Need: 9.4

Previous Chapter:

Lewis:

“You’ll probably be needed there for a week or two, no more,” said Tsuru Toranaga. “It should be apparent fairly quickly whether your assistance is a help or not. If it isn’t, I’ll return you to Manhattan. If it is, you’ll be well compensated for your time.”

Lewis Themps closed his eyes, and sighed.

“Promise you won’t be burning this one alive too?”

A sharp smile.

“I hadn’t planned on it. My grandson is rather fond of him.”

“Lucky kid,” Lewis grunted. “And if I say no?”

The Lady Toranaga frowned.

“Then I’d be disappointed. You’d be turning down good pay for skilled work. And work in the name of a positive cause for once. Reuniting a mother and son.”

“So I have a choice this time?” Lewis asked, one eyebrow raised. “Setting a dangerous precedent.”

Tsuru snorted.

“I’m not in the habit of forcing others to repay my debts. I will assist in the search, because my family’s failures are what led to his abduction in the first place. That is my obligation. If you are willing to help as well, then you are welcome.”

Lewis considered that for a moment, mulling it over.

“A hundred thousand,” he said evenly. “Per day. Another million if I help you find him.”

The woman shrugged.

“Deal.”



Three million dollars. That had been the price for Lewis Themps’ initial loyalty. Quite cheap, when it came down to it. There had been fringe benefits, of course. Enrolments at a private school for the kids; the older Toranagas’ personal protection so that he would never have to face being extorted for his services again. A few other things. 

It was a bit odd, honestly. When they’d offered him whatever payment he wanted, he hadn’t realized they were being literal. But no, they really had let him name his price. In the months since, watching as the kids had flourished and slowly getting used to not having to look over his own shoulder all the time, he had almost come to forgive them. But not quite. The old witch had threatened to remove his tongue, after all.

Needless to say, when he finally met the boy around whom it had all pivoted, his experience was a touch surreal.

It wasn’t entirely unexpected. He’d been warned the kid might be here. Even so, stepping through the portal onto some random ass Bermudan backwater, surrounded by the bustle of government types doing who knew what multitude of tasks, he felt some small trepidation. A trepidation that was followed by a sense of anticlimax as, glancing around, he found himself making eye contact with the boy over whom the Toranagas had burned a man alive.

He looked so normal.

‘Well,’ Lewis amended. ‘As normal as a kid that age can look while surrounded by government sponsored paramilitary assets.’ 

He shifted his gaze purposefully elsewhere, and hefted his rucksack a little higher on his back. He glanced around, inhaling slowly through his nose to get a sense of those around him.

Beach sand. Ocean water. Seaweed. Sweat. Salt. Three different varieties of axe body spray. Traces of something unfamiliar, like dry coral mixed with saffron; barely present.

He filed that observation away. It was rare to encounter a scent he was unfamiliar with.

He identified Peter Toranaga easily enough. Easy to pick out amongst the largely caucasian mass of agents moving to and from the waiting portals, ferrying container after container through from some silo back in the U.S. He man was talking with a tired looking woman, a few feet distant from his son. Lewis stepped on over.

“Mr. Toranaga?” he called as he approached. “Lewis Themps. I believe your parents told you I was coming.”

Peter paused his conversation with the woman to look at him.

“They did,” he replied. “The tracker, right? My mother said you might be able to give us a sense of the direction Charlie was heading when he fled.”

“I might,” Lewis confirmed. Another slight sniff, just to catalogue. Peter smelled of burnt elmwood; not too different from his parents. Interesting. He turned his head towards the boy. “You must be James,” he said, mostly to hide another inhalation. “Your grandmother mentioned you.” Strange. This one barely seemed to have a scent at all. Just the barest trace of ozone. Like a thundercloud.

The boy gave him a half-smile.

“Hey,” he said, his voice quiet. “Thank you for helping us with this. It means a lot.”

Lewis shrugged robotically.

“It’s fine. Just doing your grandparents a favor. Not like I’m doing it for free.”

‘Do you know? Do you know that they’ve killed a man for you? Would you care?’

“They said you’d need an initial scent to find my son,” said the woman to Peter’s left, pulling Lewis’ attention back into the present. She produced a zip-lock bag from a pocket of her jeans. “Will this do?”

Lewis could tell it would before he even looked at it. The thing fairly reeked with that unusual coral and saffron scent. It only intensified when he pried the bag open.

“Hair?” he mused aloud, faintly curious. He shrugged, then zipped the packet closed again. “This will do.”  He took another deep breath of the ocean air, assessing. “He’s been gone for a little over a day now. If you give me a couple minutes, I can tell you the direction he took off-”

“That ought to be more useful on the other side of the gap,” Peter forestalled him. “Nothing to track on this side of things.”

“I’m sorry?” Lewis asked, a touch confused. “This side of what?”

The question raised eyebrows from the other two adults. They shared a glance, before looking back at him.

“Of the dimensional gulf,” Charlie’s mother clarified. “My son escaped off-planet, Mr. Themps. I thought you’d been informed.”

There was silence for a time at that.

“Ah,” Lewis said eventually. “I think Tsuru left that part out.”

‘Figures.’


It took a while for the departure to be made ready. Whoever this Charlie kid was, he had a hell of a search party mustering for him. Every handful of minutes brought new faces through the portal; the crowd of those ushering supplies through from the U.S swelling from a few dozen to at least three times that number.

Lewis found himself sitting on the sidelines, observing their preparations passively, his own supplies still slung about his back. The government had never made him comfortable. They always demanded that they be in control. It made a man uneasy. He kept his distance.

“Hey,” said a familiar voice at his shoulder, accompanied by a whiff of ozone. “Mind if I sit with you?”

Lewis was more startled by that than he’d have wanted to admit. Most people were too pungent to sneak up on him. He didn’t show it, though. He simply shrugged.

“Sure,” he murmured. “Something on your mind?”

James Toranaga didn’t really have the look of someone ready to search a foreign planet. He was a city boy, through and through. Long jeans, a sweater, and expensive shoes, his only concession to the climate, or even the thought of the mission was a small supply pouch, fastened at his waist. It was fair enough, Lewis supposed. The kid wasn’t taking part in the search beyond observing the setup. James plopped himself down on the sand, and didn’t reply. Lewis waited for a while, then went back to watching the crowd, not really seeing them.

Eventually, the boy seemed to finish marshalling his thoughts.

“You’re a smell guy, right?” the boy asked. “You track stuff with your nose? Like one of those dogs they use to find cocaine?”

Lewis couldn’t help but snicker.

“Pretty much, yeah.”

James nodded at that, his expression thoughtful.

“So… I’ve got a friend, Tasha. And another one, Casper. Both of em got kidnapped by a guy with smell powers a while back. Way Casper explained it, that guy kinda sounds like you.”

Lewis winced at that.

‘Here it is. Here’s where you start being a Toranaga.’

To his credit, he didn’t lie; for the most part, at least.

“That was me,” he admitted. He cast an eye at James. “I’d rather you didn’t spread it around too much, but yeah. Your grandparents only found out about me because Tasha told them who I was. That’s how they got in touch. They got me out from under the Family’s control.”

