrong?"
"Are you alone?"
Kai nodded warily. The man's tone was raising alarm bells all over.
The man folded his arms. "Don't you think that's a little... dangerous?" His hand drifted towards the gun holstered at his hip.
Kai shrugged. "I'm anchored," he pointed out, deliberately choosing to misunderstand. "Might I ask what you're doing here?"
"Ah," said one of the other men. It was hard to look authoritative while sitting in a dinghy, but somehow he managed. "Your presence is inconvenient, but nevertheless, we are commandeering this vessel."
Kai blinked. "Pardon?"
"We want your boat," said the man. "You can come quietly, or we can fight, whichever you prefer." He studied his fingernails minutely, and then raised his eyebrows at Kai. "Well?"
"Why?" asked Kai, thinking quickly. He glanced at the rope attaching the dinghy. Mental magic had never been his strong point, but he should be able to come up with an equation for it. He'd worked with ropes before, it should just require moving it in a certain twist...
"I'm afraid we don't have time to explain," said the man. Kai saw movement flicker at the corner of his eye, but before he could even react, the world exploded with pain.
Kai awoke to the familiar feeling of Makani brushing across his forehead. He opened his eyes.
"Good, you're awake," came an unfamiliar voice. "You had a nasty knock to the head."
Kai tried to process the words. "I did?" He tried to remember what had happened. "My boat!" he said, struggling to sit up. It took far too much effort to push back the sheets of the bed he was in.
"Calm down," said the man, soothingly. "There's nothing you can do about it now. My name is Peterson. Fitzwilliam Peterson. Do you remember your name?"
Kai blinked. "Kaimana," he said.
"No amnesia, then, that's good..." said Fitzwilliam Peterson, in a distracted tone. "Probably no brain damage either, it didn't look like you went under. I imagine you have your friend there to thank for that." He gestured at Makani. "The water was dead calm around where we found you."
Makani licked Kai's cheek affectionately. "You can see him?" asked Kai, surprised.
Peterson snorted. "Only because he's letting me."
"Even then," said Kai. "You can see magic?"
"Sometimes," said Peterson, with a shrug. "I never had the aptitude for using it, though." Peterson put a gnarled hand out to Makani, who floated over to examine it minutely. Kai took a moment to admire him as he moved. Makani moved like a snake in water, in coils and waves. "He certainly is a beautiful creature, though."
"I met him on the sea," said Kai, running his own hands through his hair nervously. "He calmed a storm for me, and apparently he decided to stick around."
"What is he?"
Kai shrugged. He didn't entirely like the interest Peterson was taking in Makani. "I've never been entirely certain, myself. A wind serpent? An air elemental? No mythology I know has an exact term for him."
Peterson nodded. Makani twirled briefly around his arm before returning to Kai. Kai petted him absently.
"I take it you're a magic-user, then," said Peterson.
Kai flushed. "Um. Yeah." He picked at the bedsheets. "A little."
"Technomancy?" asked Peterson, acquiring a speculative expression that Kai didn't like at all.
"Well. I kinda prefer to do it the traditional way, with equations, but I've done some technomancy too," he said, trying to play it down. He blinked. "My notes. My laptop. It was on my boat."
"Ah, I was just getting to that when we were distracted by your lovely friend," Peterson leaned forward with his hands on his knees. "What happened to your boat?"
Kai tried to remember. "There was a boat... Another boat. A large one. And three men in a dinghy." He told Peterson what had happened. "They must have hit me with something."
"Almost certainly," said Peterson, dryly. "You have a nice welt."
Kai rubbed at the back of his head. "Where am I? How did I get here?"
"You're in the 'Blue Dream'. We pulled you out of the water a few hours ago." Peterson raised his eyebrows. "You're very lucky, you know. Chances were nobody would ever have found you out there."
Kai swallowed, and nodded. "I know."
"Fortunately," Peterson continued, "we're following the people that took your boat."
Kai blinked. "Pardon?"
"The only thing I don't understand," he continued, with an odd expression on his face, "is why they left you alive."
Kai shook his head in confusion. "I don't follow." Makani appeared to feel differently - his neck frill and fins fanned out and he hissed silently. Kai stroked him gently to calm him down.
Peterson stared at them. "Does he understand what we're saying?"
Kai shrugged. "I don't know, I've never been able to tell if he understands words or just concepts."
"Can you ask him if the men who stole your boat are still alive?"
Makani's spine arched in affront. "Maka doesn't kill people," said Kai, still gently stroking Maka's back.
