Hunt: 8.5

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James:

James did have to admit, albeit grudgingly, that Finch was a decent chaperone. The older man had thus far hung back from the younger two by a few dozen feet as Cody led them through the woods; holding to that sweet spot that was just far enough away for their conversation to be muffled by the rain, while still remaining close enough to communicate with relative ease.

“You’ve really never been on a date before?” James asked.

Cody shook his head.

“There’s no-one around to do it with. I’m kinda surprised you have.”

James shrugged.

“Only kinda,” he murmured. “It was s’posed to be a date, but we mostly just ended up hanging out.”

“Was he cute?”

“Sure, I guess.” James shrugged. “It was a friend of mine: Casper. He’s bi, and I was trying to figure out where I was with being gay. I thought I had a crush on him. So I figured I’d ask him out.”

Cody nodded.

“How’d that go?”

James smiled.

“Not bad. He was cool about it, you know? We hung out, watched a movie. Held hands. Never went on a second one.”

“… Why not?”

James snickered.

“We tried making out after,” he explained. “It was awkward.

“… Huh.”

The semi-date was turning out more fun than James had been expecting, himself and Cody simply talking about nothing while they walked, protected from the rain by a pocket of stable air that he was holding overhead. At one point, the older boy had grabbed his hand.

That was a nice kind of weird.

“So…” Cody asked eventually, guiding them through a patch of waterlogged brambles that James could have comfortably navigated on his own. “You still into this guy, or…?”

James smiled.

“Casper? Nah.”

He felt Cody give his hand a little squeeze; watched him fail to hide a smile.

“Why not? Is he super dorky? Big teeth? Kinda fugly?”

“No,” James smirked. “He’s… Actually pretty hot, I guess. I just know him too well. Guy has problems.

Cody snickered, rounding the top of the incline and pointing the trio down a path beside a rocky outcropping.

“We’re heading down that way,” he called, just loud enough for Finch to hear him too. “There’s usually a cave down there, but all the rain’s flooded it, so it’s hard to spot.” A few moments of silence as the three of them reoriented, then the boy spoke again. “So… This Casper dude’s not your kind of deal. Do you have… You know…”

“A type?” James asked, grinning. “Sure, I guess. Why? You curious?”

“Maybe,” Cody admitted. “So… What is it?”

“I dunno,” he murmured playfully. “A little taller than me? Maybe kinda buff?”

“I’m kinda buff,” Cody pointed out.

“Oh, yeah,” James said, as if he’d only just noticed. “I guess you are. How about you?”

Cody grinned. Good. He understood the game.

“Short,” he answered. “Asian. Kinda cute, in a twinky, Orlando Bloom sorta way-”

The rest of that sentence was lost when James started poking him aggressively in the ribs.

“I. Am. Not. A. Twink.”

Cody laughed far harder than was sensible at that. James might have forgiven it, if he couldn’t also hear Finch chuckling quietly behind them.

“I’m not!” he protested.

“Sure you’re not,” Cody grinned. “You’re super buff. Tall, too.”

“Shut up. Is that the cave?”

“That?” Cody pointed. “That’s a puddle. The cave’s just past those trees over there-”

James let the protective barrier drop as he took his leave, dousing his erstwhile companion in half an inch or so of collected rainwater as he floated off in the direction Cody had pointed.

He felt no guilt at this. The other boy deserved it.

He found the cave mouth soon enough, a rocky outcropping among the moss and wood, drowned, just as Cody had said it would be, in half a dozen feet of rainwater that expanded out across the clearing like a pond. He wondered how deep it went.

Well. No time like the present.

He floated out over the gently rippling surface of the water, glanced behind him to where the other two were just cresting the last rise towards him, then plunged into the depths.

He didn’t bother taking air. He wasn’t exactly sure when he’d given up the need to breathe, but it was apparently redundant when you were mostly made of wind. The pressure tried to push him upwards, his minuscule bodyweight propelling him towards the surface like a weirdly shaped pool noodle, but he used his flight to keep himself travelling down.

It got dark fast in the cave. He pulled out his phone, offering silent thanks to whoever had invented waterproof cases, and turned on the flashlight.

There wasn’t much to see. Just rocks and a slow decline. The device buzzed in his hand; a text alert from Finch: a reminder not to dig too far today, and a snapshot of a somewhat rain-drenched Cody.

He snickered. Finch could be cool. Sometimes.

The guy had a point, though. Better not to explore too deep with a civilian in tow. He wouldn’t have gone in at all if Cody wasn’t being a tool. He took one more look around by the phone-light.

Rocks. Rocks. Lost car-keys. Rocks. Weird Glowy green thing-

He reinforced his barrier just in time to prevent himself from being crushed against the cavern wall.

The creature -the force- that slammed into him then had the countenance of a beast, four legged and loping, green-tinged fur shifting through the water like a coat of floating ink. When it struck him, its form breaking into strands of light and shade around him and casting his shield into crackling lines of force, he could have sworn he heard a growl.

Then, he was left alone, floating in the faintly glowing water.

Right. He thought to himself. Nature spirit. Frick.


Cody:

“Is he gonna be okay down there?” Cody asked, trying to keep the note of concern from his voice.

Finch gave him a reassuring shoulder pat.

“Don’t worry, kid. I wouldn’t say it to his face, but I’m pretty sure there isn’t anything in Oregon that could take him in a straight up fight. Myself included.”

“Really?”

Finch chuckled.

“Yep. Kid is crazy strong.”

“… Was I teasing him too hard?”

“If you want him to be into you, then yeah,” Finch murmured, taking a step or two away and beginning to move around the water’s edge. “Maybe tell him you’re sorry for that later-”

There was a loud sploshing noise as James shot from the surface of the water like a cannonball, eyes wild. Beneath him, the water’s surface had begun to move.

“James,” Finch started. “What-”

“Cody!” James yelled, spotting the other boy. “Crap!”

Before anyone could reply to that, James darted forwards in the air, his drenched form slamming into the larger boy’s chest like a teddy from a butane gun. His arms wrapped around Cody’s middle, the air shimmering white around them for a moment, before the water at James’ back slammed into them with the fury of a storm.

It was a torrent, an assault; like being under an angry waterfall, the force of it bearing them to the ground, blasting moss and lichen from the stone around them. Cody didn’t scream, but that was mostly out of shock. He did yelp a little, though, his arms rising up by instinct to shield his face from a flow of water that never quite seemed to hit; James’ barrier cracking a little further by the moment.

Among the noise of the water and the steadily rising cracks from their rapidly degrading shield, Cody could have sworn he heard James mumbling against his chest.

“Please don’t break please don’t break please don’t break!”

The barrage lasted all of seven terrifying seconds, before its assault abruptly ended. There was a deep yell as something passed violently overhead, the water breaking into a swarm of wind-borne droplets as Finch slammed his powers into it. Then, he was on his knees beside them.

