Care: 6.6

Previous Chapter:

James:

“I don’t give a damn if I need bed rest,” Hideyoshi Toranaga growled. “I am going to track that woman down and end her.”

“Of course you are, dear,” Tsuru murmured. “Are you comfortable like that, or would you like me to get you another pillow?”

“… Don’t patronize me, woman.”

“You need crutches, dear.” She moved to his bedside, and began pouring out a pot of tea.

Hideyoshi shot a hateful glance at the foam and metal crutches against his wall and let out a groan.

“Don’t remind me. Those things make me feel old.”

“We’ve been old for centuries,” Tsuru murmured, still focused on the tea.

“Well, it didn’t feel that way before.”

James allowed his gaze to flit between his grandparents as they spoke, one eyebrow raised. How were they both so calm right now? Jiji had nearly died.

He nearly jumped as Casper leaned over his shoulder to whisper in his ear:

“It’s all in Japanese. What are they saying?”

“They’re being weird about death,” he muttered back. “Baba’s teasing him about being old.”

“Makes sense,” the older boy replied. “They’re both freaking the hell out; trying to calm each other down.”

“They’re freaking out?” James asked. “They’re acting super calm, tho.”

“Yup.”

“… I kinda wish I had your powers.”

“Stop your muttering, you two,” Tsuru said sharply, her words reverting to English. “It’s rude with other people in the room.”

“I don’t speak Japanese.” Casper pointed out.

“Don’t get fresh with me, Casper. What are you boys here for?”

The boys looked at one another. James shrugged.

“Jiji said he was gonna train me, right?”

“That’s the plan,” Tsuru murmured. “What of it?”

“Was that gonna include, like, combat magic and stuff?”

Tsuru glanced towards her husband, who gave James a nod.

“That’s the idea, yes. Why, did you want to get Casper in on it too?”

“Yeah,” James admitted. “… Also… I wanna start today. Like. Right now.”

His grandmother snorted.

“Eager, are you? So was Peter. Well. Your grandfather’s still a little too out of it for now, but I can certainly give you boys some pointe-”

“No,” Hideyoshi grunted. “Not a chance.”

James scowled at his grandfather. So did Tsuru.

“I know it’s not my turn, Yoshi,” she muttered. “But it’s not as if I’ll be keeping them forever.”

“I’m not that petty, Tsuru,” Hideyoshi snapped. “Think about what he’s done in the last two months. He hides things, he plots, and when his friends get in trouble, he tries to handle it himself-” he shot a glance at James then. “-I’m very proud of you for that, by the way-” He looked back at his wife, her own expression now contemplative. “Ask yourself the chances of him running off half cocked to save his friend if you start teaching him the basics.”

Tsuru thought for a moment, then nodded, and looked back at her grandson, arms crossed, expression neutral.

Internally, James cussed with all the vitriol he could summon.

Heck!

“Oh, thank God,” muttered Casper from behind James’ back. “These guys actually know you. Yeah. He’s totally planning that.”

James turned around at that, appalled at his friend’s sudden betrayal.

“Hey, no fair!” he said, making no effort to hide the hurt in his tone. “I’m not Tasha! I think about this stuff!”

Casper just looked at him at that.

“I got a text from Father,” he said flatly. “He told me he thinks you’re adorable. And he says you punched him through a wall.”

Behind him, James heard Hideyoshi choking on his tea. He shot the other boy a glare, then turned back to his grandparents. Tsuru was already shaking her head, her expression stern. His grandfather was still coughing.

“Okay,” he tried. “I know this sounds bad, but I can explain-”

“The answer’s no, young man,” Tsuru replied. “Don’t make me tell Peter about this.”

“Son of a flip,” James muttered. “Look, I thought it through, okay? I was there two hours before he got there, just to make sure I had a big attack charged up in case he tried anything. And I knew he wouldn’t touch me if he-”

“You’re not helping your case here,” Tsuru growled.

It was at that point when James gave up the last of his composure.

“But he was trying to screw my friend!” he shouted. “What was I supposed to do!?”

The room was quiet for a moment then, before Hideyoshi sighed.

“No one here can answer that for you, James,” he murmured. “Youth and inexperience aside, you’re one of the strongest mages on the planet. You have people you want to protect, and the power to see it done.” He shook his head. “But you’re still a kid, and you’re messing with forces far too big for you. We’re your grandparents. We love you. We refuse to let you throw yourself to the wolves.”

For a second, James just stood there, hands balled into fists. He wasn’t dumb. He knew all of this. Even so, he couldn’t bring himself to let it lie. His gaze dropped to the floor.

“You said you’d let me make my own mistakes,” he muttered.

“I also said I’d save you when I had to,” Hideyoshi answered. “This woman fought Tsuru, Caleb and myself all on the same night; while Caleb was empowered with your energy, no less. Even considering what she was up against, she managed to knock two of us out cold. You are not to go anywhere near her.”

James continued staring at the ground, allowing the words to wash over him. There had to be something he could say. He had to make them understand.

“He likes him,” said Casper. James looked around, his grandparents following his gaze. His friend looked back at him, eyes querying, asking permission. James thought about it for a moment, then gave a resigned shrug. They’d have to find out some time. Casper nodded, opened his mouth, then stopped when he shook his head.

“I’ll do it,” he muttered. He turned towards his grandparents, still not looking at them. “It’s the kid they took; Charlie… He’s not just my friend, okay?… I like him.”

A momentary silence, then another sigh from his grandpa.

“I see.”

“… Promise you won’t tell dad?”

“It’s not ours to tell,” Tsuru’s voice replied.

James took a deep breath, then forced himself to look at his grandparents, his cheeks still a little red.

“I wanna save him.”

Tsuru shook her head.

“You’re too close to this,” she answered. “Even if you were fully trained. Emotion gets in the way, and you have a lot of emotions on your mind. It’d make you reckless. You’d make mistakes.” James opened his mouth. She forestalled him with a hand. “But I can see where you’re coming from. You deserve to know what’s going on. We captured six of their operatives the night that they took Charlie. Those operatives are currently being interrogated by some of the most efficient specialists America has to offer.”

She was gazing at him now. Not hostile, but stern. He hesitated, then nodded for her to continue.

“It wasn’t just Charlie who got taken. We’ve been getting reports of people vanishing from their beds in at least three other cities outside the country. This has become an international matter. Interpol is currently coordinating between the United States and half the police departments in Europe, trying to find out who these people are, and where the hell they came from.”

She took a deep breath, then continued.

“Hideyoshi and I are well aware that this is going to be a sizeable fight. We have reached out to some friends of ours in Egypt and Japan, and those friends are already on their way to the U.S.” She paused for a moment there, her gaze steady with James’ own. “The moment we can find a lead on where these people are, Charlie’s mother will create a portal to extract him. Then, we shall lay into his captors with all the fury we possess. I promise, James; everything that can be done is being done.”

