Dissonance: 4.8

Previous Chapter:

AN: I know this one’s a little late, but it’s also significantly longer than normal, so, you know. That.

Tasha:

Tasha felt a note of surprise as Caleb’s palm slammed into her jaw, the force of it sending a nasty crack echoing through her skull. He’d sidestepped her opening lunge far faster than she’d expected him to, lining up his counter before her fist had even finished its arc, sending her stumbling.

His follow up came in the form of a kick to the stomach. Somehow, the guy managed to kick her hard enough to launch her whole body into the air. Tasha felt something inside her stomach churn painfully at the blow. Before she had time to come to terms with that, however, her body fell back once more to the ground, and she was distracted by the feeling of her back slamming against the surface of a factory workstation, before her momentum carried her off of it in a roll, and she hit the floor, something jagged digging into her shoulder.

Okay. This hurts.

She shook herself. What the fuck was that? Three seconds in and she already was on her ass? No. This wasn’t happeni-

Before she could finish the thought, she heard the thump as Caleb landed lightly on his feet alongside her.

“Now, are you done calling me a cree-”

Caleb didn’t quite manage to finish the sentence before Tasha kicked at him, bringing her leg forwards as hard as she could towards his shins. The blow didn’t even come close. Her enemy was in the air before her leg made it halfway to him, hopping over the attack as casually as if it were a skipping rope. She growled, and shoved herself up off the floor with her hands, before another blow caught her about the cheek like a sack full of bricks. It hurt. But she was less surprised by it now. She didn’t flinch. Her opponent launched another, this time right for her face. She didn’t bother trying to dodge it. Instead, she crunched her stomach, and slammed her head against his fist. She felt it as the impact sent ripples of pain echoing through her skull, and grit her teeth. Then, she heard something crack; and Caleb swore.

She watched, her vision a little blurred, as the boy backed off, his fist cradled in his other hand. He was glaring at her.

She grinned, trying to ignore the taste of blood on her tongue.

In the back of her mind, she was aware that James was shouting something. For the life of her, though, she couldn’t bring herself to care.

Across from her, the enemy was tending to his finger, his face scrunching up in pain as he shoved the dislocated digit back into its socket. Then he muttered something under his breath, and Tasha watched as an all too familiar light began to flicker momentarily over his skin. She swore.

So the fucker knows how to make force fields, huh?

Caleb took a breath, then stepped forward, more cautious now.

Tasha backed off a ways, and forced herself to think,, ignoring the harsh pounding still echoing inside her head for a moment. This guy was too quick and too strong even before the shield. But if she couldn’t land a hit with her fists, then she’d need to use something better.

She glanced around, and after a moment, her eyes landed on the abandoned workstation against which she’d fallen. It was a sturdy thing, about six feet long by two wide; made from some kind of polished metal. She reached out to grab one corner of it, and tugged. It didn’t move. Looking down, she realised it was affixed to a base plate on the floor with a set of thick, rust covered bolts. She rolled her neck around on her shoulders. Time to put those new muscles to work.

Caleb realized what Tasha was planning just a second too late to stop her. He charged, only for her to give a single massive heave against the metal surface. There was a snap as the metal holding the thing to the floor broke away. Then, she planted her feet against the base plate of the thing, and swung the countertop around like an oversized baseball bat.

The countertop caught her foe mid-lunge with the most satisfying smack Tasha had ever heard. Caleb was sent arcing across the factory floor, his shield crackling frantically around him as it adjusted to the shock, before his body struck the far wall, and he fell to the floor with a thud.

“Batter up!” she yelled, feeling more energy coursing through her than she had in her entire life. “PLAY BALL!”

For the first few seconds, Caleb didn’t move, simply laying there on the ground, his face pressed against the floor. Then, just as she was beginning to wonder if she’d taken it too far, he began to rise.

Tasha noted with some satisfaction that her enemy wasn’t looking very good. His hair was matted to hell and back, and a fresh trail of blood flowed gently down from his nose. Neither of those compared to the look he was giving her, though. This wasn’t his previous scowl any more. This look was sullen; angry. She laughed.

Caleb gave no spoken response. Instead, the shield around him simply ceased its flickering, the last of its energy dying away as a glove of emerald fire blossomed into existence around his uninjured hand.

Tasha stopped laughing at that. Instead, she pulled her makeshift weapon back for another swing and waited as her adversary charged.

He made it five steps before whatever it was stopped him, some unseen force that seemed to strike everywhere at once, scattering loose detritus everywhere and knocking her foe off his feet. He landed awkwardly on his hands, the flame glove dissipating around his arm as fast as it had come, and looked around, angry.

“James,” he growled. “No interfe-”

He let out a little yelp as that same force scooped him up off the floor, and left him dangling by an ankle in the air.

Tasha almost laughed, before she felt something wrench the table from her hands, something dense and powerful pressing against her midsection as the metal was pulled free of her grip, before being launched across the room and striking the railing of the stairwell hard enough to bend it out of shape.

She glanced around, eyes wide. Was this James? No. Since when was he this powerful? Her eyes fell on the space where James had stood at the beginning of the fight, and saw that it was empty. She had time to be perplexed by the small pile of clothing that sat a few feet away from the spot, before she felt the force wrap itself around her middle, and she was hoisted into the air.

“The fuck!?” she shouted. “Who are you? What’s g-”

“JUST SHUSH!” James’ voice screeched, sounding for all the world like it was coming from the entire room at once. “What the heck was that!? Are you guys crazy?” Whatever force it was that held Tasha up gave her a shake, rocking her wildly from side to side.

