The two boys walked the earthen pathway back to town in relative quiet; both half-marvelling at the newfound stillness of their environment. The patter of the rain had become such a constant that James had almost tuned it out. Now that it was gone, its absence almost rang in his ears.
It was nice, a break in the clouds allowing the last thin shafts of early evening sunlight to splay across the canopy, picking out the rich greens and browns of the reserve in a gentle orange. James liked the smell; rich earth and freshness.
“So,” Cody asked as they crested a small hill. “What happens now?”
“I dunno, really,” he said. “I’ve never done this part before. We tell Finch, I guess. Then he can take it to the home office, and they’ll see what they can do now that Whiskers is being an adult.”
“Think they can get ‘em home?”
James sighed at that.
“Probably not,” he admitted. “Getting through to other worlds is super hard. There’s only a handful of people who can do it. Even then, finding the right planet’s really tough. Maybe if they find the hole that it got dumped here through? Not much chance outside of that.”
Cody cocked his head at that, starting slowly down the hill towards the lake.
“So… Going to other planets is still a thing, right? You’re not just messing with me?”
“Oh, yeah,” James replied. “I was on one for a while. It was… pretty.”
Cody snickered, then shook his head.
“You’re kinda surreal, you know that?”
James raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah.” Cody glanced back at him, and caught the surprise in his expression. He elaborated: “Okay. Like… How’d you know all this stuff?” he asked. “Where’d you learn it?”
“My grandparents, mostly.” James shrugged. “They’ve been doing monster hunter stuff for a couple hundred years- and, yeah, I get it. It feels weird for me too. I’ve been surrounded by it all for a year now, and some of it used to freak me out, too. I know it’s a lot. Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” Cody murmured.
James wasn’t really sure why he had. It felt awkward.
A short quiet, then Cody carried on:
“It’s not a bad thing. Just…. Intense. I don’t know what to do with it sometimes. Like when you start talking like a war vet, or I find out you’re a rape survivor, and I’m not supposed to mention it. Just a lot of stuff where I don’t know what to say.”
“Trust me. With the rape stuff, just leave it. If I wanna talk, I will.”
“Okay. Fair,” Cody answered hurriedly. “But, I mean… I’m your boyfriend. Aren’t we supposed to be able to talk about this stuff?”
James laughed at that, then raised a placating hand when Cody scowled.
“I mean, yeah. You’re my boyfriend, but… I mean. I’ve known you for like. Five days. I don’t even tell my parents or my therapist some of what’s up here.” He tapped his head. “We made out one time. There’s kind of a gap there.”
Cody conceded the point with a sigh.
“Well… You should talk to someone.”
I usually talk to Casper.
James did not say that. It felt like the wrong time to admit that he confided more with his cute roommate than with his somewhat boyfriend. Life was weird. He changed the subject.
“Speaking of. What do we do with that?”
“Hmm?” Cody hummed. “Do with what?”
“Well,” James shrugged. “I’m done here, right? I’m probably gonna be heading home in a couple days. Does that mean we break it off, or…?”
There was an uncomfortable shared silence there.
“We could try long distance?” Cody pointed out. “I heard it sucks, but at least it’s something… Do you want to keep this going?”
James considered that a moment. Did he? That was a hard question, now that he thought about it.
“I don’t know,” he muttered. “… Not really?” He raised a placating hand when Cody winced. “I know. I’m sorry. I just… I kinda thought you were gonna be a vacation boyfriend. Like. Try some stuff together, then go home and get on with my life, you know?”
Cody sighed, but nodded.
“Yeah, I do.”
James took a breath.
“But it feels unfair, cuz we never went on a real date, with all the monster fights, and I… Kinda feel like I owe you more?”
“Dude,” Cody snickered. “You don’t owe me anything. I knew you were gonna be leaving when I asked you out. It’s fine.”
James gave a weak smile.
“… Thanks, Cody. You were a good boyfriend, for what it’s worth.”
The silence after that lasted just long enough to become awkward.
“C’mon,” Cody muttered. “Let’s get back. They’ll be worried.”
Not for the first time, Agent Finch tried calling James’ phone.
“The number you are calling has been disconnected.”
He swore, then went back to scanning the mud beneath his feet.
