Aid: 5.8

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Twenty Three:

Thirteen’s apartment was tiny; just a single room, really, with little more than the formality of a wall separating the toilet from the rest of the living space to justify the usage of the term. Twenty Three couldn’t bring herself to truly be upset about that. It was just one of the tiny ways her partner’s constant sass had of biting him in the rear. She contented herself that at least his punishment wasn’t something more severe.

She moved to the bed, and one by one started pulling sheets up off the mattress.

At least being smaller made the place quicker for her to search.

She examined the bedding by touch as she pulled it apart. Nothing there that wasn’t supposed to be. She checked the mattress, then dumped the sheets back down on top of it. She’d remake it when she was done, if there was time. She moved on to search the trunk.

Thirteen hadn’t been talking lately; ignoring offers of food or company and rarely even messaging her more than once every couple of days. That never bode well. When Thirteen went quiet, it always meant he was trying to keep things from her. She sighed. Thirteen only hid the things that led to fights.

The last time, it had been a kitchen knife; a small thing, embedded with a dozen or so pitifully small enchantments. He’d had some damn fool idea about just cutting the brands out of their skin. She would have laughed if the thought alone wasn’t enough to get him killed. That was years ago now, though. She’d thought he’d given up trying.

The knife had led to the biggest fight she could remember. He’d cried as he watched her break it; hadn’t spoken to her for months after that.

She wondered how long the silent treatment would last this time around.

The trunk was a bust. Nothing in there besides a few clothes and the small assortment of possessions their masters had allowed him to maintain. There was a Tardis shirt in there, a good three sizes too small for him now. It had been a task and a half just getting the thing for him. She’d thought he would have thrown it out by now. It wasn’t as if he could wear it any more.

She closed the trunk back up, then moved her search to the bathroom.

Nothing under the sink. No gaps in the walls or floor. No loose tiles under which he could be hiding things. She sighed, for a moment allowing herself to hope. Maybe there was nothing here to find. Maybe he really had given up. It felt wrong, having that be what she hoped for.

She moved to the toilet, and began pulling apart the water housing. No bags inside. Nothing there that wasn’t meant to be.

Maybe he was just trying to get some space from her? Maybe he wanted her to make the first move? Maybe he was just being a moody shit. Teenagers were difficult, even at the best of times.

She returned to the main room, and started re-dressing the bed. Maybe she could just invite him over for a while; just talk things out.

She made it halfway through getting the final sheet back in place when her phone pinged.

Great, she thought drily. A new target. Just what I needed.

She pulled the phone from her pocket and glanced at the screen, and that little scrap of hope shrivel away inside her chest.

“So,” she whispered. “This is how they finally break us, huh?”

The target was a girl. A human girl; about eight or nine, if she had to guess, and she was smiling. Why did she have to be smiling? That just made it so much worse. There were words as well, collected underneath the picture, half concealed by the border of the screen.

Numbly, Asset Twenty Three scrolled down and read through the target information; then she stood there, just letting it all sink in.

They told me her name, she thought. They told me her fucking name.

She took a breath.

Just say no. Take your phone, and go to the government. Right here. Right now. Let them kill you. What does it even matter? What kind of life have you got to lose?

For a moment, she almost managed to be convinced. But then there was another voice inside her head.

They’ll kill Caleb too, you know. You being obedient is the only thing that kept him alive so far.

Twenty Three allowed herself just a few more moments to pretend she had a choice, then put the phone back in her pocket with a laugh.

It didn’t matter anyway. She was a hunting dog. She did as she was told.


Caleb:

Caleb made his way back to his cage by a casual route that night. He was in no hurry. There were no tasks that day that remained for him to do, the night air was cool, and his curfew alarms weren’t set to go off for another hour, at least. Even leaving all of that aside, however, there was something else in play.

For the first time in a long while, Caleb was in a good mood. He was in a really good mood. He had a reason to be. The plan was coming together well.

In the two days since his talk with James’ stupidly powerful family, things had been right on track. According to the updates James had given him, the escape route was well on its way to full completion, and he’d spent most of yesterday training with Tasha in preparation for subduing Twenty Three.

He rolled his neck slowly around atop his shoulders for a second at that, trying unsuccessfully to ease the few remaining aches and pains. His technical ally hadn’t even tried to pull her punches. That was okay, though. He hadn’t either. If this thing really did go off without a hitch, he might even be big enough to thank her.

He was grinning by the time his cage came into view. A thought had struck him on his walk, and it was a good one.

Twenty Three would be free this time tomorrow. Maybe she’d finally be willing to give herself a name. He’d mulled it over in his head for the last half hour or so, and while it was her choice he wouldn’t dream of taking it away from her, he thought he’d like it if she chose to go with Kaylee.

Kaylee was a kind name.

His good mood lasted all the way inside his run-down apartment block, up the stairs, and halfway down the narrow hallway that led towards his cage.

Then he saw his doorway was ajar. Someone else had been inside.

He dropped his smile, slowing his pace a fraction; alert. Someone in his cage meant one of two things. Either someone had broken in, or he had a superior up the ranks that had decided not to trust him. For the first time in his life, Caleb found himself dearly hoping he’d just been robbed. Suspicion would just make the whole plan harder.

He neared the door and, quiet as he could, reached forward to push it open. Before his hand even touched the handle, however, the door swung open from the other side. What he saw behind it was not a supervisor, and that was not a relief.

“Hey, Thirteen,” Twenty Three murmured, barely even pausing to look at him as she stepped out past him into the hallway. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

“You searched my room?” he asked, his voice quiet.

She stopped walking at that, her back to him. Then, in the most exhausted voice Caleb had ever heard, she spoke.

“I don’t wanna fight about this, Caleb,” she muttered. “Not right now. Please. I’m too tired.”

Caleb felt his eyes draw wide at that. She’d never used the name before. That alone was enough to quiet whatever anger had been building in his gut; replacing it with a concern he couldn’t seem to put a cause to.

“… Are you okay?”

Twenty Three let out a short laugh at that, followed by a weary kind of sigh.

“No,” she said. “I’m not. I’m in pain, Caleb. I wanted to ask you a favor.”

