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James did have to admit, albeit grudgingly, that Finch was a decent chaperone. The older man had thus far hung back from the younger two by a few dozen feet as Cody led them through the woods; holding to that sweet spot that was just far enough away for their conversation to be muffled by the rain, while still remaining close enough to communicate with relative ease.
“You’ve really never been on a date before?” James asked.
Cody shook his head.
“There’s no-one around to do it with. I’m kinda surprised you have.”
“Only kinda,” he murmured. “It was s’posed to be a date, but we mostly just ended up hanging out.”
“Was he cute?”
“Sure, I guess.” James shrugged. “It was a friend of mine: Casper. He’s bi, and I was trying to figure out where I was with being gay. I thought I had a crush on him. So I figured I’d ask him out.”
“How’d that go?”
“Not bad. He was cool about it, you know? We hung out, watched a movie. Held hands. Never went on a second one.”
“… Why not?”
“We tried making out after,” he explained. “It was awkward.”
The semi-date was turning out more fun than James had been expecting, himself and Cody simply talking about nothing while they walked, protected from the rain by a pocket of stable air that he was holding overhead. At one point, the older boy had grabbed his hand.
That was a nice kind of weird.
“So…” Cody asked eventually, guiding them through a patch of waterlogged brambles that James could have comfortably navigated on his own. “You still into this guy, or…?”
He felt Cody give his hand a little squeeze; watched him fail to hide a smile.
“Why not? Is he super dorky? Big teeth? Kinda fugly?”
“No,” James smirked. “He’s… Actually pretty hot, I guess. I just know him too well. Guy has problems.”
Cody snickered, rounding the top of the incline and pointing the trio down a path beside a rocky outcropping.
“We’re heading down that way,” he called, just loud enough for Finch to hear him too. “There’s usually a cave down there, but all the rain’s flooded it, so it’s hard to spot.” A few moments of silence as the three of them reoriented, then the boy spoke again. “So… This Casper dude’s not your kind of deal. Do you have… You know…”
“A type?” James asked, grinning. “Sure, I guess. Why? You curious?”
“Maybe,” Cody admitted. “So… What is it?”
“I dunno,” he murmured playfully. “A little taller than me? Maybe kinda buff?”
“I’m kinda buff,” Cody pointed out.
“Oh, yeah,” James said, as if he’d only just noticed. “I guess you are. How about you?”
Cody grinned. Good. He understood the game.
“Short,” he answered. “Asian. Kinda cute, in a twinky, Orlando Bloom sorta way-”
The rest of that sentence was lost when James started poking him aggressively in the ribs.
“I. Am. Not. A. Twink.”
Cody laughed far harder than was sensible at that. James might have forgiven it, if he couldn’t also hear Finch chuckling quietly behind them.
“I’m not!” he protested.
“Sure you’re not,” Cody grinned. “You’re super buff. Tall, too.”
“Shut up. Is that the cave?”
“That?” Cody pointed. “That’s a puddle. The cave’s just past those trees over there-”
James let the protective barrier drop as he took his leave, dousing his erstwhile companion in half an inch or so of collected rainwater as he floated off in the direction Cody had pointed.
He felt no guilt at this. The other boy deserved it.
He found the cave mouth soon enough, a rocky outcropping among the moss and wood, drowned, just as Cody had said it would be, in half a dozen feet of rainwater that expanded out across the clearing like a pond. He wondered how deep it went.
Well. No time like the present.
He floated out over the gently rippling surface of the water, glanced behind him to where the other two were just cresting the last rise towards him, then plunged into the depths.
He didn’t bother taking air. He wasn’t exactly sure when he’d given up the need to breathe, but it was apparently redundant when you were mostly made of wind. The pressure tried to push him upwards, his minuscule bodyweight propelling him towards the surface like a weirdly shaped pool noodle, but he used his flight to keep himself travelling down.
It got dark fast in the cave. He pulled out his phone, offering silent thanks to whoever had invented waterproof cases, and turned on the flashlight.
There wasn’t much to see. Just rocks and a slow decline. The device buzzed in his hand; a text alert from Finch: a reminder not to dig too far today, and a snapshot of a somewhat rain-drenched Cody.
He snickered. Finch could be cool. Sometimes.
The guy had a point, though. Better not to explore too deep with a civilian in tow. He wouldn’t have gone in at all if Cody wasn’t being a tool. He took one more look around by the phone-light.