The world through Makani's eyes was different. Maka saw things as either living or not-living - living things were bright and flashed with vivid colours, whilst unliving things were dull and grey. Through Maka's eyes, Kaimana sparkled with magic.
Kai fell, unconscious, over the deck of his yacht and into the water. The men swore angrily, and seemed to be arguing about something. One of them pulled out a gun, but another pointed to the stormclouds gathering overhead. Rain fell, suddenly and angrily.
Leaving Kai for dead, the men scuttled their dinghy and set off back towards their boat in Kai's yacht.
Kai blinked, slowly, as the images faded from his mind.
Peterson was standing up. "Never mind. You get some more rest - you look like you need it." He closed the door behind him.
Kai stroked Makani a little longer. "Thank you," he said.
The next time Kai awoke, he took the time to study his surroundings. He was clearly on a boat of some kind, but a much larger one than his own yacht. The room he was in had a single, narrow window across the top, and seemed more like a storeroom than a bedroom. Possibly that's what it was.
Peterson seemed to have been replaced with an attractive woman.
"What happened to Peterson?" asked Kai.
The woman started. "It's past midnight," she said, covering her surprise with a bright sand cheerful mile. "He's sleeping. My name is Amy."
"Oh," said Kai, finding himself responding to that smile despite himself. "We aren't at shore yet?" He knew he hadn't been more than twelve hours from dock...
Amy blinked at him in wide-eyed confusion. "Oh, but we're not going back to shore!"
Kai stared at her. "Pardon?"
"You want the same thing we do, right? We're looking for the people who stole your boat."
"But..." said Kai, feeling a headache forming. "I was just going to claim it on insurance," he said. "I mean, there's nothing on my boat that I feel that strongly about." Remote network access was expensive, but having regular onshore backups of your data was priceless.
"They stole something very important from us," said Amy, seriously. "We want it back."
"Couldn't you go to the police?" asked Kai.
"The cops? Hardly," said Amy. "They wouldn't do anything. And out here? Nobody cares."
Kai raised an eyebrow, but elected not to say anything.
"You should eat something, you must be starving," said Amy.
Kai thought about that for a moment. "I'm not really hungry," he said.
"Nonsense," she said, matter of fact. "I'll go get you something."
Kai could hear the key turning in the lock after she closed the door. So, he was a prisoner here.
He was starting to feel a little claustrophobic. It was like everything he hated about being on shore - small, cramped, your only connection with the world through the grimy glass of a window or hampered by the intrusion of 'civilisation' - except he was at sea.
Amy returned momentarily. "Here," she said, putting a plate of sandwiches in front of him.
Kai poked at the sandwiches uncertainly. Makani flew over and examined them minutely, before losing interest and returning to twine around Kai's neck. Probably not poisoned, then. He ate about half a sandwich before giving up.
After a moment, he felt the coolness around his neck tighten, and Maka unwrapped himself to make his displeasure known.
Kai privately thought there was nothing funnier than an angry semi-translucent blue lizard-snake with fins. Maka's tail was twitching from side to side like an angry cat's, and he kept looking at the food, then at Kai expectantly.
"Fine," he murmured. "I'll eat some more." Maka licked his cheek.
"What?" said Amy.
"Nothing," said Kai. He finished two more sandwiches, and sat back against the cabin wall. Maka licked his cheek again. "Um, is there a bathroom around here somewhere?"
Amy pursed her lips, and got up. "I'll see what I can do."
Well, thought Kai, you failed that test. Now he knew there was something a little out of the ordinary going on.
Amy returned a minute or so later with a large, burly man in tow. Together they showed him to the bathroom, then back to Kai's room. "Thank you," said Kai, trying to act like it was perfectly normal for Amy to require an escort while taking him to the loo.
"You're welcome," she said. "How are you feeling?"
"I have a bit of a headache," said Kai.
"You should rest some more," she said, positively.
Kai was starting to feel like he hadn't done anything but sleep for days, but he nodded and stretched out on the bed again. Anything was better than staring at walls and wishing he was outside them.
Kai dozed uneasily until a sliver of light through the window and some commotion outside the cabin told him that dawn had arrived. At some point in the night, Amy had been replaced by another person, but the light was out and Kai didn't care enough to find out who.
After forcing Kai into eating breakfast, Makani flitted out through the door. Kai didn't blame him - Maka probably didn't enjoy being locked up any more than Kai did.
Without Maka around, Kai began to feel somewhat ill. The currents of magic around him felt... shaky, somehow.
After a moment, he was able to identify it as a disruptor, designed to stop magic-users from channeling power.