“Anything,” he replied without even a moment’s hesitation. “Whatever I can do.”

A pause, then; long enough that Caleb wondered if she’d even heard him. Then, her shoulders seemed to slump.

“Can you stop trying?” she asked. “For me? Just give up and let this be your life?” She turned around to give him a broken sort of smile. “It’d be easier for both of us if you did.”

Whatever thoughts had been winding their way through Caleb’s head came to a halt at that. She might as well have been asking him to die.

“… I really don’t think I can do that.”

“It’s easier than you’d think,” she replied. “And you won’t be alone for it, I promise. I just-” she halted there, regret for what came next written plain as day across her face. “It just hurts, you know? You’re the only good thing in my life, and the moments I get with you… they make it bearable. Can you stop making those moments hurt by making me betray you?”

“… You don’t have to keep betraying me.”

A laugh.

“I do if I want to keep your butt alive.”

There it was; the impasse. For a while, neither of them moved. There was nothing they could say. No compromise to be had.

“I care about you, you know?” Caleb gave the older girl a smile, and she gave him one back that made him feel cold inside.

“Yeah,” she replied. “Me too. Promise you’ll think about what I said?”

“… Yeah,” he muttered. “I promise.”

“Thank you.”

With that, Twenty Three turned away, and once more set off down the hall. Caleb did his best to brush the nausea aside.

It doesn’t matter, said a voice inside his haid. Tomorrow, we’ll be gone, and all of this’ll shift. It’s fi-

“You’ve got another escape attempt lined up, don’t you?” Twenty Three murmured behind her as she reached the stairs. When he didn’t reply, she simply sighed. “… Well, I guess it doesn’t matter now, anyways. Just try and get rid of it before we leave, okay?”

“What?”

Twenty Three didn’t say any more, simply stepping onward out of sight. A minute or two later, his phone pinged from inside his jacket. Feeling a little numb, he pulled it out, and checked the screen.

The photograph was more perplexing to him than anything else at first, a distance shot of a young boy, apparently taken through a window. Then he saw the words sitting underneath.

‘Target Name: Charles Vance. High priority. Retrieve unharmed and move to designated site to await your relocation. Harm to target will result in your termination. Failure to deliver will result in termination. You have three hours. Locations enclosed.’

Fuck.

Caleb set off down the corridor at a sprint. He had to get to Twenty Three. He had to get to her right fucking now and stop this. He reached the stairs, and didn’t even bother to run, simply vaulting across the breadth of them and landing on the floor. The plan was gone. He had to get the two of them away and he had to do it now.

She was already long gone by the time he hit the street. It took everything he had not to simply punch something.

No time, Caleb. You can be pissed about this later. Bigger problems right now. No plan. No partner. Gotta find her before she leaves. Think quickly.

He had the phone back out of his pocket before he’d even consciously decided on a choice, dialing in a number and pressing it against his ear while the rest of his body set off down the street at a sprint.

It took James almost a minute to answer the call, the young voice coming across the line husky and slowed.

“Caleb,” James groaned. “It’s midnight. Why the heck are yo-”

“We’re doing the ritual now,” Caleb cut him off, sparing a moment for his surroundings before cutting off down a side street. The bin he had to get to was three blocks away. There wasn’t time to waste. “No time to wait for it anymore.”

“What?” James asked, surprised, his voice still just shaking itself from sleep. “No, Caleb. That’s tomorrow. We’ve gotta wait for the-”

“They’ve given us new targets,” Caleb said shortly. “But it’s not creatures. We were always hunting beasts before, but now they’re sending us after humans.”

“What?” To his credit, the tiredness seemed to have abandoned James’ voice at that. “What humans? Why’re they taking them?”

“I don’t know,” he replied, taking the final turn into another darkened street and catching sight of the bin he needed. He kept speaking as he sprinted across to it, then ducked down, and tugged his ritual supplies from the packet he’d kept sticky taped underneath it. “I just know they want me to deliver some kid named Charles Vance. They’re gonna relocate me if I do, and they’re gonna kill me if I don’t. We don’t have any time to figure this out, Ja-”

“Charlie,” the other boy interrupted, his voice suddenly cold. “His name’s Charlie. They’re sending you after my friend.”

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Aid: 5.7

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

James:

The silence that followed Caleb’s proclamation was a long one, Interrupted only by the bopping of Tuva’s music in her headphones. For the first few moments, no one moved. James’ grandparents still gazing across at the older boy, their expressions slightly stern. Tasha still looked angry. Eventually, Caleb lowered his eyes to the table, his cheeks a little red.

“Wow,” he muttered. “That sounds so dumb out loud.”

Across the table, Hideyoshi leaned back a little in his chair, his fingers tenting against his chin. James went back to fiddling with his potatoes. He wasn’t really hungry.

“War with whom?” asked Tsuru, calm as ever.

“The elves, I think,” Caleb replied. “Growing up at the training place, you’d catch like, these little bits of conversation when the masters didn’t think we were close enough to hear.” He chuckled. “I never heard much, but it always sounded like they wanted elves to die.”

At that, Hideyoshi snorted.

“Of course that’s what they want,” he rumbled. “Some damn fool war that won’t do any good for anyone. When do people ever want anything else?”

“Wait,” James asked. “Aren’t elves, like, those people who tried to kidnap me? Why’s fighting them a bad idea?”

Beside him, Tasha shrugged.

“Maybe that’s only some of them.”

“I’m afraid that’s most of them, really,” Tsuru sighed. “Their society runs off of those kidnappings.”

“Uhm, what?” James asked, cocking an eyebrow at his grandmother. He wasn’t the only one looking at her strangely. Caleb and Tasha followed suit. “How can they need-”

“It’s a long story,” she cut him off. “And one we try to keep quiet.” She hesitated for a moment there, before sighing and continuing. “Well, you’ll need to know at some point; you’re already involved, after all. It’s pretty well known that the elves kidnap people, but what isn’t so well known is why.” At that, she picked her water glass off the table and drained it. Then, she leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes, and spoke.

“In the simplest terms, they think of us as livestock.” She paused, one eye drifting open to see if anyone was going to interject. No one did, so she continued. “You three already know that some of the stronger spells out there need rituals, and rituals need ingredients. Well, for the more powerful rituals out there, those ingredients are people.”

