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James Toranaga was still in his pajamas. He hadn’t bothered to change. The matter at hand was too important. He soared fast and low above the moonlit city, his phone pressed up against his ear. He’d already given his grandparents Charlie’s home address.
“Tasha’s heading across town now,” Tsuru’s voice spoke from her end of the phone line, forced calm permeating every note of it. “Whatever you do, you can’t let Caleb start until she’s there to support you.”
“We don’t have time for that, Baba,” James muttered. “We need to get this done as fast as we ca-”
“James,” she cut him off, her voice hard. “There is every single chance that this is all a con. Suddenly being in a rush doesn’t change that. In fact, if I wanted to make someone abandon their plans and do whatever I said without thought, then pretending everything was falling apart is exactly what I would do. You get there, you wait, and you only let him do this once Tasha’s there to snap his fucking neck if he betrays you.”
James listened, he absorbed, and he shook his head. His grandma had a point. He wished she didn’t, but she did. He wished his heart would just stop pounding in his ears.
Tsuru gave the boy a single affirmative grunt, then hung up.
He caught sight of his school building coming into view below, and altered course. Not too far now.
It was less than half a minute before James was at the factory building. The sliding gate was open. Caleb must already be here. He shot in through the tiny opening, pivoted towards the stairs, and stopped. Something on the upper floor was glowing; a faint, ghostly green light casting the railings that lined the stairway into a misty sort of shadow. He could hear Caleb moving about up there, the older boy muttering either incantations or bundled swear words rapidly under his breath.
… Maybe it’d be better if he just stayed down here for now. Whether he was lying or not, Caleb was sure to want to set this thing in motion the moment he turned up. Maybe he should just stay out of sight till Tasha arrived. No need to start a fight. He shot another troubled glance up the stairwell, then sighed, and reluctantly drifted down towards to the floor.
The moment his feet touched the ground, the glow from the upper level flared, shifting from a neon green to an almost cobalt blue. The light grew brighter; far brighter. He sucked in a breath, and the blueish mist seeping down the stairway almost seemed to pulse.
“James?” asked Caleb’s voice from above, a little too quick in the delivery to be genuinely calm. “That you? Get up here. I’m almost done setting up.”
‘Well,’ he sighed. ‘There goes that idea.’
Out loud, he only managed a mutter.
“Not till Tasha gets here,” he said. “Sorry.”
Caleb’s reaction was less severe than James had been expecting. The older boy’s head poked out over the metal railing, shooting him a glare. James held his gaze as best he could. It would have been easier if holding off didn’t feel like such a big betrayal.
After a few seconds, Caleb swore under his breath, moving back away from James’ view.
“Fine,” he growled. “We’ll wait. Just stay down there and start pulling your power together. You can at least be ready for the damn thing when she gets here.”
James opened his mouth to respond to that, then thought better of it. Instead, he simply complied, sitting himself cross-legged on the ground, and digging into his power as best as he was able.
The next three minutes may well have been the slowest in James’ life. Caleb was done with his setup in only a dozen seconds or so, and from there, moved to sit at the top of the staircase, his legs fidgeting in place as he scowled down at the boy below, his fists clenching and unclenching harder by the second. James tried not to look at him. It set his teeth on edge. It didn’t help that he had no idea what ‘pulling his power together’ was even supposed to be.
He considered asking Caleb, but just the look on the older boy’s face told him no. Best not to push any triggers at all, in that regard. He took his best guess, and dug into his powers.
James felt Caleb’s eyes boring into him as he sat there, letting the seconds tick by.
Eventually, Caleb closed his eyes, and let out a long, slow sigh.
“You know that feeling you get when you use a spell?” he asked. “Like there’s something leaving your body?”
“Try to do that,” Caleb muttered. “But do it without actually casting the spell, so the energy doesn’t have anywhere to go but you.”
James gave the older boy an awkward sort of nod, and tried.
It felt weird, trying to access his magic without really using it; like opening a faucet and trying to will the water to stay exactly where it was. It took a few tries, Caleb’s fidgeting growing more and more pronounced by the second, before he finally felt something change inside his form. It was like some kind of pressure; like a layer of viscous goop pressing its way out beneath his skin. The glow above them grew stronger still.
Seeing that, Caleb’s twitching slowed, just a little.
It was the sound of feet thudding hard and fast against distant pavement that alerted the two of them to Tasha’s eventual arrival. James turned his head to glance out through the open doorway, and thought he could spot her silhouette in among the distant gloom.
“Fucking finally,” Caleb muttered, pushing off of the step with his hands and rising to his feet. “James, c’mon. We need to get this thing started right now.”
For a moment, James considered holding the line. That line of thought didn’t last long. It felt like too much of a dick move, continuing to delay it all when Tasha was literally in sight. He pushed himself upright and followed Caleb up the stairs at a jog.
A part of him had wandered what could be producing such a glow. That part of him was vaguely disappointed when it turned out to be a water bottle. Not even a nice one, either; just one of those mountain springwater bottles you could get for like, a dollar fifty from any store in history. He could still see the crinkled label on the side, advertising a twist of lemon flavoring.
He made no comment when Caleb picked him up, and began carrying him across the floor towards the thing, presumably in an effort to avoid disturbing the intricate web of glyphs, feathers, and a dozen or so other assorted knick knacks that now lay strewn across the already untidy factory floor.
“… What’s the bottle for?” he asked, wobbling a little on his feet as Caleb dumped him unceremoniously on the floor beside it.
“It holds the potion,” Caleb grunted, gesturing at a space in the central glyph devoid of any larger markings. “Sit there. I’ll get us started now. Just a warning, this is probably gonna hurt like hell. The mage I learned it from said it was like a cattle prod to the kidneys.”
James merely shook his head at that as he took his seat in the centre of it all. He tried to ignore the way the patterns on the floor began to shift the moment he took his place, moving along the concrete floor like leaves on water.
“Yeah. I figured it’d suck,” he muttered, his tone grim. “Doesn’t matter right now. Just do it.”
Caleb apparently needed no further pushing. He moved back outside the still moving ring of glyphs, oddities and symbols, and gave his incantation. It wasn’t long; just a few words, really, in a language that sorta sounded like arabic. For his part, James clenched his teeth in preparation for the pain. What he got was underwhelming.
It started as an ache, at first. Small, just a barely noticeable tingling at the tips of his fingers, like putting his tongue against a battery. It spread slowly up his hands, then his arms, before it hit the point where that pressure still lingered beneath his skin. Where the two sensations mixed, it almost began to tickle. The misty light flowing all around him changed its hue again, becoming a vibrant, almost electrical kind of blue.
From the floor below, the sound of stomping feet grew louder, accompanied by a metallic rattle as something slammed against the tin of the door in passing.
James cocked his head towards the stairwell where Caleb stood, confused.
“Hey, I thought you said this stuff was gonna hurt.”
Caleb opened his mouth at that, but before he had a chance to answer, there was sound like snapping metal, and Tasha’s body collided against his chest with what looked like the force of a freight train. Whatever he had been about to say was lost as the air left his lungs in a sharp, unintended wheeze, his eyes going wide with the sudden pain.
James watched, more than a little taken aback, as she grabbed the staggering boy by the shoulder, and proceeded to simply slam him against the wall.
“James,” she said, her voice completely calm. “You better tell me you’re okay, or I will snap him like a twig.”
“… I’m fine.”
Caleb coughed long and hard as Tasha let him go, slumping forward against himself, and pressing his hands against his knees for balance. It took him a few seconds just to catch his breath.
“C-christ, Tasha,” he managed. “What the hell was that for?”
“We told you to wait till I was here, asshat,” came Tasha’s reply. “The whole point was to have me here to stop you hurting James.”
Whatever Caleb’s reply had been, it was lost on James. He found his attention drawn inward, as the glowing light that filled the room converged upon his skin, and that gentle tingle within his veins began turning itself to spikes.
The first wave was enough to simply shake him, over too soon to really register as pain so much as a spasm across his form. He squeaked.
To Caleb and Tasha’s credit, the noise halted their brewing row in its tracks. He had just enough time to register Tasha’s voice asking if he was okay, before the second spasm hit, and his body curled in upon itself like a knot pulling taut. He screwed his eyes shut, and did the best he could to restrict the noise to a low, quiet whine. This one wasn’t over quick. He counted at least five long, agonizing seconds before it ended. When he opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was the sheen of sweat drops dotted along his hands, each emitting a vibrantly colored glow.
“… Is there anything we can do?” Caleb’s voice asked from somewhere nearby, sounding almost awkward.
“… Yeah,” he mumbled back, watching as the film of liquid began to move, forming a dozen thin, cobalt colored lines as they trickled across his skin towards the bottle. “Get out. Both of you. Right now.”
“… Put something in your mouth,” Caleb muttered. “Stop you biting off your tongue.”
As the third spasm hit, James could only hope they had heeded his request.
Neither teen spoke as they stood together at the roadside. There wasn’t anything to say. It was tense, oddly charged; the two of them torn between mutual aggression, and trying to ignore the whimpered sounds of pain still ringing out from the factory floor. Caleb made the best attempt he could not to let it bother him, simply slipping his hands into his pockets, and digging his nails into his palms. This wasn’t right. None of it was right.
“… When today’s over,” he murmured, half to Tasha, half just to cover the sounds of retching from inside. “I want you to punch me in the face as hard as you can.”
“I’m going to,” Tasha agreed through gritted teeth, her eyes fixed on the road. “Just trust me on that. It’s happening.”
It took far too long for those awful sounds to stop. When they finally did, Caleb turned back towards the door, and took a step towards it. He felt Tasha’s hand closing around his wrist, and turned to meet her glare with his.
“I wanna make sure he’s okay,” he said evenly. “Let me go.”
Tasha didn’t budge.
Caleb barely had to give a thought before his free hand had cloaked itself in flame. He felt Tasha’s fingers squeeze a little tighter at his wrist.
“Stop it,” muttered a small voice from the open doorway, caught between bitterness and exhaustion. Caleb turned, and saw James, looking smaller and more ruffled than he’d ever seen him before. The boy stepped across the short distance between them, his arms wrapped in tight around his form. He sniffled.
“… You okay?” Tasha asked.
The look James gave her could only be described as withering.
They both pretended not to notice the tear marks streaking down along his face.
James unfolded his arms, and pressed the water bottle into Caleb’s hands, perhaps now one fifth full of some glowing, almost pearlescent fluid.
“Go save our friends,” he muttered. “I’m going back to bed.”
With that, James pushed past them, and stumbled his way out into the street, heading for his home.
Caleb gave Tasha a look. She simply nodded, before stepping up, and hefting the boy up off the ground onto her back.
“… Don’t need your help,” he grumbled, already burying his face against her shoulder. Tasha gave the boy a hug. No further complaints were made.
“See him home. We’ll meet up later on.”
Caleb watched the other two fading away into the night, and turned his gaze to the bottle with a sigh. This had better work.
He raised the bottle to his lips, and gagged. It was, without a doubt, the most disgusting thing he’d ever tasted. He swallowed.
‘Oh,’ murmured that little voice inside his brain. ‘So that’s what being a god feels like.’
What a courageous young boy. James is really a special person. Well, here we go! Good luck Caleb!
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Jeez…How awful was it? Did it remind James of the… you know
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Surprisingly, no. I don’t think it did. Three reasons. 1: This was a very different kind of pain. 2: He knew he was not in actual physical danger. 3: He chose to do this. Having a choice in the matter makes such a difference when it comes to experiencing trauma.
I see. I guess our little wind god will be sitting out this fight then?
Let’s find out what being on front of topwebfiction feels like: go vote for Touch!
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Caleb better start thinking of ways to repay James for all this. Like naming his firstborn after him. (“Jamesina” if it’s a girl.)
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… Maybe not?
I love the characterization in this story, and I excited to see more. Hope the next chapter is out soon! (Not rushing, just hopeful.)
I intend to upload the next chapter in about two hours.