Makani's return an hour later blocked the sensation of disruption, which Kai filed away in his mind to think about later. It also brought with it snatches of conversation from outside.
Amy: Any news of the princess?
The princess? Kai wondered if he had somehow fallen into a novel. Or perhaps a movie set.
An unfamiliar female voice: "We already have a technomancer."
Peterson: "He tamed an air elemental! Just imagine what he could do if we got him on our side!"
After a moment, he realised they meant Makani. Which meant they were talking about him. Recruiting him.
Kai thought he should be feeling complimented, but instead he felt an irrational feeling of panic well up inside him.
Suddenly everything was falling into place. The 'princess' would be the daughter of somebody important in the gang, of course, and the people that stole his boat members of a rival gang. He was willing to hazard a guess that they'd kidnapped the 'princess', and that the Blue Dream was trying to get her back.
That also explained why Amy said the police wouldn't care - the police tried to avoid getting involved in gang warfare as much as possible. As long as it stayed within the gangs... they ignored it.
I got out of that life, he thought, crossly. I don't want to be part of it again. I'm more than just the sum of my powers. They don't want Kaimana, they want a technomancer.
It was like a mantra.
Not to mention that the way Peterson was so surprised that Kai had been left alive didn't exactly fill him with confidence about the relative honour of this side, either.
He picked at the sheets on the bed, lost in thought. His guard for the moment was a large, untalkative fellow who hadn't even introduced himself. Kai was filled with contempt for the organisation of this gang. If they wanted to recruit him, they were going about it all wrong - the old adage about attracting more flies with honey than with vinegar came to mind - and the longer they kept him locked in this room, the more determined he was that he would never, ever get involved in a gang again.
If the alternative was staying locked up in this room until they docked, so be it.
Kai just hoped the alternative wasn't being killed.
Kai's guard was summoned away abruptly not long after lunch. Half an hour later, Kai could hear shouting from outside his cabin. "Do you think they've found my boat?" he asked Makani.
Maka flew to the window and tried to look out. After a moment, he coiled around and flew back in the direction of the door, disappearing in mid-flight.
He came back a moment later, trailing conversations.
"They're not coming out."
"Do they have the princess?"
"This looks like the right boat."
Kai jumped as shots broke out.
"Oh, now that's not cool," he said, the anger he felt bubbling up inside putting the lie to the casualness of his tone. He looked at Makani. "I think we should do something about that, don't you?"
He got up, and walked over to examine the door lock. "What I wouldn't do for my laptop and Arcady's lockpicking program," he muttered. He tried to think back to how these locks worked and formulate an equation to unlock it. Mental magic was hard enough to do when you weren't in a hurry and full of conflicting emotions...
Maka seemed to have other ideas. After watching Kai struggle with his magic for a moment, the door simply blew outward, taking Kai stumbling with it. "Thanks," he said, once he'd managed to pull himself to his feet.
Maka coiled in a serpent-equivalent of a shrug.
Once he managed to find his way to the deck, Kai found his suspicions confirmed. He hesitated at the door - they didn't seem to have noticed him, he could still turn around and not get himself involved in this mess.
You're already involved, said a nagging internal voice. That's your boat they're shooting at.
It felt right to step out onto the deck. This was a boat, this was the ocean, this was where he belonged. Makani licked his cheek reassuringly, and Kai felt his resolve set.
"Stop!" he said, as firmly as possible. Somehow his voice managed to carry across the commotion, and to his surprise, they did.
At least, they turned to stare at the intruder in their midst, which was better than nothing.
Peterson was the first to react. "What are you doing out here?" he demanded.
"What do you think?" snapped Kai. "You think I can just stand by and let you shoot the hell out of each other?"
"This isn't any concern of yours," said Peterson. "It's between us and them."
"Oh, believe me, I know how this sort of thing works," said Kai, bitterly. "They kidnapped your 'princess', yes, but in retaliation for what? And you did that in retaliation for something they did, am I correct? I'll bet you can list grievances going back for years. But, you know what? I don't care. This has to stop. Now."
Kai could feel the wind picking up his hair and whipping it around his face. Makani, perhaps reacting to his anger, perhaps acting of his own accord, appeared to have summoned a ship-killer storm overhead. "Besides," he said, glaring at the people on his yacht, "it is my business. That's my boat there, and I almost got killed for it." He clapped his hands together to channel his magic, and pulled all the guns he could visualise to his feet.
He heard a gasp from behind him. "That. That's not possible. We have a disruptor."