For a while after that, no one really spoke. Tsuru once again went quiet, giving the three of them a moment to absorb the implications.

“… What kind of spells?” James asked. “What were they gonna do to me?”

His grandmother opened her mouth to reply, then closed it again, thoughtful. Whatever her compunction, Hideyoshi didn’t share it.

“A kid as powerful as you?” his grandfather rumbled. “They’d probably save you for the big one. Use your soul to punch a hole into whatever place magic comes from and flood their world with energy. Would have kept their planet saturated for a couple of years, at least; made every one of them stronger.” Tsuru shot him a glare, and he scowled. “We can’t sugarcoat this. Not if we want him to be informed.”

“… Oh,” James mumbled. What else was there for him to say? From the seat beside him, he felt Tasha’s fist bump gently against his shoulder. He gave her a smile. Today was a weird day.

“They used to sacrifice other elves, of course,” Hideyoshi continued, picking up for Tsuru, herself still busy scowling at him. “But then they reached the top, and I guess they started wondering why they had to sacrifice each other when someone else would do. So, they started looking for a replacement. First, they tried it vegan; twisting things with spells; growing mushrooms into vessels just elvish enough to carry a soul worth selling. That didn’t work out so well. It turned out the mushrooms didn’t like having their souls removed, and were willing to fight them over it.” He chuckled. “And that, kids, is where goblins come from.”

“… Mushroom men?” James asked. “Really?”

“Not men,” Hideyoshi clarified. “They’re agender; reproduce by spores. That’s another reason it didn’t work out so well.”

“Uh, why?”

“A lot of sacrifices need specific things,” Tsuru supplied, finally calling off her glare and turning her gaze to her grandson. “Sometimes, they need someone who’s suffered burns. Sometimes, they need to be a certain age. Sometimes, it’s a loss of virginity.” She shrugged. “You can’t have virgins in a species without sex.”

James giggled at that. He wasn’t even really sure why. He just did. It sounded funny.

“So,” Hideyoshi continued. “The elves went looking for something new. A better race of cattle. Eventually, on a world far away from their home reality, on a planet with far less magic, they found a race of cavemen.” He sighed. “We were perfect. Weak enough that we couldn’t defend ourselves. Basic enough that they could pretend we were simple monkeys. Just one problem, really. Our souls weren’t big enough to be worth a damn. So they added some Elf to the mix.”

“Wait,” James asked. “Are you saying-”

“They fucked us, James,” the older man grunted. “Just to make something a little bit more valuable. Be glad they did it, too. We wouldn’t have any mages if they hadn’t.”

“… Eww.”

“Then, they gave us the facial marks,” Hideyoshi continued. “Easiest way to tell if someone fits the conditions for a ritual. They put a spell on the planet to cattle brand anyone who’s born here.” He gestured absently at his face as he spoke, moving his fingers from point to point. “Extreme pain, virginity, joy, murder, surviving a deathly illness. The list goes on, and they all go right on your face, for all the world to see.”

It took James a second or two to process that. The words just kind of bounced around inside his head. He felt gross. Really, really gross. His grandfather was still talking, but the words weren’t even registering inside his brain.

“Are-” he tried, his voice cracking slightly. Hideyoshi stopped speaking, turning to look at him. “Are you telling me I’ve… I’ve got those-” He struggled for words, then gave up. “Those things on my face… Just cuz some mage somewhere wanted a barcode?”

There was silence around the table at that. Hideyoshi gazed first at James, then at Tsuru, before regretfully turning back to James. He let out a long sigh, and nodded.

“Can anyone tell me why we’re not fighting these guys, already?” Tasha asked. “They sound like assholes.”

“Because they’re strong,” answered Tsuru. “They live on a group of worlds practically drowning in ambient magic, and their mages are stronger by far than almost anything we have to offer. The only advantages we have are better technology, and superior numbers, neither of which is of much use when we have barely any mages who can make a dimensional hole wide enough to travel through.”

Across from her, Hideyoshi nodded.

“Fighting the elves is a losing proposition,” he agreed. “Even if we found a way to win, the war itself would last decades, and we’d lose far more people than the kidnappings cost us.”

“Pretty sure that’s not how my bosses see it,” Caleb muttered.

Tsuru chuckled.

“Well, good for them. They’re wrong.”

Caleb shrugged.

“Maybe,” he admitted, his voice even. “Honestly, I don’t care if they’re right or not. I just wanna get me and my partner free. They can burn in hell for all I care.”

James gazed down at his plate, barely listening. He didn’t care. It was all too big; wars and plots and politics. His head felt muddled enough as it was. Every few moments, his thoughts kept pulling him back to his marks, and the image of his mother trying not to cry the first time she’d helped to hide them.

He was vaguely aware of the conversation moving on; his grandparents discussing something about an egyptian and some portals, with occasional comment from the others. He ignored them. He was too busy feeling sick.

It was a few minutes before a splash of water on his face pulled his attention back into the present. He turned his gaze towards the culprit, already glowering.

“Oi,” Hideyoshi grunted, dipping his fingers back into his glass in preparation to splash him again. “You awake there, James? It’s important that you know this. Now, it’s best if we do the ritual on Wednesday night, three days from now. That should give our contacts time to set up an escape route these people won’t be able to tra-”

“Sounds good,” James cut him off, pushing himself up from the table. “But I can’t be here right now. I gotta punch something or I’m gonna throw up.”

Neither Hideyoshi nor Tsuru seemed to know how to answer that; both of them simply gazing at him, apparently surprised. Caleb just shrugged.

He was already walking away when Tasha’s voice called after him.

“Second door, down the hall. Grab some gloves so you don’t mess up your hands. We can tell you this stuff later.”

“Thanks, Tasha.”

With that, he left the others to their planning, and headed off to vent.


Manhattan Island. Evening.

The organizer didn’t like this city. It was too crowded; all those different motivations and ideas swirling around in their brains. All that possibility. It set her teeth on edge.

It made it even worse that the place was big, of course; more than large enough for the government to hold a presence here. Said government would be even more alert now, in the wake of that catastrophe with the elves. Yet another reason to remain on edge.

She checked her phone, and took a left at the next set of traffic lights. She sighed. Ah, well. If she got this last inspection done with quickly, she could be out of there before the night set in. She’d like that. It was better, sleeping on the road.

This last one had better have more potential than the others, she thought. New York would be a waste of time, otherwise. A whole day spent ticking off the targets on her list, sniffing out which could be a viable acquisition, and almost all of it wasted. Most of these people didn’t have the energy to fuel a fireball, let alone anything of any scale. Of all the dozens of items on her list, she’d thus far only found one who might have the power to back up the traits required.

Hopefully this last one would change that, though. This last one had a pedigree. A parent in the government: One Jacqueline Vance; the portal maker. The organizer could only hope the son would be something like his mother.

She followed her phone’s directions down a side lane, and found her mind turning to the past few weeks.

It had been hectic, of course, trying to scout out every city on their list in the few weeks time they’d had. She couldn’t remember her last good night’s sleep. It would have been easier, of course, if they’d had more hunting birds to work with, but limitations were what they were. Breeding the things hadn’t been as tenable as they’d hoped.

She pulled the car to a stop along a side street, and stepped out to approach her final mark. For the last few inspections, she’d simply claimed to be a pizza girl given the wrong address. She had to be more careful here. Potential or no, this one lived with powerful people. It would be best not to even let them see her.

The scouting reports on this one’s file told her his bedroom was on the second floor, facing away from the street itself. Easy enough. A quick scan of the street showed her a good dozen or so convenient places to climb.

Getting onto the roof was child’s play. One spell to ease the climb, another to make spotting her more difficult. She didn’t even have to jump to make the crossing to the right house. The buildings here were connected; crushed together by the crowded nature of the cityscape. She crossed the roof, peaked down over the edge to find the right window, then eased herself down to look inside.

The boy was studying; one arm resting on the pages of a textbook as he worked his way through an answer sheet. He didn’t even notice as she slid the window open for the few moments it took her hunting bird to take a sniff.

Powerful. Good. Exactly what we need.

She slid the window closed, and took her leave. When she got back to her car, she found the boy’s name in her list, and put a tick beside it. Charles Vance.

She smiled.

Looking forward to working with you, Charlie.

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Aid: 5.6

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Caleb:

“So you’re the slave, eh?” the old woman asked.

She was frowning at him from the doorway, the narrowing of her eyes pulling each wrinkle a little deeper into her face. He returned her gaze with a scowl.

“Yeah. I guess.” He tried to keep the annoyance out of his tone.

James stood between them, a little awkward.

“Uhh,” he muttered. “Baba, this, uh. This is Caleb. Cal-”

He was stopped short when the woman thrust out a hand.

“Tsuru Toranaga,” she said. “James’ grandmother. Heard you could use some help.”

Caleb gazed for a moment at the woman’s outstretched hand, and wondered briefly if he could afford to be rude to her.

He tapped into his familiar’s senses and gave her power level a sniff.

Christ.

He shook her hand.

“Caleb,” he muttered. “Just call me Caleb.”

At that, the woman merely chuckled, before standing aside and waving the pair of them through the door.

James gave her a hug on the way by, the two conversing quietly for a moment in what Caleb took to be Japanese.

He pretended not to notice, setting his eyes instead on the interior of the place.

It was a penthouse, as far as he could tell, the chamber after the elevator leading out into a curved hallway that wrapped around it, splitting off into a corridor on either side, lined with doors. It was all wood panelling everywhere he looked. Expensive. Thick carpets, too. These guys must be loaded.

He tried not to be jealous. He really did.

“Nice place,” he muttered behind himself. Neither of them seemed to hear him. “… Suit yourselves.”

He opted to leave the pair of them behind, and wandered off down the better lit of the two hallways, down which he could hear the faint, familiar sounds of exertion over the occasional thudding impacts of a body against the floor. Someone was training.

After a few dozen feet, the hallway fed into a large, open plan room littered with bookcases and loose furniture, the thick carpet giving way to a hardwood floor. The sounds, he realized quickly enough, were coming from a padded mat in the middle of the room, where a familiar girl seemed to be having the time of her life. He scowled.

It was Tasha; the girl who’d gotten him in this mess to begin with. She was growling, engaged in a losing grapple with a male figure that, to Caleb, appeared to have been carved from solid granite. He made no effort to pretend it wasn’t satisfying when the statue eventually floored her.

There were others about as well, of course; a slightly balding man seated on a couch beside the training mat,his back to Caleb, presumably controlling the statue. At the far end of the room was a pale woman he’d have placed in her early twenties, seated halfway up the steps leading to some second level, her face buried in a book, a set of headphones wrapped around her ears and a shaggy looking golden retriever sprawled against her legs.

It was Tasha who noticed Caleb first, the statue pulled away, and she pushed herself to her feet, panting, only to catch him standing there as she dusted herself off. Immediately, her energized grin gave way to a scowl.

“Hey, teach,” she muttered. “Looks like the asshole’s here.”

Caleb snorted.

“Fuck you too, Tasha.”

From the changes to her face alone, Caleb could tell the girl was furious, but before Tasha had a chance to respond in kind, her teacher cut in.

“So you’re Caleb, huh?” he asked, pushing himself upright and turning around to face him. “Well, I’m Hideyoshi Toranaga, and Tasha tells me you’ve been lying to my grandson.” For the life of him, Caleb couldn’t read the expression on the old man’s face.

Yup, groaned a voice inside his mind. This is gonna go great.

Outwardly, however, he only sighed.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “I guess that’s one way to say it.”

At that, the old man allowed himself a grunt.

“Good,” he rumbled. “If you’d tried to make excuses, I might have had to burn you.”

Caleb shrugged. He almost wished the threat of harm still meant something to him.

“I don’t like to lie about the shitty things I do. I only do it when I have to.”

“Good answer,” Hideyoshi replied. “Because it’s time for you to be honest now. James told me you’re a slave. Who’s your owner, then? Who made you, and why?”

Again, Caleb only shrugged.

