New Jersey Pine Barrens, James:
James Toranaga was having fun. He was having WAY too much fun.
The nearest of the targets was almost a hundred feet away; the nearest he could see, at any rate. He twisted in the air and shot off after it like an arrow loosed from a bow. The target was fast, but he was faster. He closed to spitting distance in barely more than a second and reached out with his second power, his mind extending through the wind itself to slap the projectile out of the sky. He didn’t pause to watch it fall, regardless of how satisfying that would be, but instead twisted in the air once more, searching for another target.
The pigeons were pretty basic, a bright foam padding around a baseball-like core; softened, in case they hit him. They stood out great against the leafy canopy of the forest far below. He scanned the scenery all around, and let out a groan. Nothing. He’d only managed six.
“Darn it,” he grumbled. “I wanted double digits this time.”
“Good work, Kiddo!” Hideyoshi called from the hilltop on which the launching crew was placed, his voice sounding almost as pumped as James had felt a moment before. “I’m sending up another wave! Go ahead and try it in your other form this time!”
Of the many things that might have put the wind back into James’ sails, that statement was near the top. He grinned.
“Yes sir!” he called, pivoting in midair and snapping his grandfather a playful salute, before tapping once more into his powers, and starting to push his transformation out. Two seconds of effort later, he felt the now only slightly disturbing sensation of his clothes falling through his newly spectral form.
He was so ready for this.
Far below him, his grandfather was directing teams; twenty or so operators manning the machines that would send James’ next set of targets rocketing out above the trees.
“Ready volley,” Hideyoshi called. “On three. Two. One. Pull!” The man brought his hand down, and James watched as the swarm of projectiles was launched high and fast into the sky, flying in a loose, but slowly widening formation. He let out a laugh.
James shot forwards once again, his titan’s arms stretching behind himself like the readied hands of god. He drew close, saw the lights twirling as the wind-lines played themselves in shining ribbons around each of the discs, and brought his colossal hands forward in a single, sharp clap, right at the centre of the swarm. When his palms met, it was with the fury of a storm. He heard the winds crash together, and watched, giddy, as the force of it sent birds to flight from their perches for dozens, if not hundreds of feet around him.
“Best. Day. Ever!”
He took a moment to take a breath of the intoxicatingly fresh forest air, then returned to his grandfather, holding his captured targets clenched in a single wind-formed fist.
“I think I broke a couple of them,” he called as he approached, gingerly lowering the skeet towards Hideyoshi, before dumping them all at his feet. “Foam’s kinda delicate.”
For a few moments, the old man didn’t speak, simply gazing at the mound of shattered discs before him. Then, he began to laugh, loud and gleeful, into the quiet forest air.
“Well, it’s official!” he crowed, putting a hand up to shade his eyes while he scanned the skies for James. “I have the strongest grandson! What was that, ten seconds? There has to be thirty of the things in that pile!”
If James had still had a face in that moment, he’d have been grinning ear to ear.
It had been a two hour drive to get from Manhattan to the testing site; a covered government facility buried in some New Jersey woodland reserve. It had been worth it, though. The air here was fresh, the trees were great, and James was able to stretch his powers out further than he’d ever had a chance to let them go. He felt alive.
“Again,” he begged. “Please. I wanna go again! I wanna hit ALL the things!”
His grandfather rolled his eyes, and gave him a chuckle.
“Okay. One more, but then, we test your flight speed.”
“Yes!” James crowed. “Best grandad! You are the best grandad!”
“Yeah, yeah.” With that, Hideyoshi turned back to the bulk of his work team. “Alright, folks, you heard the demigod. Let’s set up another volley. Teams A and C, skew your angles by fifteen degrees. We don’t want him catching half the swa-”
James lost track of his grandfather’s words beyond that point, already drifting up, high above the hill so as to watch the swarm take flight. At a bellowed word so far below him that he could barely even hear it, the machines loosed. James watched gleefully as his quarry caught the wind, each one of them trailing behind it a hundred sparkling strands of sky thrown into chaos at their passing.
Had he been watching a little closer, he might have seen one of the machines fail to fire, it’s mechanism jammed. He didn’t see this, and so, he swooped forwards, diving in to pursue the swarm in what had to be the most exciting game of his life.
He kept his distance, this time, moving to a level with the formation, then coming to a halt. He’d won with force last time. This time, he’d play the sniper, test how far and true his shots could fly in this rare, unhindered state. He never got the chance to play at full power, and he was going to make the best of it.
He set his gaze on the first of the targets, hanging loose as the formation began to lose cohesion. He extended. Not an arm, this time, but in the same manner he usually did in his human form, with the hand beyond his hand; a single tendril of thin, gently guided force. He could see it now, the imprint of his power in relief amidst the wind-lines. It was almost startling how much easier it made the shot to aim.
James struck, and nearly six hundred feet away, the first of the targets fell, not simply slapped from the sky as before, but severed cleanly in two.
… I didn’t even know I could do that.
He set his sights on a new target and didn’t notice the final launcher firing late, but for the faint cracks as his grandfather tugged its first two projectiles from the sky. Before the man could set his aim on the third, however, the point became abruptly moot. The final disc struck the membrane surrounding what little form James’ body had, and passed through it, an edge grazing just barely against one of the bluish orbs where his ribs should be.
For a moment, James was simply surprised. Watching the discus soar away, trails of what he could only really think of as himself caught in swirling eddies behind it. Then the nausea hit him.