“… There’s gotta be something I can do,” James muttered. “Even if it’s just giving my powers away again… I don’t wanna be useless again.”

Hideyoshi answered before Tsuru could.

“You’re not useless,” he grunted. “I know this feels like a loss because your-” he searched around a moment for the right word. “-friend is gone, but the truth of the matter is that your involvement put Tsuru and myself on the scene. In doing that, you rescued all the other children that woman was trying to take from New York. You allowed the capture of those six enemy officers, and your energy allowed Caleb to break free of his chains with only a collection of broken bones to show for it, even rescuing two of his fellows in the process. The things we gained from that encounter will likely be what allows us to save Charlie in the end. You helped, James.”

James took his grandfather’s words and tried to absorb them, weighing them as best he could against the pain in his gut.

“… This sucks,” he muttered, wiping his nose against his sleeve.

The four of them lapsed into a somber sort of quiet. Casper gave his hand a squeeze.

… Stupid radar brain, he thought, squeezing back.

Eventually, Tsuru broke the quiet with a sigh.

“I want the two of you back here tomorrow morning for your first lesson,” she muttered. “No combat magic until after this is done, but we can at least get you started on the initial meditations. As for you,” she turned to Casper. “I don’t know who exactly taught you what you know thus far, but I’ll be teaching you a variant of the shield spell; something to protect your body and mind since you’re apparently so hell-bent on spending time with Father.” She considered for a moment. “James too. For my own peace of mi-”

She was interrupted by James’ form colliding with her chest.

“Thank you!” he crowed, giving his grandmother the tightest hug he could manage. “Thank you thank you thank you!”

Tsuru snorted.

“Don’t thank me, squirt. We both know if I didn’t give you something, you’d have run off to find another teacher. I just didn’t want you running loose with Caleb’s fire glove spell.”

James got halfway through a laugh, before the image hit his brain of himself hovering above the city, his arms wreathed in emerald fire. He went very still.

“… That’d be so freakin’ cool.”

Previous Chapter:

Care: 6.5

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Charlie:

Charles Vance gazed out into the slow snowfall beyond his cell’s window, and once more tried to convince himself that staying at the compound had been a good idea. It was harder than it should have been. Everything Twenty Three had told him had been true. It was just annoying how little that actually helped.

Charlie let his eyes scan slowly back and forth across the snow-clad mountainscape, searching once again for evidence of a ski-slope. It was hard to make out anything from this distance, even without the snow.

Behind him, he heard the latch of his cell door click open. He turned. The person at the door was familiar. Bors; a blond man in what were either his late teens or early twenties, with slate grey eyes and a tendency towards unsolicited smiles. The man was carrying a metal tray, a bowl of some thick, meat-filled soup steaming faintly atop it. Charlie scowled.

Please don’t talk to me. Please don’t talk to me. Please don-

“Hello, Charles,” said Bors, his voice accented with something Charlie stood no chance of identifying.  “How are we doing today?” As he spoke, the man stepped properly into the room, depositing the food on the table beside his bed.

Charlie didn’t answer. Instead, he just turned his head back towards the window, and continued searching for a ski-slope. One week, he’d decided. He’d give Twenty Three one week to make contact with him, then he’d make his best guess at an inhabited mountain, and portal his way out.

“Still don’t feel like talking, huh?” Bors said, masking his disappointment with a chuckle. “It’d be better for all of us if you did, you know. I can’t imagine how many questions you must have bottled away in there. I’d be happy to explain some things.”

Charlie shook his head. This was one of the most frustrating things about this place. Everyone was too damn polite.

“Kid down the hall was crying again last night,” he muttered. “When are we going home?”

Bors’ smile dropped a fraction.

“I don’t have an answer there,” he replied, mimicking yesterday’s response verbatim. “We can’t know how long we’ll need to keep you, or anyone, until we know what you can do.”

“You keep saying that like you’re expecting something big,” Charlie muttered, turning so as to look Bors in the eye. “Whatever it is, I don’t have it. So just let me go.”

“That is bullshit, Charles,” Bors replied. Then he sighed. “My apologies. I shouldn’t swear in front of a boy.” He took a step back towards the door, and gestured to Charlie’s meal. “Eat your soup. You might feel better with something warm in your belly.”

Charlie glanced at his soup, then looked back at Bors. The man smiled again, almost encouraging. That made the decision for him. In four steps, he traversed the space to his bed, sat himself down, and picked up the bowl.

It hit Bors in the chest, hot soup exploding out across a formerly pristine grey uniform and scalding at his skin. He let out a yell, first in pain, then in rage, crossing the distance between them in two steps. Charlie didn’t flinch, even when Bors’ retaliatory strike caught him in the cheek, snapping his head to the side.

To say it didn’t hurt would have been a lie. Charlie could taste the blood in his mouth, his tongue suddenly a little too big for his teeth. Unsurprising. Bors was twice his size, after all. Given his last few days, however, it was next to nothing.

Charlie looked up at the older man, wiped the blood from his mouth with a sleeve, and grinned.

See that? You’re a kidnapping asshole. Stop pretending.

It took Bors a few moments to reclaim his composure. Eventually, however, his stance relaxed, his hand slowly unclenching from a fist. He wasn’t smiling anymore; not even trying. There was a touch of regret behind his eyes.

“Boy,” he murmured, wiping a measure of the soup from his face. “If you were a year older, I’d have made you lose a tooth for that.” Charlie laughed with as much derision as he could at that. Bors ignored him. “Come on.” He gestured to the door. “You still need to eat something.”

Charlie would have refused. He was still feeling petty; but he could smell the soup now coating a good portion of the room. His stomach growled. He felt a momentary regret for the aching in his jaw.

“… Fine.”

It was perhaps twenty steps out into the hallway before Bors spoke up again.

“You need to stop treating us like the enemy,” he muttered. “I know it’s hard to see right now, but I promise you; we’re on the same side.”

Charlie snickered.

“Your boss set my house on fire,” he replied. “Knocked out my mom and left her in the street. I’m not on your side. Your side sucks.”

“Leanne gave her life to see you here safely,” Bors snapped. “Have some respect or I’ll show you the back of my hand again.”

“You’re really bad at this whole ‘not my enemy’ thing, you know that?”

The rest of their trip was made in blessed silence, Bors still scowling, Charlie trying to commit the layout of the place to memory. He wasn’t able to glean much. Just a bunch of narrow hallways and a depressing amount of security cameras. 

Their arrival at the kitchen almost came as a relief. It was the biggest room Charlie had seen in days, four rows of sturdy wooden tables and orthopedic seats. Only one of those seats was currently in use, a dull, suit-clad man who Charlie would have guessed to be in his early seventies, eating a bowl of the same soup that coated Bors. The man glanced up as they entered, and nodded. Charlie nodded back, half-hearted, then began to look for food.