“W-wha-?” she began, only to be cut off as the omnipresent voice continued its ranting.

“You hit my friend with a table,” James shouted. “A TABLE, Tasha! What the heck!? You could have killed him!”

Tasha opened her mouth to make some bewildered sort of defense, but again, James wasn’t done. The voice turned its attention to Caleb, still dangling helplessly by his foot.

“And don’t even get me started on YOU!” the voice growled. “You were gonna use fire on her? Really? That’s not cool!” The invisible pressure gave Caleb’s foot a shake, his whole body swinging limply from side to side as he hung there. In another circumstance, Tasha might have found it funny. “Fire burns people, Caleb!” Caleb didn’t bother to reply. He was too busy staring at something off to Tasha’s side, his jaw slack.

Confused, Tasha followed the boy’s gaze.

It took a moment or two for Tasha to catch sight of what had caught her former adversary’s gaze; a few more her to figure out quite what it was she was seeing.

It was hovering, perhaps two or three feet above one of the factory work stations, its glow dim enough to allow the eye to easily wander past it. It looked like… some kind of blob. A collection of small, glowing blue spheres in a veil of shimmering mist. As James’ voice paused for breath, the shimmer seemed to grow brighter for a moment.

“… James?” Tasha asked, one eyebrow raised. “That you?”

The voice seemed to hesitate for a moment, the ranting coming to a halt as the blob shifted down, the topmost sphere lowering itself towards the rest.

“Uhh… kinda,” James’ voice replied, a touch quieter now. “Remember how I said I turned into a wind amoeba for a while? Well, uhh. It was this thing. I think my body kinda goes away if I push my powers far enough?”

“… Weird.”

“… Yeah.”

“So,” she asked, “Can you uhh, put me down?” As she spoke, she reached down by her sides with her hands, trying to pinpoint the spot where she was being held and pry herself away. Nothing. The air just felt heavier there.

“… You promise to stop beating each other up?”

Tasha hesitated, then glanced at Caleb, and frowned.

“Only if he promises to tell us who the fuck he is.”

Caleb, for his part, was still staring, even as James lowered the pair of them to the ground, depositing Caleb on a table, and dropping Tasha on her butt with a thump. Upon touching the table top, he pulled himself slowly up into a sitting position.

“… And you’ve been this strong the whole time?” he asked, voice oddly hurt. “Why? Why didn’t you use this thing to beat me if you were able to? Why did you lie?”

“I wasn’t lying!” James protested, the faint shape of his form flaring brightly for a moment, before once more going dim. “It’s just-” he hesitated a second or two, before finishing with a sigh, his tone defensive. “It… It makes my clothes fall off, okay?”

For the first time in her life, Tasha had to actively resist the urge to grin.

“…Huh.”

“Shut up,” the blob muttered. “I didn’t ask you here to make fun of me… I didn’t ask you here to beat each other up for me, either.”

Tasha thought about that for a second, then shrugged.

“I do whatever I think’s right, dude,” she murmured. “Your friend’s a creep. I’m not sorry.”

The air around her made a ‘Humph.’ sound at that. Tasha got the sense that James was scowling.

“I’m not a creep,” Caleb grumbled, his tone bitter as he pulled a sleeve up to wipe the blood from his nose. “Look, you want the truth? Fine. If you’ve been this strong all along, then I might as well.” He let out a long sigh, then turned his gaze to the floor. “I’m a monster hunter, okay?”

“… Really?” Tasha asked, one eyebrow raised. “That’s the lie you’re going with?”

“Would you shut up?” Caleb asked, raising his hands to his face in frustration. “You asked for the truth, and I’m telling you. Can you stop being such a bitch about it?”

“You looking to get punched again?” she replied, one hand balling into a fist.

Caleb began to make a retort, but stopped short when another gust of wind hit him in the face, buffeting him a ways to the side. Tasha grinned, before one struck her as well.

“No fighting,” James repeated. “Monster hunter?”

Caleb glared at him for a moment, then let out a huff.

“Yeah. I move around a lot. Learned about my powers when I was a kid, started travelling, picked up a spell or two from some mages I met along the way.”

“What’s your power?” Tasha asked, a note of curiosity undercutting her annoyance. “You’re stronger than a normal kid should be. Faster, too. What gives?”

“Bit of everything,” Caleb grunted. “Little bit of super strength, little bit of speed, boosted reflexes, better senses. Nothing I’m really bad at, but I can’t rip steel tables off the floor.” He shot her a look, before returning his gaze to his hands. “Anyway. I moved around a bit. Got a gig helping an older guy track down a Hidebehind in Tennessee and figured I could do it as a job. It’s not like I had anything else going on. Turns out there’s some people around the place who’ll pay you to help them deal with whatever stuff they’re hunting. Like an apprentice for hire, I guess.”

As Caleb spoke, Tasha watched the little blob of James’ form begin to move, shifting away from atop its table and down into the cover of the stairwell. She watched, intrigued, as the glow surrounding him grew brighter, building from almost invisible, to about as intense as a lightbulb, before suddenly dying away. She caught a glimpse of scruffy black hair over a set of narrow shoulders, before the boy ducked a little further below the lip of the stairway. Without a word, she crossed to the pile of clothes on the floor, bundled them up, and tossed them in his direction. She allowed herself a chuckle when he peeked up, and the pants hit him in the face.

They were all silent for a minute or so as James got dressed. As the boy made his way back up the stairs, Caleb resumed.

“So I kinda caught you flying home one night and figured I’d say hi,” he murmured, gazing across at the boy as he crested the top of the stairwell. “Flight’s a pretty high level power, and I figured I-” he stopped mid word, his sentence catching oddly in his throat as he caught sight of James’ face. Following his gaze, Tasha could see why. She winced.

Whatever coverings James had been using to hide his purity marks, they must have fallen away when the boy transformed, because there they sat, plain as day on his cheek, right below the marks of pain across his eye. It surprised her just how angry seeing them on him made her. What must it be like, to have ‘rape victim’ written on his face like that? She pushed the thought aside.

For his part, James didn’t seem to have noticed a thing. He raised an eyebrow at Caleb.

“You okay, man? Kinda stopped at the good bit there.”

To his credit, Caleb rallied fast.

“Right,” he replied quickly. “Sorry. Just a weird thought. So, yeah. Flight’s a pretty high level power, and I thought I might as well come and introduce myself. Figured if I trained you a bit, you might be able to help me if you wanted. Be nice to have some company, you know?” He shot a glance at Tasha, his expression troubled. She felt her aggravation towards the guy lessen a fraction at that.

“Still doesn’t explain why you didn’t just tell him this up front,” she pointed out.

At that, Caleb only sighed.

“Look,” he muttered. “Would you believe I was just trying to look cool? You know, come off as this mysterious wizard guy who’s just really good in fights?” He looked away, presumably in an effort to hide the red now dusting his cheeks.

There was silence for a few moments at that, before James chuckled.

“Well, you sure screwed that one up.”

“I know. Sorry.”

“… Can we get onto why I actually asked Tasha here, now?”

Tasha raised an eyebrow at that.

“Sparring, right?” she murmured. “Kinda hard if we can’t go all out, you know.”

“No,” James replied, shaking his head. “I uhh. I really just wanted to ask you guys something.”

“Ask what?” said Caleb, leaning back a little on his hands; far more relaxed now that the focus was off of him.

“Advice,” James shrugged. “I was uh… Kinda thinking of… I want to tell my parents about my powers.”

Huh, Tasha thought. Interesting. She opened her mouth to speak, but Caleb beat her to it.

“Don’t,” he said flatly. “Bad idea. Trust me.”

Tasha snickered.

“You’re on some pretty thin ice with the whole ‘trust’ thing, Caleb.”

Caleb ignored her.

“Seriously,” he continued. “Don’t do it. Nothing good will come of it. You’ll just get hurt.”

James frowned at that.

“Really?” he asked. “I mean, I get that they might freak out and stuff, but it’s not like they won’t get over it. They’re my parents. They love me.”

“Love’s delicate,” Caleb replied, a note of bitterness edging into his voice. “It goes away if you push it too hard. They’ll think you’re a freak.”

James didn’t answer that. He seemed stung.

For her part, Tasha grunted.

“Some parents, sure,” she agreed. “But I’ve heard some stuff about James’ folks. They sound pretty cool.”

“‘Pretty cool’ doesn’t cut it,” Caleb shot back. “Sure. There’s a chance he could tell em, and it’ll all be fine because they just love him that much. But there’s a way bigger chance that they’ll either kick him out, or call the guys from the government with the padded vans.”

Tasha snorted at that, and glanced at James. Now the kid just looked scared.

“Dude,” she replied. “That’s not how that works. The government doesn’t even get involved unless you’re dangerous.”

“He is dangerous!” Caleb shouted back. “He’s a fucking wind mage!”

At that, Tasha only growled, her frustration pushing back once more against her limited self-control.

“And that’s not big enough to get you taken in!” she retorted. “Trust me! I live with a dude who does this shit! The worst that happens is you get your name put on a list, and they pay someone to help you deal with your powers!”

“And how do we know that guy’s not a liar, huh?” he spat. “Some huge hypocrite who puts kids away in cells!”

“And how do I know you’re not just full of shit?” she shot back.

“Because I’m-”

“Quiet!” James shouted, cutting the pair of them off. He was seated now, his arms wrapped around his knees. “Please. Quiet.”

“… Sorry.” Tasha muttered. Caleb said nothing.

“… I know it’s risky,” James mumbled. “A-and I know things could go wrong; but I hate lying to them, and now that things have calmed down, I’m kinda running out of reasons why I should.” He sniffed. “I came to you for advice, so would you please stop fighting?”

Tasha hesitated at that, then glanced at Caleb. He was still scowling down at the floor. She forced herself to take a breath.

“Why didn’t you go to Casper with this?”

“He doesn’t wanna talk about it,” James muttered. “I tried talking to him a few weeks back, about all the stuff that happened after he ran away. He just asked me to wait. Said he needed time. I tried again last week, but he just shut me down again. I think he kinda wants to forget about it all.”

Tasha chuckled humorlessly at that.

“Makes sense. Magic’s BS, anyways.”

“”Well I say don’t do it,” said Caleb quietly. “You don’t wanna see that look when your family stops loving you.”

James shifted his eyes to the ground, seeming almost ashamed.

Tasha considered her answer for a long few minutes. Family. What was family like, again? It was getting harder to remember every year. She groaned. It was hard enough to judge things when she had experience to go on. It was harder, giving advice in the dark like this. Then a thought occurred.

“… Fuck it.” Both James and Caleb glanced over at her as she pushed herself upright and trudged over to her bag.

“… What are you doing?” James asked, one eyebrow slightly raised.

“Getting advice from someone way better at this shit than me,” she replied as she pulled out her phone. Neither of the others spoke as she pulled up the contact and brought the phone to her ear; James simply gazing at her as Caleb continued to glower. Neither tried to stop her, though.

The phone rang into the quiet for a second or two, before the old man finally picked up on the other end of the line.

“Tasha,” he murmured. “Something wrong?”

“Hey,” she replied. “Nah. Nothing bad. I’ve got a friend here who kinda needs advice. I thought I’d hook him up with you since I kinda owe him a favor.”

On his end of the line, Hideyoshi grunted.

“Huh. How big of a favor, and what kind of advice?”

“He’s the kid who saved my ass with the Family before,” Tasha shrugged. “Wants some help on whether telling his folks about his powers will work out okay or not.”

“The kid who saved you, huh?” Hideyoshi murmured. “Interesting. How old and what kind of powers?”

Tasha glanced at James, still staring at her, and gave another shrug.

“Twelve, I think. Maybe eleven? He’s kinda small.” James scowled at her. She stuck out her tongue. “As for powers. You got flight, some wind magic, and some kinda third bullshit I can’t really describe. He’s pretty strong.”

For a few seconds, Hideyoshi didn’t answer. Tasha checked to make sure the call was still connected, before he finally responded.

“… Flight. Was this kid near Central Park around the time you fought the elf?”

Tasha raised an eyebrow at that, surprised.

“Uh, yeah,” she muttered. “Only reason I was fighting the dude was cuz he kept trying to shoot him out of the sky. How’d you know about that?”

James cocked his head to the side at that, his expression turning nervous.

“Oh, just a minor assignment that slipped my way. Supposed to track down a flying kid and tell him to keep his head down. Got himself noticed with all that lightning about.”

“Ah.” Tasha winced.

“Yeah. It’s nothing big. Can you hand me over to him? It sounds like we need a word.”

“Yeah. Sure.”


James:

James watched, confused, as Tasha let the phone drop from her ear and stepped towards him.

“Well,” she grinned. “Good news is, I got you some advice. Bad news, you might wanna stop flying in public.” She finished making her way across to him, and held out the phone. “He wants to talk to you.”

James hesitated at that, uncertain. This felt dangerous, somehow, but for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out why. He trusted Tasha, didn’t he? He shook himself, then, tremulously, he took the phone.

“Hello?” he asked, his voice small, even a touch squeaky.

“Ah,” replied a male voice on the other end of the line. “There you are. Right. Young man, my name is Hideyoshi Toranaga. I’m a contractor currently working with the Department of Metaphysical Affairs. I heard you wanted some help dealing with your family?”

For the longest time. James didn’t move. His thoughts, previously caught in a swirling mess inside his head, had suddenly been jammed.

… What?

“… Hello?” His grandfather spoke again, a note of irritation playing in his tone. “Kid, you still there? I’m waiting.”

Without really thinking, James hung up the phone, before letting it fall to his lap, and staring at the screen.

“… Ojiisan?”

Previous Chapter:

Dissonance: 4.7

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Tasha:

Tasha stepped out of the shower with a groan, stretched her stiff arms behind her head for a moment, then trudged towards the sink to brush her teeth. The last two weeks had been weird. Deeply satisfying on some level, sure, but weird. Hideyoshi was a harsh trainer, and apparently, the dude knew a thing or two about super strength.

Her muscles ached. She hadn’t expected that, really. Ever since whatever low level regeneration her power allowed her had finally done away with the damage her body had suffered, she’d expected to feel fine. But no. The moment the bullet wound in her leg was gone, Hideyoshi had set her to running, strapping her body with weights, before sending her on laps of Central Park. When her knuckles had repaired themselves, he’d started teaching her how to punch, and when the last of the damage had finally faded away, he’d started teaching her how to wrestle… By controlling statues with his mind. Solid stone statues.

Tasha reached for the toothbrush, fumbled momentarily with the toothpaste, and lifted it to her mouth, trying to ignore the sight of her belly in the bathroom mirror. She began to brush, sparing an idle thought to maybe grabbing a late afternoon snack on her way out to meet with James. Then she froze.

Over the few years since becoming strong, Tasha had learned not to look at her belly too much; the sight tended to annoy her. The problem with super strength, as it turned out, was that it made the muscles all that much harder to strain, the heart included. She had done her best to ignore the ever-present teenage frog belly; those few inches of flab that had refused to shift, no matter how often she exercised. She had learned not to let it bother her too much. She was a superhero. She could take it.

Catching sight of it now, though, and finally seeing the changes her two weeks of hell had brought, was enough to make her double take. She stopped, the brush halting mid-stroke along her teeth, and slowly lowered her gaze to her belly. The flab was gone; some of it, at least; the faintest tracery of her musculature now visible beneath the skin. She lowered a finger to her belly, and poked it. It was firmer than she remembered. Experimentally, she tried flexing, then watched as her newfound six pack shifted shape in the mirror. She grinned.

“Fucken. Sweet.”


James:

“You invited someone to train with us?” Caleb asked, one eyebrow raised. “Who?”

“Friend of mine,” James replied. “About your age, I think. She’s pretty tough.”

“Heh,” Caleb chuckled. “Tough for you, maybe, kid. Some of us aren’t so squishy.” As he spoke, the older boy crouched down towards the small padlock that was the only security the old warehouse had to offer.

“Not a kid,” James grumbled back, standing guard while his not-quite friend did whatever it was he did to the lock. “I keep telling you that.”

“And I keep beating you,” Caleb replied, pausing for a moment as the lock clicked to flick it open. “I told you. You stop being ‘Kid’ when you can beat me in a fight.” With that, he took hold of the garage style door, and heaved it upwards. The rusted metal squeaked a few times as the disused frame was forced into motion, but it opened. James glanced inside. The place was just as grim-looking as last time.

Caleb had shown James the old factory on their second sparring session, sitting on a disused slab of land just a few blocks from his school. When asked how he’d found the place, the older boy had just shrugged, and told him that they needed somewhere big and empty to train in. James wasn’t sure he liked it. The floors here smelled of mold and rust. But it served well enough. He liked the way his power made the windows rattle.

“You remember what I told you last time?” Caleb asked, stepping inside and motioning the other boy to follow.

“Yeah,” James recited grudgingly, stepping in after him and drifting gently into the air. “Remember to keep myself moving and be aware of my surroundings. No more banging my head on the ceiling.” He frowned. That last part was easier said than done. Caleb was way too quick when he chased him.

“That’s it,” Caleb grinned, shrugging off his oversized jacket and shifting into a crouch. “Well, your friend’s not here yet. You wanna have a go while we wait?” He chuckled. “I’ll give you a five second start.”

James didn’t bother replying. He knew from experience at this point that Caleb was already counting those five seconds. Instead, he turned, glancing behind him at the stairway that lead from the low ceilinged storage room, to the spacious factory floor above. He shot towards it, pivoted as he came level with the steps, and ascended. The moment he was out of Caleb’s line of sight, he grabbed the waistline of his hoodie, tugging it up off of himself, as he drifted over the cluttered work stations of the factory floor, littered with the odd tool or machine that the owner of the place had either forgotten about, or simply never bothered to remove. Three seconds down. Two to go. He cast his eyes about, and found a spot, throwing his hoodie down over a toppled chair, partially hidden by a workstation. Then, he dove down behind a pillar on the opposite side of the room, just as the sounds of Caleb’s feet stamping on the steps reached his ears.

James ducked in behind his cover, not daring to look in case his pursuer should happen to glimpse him; he knew by experience now that Caleb had far better eyes than him. Instead, James extended his power out, reaching through the stale air of the factory floor towards the staircase, and tried to feel the other boy out. It took a moment, trying to find Caleb’s shape in amongst the barely moving eddies of the place, but eventually, he caught the trace; something in the rough shape of a person, the currents around its head shifting as it looked from side to side. James began building up the wind in the air above his foe, readying a blast.

After what couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, he felt Caleb’s shape dart forwards through the air, heading in what he was pretty sure was the direction of his hoodie. He grinned.

He waited less than half a second for the older boy to reach his diversion, before stepping out of his cover to line up his shot. He caught the briefest glimpse of Caleb as he ducked out; the older boy was already looking at him, an arm pulled back, ready to throw. He barely made it back into cover in time, releasing his stored up shot in a half aimed burst as he ducked away. He watched as the little rubber ball shot through the air in the space he had just vacated, before bouncing off of the nearby wall. That was way too close. Out in the main area, he heard something crunch as his blast connected… Then a laugh.

“Hah! You missed!”

“How’d you find me?” James whined as he pushed off from the floor of the warehouse and sent himself soaring up along the pillar’s length. “I was totally hidden!” Once more, he began building up another blast, keeping it high and open, ready to fire in any direction.

“You were,” Caleb’s voice agreed. “But you tried to fool me with a hoodie on a chair, and you chose the most obvious ambush point in the room to hit me from.” As the other boy spoke, a tiny orange blur zipped past the pillar to James’ left. Another bouncy ball. As he watched, the ball struck the wall, just as the previous one had, and bounced off, straight towards him. He threw himself to the side to dodge it, and realized belatedly that he was out in the open, his back to the room at large. He knew what would come next without even having to look. Caleb had probably already sent his follow up shot arcing through the air towards him.

Without sparing a moment’s thought, James fired off his blast, aiming this time for the air behind him, spending his one precious shot to knock the incoming projectile out of the sky. He turned, saw Caleb below him, and out of the corner of his eye, watched the rubber ball in question tumble to the ground below. Caleb didn’t waste a second, plucking yet another ball from the tub at his waist. James tried to be grateful for the balls. At least Caleb wasn’t throwing real weapons at him. Nevertheless, he was out in the open, and Caleb rarely missed when he had a clear shot.

He threw himself forwards through the air, dodging away from his cover; trying to throw off the other boy’s aim by going in a bad direction. It didn’t help. He felt the little ball ping off between his shoulder blades, and let out a frustrated groan.

“Nice try, little man,” Caleb laughed. “But you’re gonna have to be quicker next time, kay?”

James opened his mouth to retort, but never got the chance.

“Quicker, huh?” Asked a familiar female voice from the stairwell. “Sounds like fun. Mind if I try?”

Immediately, James felt his frustration lift a little.

“Hey, Tasha!” he called, giving the figure a wave as she climbed up to meet them, clad in an outfit that looked to James a lot like his father’s Jiu Jitsu gi. It had to be the cleanest set of clothes he’d ever seen her in. “How’s life?”