“Right. Nature spirit. Fuck,” he murmured, his voice steady. “Are you two okay?”

“We gotta get Cody out of here,” James answered, nowhere near as calm. “Right now!”

Cody could only nod in mute agreement to that. He doubted he could have spoken if he wanted to. It felt like he’d forgotten how to breathe.

Finch nodded, shot a glance behind himself at the pool, a strange green light hovering, shapeless amidst the droplets, then looked back at them, his expression hard.

“Head for the lake,” he ordered. “I’ll try and draw it deeper into the reserve. Protect the town until I get back. Call for reinforcements if I don’t.”

James looked like he wanted to object, but he kept his peace. A glance at Cody seemed to set his mind. He nodded, pulling himself upright as Finch darted off around the edge of the water, the green glow slowly dipping back beneath the surface of the pool.

Cody pulled himself to his feet, trying to pretend he wasn’t shaking. The smaller boy jammed a hand into Cody’s own, lacing their fingers together. That settled him a little. A flicker in the air; another shield built around them.

“Whatever happens,” James muttered. “You keep on holding on to me, okay? I’ll keep you safe.”

“Right,” Cody managed, still feeling oddly short on air. He watched as the thing in the water began to rise, pulling itself from the pool like a figure from a block of clay.

It had a form now, it’s physicality caught somewhere between a housecat and a bear, all loping grace and elegance, but layered with a mass of bulk and muscle. It was also twenty feet wide across the shoulders, and made entirely out of water.

It didn’t turn to look at Finch when the boys began to run. Not even when he sent a bolt of power crashing through its frame. It set its gaze on them, lowered itself into a crouch, and growled.

James raised a hand toward it just as it began to spring, and a wave of unseen force thrummed into it from the side, visible only in the way the raindrops changed directions as it passed. The water-beast let out a furious yowling noise as its body was slammed into the rocky walls of the pool with a force to make mountains shake.

“We should keep runnin-” James started, before the haste of the older boy’s departure nearly yanked him off his feet. “-okay, this works.”

Leaving Finch and the furious monster in their wake, the two boys began to sprint.

Previous Chapter:

Hunt: 8.4

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James:

All in all, Cody took the knowledge of there being monsters in the world relatively well. That didn’t mean the silence that resulted wasn’t awkward. James tried to give him some time to get used to the idea, pulling out his phone and dialing Finch’s number.

Two rings. Three rings-

“Hi, James,” Finch murmured. “What’s up?”

“I caught the lake thing,” he said. “I’m putting it somewhere safe while I figure out what to do with it. Figured you’d wanna know.”

A brief hesitation on Finch’s side of the line, then:

“Were you seen?”

“No, no,” James half-lied, his tone a mite too casual. “… I mean, there was one guy who probably saw it, but it was kind of attacking him before I even got here, so…”

“Right,” Finch murmured. “And you’re sure no one else saw? It’s a big lake, James. Lots of angles to be seen from.”

“We were below the surface,” he replied. “Kinda hard to spot when you’re under forty feet of water.”

“Is the witness okay?”

“Yeah. Some kinda mage, I think. He was doing practice underwater when it started chasing him.”

“Who is it?”

“That kid from the diner.”

“The one who was macking on you?”

James glanced back at Cody, his cheeks a little pink. He couldn’t help but notice that his prior assessment had been wrong. The guy was pretty ripped without a shirt.

“… Yeah, him.”

Finch snickered on the other end of the line.

“Good luck with that. I’m on my way.”

He hung up.

James pocketed his phone.

Right. Okay. That was that done. Now he just had to find some way of getting the creature out of the lake without alerting everyone in Rockford of what was happening. He had a few ideas.

Then he just had to handle Cody. Great.

He took a deep breath.

“… Okay, so, promise you won’t be mad at me,” he tried. “But I maybe kinda lied a little bit. This,-” he gestured at the monster. “-isn’t really Bigfoot.”

The punchline fell about as flat with Cody as was possible. The boy gazed up at him from his position on the soaked-silt floor.

“No shit, James.”

James winced. Okay. Ouch.

An uncomfortably long silence, then:

“… So what is it?”

James shrugged, glancing briefly over his shoulder at the webbed humanoid still scrabbling at its bubble.

“No idea. Maybe a grindylow? A redcap? A kappa that’s lost its shell? There’s like, a hundred different kinds of water monsters. I haven’t got ‘em memorized. Probably just got washed into the lake by all the rain.”

Cody swallowed.

“So there’s more of them out there?” he asked, his voice just a little shaky.

James didn’t bother trying to lie. It’d probably do more harm than good at this point.

“Oh, yeah. Loads. I mean, it’s a wildlife reserve. Where else are they gonna live?”

“Anywhere that isn’t where I live!” Cody snapped. James adjusted his assessment. The other boy might be taking this kinda badly. “And who the fuck are you, huh!? Some random kid and an asshole in a suit, trying to act all cool while you bend the fucking water!”

“Hey!” James protested, ruffled. “Don’t call me a kid! I’m thirteen. And a half!”

“I don’t give a crap!” Cody yelled. “You’re a kid, James! Your shirt has a fucking Gundam on it!”

James let out an aggravated groan.

“Would you please. Stop. Swearing?”

At that, Cody simply stared at him. James glared back as forcefully as he could manage. It undercut him a bit when Cody started giggling.

Great.

“… Stop it,” he muttered. Cody laughed even harder. “I’m serious.”

The other boy rolled onto his back, clutching at his knees as he cackled himself senseless.

… Well, you have fun with that.

He turned his attention back to the water beast. It shied away from him as he approached, resting his hand against the surface of the bubble, before pushing it through into the water.

It attacked him, claws scrabbling and snatching at the skin of his hand and wrist, his shield sparking faintly beneath the blows. He let his fingers rest against its chest.

It hadn’t hurt anybody yet, he told himself. It was just scared because it couldn’t find its home. He smiled at it.

“I’m gonna put you somewhere safe, okay?” he murmured. “Try not to fight too hard.”

He dug into his spellbook, humming the intro to Uptown Funk to help him focus while he tracked down the magic he was after.

He muttered a few words under his breath, and inside its bubble, the lake monster began to glow, a soft, tourmaline light flowing out from around his fingertips. Soon, the entire creature was encased within his energy. Then, with a deal more effort than he was proud of, he began to pull it in, the monster slowly shrinking down about his fingers, before discorporating, and flowing as lines of light across his skin.

When the glow of the spell began to fade, it left behind an intricate web of faintly aquatic seeming inkwork spreading from the tips of his fingers and all the way up along his arm. He imagined this was what Pokemon training felt like.

He checked under his shirt, curious to see exactly how much of him the familiar spell was covering. Quite a lot, as it turned out, the seaweed and vine-like decorations of his forearm slowly fading into a sheen of fish-scales that went almost to his belly.