He didn’t notice, at first, that his human body had returned. He was too busy acclimating to what might have been the worst headache in the history of pain; a pulsing in his skull that felt like being squeezed by an iron glove. He only really became aware of the reversion when he vomited, hunching over into a ball in the sky and losing what little food he had recently consumed out over the otherwise perfect forest landscape.
Don’t fall. He told himself, barely coherent as the world around him went loose and fluid as water. Whatever you do, James. You. Do. Not. Fall.
He blacked out.
“So,” Hideyoshi said through a bite of his burger, nearly an hour and a half later. “That windy thing of yours basically turns your body into a giant glowing weak spot. Good to know.”
James gazed glumly at his food. He wasn’t hungry.
Across the table, he heard the older man sigh.
“Let me guess. You’re bummed out because you were having a good time before it all went sideways, right?”
James folded his arms, and gave a sullen nod.
“Then I’ll ask you the same thing I asked your dad the first time he got himself hurt snowboarding: Do you never want to do the cool thing again? Are you giving up?”
“Then shape up,” Hideyoshi rumbled. “If you still want to try again, then it can’t be bad enough to get all mopey about, can it?”
James scowled, tried to think up a counter argument, failed, and settled for flicking one of his chips at him. He missed.
“That’s the spirit,” Hideyoshi murmured, chuckling.
In the silence that followed, James’ milkshake arrived. Strawberry. His favorite. He took a sip, and found it a good deal easier on his stomach than the burger. He drank more. It was hard, being sullen with a milkshake. He found his mood improving, whether he wanted it to or not.
As they resumed their overlong journey home, James found himself cheered up enough to converse, and the two of them whiled away the time on gentler things: Cartoons and school, for the most part, interspersed with a few tales from his grandfather’s youth; a number of which, to James’ surprise, seemed to have taken place during the late Momoyama period. Eventually, however, James mustered up the nerve to turn the conversation elsewhere.
“Jiji?” he asked when they were only half an hour or so from home. “If I showed you a spell I’d found, could you tell me what it did?”
Hideyoshi gave his grandson an odd look, one eyebrow slightly raised.
“You mean another power?” he asked. “Because if you’ve got even more you haven’t shown me after only a month or so of without even any real training, that’s pretty damn impres-”
“No,” James murmured, cutting the old man off. “Not that kind of spell. I mean, like, one with instructions and ingredients and stuff.”
“You mean a ritual?” asked Hideyoshi, a touch amused. “James, you know the magic books at school aren’t real, rig-”
“No,” he replied, his voice firm. “Jiji, I’m serious. I’ve got it written down. Can you take a look for me?”
Hideyoshi hesitated at that, perhaps unsure of what to say, before something in the way the boy had spoken seemed to sway him.
“Sure. Just let me find a place to park.”
The next few minutes were more than a little weird inside the car. James dug out his phone while the older man pulled the car down a side street, and set about pulling up the instructions that Caleb had given him, trying to ignore the way his grandfather kept looking at him; the occasional furtive glance out of the corner of his eye. It was a necessary discomfort, though. There was no way he’d let Caleb use a spell on him until he was sure it was what he claimed. That was why he’d gotten the instructions from him in the first place.
When the car finally slowed to a halt, James handed his grandfather the phone without a word, and waited for the verdict. He tried not to look worried while the older man tracked his eyes slowly across the screen. After a few seconds, the silence abruptly broke.
“It’s no good,” Hideyoshi muttered. “The screen’s too small. I can’t read the damn thing.”
James rolled his eyes, and leaned across the divide to enlarge the view.
Again, the inside of the car was quiet. James folded his arms.
“… James,” Hideyoshi murmured a minute or so later, speaking with the controlled calm of a man asking where a child had found a gun. “Can you tell me where in the hell you got ahold of this?”
James made an effort to look the older man in the eye as he gave his answer, regardless of how out of place it felt.
“There’s a boy I know who says he needs my help,” he said, his tone as clear and calm as he could make it. “Wants my energy so he can get away from the people who’re making him a slave. I wanted to check it with someone I could trust.”
For a long moment, Hideyoshi didn’t speak, simply gazing at his grandson, his lips parted in a silent ‘oh’.
James held his gaze as long as he could, before turning his eyes to the floor, self-conscious.
After another moment or two, he gave up waiting for the older man to speak.
“Something up?” he asked, still staring at his feet.
“No,” Hideyoshi replied eventually. “Just… Adjusting. It sounds like my grandson might be more connected to New York’s criminal underground than I am. It’s not something you expect to hear from a twelve year old.”
“… Are you gonna tell me it’s dangerous?” James asked. “That I’m in way over my head? That I could get-”
“No,” his grandfather cut him off. “I’m not.” James looked up at him at that, and saw the man gazing right back at him, his expression carefully neutral. “If I wanted to get in your way, I’d have told your dad about those misadventures with Tasha, or getting in a fight with a trafficking ring. You’re a Toranaga, and that means you’re a soldier. I expect you to know the dangers well enough on your own.” Hideyoshi sniffed, then continued.
“But, if I ever have to save you,” he rumbled. “It means you’re done. You can ask me for help, or advice, or anything you want; but if you drop yourself in trouble you don’t know how to solve, then the moment I save you, I’m marching you home and telling your dad everything I know. You’ll go back to being my grandson, and I won’t trust you with yourself like that again.”
“… Wow,” James mumbled, unsure what in the world there even was to say to that. “Um… You uh… You do know I’m just trying to help a friend of mine get away, right? I’m not trying to be Batman or anything.”
Across from him, Hideyoshi closed his eyes, and took a breath.
“Oh,” he muttered tiredly. “Thank Christ above for that.”