Rocks. Rocks. Lost car-keys. Rocks. Weird Glowy green thing-
He reinforced his barrier just in time to prevent himself from being crushed against the cavern wall.
The creature -the force- that slammed into him then had the countenance of a beast, four legged and loping, green-tinged fur shifting through the water like a coat of floating ink. When it struck him, its form breaking into strands of light and shade around him and casting his shield into crackling lines of force, he could have sworn he heard a growl.
Then, he was left alone, floating in the faintly glowing water.
Right. He thought to himself. Nature spirit. Frick.
“Is he gonna be okay down there?” Cody asked, trying to keep the note of concern from his voice.
Finch gave him a reassuring shoulder pat.
“Don’t worry, kid. I wouldn’t say it to his face, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t anything in Oregon that could take him in a straight up fight. Myself included.”
“Yep. Kid is crazy strong.”
“… Was I teasing him too hard?”
“If you want him to be into you, then yeah,” Finch murmured, taking a step or two away and beginning to move around the water’s edge. “Maybe tell him you’re sorry for that later-”
There was a loud sploshing noise as James shot from the surface of the water like a cannonball, eyes wild. Beneath him, the water’s surface had begun to move.
“James,” Finch started. “What-”
“Cody!” James yelled, spotting the other boy. “Crap!”
Before anyone could reply to that, James darted forwards in the air, his drenched form slamming into the larger boy’s chest like a teddy from a butane gun. His arms wrapped around Cody’s middle, the air shimmering white around them for a moment, before the water at James’ back slammed into them with the fury of a storm.
It was a torrent, an assault; like being under an angry waterfall, the force of it bearing them to the ground, blasting moss and lichen from the stone around them. Cody didn’t scream, but that was mostly out of shock. He did yelp a little, though, his arms rising up by instinct to shield his face from a flow of water that never quite seemed to hit; James’ barrier cracking a little further by the moment.
Among the noise of the water and the steadily rising cracks from their rapidly degrading shield, Cody could have sworn he heard James mumbling against his chest.
“Please don’t break please don’t break please don’t break!”
The barrage lasted all of seven terrifying seconds, before its assault abruptly ended. There was a deep yell as something passed violently overhead, the water breaking into a swarm of wind-borne droplets as Finch slammed his powers into it. Then, he was on his knees beside them.
“Right. Nature spirit. Fuck,” he murmured, his voice steady. “Are you two okay?”
“We gotta get Cody out of here,” James answered, nowhere near as calm. “Right now!”
Cody could only nod in mute agreement to that. He doubted he could have spoken if he wanted to. It felt like he’d forgotten how to breathe.
Finch nodded, shot a glance behind himself at the pool, a strange green light hovering, shapeless amidst the droplets, then looked back at them, his expression hard.
“Head for the lake,” he ordered. “I’ll try and draw it deeper into the reserve. Protect the town until I get back. Call for reinforcements if I don’t.”
James looked like he wanted to object, but he kept his peace. A glance at Cody seemed to set his mind. He nodded, pulling himself upright as Finch darted off around the edge of the water, the green glow slowly dipping back beneath the surface of the pool.
Cody pulled himself to his feet, trying to pretend he wasn’t shaking. The smaller boy jammed a hand into Cody’s own, lacing their fingers together. That settled him a little. A flicker in the air; another shield built around them.
“Whatever happens,” James muttered. “You keep on holding on to me, okay? I’ll keep you safe.”
“Right,” Cody managed, still feeling oddly short on air. He watched as the thing in the water began to rise, pulling itself from the pool like a figure from a block of clay.
It had a form now, it’s physicality caught somewhere between a housecat and a bear, all loping grace and elegance, but layered with a mass of bulk and muscle. It was also twenty feet wide across the shoulders, and made entirely out of water.
It didn’t turn to look at Finch when the boys began to run. Not even when he sent a bolt of power crashing through its frame. It set its gaze on them, lowered itself into a crouch, and growled.
James raised a hand toward it just as it began to spring, and a wave of unseen force thrummed into it from the side, visible only in the way the raindrops changed directions as it passed. The water-beast let out a furious yowling noise as its body was slammed into the rocky walls of the pool with a force to make mountains shake.
“We should keep runnin-” James started, before the haste of the older boy’s departure nearly yanked him off his feet. “-okay, this works.”
Leaving Finch and the furious monster in their wake, the two boys began to sprint.