“No idea,” he muttered. “They keep us in the dark about that kind of stuff, where they can. Makes it harder to spill information to the feds or whoever else turns up. I know they trained me some place north. It was cold there. The ground had ice in it maybe nine months out of every year. Snowed sometimes. Pretty sure the locals didn’t speak much english.”

“Great,” Hideyoshi growled, annoyed. “That’s real helpful. Only narrows it down to maybe seven countries in Europe alone. And that’s not even counting the entirety of northern Rus-”

“Settle down, Yoshi,” called a familiar voice from the hall behind Caleb’s back; James’ grandma. He glanced behind himself, and saw her heading idly over, hand in hand with James. “There’s still plenty of knowledge we can glean from this. Let’s try not to get excited.”

For a moment, Hideyoshi simply glowered at her. Then, the man reluctantly closed his eyes, and took a breath.

“Yes, dear.”

“Sorry about that,” Tsuru continued evenly, returning her gaze to Caleb. “My husband gets a little short with people who betray our family’s trust.”

Caleb didn’t answer that at first. There didn’t seem to be any response that would help him here.

He glanced around the room, first at James, gazing over at him with an apologetic sort of confusion on his face, then at Tasha, still glaring, her arms folded tight across her chest, then finally at the girl on the stairs, still just listening to her music, one hand absently scratching behind the dog’s ears. He wished he could be that far above it all.

“It’s fine.”

“Hmm,” Tsuru hummed. “Thought it might be. Now then. Tell me about their organizational structure. How are you managed? Who do you answer to?”

“Two man teams,” Caleb replied, watching as Hideyoshi led Tasha reluctantly away to resume their training. She still glared from time to time. “A boy and a girl, usually. Usually, we’re the same age as each other, but I think something happened to my partner’s old one, cuz she’s about eight years older than I am. She handles most of the stuff about dealing with the higher ups. Only handler I know about is the boss. I talk to her on the phone when she gives me targets. She sounds American, but that’s not really worth much,” he dropped the Canadian accent for a moment, switching to his Irish lilt. “They teach us how to change our voices, so I figure the boss might be doing the same.”

It felt strange, confiding this all to strangers; like breaking a kind of taboo. He caught James’ expression shifting when he made the changes to his voice, a touch of surprise lighting upon his face.

Guess you didn’t know me as well as you thought, did you, James?

There was a surprising bitterness to that.

For her part, Tsuru was nodding.

“Very loose structure, then,” she murmured. “Hard to maintain a thing like that with slaves. They must really have something over you, huh?”

“Brands,” he agreed. “Base of the neck. Built to kill us if we step out of line.”

If the proclamation caught the woman by surprise, not a hint of it appeared across her features.

“Show me.”

Caleb gave the woman a shrug and started peeling off his shirt, noting with a touch of amusement how James again averted his gaze, his cheeks red.

They’re just abs, James. Grow a pair.

He dropped covering to the floor, and turned his back to the older woman, putting the brand on display. He caught Tasha gazing over at him, her eyes flicking momentarily to his chest, and shot her a smirk. She glowered back at him, before returning her attention to her task.

A moment later, he felt a touch upon his neck, the old woman murmuring something to herself as she prodded and poked the skin. He didn’t care.

“Hmm,” she grunted. “Energy siphon. Tied in deep, too. It must see a lot of use.”

“Every day,” he muttered. “They like to keep me at about a fifth of my power. Stop me getting any ideas.”

“And the familiar?” she asked, tapping the tattoo that ran across his arm with the side of her thumb. “Seems recent. They know about it?”

“No,” he chuckled. “I stole it. Last hunt they sent me on was to pick up some of those hunting birds after the elves attacked. I kept one. I’m a dead man if they notice it, but it seemed like the best chance I’d get. It’s how I found James.”

At his back, Tsuru simply swore.

“Damn,” she muttered. “I’d hoped we’d killed them all before any third parties got involved. Any idea what they want with them?”

“Just that they wanted a breeding pair.”

Tsuru chuckled.

“Well, good luck trying to make any more of them. Those things aren’t built to survive on Earth long term. Not enough magic in the air.”

Caleb shrugged. At least that explained why his own bird seemed to be growing weaker lately.

“Dunno what to tell you there. All I know is they wanted em and we did it for them.”

Behind him, the old woman simply grunted, then he felt the touch upon his back ease off.

“Well, put your shirt back on. We’ve other things to do.”

The next few hours passed at a glacial pace, to Caleb’s view. Irritable as James’ grandfather may be, his grandmother seemed almost brutally efficient. First came the questions, ranging from his training as a hunter, to the tasks he had performed, to the points of contact he held with the organization at large. The woman showed not even the barest hint of frustration at how little information his experiences had allowed him to glean.

Then came the tests of strength and skill, pitting him first against Tasha, then against Hideyoshi’s golem as they measured each of his powers in turn. He picked up more than a few new bruises there. Neither Tasha nor her teacher seemed to have any wish to be gentle with him.

James observed all this at first, curious; but over time, his attention seemed to wane, and he wandered off to where the stranger sat with the dog, the two of them chatting in voices too low to really make out, the dog shifting over on its side to allow James to rub its belly. When she caught him glancing at them, Tsuru said the girl’s name was Tuva. That was all the explanation he got.

Eventually, Hideyoshi pulled away from the seemingly constant bouts of training and retired to the open kitchen, pulling a pack of steaks from the fridge and rubbing them with herbs, before roasting them with fire directly from his hands alongside some chopped potatoes.

The aroma made Caleb’s mouth water. His masters rarely supplied him rations more complex than an instant pizza. He almost cried when they offered one to him.

It was while the six of them ate, Caleb doing what he could to savor the experience of actual food, that things seemed to finally come to a head.

“So you’re telling me there’s nothing,” Tsuru murmured evenly, watching James pick at his potatoes. “Nothing at all, that might tell us who these people are, or what the hell they want?”

“Well, no,” Caleb muttered. “I have a pretty good idea, I think. It’s just I’m not sure if it’s true or not.”

“Oh?” She turned to look at him, everyone besides Tuva doing the same in turn. “And what’s that?”

“To be honest,” he shrugged. “I think they want to start a war.”

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Aid: 5.5

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Author’s Note: Okay. First up, sorry for being gone so long. First, I was just getting ready for university, then I was helping a family member move house, then I was getting acquainted with a new job. Basically, I’ve had stuff going on. My apologies. Secondly, this is a pretty short chapter, I know. It was a sequence that was too small to make a full sized chapter out of, but it was also too big to just staple it onto another chapter without breaking flow. So, you’re getting this chapter now, and hopefully, another one in a few days time. Thanks for being so patient with me. Enjoy.


James:

“Well, my grandpa says you weren’t lying about the ritual,” James mumbled, resting the phone tiredly against his ear, his head lolling gently against his hands. It was seven PM, and he’d had the longest day. “But it sounds like we’d better wait a couple days to get it done. He said something about setting up a hideout for you with a friend of his.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Caleb replied on the other end of the line. “I don’t think so, at least. Our bosses might make us pull another hunt by then, but I guess I’ll just have to grit my teeth and give em what they want, right?”

“Yeah,” he muttered. “Guess so. Oh yeah, and Tasha says she wants to put you in a headlock while you’re doing it. Just in case. You know?”

At that, Caleb’s voice only chuckled.

“Hey. She can try it if she wants. See how that goes down.”

James snickered.

“She’d kick your butt.”

“She’d try.”

James allowed himself a small smile, and shook his head. Right. That was one job done. Now he just had to apologize to Cas-

“There might be one small problem,” Caleb admitted. “I’m, uh. I’m pretty sure Twenty Three’s figured something’s up. I don’t think she’ll come quietly when we try to free her.”

James put the phone in his lap, rested his head in his hands, and groaned. First the training session, then therapy, and now this. When would today just end?

“… I’ll talk to Tasha about maybe backing you up,” he grumbled. “You shouldn’t need that much help though, right? I thought you said that stuff was gonna supercharge you.”

“Yeah,” Caleb’s voice replied. “That’s the hope, at least.”

From outside of the room, James heard the front door click, and the muted sounds of speech in the hallway below. Casper, finally back from wherever the heck he’d gone. Twelve seconds ago, that realization would have filled James with another wave of dread at the last of the evening’s obstacles. Now, though, it gave him an excuse to end this talk with Caleb before any more problems were added to the pile.

“Hey,” he said. “I gotta go, alright? Got some stuff to do before bed. I’ll get Tasha to message you in the morning. They wanna meet up with you anyways.”

He hung up before Caleb had quite finished his reply. It was rude, but he figured the older boy owed him one on that. Then, he put the phone aside, leant his palms against his knees, and tried to psych himself up for the task.

Okay, James, he said inside his mind, listening to the faint thumps as Casper climbed the stairs towards his room. You’ve hung out with Jiji. You’ve gone to therapy. You’ve planned a rescue. Now you just gotta tell Casper you’re sorry you yelled. Easy peasy, right?

James hated the voice in his head, sometimes. Nevertheless, he pushed himself up off his bed with a groan.

The aches and pains had come and gone sporadically in the hours since his mishap with the skeet, seeming to fade away for a while on their drive back to manhattan, before returning with a vengeance in the hours since his session with Doctor Sharpe. It was fine as long as he was moving, but he really didn’t feel like moving now. He’d have rather flown, but he couldn’t. Bex was around, and as far as his parents knew, Casper still had zero clue what magic was.

He stood, spent a few seconds creakily straightening up, then stepped forwards towards the door, and out onto the landing.

It took James longer than he’d have liked to traverse the distance between his and Casper’s rooms; only partially because of the stiffness in his joints. He didn’t want to do this. Apologizing sucked.

He took a deep breath, then a second one, and raised a hand to the door, knuckles poised to knock.

Half a minute later, he lowered it back down again.

Come on, James. Stop being a wuss. Just put on your big boy pants and-

“Dude,” Casper’s voice called through the door, sounding almost as tired as James felt. “Just make up your mind already. You coming in or not?”

Friggen’ radar brain.

Regretfully, James pushed the door open, and stepped inside.

Casper was sitting on the bed, a video game controller in his lap, his gaze set determinedly on the TV screen. James shut the door behind him, and leaned himself against the wall, his arms folded in tight over his chest. Neither spoke.

After a few moments, Casper’s television chimed, a game loading up on the screen.

Just say you’re sorry.

James opened his mouth to speak, and Casper turned to look at him. Nothing came out. Casper returned his gaze to the TV.

Why was this so hard?

James shook himself, and tried again. What eventually came out wasn’t exactly what he’d planned.

“… His name’s Caleb,” he muttered. “The guy I was sneaking out to meet.”

For a moment, James regretted it; spilling the secret like that. But this was Casper. This was important.

This time, when Casper turned to face him, he wasn’t frowning. Now, he looked concerned.

“Who is he?” the other boy asked. “What’s he want?”

“He, uh,” James swallowed. “Stuff. He wanted to do some really stupid stuff to rescue a girl he likes. So, that’s what I’ve been dealing with.”

For a few moments, Casper simply gazed at him.

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” James took a deep breath, and let it out in a sigh, before moving to sit beside his friend. “And, uh. Sorry I got mad at you.”

At that, Casper shook his head.

“Sorry I pushed like I did,” he muttered back. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“Yeah.”

The two were silent then for a time, James simply sitting beside his friend while Casper moved his character aimlessly through a level.

It was surprising, really. That had been far less painful than James had been expecting. It was nice, being comfortable like this again. Maybe he was just tired.

Eventually, Casper spoke again.

“So, that thing about the phone.”

That got his attention.

“Yeah?”

“So…” Casper seemed to hesitate for half a second, before apparently coming to a decision. “The thing is, when I ran away from home… I kinda got myself a magic teacher.”

“Really?” James asked, honestly surprised. “I thought you kinda just wanted to forget about it.”

Casper chuckled.

“It’s hard to forget about when you can’t turn it off, dude. You know that, Mr. ‘I weigh thirty pounds.’”

James conceded the point with a sigh. The changes to his body weight hadn’t gotten any easier to deal with in the last few weeks. There’d been one embarrassing incident when he’d tried to take a bath, only to find himself floating upwards in the water, bobbing along the surface like an oversized rubber duck.

“So, I got myself a teacher,” Casper continued. “Didn’t wanna tell you because getting training when you’re not registered’s kind of a legal no-no, but yeah. The phone’s how he’s been staying in contact with me.”

“… And asking you about your school day?”

“Yeah,” Casper groaned. “He’s also kind of a creep.”

“… You okay?”

“Yeah,” James felt Casper’s fist bonk him gently on the shoulder. “I’m okay.”

“Good,” James muttered. “You’re still a doof, though.”

Casper chuckled.

“Yeah. You too.”

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Aid: 5.4

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Casper:

It was four thirty six in the afternoon, and Casper Sullivan was getting pissed.

He pulled his phone from his pocket, checked the screen, then lowered it back to the greasy food court table, swearing under his breath.

The man was late. Father was never late.

Bad enough I have to hang out with that rapist. Now I have to wait for him? Such an ass.

Casper took a moment, closed his eyes, and forced himself to breathe. He didn’t like being angry. He really, really didn’t. That was part of why he hated this.

At first, the thought of Father had merely scared him. This mysterious, nigh unstoppable mage who had first rescued him, then tried to make him a-

He cut that thought off before it had time to finish itself. He knew it would only disgust him further.

But the fact of it was that things had changed since then; enough that Casper was no longer scared of him. Now, Father just really pissed him off.

It was the texts that had done it, really. It was difficult to fear a man who insisted on texting you cat videos eleven times a day. For the most part, they were just perplexing; anecdotes about the older man’s day, checking to make sure he was settling in okay with James. Small stuff. He’d responded sporadically, at best.

Then the man had asked him for a nude.

He couldn’t remember ever shouting so hard at anyone in his life. It was the only time he’d ever used the phone to call him back.

At the end of it all, Father’s apology had sounded hurt.

More than anything, that was what frustrated him. The man didn’t even get what he was doing wrong.

Casper let out a tired sounding sigh, and once more raised the phone to eye level. He flicked across to Father’s number, and dialed in a text, short and simple:

‘I’m at the food court. We doing this, or what?’

The man’s response, as it happened, wasn’t long in coming. Barely a second or two after his phone had hit the table than the text alert buzzed.

‘I’m here. Head over to the arcade. I’ve set up a surprise for you.’

Casper glowered. That wasn’t what they’d agreed on.

‘I don’t like your surprises.’

He shook his head, and reluctantly pushed himself up from the table.

The trip to the arcade wasn’t a long one. Honestly, Casper almost wished it could have taken longer.

When he got there, the place was nearly empty, a dozen or so other teens moving lazily around the machines, casually enjoying their Saturday. Casper glanced around. No sign of Father anywhere. He frowned. No sign of any surprise, either.

Casper once more pulled out his phone. This time, however, he didn’t pull up Father’s number. This time, he sent a text to Mel, just to let her know where he’d gone.

His one-time magic teachers had been a godsend in these past few weeks. As the only ones who knew anything about his and Father’s agreement, they’d made every effort to intervene on his behalf. He wasn’t quite sure where he’d be without them to back him up. He just wished they were strong enough to actually do something if Father acted out.

He stowed his phone once more, and stepped inside the arcade, scanning the faces about the place for any sign of Father.

Nope. No sign of him. No sign of any adults at all, in fact, beyond a bored looking guy standing behind the prize counter. It was just the same dozen or so kids he’d spotted from outside the store, most of them moving about the place in groups of two or three. Glancing around, he caught one of the other teens gazing at him from the far side of the store; a boy about his own age, if he had to guess, reddish brown hair sitting neatly over a pale face lightly dusted by freckles. Upon catching Casper watching him, the other boy grinned, his hand raising in a wave.

Casper hesitated for a moment, then waved back, a little awkward. Did he know this boy?

For his part, though, the other kid took the wave as more than greeting enough, and stepped forwards.

Casper raised an eyebrow at that, confused, then, experimentally, expanded his power outward for a moment around the other boy.

Realization struck him at the same moment that Father reached him, that cheery grin still affixed to his far too youthful face.

“Hey there, Casper,” Father murmured. “Do you like my surprise?”

Inside the man’s mind, Casper felt a momentary pride, combined with some kind of anticipatory thrill.

“… So you’re a kid now?”

“Yeah.” Father’s smile grew a fraction wider. “Do you like it?”

Casper wasn’t sure what to say to that.

“Am I, uh… Am I supposed to like it?”

Almost immediately, Father’s face fell.

“… You don’t like it.”

Casper shook his head.

“Honestly? No, I don’t. It’s kinda creepy.”

At that, Father frowned, apparently stung.

“Why creepy?”

“Cuz you’re not a kid,” Casper muttered. “You’re an adult; but you’re pretending to be a kid to, what, make an actual kid like you more? That’s a thing that creeps do.”

Father scowled, offended.

“You make me sound like some kind of predator.”

“And you’re not one?” Casper asked, barely resisting the urge to laugh. “The first time we met, you tried to have sex with me.”

“Yeah,” Father agreed. “And I backed off, didn’t I?”

“Only when your mind control failed!”

“Oh,” Father groaned, raising a palm to his forehead in almost palpable frustration. “For god’s sake, not you too. Why does everyone have to assume my light is mind control? It makes people happy! What’s wrong with that?”

“You used it to try and fuck me!” Casper retorted, only barely managing to keep his voice low enough to avoid attention. “It’s messed up! I mean, heck, you were going to kidnap m-”

“No,” Father cut him off, his voice and mind suddenly cold. “You don’t get to call it that. I saw a runaway child alone on the street, and offered him a home. You don’t get to throw it in my face like that.”

For a few moments, the two of them simply glowered at each other.

It was infuriating. How could anyone be this blind? Casper couldn’t even fathom it.

In the end, Casper only sighed.

“Look,” he muttered. “Can we just- I dunno. You’re the one who’s making me hang out with you, so can we just play some games together and pretend we’re having fun?”

Now it was Father’s turn to sigh.

“It was supposed to be actual fun. Demonize me all you like for wanting you to enjoy your time with me.” Casper opened his mouth to reply, but Father wasn’t done. “Yes, fine. Let’s just play some games already.”

Casper nodded.

Two hours. That was the deal that he and Father had struck the day he’d moved in with James’ family. Every week, for as long as Father wished, Casper had to spend a minimum of two hours in Father’s company, in exchange for Father agreeing to a few conditions of his own.

Their first Date- Casper suppressed a shudder at the word- had been less than fun. Father had taken him to dinner. That outing had been back when he was still terrified of the man. Those had been two of the most awkward hours of his life. Somehow, however, their first half hour at the arcade managed to be even worse.

There was something deeply wooden, Casper thought, about trying to pretend that you were somewhere on your own. A feeling that, try as he might to suppress it, only managed to get clunkier with time.

They started with a co-op game. Some nameless shooting game affair with oversized plastic guns affixed to the machine by loops of cord. Casper did his best to keep his focus on the game, balancing his ammunition across the selection of game-provided weapons, and doing his best to keep the two of them alive. Father, as it turned out, wasn’t anything that even approached his description of a skillful gamer. If anything, though, that helped. Every time he had to waste his seconds covering the older man’s side of the fight, it gave him a more tangible reason for frustration. He shot the man a genuine glare when a mistimed reload cost the pair of them the last of their extra lives, and felt inside Father’s mental scape as anger and frustration gave way to an embarrassed kind of hurt.

He had to force himself not to be too guilty over that. It felt like kicking a puppy. An evil, awful puppy.

From there, they moved to DDR. Father was even worse at DDR.

It was the body, he protested as they watched the scores tallying themselves along the screen. Father wasn’t used to taking a thirteen year old form. The limbs were all the wrong sizes; the muscles didn’t quite do what he said. Casper gave no sign that he had heard him, simply leaning forward and keying in a harder song.

Empathy sucked sometimes. It took some of the pleasure out of being cruel to the man when he had to feel the hurt it caused. In the end, it was still Father who caved in first.

“You know, I really don’t get why you’re so set on hating me,” the boy reproached as Casper led them through the store. “It’s not as though I’ve done that much to deserve it.”

Casper only snorted at that. There wasn’t any humor to it.

“Remember how you kissed me without asking? Or how you texted me for nudes? Heck. I could just be mad at you for stabbing someone in front of me.”

Behind him, he felt a glimmer of defensiveness sparking through the older man’s mind.

“Okay,” came the reply. “I’ll admit the kiss was unwarranted. I should have asked permission first, and I’m sorry. As for the text, I’ve already told you I was sorry for that, after having my head bitten off, I might add. But you have to remember that whatever else you think of me, I did save your life. Don’t you think I at least deserve a chance at a better first impression?”

Casper stopped in his tracks at that, his mouth open to retort, but nothing came. He wanted to tell Father he was wrong. He wanted to tell him that some things stopped you getting second chances. The moment he tried to speak the words, however, they stopped themselves dead in his throat. Why did it have to make him guilty?

“… Fine,” he muttered. “Tell you what. You want me to give you a chance? Sure. You manage to beat me at a single one of these games, and I’ll try. I’ll do everything I can to forget about the stuff you did.” He turned around, and looked the other boy dead in the eye. “But if I win, then you get to stay the creeper who tried to make me screw him.”

He’d been expecting the determination in Father’s response, and in the end, that wasn’t what surprised him. The older man narrowed his eyes and nodded, but as they started moving to the next machine, Casper felt a perplexing note of sadness sitting beneath it all. He shook it from his mind. He had a fight to win.

The next hour passed in a determined kind of quiet. The pair of them moved from game to game through the arcade, stopping at every stall. At almost all of them, Father simply sucked. Casper barely had to try to defeat him. The racing games left Casper finishing in first place, while Father furiously tried to steer his car in a direction that wasn’t a wall. The shooting games went no better. As for anything physical, the man had his newfound body to contend with.

In the end, it came down to a round of air hockey. Casper wasn’t sure if it was the time spent practicing with it, but Father had grown better with his coordination towards the end. When it came down to this final game, the man was able to put up a fight.

They’d play for three rounds, they agreed. Best of five each time. Father was the first to score a point, and that was enough to make Casper take things seriously. When the first round ended, it was three to two, in Father’s favor.

Casper positively growled when the older man asked him if he’d like to open the next round, and again, he felt that note of sadness playing itself through Father’s mind. He ignored it.

The second game was an act of focus and ferocity. Casper sent puck after puck scooting along the table towards his foe, and defended his side with nothing short of zeal. More than once, the pucks simply went flying off the side of the table at the sheer force behind his shots. When it came to a close, however, the score was three to one. The sight of the puck sliding past Father’s defenses for that final point may well have been the most satisfying high he’d ever felt.

Without thinking, he shot his foe a grin, and felt a spark in Father’s mind that almost stopped him dead. The man was happy to see him smile. Once again, Casper did his best to push that thought aside. He had enough guilt on his plate already. He wasn’t going to let some bet force him to forgive this man.

The final round came down to the wire. Two points on both sides. Casper was focused; Father was determined. It stretched for seconds, then minutes, shot after shot, parry and riposte. One particularly narrow angled shot nearly got him, and he brought his knobbly hockey thing in to block it with a growl like an angry lion. He gave Father another glare, and felt yet another tint of sadness in his adversary’s mind as he made his counter shot.

Father didn’t even try to block it. The puck slid into the slot with a loud clack, and the scoreboard between them pinged.

“Well,” Father muttered. “I guess that means you win. You get to keep thinking I’m a monster.”

“… What?” Casper asked, incredulous. “You let me win. Why’d you let me win?”

“Because winning made you smile,” Father replied sadly, tossing his plastic dealie down onto the table. “And I’d rather see you happy for a second than watch you pretend to hate me less.” At that, the man let out a long sigh, and turned towards the exit. “Well. It’s been two hours. You don’t need to be around me anymore today. You’ve kept your side of the deal.”

“…No. Screw that,” Casper muttered, annoyed. “That’s a pity win. I don’t want a pity win. Rematch. Now.”

“What?” Father glanced back, a note of apparent confusion in his mind. “Don’t you want to head home already?”

“That can wait,” Casper replied. “First, I’m gonna win this thing for real.”

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter: