By the time they arrived at the far shore of Rockford lake, both James and Cody were breathing heavily. It had turned out that, in spite of being a magically superpowered monster-detective, James really wasn’t much of a runner. Maybe it was just that his legs were shorter. Cody had wound up half-dragging the other boy most of the way through the woods.
The boys hit the edge of the forest at a sprint, breaking the treeline with their heels digging in the ground, stopping just short of falling face first in the lake.
“What the fuck was that thing?” Cody asked, his breathing heavy. “It was huge!”
“I don’t know!” James panted, taking a moment to catch his breath, his hands against his knees, before heaving himself upright and scanning the treeline for signs of movement. “I-I mean, it was some kind of spirit or something, but since when are there angry spirits in the middle of freaking Oregon!?”
Cody didn’t answer. Nothing from the trees. He hadn’t had much of a chance to look behind him as they ran, but the sounds of the fight had faded into the distance only a couple minutes after their escape. Still no sign of Finch.
“… Is he gonna be okay?”
“I don’t know,” James muttered, sounding almost guilty. “The most important thing was getting you outta the danger-zone.” He glanced in the direction of the town, a few of the rooftops barely visible in the distance through the rain. “You should be safe from here. I need you to head back to the diner. I’m gonna go help F-”
There was a distant pop, before agent Finch hit the surface of the lake with a loud splash and a muffled curse.
“… Or not.”
The two watched as the bedraggled man broke the surface, then looked around. Both boys winced on instinct. The man had a slash running down the side of his face, from just above his eye, all the way to his cheek.
The man looked around, spotted the two of them and, with a groan, started paddling his way to shore. A few seconds later, he was spread out on the rocks, his clothes ragged, skin bloody.
“Good job, Cody,” Finch murmured, his eyes closed. “You led us right to it.”
“Uh. You’re welcome,” Cody answered uncertainly. “You uh… You doing okay, sir?”
Finch responded with a low groan.
“Yeah. I’m fine. I just need a minute.”
The boys watched in awkward silence for a minute as Finch caught his breath, then, he sighed.
“Why the fuck is there an angry spirit in the middle of Oregon, and what is our next move?”
“I got nothing,” James admitted. “I mean, it’s Oregon. You can’t get much more nature-ey than this without leaving the U.S. It’s not like there’s anyone tearing up the reserve, right?”
He looked to Finch for confirmation. The older man shook his head.
“Nothing like that in the reports. I can do a deeper check now that we’ve got some idea of what to look for. There’s gotta be something.”
“Um,” Cody piped up, glancing between the other two, the adrenal afterglow fading to a level of confusion. “Not for nothing… Do we care? Like. I get that it’s probably pissed about something, but why does that matter when it’s an angry water monster that wants to flood my town?”
The other two looked at him, then James sighed, shrugged, and plopped himself down in a puddle, raising another of those air bubbles to shield them from the rain while he explained.
“Spirits are weird,” he began. “They’re kind of borderline immortal. They don’t have bodies, so you can’t normally hurt ‘em unless your magic’s super funky. That means when they go postal, you have to choose between figuring out how to calm them down, or trying to catch them like a spazzed out pokemon. The first one’s hard. The second one’s basically impossible unless you’re my grandma.”
“Figuring out why it’s angry’s the easiest way to make it go away.”
Cody nodded. That made sense.
A few seconds of silence while the group thought.
“We have a lumber mill,” Cody suggested. “Maybe it’s pissed we’re making so much firewood?”
James made a noncommittal noise.
“I mean, maybe, but hasn’t that place been going for years?”
“Couple decades, yeah.”
“So, probably not that. We’re looking for something that started in the last couple months.”
“Not necessarily,” Finch murmured, pulling himself to his feet with a quiet groan. “Spirits can be slow. They often move around in their chosen domain. They might take years to notice something they don’t like. Or maybe it just decided it’s not okay with it anymore. We can’t rule anything out.”
James nodded, opening his mouth to continue, before Finch sighed.
