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All in all, Cody took the knowledge of there being monsters in the world relatively well. That didn’t mean the silence that resulted wasn’t awkward. James tried to give him some time to get used to the idea, pulling out his phone and dialing Finch’s number.
Two rings. Three rings-
“Hi, James,” Finch murmured. “What’s up?”
“I caught the lake thing,” he said. “I’m putting it somewhere safe while I figure out what to do with it. Figured you’d wanna know.”
A brief hesitation on Finch’s side of the line, then:
“Were you seen?”
“No, no,” James half-lied, his tone a mite too casual. “… I mean, there was one guy who probably saw it, but it was kind of attacking him before I even got here, so…”
“Right,” Finch murmured. “And you’re sure no one else saw? It’s a big lake, James. Lots of angles to be seen from.”
“We were below the surface,” he replied. “Kinda hard to spot when you’re under forty feet of water.”
“Is the witness okay?”
“Yeah. Some kinda mage, I think. He was doing practice underwater when it started chasing him.”
“Who is it?”
“That kid from the diner.”
“The one who was macking on you?”
James glanced back at Cody, his cheeks a little pink. He couldn’t help but notice that his prior assessment had been wrong. The guy was pretty ripped without a shirt.
“… Yeah, him.”
Finch snickered on the other end of the line.
“Good luck with that. I’m on my way.”
He hung up.
James pocketed his phone.
Right. Okay. That was that done. Now he just had to find some way of getting the creature out of the lake without alerting everyone in Rockford of what was happening. He had a few ideas.
Then he just had to handle Cody. Great.
He took a deep breath.
“… Okay, so, promise you won’t be mad at me,” he tried. “But I maybe kinda lied a little bit. This,-” he gestured at the monster. “-isn’t really Bigfoot.”
The punchline fell about as flat with Cody as was possible. The boy gazed up at him from his position on the soaked-silt floor.
“No shit, James.”
James winced. Okay. Ouch.
An uncomfortably long silence, then:
“… So what is it?”
James shrugged, glancing briefly over his shoulder at the webbed humanoid still scrabbling at its bubble.
“No idea. Maybe a grindylow? A redcap? A kappa that’s lost its shell? There’s like, a hundred different kinds of water monsters. I haven’t got ‘em memorized. Probably just got washed into the lake by all the rain.”
“So there’s more of them out there?” he asked, his voice just a little shaky.
James didn’t bother trying to lie. It’d probably do more harm than good at this point.
“Oh, yeah. Loads. I mean, it’s a wildlife reserve. Where else are they gonna live?”
“Anywhere that isn’t where I live!” Cody snapped. James adjusted his assessment. The other boy might be taking this kinda badly. “And who the fuck are you, huh!? Some random kid and an asshole in a suit, trying to act all cool while you bend the fucking water!”
“Hey!” James protested, ruffled. “Don’t call me a kid! I’m thirteen. And a half!”
“I don’t give a crap!” Cody yelled. “You’re a kid, James! Your shirt has a fucking Gundam on it!”
James let out an aggravated groan.
“Would you please. Stop. Swearing?”
At that, Cody simply stared at him. James glared back as forcefully as he could manage. It undercut him a bit when Cody started giggling.
“… Stop it,” he muttered. Cody laughed even harder. “I’m serious.”
The other boy rolled onto his back, clutching at his knees as he cackled himself senseless.
… Well, you have fun with that.
He turned his attention back to the water beast. It shied away from him as he approached, resting his hand against the surface of the bubble, before pushing it through into the water.
It attacked him, claws scrabbling and snatching at the skin of his hand and wrist, his shield sparking faintly beneath the blows. He let his fingers rest against its chest.
It hadn’t hurt anybody yet, he told himself. It was just scared because it couldn’t find its home. He smiled at it.
“I’m gonna put you somewhere safe, okay?” he murmured. “Try not to fight too hard.”
He dug into his spellbook, humming the intro to Uptown Funk to help him focus while he tracked down the magic he was after.
He muttered a few words under his breath, and inside its bubble, the lake monster began to glow, a soft, tourmaline light flowing out from around his fingertips. Soon, the entire creature was encased within his energy. Then, with a deal more effort than he was proud of, he began to pull it in, the monster slowly shrinking down about his fingers, before discorporating, and flowing as lines of light across his skin.
When the glow of the spell began to fade, it left behind an intricate web of faintly aquatic seeming inkwork spreading from the tips of his fingers and all the way up along his arm. He imagined this was what Pokemon training felt like.
He checked under his shirt, curious to see exactly how much of him the familiar spell was covering. Quite a lot, as it turned out, the seaweed and vine-like decorations of his forearm slowly fading into a sheen of fish-scales that went almost to his belly.
“Dude, I look freaking rad,” he muttered. He turned to Cody. Noticing now that the boy was no longer laughing. “What do you think? Tattoos or no tattoos? Pretty sure I’m now officially a badass.”
In response, Cody simply gazed at him.
“… What the hell is with you people?”
“You know, we weren’t really lying all that much,” James muttered, spearing a piece of breakfast bacon with his fork, and pairing it with a chunk of pancake. “Finch said he was working for the government when we got here. He just didn’t bother saying that I was too.”
“That’s because you aren’t,” Finch pointed out from the next table over. He’d insisted on being present on the off chance that James said something wrong. “Not yet.” He turned his gaze to Cody. “He’s working with me on a trial basis. Taking the lead under my supervision. Like a driving test.”
“Sure, fine,” James muttered. “Point is, we said we were here to deal with the monster problem, and we are. I don’t get what you’re so upset about.” He popped the fork into his mouth. “These pancakes are awesome.” He gave Cody’s mom a thumbs up as she passed the table, earning himself a smile.
Cody glared at him for a moment, before glancing at Finch, and letting out a sigh.
“Does he have to be here for this?”
“Yes,” replied Finch before James could answer.
Cody scowled at the table.
“… It’s not fair, okay?”
“What?” James asked, one eyebrow raised.
Cody didn’t look at him, his expression darkening.
“Magic was my thing, okay? It was mine. I wasn’t gonna have a bunch of friends. I’m not gonna get a boyfriend at least until I get to college. But I can do this.” He held up the plastic box he’d been clutching since the lake. “And then some random prettyboy waltzes in from the city to show me just how bad I suck.”
James… didn’t know what to say to that. It was a lot to unpack.
“… You think I’m pretty?” he asked.
Cody groaned. “Is that really the thing you focus on?”
“Well, I mean, what am I supposed to say to the other stuff?” he asked, giving the other boy a helpless kind of shrug. “I’m sorry I saved your life?”
“No,” Cody groaned. “That makes me sound like a dick. Thank you for that. Honestly. I’m really glad you saved my life… But did you have to be so much better than me while you did it?”
James leaned back in his seat, stung, and not a hundred percent sure as to why.
“I’m not better than you,” he said, a little defensive.
Cody laughed. “Dude, you turned a lake monster into a fucking sleeve tattoo. I can’t do that.”
“And I can’t make boxes that let you breathe underwater,” James countered. “That doesn’t make me better. I’m just better in a fight.”
“Fine,” Cody muttered. “You’re stronger than me. Happy?”
James honestly didn’t know what to say to that. It hurt a touch more than he was comfortable with.
“Don’t compare yourself to me that way,” he muttered. “It’s not fair to you or me.”
“Why not?” Cody grumbled. “You’re my age. You’re a mage. Why shouldn’t I measure up to you?”
“… Cuz you’re never gonna be as strong as me.”
He said the words fully expecting to regret them. He said them anyway. They were the truth.
Cody folded his arms.
“See?” he said quietly. “That’s the problem.”
James sat there for a minute, gazing at the other boy in something that felt a lot like anger. Then, another point occurred to him.
He pushed the barely touched plate of pancakes to the side, and leaned forward on the table, one arm extended.
“Arm wrestle me.”
“What?” Cody asked. “What’s that got to-”
“Just do it,” he said flatly.
A moment’s scowling, then Cody leaned forward, one arm resting on the table, his hand clasping James’ own.
“Three,” James muttered. “Two, one. Go.” He pushed against Cody’s hand as hard as he could. His arm was flat against the table in under a second.
“Again,” he said.
Cody raised an eyebrow, but complied.
“Three, two, one. Go.” Another almost instantaneous loss.
Cody looked irritated now.
“You could at least push back a little harder before you let me win.”
“I am,” James said bluntly. “I’m pushing as hard as I can. That’s how weak I am. Wanna go again?”
“Come on, dude. No one’s that weak-”
“I am,” said James. “Ever since I got my powers, I’ve been weaker than my own kid sister. It’s been like that for a year now. She’s six.”
Cody opened his mouth, James cut him off.