Bors had made a B-line for a set of stoves, at the top of which simmered a vat of yet more soup. He looked to Charlie, then gestured meaningfully at the soup. He was ignored.

Charlie had been on this world for almost thirteen years. He had a loving mother and he knew exactly what she would let him get away with. 

Charlie knew how to raid a kitchen.

Bors didn’t try to stop him as he moved from shelf to shelf, filling his pockets with every sugar encrusted object he could find. A glance at his expression told Charlie all he needed to know. He had decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Good. Charlie would make use of that.

Eventually, however, his pockets ran out of space. So did his hands. Judging his task completed, Charlie sat himself down on a tabletop, pulled open the foil on a packet of some unrecognizable european candy, and tipped it into his mouth. 

Bors scowled. Charlie grinned at him as he chewed, pointedly ignoring the pain in his jaw. At this point, annoying Bors was the only entertainment he had available.

“So,” he said, not bothering to swallow his food. “You said you’d explain stuff. What are you planning here?”

“Can’t tell you that.” Bors huffed.

“That figures.” Charlie swallowed his food. “Okay. Can you tell me where we are?”

“No.”

“Can you tell me who you guys are?”

An angry groan.

“No.”

“Are we in Germany? You sound kinda German. Is this some kind of Nazi thin-”

“I’m from Luxembourg!” Bors snapped. “And no. We are not Nazis.”

Charlie shrugged.

“What part of Luxembourg?”

Bors put a palm against his face, and didn’t answer.

Charlie scowled.

“You promised you’d tell me stuff.”

“Then give me something I can answer!”

Charlie snorted.

“Like what?”

The chuckling behind Charlie’s back almost him jump. He turned around, and caught sight of the elderly man in the suit, currently on the last few spoonfuls of his soup. The man waved.

“He can’t tell you anything important,” he said, his voice almost boringly English. “He doesn’t have the required clearance, and doesn’t know how much he’s allowed to say.”

Bors glared.

“Who the hell are you, old man?”

The man shrugged, pulled an ID card from his pocket, and tossed it to Bors.

“Sebastian Grey. I’m the new CEO. Or the old one, I suppose. Leanne had me removed when she took over.” He ate another mouthful of soup. “She’s dead now. I’m here to clean up her mess.” Bors bristled. He was ignored. “Check my ID if you don’t believe me. For now, though, I need you to leave. I’ll be speaking with Mr. Vance alone.”

Bors didn’t move. His fists were clenched.

“Leanne was a good woman,” he growled, his teeth bared. “Do not-”

Mr Grey flicked two fingers in Bors’ direction. There was a loud snap, and Bors disappeared. 

“I swear. Leanne let everything important slip while I was gone.”

Charlie watched the whole confrontation, at first confused, then alarmed. 

“The heck did you just do?”

“Just a teleport,” the man shrugged. “I don’t like having my time wasted.”

Sebastian finished the last of his soup, and turned to look at him.

“Did your mother ever tell you anything about elves, son?”

“Uh, what?” Charlie asked, one eyebrow crawling slowly up his scalp.

“I’ll take that as a no then,” Mr Grey nodded, pushed his soup bowl to one side, and began picking at the lid of his yogurt carton, his fingers a little clumsy. He grunted. “Damned arthritis. I’m sorry, would you mind?” He proffered the carton to Charlie, who moved forward to pull the tab free without thinking; too busy being perplexed. “Thank you. Now then. As you have recently discovered, Charles, magic is real. People who have it are able to use what you could think of as specialized superpowers. Your mother has powers, I have powers, and as we both know, you have powers.”

“I don’t-” Charlie started, but Mr. Grey cut him off.

“No use denying it. We could tell your powers had manifested the moment you set foot inside this building.”

Charlie crossed his arms and let out a huff.

Mr. Grey cracked a dry smile.

“That was a lie, but your response was quite informative.” 

Charlie scowled even harder at that. It was a dumb trick, even when it worked.

Mr. Grey produced a clean spoon from his jacket pocket and gave his yogurt a stir.

“The situation is fairly complex, but all you really need to know is that our species is at war. There are some people who accept this fact, and there are some who don’t. Your mother is one of the people who do not. She, along with most of the rest of the world, would rather ignore the elves building portals to our world and hunting us like dogs. They do this because it is easier. That is their choice.” He gave Charlie a cold look. “They’re cowards.”

“Screw you,” Charlie replied on general principle. “My Mom’s not a coward.”

Mr. Grey continued on as if Charlie hadn’t spoken.

“Historically, of course, there hasn’t really been anything our species could do about these attacks. We have powerful people, but our planet doesn’t have the energy to keep us at full strength. Even our best mages are working with maybe a fifth of their actual power. The elves don’t have that problem. They put us on this planet to keep us low. They cheated us out of our power because they want to stay on top. One day, we will grow strong enough to make them fear our potential. Either by our numbers, or by our technology. They have already seen what nuclear arms can do. They are already wary of us. One day, the war will start in full. Do you understand me, Charles?” 

Charlie reluctantly nodded. He was listening now, in spite of himself, arms folded and cross-legged atop his table.

“… So what are you doing?”

Sebastian took another mouthful of his yogurt, and reclined a little in his chair. “My organisation-” he gestured vaguely at the space around them. “Has spent the last four decades doing everything we could. We have gathered materials, made weapons, and trained soldiers. All this time, we have been preparing for a war that we couldn’t find a way to win. Then, six years ago, circumstances changed.”

The man paused there, gazing calmly across at him over the dregs of his dessert. Was he awaiting a response?

“Uh,” Charlie muttered. “Okay. What happened six years ago?”

“We were attacked,” Mr. Grey answered, finishing the last full bite of his yogurt and scraping his spoon around the inside of the container for the dregs. “It turns out that not only are the elves willing to exploit us to remain on top; they are also negligent towards the responsibilities that come with that position. A creature they were supposed to be guarding got out. It made its way to Earth, and when it got close enough, it started creating monsters. It made five of them before a man named Ethan Gale sacrificed himself to contain it. Of those five, this planet’s defenders only managed to deal with four of them.”

The man put his spoon down and started ticking off names on his fingers.

“There was the Minotaur: a brute of a thing that almost made its way to Cairo before a space warper trapped it in an endless spiral. Then there was the Hydra: a regenerating sea-snake that flattened an entire coastal town before Tsuru Toranaga and her pet elemental burned out the inside of its skull.”

“Wait. James’ grandma?” Charlie asked. Mr. Grey ignored him.

