’32 pounds.’ James sighed as he stepped off the scales. His new state had remained aggravatingly constant since Casper’s departure the previous evening, to the degree that he had struggled slightly even to do simple things, like opening the bathroom door with its unfortunate tendency to jam against the frame, the wood slightly misshapen and warped in the years since its installation.
It was being weak, more than being light, that felt the strangest to him. His school uniform felt heavy against his skin, the light cotton shirt weighing down on him like a thick fleece. At breakfast, he’d fumbled with his cutlery a few times, not expecting the extra effort required to lift it. Most troubling of all, he had tried, while getting dressed, to lift his school bag, and had found he could barely stand under it, the loose collection of textbooks and gear weighing on his legs as though he were trying to lift a whole other person. He had redressed the balance with his power, lifting most of the weight with his flight so that the extra effort was expressed as pressure against his shoulders rather than as strain on his legs. It was an easy fix, but he wasn’t at all pleased to be left so reliant on his powers in his daily life.
He tried to let those frustrations slip from his mind on the way to school, staring out of the window as Bex babbled on in the seat to his left, only half paying attention. In his mind, he was reaching out, his power extending out into the air surrounding the car, apparently unhindered by the glass partition of the window. He played, experimented in his way, making little gusts and dervishes play out and dissipate overhead. He flicked a tree, and watched as the shock sent dozens of loose leaves spiraling out from the canopy. He played with the breeze beneath them, shifting the wind to keep the pieces airborne. They passed a hot dog stand and he could swear, even with the window closed, he could smell the grease saturating the air around it.
Casper was waiting for him at the school doors, skipping anxiously on the balls of his feet as his eyes scanned the crowd, his hands fiddling at the cuffs of his blazer. Even from a distance, James could tell something was wrong. The boy was pale, his eyes wide and glassy. He quickened his pace towards him.
“Hey, Cas. What’s wro-”
He was cut off mid sentence as the taller boy grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him into a tight hug, burying his face against his shoulder and squeezing. A few people glanced their way, before turning their attention back to their own matters.
“Help,” the boy whispered urgently in his ear, his eyes wet. “Please, help.”
James stalled for a moment, a few gears in his head slipping on their tracks, before he righted himself, a sort of focus settling into him that drove the confusion aside.
“Come on,” he murmured, pulling back slightly and grabbing Casper’s hand. “Let’s go somewhere quiet, kay?”
He tugged at his friend’s hand, guiding him out of the throng of students, towards a more deserted section of the campus. The school was dotted with small segments of grass, breaking up the brickwork of the flooring, each lined with benches and flowerbeds. These spaces went largely unused day to day, serving more as a statement of the school’s wealth, that it could afford decorative space in a place as cramped as New York, but they served well when people needed a little privacy. James pulled Casper along to one of the benches, and sat him down against it, where he gazed at the floor, face white, playing with his hands.
“Now,” he asked. “What’s wrong, bud? Tell me everything.”
Casper took a deep breath, then another, then began to speak. James listened, and tried his best to remain calm; he didn’t want to be contributing to his friend’s panic. Casper told him everything, refusing eye contact, hands determinedly fiddling with themselves throughout. He told James about the man, about their conversation and about the thinly veiled threat at the end of it all.
After that, both were silent for a time, James trying to quell his rising fear and managing to force himself to a tense sort of calm, Casper still determinedly avoiding looking at him.
“… Do you think they know about me?” James asked, forcing his voice to remain level.
Casper shook his head.
“Don’t think so,” he mumbled. “Not sure… I don’t even know how they found out about me, but I figure if they knew about you, then the guy would’ve talked to you too, right?”
James nodded. “Yeah, you’re right about that, I think.”
Casper took another deep breath, then swallowed.
“… What am I gonna do?”
“… I think…” James hesitated, then shook himself. “I think we can fix this.”
For the first time since he’d started talking, Casper looked at him. His eyes were still wide, his face streaked with a few thin trails of tears.
James took a moment to marshal his thoughts, then began speaking, his tone one of forced reassurance.
