Cody would have struggled to express what was going through his head as he rinsed out his mother’s old camping thermos and started hunting for the cocoa mix. He hadn’t been able to sit still for even one moment of the last six hours.
It was all an adrenaline heavy blur. Sprinting through the rain to find Finch, his heart going a mile a minute in his chest. The expression on the older man’s face as he’d explained. The sinking feeling in his gut as the agent’s look went from bemusement, to worry, to simple military intensity.
Finch had gone into problem solving mode; fabricating excuses for the sudden hole in the cinema wall with the determined calm of a practiced expert. He’d instructed Cody to go home and wait. He’d said that James would be okay. Cody had hated every second of it.
But that was fine. It was all fine. James was okay. He sounded happy and tired and weird, but he was okay, and that would do. He’d go meet him, hand over the cocoa, and then maybe they’d get to go on a date without getting interrupted by a giant monster.
Cody felt a quiet stab of pride at that. He couldn’t help it.
‘I threw a brick at a kaiju today,’ he thought. ‘To protect James. I’m a fucking badass. So what if it did nothing? I still did it.’
He waited for the milk to heat through, then poured it into the thermos atop the cocoa mix. He screwed the cap closed, and gave the thing a shake.
He grabbed a mini marshmallow pack and stuffed it in his pocket.
‘Let’s go see my boyfriend.’
“Mom! I’m heading out! I’ll see ya later!”
With that, he grabbed his waterproof, and the thermos, and stepped out into the rain.
The jog across town was short, and when he hit the treeline by the side of the lake, he picked up speed, crashing through puddles and underbrush, all caution to the wind. He wanted this to be done with. He at least wanted to be involved.
His ten minute sprint brought him, panting lightly, to the cave mouth. He spotted James from a distance, sitting on a boulder taller than he was, one cheek resting on his palm, gazing at the phone in his other hand. The sight was nothing short of a relief.
“Hey,” Cody called as he broke the treeline. “Hey, James! Over here!”
James glanced up at the new arrival, and his expression brightened. He waved, the back of his hand slightly glowing.
“Hey, Cody. You got the cocoa?”
“Yeah,” Cody replied. “I got your cocoa, weirdo. What do ya need it for, anyways?”
James shrugged, slipping the phone into his pocket and hopping down off the boulder to greet him. He fell a tad slower than he should have done.
“Eh, nothing much. I managed to stop the Spirit trying to kill me, but now it’s upset and I promised it a treat. May I?”
He held out a hand for the thermos, but Cody didn’t move.
Purity marks, sitting dark and heavy on the skin around James’ left eye; beneath them, on his cheek, the marks of pain.
He’s had sex. He’s had sex and he didn’t tell me. Was it today? Was he hiding them? Was he lying?
James caught the staring after the first half second, and raised an eyebrow.
“Dude. You okay? What’s wrong?”
Then, realization. His face fell.
James stepped forward, and tugged the thermos from Cody’s hand.
“… I got raped last year,” he muttered, his voice low, even defensive. “It’s how I got my powers. Do me a favor and pretend you never saw, okay?”
“Oh,” Cody mumbled, suddenly deeply ashamed. “… Okay.”
James kept his breathing calm and steady. This wasn’t how he’d wanted things to go. He hadn’t wanted Cody to find out. He gave a resigned internal shrug, and stepped towards the water’s edge, now sitting rather lower than it had before. He laid a palm flat against it.
“Mr. Whiskers?” he murmured. “I got the stuff. You can come out now.”
For a few seconds, nothing happened. James glanced back towards the still perturbed looking Cody.
“Oh. Uh. Cody? Just a warning. The Spirit’s gonna be here in a minute.”
Cody nodded, his expression setting into something like worry, then determination. Then, his attention shifted. Following his gaze, James saw why.
For the first time, the Spirit rose from the cave without a form; not water, wood, or gravel. It was spectral now; green foxfire glowing about its form, picking out hints of otherwise translucent fur. At least it wasn’t huge this time.
His feet left the shore as he floated forward.
“Hey,” he murmured, keeping his voice low, his emotions as level as he could. “We got the cocoa.”
There was a mild shudder as the spirit’s mind once more brushed against his own. It was oddly uncomfortable; exposed, no privacy. Was this what Casper’s power felt like? He brushed the thought aside.
The spirit hardly seemed to notice, translucent paws padding atop the water’s surface as it crossed the gap toward him. It lowered its head to the thermos, and gave it a sniff, a touch of curiosity bubbling up through the still present layer of resentment.
“C’mon. Give it a try.”
He drifted back towards the shoreline at that, unscrewing the cap and setting it down on the rocks. Then, carefully, he poured the tiger some hot cocoa.
The spirit was tentative, at first, prowling, examining. It didn’t trust him.
He backed away a little, letting it draw closer. The spirit stooped down, and lapped at the slightly steaming fluid.
Consideration, then grudging satisfaction.
James had a sister. He knew the sensation well.
“Do we have any marshmallows?” he asked, shooting an over the shoulder glance at Cody.
“Oh,” the other boy muttered, fumbling awkwardly in his coat pocket. “Right. Sure. Yeah.” A moment later, he produced a clear plastic packet, and tossed it across to James, who peeled it open.
“Right,” said James. “Mr. Whiskers, these are called mini-marshmallows, and they are going to change your life, okay?” He poured a couple into his hand, and proffered it towards the spirit.
For its part, the spirit stepped forward, examined the spongy mass for a moment, then scooped it out of James’ palm.
The sensation as a tongue that wasn’t entirely solid licked partway through his hand to get at the treat was almost impossible to describe. The spirit chewed for a moment, swallowed, then let out a huff, seeming to shrug.
“… Well, I think they’re cool.”
He sat at that, aware of the uncomfortable equilibrium in which they found themselves. The tiger, for its part, went back to the hot chocolate.
What to do now?
He thought in silence for a while, only brought out of it when the tiger let out a grunt, gently headbutting the side of the thermos flask.
“Oh. You want some more? Okay.”
He poured another cup, and, in the clearest way he could, asked the biggest question on his mind:
Pictures of the rain; the lake slowly overflowing, the puddles, the damp. He projected it forward into their shared mental space, and laced it through with as much curiosity as he could.
If he hadn’t been able to feel what the spirit was feeling, he’d have thought it had ignored him. It lowered its head for another drink, fresh emotions roiling in its head, pushing that weakening resentment to the side.
Loss. Pain. Fear. Loneliness. A sense of longing. The gradual death of hope.
The creature pushed each of those emotions forward; an explanation.
James winced. He’d felt something similar before, his night spent stranded in the other world with Charlie. He composed his answer.
He shared a memory. Himself, sitting on a beach, with the body of a comatose friend, staring at a trio of unfamiliar moons. He put forward each of those same emotions in their turn, then another; sympathy. The spirit wouldn’t look at him at that. He reached out, his knuckles grazing at the creature’s jaw. It didn’t pull away. He scritched it behind the ear.
“Long way from home, huh?” he murmured, his voice low.
Well, maybe that was something they could fix.
Awkwardly, not one hundred percent sure of how to word it, James put his question forward.
An image of himself, then an image of his house. Pictures of his room, and how it felt to sink into the pillows of his bed after a long day’s work. Pictures of his sister, and the feeling of how she drove him crazy, and how he’d do anything to keep her safe. Pictures of Casper, and that feeling of comfy familiarity. The satisfaction of a friendship, and the lingering awkwardness of attraction- He moved on from Casper. He showed images of his parents, and shared with it how safe they made him feel. Then, he pulled away from that, and showed the picture of his house again, cramming as many of those feelings inside that image as he could. Then, he showed a picture of the spirit, that ghostly green mega tiger, and coupled it with curiosity.
‘Where is home for you?’
There was a quiet moment, before the spirit finally responded.
He had expected an image of a forest. Maybe something with a landmark that could be used to guide the creature home. What he got was a good deal more:
Standing at the edge of a cliff, overlooking a canyon that one could run through for days without seeming to reach the end. The majesty of it.
The sight of diminutive paradise birds dancing in the air, swooping and gliding to impress potential partners, their coats casting rainbow glimmers over a rapid flowing stream. Their grace. Their elegance.
Running under the belly of a canyon crawler as it strode above the trees, like a towering, crystal axolotl; the largest of all the creatures in its realm.
The sensation of running and roaring for days and nights through fallen leaves of every color, shedded by the trees above as they made ready for the coming winter.
The brisk cold at the highest peak of its domain. The grandeur of its home sprawling out below. A cloak of life about the world.
Standing before an unknown biped. A struggle, then stranded in an unfamiliar place.
Then came grief. Then came rain.
“Oh,” James realized. “I… Uh. I don’t know how to help with that.”
“Help with what?” Cody asked, confused.
“It’s not from Earth,” James replied, a little stunned. “It’s from somewhere else and it can’t get home. That’s why it’s pissed off.”
“… So,” Cody muttered. “… It’s an alien?”
James gave a bemused kind of shrug.
“I mean, kinda. Yeah.”
He pondered that for a minute. He couldn’t offer to send it home. He wasn’t even sure if they could find where the spirit’s home was, and that was with help. He settled for showing it his sympathy.
“I’m gonna… try a thing,” he muttered. “Not sure if it’s gonna work.”
“Try what?” Cody asked, stopping momentarily in his slow movement towards the spirit.
“I dunno,” James replied. “Relating to it, I guess?”
He hesitated, then posed his next question as Cody finished his brave advance, and cautiously began patting the creature on the shoulder.
Images of the reserve, drenched in rain. The few brief glimpses of wildlife he’d seen out here. Squirrels. The monster from the lake. He put forward a tentative sense of joy, then curiosity.
‘Is there anything here you like?’
The spirit didn’t look at him. Instead, it turned a baleful eye on Cody. The boy didn’t quite flinch, but his petting halted. It grunted, and nuzzled his wrist with the side of its head.
Cody awkwardly started scratching its head, and it returned its eyes to James.
An image; industrious creatures building a fortress in a pond, assembling it from fallen sticks and timber. A sense of satisfaction.
“… Huh. Beavers,” James murmured, a little underwhelmed. The spirit growled. “Nono, that’s fine! Beavers are cool, we have more stuff like that.” He fumbled hurriedly around for a memory to share. A few visits to a zoo. He showed it a giraffe.
“Okay. Okay, cool. You like animals. Well, check out this one.” He showed it a kangaroo.
The spirit cocked its head, confused.
“Yeah, no,” James snickered. “We don’t get it either. Australians are weird.”
“James?” Cody murmured.
“Hold up,” James replied. “I wanna show em a koala-”
“Dude,” the other boy insisted, flicking him on the shoulder. “Look. The rain’s stopped.”