“Then there was the Crow. We think it was some kind of psychically attuned teleporter, because it assassinated a total of seventy four politicians and celebrities before a pedophile shattered its wings.” He took the last bite of his yogurt. “All evidence suggests that the Behemoth would have been disastrous, but it emerged in Norway, so the twins took care of it before it became an issue. The one that has value here, though, was called the Whale.” He caught sight of the unimpressed look on Charlie’s face, and gave a humorless laugh.

“I know. Not an impressive name. Not very apt, either. Whales are peaceful creatures.” He sighed. “We don’t know how the fight played out. We just know that the team that was sent to fight it broke radio contact a minute or so before the thing was supposed to arrive. A search party found their bodies on the beach a few hours later, all of them brain-dead, aside from the ones fortunate enough to have drowned.”

Charlie just gazed at the older man then. He had no response to that. Was he supposed to be sad? Scared? Should he want to know more? It felt too much like something out of a cartoon.

Sebastian sniffed, picked up his yogurt cup, and crumpled it, before pushing out of his chair towards the trash can. 

“No one wanted to go near the creature after that,” he murmured. “Understandable, I suppose. The Americans tracked its movements via satellite and aerial patrols. The Japanese sent submarines. Their torpedoes didn’t even make it past its shield. When it started moving in towards Bermuda, the Americans and the British started scrambling everything they could.” He smiled. “Wasted effort, in the end. It was still a few dozen miles out when it tore a jagged hole in space-time and moved into another world.”

“Wait, what?” Charlie asked, confused. “It just left?”

“It just left.” Sebastian agreed, depositing his yogurt cup in the trash and stepping back towards his companion, leaning himself against a table. “We were surprised too. You see, the world that this creature traveled into used to be inaccessible. We didn’t even know it was there until we watched the Whale flee. And as it turns out, the hole that it left behind has never truly healed over. The fabric is weaker there. My organisation was able to send some probes through. Do you know what we found?”

Charlie mutely shook his head. The old man grinned.

“We found the perfect planet. It’s empty over there. We couldn’t find anything for miles. Just tropical islands, calm seas, and an atmosphere so untouched that it practically vibrates with ambient magic.” That grin grew wider. “Do you see it yet, Charles? We could use that place to build an army. A real army, on a planet with only one way in and one way out. No ambushes from other worlds. No spying from elven seers. We could be powerful, defensible, and invisible. We could win the war.”

“Um. Okay… But what about the magic death whale?”

Mr. Grey shrugged.

“It’s a sea creature. We can stick to landmasses easily enough. But first, we need to get there.” He reached a hand inside his jacket. For a moment, Charlie was confused as to why the older man had lost his grin. Then he felt the tip of the revolver press against his head.

Charlie squeaked.

“Your mother,” Sebastian said calmly. “Is one of the finest transportation mages on the face of the Earth. She can move a squad of men from London to Jakarta in less than a minute, with pinpoint accuracy. She is one of the few people in the world who could make the kind of bridge we need. If you have those same abilities, you have value to me. If not,” he sighed. “Then I’ll have to rely on the less pedigreed assets Leanne acquired. Don’t look at the gun, Charles. Look at me.”

With what felt like the greatest struggle of will he had ever undergone, Charlie pulled his gaze from the weapon still pressed against his skull, and looked his captor in the eye. He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. He could feel the touch of the metal radiating like ice cubes through every inch of him.

“Please don’t kill me.”

Sebastian sniffed.

“That really depends on what you can bring to the table,” he said, his voice cold. “Now, I’m going to ask you nicely.” He pulled back the gun’s hammer with his thumb. “Would you mind showing me your powers?”

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Care: 6.4

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Casper:

Casper didn’t know exactly what he had been expecting. But it hadn’t been silence.

They’d agreed to meet up at a bowling alley, the idea spurred along by some bitter recollection of a happy family moment. Something they both enjoyed. That was the idea, at least.

For the moment, they were seated in the alley’s diner, a partially walled off space within the rest of the larger complex, differentiated only by a slightly stronger smell of grease. Plastic tables, plastic tablecloths; some acne covered teenager manning the snack counter, looking just as enthused as Casper felt; most of his attention focused on his iPod, earphones in.

His father had ordered a serving of fries. Those fries now sat between them, untouched. Neither had spoken in half an hour. Casper sat there, arms crossed, and gazed evenly into his dad’s face, counting the minutes until Ray made eye contact.

He hadn’t wanted this. James had talked him into it. The boy told him he was dumb for hanging out with a pedo just because he was angry with his folks. He’d tried to disagree. Tried to explain why it was more complicated than that. He hadn’t managed to come up with an argument.

Ray opened his mouth. Casper raised an eyebrow. Ray closed his mouth. Casper rolled his eyes.

“It saved my life, you know,” he muttered. His dad finally looked up at him as he spoke. “What you did. It helped me move when the elves attacked. It helped me stay myself when Father tried to take me. It even let me help a friend when she got herself in trouble. What you did to me helped. It sucked; but it helped.” He picked up a french fry. It hung, limp and cold between his fingers. He dropped it back in the basket. “So why am I still so angry.”

His father didn’t answer. As much as Casper tried not to care, he couldn’t help but notice how bad he looked. His hair was matted, his skin grey; a day or more of stubble sitting along his jaw. For the moment, he was glad he’d sat far enough away to avoid his father’s emotions. He didn’t want to know how the man felt right now.

Ray Sullivan gazed blankly at his son for a while, then began to speak.

“I think your mom and I are splitting up,” he murmured. There was nothing there inside his voice. “We had a fight last night. We’ve been fighting a lot lately.”

Casper opened his mouth, his intent to say something cold. The words didn’t come.

“… I’m sorry to hear that.” He was surprised to find he actually meant it. “Is it because of me?”

“Of course it is,” came the reply. “She still thinks what we did to you was worth it.” Ray shifted his gaze up to the ceiling. “… I can’t anymore.”

Casper raised an eyebrow at that, curious in spite of himself.

“What changed?”

“Peter told us what’s been going on,” Ray droned. “Nearly getting taken by the elves. Nearly getting taken by Father. Your mother thinks it’s like you said. Your powers kept you safe. Maybe she needs to think that. I don’t know. I tried to agree with her. Wanted to be on the same side. But every time I try to think that way, I remember how it felt to see you crying, and my head starts screaming that all the danger you were in was on a path we chased you into.” He let out a single, listless chuckle. “It reminds me how badly we failed you.”

Casper scowled. It was odd to hear a thing like that from his dad. Satisfying wasn’t the right word. Somewhere between that and aggravating.

“If you could go back,” he asked. “Back to when I was nine, and do it all right the first time; scare me so much that you wouldn’t have to do it again. Would you do it?”

Ray shrugged.

“I don’t know. Two weeks ago, I’d have said yes, but-” he shook his head. “God, I don’t think I have the energy anymore. It sounds awful of me to say, but you have no idea how much it hurt to see you sca-.”

