Aid: 5.3

Previous Chapter:

Sixteen years ago, Asset Twenty Three:

“We can get out of here. I know we can. Together.”


The air vent was sticky; hot wind blowing constantly through a space so cramped that even she, the smallest of the children, could barely fit inside it. Twenty Three ignored the heat, and focused on keeping her breathing even. Trainer Sloan was about to leave for the night, and he always left his keycard in the second drawer of his desk. She just had to be still for a few more minutes.

She was sweating, droplets of liquid soaking into the joints of her fatigues, making them chafe. Some of it was from the heat, some from the stress. This was their only chance; they’d be moved to the new facility soon.

Through the slats in the heating vent, she watched as Sloan signed off his computer, stood up from his desk, and stretched. Twenty Three scowled. She didn’t like Sloan. He was fat, and loud, and he always got so angry if her scores dropped on any of her exercises. Sloan was mean.

Twenty three breathed a quiet sigh of relief as the man finally made to move towards the door, stowing his keycard in the drawer and grabbing his coat off the rack, just as planned. Twenty Three waited until a few seconds after the door had swung closed behind him, then set to work at the screws that bolted the heating vent into the wall.

For the longest time, figuring out a way to unbolt the vents and sneak into the offices had been the biggest obstacle in their plan, but then the beating night had happened, and unscrewing them by hand had ceased to be an issue. She was stronger now.

Twenty seconds of effort later, she was out of the sweltering vent, and in the office. She didn’t waste her time. They had to be quick here. She moved to the drawer, grasped the handle, and pulled.

It didn’t budge. From her new perspective, she was able, for the first time, to see the stainless steel lock embedded in the drawer’s front end.

“Crap.”

Okay, Twenty Three. Time to think. You can do this. Twenty Four’s counting on you. Make a plan.

For almost seven seconds, the girl wracked her brain. Her first idea was dumb. Really, incredibly, dumb. She didn’t have time to think of anything else. She moved to the door, cracked it ajar, and poked her head out into the unfamiliar hallway.

More office doors. No people though; not for now, at least. No cameras, either. She counted that as a blessing, and closed her eyes.

Footsteps, moving away from her, to the left, then down a bend. More to the right, these ones moving towards her. The ones to her left were heavy; more weight sitting behind each impact against the carpet. Without even a second of hesitation, Twenty Three began to run.

The footsteps behind her were drawing closer now. She glanced behind herself, and saw an unfamiliar figure rounding the bend in the hall. She had a second, at most, before they saw her. No time to think.

Twenty Three glanced around herself, and dove for the first cover she could find. An ornamental flower pot sporting a large, plastic molded fern; fake leaves branching in every direction at once. She landed, caught herself, and curled into as tight of a ball as she could be.

Too slow. She’d been too slow. She knew it. Whoever it was had to have seen her dive. She’d failed. She closed her eyes, didn’t even dare to breathe. One second. Two seconds. Three…

The footsteps were heading right for her. For the first time in her short life, Twenty Three found herself in prayer. Not to god. What little education she’d been given with regard to God had said that he was reserved for people better than her.

In lieu of God, Twenty Three prayed to the small things. She prayed to Twenty Four. She prayed to watching the stars together through the window of their cell. She prayed to making faces together when their instructors’ backs were turned. She prayed to the happy things.

The footsteps drew nearer still.

It took everything the girl had to resist the urge to bolt; just to sit there, shaking silently, and hope for fate to save her.

By the time the footsteps stopped, they were barely a yard away. She prayed harder.

Three… Two… One…

On the other side of the flower pot, she heard a door creak open, and her pursuer’s footsteps moving further away.

She didn’t allow herself a moment to be relieved. She didn’t have the time. Slan’s footsteps were growing more and more distant by the second. She ran. Keeping low, keeping quiet, Twenty Three pursued that man faster than she’d ever moved before.

She caught him in a foyer, heard the low murmur as he spoke to a woman behind a desk, leaning casually against the counter.

He’d always told her she was a clumsy little creature, but he didn’t even notice when she swept the keys from his pocket. She took no time to gloat, however. The moment she had them, it was back to the office, as fast as she could go.

Drawer open. Keycard retrieved. Drawer locked back up again. She left the keys on top of his desk. Hopefully, he’d just think he forgot them. Then, she got back inside the vent, and set to work screwing the frame back into place against the wall. She was running late. Her detour had cost them almost a minute. Twenty Four would be wondering where she was. She did her best to ignore the heat as she crept her way back through the ducts towards her partner.

The warden was easy enough to dodge as she made the short trip back through the common area to her cell, doing the best she could to act like nothing was wrong. She didn’t like the warden. His breath smelled of fish when he leaned in close.

No sooner had she made it back through the door than something struck her in the side, and she felt something begin to wrap around her, binding her tightly. She was wound up so tightly that she was already filling her lungs to scream before her brain kicked back in, and she recognized him.

It was Twenty Four, his breathing was ragged. She hugged him back.

“What took you so long!?” the boy asked, his voice an urgent whisper. “You were gone ages!”

“Fattie’s desk had a lock on it,” she muttered, patting her partner gently on the back to calm him. “Grabbed his keys. We’re okay.”

In the back of his throat, her partner let out a growl.

“I hate him,” he muttered, giving her another quick squeeze before he pulled away. “I hate him so much! He doesn’t even let stealing from him be easy!”

At that, Twenty Three let out a giggle.

“He’s Fattie,” she answered. “It’s his job to make things suck.”

Twenty Four grinned.

“Well, anyway. You got the card?”

“Yup!” she nodded. “You did your bit?”

At that, Twenty Four’s grin widened.

“Yeah. I found us some big winter coats and a bunch of socks. If we wear enough, we should be okay outside without shoes; even in the snow. I even managed to sneak some food.”

“Okay,” Twenty Three nodded. “That’s everything. Now, we just gotta do it and we’re free.” Saying those words, the girl felt something, like a buzzing in her stomach. It felt like fear, but more charged, more excited. Their freedom was so close. She dug the keycard out of her pocket, and passed it across to the boy.

Much as she hated it, Twenty Three knew that this part of the plan had to be Twenty Four’s. He was the one with access to the ever crowded laundry rooms. Now, all that was left was for him to sneak through to the exit with their supplies, get past the gate, and use the card to open up a path for her to follow. She’d know it was her chance when he signalled her through the window.

There were few words exchanged in the moments before he took his leave. Just a second of awkward silence, followed by the tightest hug they’d ever shared.

“Stay safe, okay?” she said, her heart already thudding in her chest.

“Course I will,” he mumbled back. “… Just three more minutes, kay? Three minutes, and then we’ll be free.”

Twenty Three had nothing to say to that. She could hardly even believe it. She nodded into her partner’s shoulder.

“… You gonna let me go, then?” he asked, his tone just a little light; joking, in spite of it all.

“No,” she muttered back, before pulling away. She sniffed. “… See you soon.”

Twenty Four nodded. Then, without another word, he slipped through the door, shutting it behind himself with a quiet thud.

Twenty Three took a deep breath, and forced herself to be calm. Well, she tried, at least. Within a few seconds, she was pacing. Then, she was stretching; running on the spot in the middle of the room, just to dissipate the nervous energy.

This’ll work, she told herself. It has to.

After a little over a minute, she gave up trying to play it cool, and gathered up her things, before moving across the room, and climbing up to the window sill to wait.

The next two minutes were the longest she had ever felt. Longer by far, however, were the two minutes after those, and the next.

And the next.

At first, Twenty Three was merely scared. Maybe he’d been caught. Maybe the card had failed. She pushed those thoughts down, and kept her gaze affixed to the snowscape beyond her window.

After ten minutes, however, when no alarms were heard, and none of the adults came in to snatch her, she felt a different kind of fear.

What if he’d left her alone? What if he’d just gone through the gate and ran? What if he hadn’t thought of her?

She pushed those thoughts aside. No. This was Twenty Four. He was her partner. He was her soul. He was her friend. They’d been together since before she’d had memories.

She didn’t want to die alone.

She was still watching through the window long after the night had come. She didn’t look away when the sun fell. She didn’t look away when the dinner call was sounded. She didn’t even look away when she heard the door opening behind her, and two of the grown ups came in to deposit something heavy on the sheets of Twenty Four’s bed.

She didn’t look away when the tears began crawling down her cheeks.

They left him on that bed all night.

Previous Chapter:

Bonus Chapter: Natalie Sharpe.

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Doctor’s notes, Subject #24170. James Toranaga. Session 3.

Notes and recommendations of attendant therapist, Natalie Sharpe:

  It has been three weeks since the previous session, due in large part to my own overloaded schedule in the aftermath of the elvish attacks. During the last week it has become apparent that James did in fact manifest abilities in the aftermath of his assault. For this reason, use of the David pseudonym has been removed. Current classification is a tentative type three. Directed self-levitation combined with aerokinetic abilities, and some form of transformational spell. He has recently initiated metaphysics training with a team of master-level field assets (his grandparents.)

  James’ parents both note a more secure sense that James is no longer hiding things from them since the discovery of his powers, and the household seems to be adjusting well to the integration of Casper Sullivan. Parents do note, however, that the relationship between the two seems to have grown slightly tense over the past few days. Sarah notes that she heard the two of them fighting, shortly before James asked to be allowed out for a walk.

  Additionally, during the elvish attack, it seems that James was struck at least once by some form of lightning blast. Be prepared to address the subject, should it be raised.

  Personal note from attendant therapist: ‘Jeez. Why did this have to get so complex?’

  Doctor Sharpe is reminded that even if the patient is not privy to her notes, professionalism does still have an inherent value.

Transcript of audio-visual session recording taken down by Supervisor Pearson is as follows:

James enters, closes the door behind him, and remains still for several seconds. He watches Doctor Sharpe, apparently nervous.

Doctor Sharpe: “Hi, James. It’s good to see you again.”

James: “Hey.”

A pause.

James: “So. Um. You know about, uh, everything, right?”

Doctor Sharpe smiles.

Doctor Sharpe: “Yes, James. I know you have powers. I’m a little jealous, actually. The flight sounds very freeing.”

James smiles.

James: “Heh. Yeah, you have no idea. It’s like I’m all alone up there, you know? I dunno why it feels so good.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Wanna show me?”

James: “Kinda.”

Doctor Sharpe chuckles, before moving to close her window blinds. James takes a seat on the ceiling.

Doctor Sharpe: “Comfortable up there?”

James: “I feel like kind of a dork. Do I look like a dork?”

Doctor Sharpe shrugs.

Doctor Sharpe: “Maybe.”

Doctor Sharpe returns to her seat.

Doctor Sharpe: “So. Your parents told me your nightmares have been getting better.”

James: “Yeah. They have. I mean, they’re not gone or anything, but they’re not every night any more. I kinda went through some stuff lately. It feels a little smaller now.”

A pause.

James: “Is that weird?”

Doctor Sharpe: “It doesn’t need to be. Do you mind telling me what you think it was that changed things?”

James: “I… A friend of mine. I uh. I told her about what happened. She…”

A pause.

James: “She said it didn’t stop me being strong.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Sounds like a good friend.”

James: “She is.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Speaking of friends, how are things going with Casper? I heard he started cooking dinner lately.”

A pause.

James: “Things are fine.”

A pause.

Doctor Sharpe: “Is he a good cook?”

James: “Yeah. I guess.”

A pause.

James: “Okay, yeah. It’s really good. Just… He’s. Ugh. He’s such a doof.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Language.”

James: “Sorry.”

Doctor Sharpe: “So. Why’s he a doof?”

James scowls.

James: “He-”

James hesitates for several moments.

James: “Nothing.”

Doctor Sharpe: “You sure?”

James folds his arms.

James: “Yeah.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Okay.”

Neither James nor Doctor Sharpe speaks for several seconds. Doctor Sharpe tilts her notes so that James cannot see them, and begins doodling small cat faces in the corner of a page.

James: “Alright, fine.”

Doctor Sharpe stops drawing cat faces.

James: “So, we were at school playing wizard cards with some friends of mine, and one of them hugged me.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Okay. And?”

James: “And… And I kinda blushed, okay? And Casper kinda saw.”

A pause.

Doctor Sharpe: “And?”

James: “And now he thinks I like boys or something. I dunno.”

Doctor Sharpe: “And you’re saying you don’t?”

James: *Indignant* “No!”

A pause. James flushes slightly.

James: “I mean. I don’t think so.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Well, I have to ask. Would it be a problem if you did?”

James glares at Doctor Sharpe, who does not react. After a few seconds, he looks at his knees instead.

James: “I don’t wanna be gay.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Why not?”

James: “Cuz I don’t wanna be like the guy who hurt me.”

The two are silent for roughly thirty seconds. Doctor Sharpe sighs.

Doctor Sharpe: “If I offered you a soda, would you please come down off my ceiling? It’s hurting my neck having to look at you up there.”

James detaches from the ceiling, and seats himself in the chair, hugging his knees.

James: “Have you got coke?”

Doctor Sharpe stands, moves to the fridge, and retrieves two sodas. She places one on the table beside James’ seat, and returns to her desk. The two are quiet for a minute. Doctor Sharpe takes a drink from her soda.

Doctor Sharpe: “James. I’d like you to give me four words to describe the man who hurt you.”

James: “I told you, I don’t remember what he looks-”

Doctor Sharpe: “This isn’t about looks. Just tell me four words that thinking about him makes you think of.”

James thinks for a moment.

James: “Liar.”

Doctor Sharpe nods.

James: “Meanie.”

Doctor Sharpe nods.

James: “Pervert.”

James hesitates for a few seconds.

James: *Quietly* “Asshole.”

Doctor Sharpe nods. James sniffs.

James: “Sorry. I shouldn’t have said a swear.”

Doctor Sharpe: “It’s alright. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been that restrained about it, if it were me.”

James nods.

Doctor Sharpe: “Being gay doesn’t have to make you like him, James. Those are the words that would make you be like him.”

Doctor Sharpe chuckles.

Doctor Sharpe: “Are you an asshole, James?”

A pause. James presses his face in against his knees, mumbles something the camera microphone is unable to pick up, and shakes his head.

Doctor Sharpe: “Then you’re not like him, are you?”

James doesn’t reply.

Doctor Sharpe: “Let’s take a break for a minute, here, okay?”

James nods. Doctor Sharpe stands. Camera shuts off.

Ten minutes later. Camera comes back online. Feed is obstructed by Doctor Sharpe, before she steps away, and returns to her seat. James takes a drink of his coke. He appears significantly calmer.

Doctor Sharpe: “So. How do you really feel about this boy?”

A pause.

James: “Which boy?”

Doctor Sharpe: “The one who made you blush.”

James goes slightly red.

James: “Charlie’s cool.”

Doctor Sharpe chuckles.

Doctor Sharpe: “I assumed.”

James: “I-”

A pause.

James: “I kinda, um.”

A pause.

James: “I kinda had a dream about him one time.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Oh?”

James: “Yeah. Before, uh. Before the rape.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Was it a good dream?”

James: “It was… Tingly.”

A pause.

Doctor Sharpe: “What were you doing in the dream?”

James: “… Stuff.”

Doctor Sharpe: “Any particular kind of stuff?”

James: “… Pass.”

Doctor Sharpe chuckles.

Doctor Sharpe: “Well, try not to worry about it too much. You’re twelve. It’s called puberty. Having thoughts about boys every now and again doesn’t automatically make you gay.”

James nods.

James: “Right. Thanks.”

Doctor Sharpe: “That being said, even if you were, do you really think it’d make you anything like the man who raped you?”

James: “… No.”

Doctor Sharpe nods.

Doctor Sharpe: “So. If you did turn out to be gay, would it really be the worst thing in the world?”

A pause. James looks at the floor.

James: “Think I should apologize to Casper?”

Doctor Sharpe shrugs.

Doctor Sharpe: “Only if you mean it.”


Natalie Sharpe returned to her apartment that evening almost haggard. She held a four pack of lager in one hand, a burrito tucked awkwardly under her arm as she fumbled her keys with her free hand. Getting inside took longer than it really should have done.

When she finally got the door open, she immediately dumped her beers on a table along with her keys, and began peeling off her shoes, ignoring, for the moment, the sounds of Apache yowling at her from his bed. It was only after she got the shoes off and took a step forward into the main area that her brain became aware of the smell of cat urine. Less than a second later, she recognized the feeling of something cold soaking into one of her socks. She shifted her tired eyes across the room, and gave Apache a glare of pure, concentrated death.

Apache gazed back at her, unconcerned. After a few moments, he licked his nose, and pulled himself out into a stretch.

“… Fuck you.”

Apache yawned.

Natalie continued to glare at the cat as she drew her burrito out from under her arm, slowly unwrapped it, and took a bite. Then, she trudged off into the tiny laundry room for some cat litter.

Five minutes later, she was feeling a little better. The pee was covered, the sock was slowly soaking clean, and her feet were covered by her favored pair of fluffy rabbit slippers. She was also kicking people’s asses in multiplayer while sprawled upside down on her couch, so that was cool. She hunkered her character down on a lookout post, and took aim for another player’s head.

Maybe the cat wouldn’t have to die for his crimes.

Her phone chimed.

She took her shot, watched her opponent fall, and dug the phone out of her pocket, expecting the next in her and Jack’s ongoing motivational war of post-workout selfies.

When she saw the screen, she groaned.

It was Liz.

‘I’m at the speed dating place. Where are you? You have to at least try this with me!’

Of the small collection of relationships Natalie had managed to maintain from her college days, it was being friends with Liz that most often came back to bite her in the ass. Her old roommate knew far too much about her to leave well enough alone.

She scowled.

‘I already told you I wasn’t going to that thing,’ she sent back. ‘It sounds like genuine hell.’

Off to the side, she heard the telltale click as the front door pushed open, the rubberized bottom brushing over cheap carpeting.

“Hey, Jack,” she called. “No selfie today? I thought you were gonna show me how ripped you are again.”

Her roommate gave her a tired chuckle as he stumbled his way inside, still in the cheap business suit and tie that made up his working clothes.

“Didn’t go,” he muttered. “Too busy at the office. Had to draw up finance plans for the entire upcoming quarter based on half a file of notes and a memo. God, I need a shower.”

Natalie winced in sympathy, then returned her eyes to her phone.

‘It’s a hell that could get you laid, Nat. When was the last time you did that? Or are you still pining over that hot new roommate boy of yours?’

‘… Shut up.’

‘… Want me to tell him what you think of his abs?’

Natalie glanced behind herself at that, tilting her phone to ensure Jack wouldn’t see the message, then swore under her breath at her friend.

‘I swear to God, Liz. I will end you.’

From somewhere behind her, she heard Jack’s phone chime.

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Aid: 5.2

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New Jersey Pine Barrens, James:

James Toranaga was having fun. He was having WAY too much fun.

The nearest of the targets was almost a hundred feet away; the nearest he could see, at any rate. He twisted in the air and shot off after it like an arrow loosed from a bow. The target was fast, but he was faster. He closed to spitting distance in barely more than a second and reached out with his second power, his mind extending through the wind itself to slap the projectile out of the sky. He didn’t pause to watch it fall, regardless of how satisfying that would be, but instead twisted in the air once more, searching for another target.

The pigeons were pretty basic, a bright foam padding around a baseball-like core; softened, in case they hit him. They stood out great against the leafy canopy of the forest far below. He scanned the scenery all around, and let out a groan. Nothing. He’d only managed six.

“Darn it,” he grumbled. “I wanted double digits this time.”

“Good work, Kiddo!” Hideyoshi called from the hilltop on which the launching crew was placed, his voice sounding almost as pumped as James had felt a moment before. “I’m sending up another wave! Go ahead and try it in your other form this time!”

Of the many things that might have put the wind back into James’ sails, that statement was near the top. He grinned.

“Yes sir!” he called, pivoting in midair and snapping his grandfather a playful salute, before tapping once more into his powers, and starting to push his transformation out. Two seconds of effort later, he felt the now only slightly disturbing sensation of his clothes falling through his newly spectral form.

He was so ready for this.

Far below him, his grandfather was directing teams; twenty or so operators manning the machines that would send James’ next set of targets rocketing out above the trees.

“Ready volley,” Hideyoshi called. “On three. Two. One. Pull!” The man brought his hand down, and James watched as the swarm of projectiles was launched high and fast into the sky, flying in a loose, but slowly widening formation. He let out a laugh.

Too easy.

James shot forwards once again, his titan’s arms stretching behind himself like the readied hands of god. He drew close, saw the lights twirling as the wind-lines played themselves in shining ribbons around each of the discs, and brought his colossal hands forward in a single, sharp clap, right at the centre of the swarm. When his palms met, it was with the fury of a storm. He heard the winds crash together, and watched, giddy, as the force of it sent birds to flight from their perches for dozens, if not hundreds of feet around him.

“Best. Day. Ever!”

He took a moment to take a breath of the intoxicatingly fresh forest air, then returned to his grandfather, holding his captured targets clenched in a single wind-formed fist.

“I think I broke a couple of them,” he called as he approached, gingerly lowering the skeet towards Hideyoshi, before dumping them all at his feet. “Foam’s kinda delicate.”

For a few moments, the old man didn’t speak, simply gazing at the mound of shattered discs before him. Then, he began to laugh, loud and gleeful, into the quiet forest air.

“Well, it’s official!” he crowed, putting a hand up to shade his eyes while he scanned the skies for James. “I have the strongest grandson! What was that, ten seconds? There has to be thirty of the things in that pile!”

If James had still had a face in that moment, he’d have been grinning ear to ear.

It had been a two hour drive to get from Manhattan to the testing site; a covered government facility buried in some New Jersey woodland reserve. It had been worth it, though. The air here was fresh, the trees were great, and James was able to stretch his powers out further than he’d ever had a chance to let them go. He felt alive.

“Again,” he begged. “Please. I wanna go again! I wanna hit ALL the things!”

His grandfather rolled his eyes, and gave him a chuckle.

“Okay. One more, but then, we test your flight speed.”

“Yes!” James crowed. “Best grandad! You are the best grandad!”

“Yeah, yeah.” With that, Hideyoshi turned back to the bulk of his work team. “Alright, folks, you heard the demigod. Let’s set up another volley. Teams A and C, skew your angles by fifteen degrees. We don’t want him catching half the swa-”

James lost track of his grandfather’s words beyond that point, already drifting up, high above the hill so as to watch the swarm take flight. At a bellowed word so far below him that he could barely even hear it, the machines loosed. James watched gleefully as his quarry caught the wind, each one of them trailing behind it a hundred sparkling strands of sky thrown into chaos at their passing.

Had he been watching a little closer, he might have seen one of the machines fail to fire, it’s mechanism jammed. He didn’t see this, and so, he swooped forwards, diving in to pursue the swarm in what had to be the most exciting game of his life.

He kept his distance, this time, moving to a level with the formation, then coming to a halt. He’d won with force last time. This time, he’d play the sniper, test how far and true his shots could fly in this rare, unhindered state. He never got the chance to play at full power, and he was going to make the best of it.

He set his gaze on the first of the targets, hanging loose as the formation began to lose cohesion. He extended. Not an arm, this time, but in the same manner he usually did in his human form, with the hand beyond his hand; a single tendril of thin, gently guided force. He could see it now, the imprint of his power in relief amidst the wind-lines. It was almost startling how much easier it made the shot to aim.

James struck, and nearly six hundred feet away, the first of the targets fell, not simply slapped from the sky as before, but severed cleanly in two.

… I didn’t even know I could do that.

He set his sights on a new target and didn’t notice the final launcher firing late, but for the faint cracks as his grandfather tugged its first two projectiles from the sky. Before the man could set his aim on the third, however, the point became abruptly moot. The final disc struck the membrane surrounding what little form James’ body had, and passed through it, an edge grazing just barely against one of the bluish orbs where his ribs should be.

For a moment, James was simply surprised. Watching the discus soar away, trails of what he could only really think of as himself caught in swirling eddies behind it. Then the nausea hit him.

He didn’t notice, at first, that his human body had returned. He was too busy acclimating to what might have been the worst headache in the history of pain; a pulsing in his skull that felt like being squeezed by an iron glove. He only really became aware of the reversion when he vomited, hunching over into a ball in the sky and losing what little food he had recently consumed out over the otherwise perfect forest landscape.

Don’t fall. He told himself, barely coherent as the world around him went loose and fluid as water. Whatever you do, James. You. Do. Not. Fall.

He blacked out.


“So,” Hideyoshi said through a bite of his burger, nearly an hour and a half later. “That windy thing of yours basically turns your body into a giant glowing weak spot. Good to know.”

James gazed glumly at his food. He wasn’t hungry.

Across the table, he heard the older man sigh.

“Let me guess. You’re bummed out because you were having a good time before it all went sideways, right?”

James folded his arms, and gave a sullen nod.

“Then I’ll ask you the same thing I asked your dad the first time he got himself hurt snowboarding: Do you never want to do the cool thing again? Are you giving up?”

“… No.”

“Then shape up,” Hideyoshi rumbled. “If you still want to try again, then it can’t be bad enough to get all mopey about, can it?”

James scowled, tried to think up a counter argument, failed, and settled for flicking one of his chips at him. He missed.

“That’s the spirit,” Hideyoshi murmured, chuckling.

In the silence that followed, James’ milkshake arrived. Strawberry. His favorite. He took a sip, and found it a good deal easier on his stomach than the burger. He drank more. It was hard, being sullen with a milkshake. He found his mood improving, whether he wanted it to or not.

As they resumed their overlong journey home, James found himself cheered up enough to converse, and the two of them whiled away the time on gentler things: Cartoons and school, for the most part, interspersed with a few tales from his grandfather’s youth; a number of which, to James’ surprise, seemed to have taken place during the late Momoyama period. Eventually, however, James mustered up the nerve to turn the conversation elsewhere.

“Jiji?” he asked when they were only half an hour or so from home. “If I showed you a spell I’d found, could you tell me what it did?”

Hideyoshi gave his grandson an odd look, one eyebrow slightly raised.

“You mean another power?” he asked. “Because if you’ve got even more you haven’t shown me after only a month or so of without even any real training, that’s pretty damn impres-”

“No,” James murmured, cutting the old man off. “Not that kind of spell. I mean, like, one with instructions and ingredients and stuff.”

“You mean a ritual?” asked Hideyoshi, a touch amused. “James, you know the magic books at school aren’t real, rig-”

“No,” he replied, his voice firm. “Jiji, I’m serious. I’ve got it written down. Can you take a look for me?”

Hideyoshi hesitated at that, perhaps unsure of what to say, before something in the way the boy had spoken seemed to sway him.

“Sure. Just let me find a place to park.”

The next few minutes were more than a little weird inside the car. James dug out his phone while the older man pulled the car down a side street, and set about pulling up the instructions that Caleb had given him, trying to ignore the way his grandfather kept looking at him; the occasional furtive glance out of the corner of his eye. It was a necessary discomfort, though. There was no way he’d let Caleb use a spell on him until he was sure it was what he claimed. That was why he’d gotten the instructions from him in the first place.

When the car finally slowed to a halt, James handed his grandfather the phone without a word, and waited for the verdict. He tried not to look worried while the older man tracked his eyes slowly across the screen. After a few seconds, the silence abruptly broke.

“It’s no good,” Hideyoshi muttered. “The screen’s too small. I can’t read the damn thing.”

James rolled his eyes, and leaned across the divide to enlarge the view.

Again, the inside of the car was quiet. James folded his arms.

“… James,” Hideyoshi murmured a minute or so later, speaking with the controlled calm of a man asking where a child had found a gun. “Can you tell me where in the hell you got ahold of this?”

James made an effort to look the older man in the eye as he gave his answer, regardless of how out of place it felt.

“There’s a boy I know who says he needs my help,” he said, his tone as clear and calm as he could make it. “Wants my energy so he can get away from the people who’re making him a slave. I wanted to check it with someone I could trust.”

For a long moment, Hideyoshi didn’t speak, simply gazing at his grandson, his lips parted in a silent ‘oh’.

James held his gaze as long as he could, before turning his eyes to the floor, self-conscious.

After another moment or two, he gave up waiting for the older man to speak.

“Something up?” he asked, still staring at his feet.

“No,” Hideyoshi replied eventually. “Just… Adjusting. It sounds like my grandson might be more connected to New York’s criminal underground than I am. It’s not something you expect to hear from a twelve year old.”

“… Are you gonna tell me it’s dangerous?” James asked. “That I’m in way over my head? That I could get-”

“No,” his grandfather cut him off. “I’m not.” James looked up at him at that, and saw the man gazing right back at him, his expression carefully neutral. “If I wanted to get in your way, I’d have told your dad about those misadventures with Tasha, or getting in a fight with a trafficking ring. You’re a Toranaga, and that means you’re a soldier. I expect you to know the dangers well enough on your own.” Hideyoshi sniffed, then continued.

“But, if I ever have to save you,” he rumbled. “It means you’re done. You can ask me for help, or advice, or anything you want; but if you drop yourself in trouble you don’t know how to solve, then the moment I save you, I’m marching you home and telling your dad everything I know. You’ll go back to being my grandson, and I won’t trust you with yourself like that again.”

“… Wow,” James mumbled, unsure what in the world there even was to say to that. “Um… You uh… You do know I’m just trying to help a friend of mine get away, right? I’m not trying to be Batman or anything.”

Across from him, Hideyoshi closed his eyes, and took a breath.

“Oh,” he muttered tiredly. “Thank Christ above for that.”

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Aid: 5.1

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James:

“Honestly, I was planning to kill you.”

At first, James’ only response was to laugh. The statement was just too silly; more like something out of a morning cartoon script than real life. He snorted, then shook his head, and turned his gaze to Caleb… only to see that the other boy wasn’t laughing. He felt something cold settle in his stomach.

“… You’re serious,” he murmured, the words coming out faint, half-shocked.

“I wouldn’t joke about this.” Caleb replied, his voice deeply tired. “I… Look. No offence. You’re a cool kid, and I honestly kinda like hanging out with you, but… God damn it.” He brought a hand up against his forehead, and let out a groan. “It was the only way for me to escape, okay?”

In response, James simply stared. The other boy’s explanation, far from adding clarity, had only added another layer of confusion. Caleb peeked out from under his hand, saw James’ expression, and shook his head.

“Okay, look. In the simplest terms, I’m a slave, alright?”

“… You’re a what?”

“A slave,” Caleb repeated, his tone bitter. “I’m not gonna say it again. It’s not a fun thing to admit. My masters bred me and the others like me to hunt monsters. They wanted a hunting dog that was smart enough to do most of the work on its own without too much oversight; so, about thirty years ago, they started collecting half-breeds. People with a little bit of werewolf, or vampire, or whatever else, and began trying to get the right mix for a really good hunter. That’s why I’ve got a bunch of tiny powers instead of one big one.”

Caleb stopped there for a moment, and turned his gaze skywards, apparently waiting for James to comment. For his part, however, James had no idea what to say. This was… Too much of a curveball. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, before finally managing a quiet:

“Um…”

Caleb let out a single dark chuckle at that.

“Yeah. Pretty fucked up.” The boy fell silent then, returning his gaze to the stars while James muddled it all through inside his head. He was too tired for this.

“… Can’t you just, you know, run away?” he asked.

“I could,” Caleb agreed. “And I’d make it maybe four hours before they killed me. They put sort of a…” he stopped for a moment, seemingly in thought, then shrugged. “Meh, I might as well just show you. It’s easier than explaining, you know?”

James did not know. The other boy had thus far left him utterly confused; a feeling that redoubled when, without any further warning, Caleb shrugged off his jacket, and started peeling his shirt up away from his chest. James had a moment to glimpse a surprisingly developed set of muscles being revealed beneath the hem, before he turned away, his cheeks very red.

“… Are you gonna look or not?” Caleb asked, the faintest hint of annoyance running momentarily through his voice. “It’s cold out here.”

James hesitated for a long moment, before turning to look. Caleb had his back to him now, one hand pointing to the patch of skin just below his neck.

It was a tattoo, James thought; a series of flowing lines and oddly shaped symbols stitching themselves together into a circle between the boy’s shoulder blades, etched in black against the skin. James wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but in the evening gloom, he thought he might have caught it glowing.

“They give us these brands on the day they start teaching us magic,” Caleb muttered. “It lets them drain the magic out of us when they want to. It’s way harder to prep an escape if you only have enough for a spell or two every day.” He turned to look at James, and began to pull his shirt back on.

“But that’s not the bad part. See, if you start to disobey, or they start to think you’ve run away, then they just keep draining you till it kills you. There’s no running away from it.”

“… And killing me was supposed to help with that?” James asked, his confusion finally finding something concrete to latch onto, and allowing the betrayal to finally register inside his mind.

“… No,” Caleb admitted sourly. “I was gonna use you to get myself free, but that wasn’t the part that was gonna kill you. I’ve been sort of scavenging little bits and pieces around the place that could maybe help me get myself out of this.” At that, he pushed off from the ledge, allowing his body to slide down the incline into the skating pit. He trudged towards the basketball, and gave it a kick.

“It was small stuff,” he murmured. “Ingredients for spells that no one would miss, recipes for rituals that could maybe help me get away clean. I picked one up about a year ago that was supposed to let me pull the magic out of someone for a while, maybe supercharge myself enough to overload my brand and run. And then I found you; a kid who was so powerful it might even be enough to let me free two people. I got greedy.”

James gazed down at the other boy, unsure of what to feel. A part of him still wanted to be furious. Another part of him was angry at himself for that. He shook his head.

“Who are they?” he asked. “This other person you wanted to save?”

“… She’s called Twenty Three,” Caleb muttered. “They don’t really give us names. She’s my… I dunno. My partner, I guess.”

James tactfully ignored the faint trace of red dusting the other boy’s cheeks at that.

“So, why do you have a name, then?”

“I don’t,” Caleb grunted. “I’m a number too. I chose Caleb.”

“What num-”

“Don’t,” Caleb cut him off. “Please, just. Just let me be Caleb, okay? I’d like to have just one person who didn’t think of me as a number.”

“… Okay.”

Caleb folded his arms, then gave him a nod.

“So,” he continued. “That ritual. I was gonna call you out for training, set it up, and snare you. Then, while you were weakened, I was gonna knock you out and call my masters to tell them I captured an extremely potent cross-breed.”

“… The heck?” James asked, something akin to rage rekindling itself inside his gut. “Who does that, Ca-”

“I told you I was planning to kill you,” Caleb interjected tonelessly. “Handing you over to them would have meant they’d take you to their main facility to get you branded. Then, all I’d have to do is tell your family where you were, and that you’d been kidnapped by my boss, and suddenly my masters would be too busy dealing with a family of angry mega mages to notice me and my partner escaping. You either die in the crossfire, or get killed because my master would rather kill you than let you get away. I make it out clean, and spend the rest of my life trying not to think about the kid I killed.” He took a deep breath, and turned his eyes to the stars.

“But then that friend of yours fucked it all up.”

“You were going to use my family as a weapon?!” James asked, incensed.

“Yes,” Caleb replied, his tone deeply bitter. “I was. But then you go and you start talking to that Tasha girl about your family and she hands you off to talk to some dude she lives with, and you call him your grandpa. So, suddenly, if I ever actually DO try and kidnap you, the first thing she’ll do is tell your grandad about this guy you’ve been hanging out with who she totally doesn’t trust. Suddenly, your family won’t be going after my master at all. Suddenly, they’ll be going after me. All that work, for fucking noth-”

The wind blast hit Caleb in the side, slamming his shoulder against the concrete wall of the pit with the force of a small car. There was a loud crack, and he let out a yelp of surprise and pain. He turned back to look at James, and got halfway through a curse word, before the second one struck him in the nose.

A part of James wondered why the other boy hadn’t bothered trying to dodge. In the end, though, he couldn’t bring himself to care. He struck again, and Caleb fell to his knees. He struck again.

He wanted to shout. He wanted to scream. If he could have thought of the words, then perhaps he would have done so. As it was, however, James kept silent as he beat his former friend. Five, ten, fifteen blows. He kept going until the rage that filled him had burned itself down to merely a slight tremor running through his fingers, before finally, he spoke, his voice quiet.

“You don’t use my family like that, Caleb.”

The bloodied boy took a few moments to push himself upright, then gazed at James, his expression cold.

“I wasn’t asking you to forgive me,” he muttered, pausing briefly to wipe the blood from his lip with a sleeve. “I just wanted you to know. Try and have someone in the world who knows that I’m a pers-”

“Shut up,” James muttered. “I don’t care what you want. I wish I could, but I don’t. Just-” he hesitated for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts. “… Just tell me about this ritual. Will it let me get my power back after?”

“… What?” Caleb asked, one eye going wide in shock, the other swollen closed where it had struck against the concrete.

James rolled his eyes.

“I mean, obviously, I’m gonna need to know how this thing works if we’re gonna figure out how to get you and your partner free, aren’t I?”

For a long time, Caleb simply gazed at him, his mouth hanging ever so slightly open as fresh blood oozed towards his chin.

“You…” he mumbled. “You mean you’re just gonna let me drain you?”

James gazed stonily at the older boy for a moment, then let out a sigh.

“Caleb,” he murmured.

“Yeah?”

“You’re an idiot.”

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Interlude: Lee.

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Author’s Note: Hey, guys. So, I’ve recently noticed that I kinda forgot to ever actually link my site to my Patreon… which explains a couple things. So, uh, yeah. You might note a new Patreon link in the banner menu. Yay. On with the chapter.

Lee:

The final hours of Lee Shyver’s life were exceptionally dull.


“Sorry, man. I’m stuck in traffic. Gimme like, ten minutes, okay?”

Lee moved the phone away from his cheek for a moment so Lauren wouldn’t hear him sigh, and glanced at the clock. She was already half an hour late. He took a breath, then returned the phone to his cheek.

“Sure, fine. But try and make this the last time, kay? I’m getting kinda tired of having to cover for you like this.”

The girl got maybe halfway through thanking him, before he hung up, and stepped back out of the office into the main area. Still no customers. He sighed. At least serving someone would have given having to work late some sense of purpose.

Across the way, Evan shot him a grin as he dragged the mop over the grease laden floor.

“You cut her way too much slack, dude. I mean. I get she’s got a cute ass, but still.”

Lee managed to restrain himself to merely frowning at the boy at that.

Not his fault, he reminded himself. He’s seventeen. All seventeen year olds are idiots. Just let it go.

“She’s a good worker,” he murmured, casting a cursory glance around the store for something to do, and settling for checking the till. “Better than you when she gets here on time.”

Evan brushed off the rebuke with nothing more than a snicker.

“Sure, man. That’s why you keep her around,” he replied, his tone dripping sarcasm. “Got nothing to do with that rack. Come on, dude. You know you’d tap that.”

Lee didn’t respond to that with words. Instead, he just caught the younger man’s gaze and held it, his expression calm. He watched, with just a hint of satisfaction, as Evan slowly realized he’d put his foot in it, and the grin slowly faded from his face.

“That… Uh,” Evan muttered, his cheeks going a little red. “… Too far?”

“She’s your fucking co-worker,” Lee murmured, folding his arms. “Show her some respect, or I’ll put you on toilet duty for a month.”

Evan returned his eyes to his task, ashamed.

“… Sorry.”

Lee didn’t answer right away, instead, he just let the kid stew while he counted out the money in the first till.

“One day, Evan,” he murmured, not really bothering to look at him. “You’ll meet a girl, you’ll fall in love, and you’ll realize it feels kinda bad to see people treating her like a set of boobs on legs. Not your fault you haven’t learned that yet, but I’ll let you know for free, the sooner you learn it, the more likely you are to find a girl that sticks around.”

“… What are you, some kinda guru now?”

“Heh,” Lee chuckled. “Nah. Just a guy who’s telling you how he sees the world.” He raised his eyes to Evan then. “Besides, It’s kinda annoying to see you talking shit when I know she likes you.”

Evan had been looking away from him until then, purposely averting his eyes as he continued to mop the floor, not really making it any cleaner. At those words, though, he jerked, turning his gaze to his manager in shock.

“She what!?”

Lee only laughed at that, returning his attention to the till.

“Why’d you think I’ve been putting you two on shifts together all month?” He asked. “Cuz she’s been waiting for you to nut up and ask her out, you doof.”

Evan opened his mouth, then closed it again; a process that repeated more than once. Lee chuckled. Given even the simplest prospect of romance, and the kid was glubbing like a fish. Eventually, Evan managed a single question.

“… What do I do?”

Lee considered it the greatest act of mercy he had ever performed that he didn’t simply cackle at the boy right then. Instead, he settled on a grin.

“Well, first thing I’d advise is maybe don’t keep talking about her rack. She likes YA movies. Maybe ask her to see one with you.” He watched as Evan gave a quiet nod, then decided to test him.

“You’re right, though,” he murmured. “Girl has the best tits.”

Almost immediately, Evan’s expression changed, shifting from absent shock to anger.

“Hey,” he growled. “Don’t be that guy, you dick!”

“See?” Lee asked, trying and failing to hide his smirk. “It’s different when she likes you back.”


Lee vacated the store almost the moment Lauren arrived, stopping only to pat the terrified looking Evan on the shoulder as he passed. Then, because he was an adult, he gave the boy a none too subtle wink from behind her back, just to watch him squirm.

He stepped out to his car, climbed in, and in line with his tradition, pulled off his manager’s badge before chucking it in the back seat with all the contempt he could muster. He picked up a burger on his way home. Double patty, extra chips. The late shift always left him hungry.

The drive was a short one. Half an hour or so, at most. He enjoyed it, for the most part, using it to unwind. Evan was a good kid, but his idiocy got under his skin sometimes. He put on some music on the way home, and did his best to let the rhythm wash it all away. He ate his burger on the road, a couple bites for every set of traffic lights, washed down with over-sweetened coke.

Eventually, he made it home, pulled in at the tiny parking lot beside his apartment block, and climbed out. A shower sounded great right now. A really long one.

His apartment was on the ground floor, and it was dark, the blinds in the tiny main room pulled closed against what little light the moon had to give. As such, he didn’t notice the figure sitting on his couch. He drained the last of his coke, then stuffed the burger wrapper inside the empty cup, and crumpled it into a ball with the chip packet. He tossed them in the bin on his way through to the shower.

The figure on the couch watched him from the shadows in silence; surprisingly calm.

Lee groaned as he upended the shampoo bottle over his head and squeezed, only for nothing but air to come out. Just his luck. He knew he’d forgotten something earlier. He shook his head, and opted to just stand under the spray for a while, letting the warmth soak through his tired muscles. It was a workout day tomorrow. He looked forward to being even more achy afterwards. But hey, it was working. He looked better and better every day. He chuckled. Not that it was any use to him, really.

He stepped out of the shower and brushed his teeth in the nude, letting most of the water simply drain off of him as he stood before the mirror. He considered shaving, then decided he couldn’t be bothered. He found a towel, wrapped it around his middle, and stepped out of the bathroom. Maybe he’d watch a movie or something before be-

“Good of you to take your clothes off first,” murmured a male voice in the dark, bearing just the faintest hint of an accent. “It saves some effort dealing with you later.”

Lee bolted by instinct before the man had even finished speaking, his wet feet padding through the thin carpet as he made for his door, some wordless exclamation of surprise and fear hanging from his lips. The man on the couch made no move to stop him as he pulled the front door wide. There was no need.

There was a woman standing in the hallway; elderly; stern. He tried to push past her, and let out a wordless yelp as something caught against his midsection, hurling him back into the dark in a tangle of limbs and fear. He felt something glass-like break against his back; shards of it digging into his skin as some solid kind of frame hunched his shoulders forward. Of all the things he could think in that moment, he felt a pang of loss for his television.

The woman stepped inside, her expression unchanged, and closed the door behind her. All was dark again.

For a moment, all was quiet but for Lee’s breathing and the thudding of his heart inside his chest. What was that? Who were these people? What the fuck was going on?

“We’re not going to be gentle with you, Lee,” the woman’s voice murmured in the dark. “You don’t deserve it. Not even the barest shred of mercy.”

There was something in that voice that was less than human. Too calm. Too cold. The words shook him to his core.

“… Why?” he asked, his voice small; afraid.

No answer. Instead, from the rough position of the couch, he saw a light begin to flicker pale orange in the darkness, the faint shape of a hand caught in silhouette around it. The hand gave a tiny flick, and the fire was upon him.

In the hours that followed, Lee Shyver forgot his name. All he knew was pain, heat, and the ever present glow of that sunset orange light.

In the moments before they took his ears, the man spoke one final thing:

“You really shouldn’t have touched my grandson.”

In the final minutes of his life, Lee Shyver felt regret.

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