“Dude, I look freaking rad,” he muttered. He turned to Cody. Noticing now that the boy was no longer laughing. “What do you think? Tattoos or no tattoos? Pretty sure I’m now officially a badass.”

In response, Cody simply gazed at him.

“… What the hell is with you people?”


“You know, we weren’t really lying all that much,” James muttered, spearing a piece of breakfast bacon with his fork, and pairing it with a chunk of pancake. “Finch said he was working for the government when we got here. He just didn’t bother saying that I was too.”

“That’s because you aren’t,” Finch pointed out from the next table over. He’d insisted on being present on the off chance that James said something wrong. “Not yet.” He turned his gaze to Cody. “He’s working with me on a trial basis. Taking the lead under my supervision. Like a driving test.”

“Sure, fine,” James muttered. “Point is, we said we were here to deal with the monster problem, and we are. I don’t get what you’re so upset about.” He popped the fork into his mouth. “These pancakes are awesome.” He gave Cody’s mom a thumbs up as she passed the table, earning himself a smile.

Cody glared at him for a moment, before glancing at Finch, and letting out a sigh.

“Does he have to be here for this?”

“Yes,” replied Finch before James could answer.

Cody scowled at the table.

“… It’s not fair, okay?”

“What?” James asked, one eyebrow raised.

Cody didn’t look at him, his expression darkening.

“Magic was my thing, okay? It was mine. I wasn’t gonna have a bunch of friends. I’m not gonna get a boyfriend at least until I get to college. But I can do this.” He held up the plastic box he’d been clutching since the lake. “And then some random prettyboy waltzes in from the city to show me just how bad I suck.”

James… didn’t know what to say to that. It was a lot to unpack.

“… You think I’m pretty?” he asked.

Cody groaned. “Is that really the thing you focus on?”

“Well, I mean, what am I supposed to say to the other stuff?” he asked, giving the other boy a helpless kind of shrug. “I’m sorry I saved your life?”

“No,” Cody groaned. “That makes me sound like a dick. Thank you for that. Honestly. I’m really glad you saved my life… But did you have to be so much better than me while you did it?”

James leaned back in his seat, stung, and not a hundred percent sure as to why.

“I’m not better than you,” he said, a little defensive.

Cody laughed. “Dude, you turned a lake monster into a fucking sleeve tattoo. I can’t do that.”

“And I can’t make boxes that let you breathe underwater,” James countered. “That doesn’t make me better. I’m just better in a fight.”

“Fine,” Cody muttered. “You’re stronger than me. Happy?”

James honestly didn’t know what to say to that. It hurt a touch more than he was comfortable with.

“Don’t compare yourself to me that way,” he muttered. “It’s not fair to you or me.”

“Why not?” Cody grumbled. “You’re my age. You’re a mage. Why shouldn’t I measure up to you?”

“… Cuz you’re never gonna be as strong as me.”

He said the words fully expecting to regret them. He said them anyway. They were the truth.

Cody folded his arms.

“See?” he said quietly. “That’s the problem.”

James sat there for a minute, gazing at the other boy in something that felt a lot like anger. Then, another point occurred to him.

He pushed the barely touched plate of pancakes to the side, and leaned forward on the table, one arm extended.

“Arm wrestle me.”

“What?” Cody asked. “What’s that got to-”

“Just do it,” he said flatly.

A moment’s scowling, then Cody leaned forward, one arm resting on the table, his hand clasping James’ own.

“Three,” James muttered. “Two, one. Go.” He pushed against Cody’s hand as hard as he could. His arm was flat against the table in under a second.

“Again,” he said.

Cody raised an eyebrow, but complied.

“Three, two, one. Go.” Another almost instantaneous loss.

Cody looked irritated now.

“You could at least push back a little harder before you let me win.”

“I am,” James said bluntly. “I’m pushing as hard as I can. That’s how weak I am. Wanna go again?”

Cody groaned.

“Come on, dude. No one’s that weak-”

“I am,” said James. “Ever since I got my powers, I’ve been weaker than my own kid sister. It’s been like that for a year now. She’s six.”

Cody opened his mouth, James cut him off.

“See that plate?” he gestured to his pancakes. “It’s honestly kinda hard for me to lift. It’s a freakin’ plate. When I go to school, I have to use my powers just so I can carry my bag around. I can’t even go to gym class anymore. I had to get a doctors’ note saying I had a bone disorder. If I ever get in a fight, I’m screwed. What am I s’posed to do? Use my superpowers to stop a bully? If I ever go out with anyone, I’m gonna have to accept that they’re always, always, always gonna be stronger than me. Even if I worked out six hours every day.” He leaned back in his seat again, arms folding once more. “Sure. I’ve got bigger superpowers than you. You kinda have to take what you get.”

The two scowled at one another for a time, before the older boy relented.

“Okay, okay. Fine. I was being an ass. I’m sorry.”

James nodded.

“It’s fine,” he muttered. Then, a point of frustration floated back to him. “You really think I’m pretty?”


James wasn’t fixating.

He really wasn’t. He was just glaring into the motel room mirror as if it had personally wronged him. That was not fixating.

“I’m not pretty,” he muttered. “I’m manly. Stupid, angsty, whiney little-” He stopped messing with his hair, giving up on trying to find a way to make it any more unkempt than it already was. He stomped over to his travel case, and started rummaging inside it. “Come on. I know you’re- Yes!”

He stood back up, the article of clothing he’d been looking for clutched between his hands, the vinyl skull leering back at him from the t-shirt’s front.

Perfect.

He tugged his shirt off, and put the new one on, before returning to the mirror. He examined the result. Yes. The jeans and shirt paired well. He could do to show a little more of the tattoo, though. He tried rolling the sleeves up to show his shoulders. Looked himself over.

Yes. He was now sufficiently manly. Good. Cody had better not make that mistake aga-

There was a knock at the door.

“Hey, James?” called Cody’s voice from outside. “Are you in? Mrs Green told me this was your room. Can I come in? It’s really wet out here.”

Perfect timing.

James squared his shoulders.

He gets one chance to fix this. One.

“Just a second!”

He made one last check in the mirror. Yes. His outfit was still there.

He stepped over to the door, and pulled it open.

“Hey-” Cody started, before James cut him off.

“How do I look?”

Cody blinked, rain sploshing gently on his hair.

“What?”

“You heard me,” James snapped. “How do I look? Easy question. No wrong answer.”

Cody looked him up and down, a bit nonplussed.

“Uh. Really cute, I guess. I like the cuddly emo look. Why, though?”

God damn it.

James’ shoulders slumped.

“… What do you want, Cody?”

Cody shook his head, perplexed, but continued.

“Look, you said you were trying to find whatever’s causing all the rain, yeah?”