“Scared?” Casper snapped, suddenly incensed. “Oh, I know. That’s the thing you don’t get. You wanna know what my power is?” he tapped his head. “I’m an empath. Every single time you hit me after I manifested, I could tell exactly how bad you felt. I knew how empty Mom felt when you hit her.” He laughed, high and angry. “That’s the only reason I stayed with you as long as I did. Because I couldn’t get my head around why you’d be doing it if you felt that way. Then, one night, I come home, and I hear you fighting, and I figure it out. And all I can say about it is fuck you.” He watched as his father buried his head in his hands. “Fuck everything about you.”

When he’d finished saying his piece, Casper was fuming; emotion feeding on itself like a fire inside his skull. He watched his dad sit there, hands still pressed against his face, and wished he could tell if he was crying. Just to see if it made a difference. Ray’s breaths were heavy, slow. Not quite tears, if he had to guess. Too tired. Just Processing.

It was like that for a minute, at least.

When Ray finally spoke, there was nothing left in his tone. Not even exhaustion. He was just flat.

“Are you ever coming home?” he asked.

“What home?” Casper spat. His dad flinched. He sighed. “… Is there even anything for me to come back to now?”

After a long pause, Ray shook his head. It was that moment, in the end, when his father finally cried. He rested his elbows against the table, smushed his palms against his eyes, and began to moan; just these, low, wracking sobs. It was pathetic. It was gross. Casper couldn’t bring himself to look at it.

He pushed himself up out of his chair, rubberized feet skidding along oily tiles, and walked away.

“I can’t watch this,” he said behind himself. “I’m going bowling. Come find me when you pull it together.”

He stepped out past the plastic wall, and into the main area. It was almost empty, just three or four groups scattered amongst the lanes. A pair of teenagers were on an obvious date about a third of the way down, a cluster of kids and adults that bore the look of some kind of school group gathered at the opposite end, and in the middle, James and Sarah, here to supervise, just in case.

Neither of them commented as he placed himself on one of the seats, waiting to join the next game. James cocked an eyebrow at him, his expression curious. Casper shook his head. No further conversation needed.

They were partway into the next game when Ray finally re-emerged, his eyes dry, if a little puffy. Casper paid him no real heed. It was his turn. He just focused on lining up his shot.

“Hey,” Ray murmured quietly as he closed in.

“Hey,” Casper replied, uncaring.

“Sorry about that,” his father murmured. “Just-” he let out a humorless chuckle. “Just dealing with the fact that the people I love most in this world both hate me and want me to find somewhere quiet to die.”

Casper frowned. That… That stung.

“Not funny, Dad,” he muttered reproachfully.

Ray shook his head.

“Look,” he sighed. “I’m trying my hardest here, okay?”

Casper bit back the instinct to say something snide.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “Okay.” He went back to lining up his shot, tuning out the sounds of Ray and Sarah’s perfunctory exchange of greetings. He took his go and watched, uncaring, as the ball rolled true, straight for the centre of the pins. This was followed by a momentary annoyance as the ball swerved off the track at the last second, one pin falling over, seemingly of its own accord. He shot a suspicious glance at James. The younger boy stuck out his tongue. He chuckled. 

Little cheater.

He sat down beside the other boy, eyes forward. He felt James’ hand give his own a squeeze, an unspoken care echoing silently through his friend’s head. Then James got up to take his shot, followed only a second or so later by Ray taking his place on the bench, a tired malaise radiating from his surface thoughts like an armor made of sad. Casper tried to block it out and, for a moment, was surprised that it seemed to work, the feeling fading fractionally inside his head, second by second. Then he realised. His dad was simply comforted, just by sitting there beside him.

Casper sighed.

“Look,” he muttered. “I don’t know if I’ll ever want to come back yet. I still get angry when I think of you. I don’t know if that will go away.” He braced himself for another wave of sadness from his dad, but it never came. Ray just nodded quietly, accepting it. Casper shook his head. “But even if I forgave you, It’s not like I’d want to come back if I know you’re both like this,” he gestured broadly at his father’s dishevelled state. “Seriously, Dad. You look like crap.”

Ray chuckled.

“I haven’t slept in three days.”

Casper rolled his eyes.

“The point,” he continued. “Is that there has to be a home for me to come back to. You’ve gotta be worth it, you know?”

In spite of himself, Ray snickered.

“And here I was thinking we could just offer to buy you a playstation.”

Casper grinned.

“Well. I mean. That wouldn’t hurt.”

Once again, they sat quietly. It was Casper’s turn to bowl. He didn’t move.

“So,” he said eventually. “You heard about my stuff with Father?”

A quiet dread rose up inside Ray’s skull.

“Yeah. I heard.”

Casper nodded.

“So, what do you think?”

His dad let out a dry laugh.

“Am I even allowed to have an opinion on that right now?”

“No,” Casper admitted. “So… What do you think?”

“Honestly?” Ray shook his head. “It scares the shit out of me.”

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Care: 6.3

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Two days ago, Twenty Three:


For the first few seconds, the three of them simply hung there in the void; falling, yet stationary; their minds forced open to the vastness of the world. It was hard to measure time like that. Hours? Days? The space of a breath? Hard to say.

She was vaguely aware of her companions moving through the space beside her, the boss still crackling with electricity, the boy simply frightened. Had she been less distracted in that moment by the sheer length and breadth of the world, she might have comprehended earlier. As it was, she took her time.

When she finally landed, the world took a while to reconstruct. They hit the ground in the dark, she lost her footing; scuffed her knees on the rough concrete. The air was freezing, the ground so cold it threatened to take the skin from her palms when she pulled her hands away. When the nausea hit, she retched. She wasn’t the only one. The sound of someone losing fluids in the gloom.

She closed her eyes. Sight was overwhelming for her then, even in the dark.

Teleporting sucked.

It was with that thought that Twenty Three’s consciousness resurfaced. Teleporting. Right. They’d teleported. They’d been in the van; the creatures attacking from the mists of the witch’s grove. There’d been fear and rage; the promise of freedom. As the thought came back to her, she felt some broken memory of hope. 

She shook her head; still groggy. Why was the hope just a memory? Why did it hurt to think of?

Twenty Three was glad she had her eyes closed when the lights came on, the colors growing brighter behind her eyelids. Judging by the muffled groan off to her left, the boss hadn’t been quite so lucky.

The boss. More flashes in her head. Fighting, the drain, the split-second image of Caleb’s body flung like a rag-doll across the clearing. She felt something numb settling in her chest.

They’d been so close. 

More retching to the side. Just the one voice now. Young, male; Charlie. Right. The boss had got him too.

“What the heck was that?” he asked, his voice small; his teeth chattering.

“My apologies,” came the boss’ reply, the words coming out as a pained mumble. “I had to get us out of there. Bit of a rough ride.”