“Well, that guy said he didn’t want to hurt you, right? And that means he’s probably not gonna tell the people who sent him anything about you, cuz he knows they might wanna hurt you for getting in his way.” Casper nodded mechanically, his expression unchanged. James took that as his cue to continue. “And it sounds like he didn’t know anything about your power, cuz if he did, he’d have talked to you different, right?” Another nod, slightly more human now. “And that means that no matter what, at the moment, the only person in trouble here is Tasha, right? And that’s okay, because she wanted it that way, right?”
Casper sniffled, his knuckles going white as his hands clenched against one another.
“R-right,” he mumbled, letting out a shaky sigh. “I-yeah… Right…You’re right, thanks.”
James smiled, a fraction of the tension leaving him upon seeing his reasoning stand up to someone else’s eye.
“What you need right now,” he continued. “Is more information. Tasha needs to know more so that she can keep you out of it better. You need to find out how this guy found you, and you need to find a way to make sure it never happens again, right?” Again, Casper nodded, a little less shaky now. “So all we need to do is figure out how to get this guy talking without you looking like you’re involved.” Casper swallowed, a moments distaste crossing his features, but nodded once again.
“I think we can do that,” he muttered. “Tasha used me as a lie detector once, a few months ago… We didn’t do it again, because it was… it was bad… But I could… I mean… I could do it over the phone or something, right? Hide inside a building?”
“Sounds like an idea. Next thing you need to do, then, is talk to Tasha. Make a plan, okay?”
“Right,” Casper agreed, his panic seemingly settled to a more tolerable degree of nerves. “Okay, we can do this. Thanks, James.”
“It’s okay,” James replied, resting a hand on the other boy’s shoulder. “You helped me out last night, right?”
James had not been expecting Casper to hug him, and let out a little stuttering sound in surprise as the taller boy’s arms wrapped around his shoulders, pulling him close. It was… uncomfortable, in a way, but he allowed it without complaint, figuring it was just what his friend needed in that moment. After a few seconds, Casper let him go with a mumbled apology, his face slightly red. James remained silent, unsure of what to say, eventually settling for a small smile and a shake of the head.
“Please don’t make hugs a regular thing, okay?” he said quietly. “Especially now that I’m too weak to push you off.”
“Right… sorry,” Casper replied, still a little red. “Only when I’m being followed by criminals, promise.”
“C’mon. We better get to class.”
Two hours later, Tasha:
“Are you kidding?” Tasha asked, fingers clenching on the phone casing hard enough that she was having to force herself not to crush it by accident. “Dude, next time that happens, you tell them everything about me!”
Casper went quiet on the other end of the line, cut off mid sentence. After a few tense seconds, he spoke, his voice sad.
“But I don’t wanna get you hurt cuz of me.”
“Yeah,” Tasha replied, her voice fierce. “Well I don’t want you getting hurt for me either. Difference is, you’re still a kid! Casper, If I get hurt cuz someone forced you to talk about me, then that’s just someone else being a dick. If you get yourself hurt for me, then I’m the shitty hero who let some kid take a bullet for her, you get me?”
Casper didn’t reply, either agreeing, or biting his tongue; Tasha wasn’t sure which.
“Look,” she sighed. “I’m the one who got herself into this. I don’t wanna drag you in too, same for James. You’re too young for it, kay?”
“… Kay.” There was an emotion in Casper’s response that she couldn’t place. She ignored it. For the moment, he was listening, and that was all that mattered.
“Now, you said James said something about a plan?” she asked. “Some kinda ambush interrogation thing?”
“… Yeah,” the boy answered eventually. “… We figured he’d probably follow me home and stuff till he found you, and I could use my power from somewhere hidden to-”
“We’re not doing that,” she cut him off. “We don’t know how he found you in the first place, so even if you’re hiding the whole time, it’s dangerous for you. No.”
“… Ok,” came the reply after a second. This time, Tasha had no difficulty identifying the emotion behind the word. Relief. She didn’t blame him.
The line was quiet on both sides for over a minute, Tasha thinking, Casper waiting in silence. Eventually, she spoke up, her tone commanding.
“I want you to tell me what he looks like, and what he sounds like. You will walk home today by that cafe we went to last Thursday. After that, I want you to forget this ever happened, and if you ever feel him near you again, I want you to ignore the hell out of him, okay?”