Kai raised an eyebrow at Maka, who looked as innocent as a semi-translucent blue serpent could.
Unfortunately, it seemed that wasn't all the guns present. A few shots came in his general direction, but none of them hit, although Kai was never sure later if that was due to the wind or not. Kai clutched at the nearest wall, trying to make it look casual, just as the rain started to fall.
All in all, Kai had preferred the wind - at least wind didn't plaster his hair to his head and obstruct his vision. Kai suspected Maka was more than a little annoyed with him for being so stupid.
The gunfire fell off. After a moment, Kai reached the conclusion that they must have run out of bullets.
Neither group seemed to know quite what to do about him.
Kai took a few moments to catch his breath, hoping the weakness in his knees was just temporary. He couldn't remember the last time he'd channelled so much power without a pre-made equation. "Listen to me," yelled Kai, when he'd regained his voice.
It was clear that nobody could hear him over the wind and rain. "Maka," he said, under his breath, "can you lay off for a moment? I want to talk to them." The sky cleared and the wind died down. "Thank you," murmured Kai. Makani wrapped himself around Kai's hand and squeezed it in a surprisingly human-like reassuring gesture.
Taking a deep breath, Kai turned to address the people on his boat. "I want my boat back. You can radio your crew to come fetch you."
They shifted uneasily.
"I thought you didn't care about your boat," said Amy, from somewhere behind him.
"I don't," said Kai, not turning around. "But I want the hell out of here. And I don't want to have to explain bullet-holes to the insurance people." He paused to let it sink in. "Oh, and give these people their 'princess' back," he continued. "Kidnapping is dirty fighting where I come from. Not as dirty as involving innocent people in your fight," he added, leveling the people on his boat with his best death glare, "but definitely up there."
The rival gang refused to hand over the kidnapped girl until their own boat arrived. The 'princess' was a child - barely eight years old, if Kai was any judge. His opinion of the second gang dropped another few hundred levels.
Kai waited patiently for them to leave before getting onto his own yacht.
When the rivals' boat had travelled some distance away, Kai heard the sound of a gun being cocked and turned to face the Blue Dream gang.
"What are you?" asked Peterson, pointing the gun at Kai. "And don't move. I can shoot before you can react."
Kai froze. He felt the wind pick up again, and the light grew darker as storm clouds gathered over head. "I'm a person who is annoyed," said Kai, with all the confidence he could muster, "at having had my life - my personal freedom - interrupted in the name of your petty squabbles." He felt a little silly, speaking like that to the man holding gun, but he was so very, very tired...
"Come work for us," said Peterson. "We'll make it worth your while. Anything you want, it's yours."
Kai closed his eyes and tried to summon his patience. "What I want," he said, calmly, "is a blue ocean with nothing on it and nobody around to bother me. Somewhere I can work in peace." He turned to face Peterson with a wry smile. "Now, I don't think that you can really supply that, can you?"
Peterson did not look impressed.
"Please," said Kai, tiredly. "You told me this wasn't my concern. You have your girl back. Don't make it personal."
Peterson looked at him for a moment, then lowered the gun. "Go. But, Kaimana... you won't be able to run from your past forever. We will meet again."
Any other time, that would have worried Kai. At that moment, however, he just wanted to get out of there and collapse on his bunk.
"Maka," said Kai, when he was finally back on his yacht, alone. "I think I did something incredibly stupid."
Makani's expression implied that he agreed.
"I want to sleep for a week," he said, staring out at the calm blue of the ocean. "And evidence suggests that doing that out here would be a very bad idea."
From his position around Kai's neck, Maka licked his jawbone.
"You know," said Kai, "when I was a kid, my magic was the entire reason for my existence. It was what kept them from killing me, the thing that made feeding me worth their while.
"That feeling of being needed, it was the thing that made my childhood worth living. But, when they were talking about me back there... I didn't feel that. I didn't want to be a tool. I want to be me. Kaimana."
"Also," he said, absently tickling Maka's fins, "they would have wanted me to use you to fight their battles. And you're my friend, not my slave."
Maka licked him again.
"So I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm completely selfish and want to keep you all to myself," said Kai, laughing. "No, I'm kidding. But I think I know what I was running from now. I think I get sick of... being 'special' all the time. Even with the guys, Arcady's the only one with magic.
"I'm not ready to give up the ocean yet. But... I guess it wouldn't hurt to go back for a little while."
It felt wrong to have to get up and fetch his laptop by hand, but he didn't have the energy to do it the usual way. He dialled into the network and opened a terminal window.
Coming home for a bit. Make sure you have cake, okay?