Twenty Three opened her eyes. The light ached. That didn’t matter. She had one thought, something to latch onto with all her strength. 

Somewhere, bare feet away from her, the boss spoke.

“Twenty Three,” Leanne croaked. “Check on Charlie. See if he’s injured, then help me up.”

She scanned the ground around her. The world spun. The vague sense of shapes moving to her left. She forced her eyes to focus. 

Charlie sat a few feet to her left, arms curled up around his eyes as he tried to block out the light and the chill. She forced her gaze to the other shape. Leanne, on all fours, immobile. 

Twenty Three forced herself to her feet. The motion disoriented; another wave of nausea sliding against her brain. She closed her eyes, and took a step towards Leanne.

Her thoughts weren’t vocal in that moment; incoherent. All she had inside her was that crushing sense of loss. She wished the feeling could be less familiar.

She took another step, and felt her leg collide with something soft. She lowered herself to her knees beside the boss, confirming identity by touch rather than her still aching eyes.

“Charlie’s fine,” she muttered, orienting an arm under the woman’s shoulders, and exhaustedly heaving her upright, the two of them steadying one another as gravity itself seemed to ebb beneath them. “What do you want me to do?”

Leanne took a while before she answered, clearly forcing herself to think; barely conscious. 

“Get-” she shook her head. “Get inside. Find someone from medical. Send them across while I look after Charlie.”

Twenty Three forced a nod. It was mechanical; artificial; a built in response to having another layer of hope ripped out by the root. Obedience. That was how one avoided pain. It was the only way.

“… Yes, Maam.”

It was… surprisingly easy, letting her feelings go, keeping the hate out of her voice. She just had to forget she had a soul. Simple as breathing.

It just wasn’t something her sanity could stand. 

It wasn’t really a conscious choice, unclipping the knife from her belt. Maybe it should have been. Maybe she should have considered the odds for her survival. She didn’t. She was too busy playing back images inside her mind. The panic in Caleb’s eyes before the end. Twenty Four’s body growing cold against his bed. 

Leanne barely reacted when the blade pierced her gut. Just a faint surprise; a breath; the exhalation turned to mist by the chill.

Twenty Three withdrew the knife; stabbed again. Leanne’s hands came up to stop her; weaker than a child. She stabbed again.

“Everything,” Twenty Three whispered, one arm at the older woman’s back, holding her upright. “You broke every good thing there ever was in me. I can’t live like this.”

She felt Leanne’s touch inside her mind; the last dregs of power draining slowly out of her. She shook her head. Was this how Twenty Four had felt? The lifeblood leaching from his veins as he stood there in the snow? 

He must have been so lonely.

“Do it,” she murmured, forcing a smile even as the tears began to trickle along her cheeks. “Send me back to them. Please.”

Something broke inside her when the sound of Leanne’s breaths grew still. The hand inside her head stopped pulling at her. The woman’s form grew heavy in her arms.

Why was she still alive?

She shook Leanne’s body.

 “Wake up. You’re not done. I said wake up!” 

The boss’ head lolled to the side as she slapped it. No resistance. No pulse.

Twenty Three let the body fall to the floor, and put her head in her hands.

“No,” she whispered. “No, no, no. Not again. Don’t make me be alone again.”

“… Hey.”

She let the knife fall from her fingers with a clatter. Her fingers shook, her breaths short and shallow.

“Fuck. Fuck.” She shook herself. Nothing changed. She slapped herself. She failed to wake up.

“Hey!” 

Something struck her in the leg, hard enough to sting. She ignored it. It hit her again.

She opened her eyes.

It was the kid.

Charlie.

He was shivering. Barefoot and pajama clad in the freezing cold. He was also kicking her in the shins.

“Will. You. Stop. Flipping. Out!” he shouted, planting a fresh kick in the space between each word. “We’ve been kidnapped! Pull it together, or we’re screwed!”

She looked down at him, confused.

“But Caleb’s dead,” she said, the words coming out strangely hollow.

Charlie glared at her, his arms wrapping tight around himself for warmth, his feet tucking into the bottoms of his pajamas so as not to touch the ground.

“Who?” he asked. “Y-you mean the guy who tried to save us? I didn’t see him die. Did you see him die?”

“He-” she swallowed. “He got hit.”

Charlie shook his head.

“No,” he chittered. “S-shut up. That’s not what I said. Did. You. See. Him. Die?”

Twenty Three opened her mouth.

Twenty Three closed her mouth.

“Yeah,” Charlie muttered. “That’s what I thought. N-now. I’m gonna be honest. I just watched you stab someone. I don’t trust you. But we’re in this together. So, are you gonna help me get back to my mom or not?”

For a moment, she simply gazed at him. Then she began to laugh.

“… What?” he asked, one eyebrow crawling up his scalp.

“Ah.” She giggled. “It’s just- Oh, wow. My life is just a procession of little boys who need me to keep them alive.”

“I’m not a little boy.” He muttered, hands rubbing up and down along his sides in an attempt to ward off the cold.

“You’re totally a little boy.” Twenty Three opened a hand, allowing a mote of indigo flame to blossom between her fingers, before lobbing it down on the ground between them. It wasn’t much; little more than a space heater, really, but Charlie huddled himself around it like it was the warmest thing on Earth.

“Where the heck are we?” he asked. “How’s it so cold? It’s October.”

“It’s October, sure,” she muttered, taking a good look around for the first time since her landing. “But I’m pretty sure we’re back where I grew up. Near the arctic. Up in the mountains. Up here, October just means the snow storms are back.”

The first things she noted looking around were the shipping containers. Eight of them, organized around them in a neat, two-by-two stack. She could see the distant wall down one end, a sliding entryway just big enough for a hauler on the other side. All of it covered over by a low tin roof. 

They were back at the compound. 

She chuckled. For the last twelve years, being back here had been a feature of every nightmare she’d had. Strange that it could now be a cause for such relief. She’d been trying to break out of here for years. She knew the security of the place like the back of her hand.

“Well,” she muttered. First question. How about your portals? Think you could put us back in America somewhere?”

“Already tried it while you were freaking out,” he replied. “I don’t think I can make them go that far. The only one I managed opened up into a snow storm. Now they won’t open up at all. I think I’m out of power.”

“Right,” she sighed. “Well, that makes things harder.” She glanced across at Charlie, still warming himself by the meagre fire, and stripped off her jacket. She tossed it at him. “In a perfect world, we could just hide here until you got your power back.” She heaved another sigh. “But, the lights are on. And that means they’ll come looking in here soon. This warehouse isn’t big enough to hide in, and if we tried, it’d mean going without the fire. At best, we’d be caught. At worst, we’d freeze.”

Charlie wrapped the jacket around him as tightly as he could, burrowing in against the leather lining. 

“But I like the fire,” he muttered.

“Me too,” she replied, slumping down on the floor across from him. “Don’t wanna have to go without it. But there’s no hiding here with it. Now, we could make a run for it, but we’re up in the mountains, and it’s cold outside. It’s only going to get colder when nighttime hits. You’re not wearing shoes. Or any warm clothes. We could steal hers-” she pointed at Leanne’s corpse. 

“-but they won’t fit, and they aren’t enough. I have no idea how far away it is to the nearest town. Hell, I don’t even know where the nearest town is. There’s a ski resort, I think, on one of the mountains nearby, but as far as I could ever tell, that mountain is at least twelve miles away. So, to get us there, I’d have to carry you through the snow, in broad daylight, for about two hours. Best case, we get there and you only lose a few toes to the cold. Worst case, we get caught, and you still lose a couple toes. We could wait until nighttime in some of the trees on the other side of the compound, but that’d mean staying in the cold even longer. And we still might get caught.”

Charlie shook his head, his expression slightly queasy.

“Okay,” he muttered. “Thanks for the horror story, weirdo. Why are you telling me all this?”

“Because,” she groaned. “I want you to know your options. We could run, and we could maybe make it. But there’s a risk. And because you’re smaller, and your body doesn’t have superpowers, most of that risk is on you. But. The other option might be worse.”

Of all the possible responses, the boy somehow managed a chuckle.

“Worse than losing my toes?” he asked, poking his bare feet out from under the wrapping of the jacket, and wiggling them around near the fire. “Not likely. I like my toes.”

Twenty Three shook her head.

“Option two is you turn yourself in,” she muttered. His head jerked up at her at that. She held up a hand. “I know. I know. It sounds dumb. But these people wanted us to capture you. That means someone here is going to know your face. If you turn yourself in, they’ll keep you warm, and keep you safe. If you told them the boss got stabbed before she brought you here, they wouldn’t need to know about me. And that gives me enough time to get supplies, come back, and break you out.”

“… You really think you can just break me out of here?”

There was a lot more cynicism in Charlie’s voice than Twenty Three would have liked. She brushed it off with a grin.

“Kid. I spent my whole childhood figuring out how to break people out of here. Most of that was before I learned magic.”

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Bonus Chapter: Small Worlds.

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Bonus chapter: Small Worlds.


Eleven years ago:

Asset Eighteen awoke with a groan to the sound of his phone going off.

For a second, he just lay there in bed, eyes closed, trying to pretend he was still asleep. There wasn’t a reason to get up. None at all. Who sent texts at Two in the morning? The bosses didn’t matter. Seventeen could wait.

He let himself pretend that for a solid twenty seconds, before pulling his body upright. He rubbed bleariness from his eyes, propped his butt against his pillow, and checked his phone.

The message was from Seventeen.

It was only one word long:

‘Help.’


The residents of New Jersey were clearly quite surprised to see the twelve year old sprinting barefoot down the street, a line of scavenged linen fluttering in the wind behind him. He heard some of them call out to him; dodged between the ones who tried to stop him. He didn’t care about them. He just clutched the jumbled fabric a little tighter and sprinted for all he was worth.

He reached the block containing his partner’s cage in a matter of minutes. He didn’t bother with the stairs. If this was what he thought it was, Seventeen wouldn’t be in a state to open the door. Instead, he climbed the fire escape, vaulting up the ladder and taking the steps three or four at a time. He reached her window, loosened the latch with a muttered spell, yanked it open, and climbed inside.

He found Seventeen curled up in the corner of the room, her pillow wrapped tight around her head. There was vomit on the floor. She was shaking.

She knew he was there. Of course she knew. That was the problem in a nutshell. She was his counterpart, bred for enhanced senses just as he was for physicality. Even with that pillow around her head, she could tell him exactly where he was.

And where everyone else in the building was. And the location of every dumpster. And what they all held.

“Help me,” she whispered, her arms squeezing the pillow convulsively around her ears. “The world’s too big. Help.”

To Eighteen’s credit, he did not hesitate. He strode across the room, casually ignoring the vomit on the floor, and picked her up.

She clung to him.

He carried her to her bed, deposited her gently on the sheets, and wrapped them around her like a burrito. Her whimpers softened, just a little. He repeated the action with the linen from his own cage, burying her under seven or so layers of bundled fabric. She sniffled.

He nodded, satisfied. The treatment was starting to take effect. Good. He picked his friend-burrito up, carried her through to her tiny bathroom, and dumped her in the shower, before returning to the main room. Then, he closed the window, and started searching the place for more material. Her curtains were terrible. Cheap plastic things that crinkled as they moved. Perfect.

He pulled them down, bundling them up in his arms along with a towel and assorted shirts. From there, he returned to the bathroom, unfolded the plastic curtains, and draped them over Seventeen’s head, followed in short order by the fabrics. Okay. That was the main structure in place. Now he just had to finish it up.

He closed the door into the main room, and turned off the light.

Great. He was now completely blind.

“Hey,” he murmured, quiet as he could. “Seventeen. You know who’s a huge dummy and can’t see in the dark?”

From the rough direction of the shower, there was a snuffly kind of laugh.

“O-one step forwards,” she mumbled.

Eighteen allowed himself a small smile, closed his eyes, and stepped blindly forwards.

“Two steps left.”

Eighteen obeyed.

“Turn around a little bit.”

He turned. She giggled.

“The other way, doofus.”

“I knew that,” he muttered, turning the other way.

“Sure you did. One step forward, then one step right.”

He stepped.

“You found me.”

“I found you,” he echoed, reaching down and patting the rough area where he assumed her head to be. He was pretty sure he got it. “Good work, ground control. Engaging operation domino fortress. Ready to proceed?”

A wet snicker.

“Roger, Alpha One.”

He spent a few awkward seconds fumbling in the dark for the shower handle, before turning on the water, and soaking the both of them with a lukewarm spray. He gave it just enough time for the water to run warm, then turned it back off. he got down on his hands and knees, lifted the edge of the fabric draped over Seventeen’s head, and climbed in under it with her.

It was disconcerting to him. Under the curtain, muffled by layers of liquid sodden cloth, he couldn’t hear a damn thing besides her breathing.

That was the point. Put the rest of the world as far away as possible.

He reached out, took his friend-burrito by the shoulders, and propped her up between his knees for a hug. Now he had only one job left. Listen to her breathing, and keep her calm.

She nuzzled her face against his shoulder. He pretended not to notice the moisture in her eyes.

“It’s still so loud,” she sniffed. “It’s everywhere.”

“No it’s not,” he muttered. “It’s far away from us. The world’s just you and me right now.” He pulled her in a little tighter, his hand rubbing gently at her back.

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

Eighteen kept her snuggled there until her breathing evened out. He wasn’t sure exactly when she fell asleep. He nodded off himself not long after.


Two Days Ago:

Eighteen sat in the visitor’s chair, gazing down at his hands. He’d taken days drumming up the courage to come here. He didn’t even know what he wanted to say. Instead, he just sat there, glaring at the plastic cuff wrapped around his wrist.

A tracking device. The irony was painful.

He shot a look at his minder by the door. The man raised an eyebrow. Eighteen scowled at him. The minder just shrugged.

He took a breath.

‘Just get it over with.’

He looked at Thirteen. The kid looked back, right in his eyes. He looked away.

The sound of fingers snapping together. His head jerked up. It was Seventeen. She was still standing exactly where she had been for the last half hour, out in the hallway, back against the wall by the open door as her eyes scanned mechanically back and forth across her field of view. She didn’t look at him.

She did speak, though, in a fashion. The tiniest jerk of her head towards the hospital bed. That was about as vocal as she ever got in public.

He sighed.

“Yeah. I know.”

Another tiny movement of her head towards the bed. There was no arguing with her sometimes.

“I was a dick,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He looked the wounded boy in the eye. Thirteen’s gaze was cold. Eighteen kept going. “If there’s anything I can do to pay you back, no matter what, I’ll do it. I promise.”

Thirteen’s expression remained unchanged. Eighteen returned his gaze to the floor.

When a response finally came, it was barely louder than a croak. Hardly surprising. The kid’s throat was just as torn up as the rest of him.

“You’re not worth it,” he said. “Not worth her. Neither of you are.”

Eighteen took the words on the chest as best he could.

“Fuck you,” he murmured. “We’re worth plenty.”

Thirteen let out a noise that began as a laugh, but finished as more of a pained groan.

“She’s broken and you’re an asshole,” he replied. “Twenty Three’s worth more than both of you.”

Eighteen closed his eyes and took a breath. He had promised himself that no matter what Thirteen said, he’d take it. He deserved everything the kid could dish out and more. He forced himself to give the guy a chance.

“She’s not broken,” he said quietly. “Take it back.”

“Prove me wrong,” Thirteen replied, glaring at him.

Eighteen opened his mouth to reply, not entirely sure of what he was even going to say, when a knocking from the corridor stopped him short. The two of them looked around. Eighteen grinned.

Seventeen had her arm stuck through the doorway. She was giving Thirteen the finger.

“So,” he asked. “You want that in writing?”


Seventeen years ago:

The first strike caught him in the mouth. Hard, blunt; a lightning line of pain cracking through his teeth. He tasted blood.

It sent him reeling, blind, thumping against the bed. He let out a noise; not quite anger, not quite fear, and raised a hand in an attempt to pull the bag away from his eyes.

That earned him a blow across the hand, something solid colliding with his thumb. He felt the bone split, and was unable to hold back the quiet whine of pain that escaped his desire for defiance. He hunched over, half-cradling his broken hand, then felt the butt of something jab against his abdomen, driving all the air from his lungs in a single, violent heave.

He lost some of the contents of his stomach, too. The lip of the bag kept them stuck around his neck.

He spent the next half second trying to simultaneously breathe and retch, before another strike impacted like a hammer blow against his shoulder.

He let the force of it push him off his knees; allowed his body to hit the floor, taking the landing on his one uninjured shoulder, and using the movement to roll himself to his feet.

He was used to pain. Used to discomfort. They’d been drilling him for this since the day he was born.

He closed his eyes. No use to him with the bag in the way. He relied on sound. His assailant moved loudly; breathed heavy. Big. Male.

He dodged the next swing by pure, blind instinct, ducking under a swing probably meant to ring his skull like a bell, and surged forwards, head first, bringing his forehead into his attacker’s crotch as hard as he could.

The man yelled.

Eighteen grinned.

Then the man’s knee made him swallow one of his teeth.

‘Worth it.’

That was the last thought he had for a while. A pair of hands clapped against his ears; made stars jump around inside his brain.

It was a relief, in a way; made him less able to register the pain of every hit. After a minute or so, he was left laying there, just quietly wondering why.

Were they going to kill him?

Had he disobeyed?

When the world finally began to swim back into focus, the first things he noticed were the shrieks. Inarticulate, horrified.

He knew that voice.

Another strike. His gut this time. Then a voice he lacked the capacity to recognize called them off.

“Enough. She’s manifested. It’s done.”

For a moment, he simply lay there, his mind a loose associative mess of pain and tired confusion. Then, they pulled the vomit and blood soaked bag off his head, and he saw something that turned the world cold.

‘Seventeen.’

She had tear marks streaking down her cheeks. They’d strapped her to a chair.

“Why?” he croaked, for all the world, just bitter. “Why’d you make her watch?”

They ignored him.

“Right,” muttered the same voice as before. “Hold him down. Let’s get this over with.”

He didn’t resist the hands as they took hold of his wrists. He was too tired. Too sore. Defiance was only worth so much.

His perspective changed when the first fist caught Seventeen about the cheek, knocking her chair sideways to the floor. Then, his very blood caught fire.

He didn’t know how long it went on. Just that he fought them with all his might for every single second of it. Every blow. Every drop of her blood across the floor.

He felt something breaking loose inside his brain.


Night:

He awoke in rage.

Hands at his shoulders. Weight against his chest. Still holding him down.

‘No.’

He struck blind. Too dark to see. Couldn’t think.

The flaring of a shield in the gloom; a ringing pain in his wrist. He let out a wordless curse, grabbed his attacker by the middle, and wrenched her off of him. Shield or no, there was no competing with his strength. He grappled; pinned her down; glared down at the figure in the dark, his heart racing, his mind scarlet.

“Let her go,” he said. It was all he had the space in his head to say. He closed his grip around her wrists, and squeezed. The shield flickered; a momentary light casting focus on his adversary’s skin.

He let Seventeen go; pulled himself backwards across his bed, ashamed.

He spent the next few minutes glaring at his feet, something painful jammed inside his throat.

It had been a long time since he’d had that nightmare.

“I-” he tried, his voice catching somewhere along the line. “I’m sorry. I’m-”

“Shh,” she murmured, the mattress shifting slightly as she slid herself across it. “Stop being a dummy.”

There was some part of him that wasn’t quite able to stop the smile at that.

“… Ok.”

He felt her head come to rest gently against his shoulder.

“Good.”

They sat together like that for a long while; just quiet; the both of them listening as his heart began to slow.

He felt her lips brush against his cheek.

“You gonna say the words?” she asked, just above a whisper.

“No,” he complained, his smile growing a fraction wider. “They feel stupid now.”

She shrugged.

“Well, I still want to hear them.”

He sighed. There was no arguing with her.

“It’s far away from us,” he recited, the warmth spreading slowly through his tired brain. “The world’s just you and me right now.”

“You promise?”

He chuckled as he felt her lips once more trace their way across his jaw.

“I promise.”

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