“We should have this conversation later. Once I’ve got myself patched up. I’m heading back to the motel. Come join me once you’re done here, yeah? We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“Uh, sure,” James muttered, a little wrong-footed. “I guess that works.”
Finch hadn’t waited for the answer, already turning and setting off around the lake’s perimeter towards the town, slightly favoring his left leg. He glanced back at Cody as he took his leave. “Thanks for your help, Cody,” he said. “You saved us a lot of trouble.”
“… Did I just get kicked out of this?” Cody asked.
James laughed, a little awkward.
“I think you did, yeah. We’re at the dangerous part now. Sorry.”
Cody tried not to feel too put out at that. He only partly managed it.
“I guess the date’s ruined, huh?” he murmured, half-joking, half-bitter.
“I dunno. I had some fun.” He glanced behind himself at the agent’s retreating back, hesitated for a moment, then proffered a hand, his cheeks a little red. “Can I walk you home?”
“I’d like that.”
It wasn’t a long walk home, only half a mile or so, first moving to the townward side of the lake, then over the pair of crosswalks that made up the entire breadth of Rockford township. Cody made sure to drag his feet as best he could. James’ hand was very warm in the chill of the rain.
They didn’t talk all that much. A few words. A part of Cody was annoyed at that. He ought to be making better use of his time in the other boy’s company. He was just too comfortable, the inconsequential chatter fading out under the constant rain.
It was only when they reached his house, approaching around the back so as to avoid being seen by his parents in the diner, that Cody asked a question he deemed important. Both boys stood there for a time, leaned against the wall, still holding hands, neither wanting to admit that they’d run out of steps to walk.
“That was fucking terrifying,” he murmured. James glanced up at him at that, face turning away from the perpetual spattering of a nearby puddle, one eyebrow raised. “Back at the cave, I mean. Have you dealt with shit like that before?”
“Couple times, yeah. It’s usually bigger than that, though. You kinda get used to it after a while.”
Cody turned that thought over in his mind a couple times, then shook his head.
“How do you get used to being attacked by giant monsters?”
A quiet snicker.
“No idea. You just kinda wake up after a while and all the fear’s a little quieter. Still there, but easier to ignore, you know?” he chuckled ruefully, his gaze returning to the ground. “I had a pretty heavy couple months after I got my powers.”
Cody had no response to that. What were you supposed to say when your first date started talking like a Vietnam vet? He gave the shorter boy’s hand a little squeeze. Opened his mouth. Closed it again.
“Can I kiss you?” James asked, his voice a little small. Cody looked at him. His eyes were still determinedly pointed at the ground, a faint blush partly hidden by the waterlogged scruff of his hair. “I know it wasn’t a great first date, but you’re really cute and I sorta want to try again and-” he took a breath. “… I wanna see what kissing’s like when it’s not with your best friend.”
Cody’s heart beat suddenly felt a touch louder against his ribs.
“Sure,” he said, doing his best to sound casual. “I’m down for that.”
James nodded, then awkwardly rotated himself, one shoulder leaning against the wall, facing Cody. After a few seconds, the two of them locked eyes, the younger boy trying not to make it obvious as he shifted upwards against the wall, standing on the tips of his toes.
Even then, he was half an inch too short. Cody bent down a little.
Contact. Surprisingly soft. Not quite on the lips. One second. Two seconds. They broke away. James broke eye contact, his cheeks crimson. Cody grinned.
“Feels kinda weird.”
James tilted his head away to hide a smile.
“Yeah. Little bit. See you later, Cody.”
Cody watched the other boy leave before he stepped inside.
It was odd, he thought to himself as he pulled out a dry set of clothes. Even after the rain, he felt extremely warm.
James couldn’t help but smile a little as he made the journey back to the motel. He’d been half expecting to feel guilty, especially if he actually wound up enjoying it, but no. Instead, there was just a sort of afterglow.
The kiss had been cool. He hadn’t been sure if he’d be able to muster the courage.
It was nice; being okay with it all after the fact. Hopeful. He liked hopeful.