James didn’t answer, too busy staring at the sand between his feet.


Lewis thought back to the events of ten months prior and chuckled.

“Now that you mention it, though. When they sent me after Tasha the second time, I couldn’t track her. Her trail just kind of vanished off of the rooftop where she dumped her armor. As far as I could tell, she got herself rescued by someone who barely had a scent. Sounds a lot like you, huh?”

Perhaps smartly, James neither confirmed nor denied his assertion. Instead, he cocked his head a little.

“I don’t have a scent?” he asked.

“Not to my nose,” Lewis shrugged, tapping his nose with an index finger. “You’re what, thirteen, fourteen?”

“Thirteen,” the boy confirmed.

“Right.” Lewis nodded. “Most teenagers sweat a lot. It makes them easy enough to track. But you? Honestly, you just smell like stormclouds.”

“Huh,” the boy muttered to himself. “Badass.”

Lewis chuckled. He went back to watching the crowd, pretending not to notice as James surreptitiously lifted his forearm to his nose.

“Okay,” he said eventually. “Now’s my turn to ask something.”

James glanced up at him.

“Uh. Sure. What’s up?”

“Who is this Charlie kid?” he asked, gesturing out at workers accumulating their ever growing mountain of supplies along the beach. “What the hell makes him important enough for this?” He saw the flicker of anger in James’ eyes, and raised a hand. “Don’t get me wrong. I get he’s your friend. But what kind of kid gets a search party of seventy people willing to cross dimensions to look for him?”

The boy looked a little stuffed at that. He thought it through.

“I mean, he’s a portal maker,” he said eventually. “That’s pretty rare, right? They probably want him back cuz they know he could be handy some day.”

Lewis huffed at that.

“Yeah. Sounds like them. Always looking out for tactical interests.”

If he’d been expecting James to be offended, he’d have been surprised. The boy simply nodded.

“Yeah. Especially someone like Charlie. He makes portals between planets nowadays.”

That comment derailed Lewis a tad. He hadn’t thought of it like that.

“Fuck,” he muttered. “I don’t like that. Not one bit.”

“Why not?”

Lewis groaned.

“There’s such a thing as too much power to give a child. The kind of power I wouldn’t even trust with a grown adult. Now we’re dealing with a boy who can dimension hop at will. Whole universe at his fingertips. That’s not healthy. That’s a supervillain waiting to happen.”

James frowned.

“That’s kinda harsh. What’s that say about me? I’m stronger than Charlie, dude.”

‘And look how your family turned out.’

Lewis valued his life too much to say that. Instead, he shrugged.

“Look around you, kid. You’re sitting on a deserted island, watching a paramilitary team getting ready to raid a planet, and talking to a man who used to hunt people for the criminal underworld. Does that sound like healthy thirteen year old stuff to you?”

“I handle it okay,” James replied, his tone defensive. “I’m healthy.”

“I’m sure you are,” Lewis allowed, not really believing it. “But just look at the rest of the world. Father grew up with powers way too big for him. Look how he turned out. And then there’s the shitshow that’s your family-” he cut himself off. “Forget it. I shouldn’t have said that.”

James just glared at him at that.

“My family’s awesome,” he muttered. “They love me.”

Lewis grunted, turning his eyes back toward the crowd, pretending he had nothing more to say. That seemed to annoy James even more.

“What,” the boy asked derisively. “You think they don’t? Cuz you’re just flat wrong there, guy.”

“Of course they love you,” Lewis replied, nettled. “I know that for damn sure. But where do you think that ends, huh? How far d’you think they’d go?”

“As far as they had to,” James answered, his eyes hard. “That’s what family means.”

Lewis shook his head.

“And that’s where you’re wrong,” he said. “I don’t think they’d stop at that. I think they’d take things too far for you.”

To his credit, the summation gave James pause.

“… Wouldn’t you, though?” he asked. “Wouldn’t everyone do that if they could?”

Lewis sighed.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “Only difference is, people like you are strong enough to do it.”

James didn’t respond to that, although it looked as if he wanted to. He frowned, his gaze turning towards the waves. 

Lewis shrugged. At least the kid was thinking about it. He got up to leave.

“Can I ask a favor?” James asked. 

Lewis sighed. The Toranaga family had a bad track record when it came to favors.

“Depends,” he muttered, turning back to face the boy. “What favor?”

James reached down to unbuckle the pouch from about his waist.

“Charlie’s trouble,” he said. “Cuz you’re right. He’s super strong. I’m not sure you’ll be able to bring him in. Even with my family there.” He held out the pouch. “I want you to give him this. If you find him, I mean.”

Lewis took the pouch and unzipped it, curious. There wasn’t much inside. A couple lunchbox snacks and a Superman comic, forcefully folded to make it fit the confines of the space.

“A care package?” he asked.

James shrugged.

“Like I said, I don’t think we can bring him home if he doesn’t want to be there. This is to remind him what home is.”

Lewis smiled at that.

‘Maybe you‘re a good kid after all.’

Previous Chapter:

Need: 9.3

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

James:

“I still don’t really know what happened,” Jackie muttered, her words coming out calmer, now, slower; hands wrapped tight around a mug of instant coffee. “Whatever it was, it got inside my head. Made the memories harder for me to get to. Every time I try, it’s like I’m pulling teeth.”

They’d moved into the sitting room upon Peter’s rushed arrival home; himself and, to a lesser extent, Casper, helping to ease Jackie back into a state where she could talk. She gave James a look over the lip of her mug. She looked like she hadn’t slept or showered in a year.

“Sorry for shaking you like that. I was having a bit of a day.”

“S’fine,” James said quietly from the pouffe by the door. He gave her a smile. “I’ve had days like that.”

Jackie snickered to herself, tension still evident in the setting of her shoulders, the twitching in the muscles about her throat.

“Not like this, you haven’t.” She took a deep breath, and turned to look at Peter. “I think… I think I found Charlie last night.”

James felt the world fall out from under him at that.

“… I see,” Peter said. “Where and how?”

Jackie shrugged, the movement just jerky enough to slosh some of the coffee from her cup, and shook her head.

“Still not a hundred percent on that,” she admitted. “Still too foggy. I think he came to visit me.”

“Mrs. Vance?” Casper muttered, off to the side. “No offense… You were pretty intense when you got here. Still kind of are. How do we know you’re not…”

“How do you know I’m not fucking crazy?” Jackie asked, the words just a touch accusatory.

Casper reddened a tad at that, but he didn’t back down. He rarely did anymore.

“… Yes,” he said eventually. “That.”

Jackie glared at him. He met her gaze, unmoving.

James looked away from them. There was a sinking in his gut. Hollow. He wanted to believe her. He really did.

“Why are you people so determined to believe he’s dead?” Jackie’s tone was angry. Or frustrated. It was hard to tell. Both, probably.

Peter let in a breath to speak, but James beat him to it. “You said he came to visit you?” he asked. “The Whale wouldn’t let him do that. It’s too clingy. It doesn’t sound… Real.”

He forced himself to look at Jackie’s face at the last few words. He wished he hadn’t. There was betrayal there.

“… You too, huh?” she said bitterly.

That stung. He got up to leave, unable to meet her gaze anymore. Behind him, he could hear his father offering a quiet reproach. He was gone before she gave a reply. He walked off towards the kitchen, not really sure where he was going. When he got there, he clambered up onto one of the stools at the breakfast bar and simply gazed at the kitchen wall. Not seeing it.

Casper joined him before too long, sitting at the stool to his right, reaching down to squeeze his wrist.

“They went to the lookout in Bermuda,” said the older boy. “She says there’s evidence. Your dad wanted to see.”

James nodded, still just staring at the wall, streaks of grease between the tiles.

“… Is she okay?” he asked eventually.

Casper shook his head.

“No,” he admitted. “She was right. There’s something weird in her head. It felt like a migraine. On steroids.”

James nodded. He didn’t really know what else to say.

“Why’d you leave?” Casper asked. “Don’t you wanna know what’s going on?”

James shook his head, a spike of guilt flaring in the back of his mind.

“Not if it’s wrong,” he admitted. “Like… If he’s really alive somewhere. I’d love that. But… I mean, It’s like you said. She didn’t look okay. And if this is just her having a breakdown…”

Casper shifted his grip down from James’ wrist, and gave his hand a squeeze.

“Don’t wanna get your hopes up?” he asked.

James nodded. He could feel the tears welling up behind his eyes. The urge to sniff. He blinked them back.

“… I already lost him once,” he mumbled. “Not again. I’m not believing it until we know for sure.”

Casper chuckled. “Fair.”

Neither spoke for a while. James wasn’t entirely sure how long they sat like that. Odd, really. He spent most of that time staring at a clock.

Eventually, Casper cleared his throat.

“Ok,” he said, pulling himself up off of his stool. “Come on. Your sad boy vibes are killing my buzz. Come with me.” He gave James’ hand a tug to pull him off his seat, then dragged him from the room, forcing him to float momentarily so as to avoid being pulled off balance.

“Where are we going?” asked James, quietly bemused.

“My room,” Casper answered. “Jam session. You and me. Right now.”

James sighed.

“Thanks, Casper.”


Jackie:

“You’re a seasoned combat mage,” Peter said evenly, gesturing to each of the ravaged trees in turn. “You could have done this on your own.”

Jackie laughed angrily.

“You are unbelievable,” she snapped. “All that talk about being here for me and the moment I ask for help, you turn your back.”

“I’m not turning my back,” Peter replied, the calm expression dropping from his face for a moment, before being forced back into place. “I’m asking for proof. Something I can act on.”

Jackie swore.

“This entire island is covered in portal scars! I can sense the residue everywhere I check! It’s his! His energy!”

“No one else can verify that,” said Peter. “None of the other portal makers knows his energy signature. You could be mistaken. Or lying.”

“Why would I lie about this!?” Jackie shrieked, a flare of anger alloying her frustration.

Peter shrugged.

“Because you know that if you can convince me he’s alive, I’ll start helping you again. Take another leave of absence, start combing the area with you again. You think it’ll help-”

Jackie slapped him. He didn’t flinch.

“You wait right there, asshole,” she snapped. With that, she teleported back towards her cabin. Once inside, she strode the short distance to the sink, pulled the slime encrusted gobbet of Charlie’s hair out of the drain, and teleported back. Then, she threw it at Peter’s chest.

Peter grimaced as it made impact, taking an instinctive half-step backwards as it slapped wetly against his suit.

“There!” Jackie yelled, watching as he tried to wipe the mass from his lapels. “That’s his hair! He left it in my sink! You want something I can’t fake? There you fucking go!”

She was breathing hard now, furious. Why did every single thing have to get in her way?

Peter gazed at the tangle of hair, one eyebrow raised. Then, he looked at her.

“Okay,” he said, holding it up. “This, we can work with.”


James:

Jamming with Casper was oddly soothing. James was into it, laying back on the older boy’s mattress, eyes half-closed, singing nostalgia songs to the rhythm of his friend’s acoustic. He liked this, not having to think. Inhale. Exhale. Sing.

Casper joined him once or twice, complementing the airy notes of his soprano with a lower harmony. James hid a snicker when Casper’s voice broke. The older boy went back to just the guitar after that.

They’d been at it for an hour, maybe more. Hard to say. Casper was practicing a bass-line by ear. James was curled up on the bed, flicking through anime hashtags on his instagram.

“You’ve got a nice voice, Cas,” he mused. “Why don’t you show it more?”

Casper shrugged.

“I don’t like being in the spotlight, man. I’m not you.”

James looked up from his phone.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Casper smirked.

“It means you like when people look at you,” he answered, hiding a snicker. “Kind of an attention whore.”

James threw a pillow at him.

“Am not,” he said, not actually that offended. “I just like being good at stuff. Making an impression, you know?”

“Yeah,” Casper teased. “Cuz you want everyone to like you.”

James raised an eyebrow at that, half-smiling.

“Dude. Of course I want everyone to like me. Everyone wants that. It’s how being popular works.”

Casper gave a quiet groan at the word ‘popular’.

“I don’t,” he said. “Sounds exhausting. And I don’t need everyone to be my friend. Cuz I’m not an attention whore.”

James gave a playful groan of his own.

“Just cuz I have more than five friends,” he teased back. “You’re just scared you might be good at it.”

Casper snorted at that and gave the bar he’d been working on a final shot. He nodded in satisfaction, then leaned back, gazing at the ceiling.

“… What’ll you do,” he asked. “If he really is alive?”

James tried to hide the pang in his heart at that question, not that hiding it would even work with Casper. He returned to his phone screen, absently clicking follow on some fanart of a ship he liked.

“I dunno,” he said eventually. “… Think he’d even want to see me?”

Casper glanced across at him.

“Why wouldn’t he?” he asked. “You mean cuz you couldn’t save him last time, or-”

“I did save him last time,” James replied, a touch harsher than he meant to. He felt a pang of guilt at that, but Casper waved it off before he could voice an apology. “… I mean. He was right there. I had him. And then he went and-” He lifted a finger to his throat, not quite able to put the act to words. Casper got his meaning, though. He knew the story well enough. He took a breath. “What if he’s still like that… What if he hates me now?”

Casper sighed, then set the guitar down, and shifted over across the bed, parking himself down a foot or so off to James’ side. There was an awkward silence as the older boy slung an arm around his shoulder.

“… What if it were me?” he asked eventually. “I mean, what if Father got hold of me and did his fucked up mind control stuff on me? What if I said you weren’t my friend anymore?”

James sucked a sharp breath in through his teeth at that. Father was a delicate subject. Not least because he was pretty certain that Casper still had contact with him.

“Easy,” he muttered, his temper flaring a tad in spite of himself, reciting the answer he’d decided on almost a year before. “I’d get Baba and Jiji’s help to beat the crap out of him and get you home. And then I’d smack you as many times as it took for you to remember that you’re not a sex toy. You’re my friend. I. Have. Dibs.” He prodded Casper in the side at that, giving him a hard look for maximum emphasis. It didn’t work. Casper was grinning ear to ear. “Don’t you smile at me! I’m serious!”

“I know you are,” Casper answered, his tone still a touch too light. “I just like your answer, that’s all. I’m glad I know you.” He leaned in, and James had about half a second to prepare for the impending kiss, before the taller boy changed direction at the last moment, and instead simply pecked him on the forehead.

James’ cheeks grew rather warm at that, flushed with embarrassed disappointment. Casper gave him a wink, gently teasing.

“So,” the older boy asked. “If that’s your answer for me, why’s it any different for him? The Whale’s got mind stuff too, you know.”

James gave his friend a glare, then a groan.

“… What if we can’t fix it, though?”

Casper shrugged.

“Maybe you can’t,” he muttered. “But you can still try. Right?”

James considered that for a long moment, and conceded the point with a defeated huff.

He slumped backwards on the bed.

“… The kiss was a dick move, dude.”

Casper snickered.

“Well, who knows? Maybe I’ll do it for real next time.”

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Need: 9.2

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Bermuda:

Jacqueline Vance took a while to return to consciousness. She could feel beach sand against her face, a touch of warm, tropical rain tapping away at the fabric of her jacket. She tried moving, and groaned. Her limbs ached. She moved anyway, forcing herself upright with the tired endurance of a woman who had spent the last nine months pushing through exhaustion. She tried to blink the grit from her eyes. Her head was foggy. What was she doing out here?

She scanned the beach around her. There was the shack, just a hundred yards or so along the shoreline. She glanced back towards the miniscule scrap of forest that the micro island was able to sustain, and stared. Her mind was slow today, cogs catching against themselves as she tried, and for the most part, failed, to think. Had it always looked like that, with so many of the palm trees torn apart and smoldering, the fire fighting a losing battle with the rain?

She let out another groan, then slapped herself. The pain brought a dash of alertness to her mind, but not enough. She tore her eyes from the treeline, and stepped off to dunk her head into the ocean.

It worked; partly, at least. The ocean had a touch more feeling to it than the rain, the salt eliciting a sharp sting from a number of the cuts and scrapes she had yet to fully notice she was afflicted with, and allowing her to wash some of the exhaustion from her eyes. She pulled herself upright, her hair tangling up around her face, and set her eyes back on the treeline. No, she decided. That wasn’t normal. She trudged her way over for a closer look.

Soon enough, her statement was amended. This was a serious concern. The damage to the treeline was sporadic; inconsistent, too. Most were entirely unharmed. Some appeared to have taken a heavy impact; roots pulled halfway from the soil, trunks cracked as though hit by a speeding car. One had apparently exploded, the stump sticking jagged spikes in all directions at its point of termination, the remainder of the trunk and canopy leaning propped against another, less obliterated palm tree. Someone had fought a battle here. She glanced towards one of the closest points of damage; a trunk sliced cleanly in two across its breadth, the severed ends entirely smooth besides the scorch marks. She recognized that spell. It was one of hers.

Why don’t I remember this?

Jackie sat herself down on the severed stump, and tried to think. It was still groggy, but she was alert to it now. She searched her memory: days of searching on that miserable, empty planet, coming back to catch Peter at the resupply, sitting through his words, and working at her desk until her energy gave out. Then, she woke up on the beach. 

That wasn’t right. There was something else in there, a memory that seemed to pull away from her even as she reached for it. A flash of residual determination. A choked kind of joy. Scrambling through the treeline after an adversary whose face she couldn’t seem to conjure. He’d been so slippery. Impossible to keep pinned down. Why did that idea make her proud?

With an effort of will, Jackie pushed the memory further. If she could just put a face to her opponent-

It was like a screeching in her head. The piercing note of smooth glass scraping against itself. It set her teeth on edge, and in that moment of distraction, the image faded, leaving behind nothing but a pounding headache.

“… Someone’s wiped my memory. Right. Tylenol.”

Another trudge, back to her cabin. She opened the door, shrugged the rain-drenched coat from about her shoulders, and ambled in the direction of her medicine cupboard. 

Painkillers and hangover cures. The ultimate tool for living on your own.

She tugged open the cupboard door, grabbed a sheath of headache tablets from a shelf, and popped one out into her mouth, her free hand lowering towards the sink to grab some water.

That was when she saw it: A clump of reddish hair, sitting in the drain, coated with ocean slime and soap suds.

Something started screaming in her brain. A rush of joy and half-formed memory. The pain in her skull intensified. She swallowed the Tylenol dry. Today was clearly just that kind of day.

Whoever left this much behind was far too sloppy. They left so much for me to track.


Casper:

“Seriously dude, why didn’t you tell me you played guitar? We could have made a studio so much earlier.”

Of all the changes the past year had wrought on Casper’s life, his friendship with James Toranaga was the one he was most consistently okay with. James was kind, and fun, and had a caring streak to him that had helped to soothe Casper more than once. James was good.

He was also childish, self-centred, and had a level of ambient energy that often wore on Casper’s patience, especially when it hit manic pixie dream boy levels.

Casper hefted the latest box up off the ground, and sighed. Of course James wanted a recording space. Of course he did.

“I don’t know what to tell you. I just didn’t think of it.”

They were in the basement, clearing a section of the floor of James and Bex’s abandoned toys so as to better indulge James’ sudden and adamant resolution that they ought to form a band. 

James dumped a pair of his old action figures into the container by his leg, and raised an eyebrow. 

“For ten months?” he asked.

Casper shrugged.

“Yeah. I had stuff going on.”

James let out a put upon sigh.

“You’re gonna be a dork forever, you know that?”

Casper nodded gamely. Being called a ‘dork’ by James was still deeply funny in a way he would never admit to.

“Ok. Why this time, though?”

“Because.” James groaned. “You’re too shy. You won’t talk to more than one new person at a time. You pretend not to know about stuff unless it’s nerdy, and when you’ve got a super cool special skill, you hide it from everyone you know for ten whole months.”

Casper grinned.

“Guitar’s not that cool,” he murmured, trying for just the right level of indifference to irritate his friend. “It’s just a thing I do, man.”

“Are you kidding?” James asked. “Playing guitar is the coolest. Anyone who can do it is automatically like, ten percent hotter. Just, straight away.”

Casper snickered at that.

“Including me?” he asked, pretending not to notice the flustered note the words conjured in his friend’s mind. It was a crush. James was allowed. Wouldn’t stop Casper teasing him about it, though.

To his credit, James took the jab rather smoothly.

“Maybe,” he admitted, his tone a tad coy. “You did come off pretty cute when I saw you playing.”

Casper’s grin widened.

“No wonder you got so star-struck.”

“Did not!” James retorted playfully.

“Did too,” Casper teased. “You haven’t wanted to make out so hard since you asked me out.”

It was odd, he thought, how easily they talked like this. Any of the girls in his class, or even more intimidating, another boy, and Casper would’ve clammed up within a second, especially if it was someone cute. James was different. There was a stability to it; a knowledge that he could say the dumbest shit, and it wouldn’t matter. It was easier.

Even so, there were moments when one or other of them fumbled.

James went a little red, his gaze returning to the box he was still packing.

Crap.

“… Too far?” Casper asked.

“It’s fine,” James muttered. “Just… stuff.”

Casper nodded. He went back to shifting boxes, waiting for James to gather his thoughts. It didn’t take long.

“Tasha thinks I’m super into you,” James muttered, perhaps a minute later.