Tasha closed her eyes and let out a sigh, staying quiet for a minute or so as he described the man in question.
“Good,” she murmured once he was done. “Thank you. I’m sorry this got to you, Cas. I’ll deal with it, I promise.” Casper began to reply, but she had hung up before he was more than a word in.
She placed the phone back in her pocket, stood from her seat on the couch, and tested her leg. Still pretty stiff. She’d be walking with a limp for a few days, at least. Well, that would certainly make this trickier.
Tasha pushed that trouble from her mind as she made her way into her apartments junk cluttered kitchen, grabbing Maxie’s lead from the sideboard where she had left it. She found a change of clothes, tracked down her wayward dog, and took the guy out for a walk. Thinking was easier in the open air, and Maxie liked spending time outside. It was a win-win, even if she had to hobble.
Tasha found a hot dog stand on her way to the park, and ordered two covered in cheap cheese and grease. She devoured the first enthusiastically, before pulling the sausage from the second for Maxie, and consuming the bun on its own. When finally at the park, she propped herself up against a tree, grabbed a stick from the ground, and tossed it for her companion to chase. Unfortunately for him, she had quite the arm. She passed hours this way, throwing the stick again and again, watching the other park goers come and go with their own pastimes, her mind gradually working through to its conclusion. By midday, she had a plan.
She played with Maxie for another hour, before making her way home to prepare. She changed to a darker set of clothes, ate a more substantial meal, and watched a movie on her phone until it was finally time to make her move. Tasha gave Maxie a scratch behind the ears, before making her way out of the apartment. She crossed the city with time to spare, and waited in an alleyway beside the cafe she had specified, concealed as best she could in she shadows cast by the buildings on either side, largely hidden from the passing crowd.
It wasn’t very long before Casper passed her spot, eyes forward, not looking at her.
“It’s gonna be fine,” she murmured gently as he walked by. He gave no sign that he had noticed the words, besides briefly jerking a thumb behind himself towards the crowd.
“Thanks,” Tasha answered simply as he moved out of earshot. Then, she waited.
The plan was simple. Wait till the guy passed, then snag him, step out into the street, grab his wrist as if he were a lifelong friend, then pull him into the alleway and make damn sure he never went after Casper again. It was simple, it was straightforward, and it failed utterly.
The man caught her eye perhaps half a minute after Casper had passed her, brown jacket, bad stubble, bad hat, just as described, his hands in his pockets. She waited for him to pass her, then stepped out into the daylight, smiling a wide, friendly sort of smile. She moved in behind him, and reached for his wrist. Tasha knew it had gone wrong the moment her fingers clamped down around his arm as, with a quick, simple movement, his free hand moved from his pocket and shifted alongside her own. She felt a small pain, a tiny prick as something sharp and slim pierced the skin of her wrist for the briefest of moments before being withdrawn.
“Little bit of advice,” the man murmured, shifting in close beside her as he walked. “You need to wash more often. I could smell you from the other end of the street.”
Tasha gritted her teeth in frustration, and tried to exert some control of the situation by squeezing his wrist a little harder in her grip. Nothing. She glanced down. Her hand hadn’t moved, her fingers felt numb, as if they weren’t even there.
Tasha opened her mouth to scream, perhaps incite the crowd, anything, really, but found that her vocal cords were utterly still. She narrowed her eyes, mouthed a swearword at him, and then felt her body going limp. He slipped in under her, catching her under a shoulder with one hand, and held her upright as her legs began to sag. The adrenaline began to pump through her, and she fought with all her might, desperately trying to will her body to move away from him, to escape or fight back. Anything. One of her legs kicked weakly.
“I am sorry about this,” the hunter murmured. “But hey, at least the family doesn’t want you dead. Small mercies, right?”
She felt something terrible sink into the pit of her stomach as the man began to pull her away, shifting his grip to carry her after a few yards.
Some distance away, Casper grit his teeth, blinked a few times to rid his eyes of the sudden tears, and pulled out his phone. The text he typed in was brief, simple, and the only thing he could think to say.
‘James. Come see me.’