James shrugged.

“Yeah. Why?”

“Well, what if it’s not in town?” Cody asked. He fumbled in a pocket for his phone, stepping a foot or so inside the doorway to show James the screen. “It’s a rain map of the last couple weeks. And if you look at the one for today, the middle of it isn’t in Rockford anymore. It’s in the reserve.”

James peered at the screen.

“… Huh,” he murmured. “Yeah. You’re right. It’s like, half a mile out of town. Guess it moved right after me and Finch showed up. That’s an awesome lead. Thank yo-”

“I could take you out there, if you want,” Cody offered. “I go out there all the time when it’s not raining. I know where all the caves and landmarks are.”

“… You get that I’m hunting a monster, right?”

Cody shrugged.

“Yeah. But I can stay back if we find whatever’s doing it.”

James snickered. “Dude. You’re a kid. It’s dangerous.”

“I’m older than you!”

James snickered even harder. “Okay. Tell you what. There’s a baseball bat in the closet. I think the last guy left it here before I got the room. If you can hurt me with it even a little bit, I’ll let you come along.”

“What?!” Cody blanched. “No! I’m not gonna hit you with a baseball bat!”

James smirked.

“I can make forcefields, Cody. You couldn’t hurt me if you wanted to. You’re too squishy.”

Cody scowled.

“Come on, dude. It’s not like I’m gonna go near whatever the monster is. I’m just gonna show you where the paths are and how to get to places. Then you can go back later and explore it all yourself.”

James hesitated. That was… actually a lot more reasonable.

“You sure?” he asked. “It might still be kinda dangerous. Even if you’ve got me there looking out for you.”

Cody grinned.

“Yeah. I’m sure. I’ve got all day free tomorrow. Wanna do it then?”

James shrugged.

“I mean, sure, I guess. Head out after breakfast?”

“Sounds good.” Cody nodded, then, with a touch of hesitation. “So… It’s a date, then?”

Something clicked in James’ head.

“Oh!” he realized. “Right. That’s what this is. Uh-” he laughed, a bit higher pitched than normal. “You, uh. You kinda made a bad call on that.”

“What?” Cody asked, his shoulders slumping. “You mean you’re straight?”

“No,” James muttered, awkwardly scratching at his hair. “It’s just. Well. We’re going looking for monsters, and you totally can’t protect yourself… We’re gonna be taking Finch along.”

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Hunt: 8.3

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James:

“You told him it was Bigfoot?” James asked as they climbed back inside the car. “Why?”

“It’s easier that way, trust me,” Finch replied. “No way was I going to convince him he was hallucinating. Easier to just tell him something no-one will believe. You let a guy go around with a story about how he found a monster in the lake, and people pay attention. Not much, but some. But if you let him go around saying his boat got spooked by Bigfoot? No-one cares. Everyone’s seen Bigfoot.”

James shrugged.

“Makes sense, I guess.”

His phone pinged from his pocket. He glanced down at it.

‘You have a friend request from: Cody Turner.’

He snickered. The other boy’s crush had been fairly obvious. It felt better than he’d thought it would. Cody’s friend request had come before they’d even left the parking lot.

You’re supposed to wait a while, dude. Make ‘em think you’re not too keen.

He flicked the screen.

‘Congratulations! You are now friends with Cody Turner.’

He put the phone back down, and tried to turn his mind back to the conversation at hand. It didn’t work. There was a buzzing in his brain. He found he couldn’t focus for more than a word or two at once.

“Can you let me out here?” he asked, cutting off his companion mid-word. “I gotta go clear my head.”

To his credit, Finch didn’t waste time informing him that it was late, or that he couldn’t go out alone in the rain.

“You know where the motel is?” he asked.

“Yeah,” James lied. It couldn’t be too hard to find.

Finch nodded, then pulled the car over, and let James out into the rain.

For a couple minutes, he just stood there and let himself be drenched. It wasn’t like the cold bothered him at all. Then, he stepped off the street, and began walking the few hundred yards toward the Rockford treeline.

He felt weird; really weird, and the why was hard to get a handle on.

This was it, wasn’t it? His first mission. Helping people for real, just like his grandparents did.

And Cody was cute. He wasn’t super lean and muscly, like Caleb was, nor did he put butterflies in James’ stomach the way that Charlie had-

James put that thought on hold, and made himself step back. No thinking about that right now.

Cody was cute, in a goofball sort of way. There had been a warmth to hanging out with him. So why did the aftermath feel so melancholy?

He sloshed through the last deep puddle to the tree-line, and allowed himself to drift upwards a few inches off the ground. He should be able to fly fully once he was out of town.

He floated down into the depths, then up into the sky.

There was something unique about flying through clouds, especially in the rain. Like swimming through thick mist, or maybe showering in fog. He closed his eyes.

He could see Charlie’s face against his eyelids. He didn’t allow himself to look away.

“Hey, man,” he murmured. “Been a while.”

It had been, too. The memories had been coming less and less of late, a bit less painful every time.

“I met a boy today. He’s pretty cute. Bet you’d be jealous,” he snickered at himself. “Who am I kidding? You’d have probably found a girl by now. Maybe Nailah? Nah. She’s too cool for you.”

He smiled at that, unsure whether he was forcing it or not. He opened his eyes, then floated up above the storm clouds. Charlie’s image stayed with him, even after he let the rest of the world return.

“I got my first big mission,” he said. “Whole town’s been getting rained on for weeks. Plus, there’s a monster in the lake.”

He raised his arm, a few loose tendrils of his power stretching out to sweep a momentary hole through the cloudbank, carving a line through which to see.

Rockford looked so small from here. He wondered if he could be bigger than it was if he transformed. He remembered Charlie teasing him.

“I wanna believe you’re doing okay out there,” he said. “I wanna believe you’re still alive.”

He could have sworn the image shrugged at that.

James gazed down at the town for what felt like hours. When he touched the ground again, he felt empty.

He tracked down his room in Rockford’s sole motel, and sat on a corner of the bed, uncomfortably alone.


Cody Turner, 5:58 A.M:

Cody tapped the off button on his alarm clock two minutes before it was set to go off. He was already dressed and ready. The cutie had said he was coming to the diner again today. Therefore, to Cody’s masterful reasoning, he had to get the rest of his day out the way as early as possible to free himself up for Pretty Boy. Or James. Nah. Pretty Boy felt better in his head.

He picked the wire-box off his desk, and pried it open. Cool. Everything still looked fine. He slipped the box into a pocket of his swim-trunks. He glanced back at the alarm clock. 6:02. He really should get moving if he wanted to be back before the breakfast rush. He grabbed his rain jacket -he didn’t bother to check if it was still raining outside, of course it would be- off the hook on his door, and set off.

Honestly, Cody found he didn’t didn’t mind the morning rain. It brought a kind of clarity to the early morning; all fresh earth smells and bracing early winter chills, just refreshing enough to stop a workout from becoming draining. It was just a shame the water made it so hard to bring a sketchbook out here. He’d have loved the chance to draw some of the scenery when it was waterlo-

His train of thought was interrupted at one of the town’s two intersections when a passing truck gave him a facefull of the nearest puddle.

There were drawbacks.

… Nope. He wasn’t gonna let it dampen his spirits. Today would be awesome, and there would be no caveats. He wondered if Pretty Boy liked the rain? Cody was pretty sure it made for better snuggling…

He shook the distraction from his mind. Whether Pretty Boy was an active snuggler was neither here nor there. For now. He resumed his path toward the lake, a few dozen yards of sodden grass and a thinning line of trees between him and his destination.

When he’d passed the tree-line, he pulled the wire-box back out of his pocket, checking stupidly around him for observers as he did so. There was no-one around. Not that it would have mattered if there was. Nothing wrong with a local kid going swimming in the lake, even if he was carrying a weird box made of munted wire and plastic.

He was actually pretty proud of that. The wire strips had been his sister Lisa’s idea. Back when she’d first started helping him learn his magic. Small, cheap, easily disposable objects, perfect for an amateur enchanter. It made for better practice material than the random crap around his house. At least, it did after he ran out of pencils to render perma-sharp.

The box had been his idea, though. And it was a good one. As it turned out, enchanting, or, at least, his particular kind of enchanting, made it stupidly hard to put different spells together in a single object. You either had to be ridiculously good at it, or magically jacked up enough that you could put in all the enchantments at once.

Cody had solved this issue.

With a glue gun.

He flipped open the plastic casing for what had to be the third time, and once again individually checked that each and every one of the thirty six strips of enchanted copper wire was properly adhered to the sides of the container. If one of them broke off while he was under water… well, so far, it hadn’t done worse than scald his tongue, but still.

He pulled his shirt off over his head, and wrapped it up inside his jacket, before quickly checking his phone to see the time. Nearly six twenty-

A message pinged up on the screen.

‘Hey. It’s James, from last night. You around? I thought I’d come by for breakfast if you’re free. I could sorta use the company.’

Cody grinned, a surge of yesterday’s unusual warmth tingling down his spine once more.

‘Sure thing!’ he texted back. ‘I’m at the lake right now, but I’ll be back in twenty minutes, max. Try the pancakes.’

It took more effort than he was proud of not to add a smiley face.

He stowed his phone in the folds of his jacket, grasped the wire-box tightly in his hand, and charged face first into the lake.

The water was cold. Freezing, really; full of the early morning chill from the spill of rain. It was murky, too, loose soil and grit, algae and who knew what else stirred up by the constant downpour. Cody shuddered as it hit him, almost but not quite enough to dispel the warmth of his looming not-quite-date with the potentially heterosexual Mr. Pretty Boy.

Right, time to test out those enchantments. He exhaled what breath he had in a calm and unhurried manner, then, only a little bit praying that it would work this time, sucked in a teaspoonful of water.

A momentary rush of heat in his mouth, then a chill, then the taste of stale oxygen on his tongue.

Right. Awesome. He tried again, a bigger drag this time. The same process, a warmth, a chill, a rush of faintly musty air. Enough of it this time that some had to be expelled, pushing harmlessly out between his lips like he’d been trying for.

Cody hardly dared to believe it. He’d done it. It had worked.

I, Cody Turner, by the power of human genius and the might of crazy glue, have learned to breathe in lakes!

He pumped his fist in a furious but silent subaquatic celebration.

This was just the start. Sure. The start was basically just Aquaman, but from there, the sky was the fucken’ limit.

Plus, Aquaman’s hot now!

It would do. He was content.

It was maybe Cody’s fault what happened in the next few minutes. In his jubilation, he managed to momentarily forget the date with Pretty Boy, lost in the thrill of swimming without having to come up for air. Even the weird taste of it wasn’t so bad after a while. He wound up trying to swim a lap of the thing, pushing through the water with all the energy he could spend. He felt like he had tons of it to spare.

He made it all the way out to the middle before the danger became apparent. More specifically, before he realized he wasn’t alone.

He was down in the depths, a solid forty or so feet below the water’s surface, sifting through lake rocks and more than a few discarded beer cans for something that’d make a good memento. Then he saw it; a shape in the water to the side, half-visible in the murk, distinguished from the rest only by a momentary movement. He jerked his head towards it, and it vanished, but not quite fast enough to stop him catching a glimpse.

It looked human. It looked webbed.

Jesusfuckno.

To his extraordinary Darwinian credit, Cody Turner did not wait to see what the thing had been before he fled.

Fitness was a survival trait in Rockford. Not because it was a cruel or unreasonable place to live. Simply because it was small. There was no local game shop. There were no drama clubs. There were only eleven other kids. To survive in Rockford, you had to either learn to be lonely, or get used to having fun outside.

Cody was fit. He was healthy. He exercised a lot. He was also a really solid swimmer.

The creature reached him before he made it halfway back to shore. Holy hell, the thing could swim. In Cody’s few, panic stricken glances behind himself so as to keep his heading pointed away from it, he got a better view, rubbery grey skin, dozens of fish-like fins sprouting from every inch of its form. Bloated, leering.

He knew he wouldn’t make it. He just wasn’t fast enough. He heard a crash behind him, let out a bubbled scream as the water bowled him over, then realized he was still alive.

He turned around, his breathing heavy, his heart churning madly in his chest.

The thing was gone.

Well, no. Not quite gone. It was still there. Just sorta… trapped. In a bubble, clawing madly at the walls as it tried to climb back into the lake around it. That wasn’t the surprising thing, though.

No, the surprise was floating in the water some four feet off to the side of it.

It was Pretty Boy; submerged in the middle of the lake, just as Cody was, dark hair flaring dramatically about him in the water as though he were about to call tsunamis from his palms.

Pretty Boy waved, gestured over at him, and began to speak.

Several bubbles escaped his lips, along with some unintelligible sound.

Cody stared.

Pretty Boy let out his best aquatic approximation of a groan, put a hand to his forehead, then raised a finger to the surface of the water. As Cody watched, the surface -still almost forty feet above them- began to dip.

It was like a fingertip. Like if God himself had waited for Pretty Boy to give the order, and was personally poking some oxygen down towards them. The dip deepened, stretched down further, further, and finally broke, the surface slapping firmly back into place above them and leaving a fifteen foot bubble of air behind. At Pretty Boy’s gestured command, the bubble drifted the final stretch, and slapped itself down around them.

Cody found himself sitting, wet, perplexed, and terrified, at the bottom of a lake, with a probable water demon and a cute boy who could apparently bend the fucking sky.

“So…” Pretty Boy said awkwardly, “You, uh. You’re magic too, hu-”

Cody cut him off.

“W-what the fuck is that thing!?” he asked, gesturing madly at the water monster.

Pretty Boy winced.

“Well… I mean… Would you believe me if I said it was Bigfoot?”


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Hunt: 8.2

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Chapter Fifteen: By the Light of Distant Moons.

“Don’t you understand?” whispered Ceros, his voice shaking with restrained yet unnameable emotion. “It’s you, Astra. It has always been you.”

He reached forward, placing a tentative hand on Astra’s well-muscled forearm. The lord of the Silvermanes gazed back at the sorcerer; stunned, for all his wisdom, if only for a single moment.

“Ceros,” the larger man murmured, a hitch in his breath. “I-I love-“

Ceros put a finger to his lips.

“Say it not, my friend,” he whispered, aware, not for the first time, of the fire that seemed to dance beneath his skin. He had not expected denying it to hurt him so. His voice cracked. “I’m sorry. I should not have spoken. You have oaths you must uphold. Your men have faith in-”

He in turn was silenced as Astra pulled him close. Their lips-


“Cody?”

Cody Turner reflexively snapped his laptop shut as his mother poked her head through his bedroom door.

“Yeah, mom?”

“Can you man the counter for a sec? I’ve gotta run for food.”

“Sure.”

Cody pulled himself out of bed as his mother took her leave, and grabbed his apron off the chair beside his desk. He took a quick look at his clothes. Kinda messy. Meh. He didn’t care enough to change. He slung the apron on and went downstairs, casting a disinterested glance out of the window as he went.

Yup. Still raining. He wasn’t surprised. The sound of it pattering against the walls and roof had become so omnipresent in the past few weeks as to fade from awareness unless directly focused on. He was starting to miss the sun.

He stepped down into the lower level of his home and glanced through the kitchen door into the diner proper. There were only two customers inside, neither of them strangers. Sheriff Pete was sitting with an older man whose face was mostly bushy beard and eyebrows. Cody knew the man, even if his name didn’t come readily to mind. He ran the fishing goods store. It was hard to find someone you didn’t recognize in Rockford, blessed as it was with a population in the low two hundreds.

He stepped inside.

“-not sure about this, Pete,” beard-guy was saying. His head snapped across to Cody as he opened the door, staring at him a second too long, before returning his gaze to his companion, his voice lowering a fraction. “That thing out there weren’t normal. We tell the feds about it and next thing you know, I’m gettin’ dragged off by men in rubber suits.”

To his credit, Sheriff Pete managed not to roll his eyes.

“Calm down, Bill. We’re going to get this figured out. But you’ve got to tell the agent what you think you saw-”

“Fuck off,” Bill growled. “I don’t think I saw it. I saw it, staring right up at me out of the water, plain as I’m seeing you right now.”

Cody leaned against the counter, trying to pretend he wasn’t listening.

Pete sighed.

“What’s your point, Bill?” he asked. “Maybe you did see it. I don’t know. Remember last time this happened? That girl who said she saw a demon in the reserve?”

Bill nodded, his expression darkening under all the hair.

“I remember. Saw her running home by the lake. Poor kid damn near pissed herself.”

Pete nodded.

“We found psilocybin in her water bottle, Bill. Her boyfriend spiked her camping gear. That’s all it was.”

Old Bill was already shaking his head.

“Shrooms wouldn’t make me see what I saw,” he muttered. “I’ve been on those longer’n you’ve been alive and I ain’t ever-”

“Christ,” Pete groaned. “Don’t tell me that!”

Cody tried to disguise his snicker as a yawn. Old Bill glared at him.

Where did the seventies touch you, Bill?

Both men fell quiet. Cody pulled a notebook out from under the counter, found a pen, and started doodling on an empty page.

This was the town of Rockford, Oregon, where nothing happened and the people were crazy. That was just what happened when you dumped a couple hundred people in the middle of nowhere with no-one to talk to and nothing to do. People just went batshit.

Cody was pretty sure he was the sanest kid in town. He blamed the internet for that.

The rain kept on tapping away against the windows as he drew, Pete and Bill sitting in stony silence across cups of rapidly cooling coffee. Cody helped himself to a cookie.

There was something about the sound of rain that made it easy to get lost in drawing. Cody must’ve spent half an hour just standing there, leaned against the counter as he did his line-work. It was coming together pretty well; the figure of a half-clad young woman in the arms of an over muscled monster, the two of them looking like escapees from a sixties horror flick or the mural on a hippy van.

The sky began to darken, the sun slowly starting to set behind the clouds. That was when Cody saw the car.

It was a dinky little thing, mud-brown, twin headlights picking cones of muted light out of the gloom as it slid from the trees into Rockford proper.

Cody snickered as it hit a pothole.

His attention only really piqued when the vehicle turned into the diner’s parking lot, pulling to a halt in one of the inch-deep puddles of mud and water that still technically qualified as a bay. Bill and Pete were watching too, Bill trying as hard as he could to pretend he wasn’t.

The first to exit the car was a tall man, mid thirties, wearing the kind of cheap suit and serious expression that a decade and a half of media had more or less coded the idea of ‘FBI’ into Cody’s brain. The second figure was a kid; androgynous, to this distance, sloshing through the ankle deep water with far less swagger than the man, their build concealed by a hoodie that soon hung heavy in the rain.

They arrived at the door, the older man holding it open while the kid stepped in past him. It was a boy, Cody saw. A cute one, too, faintly Asian facial features framed by curls of waterlogged black hair.

The boy stepped inside, saw Cody, and made a beeline for the counter while his companion moved behind him toward Sheriff Pete and Bill.

“Hey there, what can I-” Cody began.

“Do you have hot chocolate?” the boy interrupted. “Please. I need it.”

They were out of hot chocolate. The only stuff they had left was for the house, not the diner.

Cody looked the bedraggled boy up and down. He looked miserable.

But that was his hot chocolate.

“I’m afraid we-” he stopped as the cute boy brushed his bangs out of his eyes with a hand. “-don’t have any marshmallows,” he adjusted lamely. “… Is that okay?”

The boy smiled. “I’ll make it work. Thanks.”

Fricken’ hormones.

“I’ll be right back.”

By far the lamest thing about life in Rockford, thought Cody as he stepped through the door between the diner and the house, was the stunning lack of eligible boys.

In the entire town, there were eleven other kids within a few years of him in age. None of them were gay. Not even the cute ones.

No, he realized as he found the stove and started boiling up some water. Especially not the cute ones.

He’d have settled for bi. He’d have been over the goddamn moon. Just for a single other person to make out with. Just a little.

Cody hated being fourteen.

He opened up the cupboard, and found the hot chocolate box. It was the good stuff. The stuff that came in cartons of ten individual sachets. Just add water for the perfect, soul warming cup of cocoa. He opened the box.

There was a single sachet left.

Fuck.

He tore it open, poured it into a mug, and then went looking for marshmallows. Might as well go all in.

Bet he’s not even gay.

He returned to the diner to find the three adults now engaged in a muttered conversation of presumably great importance. Cody wondered if Bill had gotten to which drugs he was on yet. Pretty Boy himself was seated some way to the side, wedged into a window-booth that allowed a rain-splattered view of the surrounding town. All four streets of it.

Cody carried his cup of warm, marshmallow scented goodness over to the table, and reluctantly proffered it to the boy.

Pretty Boy took it, glanced down at the top of the mug, and gave Cody a smile.

“You found marshmallows.”

Cody grinned in spite of himself.

“Yeah. Just mini ones, but it’ll work, right?”

“Dude, what are you saying? Mini ones are better.” Pretty Boy lifted the mug to his face, gave the surface a few puffs, then took a sip. “Ohhh yeah, that’s better.” He glanced back up at Cody. “How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing,” Cody answered automatically. “On the house. Sorry it took so long. We uh. We didn’t have any real hot chocolate left so I had to go in back and-” he realized he was overexplaining and stopped himself. “…I’m Cody.”

Pretty Boy smiled again.

“James.”

Cute name.

James went back to gazing at the phone beside his cocoa cup. Cody hovered awkwardly.

“… Need something?” James asked.

“No, no. Just… Mind if I sit with you?” Cody hoped his cheeks weren’t red. He gestured out the window. “It’s a small town. Not a lot of folks to talk to.”

The boy shrugged, then budged up a little way to the side. “Sure.”

Cody sat. Neither boy spoke.

The silence stretched just long enough to make Cody desperate.

“…So,” he muttered. “You know that thing, where you wanna talk, but it’s a total stranger and you have no idea what you’re supposed to say?”

James laughed. Then, without missing a beat, said:

“I like pop music. Top forties. Stuff with vocals you can sing along to. You?”

Wow. Kid was good at this.

“I like rock,” Cody said. “Songs from the seventies and eighties mostly. Kinda hard to get into new stuff when no one around you knows anything newer than The Killers.”

James grinned.

“No K-pop, then?”

“What’s K-pop?”

That had apparently been the wrong thing for him to say.

So passed the next hour or so of Cody’s life, huddled up in the warm with a cute boy at his side, watching a stream of music vids via James’ apparently indefatigable internet connection. Interrupted only briefly when Cody’s mother returned to man the counter. Occasionally, they sang along together in an undertone. The cutie had an awesome voice. Eventually, though, the grown ups’ meeting drew to a close. James’ agent-ey companion stood from his seat.

“Thank you, Mr. Bourn, Sheriff Milne. I think I have everything I need. Please don’t hesitate to contact me again if you remember any further details. James,” he called over his shoulder. “Grab your stuff, bud. We’re heading out.”

James shut his phone off mid-song, flicking it into his pocket and pulling himself to his feet.

Cody pulled himself upright to let him out, his heart sinking a little.

“Bye, James,” he said. “It was nice meeting you.”

“Yeah,” James grinned back. “It was cool. See you tomorrow, yeah?”

Cody’s brain stalled out for a second.

“Tomorrow?”

“Yeah. We’re staying in town for a couple weeks while the big guy figures out some stuff. You guys are open all day, right?”

Cody tried not to grin too hard.

“Yeah. Yeah, we are. Later, man.”

Cody watched the other boy and his perplexing agent friend depart, a kind of warm thrill running down his spine. He started slightly when his mother’s voice spoke up behind him.

“Cute kid,” she murmured. “He gay?”

“To be confirmed,” he answered. “Call it sixty percent.”

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Hunt: 8.1

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Casper:

Casper Sullivan set the guitar on his lap and strummed a chord.

He winced. It was badly out of tune. No surprise, really. He hadn’t played it in, what? Eight months? Nine? He twisted a few of the keys, strummed again, twisted some more.

Better.

He started playing, plucking the bass-line to an old favorite from memory, trying not to think.

It felt weird being back in his old house; off-axis, sitting on a bed he hadn’t touched in almost a year, trying to ignore the thin coating of dust that lay over everything he owned. Used to own.

Why did none of it feel like his?

He kept playing. He’d been good at the guitar. Still was, apparently.

It didn’t take up much of his attention.

He cast a glance back toward the cardboard box beside the door, then once more looked about the room.

What was he supposed to want from here? The bookshelf full of stories he had half-memorized?  The trading cards he’d long-since replaced? The action figures once played with by a younger, happier kid?

None of it meant anything to him anymore.

He wasn’t even mad. It just felt weird.

He stopped the song midway, and let himself fall back against the bed, gazing at the ceiling.

‘Oh yeah. I remember putting up those stickers. Mom got so mad.’

He felt his lips crawling toward a smile, and put a stop to it. She wasn’t worth a smile.

The divorce had been finalized that morning. Splitting everything down the middle. It turned out that meant selling off the house.

It was kinda fitting that this would never be his room again.

Leave it to the kid who used to hide his bruises.

He snickered at himself.

‘I should learn to play some emo rock.’

The door creaked open an inch or so.

“Need something?” he asked.

“Just checking in,” Sarah murmured from outside. “I heard the guitar. You’re pretty good with that thing.”

He smiled.

“Thanks.”

A brief pause, then:

“Your dad’s here.”

Casper closed his eyes.

“I thought he was coming later on.”

“He was.” She hesitated for a moment. “He says he has something for you.”

He sighed.

“Great. Even more crap I don’t want.”

Sarah didn’t chide him for the jab. He was glad of that. She understood, on a level. She opened the door a little further, gazing at him through the crack.

“Want me to make him leave?”

“It’s fine.”

“Got everything you want to take?”

“Just this,” he gestured to the guitar. “Everything else feels weird-” he stopped himself as a thought occurred. “Hang on.”

He pushed himself off the bed, then crawled underneath it.

He could feel Sarah watching him from the doorway while he searched, but she said nothing. A minute or so later, he clambered back out, a moth eaten stuffy clutched in one hand.

It was an old thing, slightly tattered; one of its button eyes torn out whoever knew how long ago.

“Think Bex’d mind looking after Mr. Bearford?” he asked, his cheeks a little red. “I owe him a better home.”

A smile.

“She’s Bex. She won’t say no.”

Casper chuckled.

“Yeah. She’s cool like that.” He proffered the stuffy, and Sarah took it. Then, he hefted his guitar and slung it awkwardly against his back.

“Want me to stay up here?” Sarah asked as he stepped past her. “I’m here if you need it.”

“It’s fine,” he murmured. “It’s just dad.”

In spite of the words, he found himself hesitating at the top of the stairs.

It wasn’t fear. It wasn’t anger, either. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to feel anything at all for the old man lately. Just a dull, depressive kind of ache. Every time they spoke, he came away tired.

He took a deep breath, and stepped on down the staircase. Ray was standing by the door with a plastic wrapped box under one arm.

There was something strange about seeing his dad here now; his broad frame a size too large for the confines of the hallway. Once, he’d been imposing. Now, he just seemed big.

“Hey, Dad.”

“Hi, Casper.”

“Finally split up with Mom, huh?”

“Guess so.”

Casper opened his mouth to say something snide, but the words didn’t come. He didn’t know what to say.

“Feels weird being back, you know?” he murmured instead, gesturing at the house around them. “I don’t think I like the kid who used to live here.”

His father smiled. “I liked him.”

“You had a funny way of showing it,” came the reply before Casper could think to stop it. He winced. So did Ray. He hadn’t meant it as a jab.

Ray started to apologize. Casper cut him off.

“Why are you here, dad?” he asked. “I didn’t want to see you yet.”

Another apology. Casper didn’t acknowledge it. A moment’s quiet, then his father proffered the box from under his arm.

“Wanted to give you this,” Ray said. “And to say sorry. I feel like I’m doing that a lot today.”

“What for this time?” Casper asked, one eyebrow raised, not approaching to take the box.

The man shrugged.

“You said there’d be no point to coming home if there wasn’t a home to come back to. Then I went and broke it.”

In spite of himself, Casper snickered.

“Splitting up with Mom doesn’t make it broken. Hell, it might be part of how we fix it.”

His father frowned at that, the arm with the box lowering back down. A slight shake of the head.

“Why do you hate her so much?”

Casper leaned against the wall, arms folded, careful not to bump his guitar.

“You still care?” he asked.

“Of course I care,” Ray replied, almost offended. “She’s my wife.” A touch of regret, then he corrected. “Was my wife.”

More uncomfortable quiet.

“She wasn’t the one who hurt you, Casper. I was. Why won’t you let her see you?”

Casper gazed at the ground, his fingers tapping against his arms. It made him angry.

“I’m not that petty, Dad,” he answered eventually. “I get why you hurt me. I get why she wanted you to do it. There’s a big world out there, and if I didn’t have my powers, it’d probably already have stamped me flat. I get why you did it. I might even be able to forgive you for it one day.” He looked up to meet his father’s gaze. “But she lied.”

“But I lied-” Ray began. Casper cut him off.

“It’s not the same,” he said flatly. “You lied by acting like a psycho. Made me think you just went crazy on your family. I thought you were bipolar or something, I dunno. But Mom let me think she was on my side. I hate that.”

Ray didn’t answer that. He spent a dozen or so seconds just gazing at his son, then huffed a breath, and set the box down carefully on the hall table.

“I’ll get out of your hair,” he said tiredly. “Thanks for hearing me out.”

Casper rolled his eyes. “If there’s something you wanna say, say it.”

“Nope,” Ray replied, a small smile on his lips. “I know that look in your eye. Anything I said right now would just sound like I’m defending her. That’s not a trap I’m stepping in today.”

Casper snorted. 

“Would you be defending her, though?” he asked.

“Course I would,” Ray answered. “I owe her that much.” He gave his son another smile, then turned towards the door, tapping the box on the way out. “Enjoy your present. I’m sorry I couldn’t bribe you with it like I promised.”

Casper had just enough time to raise an eyebrow at that, before his father was gone. He approached the box and lifted a corner of the plastic.

Huh.

It was a playstation.

He wrapped it back up again.

Now he felt bad. Great.

“You doing okay?” asked Sarah from the stairs.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “Yeah. I’m fine.” He shook his head, and heaved a sigh. “Think James is doing okay?”


James:

James was reading romance stories with his headphones on when the car finally crossed the storm front. With the music playing and his eyes on the phone screen, he struggled to spot the difference. Then, his travel companion prodded him in the shoulder, and his soothing lo-fi was disrupted by one of his headphones being pulled to the side.

“Look alive, Kid. We’ve hit the hot spot.”

James scowled. He still hadn’t forgiven agent Finch for the basketball thing. But, he peeled his eyes from the screen all the same. He looked out the window. Sure enough, it was raining outside. According to the data he’d been given, it had been doing nothing else here for almost a month; a thirty-mile bubble of stormclouds that refused to move or let up with the constant downpour; all centred on some outpost town in Oregon.

It was the perfect test-run for him. A mid-scale magical event, big enough to cause some harm if no-one intervened, but small and isolated enough that it probably wouldn’t make the news if he screwed it up. What was one more crazy cabin guy who said he saw a teenager do magic? Not that it mattered. James didn’t plan on being sloppy.

He gazed out at the deluge, watching how the drops spattered in the vast puddles they’d formed among the treeline. He’d never realized a forest could have a flood.

“You said they had a witness after we set off,” he said. “Any chance I’ll get to talk to him?”

Finch shrugged.

“Not directly,” he replied. “You’ll be in the observation room while I talk to him. You can ask your questions through me, if I think they’re appropriate. There’s no way we can spin a kid working for the feds.”

James nodded at that. It seemed fair enough. He went back to staring out the window.

For ten minutes, neither spoke. He reached up to tug his headphones back into place.

“Wait up,” Finch murmured. “Before you go back to your yaoi fanfic or whatever, I want to know what you plan to do when we get there.”

“… It’s not yaoi,” James muttered, his face reddening.

“Don’t lie to me.” Finch chuckled. “I’ve been looking at the chapter titles.”

‘I hate you so much.’

Cheeks burning, James leaned towards the glove compartment, and fumbled for the fold-out map.

“Okay, fine,” he huffed. “So, my first thing is I want to deal with the lake.” He pointed at the blue blob circling around the town’s north-eastern perimeter. “If it takes on much more water, half the town’s gonna flood. So I figure if I go to the far side, back where it joins up with the nature reserve, I can dig a trench and start diverting the water into this river over here.” He trailed his finger along the map in demonstration. 

Finch grunted, quietly impressed.

“Smart move. What made you think of it?”

“Minecraft.” James shrugged. “After that, I wanna talk to this witness guy before I put a plan down.”

Finch inclined his head. 

“Okay. We can go with that.”

James nodded. Then, after a brief wait in case Finch planned to interrupt again, he went back to his story. He’d been up to chapter three.


Chapter Three: The Hawk and the Silvermane.

Ceros Firewind had known of the Silvermanes for most of his life. They were difficult to avoid, growing up in the outskirts of Mymaeria. They were the protectors of the wall, and among the gallant few who dared ride through the unfound lands. For Ceros, however, it was different. Their young lord, Astra of the platinum hand, had once been his closest friend.

Ceros had not seen him since they were boys, and in that one moment, it was clear just how time had changed him. 

The piercing blue of Astra’s eyes never used to hold such pain-

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