Casper almost shrugged.

I mean, you are.

Out loud, he merely grunted.

“Ok. And?”

James sighed.

“She thinks that’s why it didn’t work out with Cody.”

Casper felt a momentary thrill of satisfaction at that idea, followed shortly after by a touch of guilt.

C’mon, man. Don’t be that guy.

“Ok. So, what do you think?”

James took a moment there, his expression stumped, his mind frustrated.
“I don’t know,” he said eventually. “You’re the only person I can talk to. It kinda sucks thinking you’re hot sometimes.”

Casper considered that a moment. He bent down for the last of the boxes, belatedly helping James pack the last of the items, then picked it up. James was embarrassed. Not quite flustered. The kind of apprehension that came with waiting for rejection. Casper had to question that.

“I get that,” he said eventually. “It’s the same for me sometimes.”

James looked up at him, a note of surprise playing clear inside his head.

“It is?”

“‘Course it is,” Casper confirmed, careful with his words. It was different for James; the appeal of it was touched by notes of genuine infatuation, almost romantic. For Casper, it was simpler. He found James attractive, just like a dozen other people that he knew. But that was it. How to reassure without leading him on? “You’re cute, dude. I notice it sometimes. Kinda awkward when it’s the one guy you can’t lie to.”

“… Huh.” James thought about that for a while, uncertainty warring against something not quite hope. “So, when we went out- I mean. You seemed sorta… Not that into it.”

“I wasn’t,” Casper confirmed, bracing himself for the inevitable spike of disappointment, then pushing past it. “Honestly? I kinda just don’t have time for that right now. I mean. Dealing with Mom and Dad’s a lot. And you’re a lot sometimes, too, and it’s exhausting. And you’re cute, sure, but like, I don’t think I have the energy for that stuff right now.”

“Oh,” James said, taking a while to work through the implications there. “So… Not now, but maybe… Later?”

Casper considered that, then nodded.

“Yeah. Maybe.” He had to suppress a snort at the surge of hope that allowance caused in James. “You know, when life gets easier.”

“Right,” James agreed, a touch too hasty. “Later. Maybe. No promises.”

Casper snickered. “Yeah. Tasha’s so wrong,” he teased. “You’re not into me at all.

James’ retort was cut off by a quiet pop from the direction of the storage room in the basement’s far corner, followed near-immediately by a crash, and a torrent of muttered swearing. As one, the boys wheeled around towards the new intrusion, shields flaring brightly into place across their skin, James’ right hand raised in a casting stance. For his part, Casper extended his power outward, trying to get a sense of them. The mind he met was frantic; flooded with joy and desperation. Far less deadened than he remembered. Even so, he recognized the feel of it from the weeks following Charlie’s abduction.

“Whoever you are,” James called, his voice clear and even, in spite of the sudden nature of the new arrival. “Come out nice and slow, oka-”

“James,” Casper murmured. “I think it’s Charlie’s mom.”

“Oh,” James muttered, the momentary professionalism awkwardly falling aside. “Hiya, Jackie.”

Jackie didn’t answer, still just swearing quietly to herself. The boys looked between themselves, then, on a shared shrug, they edged forwards. It said something rather depressing that neither of them dropped their shields. Before either one of them could reach her, however, Jacqueline Vance stepped into view, expression panicked, eyes darting about the room, hands together, nails scrabbling frantically at her own wrists. She caught sight of James first.

“Hi, Jackie-” James tried again, only to be cut off as she finally addressed him.

“James!” Jackie breathed, rushing forwards, her hands grasping the boy by either shoulder even as he took an instinctive half-step back. “I need to speak to Peter. Where is he?”

Even without his powers, Casper could have read the desperation in every line of her. From the way she moved and spoke, to the sheer frantic energy with which she gripped onto James, his knees buckling slightly at the sheer pressure being exerted on his shoulders.

“What?” James stammered, wrong footed. “I don’t-”

“He’s at work,” Casper said, his own voice loud and clear, intentionally pulling Jackie’s full attention onto him. He dug in his pocket for his phone. “I’ll call him for you. Put James down. You’re scaring him.”

There was a momentary pause as Jackie seemed to register her own behaviour, then a muttered apology as she let James go. Casper opened up his contacts list to Peter’s page, and handed off his phone, grasping James’ hand in his and taking a few deliberate paces back.

“I wasn’t scared,” James muttered, a mixture of annoyance and embarrassment bubbling in his head.

“Well, I was,” Casper answered, giving his hand a squeeze. “Maybe stick around and keep me safe?”

More embarrassment from James, this time mixed with flattery and a flustered kind of warmth. It did the trick, though. He was placated. He squeezed back.

“… Okay. Whatever.”

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Need: 9.1

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

James:

“Okay,” Tasha said evenly as James lined up his shot. “So you went out with a boy in Oregon-”

“We sorta made out a little, too,” he noted, sending a condensed gust of wind swooshing down the range of the gymnasium. It struck his target dead on, sending it clacking back against the rail along which it moved, built into the far wall of the space. He glanced across the way to make sure his father was still out of earshot.

Tasha scoffed, then returned to setting up her weights.

“No you didn’t,” she said, examining the plates currently attached to the barbell frame, and opting to add an extra one on either side. “I know you, James. No way.”

James bristled at that.

“I did tho!”

“Did you use tongues?” she asked, hefting a weight one handed and sliding it into place along the bar.

“Well, no, but-”

“Did it last more than five seconds?”

James’ cheeks reddened. He began lining up his next target.

“… Maybe like, two and a half.”

Tasha grinned.

“That’s called kissing, dude. It’s not the same as making out.”

“Like you’d know,” he muttered. He took a second shot, and, to his satisfaction, watched another target snap satisfyingly back.

Her smile turned sly.

“And who says I don’t?” she asked, sliding into a ready position with her back against the bench, hands gripping the bar above her. “Spot me?”

That got James’ attention.

“… Caleb?” he guessed, stepping up alongside the machine as she made ready. “Did one of you finally make a move?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” she teased, before starting up her set, her shoulders straining as they took the weight. For the first second or so, nothing happened. Then, with a heave of effort, the bar began to lift.

“One,” James counted, watching each rep as he shifted himself down beside his partner’s head. He laid a hand against her shoulder. “Two, three…”

By the fifteenth rep, Tasha was heaving, her teeth gritting with the strain as she struggled against the weight. She lowered the bar back onto the bracket, and James allowed himself to slide away from the bench.

“D’you think you maybe go a bit too hard with this stuff sometimes?” he asked, his voice mild.

Tasha grunted, leaning down to grab her water bottle from its spot beside the bench.

“If it isn’t hard, then it’s not enough,” she muttered between impressively sized gulps of water. “No pain, no gain. That’s how you know it’s working.”

“I don’t know if that works when you’re trying to bench like-” he made a rough estimate of the weights currently loaded onto the machine. “- Five thousand pounds, ish?”

She took another long pull from her water bottle, then shrugged.

“I dunno,” she answered. “Sounds like quitter talk. Think I got buff with quitter talk?”

James conceded the point with a snicker. While he had spent the past nine months learning whatever magical skills his grandparents had deigned to teach him, Tasha had spent the time working on her physicality with a single minded focus. Gone was the naturally lackluster teenage body fat and posture. Now, she bore a striking resemblance to the person she’d always acted like; corded with muscle, head to toe.

“You are kind of a chad,” he admitted. “That’s not cuz of how you talk, though. That’s just cuz you’re insane.”

“Same diff,” she replied, laying back down for another set. “C’mon. You’re still spotting me.”

James rolled his eyes, and resumed his position by her head.

“Ready.” Under his careful eye, Tasha once more began to strain against the weight. “One,” he counted. “Two, three…”

Tasha made it all the way to ten before her arms locked up, her face knotting up with effort as she fought against a weight roughly equivalent to that of a camper van.

“You can do it, Tash,” James said, his voice encouraging. “Come on. You’re a beast. You can-”

Tasha let out a bark of effort as she pushed with everything she had- only for her arms to give out. The barbell slipped from her grip and fell, slamming against her chest with the force of an industrial accident. The impact sent a thin series of cracks radiating out across the surface of the barrier James had raised around her. A couple people glanced across at them from around the gym.

“Nice work,” James said brightly. “Ten whole reps. That’s pretty good.”

“Mmh,” Tasha grumbled, awkwardly shrugging herself out from under the barbell’s weight, one end of it sliding off of her and hitting the floor with a thump. “It’s fine. Long as I have to work for it. Thanks for catching it.”

“You’re welcome,” James murmured with a smile, pulling his hand away from her shoulder as she slumped off of the bench, allowing the shield to fade. “Still think you’re pushing too hard.”

“Eh, maybe,” she grumbled half-heartedly. She reached for her water bottle again, her hands a little shaky this time. “So. You met a guy. You had a pathetic tweenie makeout. What’s the problem?”

James groaned.

“The problem’s-” he hesitated, once more scanning the gymnasium to be sure his dad was out of earshot. He spotted the man a couple dozen feet away, currently working at a rowing machine. He lowered his voice to a whisper regardless. “The problem’s Casper.

“Ah.” Tasha nodded. “You’re still into him, huh?”

“… Well, no,” James muttered. “Not exactly.” Tasha raised a sardonic eyebrow at him. He scowled. “I mean it! It’s just. Ok. Cody was great, right? He was cute, and fun, and tall, and he wasn’t a pushover, which is kind of awesome. But like…” he took a breath, unwilling to meet her gaze for what came next. “I couldn’t talk to him about stuff the way I can with Casper. And it felt weird sometimes, cuz I knew he wanted me to talk to him like that.”

Tasha took a prolonged sip of water, clearly thinking through what he had said.

“So, basically,” she murmured. “you’re telling me you’re still thirsty over Casper.”

James sucked a breath between his teeth in indignation, his cheeks scarlet.

“I am not thirsty!

Tasha snorted.

“Don’t lie, man,” she taunted, a touch too loud for James’ comfort. “You want him so bad.”

“I do not!” he hissed, shooting a furtive glance towards his father, still a good few dozen feet away. “And keep your voice down!”

Tasha raised an eyebrow at that, confused.

“Uh. Why?”

James made a ‘duh’ gesture.

“Cuz my dad might hear!”

Tasha cocked her head.

“Ok… And?”

“And he doesn’t know yet!” James snapped. “I’m still in the-” he huffed, and forced himself to speak a mite more calmly. “I haven’t come out yet, okay?”

Tasha nodded, still a touch confused.

“Okay,” she said, lowering her voice a fraction. “Why not, though?”

James groaned at that, his eyes shifting to the floor. In honesty, he didn’t have a reason. He trusted his dad, and knew full well that he’d probably take it fine. That didn’t help with the anxiety that bubbled in his stomach every time he tried to say the words out loud.

“Cuz what if it makes things weird?” he muttered, a touch defensive. “After all the stuff that happened last year. What if-”

“No, no,” Tasha cut him off. “James. That’s not it. I’m asking, like. Why haven’t you talked about it? I mean, he’s probably figured it out by now, you know?”

“What?” James asked, wrong-footed. “Uh. No, he hasn’t. Not unless you told him… Please say you haven’t told him.”

“Didn’t say a word,” Tasha reassured. “Still, tho. I’m pretty sure he knows.”

James scowled, trying to pretend he wasn’t nervous.

“Ok. So, how does he know?”

Tasha shrugged.

“Promise you won’t get mad?” she asked. James nodded, so she continued. “You’re just really obvious about it.”

James gasped. He was offended.

“I am not!”

“Dude, you go bright red when you even see a guy you have a crush on. I will bet you a shiny dollar he already knows. Have things been weird so far?”

“… No,” James allowed. “It’s been pretty good with him lately. But that doesn’t matter, cuz he doesn’t know.”

“Does too.”

“Does not!” he snapped. “I will bet you ten shiny dollars!”

“Deal.” Tasha grinned. “So tell him.”

“Ugh, fine!” he snarled. “You suck at helping!”

“Fine, fine,” she snickered, raising her hands. “Go over the problem for me one more time. I’ll be serious. I swear.”

James glared at her for a moment, then sighed.

“Am I allowed to share more with a friend than with my boyfriend?” he asked. “Is that even fair?”

To her credit, Tasha gave that one some thought, the humor dropping from her face as she put her mind more genuinely towards the problem he’d put forward. Eventually, she shrugged.

“Just do what feels right, my dude,” she answered. “You trust Casper with the hard stuff cuz he’s your friend. You’ve walked through deep shit together. Of course you trust him more than some newbie. He’s reliable. A couple dates aren’t changing that.”

James thought on that for a moment, then let out a breath.

“… Thanks, Tasha.” Then, he grumbled: “See? Was that so hard?”


The journey home was spectacularly awkward. James bade Tasha goodbye at the entrance to the gym, before joining his father in the car.

To his credit, Peter did the best he could; as usual, using the momentary confinement as an opportunity to touch base with his son. As was always the case, though, communication became a good deal harder when there was actually something to talk about. James answered sporadically, at best. His focus was elsewhere.

Just tell him, he told himself again and again. It’s fine. He’s Dad. You can trust him.

“I got the report from Finch today,” Peter was saying. “He says you did well in Oregon. He’s giving you a passing grade.”

“He is?” James muttered. “But I was freaking out the whole time.”

Peter chuckled.

“He mentioned that. But he also stressed that even when pressured or caught off guard, your first priority was always to maintain secrecy and minimize civilian risk. You performed well as part of a team, and you knew when to call for extra help. It’s a good report card. I’m proud of you.”

Peter reached across the divide to momentarily ruffle his son’s hair. James couldn’t help but smile at that, his cheeks a little pink.

“… Thanks, Dad.”

Just tell him, James. You can do it.

He took a deep breath.

Peter was talking again, something about potentially training him up to be part of Finch’s response team once he’d finished school. Normally, James might have found that more exciting.

“Uh, Dad?” he interrupted, his gaze steadily pointed at his shoes. “Can I say something?”

Peter glanced across at him, one eyebrow raised.

“Of course you can,” he replied, his voice touched by the faintest hint of concern. “You can always talk to me, James. No matter what. What’s on your mind?”

James nodded. He took a deep breath, then another. He was finding the air strangely thin for a boy who no longer had any need for oxygen. He shook himself.

“I-” he swallowed. “I’ve… Kinda known for a while, and I know I shoulda told you sooner, but…”

“What?” Peter asked, his voice deliberately calm. “Not interested in this line of work anymore?”

“No,” James muttered. “It’s not that. There was-” he swallowed, the words almost fighting to remain inside his throat. “There was a boy… Back in Oregon.”

There was silence there. James couldn’t quite look his father in the eye.

“Dad… I’m gay.”

Peter inclined his head.

“Yes you are,” he acknowledged. “What was it you wanted to talk about?”

James took a second to reboot at that. The first emotion to surface was a faint annoyance.

“That was it,” he muttered, deflated.

“Oh!” his father realized, apparently relieved. “I see. Okay. Yeah. I know.”

James scowled.

“You could at least pretend to be surprised.”

Peter snickered.

“I am shocked and amazed by this revelation. That better?”

“Yes,” James muttered, folding his arms. “Much.”

Another momentary quiet, before:

“Love you, Dad.”

“Love you too.”

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Book Two: Winter. Prologue.

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Bermuda:

Peter’s teleport brought him into being a dozen or so yards from the cabin’s entrance. It wasn’t a big thing; just a four walled, prefab box placed on the micro-island years ago to house the equipment and solar cells they used to monitor the bridge-scar the whale had left behind when it fled. It had never been intended for long-term habitation.

Peter sighed, then hitched his rucksack a little higher on his back. He already knew she wouldn’t be talked down, but he owed it to her to keep on trying. He trudged the short distance through the pristine sand, and knocked on the cabin door.

No answer. Not surprising, really. She was probably out again, frantically searching, as was her way these past nine months. He dug the spare key out of his pocket, and let himself in.

What he found inside was neither encouraging, nor surprising. The place was a mess. To the left of the door sat a small office desk, built around the mess of radio equipment, scanning gear, and miscellaneous electronics that had been the initial purpose of the outpost, now buried under half-eaten food containers and what had to be at least half a dozen empty liquor bottles. To the right, the small cot designed to give at least nominal comfort to whoever drew the month-long monitoring duty. The sheets were unmade. He suspected at a glance that they hadn’t been changed since he himself had done so on his prior resupply.

Peter took a deep breath, lowered his rucksack to the floor, and reluctantly prepared a garbage bag. He likely had some time before she came back. He could at least try and make her situation a bit more liveable. He spent the next half hour hard at work. The discarded rations and bottles were shoved into the garbage bag. The used clothes that littered the floor went into a duffel, replaced with a stack of fresh ones. He re-made his partner’s bed.

He was part way through restocking the cabin’s fridge when the sounds from the shoreline alerted him to a portal being opened. He continued his work. He’d just finished placing the last box of instant tortellini when Jacqueline Vance stepped inside. He turned to look at her. It wasn’t good.

Jackie looked as though she hadn’t slept in days. Or bathed. Or even bothered sitting down. Her hair was an unkempt mess, her skin a mottled mismatch of wind-dried and sunburned. There were shadows under her eyes, of the sort that only formed when one was worked beyond exhaustion. She barely even looked at him.

“Hi, Peter,” she muttered, trudging past him and pulling open the fridge he’d just finished stocking. She pulled out a box at random, and shoved it into the microwave without looking at the contents. Then, she moved to the computer.

“Been a while, Jackie,” Peter murmured. “How are you holding up?”

His partner grunted.

“I’m fine.” She tapped the power button on the computer case, before lifting a voice recorder from the desk, and speaking into it. “Expedition report number two hundred and sixty four. No signs of activity in areas B-12, B-9, or B-14. New landmass identified one hundred and forty eight miles south by southwest, no signs of habitation beyond native flora and fauna. Weather patterns consistent with projected range. Tertiary moon remained in a state of partial lunar eclipse for twelve minutes, eighteen seconds estimated. Report concludes.”

The microwave beeped. Jackie ignored it.

“You don’t seem fine,” Peter said evenly. No response. He leaned his back against the fridge. “James asked me to give you a hug from him, next time I came to see you. Says he’s worried about you. I’m worried too.” Again, he was ignored.

The computer finished powering on. Jackie shifted her attention to the keyboard, logging in, setting up tabs, eyes drifting over scanning data from dozens of machines. She started mouthing silently to herself as she worked.

Peter took a breath, and tried again.

“Come home, Jackie. Please. You can stay with my family while you find a new place. We’ll get you back on your feet. I’ve checked with Sarah, and she agrees. James and Bex would love to-”

“Did you bring any whiskey?” Jackie asked, pushing the computer keyboard away with a jerk like she’d seen a spider, then shifting from her seat towards the microwave.

Peter hesitated.

“… No,” he answered. “I didn’t. I cleared out the last of your supply here, as well. It’s not healthy, Jackie. You know how many bottles I found empty?”

In response, Jackie only grunted. She pulled the now hot container of prawn tagliatelle from the cooker, and tugged the seal open with her teeth.

“It’s fine,” she muttered. “I’m heading to the mainland in a couple hours. I can pick up some more then.”

Peter resisted the urge to growl. This was Jackie. He owed her better.

“… How goes the search, Jackie?”

For once, his partner actually responded.

“Nothing yet.” She shrugged, pulling a disposable fork from a tub on a countertop, and ladling some of the pasta into her mouth.

“… That’s because Charlie’s dead, Jackie.”

It felt wrong. Here he was, trying to crush the hope out of one of his closest friends. But, if it brought her home, he’d do it. She went back to ignoring him.

“He’s dead,” he repeated, hating himself. “The Whale took him, and he’s gone. There’s nothing out there for you to find. Just his bones.”

No response. Jackie returned her attention to the computer.

Peter swore to himself.

“He wouldn’t want this for you,” he tried. “You know that, right? It’s killing you. You’ve been searching for nine months. What have you even fou-”

“Nice talking to you, Peter,” Jackie murmured, not looking at him. “Thanks for stopping by.”

Peter frowned.

“Don’t try and shoo me away, Jackie. I care about you. Come hom-”

Jackie waved a hand, and Peter blinked away, held in limbo for the few seconds it would take to return him to New York. She wondered briefly if he’d bother trying to return. She could always send him back again. Nine months wandering the scapes of that other world, tearing open portals between dimensions on the daily, had done wonders for her powers. She’d outlast him easily, and he knew it, unless he was willing to burn through some of his precious stockpiled energy to force the issue.

A few minutes passed in silence, just the lapping of waves against the shore outside. He didn’t bother teleporting back. She returned to her work.

“My son’s alive, Peter,” she said to no one in particular. “He has to be.”


New York:

Peter blinked back into being in Jackie’s office, that wide section of floor space kept perpetually clear to allow for easy use of portals. He swore, then grabbed for the flask about his belt. If she wanted to make him push for this, he would oblige. He gave the contents a shake to see how much he had, unscrewed the cap, and lifted it to his lips.

Then he stopped.

What would it change? She wasn’t going to listen, and pushing any further would just drive her deeper inside her shell. He couldn’t even blame her. He’d been much the same when James was lost. The only difference was that her son had never made it home.

