The boy took a shaky breath, eyes fixed on his phone screen as he waited for James to respond. Five seconds. Ten seconds. Nothing. The crowd moved all around him, jostling him as he stood, rooted to the spot, one or two adults muttering something under their breaths as they stepped around him towards the crossing lights. Still nothing from James. A little voice in the back of his mind told him that his friend was still on his way home, his phone probably stuck in the bottom of his bag, unnoticed.
Casper took a breath, acutely aware of the presence of the hunter by Tasha’s side, aware too of the panic coursing through her mind at that very moment. Why wasn’t she moving away? Did he have a gun on her? What was it? The two were drifting away from him, making an easy pace through the people all around. He could walk away, he knew, could turn and run, probably even avoid any further part of all this. Hell, Tasha would probably want him to do that. But what if he could help her? He came to a decision, grit his teeth, and turned to follow them. He wasn’t at all sure what he could do, or if there even was anything he could do, but he could feel Tasha’s emotions like a nagging voice in his head. So angry and frantic, turning to a twinge of fear that grew larger by the second. He couldn’t leave it like that, though a part of him wished he could.
The hunter turned down a new street as Casper followed, and the boy soon had a decent guess of his destination. He was headed towards the building that Tasha had attacked. He felt an angry tear trickling down his cheek at the reminder. This was all his fault. He closed the distance, occasionally losing sight of the two of them in the mid-afternoon foot traffic. He followed them with his mind. After a few minutes of this, he felt the hunter duck into an alleyway, Tasha still moving in perfect lockstep with him. The stranger pulled back, pressed against a wall, an undefinable emotion somewhere between annoyance and respect playing in his mind. By context, it was not difficult for Casper to understand the meaning of it. The man had noticed him following, and had chosen to lie in wait for him. Casper steeled himself, a clear voice inside of him vocalizing a reminder that this was very stupid, and stepped forward. He skirted wide around the entrance to the alleyway, stepping out in front of it in a lull between two groups of people walking the battered sidewalk.
The hunter was there, gazing out at him, impassive, a slight note of surprise playing in his mind. Tasha was leaned up against the wall behind him, her face blank, even slack. In her mind, though, Casper felt the first true shock of fear at the sight of him. He struggled to keep his expression calm, gazing across at the man. A few seconds passed, the two staring through at one another, almost unnoticed by the occasional group of passersby that moved between them.
“How’d you know I was waiting?” the man asked, quiet.
“How’d you know I was following?” Casper replied, forcing a calm into his voice that he most certainly did not feel.
“… Fair enough,” came the answer with a shrug, followed by a small smile. “I smell people. Okay kid? Now, how’d you know I was hiding?”
Casper nodded. Well, that answered one question, at least. Best to give an answer, he decided; a half truth to keep the dialogue going and, hopefully, gain more answers.
“… I feel people,” he answered. The stranger made a thoughtful expression, stroking his stubble with a finger, then nodded, gesturing for him to elaborate with a wave of his hand. Casper sighed, then pointed dismissively at the wall against which the man leaned. “Two women, one man, a couple kids. The women are together, probably talking about something. The man’s watching the kids.”
“Handy,” the stranger said simply, his mind shifting from curiosity to outright interest. “Not often I get to meet another potential tracker in my line of work. It’s a cool power you’ve got there, little man.”
Casper ignored him, gesturing to Tasha.
“What’d you do to her?” he asked, his voice breaking for a moment on the last syllable.
“Poison,” the tracker replied. “Comes in handy, doing what I do. She’ll be alright in an hour, but she’s a little limp right now.”
Casper accepted that. The man had no reason to lie, and his emotional state gave no real indication of falsehood.
“I could scream,” he said evenly. “There’s people around. People with cameras.”
“You could,” The hunter said amicably, not even a hint of fear touching him at the idea. “And it’d work, for now. I’d have to run, you’d get your friend free, and I’d know exactly who it was that got in my way. I know I said I don’t like hurting kids. But I’m gonna put this one on the table right now. I’m not above punishing you if you do something stupid. I’ve warned you, you know the dangers, and I will hurt you very badly if you get in my way.” The words were spoken casually, without any anger or malice behind them, but Casper had no difficulty believing them one hundred percent. He stood there, uncertain, for a long moment, before the man put a hand to his forehead with a sigh. “Wow, you’re just gonna keep walking into danger, aren’t you, kid? I tell you what. Come with me.”
“What?” Casper asked, utterly backfooted. “Let you kidnap me? No thank you.”
“I’m not kidnapping you, kid.” The stranger chuckled. “No one’s paid me to. Look, it’s a big world, you’re living in, and as far as I can tell, you don’t have a damn clue how to live in it. Let me guess. Your parents don’t have powers, do they? You’re a first gen.”
“First gen?” Casper asked, momentarily distracted.
“Yeah, see?” the man raised a hand towards him in an almost dismissive sort of wave, as if to say that he’d just proved some self-evident point. “You don’t know a damn thing about any of it. Okay, it’s very simple. First gen means your parents are just normal guys. No powers, nothing special, and no one really able to teach you about what’s out there. First gen means you come into this stuff blind. That’s why I’m telling you to come with me. Let me show you around, give you the lay of the land, help you stay out of the kind of trouble your friend here got herself into.” He jerked a thumb behind him towards Tasha, who still lay slumped against the wall, the surge of fear at Casper’s arrival having slowly lessened as it became apparent that he was not currently under threat, dying back to a subdued sort of rage.
Casper hesitated for a long moment, then eventually nodded. It was an olive branch, he knew, offered without a trace of insincerity. More importantly, it gave him a chance to gather more knowledge to formulate some kind of rescue.
The man smiled, stepping forward from the alleyway and extending a hand.
“Well then,” he murmured. “The name’s Lewis, kid. Nice to meet you.”
Casper took it and shook with only a moment’s hesitation.
“… Casper,” he replied, reasoning that he may as well give the man his name, if he already knew where he went to school. Hell, the guy had probably seen his name in the yearbook by now. They kept a copy by the administration desk.
Lewis nodded, approving.
“Good to see you’re being honest with me. For the next two hours, though, your name’s Danny Reynolds. You got that?” Casper nodded. “Good. Now give me your phone.”
“Why?” Casper frowned, trying to ignore the jab of fear spiking painfully into his chest. “It’s mine.”
“Don’t play dumb,” Lewis replied, annoyed. “We both know you’re still looking for some way to turn this situation around. I’m keeping you with me for the next two hours more so that I can stop you pulling something stupid than because I want to help you. That phone’s the biggest chance you’re gonna have at making a bad decision, and I don’t plan on letting you have it.”
“… Fine,” Casper muttered, glaring at the older man. “Just let me call my dad. Tell him I’ll be home late.”
Lewis nodded, waited for Casper to make the call, the boy exchanging a few mumbled sentences with the man on the other end of the line, before extending his hand for the device. Casper ended the call, let out a defeated breath, and handed over the phone. Lewis turned it off and slid it into a pocket of his trench coat. Then ducked back into the alleyway and picked up Tasha from where she lay, positioning the teen against his shoulder in a manner that looked more or less natural as long as one wasn’t looking too closely. Then, without a word, he stepped out into the city street once more, gesturing with his free hand for Casper to follow them.
The boy obliged, kicking his feet miserably, before a hint from Tasha caught his eye. She was still desperate, her mind filled with a silent fury at her own capture and a lingering concern for his own safety, but there was something else there now. Hope. Had she had an idea? Casper gazed at her back as they walked, keeping step a few meters behind the other two, and thought desperately. What had Tasha thought of? What idea had she had that would give them a chance here? It needed to be something that could keep him out of trouble, or she wouldn’t be so affected by it, and it needed to be something that could help. The only thing Casper could think of that would help here was his phone, and that option was gone now.
Wait… Tasha had a phone. Tasha had a phone that he knew the password to. It wasn’t much of a chance, but it was something. Casper stepped in closer, hoping against hope that Lewis wouldn’t choose this moment to turn, would keep his eyes focused forwards. Casper stepped in so that the bulk of Tasha’s admittedly slight frame was concealing him from their captor’s view, and reached out a hand, dipping it into the girl’s pocket as quickly as he dared. His fingers touched something plastic.
“Your dad really a cop?” Lewis asked conversationally, the sound practically making him jump out of his skin.
“K-kinda,” he answered, his fingers clasping around the casing of the object and pulling at it. “H-he works with them a lot, but he does more of a government thing, I think.” The object slid gently from the pocket, and Casper felt both his and Tasha’s hearts leap. It was her phone. He pocketed it as quickly as he dared, and moved back a little, away from the pair.
“Figures,” Lewis chuckled, eyes forward. “No way you’d be going to a school that fancy if your dad was just some beat cop. It was a slick move, though. You had me going for a second there.”
“… Not that fancy,” Casper mumbled, defensive.
“Danny,” came the amused sounding reply. “You go to a school in the city that has a dress code and a flower garden. Trust me, that’s fancy. Anyway, be quiet for now. We’re here.”
Casper glanced ahead, and, true enough, saw the face of the building he’d flagged just a week or so before. One of the second story windows was broken, a solid wooden board temporarily placed against the frame. With his power, Casper could feel the minds of those inside; men, women and children, all moving about one another with a surprising degree of energy, most of them seemingly riding the calm and good cheer of a generally pleasant day. He felt one or two things in the upper levels that made him flinch, but did not allow his power to withdraw itself. He needed to be as aware as was physically possible for this.
Lewis stepped in first, adjusting his grip on Tasha, before carrying her casually inside. Casper took a deep breath, dug for a moment into the surprising good cheer of the building’s inhabitants to steady himself, then followed. Dear god, he hoped this worked.