“See that plate?” he gestured to his pancakes. “It’s honestly kinda hard for me to lift. It’s a freakin’ plate. When I go to school, I have to use my powers just so I can carry my bag around. I can’t even go to gym class anymore. I had to get a doctors’ note saying I had a bone disorder. If I ever get in a fight, I’m screwed. What am I s’posed to do? Use my superpowers to stop a bully? If I ever go out with anyone, I’m gonna have to accept that they’re always, always, always gonna be stronger than me. Even if I worked out six hours every day.” He leaned back in his seat again, arms folding once more. “Sure. I’ve got bigger superpowers than you. You kinda have to take what you get.”
The two scowled at one another for a time, before the older boy relented.
“Okay, okay. Fine. I was being an ass. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” he muttered. Then, a point of frustration floated back to him. “You really think I’m pretty?”
James wasn’t fixating.
He really wasn’t. He was just glaring into the motel room mirror as if it had personally wronged him. That was not fixating.
“I’m not pretty,” he muttered. “I’m manly. Stupid, angsty, whiney little-” He stopped messing with his hair, giving up on trying to find a way to make it any more unkempt than it already was. He stomped over to his travel case, and started rummaging inside it. “Come on. I know you’re- Yes!”
He stood back up, the article of clothing he’d been looking for clutched between his hands, the vinyl skull leering back at him from the t-shirt’s front.
He tugged his shirt off, and put the new one on, before returning to the mirror. He examined the result. Yes. The jeans and shirt paired well. He could do to show a little more of the tattoo, though. He tried rolling the sleeves up to show his shoulders. Looked himself over.
Yes. He was now sufficiently manly. Good. Cody had better not make that mistake aga-
There was a knock at the door.
“Hey, James?” called Cody’s voice from outside. “Are you in? Mrs Green told me this was your room. Can I come in? It’s really wet out here.”
James squared his shoulders.
He gets one chance to fix this. One.
“Just a second!”
He made one last check in the mirror. Yes. His outfit was still there.
He stepped over to the door, and pulled it open.
“Hey-” Cody started, before James cut him off.
“How do I look?”
Cody blinked, rain sploshing gently on his hair.
“You heard me,” James snapped. “How do I look? Easy question. No wrong answer.”
Cody looked him up and down, a bit nonplussed.
“Uh. Really cute, I guess. I like the cuddly emo look. Why, though?”
God damn it.
James’ shoulders slumped.
“… What do you want, Cody?”
Cody shook his head, perplexed, but continued.
“Look, you said you were trying to find whatever’s causing all the rain, yeah?”
“Well, what if it’s not in town?” Cody asked. He fumbled in a pocket for his phone, stepping a foot or so inside the doorway to show James the screen. “It’s a rain map of the last couple weeks. And if you look at the one for today, the middle of it isn’t in Rockford anymore. It’s in the reserve.”
James peered at the screen.
“… Huh,” he murmured. “Yeah. You’re right. It’s like, half a mile out of town. Guess it moved right after me and Finch showed up. That’s an awesome lead. Thank yo-”
“I could take you out there, if you want,” Cody offered. “I go out there all the time when it’s not raining. I know where all the caves and landmarks are.”
“… You get that I’m hunting a monster, right?”
“Yeah. But I can stay back if we find whatever’s doing it.”
James snickered. “Dude. You’re a kid. It’s dangerous.”
“I’m older than you!”
James snickered even harder. “Okay. Tell you what. There’s a baseball bat in the closet. I think the last guy left it here before I got the room. If you can hurt me with it even a little bit, I’ll let you come along.”
“What?!” Cody blanched. “No! I’m not gonna hit you with a baseball bat!”
“I can make forcefields, Cody. You couldn’t hurt me if you wanted to. You’re too squishy.”
“Come on, dude. It’s not like I’m gonna go near whatever the monster is. I’m just gonna show you where the paths are and how to get to places. Then you can go back later and explore it all yourself.”
James hesitated. That was… actually a lot more reasonable.
“You sure?” he asked. “It might still be kinda dangerous. Even if you’ve got me there looking out for you.”
“Yeah. I’m sure. I’ve got all day free tomorrow. Wanna do it then?”
“I mean, sure, I guess. Head out after breakfast?”
“Sounds good.” Cody nodded, then, with a touch of hesitation. “So… It’s a date, then?”
Something clicked in James’ head.
“Oh!” he realized. “Right. That’s what this is. Uh-” he laughed, a bit higher pitched than normal. “You, uh. You kinda made a bad call on that.”
“What?” Cody asked, his shoulders slumping. “You mean you’re straight?”
“No,” James muttered, awkwardly scratching at his hair. “It’s just. Well. We’re going looking for monsters, and you totally can’t protect yourself… We’re gonna be taking Finch along.”
James seems a old pro at this magic stuff now.
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He’s picked up a thing or two. That’s for sure.