‘And that was your fault.’

He threw the flask across the office with a yell. It knocked a picture off the wall, its precious contents spilling out across the floor.

Through the clear glass of Jackie’s office windows, he saw one of the interns staring in at him, a look of shock sitting clear as day on the young man’s face. Peter glared at the kid until he went away, then tried to force himself back to calm.

“We were so. Fucking. Close.”


Bermuda:

The portal snapped open in near-silence, besides the sounds of new waves and winds crossing the divide from a different shoreline. The boy who stepped through the aperture did so with trepidation. Things felt wrong on this side; subtly so. The sand had a different texture beneath his feet. This ocean had an unfamiliar smell to it. Seaweed and saltwater. The night was too dark here, the planet’s solitary moon providing nowhere near the light needed to navigate comfortably in the absence of the sun.

His companion looked around him through his eyes, and provided an assurance. This place was roughly as it remembered. He wasn’t sure whether that should comfort him.

The boy steeled himself. He wasn’t here for familiarity, nor comfort. He was here to speak to her. He glanced back through the portal, towards waters beneath which, he knew, his companion watched and waited. It cared for him. He knew that with every fibre of himself. That was why he had to do this.

Across their shared space, his companion reached out one more time. Gentle. Plaintive. Childish, in a way. It hated when he left it on its own.

He met its touch, and offered reassurance.

‘I’ll be back soon. I promise.’

Reluctant acceptance. The hope that he wouldn’t be gone too long.

He snapped the portal shut between them with a thought, and shuddered. He hated this part; the disconnect; being alone inside his head again. Around him, the world changed. Just a little. The night air grew chill. The sand beneath his feet grew a fraction rougher. A hundred tiny protections afforded him by his companion, all severed. He was on his own now. Something about that felt very isolating.

He pushed his focus back to the task at hand. The sooner he was done here, the sooner he’d return. He panned his gaze about the shoreline, and, nestled in the gloom, he found the cabin.

He stepped forward, bare feet crunching quietly in the foreign sand. Closer to, the place had a light to it, the faint glow of a computer monitor half visible through a fly-screen doorway. There was a figure slumped in front of it, not moving. He felt his heart catch a moment on catching sight of her. He shook himself.

Another silent portal brought him inside the cabin, the interior lit momentarily by a flare of brilliant indigo, before returning to near black. He gazed down at the figure by the desk. He had to snicker, just a little. She’d fallen asleep against the keyboard, an open word document flickering on the screen as page after page of j’s scrawled themselves across it.

She was a mess, he realized. This place had a different odor to the outside air. Petrified food and liquor, harsh against a nose that barely recognized the smells. Her hair was matted. A part of him pointed out he could hardly judge. His hair was a mess now, too.

For the first time in near enough a year, the boy was suddenly self-conscious. He glanced around himself for a mirror, and found one sitting above the sink. He tiptoed over to it, and looked himself over in the dark.

His hair was slick with oil and water, hanging down about his shoulders in a loose, unintelligible tangle. He was pretty sure he’d been supposed to keep his hair tidy in the past. Impressions were important. He leaned in close, trying to see as best he could in the bare light of the computer screen, and began awkwardly trying to give himself a haircut.

It wasn’t going well. The powers he’d spent his months gleaning and refining from his companion were not suited for such a small scale task. He’d focused near exclusively on things that allowed him to fight, or move, or defend himself. None of it was really suitable for hair. He found a spell eventually, an amber spark that, when rendered down as small as he could go, made for a serviceable cutting tool. He set to work, shearing lock after lock of damp, slime encrusted hair into the sink where it sat in a clog atop the drain.

Then, he squeezed himself some hand soap, and started lathering it through what remained of his rough-shorn hair.

It was as he leaned down beneath the tap to rinse himself off that the woman finally awoke.

“Mmh. Who’s there?”

The boy started, flinching upright by instinct, only to crack the back of his skull against the faucet.

He let out a yelp of pain, and a stream of muttered swearwords that had, by this point in his isolation, become the primary part of his vocabulary. In a haphazard fashion, he ducked behind the short table at the centre of the cabin.

A fluorescent globe flickered on above him, flooding the room with too-white light. When the woman spoke again, she was awake, her voice alert.

“Whoever you are, you have five seconds to show yourself before I attack. Five. Four. Three-”

The boy let out a frustrated sigh, and showed himself.

The woman stared.

“Charlie?” she breathed.

“Hi, Mom,” he mumbled, his face flushing slightly in embarrassment. “It’s been a while, huh.”

His mother didn’t speak. She barely even seemed to breathe. She moved forwards. He took a half step back, but it didn’t matter. He was pulled into a hug regardless. He winced. He hadn’t wanted this. He’d feared that it would just make leaving harder, but no. Instead, it was just uncomfortable. Constrictive in a way that had once been comforting. Nevertheless, he hugged her back.

“… Missed you.”

“Am I dreaming?” his mother asked. “… No, no, this feels real. I’m-I’m lucid. I’m awake. How did you get back from there?”

“Same way you did,” he muttered. “I made a door… Please let go of me.” His mother didn’t seem to hear him, so he reluctantly allowed a few more seconds of contact, before trying to shrug her off. She clung on all the tighter, so instead, he teleported. The world snapped briefly in and out, and he was deposited on the shore outside the cabin.

It was better out here. Able to feel the waves lapping at his toes; the sand beneath his feet, unfamiliar as it was. Why was it all so disconnected? He sat down in the surf, and waited for his mother to collect herself. It didn’t take long. He was staring at the moon again when she opened up the door to join him. She had tear-marks on her cheeks, deep shadows under her eyes.

She didn’t come too close this time, at least aware enough to have registered his discomfort. She kept her distance, squatting in the sand a half dozen feet away.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, her voice quiet.

‘None of this feels real anymore.’

He didn’t say that. Instead, he gave her the only truth he could.

“I’m okay, Mom,” he murmured, gazing out over the water. “I came back here so you’d know I was okay.” he took a deep breath. “But I’m not staying.”

“What?” his mother scoffed, either unable or simply unwilling to comprehend it. “Of course you’re staying. You’re home. I’m never letting you be taken away from me again.”

Charlie took a while to answer that. He drew his knees up against his chest, gently hugging them. Why was it so hard to meet her gaze?

“I don’t-” he hesitated, trying to find the words. “I don’t belong here anymore, Mom. The moon’s too dark. The sand’s all wrong. Even hugging my Mom is gross. It doesn’t fit anymore. I’m not staying, and  I’m not coming back… I came here cuz I want you to stop searching for me.”

To her credit, his mother kept her calm. She didn’t shout, or beg, or demand he change his mind. Instead, she chuckled, wiping a few stray tears from her eyes with her shirt sleeve.

“Where will you go?” she asked.

“Back where I’ve been. With my friend. It… It cares about me.”

Jackie nodded her head a few times, and sniffed, tears still gently streaming down her cheeks.

“You know I’m not strong enough to let you leave, right?” her expression gained a touch of sorrow. “But I’m more than strong enough to make you stay.”

Charlie looked away from her right then. It hurt, somewhere in his chest.

“… No you’re not.”

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter: