Catharsis: 2.5

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AN: Sorry about the slight delay, a few minor concerns that are now dealt with. Side note. The results of the January bonus chapter vote are now in, and the winner was Bex. That chapter will be published in the next half week or so. I expect to have the February chapter vote set up by the end of today. Just to reiterate, the vote is now open to anyone, not just people who follow the story, though I do encourage you to follow. That’s all for now. Hope you enjoy the chapter.

James:

In spite of his better judgement, James dawdled somewhat on his return home, glorying in the feel of the night air all around him, the utter freedom of weightlessness. Floating high above the city lights, he could almost feel the wind all around him, the way it flowed and eddied, the currents changing from altitude to altitude. He closed his eyes to focus on the feeling, a smile touching his lips. It felt like reaching beyond himself, trying to extend his hands further than the reach of his arms. With this new reach, he imagined he could shape the very winds themselves, feel them move and sway at his fingertips. He chuckled to himself, imagining the wind at play, and, just for the hell of it, he tried brushing his imaginary hands against one of the currents. It moved, shifted away from him, the current changing at his suggestion. He grinned, enjoying his own pretense, until he felt the current brush against his form. He opened his eyes wide, staring at nothing, before, experimentally, he tried again. He reached out, nudged the wind with the hand beyond his hand, and again, felt the current change against him. Again, in the spirit of the experiment, he slapped himself with it. He let out a small shriek as the torrent of wind sent his body tumbling, base over apex. It wasn’t long before James Toranaga righted himself, stared at his hands, and began to laugh.

“So darn cool!” He said gleefully. “I need to fly more often. I need to fly WAY more often!”

James spent a few more moments soaking in the excitement, before pivoting in the air, and making for his home as fast as his power would allow.

Despite his glee, James approached his house with a degree of care, checking his window from a distance, just in case either of his parents might be poking their heads in through the doorway. Unfounded concerns, it would seem. The room was empty, his television paused mid scene. He floated inside. Was Casper off somewhere dealing with his parents? Had the other boy needed to go home? He dropped to the floor, and strode towards the door, trying to figure out a way of weedling the info out of his mother. He stepped out into the hallway, only to immediately come face to face with Casper, who was hurriedly pulling his fly back up. Ah, toilet, right. He opened his mouth to speak, but Casper shook his head and raised a finger to his lips, his other hand reaching out to gently push James back into his room, before stepping in after him and closing the door. The moment the door was closed, Casper’s external calm dissolved.

“How’d it go?” He asked hurriedly. “Did it work? Is Tasha okay? Why’re you so hyped all of a sudden?”

“Yeah, Tasha’s fine.” James grinned. “And I found something super cool. The coolest. Maybe even the most cool thing!”

“Yeah, I noticed it was cool.” Casper chuckled, his nerves seeming to ease a fraction. “You’re practically giving me a sugar rush over there. What happened?”

“New power,” James exclaimed, as loudly as he dared. “I got a new power and I was controlling the wind and it was awesome!”

“Great,” Casper replied, deadpan. “But I meant what happened with Tasha. You know, my friend? The one who got shot?”

“Oh,” he muttered, his excitement faltering for a moment. He sat on the bed, trying to force himself to calm. “Right. Sorry. Uhh, Tasha’s fine. We got her home, pretty sure no one saw us, and she said she was gonna go yank the bullet out. Her place is kind of a mess, and she seemed okay enough to joke with me about her boobs.”

“You were joking about her boobs?” Casper asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah,” James nodded. “I was trying to figure out what’s so cool about em.”

“About Tasha’s boobs?”

“No, just in general.”

“Are you kidding? Boobs are awesome.”

“Meh,” James grunted. “You’re older.”

“Not THAT much older.”

“Can you stop talking about boobs? Point is, Tasha’s fine.”

“Kay, good.” Casper murmured. Then he grinned. “Okay, NOW you can tell me about your awesome new wind powers.”

“… No.” James replied, folding his arms. “I just don’t feel like you’re really interested.”

“Oh, come on!” the other boy said playfully. “Did I hurt your feelings? Am I just a great big meanie?”

“Yes.” He folded his arms, gazing pointedly at the wall a few feet to the side of his friend and forcing back a smile. “Yes you are.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” Casper teased, dipping into a mock bow. “Here, I’m now paying full attention to you and all of the awesome things you have to say. That better, baby boo?” The boy stepped forwards, then turned, and slumped down on the bed beside him.

“No,” James scowled, still refusing to look at the other boy, partly because he was barely managing to wrestle the grin off of his face. “But fine. I will tell you about my awesome wind pow-”

The pillow hit him in the side of the head, bowling him backwards against the sheets and eliciting a cry of outrage. He glared over at Casper. The boy was holding the weapon on his lap, an innocent smile tugging at his lips.

“You okay, dude?” Casper asked, his concerned tone undershot slightly by the mischievous note he was making no attempt whatsoever to hide. “That came right out of nowhere. Of course, I had nothing to do with it cuz I’m just such a caring frien-”

James dipped into his newfound power to flick the other boy on the nose, as hard as he dared. Casper stopped mid-sentence as the gust of air hit his face, forcing its way into his mouth and puffing out his cheeks and pressing his hair out in every conceivable direction. It was, without a doubt, the funniest thing James had ever seen. He would have tried to keep his laughter quiet, except that he was struggling to make any noise at all. He was laughing so hard that he couldn’t breathe.

“… You’re a dead man.” Casper murmured. Before James had a chance to recover from his giggles, let alone enough time to utter a response, Casper launched himself at him, wrapping his arms around him and picking him up. James, still giggling, tried to push the other boy off, but to no avail. Casper grappled firmly around James’ midsection, and pulled himself off the bed, hoisting him up into the air… Then he stopped. “… Are you doing that?”

“Doing what?” James asked, the humor of the moment shifting to a slight confusion.

“Are you flying or something?” The freckled boy asked. “Cuz you’re really light. Like, really, really light.”

“Umm… no,” James replied, uncertain. “I’m not flying right now. You sure you’re not just kinda strong?”

“No, dude, I’m serious,” said Casper, shifting his grip to hold James with one arm, a hand braced against his stomach. Demonstratively, he extended the hand holding James up towards the ceiling. “See? You’re light enough I can hold you above my head with one hand. It’s not even hard. Have you weighed yourself since you started flying?”

“Yeah,” said James, worried. “I did it this morning. I came in at like, eighty two pounds. Kinda light, I guess, but that’s just cuz I’m short.”

“Scales in your bathroom?” Casper asked. Without waiting for an answer, he lowered James down from the ceiling, tucked him under an arm, and made his way towards the door.

“Yeah, they are… Are you gonna put me down?”

“Nope.” Casper proceeded out the door, through the short hallway, across the landing, and into the bathroom, carrying James under his arm the whole way. Once there, he slid the door shut with his heel, dumped James on the scales, and waited for the spring to stop compensating. Eventually, the dial stopped spinning, and the two boys stared at the number on the small plate.

“Okay,” James murmured. “So, I’ve lost a bit of weight. That’s a little weird.”

“James,” Casper whispered. “That’s not ‘a bit of weight’ you’ve lost, that’s fifty pounds. You weigh less than a four year old.”

“Okay, fine,” James admitted. “It’s a lot weird. Nothing I can’t fake, though. I’ll just sorta do… this.” He tapped into his flight, using it to press himself downwards against the scales. Immediately, the weight displayed began to shift, from thirty pounds to forty, then fifty, sixty. His legs felt the weight, as if he had a whole other person on his back. Seventy pounds, eighty. His knees started to shake slightly under the strain. “Okay,” he said, his voice a little tight. “Small problem. This is really heavy.”

“Wait,” Casper said, tilting his head slightly. “You can’t lift your own bodyweight? I guess you must’ve got weaker as well as lighter, huh? Hang on, try and lift me. See if it’s just you.”

James eased up on the pressure against the scales, and nodded, slightly out of breath. He stepped off the scales, positioned himself behind the other boy, wrapped his arms around his middle, and pulled. Nothing. He pulled harder, pushing all of his might into lifting the other boy, his teeth beginning to clench at the effort. Casper didn’t budge.

“… Are you really trying?” Casper asked. “Cuz if you are, then that’s just sad.”

James didn’t answer. After a few more seconds, he gave up, his breathing heavy.

“Okay,” he panted, leaning himself against the wall. “So, ultra cool windy powers. But I’m lighter and weaker than my own little sister. Hiding this is gonna be a chore.”

“How so?” Casper asked, curious.

“… Bex wrestles a lot.” James admitted, embarrassed. “She’s gonna kick my butt and I’m gonna have to pretend to pretend to lose.”

Casper snorted. “That’s adorable. Your sister’s gonna love it.”

“… Shut up.”

Their experiment done, the two made their way back to James’ room, ostensibly returning their attention to the television. In truth, James’ focus was elsewhere, the events of the evening tumbling through his head in an attempt at order. Casper doubtless felt the confusion, but kept his eyes fixed on the tv screen, waiting. Eventually, James spoke into the quiet, his knees hugged in tight against his chest.

“Hey, Cas?”

“Yeah?”

“I… I kinda wanna help Tasha. Those guys who hurt her… the ones who are hurting kids… I wanna help with that.”

“… You sure?” In the corner of his eye, he saw the other boy turn slightly to face him.

“… No.” James sighed. “Not even a little. But I don’t like thinking about… about stuff like that happening. I wanna make it stop.”

“… Kay.”

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Catharsis: 2.4

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James:

The boy shot through the nighttime air like… well, like nothing he could conveniently reference. The feeling of it was odd, to say the least. He could tell by the way the lights moved below him that he was moving fast, but beyond that, he had no way of gauging his own speed. It normally took his mother a little over half an hour to deliver him to his school in the morning traffic. In flight, however, he guessed the journey took around two minutes, perhaps longer given the sheer exhilaration of it. Time passed faster when you were having fun, after all.

He came to a stop above the entrance to his school, floating a few hundred feet in the air. This close down, he could make out the features of the buildings below, the outlines of the middle school building and the courtyard dividing it from the highschool section. It was a little odd, seeing the whole place from above, it seemed a lot smaller from up here. James grinned to himself, then pivoted once more. Tasha had said she was to the south, and he had no time to waste. He drifted out from his point above the campus gates, scanning the rooftops below, and rapidly concluded that this would be harder than he’d thought. He could barely make out anything in the gloom.

He was considering lowering himself a few dozen feet towards the ground so as to see more clearly, when a slight change in one of the lights below caught his eye. It came from a rooftop, a small, clear white spot against the dark. Unlike the dim, faintly yellowed glow of the streetlamps all around, and the squarish patches of light emanating from windows all around, this one was moving, waving gently from side to side. Tasha? He scooted forwards, not descending immediately, but instead reorienting himself on the other side of it, before lowering himself. As he came closer, his eyes began to make out the edges of a figure, sprawled against the concrete, the edges of a dim, greyish cloak obfuscating the boundary that divided them from the surrounding concrete. He reoriented again, so as to come down behind them, just in case it wasn’t her.

James ceased his descent a half foot or so from the rooftop, and considered how best to approach this. If it was Tasha, then job done, but if it wasn’t, best to identify them without being seen. For the moment, they were still distracted, waving the light, which he now saw to be a cellphone flashlight, from side to side in front of them. He glanced around, noting a number of large, oddly shaped chunks of what appeared to be some sort of metal or debris laying around the figure, and spied a small, tightly packed air conditioning system that lay a short distance away. It wasn’t perfect cover, not quite big enough to reliably conceal himself behind, but it would impede the figure’s sight long enough for him to fly away if it wasn’t Tasha. He floated in behind it, hunched himself down into a little ball, and spoke.

“Tasha?” he whispered, as loud as he dared. “That you?” At first, the only response was a small thumping sound, then silence. James gathered his focus, chose a direction, and was about to take his leave when:

“James?” Tasha’s voice called quietly. “I can’t see you. You here?”

“Yeah,” he muttered, floating out from his hiding space. Tasha was twisting around frantically on the ground, her eyes scanning the skies above, presumably searching for him. He chuckled. “Behind you.”

The girl swiveled around, caught sight of him, and let out a heavy groan of relief, her shoulders slumping slightly as the tension began to drain out of her.

“Oh, thank fuck,” she muttered. “My phone was about to die.” She grinned tiredly, stowing the device in a pocket, before turning her attention to her legs. “Just gimme a sec. I gotta get the last of my armor off or you’ll never be able to carry me outta here.”

“Armor?” James asked, surprised. “I thought you said you got shot, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” she grumbled, her hands working at a set of loose fitting, wide hemmed pants, pulling them up around her right leg and revealing a section of something apparently metallic wrapped around her lower leg. “Didn’t hold up as well as I hoped.”

James, curious, moved in for a closer look. Tasha’s ‘armor’ seemed to consist of what looked like a thick, tightly bound mass of aluminium foil, of the sort that was used to cook Turkeys on thanksgiving. It seemed, for all the world, as though the girl had simply wrapped it around her leg until it was near enough a solid inch thick.

“Is… is that cooking foil?” he asked, perplexed.

“Yup,” Tasha grunted, reaching her hands behind her knee and grasping at something. She pulled, her face contorting in effort, until the armor piece came away from the limb, bending out of shape with a surprisingly quiet series of creaks. “Whole bunch of it wrapped around strips from those heavy duty metal trash cans, I took that, beat it flat with a hammer, and then bent it around my arms and legs and stuff. Got the idea off a youtube video.”

James considered this, mouth slightly open in surprise. He wasn’t entirely sure what to say to that, but eventually opted for: “… Isn’t that kinda heavy?”

“Pretty heavy,” Tasha agreed, depositing the hunk of ruined metal on the ground alongside what James now realized were the rest of her armor pieces. “About two hundred pounds. Kinda handy, really. Being heavy helps hold me down when I’m punching stuff.”

“Didn’t work out too well as armor though, huh?”

“Fucking really, genius?” Tasha asked, her tone positively dripping with sarcasm. “I never would have guessed without the help, thanks. Homemade kevlar my ass.”

James rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, whatever. Just grab on to me so we can get out of here, okay?” He reached out a hand towards the girl and she took it. He began to rise, face turning skywards, before letting out a small squeak as she yanked him back down towards her.

“Nope. I am not just gonna let you dangle me along, buddy boy.” She grumbled, pulling the protesting boy around and forcibly positioning herself at his back, her arms locked over his shoulders and wrapping around his front, her hands pressed to his sides. “I’m not trusting your weedy little grip strength to keep me up there with you. It’s piggybacks or nothing.”

“What?” He objected, trying to shove her off. “I can’t piggyback you! You’re like a foot taller than me!”

“Oi,” Tasha replied. “You’re gonna be way up in the air, so you can piggyback me all you like. Now get flying, c’mon!” With that, she dug one of her fingers sharply into the skin below his ribs, eliciting a squawk of purest outrage from the boy. Before he had a chance to make a counter, she flexed her good leg against the ground and pushed off in a jump, sending the two of them high into the air. “Better catch us or I guess we’ll die.” She murmured into his ear, insufferably smug.

“… I hate you so much.” He muttered, allowing his flight to kick in and feeling the weight of Tasha’s body against his sternum as gravity began to reassert itself. “Fine, whatever. Just tell me how to get to your place before I run out of juice or something.”

The girl pointed, and James fired himself forwards into the gloom, the exhilaration of his new mode of travel somewhat ruined by the continued waves of smugness emanating from the girl against his back, spoiling the sheer joy of it a fraction.

They traveled largely in silence, broken by the occasional muttered direction from Tasha as she spotted new landmarks by which to navigate. James quickly found his annoyance and the residual shades of fear giving way to a more subdued train of thought. Tasha was surprisingly light against his back; only a little heavier than him. He wasn’t entirely sure why, but he had expected her to be heavier. More… boyish, he supposed. It was a little disconcerting. Pressed this close against him, he was acutely aware of the soft pressure of her chest against his shoulder blades. He’d heard a couple of his friends at school bragging over getting to touch some girl or other’s boobs, and had never really seen the appeal, an attitude that remained with him still. Maybe he’d get it when he was older.

“Been quiet for a while,” Tasha spoke, re-positioning herself a little against his back. “Whatcha thinking about?”

“Trying to figure out what’s so special about boobs,” he replied, grinning. “Yours don’t seem all that great.”

“… You copping a feel, you little perv?” She chuckled. “You know I could snap you like a twig, right?”

“You’re the one who forced me to carry you like this,” he replied with a shrug. “Besides, I could totally stop flying pretty much whenever I wanted. How does your super strength handle twenty story drops?”

“Better than you’d handle not having a spine.” She replied. Despite himself, he laughed. The two were quiet for a time after that.

“It’s nice up here.” James murmured eventually, more to himself than to his companion. “It’s quiet, you know?”

“Meh,” Came the reply. “It’s kinda cool, I guess. Mostly cold, if I’m honest.”

“Wait, you’re cold?” He asked, cocking an eyebrow in confusion. “You sure that’s not just blood loss? I’m totally warm.”

“It’s not blood loss,” Tasha replied. “I don’t really bleed a lot when I get hurt. Just a couple seconds before it scabs. Trust me, it’s cold up here. Wind chill isn’t helping.”

“…Huh,” he muttered. “Guess it’s a power thing. That your place?”

“The building with the sign on top?” She asked, peeking down past his shoulder. “Yeah, that’s it. Land us on the roof and I can manage the rest myself, okay?”

James nodded, angling himself towards the building in question and beginning his descent.

They struck the ground a little harder than intended, James intent on getting them out of the sky before anyone had a chance to notice them up there. He hissed in pain as the impact jarred its way up his shins and into his knees. Tasha, behind him, let out a bark of sound as her weight came down on her injured leg. Her knees buckled, leaving James in the unfortunate position of attempting to carry both of their weight. He staggered, righting himself with an instinctive jolt of his flight, and came to rest on his feet, panting, with Tasha braced against his back.

“I’ll… see you inside before I go.” He mumbled, semi-apologetically. “That okay?”

After a few shallow breaths, the girl gave a small, sharp nod, and the two stepped forwards, opening the door into the complex, and making their way towards Tasha’s home. As it happened, her apartment was one of the ones on the upper floor, close to the stairway onto the roof. As they approached the door, Tasha pushed herself off him, leaning the bulk of her frame against the hallway wall as she fumbled in her pockets for her keys. James stood awkwardly behind her, the need to ensure she was alright warring against the desire to get home as quickly as humanly possible. The girl fumbled at the lock for a few moments, before the door swung open, and she stepped inside. James followed, momentarily curious as to what her place might look like.

Whatever the boy’s expectations of the place had been, they were not met. Pizza boxes. Chip wrappers. Everywhere he looked, there were more of them. The floor of the small living room sat hidden under a layer of discarded food wrappers and trash so thick that he couldn’t see it to identify its presence. He took a step inside, and his nostrils filled with the smells of old grease and dirt. The layer of garbage was broken only by a small, beaten up old couch in the center of the space. A ball pein hammer sat on one end of it, along with several unused rolls of aluminium foil, half a trash can, and a set of bolt cutters. Tasha glanced over her shoulder at the boy still standing in her doorway, his mouth hanging open in shock, and made a small sound of realization, before digging in her pocket.

“Uhh, here,” she muttered, holding out a crumpled wad of bills to him. “Some of the money I made in the raid. Only fair you get some, since you helped me out of there.”

James didn’t move.

“You… live here?” He asked, trying to make his voice sound mild. “Like, all the time?”

Tasha looked around herself for a moment, apparently confused.

“… Yeah, why?”

James, for a moment, considered continuing, but opted against it with a sigh.

“No reason. Keep the money, kay? I don’t need it.”

“Nope,” she waggled the notes in front of him again. “Take em, or it’s unfair. I don’t like unfair.” James rolled his eyes, and took the cash, tucking it into his pocket without looking at it. “Good.” She smiled. “Now go away. I gotta dig a bullet out of my leg and I don’t want you around for it. Bye now.” Without another word, she ushered him out of the room, before slamming the door closed in his face.

For a moment, James just stood there, uncertain. Then he turned, made his way back onto the rooftop, and took to the skies, headed for home.

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Catharsis: 2.3

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James:

“Wait, so if she’s gonna be Queen of Mars, then why does she need the Silent Knight to die for her? Can’t she just order Lord Commander Hadran to step off?”

“Yeah, but if she did that, then we wouldn’t get to see this cool robot fight.” James gestured towards the television, where two animated metal figures were indeed dueling fiercely with one another.

“But the fight makes no sense. If the war’s over, then these guys are on the same side now, aren’t they?”

“… I think you’re putting way too much thought into this, Casper.”

“Hey, you said this show had politics. I just wanna make sure those politics make sense, which they don’t.”

“Shut up, you massive dork.”

Casper opened his mouth to reply, before being interrupted by a sound from his pocket. His phone, presumably, blaring out a drum solo from a song James didn’t recognize.

“Hang on,” Casper murmured, digging in his pocket. “That’s Tasha. Wonder what she wants.”

James grabbed the television remote with a shrug, and lowered the volume a fraction while his friend answered the phone.

“Hello?” Casper spoke, his voice curious.

James heard Tasha’s voice faintly on the other end of the line. He allowed his gaze to drift around the room as he waited for the conversation to end, glancing down at the dvd case laying on the bed, and looking over the blurb for lack of anything better to do.

“Jesus, Tasha,” the other boy groaned, drawing James’ attention for a moment as he raised the palm of his free hand to his forehead in frustration, before resignedly continuing. “How bad is it this time?”

James returned his attention to the box cover, only to have it snapped violently back towards Casper.

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN, YOU GOT SHOT!?” The boy screeched, forcibly lowering his voice at James’ frantic gestures for him to keep his voice down. “Why are you telling me this?” Tasha’s voice spoke for a few moments on the other end of the line, and Casper shot a glance at James across the bed. “I don’t know if he’d want me to give you his number yet… No, I’m in his room.” A few more words from Tasha, and the boy held the phone out towards him. “She wants to talk to you.”

James took the phone, his fingers shaking slightly as they wrapped around it, and brought it to his ear.

“You got shot?!” He whisper-shouted into the mouthpiece, aghast.

“Yeah, kinda,” came Tasha’s response. She sounded pained. “Look, I need a hand with something, okay? Now, did you test out how much weight you can carry with your power yet?”

“Not a lot,” he replied hurriedly. “More than a backpack full of books, less than my bed. I didn’t have much to test with.”

“It’s ok,” she muttered, letting out what sounded like a gasp of pain. “That should be plenty. Look, I’m on a rooftop about two blocks south of your school. I need you to come give me a lift home before someone finds me.” James didn’t respond at first, staying silent so long that Tasha spoke again. “James? You still there?”

“You what?” He hissed, incensed. “You want me flying in the open, in a city, in a place where people with guns are apparently looking for you? Are you insane, Tasha? What if I’m seen? What if my parents notice I’m gone? I don’t even know you!”

“Yeah, I know, I know. I’m sorry,” she replied, her voice tired. “I’m only asking cuz I’m out of options here. I managed to get some distance from them, but if they find me, I’m screwed. If I have to jump another building like this, I might make a noise loud enough for them to hear.”

“And who’s they?”James continued, his shock giving way to anger. “How bad did you mess up, Tasha? Who did you get so mad that you need ME to come save you?”

“… People selling kids for sex.” Came the bitter answer. “I almost had them, too.” It cut James short, stopped his anger in its tracks. What was he supposed to say to that? No?

“J-James?” Casper’s voice sounded from somewhere to his right. “You okay? You feel kinda messed up right n-”

“Shut up for a sec.” James cut him off. He stood, dropping the phone down onto the bed behind him, and took a deep breath. This wasn’t the first time he’d had to force himself to calm in the past few weeks, and he’d gotten surprisingly good at it. This time, however, was different. Whatever horrors his nightmares routinely showed him, they were all, at least, just variations on a memory. This, on the other hand, was very much present. This was a danger still to come. If he went, people might try to kill him. If he stayed… could he even stay at this point? He knew himself well enough to know that staying would feel like siding with the child molesters. The very thought made him feel ill.

He moved towards his bedroom wall, resting his head against the plaster, and brought his fist up against it, setting his knuckles gently against the plaster. It didn’t help. He pushed himself away, and started pacing the length of the small room, his hands held tight around himself. He needed time to think. Needed quiet. The television in the corner played on, the little sounds broke his focus, distracted. Not what he needed. He moved to the bed, picked up the remote in trembling hands, and mashed at the off button for a few long seconds until his shaking fingers finally managed to shut off the sound. His heart was racing, everything moving too fast. He sat on a corner of the bed, and tried to force himself to breathe deep.

James felt someone’s arms closing around his own, pressing his elbows to his sides, restricting his movement. He reacted without thought, forcing his head backwards as hard as he could. He felt it make contact with something, and a voice yelped in surprise and pain. Good, he had them on the back foot. He wrenched his arms to the sides with all his might, forcing his way free, and in the movement, felt a hand latch on to his shoulder. He took it in his mouth, and bit down, hard. Another cry. James pushed away, forcing himself off of the bed and starting to fall. He would have hit the ground in a heap, but he had more options now, so instead of down, he went up. His back found a surface, and he shoved himself to the side, coming to rest in a corner where the wall and ceiling met. He looked down. Casper sat on the bed, gazing up at him, a few drops of blood dripping down his hand.

“Everything okay in there?” Came Sarah’s voice from the hall. “What’s with the noise?”

“It’s all fine!” Casper replied, his gaze level with James’ own. “James fell off his bed cuz he’s being a doof.” The boy raised a hand to James, silently gesturing him to come back down to the ground. Somewhat ashamedly, he lowered himself to the floor, then moved towards the bed, and picked up the phone.

“This is the only time, Tasha. You understand me? The only one.” Before she had a chance to answer, he hung up. He held the phone out towards Casper, not looking at the other boy, opting instead to gaze at his own feet. “… Sorry.”

Casper chuckled. “Panic attacks a new thing for you?” He asked, taking the phone. “They were an issue for me too when I got my powers. Lots of people around me with problems, you know? I learned to deal after a while.”

James wasn’t sure what to say to that, so instead opted to change the subject, too ashamed of himself to bring up the still bleeding wound on Casper’s hand.

“Can you cover for me if my parents come in?” He asked. “I’m probably gonna need about twenty minutes.”

“Yeah, of course.” Casper nodded. He reached for the TV remote, returning the robot fight to its display and upping the volume a little. “Just a thought. Wear dark clothes. It should be harder to see you against the night sky.”

“Good idea.”

Casper was good enough to turn away while James changed, turning back to face him when he moved to the window, opening it with a loud creak. He clambered up, his feet resting against the second story window sill, and took a deep, long breath.

“Sorry I hugged you.” The sandy haired boy spoke quietly from the bed behind him.

“Yeah,” he answered. “I’m sorry too.”

With that, James squeezed his eyes shut, placed his hands on the edges of the wall to either side, and pushed off, allowing himself to fall.

Immediately, he willed himself forward and up, as far and as fast as he could go, reasoning that he’d be harder to spot if he was higher from the ground. When he opened his eyes, a few seconds later, he found himself high, high above the ground.

James took a moment, the sight of the hundreds, even thousands of tiny lights below him was… oddly invigorating. He stretched his arms back, his back cracking slightly as it worked through the cramps of sitting on his bed with his friend, and breathed deep. The air up here was cold, wet, and unexpectedly fresh, clear of the ever present tint of smoke he so often tasted out in the city streets below. He grinned, simply because it felt like the natural thing to do, and, without warning, even to himself, let out a loud, whooping yell into the night sky. There was no echo, and that fact elated him somehow.

He shook himself. He was getting distracted. There was a job to do. James pivoted slightly in the air, peering through the nighttime gloom until he saw a formation of lights that he was fairly certain belonged to his school, and began to move.

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Catharsis: 2.2

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Tasha:

The brown haired man was smiling. His trap had worked, and now he leaned once more against the corridor wall, smugness practically radiating from every inch of him. The attacker, for her part, was still for the moment, seemingly content to allow Tasha to make the first move. She took a few seconds, tensing and relaxing every muscle group in her body, ascertaining that everything was still working as it should be. Good, nothing was broken, that was something, at least.

The floor was not a good position to attack from, at least not in this position, with her legs in front of her and her arms to the side, she lacked any way to build her footing before another of those attacks, whatever it had been, hit her. Cautiously, hoping against hope that it wouldn’t provoke a response, Tasha pushed herself upright, then stood. Surprisingly, the woman let her, a small smile spreading across her face.

“…You’re testing me?” She asked, leaning back against the wall and trying her absolute best to make it seem natural. Her hands found the solid surface of it and braced themselves against it. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her baseball bat, laying perhaps ten or so feet away, too far for her to grab it without giving her adversary another opening. She’d do this barehanded, then.

“That’s the idea,” the woman replied coolly. “If I like what I see, you might even have a place with us. I’ll be honest, though, you’re not doing all that well so far. You got yourself baited into an ambush, that’s a rookie move. Try and be a little smarter from now on, kay?”

Tasha grit her teeth at the woman’s words, and nodded, more to distract than for any other reason. She needed to take this one by surprise. Think it through. First step, get more information.

“And if I fail?” She asked, her muscles tensing, ready to spring. “What happens then?”

“Then I guess I kill you,” the woman replied, sounding unconcerned. “You did attack us after al-”

Tasha pushed herself off of the wall with all her might, her hands and feet digging into the ground and wall as she forced herself from complete stillness to a dead sprint in under a second, not so much running as throwing herself at her foe like a battering ram.

The woman barely even moved. She stopped talking mid word, and opened her mouth wide, letting out what may have been called a scream, if a scream were able to happen without sound. The shockwave struck tasha before she was even halfway towards her new foe, and for a moment, she strained against it, the force of it battling against her own momentum, before it launched her back, harder than before. She struck the wall, and, with a crunch, felt it give way beneath her. She landed on her back, the new room around her utterly dark. Tasha was prepared this time, more ready for the second blow than she had been for the first, and wasted not a moment in shoving herself to the side, out of the small field of dim light pooling in from the hole into the hallway. Somewhere in the darkness of the room, a young voice screamed. Tasha grimaced; so this was a bedroom, then.

“No blind shots,” came the man’s voice from the other side of the wall. “You might hit Ellie!”

“I know!” The woman’s voice snapped. “Just stay back and let me work, will you?” The man did not respond, and it seemed the woman turned her attention to Tasha. “That’s two really bad calls in a row now. Gonna go for three?”

Tasha moved towards the punctured wall, and pressed herself against it, as far from the hole as she could get, then squeezed her eyes shut, trying to force her eyes to adjust to the darkness as fast as possible. When she opened them again, she could see.

The room was small, set up similarly to the others she had seen. A bed against one wall, a single window, the curtains closed against the night, and a free standing dresser to one side. A small scuffling sound from the bed drew her eye, and she caught sight of the room’s only occupant, a girl a little older than her, by appearances, crawling beneath the bed. Tasha nodded to herself, best the girl stay out of the way, where possible. There were sounds of movement coming from outside the door. She was running out of time.

Tasha shook herself. She needed time to think, to make a plan. Easiest way to get time was to make distance. She nodded to herself, then turned towards the wall adjoining this bedroom to the next one along. With one deep breath, praying quietly to herself that this would work, Tasha threw herself at the connecting wall, her shoulder slamming into it with full force. The old plasterboard gave with a crunch, and she found herself in another bedroom. The light was on. She smashed it. The inhabitant of this room was a boy. He did not scream, merely glared at her.

Glancing momentarily into the room behind, Tasha saw the woman standing in the doorway, peering owlishly through the dark as her eyes began to adjust. It would be perhaps a few seconds before she could see well enough to fire off another blast without risking hitting a bystander. That was the hope, at least. Tasha crossed the bedroom, aiming to put her next hole in the opposite corner to the one through which she had come so as to break the line of sight. She charged, and the wall gave just as easily as the last.

This room was empty of its inhabitant, presumably one of those dealing with the ‘customers’ outside, and that gave Tasha an idea. She crossed to the window, tore away the curtains, and slammed her forearm into the glass, shattering it. Then, she made for the next connecting wall, this time aiming to make a hole by the dresser that stood against it, just as in every room, it seemed. Tasha aimed low, intent on making the hole as small and low to the ground as possible this time. The moment she was through, she reached behind herself, taking hold of the dresser by a leg, and tugged it along the floor until its bulk covered her exit hole. Glancing around, she made eye contact with the inhabitant of this new room, this one a teen, and held a finger to her lips, the other hand curling into a fist. The girl got the message, and remained quiet. Tasha returned her attention to the dresser covering her, and lowered her head to lay flat on the floor, gazing into the vacated room through the space between its legs.

From this new vantage point, Tasha watched a pair of feet step into the empty room, before making their way towards the broken window. The woman swore under her breath, and spoke in a low murmur, apparently to herself.

“Going out into an open street when your enemy can use ranged attacks. That’s another mistake. Stupid girl.”

Tasha moved in near silence, positioning herself to sit facing the gap between the two rooms, bracing herself with her hands on the edges of the hole, before placing her feet against the dresser. Tasha took a deep breath, trying to picture the remembered location of the woman’s feet as accurately as possible, before thrusting her feet outward towards it, sending the dresser skidding towards the woman across the floor. Without waiting to see if the first attack made contact, Tasha pulled herself forward through the hole with her hands, and forced herself off of it as hard as she could, throwing herself through the air towards the woman.

The noise of the maneuver caught the woman’s attention, and she turned away from the window, catching sight of the dresser just in time to blast it aside with another of those strange, silent screams, her eyes going wide with surprise. She did not have time, however, to stop the other attack, and Tasha impacted against her in an uncontrolled tackle, bowling her down onto the bed against which she stood. Tasha wasted no time in wrestling the woman into submission, forcing her into a headlock so as to prevent her taking any new targets.

“There,” Tasha grunted, frustrated beyond belief. “Now, If we’re done with the bullshit, I’m gonna finish robbing you.”

As she spoke, she pulled herself to her feet and the woman was dragged stumbling along with her. She tried to speak, her words coming out hoarse and halting through Tasha’s grip on her throat, but before she could get out anything coherent, the girl shifted her grip, cutting her off.

“Nope!” She snapped. “No talking for you. You sell kids for sex, you threatened to kill me, and you punched me through a wall. We’re gonna go get my bat, and then I’m gonna break your legs.”

They reached the door, and Tasha lashed out with a foot, forcing it free of its hinges with a loud crack. She tugged the struggling woman into the hallway, glancing left and right for her bat.

Tasha registered the impact before she noticed the man holding the gun. The sound of the gunshot rang in her ears, far louder than tv shows made it seem. She felt her leg give way under her, and toppled sideways against her captive, who herself was forced against the doorframe, barely keeping the two of them upright. This change in their profile was likely the only thing that spared Tasha of a second shot. There was a pain in her left leg, somewhere below the knee, a hot, sharp sort of feeling, but that was not the main concern. A small part of her mind realized that her homemade armor had failed to deflect a bullet, and that she needed to get away. The rest of her mind, too busy reeling from the shock and the rapidly building pain, obeyed the impulse. She clumsily tugged the woman forwards, placing a hand at her waist, and another at the back of her neck, before hoisting her up and throwing her bodily down the hall towards her attacker, who, she realized belatedly, was the same man who had threatened her with the gun on her last visit. The woman screamed, and the man fumbled to catch her, the weight of momentum forcing them both to the floor.

Tasha turned, grasping the sides of the doorframe in either hand, and faced herself towards the window. The room was on the second story. This was not going to be fun. She grit her teeth, then threw herself towards the opening, glad that at the very least, the glass had already been removed from the frame. She hit the windowsill at an angle, the injured leg striking the wall on the way through and eliciting a wave of genuine pain. She yelled in defiance of it, her body tumbling the five or so meters to the pavement below and landing on her arms, managing luckily to absorb most of the impact. She would have liked to remain still for a moment, take some time to adjust to the pain, but she knew they’d be right behind her, and so dragged herself to her feet, grasping the side of a public bin to aid the effort. No chance of getting away at ground level, she knew that. Best get to a rooftop then, and fast. She tested her undamaged leg against the pavement, and felt no real pain from it. Good, that gave her a chance. She crouched low, trying to keep as much of her weight off the damaged leg as possible, then pushed off from the ground with all her might, launching herself across the street and up into the air. She fell short of her intended target, the rooftop of the building opposite her jumping point, and found her chest colliding hard against the edge of it, her legs dangling uselessly in the air below as her hands scrabbled for purchase. She caught a hand on the edge of the brickwork, and pulled herself up onto the roof, letting her body slump down onto the ground, concealed by the short, slightly raised lip of the rooftop that, hopefully, would help hide her from the eyes of anyone in that damned whorehouse. If she wanted to get away, she had to stay hidden; had to stay silent.

Slowly, fighting against the urge to gasp in pain as her damaged leg scraped against the rooftop, Tasha began to crawl. Finally, she made her way to the other end of the rooftop, and after a laborious climb to her feet, she launched herself across the gap once more to another rooftop. Only then did she allow herself to succumb to the pain and sheer frustration of it all. She raged in silence, slamming her fists against the ground again and again, tears streaming down her cheeks. She had been so close.

For a time, Tasha lay still. She would not bleed out, she knew that well enough. Of the many strange little quirks to her biology that seemed to have accompanied her newfound strength, one of the more commonly used was a far enhanced ability to withstand punishment. So for the moment, Tasha simply lay there, letting it all sink in. Then, once the tears had run dry from her eyes, she dug clumsily in her pocket for her phone. She dialed the number without much thought. It rang into the silence a few times, before a quiet voice answered on the other end.

“Yeah?” It asked.

“H-hey, Casper,” Tasha mumbled, trying to ignore the shame building painfully in her gut. “I-I kinda got myself in trouble… I need a favor.”

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Catharsis: 2.1

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Tasha:

The girl stood at the entrance to the apartment block, feeling strangely self conscious, even in the empty, moonlit street. Of all the changes she’d made to her attire in the past few days, the dark green cloak that now shrouded her was debatably the most flamboyant, competing with the cheap white plastic theater mask that now covered her face. She shook herself. Appearance didn’t matter. What mattered was effectiveness, and if these new additions helped give her an edge in this second round, then that was all that mattered. Tasha clenched her fist slightly around the handle of her sturdy new metal bat, then pushed the door open, stepping back inside the lush interior of the building.

The halls were empty, as before, and Tasha wasted no time in heading for the stairs. She had her goal, and she was determined.

The girl made it perhaps halfway along the corridor before her plans went awry. A door opened, and a boy stepped out into the hall. He was wearing pajamas, a toothbrush sticking out of one side of his mouth, and for the first few moments, was apparently far too focused on scratching the side of his head to notice her. Tasha stopped in her tracks, unsure how to proceed. She wasn’t here to hurt the kids, but if he got in the way, what was she to do?

The boy stretched, his hands reaching high into the air as he tried to pull the muscles in his shoulders loose. His head lolled gently to the side, which was when he noticed her, his eyes going wide.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, Tasha realized that she recognized this boy. He was the one who had called her ugly on her previous visit here. The boy, on the other hand, did not recognize her, concealed as she was in her ostentatious new costume. Lacking anything else to do, she tried to seem bigger than she was, more impressive. She opened her mouth to speak, but before she could get a word out, the boy bolted, the toothbrush falling forgotten from his mouth as he made his way up the staircase two at a time.

Tasha swore to herself as she began her pursuit, sprinting towards the stairs after him, her feet thudding on the thick carpet. He saw her following, and redoubled his speed. The boy was faster. She hadn’t even reached the bend in the stairway when the sounds of people speaking stopped her short.

“Alistair,” murmured a woman’s voice, a note of suppressed anger clear under a forced calm. “What are you doing up here? It’s not your night for taking custo-”

“Weirdo downstairs,” the boy cut her off, just a little out of breath. “Has a baseball bat! Chased me up here!”

“What?” A mature sounding male voice cut in, agitated. “Men, block the stairs.”

There was no audible response, but Tasha hadn’t been expecting any. She grinned. Time to give these guys a show. The girl crouched slightly, gazing up at the wall opposite. She’d practiced stuff like this before, and was more than a little pumped at the thought of getting to try it out for real. She coiled like a spring, then released, launching herself up from the midpoint of the stairway and high along the plaster covered wall. If they were expecting someone to come at them up the stairs, then she’d come from somewhere else. Tasha pivoted in midair, feeling her back and feet connect with the ceiling and wall, the plaster cracking slightly with the impact. She reached out her free hand and dug her fingers into the wall, holding herself in place. With this shift in perspective, she caught sight of the men who were, indeed, blocking the stairway door. Four of them, adults, dressed in close fitting business gear and matching shades, short batons and knuckle dusters in hand. If it was possible for someone to look like a gangster, it was these guys. They were gazing at her with a unilateral look of surprise. Before they had time to do more than stare, she pushed off from the wall with her feet, holding the bat sideways before her with both hands, and shot into their barricade like a cannonball.

To his credit, one of the four men was quick enough to dodge to the side. The other three, however, took the impact dead on, the metal beam colliding with weapons, arms and rib-cages with a loud, solid crunch as she bowled them back onto the floor. One groaned, clutching his wrist, another began to stand. The one whos ribs she had struck lay still. No time to think about that now. The one who had avoided her strike stepped forwards, pivoting on one foot to kick her in the side with all his might. Had this been a few days ago, that might have stopped her. It would at least have served the purpose of throwing her off balance, slowing her down and forcing her onto the defensive. As it was now, however, his foot bounced off her homemade armor with a metallic ring, and the only thing that spared him of a broken foot was his shoe, apparently steel toed. He let out a confused ‘huh,’ and she chuckled, swinging the bat sideways into the knee he was still using to stand. It bent sideways around the weapon, and the man dropped to the ground, screaming. As he grasped his shattered leg, eyes wide, the skin of his cheek began to shift and flush, the dark, intricate pattern of the mark of pain emerging on the forefront of his skin, interlocking with the mark of purity under his eye. Tasha pushed herself to her feet, taking a moment to take stock of her surroundings.

The room was quite full, just as it had been in the previous instance, a collection of attractive men and women of varying ages occupied the space, dressed as though they were all attending some cocktail party somewhere. Their faces, she noted, were all oddly unblemished by the marks of purity or pain that she might have expected them to carry. She hadn’t noticed that before.

Unlike before, however, there were others interspersed among them. Four or five, at most. Older, and, to varying degrees, far less attractive. Customers?

The man with the broken hand pushed himself to his feet, face set in a determined line, and came at her, swinging a short baton in his uninjured hand. She brought her bat around to intercept, and stopped the blow dead with ease, before slapping it down against his knuckles. He didn’t fall, even as the mark of pain began to bloom across his cheek like black smoke, but merely backed away, cradling his broken hands and glaring at her.

For just a moment, all was silent, the twenty or so people staring at her as one. Tasha, for her part, was pumped. For this one moment, everything in the room revolved around her. When she moved, they all moved in response to her. Time for some answers. She had her suspicions, time to test them.

“Right,” she spoke, loud enough for the room at large to hear. “Now then, who came here to fuck some whores?” No response. She raised her bat. “Honesty, or I start hitting things. This is a sex place, right?”

Now the people around her were looking at her less like she were an angry person with a baseball bat, and more like she were a confused toddler somewhere she shouldn’t be.

“… Yes.” Replied a thirty something woman in a black dress suit, a little too formal to be one of the residents. “Are… are you really asking? Do you actually not know who you’re attacking right now?”

“Pretty much,” Tasha admitted with a slight chuckle. “I’m not really a figuring it out ahead of time type of gal. Now, everyone who came here for sex, pockets empty please, money on the floor in front of me, or I start breaking thumbs.”

Around the room, the four or five ‘customers’ began turning out their pockets. The woman did so with something of a grin.

“I know it sounds cliche, but you have no idea how much trouble you’re in right now.”

Tasha wasn’t listening. She was distracted, for the moment, by the fact that the suited men and woman had deposited what looked to be well over a thousand dollars on the floor before her, amassed as a collection of crisp, neatly folded bills.

“Man,” she murmured. “I should mug buildings more often.” That said, she lowered herself to the ground, bending her knees rather than her back so as not to open herself up to attack, and picked up the cash, stuffing it into the cloak’s pocket with some difficulty, the thick material of her costume gloves impeding her grip a little. Then, she stood. “Right. Time to free everyone.”

The crowd followed her, more perplexed it seemed than genuinely concerned, as she strode on into the corridor. She tried the first door, and found it locked. She pulled back with her bat, and swung it down towards the handle. The metal and wood gave out with a loud snap, and on the other side of the door, she heard a yelp of alarm. She kicked it open and looked inside.

The interior of the room was furnished just as opulently as the hallways, a lush carpet running the floor of the small space, covered at one end by a mid sized wooden dresser, and at the other by a large, comfortable looking double bed, on which sat a small girl, perhaps eight or nine years old, staring at her wide eyed.

‘So Casper was right,’ Tasha thought to herself with a note of anger. ‘They are using kids for this.’ Out loud, she only said “Come on. I’m getting you out of here.” Before turning away from the door and moving on to the next.

Before she had a chance to break the door open, however, a voice stopped her, a familiar softness to it.

“Hello, miss. A pleasure to see you again.”

Tasha looked up, catching sight of the same, brown haired young man whose hand she had broken on her last visit. He stood in the corner, where the corridor turned along the wall of the building. His hand, she noted with some satisfaction, was heavily bandaged. She lowered the bat, and turned to face him.

“Want something?” She asked. “You should know, I don’t like people who waste my time.”

“Oh good,” the man smiled. “So it is you under all those clothes. Great. I was hoping we’d get another chance to talk.”

“Not interested in talking,” Tasha replied evenly. “I just wanna get the money, and the whores, and get them somewhere safe. Away from dickbags like you.”

The man let out a genuine laugh at that, as did a few of those following behind her.

“They’re all very safe, thank you,” he smiled again. “And perfectly happy where they are. Although,” he dropped the smile. “We don’t like being called whores.”

“Don’t care,” Tasha said bluntly. “I’m taking them away from you, where no one is gonna sell them to anyone ever again.”

“And where might that be?” The man snorted. “Where exactly are you planning to take my family once you’ve kidnapped them, hmm? I assume you have somewhere set up already for them. And that’s assuming they even want to come with you, which, believe me, they don’t.”

Tasha ignored him, turning back to the task at hand. She stoved in the doorknob with the hilt of her bat, and kicked it open. The occupant was a boy this time. He looked to be around twelve, and was staring at her, confusion and fear warring on his face.

“Come on,” she said gently to him. “We’re getting you out of here.”

The boy didn’t move, instead simply staring at her.

“M-Marcus?” He called out, his voice tremulous. “W-what’s going on?”

“Don’t worry about it, Leo,” the brown haired man called back, his voice calm. “Just some outsider being weird. Go back to sleep, kay?”

“…Kay.” The boy gazed at Tasha for a few more moments, before turning in his bed, and laying himself back down against the pillows, his back to her.

Tasha stared at the boy, then directed her gaze back towards Marcus.

“What… the fuck?”

In reply, he only shrugged.

“The kids like it here,” he murmured. “And why wouldn’t they? They have love, and family, and food and a warm bed at night. Are you trying to take that away?”

“And in exchange, you sell them for sex?” Tasha asked, feeling a little sick. “No dice. I’m not leaving till I’ve torn this whole fucked up place to the ground.”

Marcus sighed, then pushed off from the wall he had been leaned up against.

“Well, if that’s how it is. You’ll have to start with me.” He shifted positions into some sort of fighting stance., his legs spreading slightly and his shoulder turned towards her, holding his undamaged arm at mid height, the bandaged one behind his back. Tasha almost laughed. She raised her bat, grasped the handle firmly with both hands, and charged.

She made it within perhaps two feet of him, before something struck her with what felt like all the force of a truck, lifting her off her feet, and slamming her into the wall. Too dazed to catch herself, she fell to the floor with a thump.

“So,” said a new female voice that Tasha didn’t recognize. “You’re the girl Father called me out here to test? You sure are convenient. We weren’t expecting you to come to us on your own like this.”

Tasha’s whole body ached. She pushed herself up off the ground, staring. Standing across from her, previously concealed by the bend in the hallway, was a young woman, perhaps only five or so years older than Tasha, with a face that, were she to guess, she would have called Middle eastern. This girl too was utterly unmarked and, equally strangely, oddly, unnaturally beautiful.

“Well then,” her attacker murmured. “Let’s get started, shall we?”

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