He’d given up tracking James early on. The boy’s footprints were surprisingly hard to make out along the mossy ground, even with the cessation of the rain. He was too light. His tracks weren’t deep, and he had a tendency to float without thinking for a few dozen feet at a time when there weren’t any civilians around. It made following after him near impossible. Luckily, the trail the nature spirit left behind was a little clearer.
The situation in Rockford had been sorted; he’d knocked down a tree into the hole in the cinema wall before the solitary staff member had noticed it was even there. No witnesses. They’d been lucky. Then, with that particular crisis averted, he’d set off after his companion, as fast as he could go.
James was a good kid. He was strong, and smart, and surprisingly capable, for his age. Finch couldn’t fault him for how he’d handled the Spirit’s attack. But he was still thirteen. He was still a kid, and kids made mistakes. That made him vulnerable, no matter the foe. Finch was worried. He’d been at it for over half an hour already, and he was growing more aware with each passing second that he was losing ground.
It was as he drew near the sunken cave where he and James had first encountered the nature Spirit that he finally caught sight of them: Two figures walking together through the trees a couple hundred feet away, the evening sunlight playing oddly about their outlines. He squinted.
Young figures. Male. Adolescent, by their height. One with a rain jacket about his waist, the other with a shock of waterlogged black hair. It seemed like they were talking.
‘James? The fuck is he doing out here with Cody?’
He took a breath to call out to them both, before a new voice forestalled him, this one significantly closer.
“Please don’t. I’d like to talk to you alone.”
Finch’s head snapped around at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, his hand already half-raised into a casting stance, before he caught sight of who was speaking. An old woman leaned against the trunk of a nearby tree, arms wrapped in around herself, shoulders covered by a cardigan utterly unfit for rain, refusing to shiver in the cold. He recognized her in under a second, a face right out of his mission briefing.
“… Lady Toranaga. May I ask what’s going on?”
The older woman shrugged.
“Not a lot to tell. The spirit situation’s handled, for the moment. My grandson called for some advice. I decided to observe.”
“Little shit,” he muttered. “He should have called me.”
“Broke his phone. I lent him mine, but I doubt he has your number memorized.”
“And Cody?” he asked. “Is there a point to calling his boyfriend out here?”
“So that’s Cody, is it?” she said wrily. “I did wonder. He was called to bring out a peace offering after my grandson had the spirit subjugated.” She turned her eyes to him for a moment. “You’re the one in charge of taking James down, aren’t you.”
Finch winced. There wasn’t any point in lying. She wouldn’t have asked if she didn’t already know the answer. He nodded.
“Who told you?”
“No one. But, your government developed a counter strategy for my son. It stands to reason that you’d do so with my grandson too. His first full mission was the most opportune time to get a sense of him, so I assumed. What’s your plan, so far?”
He hesitated for a moment, then answered with a resigned shrug.
“Sedatives,” he admitted. “Aerosolized for inhalation. If that failed, probably a coordinated attack from myself and members of my team.” He saw her grin at that, and shrugged. “He’s strong, and you’ve got his instincts honed surprisingly well already. His reflexes are great, but he’s prone to tunnel vision. An arrayed attack lets us catch him off guard and crack his shield so someone has a chance to tranq him.”
“Good start,” Tsuru allowed. “But don’t rely on tunnel vision. I may have trained that out of him before too long.”
Finch heaved a sigh.
“Noted,” he muttered. “What about you?”
“Me?” she asked, one eyebrow raised.
Finch gestured to her.
“You’re here, aren’t you? Interrogating me on the plan. Digging for information. What’s your angle? Will you try and stop us, if it comes to it?”
The witch considered him for a moment.
“That depends on your side, I think,” she said at length. “If there’s cause for it, I might support you. That’s why I allow these plans at all. Better you have an option that keeps him safe. On the other hand, if it’s done to attack my family, I’ll put an end to it. That’s all there is to say.”
Finch wasn’t sure what to say to that; either to the intimation that this woman would turn on his country if given half a mind, or to the idea of how much harm she’d cause. He kept his peace.
“I’ll pray it never comes to that,” he said evenly.
“Likewise. Now, come on.” She gestured towards the distant boys. “They’re almost at the lake. We might as well go meet them.” She smiled. “Not everyday you get to embarrass your grandson in front of his date.”
Finch forced a laugh.
“You’re a cruel woman, Ma’am.”
“I can be.”