“Pretty good,” she grinned back. “Not gonna lie. It’s been nothing but steak dinners and training since the park. I feel friggin amazing!” As she spoke, the girl crested the stairs, a small backpack dangling from one hand, and cast her eyes around, catching sight of Caleb across the way.

“Yo,” she shot him a wave. “You the creeper who’s been teaching James stuff?”

“… Maybe,” Caleb replied, gazing back at her. “And you are?”

“I’m Tasha,” she answered, her tone dropping a note lower. “Heard there was training going on. Thought I’d come say hi.” James wasn’t sure how she managed to make those words sound threatening, but she did, her face shifting into a scowl.

“Uh,” James murmured, floating down slightly towards the girl. “Hey, Tasha? Is something wrong?”

“Wrong?” Tasha asked, shooting him a glace. “I dunno, James. Has this guy told you why he was at your house yet?”

James opened his mouth to reply, but Caleb got there first.

“No,” he murmured, frowning. “That’s something he earns when he beats me. You got a problem with that?”

James scowled. Tasha, for her part, dropped her bag lightly to the floor.

“Then yeah,” she said quietly. “I got a problem. See, to me, you’re just person number four in a line of random weirdos who started following my friends around. So, here’s what happens next. You tell us who you are, or I start punching. I’m good at punching.” She cracked her knuckles, and for the first time, James noticed that her hands were wrapped; bandaged up for a fight. Across from her, Caleb lowered himself a little, ready to move.

“Uh, guys?” James interjected nervously, drifting down between the pair. “Can you not? I didn’t want this to-”

“No,” Tasha cut him off. “Sorry, James, but you’re my friend, and I look out for my friends. This guy’s creepy.”

James opened his mouth to protest at that, then closed it again. She wasn’t wrong. He was pretty sure by now that Caleb didn’t mean him harm, but that didn’t change the fact that the older boy still hadn’t explained knowing where he lived.

After a few seconds spent failing to respond, James heard Caleb sigh behind him.

“So, I’m guessing you agree with her, then?” he asked. “Well, fine. Tell you what. Tasha gets the same challenge you did. She beats me, I spill the beans. Seems like the fair way to do this.”

“Sure,” Tasha murmured, rolling her neck. “I’m up for that.”

“… Can you at least promise not to hurt each other?” James asked, trying to quiet his concern.

“No,” the others replied in unison.

“Out of the way now, James,” said Tasha.

James hesitated, then, regretfully, he stepped aside. The moment he was clear, Tasha lunged.

Caleb was ready for her.

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Dissonance: 4.6

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Casper:

“So…” Casper asked. “What happens now? You gonna ask me stuff about what happened, or…”

Doctor Sharpe shrugged, sidling across to the wall at the base of the staircase and leaning against it on her shoulder, placing her coffee cup on the floor.

“If that’s what you want me to do, then sure,” she murmured. “Pretty sure it’s not, though. I know I wouldn’t want to start there.” Behind her, Peter stepped inside and hung up his coat, before moving on past the two of them towards his office.

“I’ll be around if you need me,” he called behind himself. “But you’ll need to come in. I’m gonna have earphones on to give you some privacy.”

“Thanks.” Both Casper and the Doctor replied at once.

“… So,” she asked, returning her gaze to him. “How’s living here working out for you? Peter seemed to think you were settling in pretty well.”

Casper gave the woman a shrug, resting his chin on his arms, themselves balanced on his knees.

“Yeah,” he answered. “It’s going good, I think. I feel safer here; that’s for sure.”

“That’s good,” she nodded. “And you’re settling in with the family well?”

“I think so. Bex is acting like I’ve lived here forever already,” he smiled. “Kid’s a hugger. Peter and Sarah have been really nice, too.”

“Well, that’s good to hear. And James?”

Casper hesitated a fraction of a second at that, but just a fraction. James had been being weird lately.

“Yeah. James is cool. He still won’t admit how lame some of his anime are.”

To that, the Doctor laughed.

“Oh, so he’s dragged you into them too, huh?”

“Maybe.” Casper grinned.

“So,” she murmured, her voice more casual now. “Everything’s good? You’re not having any problems?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “I think so, at least. I mean, what am I supposed to say? It’s not perfect, but I like that no one hits me?”

“Yeah,” Doctor Sharpe agreed. “I see your point. But there’s more to making sure you’re in a good place than just making sure you’re physically safe.” She hesitated for a moment there, then shrugged and lowered herself to the ground, sitting at the base of the stairwell in a squat. “Okay. Tell you what. You tell me the three biggest problems you have with staying here, and we can go from there to see if there’s any need to change things up a little.”

For a while, Casper didn’t answer, simply gazing down at her in thought.

“Problem?”

“… A little.” He muttered. “… These are nice people. I don’t wanna complain, you know?”

“I get that,” came the reply. “But you’re staying with this family for at least the next couple of weeks. Probably months. That means that right now, these guys are acting as a foster family to you, even if it’s not official. So, I think it’s important to make sure you can make a place here.”

Doctor Sharpe picked up the coffee cup by her side, and brought it to her lips.

“Damn.” She sighed. “Empty. So, if your problems with staying here are small, then that’s great. It means good things, just teething pains. But if they’re big, then I think they need to be addressed, and I think you deserve to have some backup when it comes to addressing them, because it’s important that you’re able to speak your mind.” She shrugged. “So, what have you got for me?”

Again, he hesitated for a while before he spoke.

“… I don’t like all the Japanese,” he muttered, embarrassed.

“The Japanese?” the Doctor asked. “What do you mean?”

“… Everyone else here speaks Japanese like, really well, and I think they keep forgetting I can’t? So they’ll get like, halfway through a conversation at dinner, and I’ll just be sitting there like a lump because I don’t know what anyone’s saying.”

“… Yeah. I can see why that’d get to you.”

“It makes me feel dumb.” He shifted his gaze to his feet, hiding his cheeks behind his knees.

“That’s fair,” Natalie murmured. “And the second one?”

“… It feels rude to say.”

“Heh,” she chuckled. “I asked for this, Casper. If anyone, it’s me that’s being rude.”

Casper took a deep breath.

“… The food’s weird,” he muttered. “Like, Peter works late, and Sarah went back to the university after James got a little better, and I don’t think she really knows how to cook anyway. So, like, all we eat at dinner are these store bought lasagne things? They’re kinda gross.” He paused. “Am… Am I allowed… I mean, I’m still furious with her, but… Am I allowed to say I miss my Mom’s cooking?”

“I think you’re allowed to say whatever you like,” came the reply after a moment. “And how would you want that problem to be fixed? Just better food?”

“No,” he grumbled. “That just sounds dumb. And I get it; they’re busy. But, like… I can cook. Mom taught me. So I was thinking… Maybe I could make dinner?”

“That sounds like a fair thing to ask,” Natalie nodded. “I could help you talk to them about it, if you like. I don’t see it being too big of a problem, as long as you prove you can do it safely and they keep a few of those dreaded store lasagnes in the freezer.” She shot him a small smile. “And your third problem?”

Casper considered this one for a while.

“… Honestly, it’s kinda hard to think of anything else I have a problem with. I like it here. I’m happier.”

“Heh,” she chuckled. “A teenager without complaints. I should write a paper on you.”

Casper opened his mouth to snipe something back, but she raised a hand.

“Sorry. That was a bad one. I’ve had a long day.” She rubbed her eyes. “Okay. That sounds good so far. A couple problems settling in, but stuff we can fix. That’s good. How about your parents?”

“… What do you mean?”

“Well,” she murmured. “Where do you want to go from here? Do you plan on staying away from them forever? Do you want to try and fix things? How do you want this to resolve?”

Casper mulled the question over for a few moments, then gave the older woman a defeated shrug.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “To be honest, when I ran away… I wasn’t exactly planning on staying away forever. I just wanted to get away. I couldn’t stand being with them right then, you know?”

“Yeah,” she nodded. “I can get that.”

“But,” he sighed. “The more I stay away… The more I kinda wanna keep staying away. I mean, at first, I was angry. Like, really, really angry; just thinking about everything they did and just… All the fear.” He took a breath, spending a moment to try and let the anger pass before it had a chance to build, just as Freja had shown him. “But now, I don’t even know. It’s like… Like they just make me kinda sick?”

“Do you wanna talk to them?”

“… I dunno.”

“You know you don’t have to be scared anymore, right?” she asked. “You have the pow-”

“I’m not scared,” Casper snapped, once more trying to let his anger flow away from him. “I’m done with that shit. I know that if I went back, right now. I could call Peter, or Sarah, or you, and whatever they did, they’d be punished for it.” He reached down towards the stair below him, his knuckles rapping out an agitated staccato against the wood. “But I don’t want it to be like that. I fucking hate the idea that they’d only hold off of hurting me because they knew it could get them in trouble, you know?”

He lifted his gaze towards Natalie and was momentarily surprised. His vision was blurry. Was he crying? He wiped his eyes. She was moving forwards. Not far, but a little. When she reached the base of the steps, he felt her mind graze against the edge of his bubble. He shifted back. He didn’t want to feel her pity.

The two were silent for a time then, Natalie leaning carefully against the bannister while Casper dried the anger from his eyes.

“What would you say to them?” she asked. “If they were here.”

Casper sighed.

“I’d tell them I used to let myself go hungry at school,” he muttered, his voice tired. “Because grabbing my lunchbox meant being in the kitchen with them.”

In the corner of his eye, the Doctor nodded.

“… I’d tell Dad how much I hated it when he stopped being able to look me in the eye.” He allowed himself a hollow chuckle. “I’d tell Mom how I hate that she still can.” He hesitated. “…I’d tell her she’s disgusting… And him? I’d tell him he’s just a coward… More than anything, I’d tell them how badly I want to hate them.”

“Would you like to be able to say that to them, some day?”

“… Yeah,” he muttered. “To be honest… Yeah. I kinda would.”

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Bonus Chapter: Doctor Sharpe.

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Author’s Note: Oop! Nearly forgot to put the playlists in! Here we are! Casper’s Groovez and Bex’s Songz!


Doctor’s notes, Subject #24235. Samantha De-Lorrie. Session 2.

Notes and recommendations of attendant therapist, Natalie Sharpe:

  In the two weeks since her kidnapping during the elvish incursion, Samantha has been making positive steps with adjusting, both to her manifestation (Type two: Significantly enhanced internal and dermal durability, thermal resistance, mild strength increase) and to her experiences while in the elves’ captivity. Samantha has noted that the group sessions are particularly helpful in this. However, problems have been noted, including continual concerns over loss of dermal sensitivity. Next session not originally scheduled for another two days, but an earlier appointment was booked on short notice after the apparent manifestation of additional metaphysical abilities.

  Upgrade of classification from type two to type three manifestation is pending based on the findings of this session.

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

A knock sounds at the office door. Doctor sharpe looks up from her case notes.

Doctor Sharpe: “Come in.”

The door opens. Samantha enters.

Doctor Sharpe: “Hello, Sam. How are you feeling today?

Samantha: “I’m uhh. I’m fine, I think. Sorry to come in at short notice like this.”

Doctor Sharpe: “It’s not a problem, Sam. I’m glad you told us so quickly. It was the right thing to do. Telling me promptly helps to minimize the potential for harm, and allows for you to reintegrate back into your life much more safely and easily. Now. Would you mind telling me exactly what happened?”

Samantha: “R-right. So I uh. I was studying. Trying to catch up on assignment work and stuff. C-can’t exactly ask my teachers for an extension on grounds of secret evil kidnapping, you know?”

Doctor Sharpe chuckles.

Doctor Sharpe: “I could actually provide you with a medical certificate to give to your professors, if you’d like. Nothing about evil kidnappings, per-se, but I could write up something analogous. There’s no need for you to be placed under extra stress after what you’ve been through.”

Samantha smiles.

Samantha: “Y-yeah. If you could, t-that’d be kinda great. Crunch time’s sorta the worst possible time for this to be happening, you know?”

Doctor Sharpe: “I do. So, you were studying?”

Samantha: “Right, yeah. So I was at my computer, trying to get out a couple hundred words on the fall of Carthage. Underlying factors and stuff. A-and I had some tea next to me; chamomile… it’s supposed to be good for stress.”

A pause.

Samantha: “A-anyway, I r-reached out to grab it, a-and it was cold. I guess I must’ve lost track of time or something.”

Doctor Sharpe: “It happens.”

Samantha: “Yeah. S-so I just kinda sighed and figured I’d drink it anyway, but when I try to, it’s hot.”

A pause. Doctor Sharpe makes a note in her pad.

Doctor Sharpe: “Your tea got hot?

Samantha: “Yeah. But I mean, like, really hot. Like, hotter than when I boiled it, hot.”

Doctor sharpe makes another note in her pad.

Doctor Sharpe: “I see. And then?”

Samantha: “Well, I mean, then I just kinda stared at it for a second, before I guess it must’ve superheated or something, because that’s when the mug exploded. Steam and pottery everywhere.”

Doctor Sharpe appears concerned.

Doctor Sharpe: “Oh. Oh dear. Are you okay? Did it burn you?”

Samantha: “No. I guess my other powers were good enough to save me there. No burns, no cuts. It ruined my laptop, though… I think I still have a couple shards in my hair.”

Note: Samantha’s manifestation was previously shown to allow her to withstand around five hundred degrees centigrade temperatures without sustaining damage, with skin durability slightly below that of unreinforced aluminium.

Doctor Sharpe nods a few times, before setting her pad aside and retrieving a hand recorder from her desk.

Doctor Sharpe: “One moment, Samantha.”

Doctor Sharpe activates the recorder.

Doctor Sharpe: “Patient name: Samantha De-Lorrie. Patient has displayed potential mid-level metaphysical ability; some form of touch based thermal manipulation. High priority testing required to determine whether this is a physical trait. If not, recommending immediate recategorization to type three due to conjunction with pre-existing type two traits. If metaphysical, I am recommending provision of basic metaphysical instruction to prevent possible dangerous incide-”

Samantha interrupts recording.

Samantha: “U-um… Doctor Sharpe? Uh… What’s a type three?”

A pause.

Doctor Sharpe deactivates her recorder.

Doctor Sharpe: “Right. Fair question. This was going to have to be explained to you at some point. Well, basically, the government classifies superhuman abilities into three categories. We have type ones, like me, who are effectively able to use stored energy to cause some metaphysical effect to happen when we want it to.

Doctor Sharpe waves a free hand, demonstratively allowing a small burst of electrical energy to manifest between her fingers.

Doctor Sharpe: “In terms you’ve heard before, type ones are mages. We learn to cast spells, but our bodies are otherwise human.”

A pause. Samantha appears to be staring at Doctor Sharpe’s hand.

Doctor Sharpe: “Then we have what we thought you were: a type two. In the basest sense, these are people who tend to have advanced physical abilities because of the presence of magical genes in their DNA. In layman’s terms, they’re crossbreeds; people with superhuman abilities because they have non-human genetic ancestry. Based on the type and strength of the powers you manifested, we believe that in your case, one of your grandparents was probably some variant of golem. That would certainly explain the increased durability.”

A pause. Samantha continues staring for several seconds.

Doctor Sharpe: “As I said, however, I believe you should now be classified as a type three. Type threes are fairly simple. While a type one means a mage, and a type two means a crossbreed, a type three simply means both. You manifested a supernatural physical ability during your time in captivity, and have now demonstrated what seems to be a fairly straightforward case of an entry level enchantment. We’ll need to do some further testing to make sure, of course, but this does seem to be the most probable present diagnosis.”

A pause. Samantha remains silent, continuing to gaze at Doctor Sharpe from her seat.

Doctor Sharpe: “… I can see you’re going to need a moment. There’s a coffee machine in the hall. Would you like anything?”

Samantha nods, but remains otherwise unresponsive. Doctor Sharpe places the recorder into her pocket, then presses a button on her desk console.

Doctor Sharpe: “Leah? I’m sorry to bother you, but would you mind heading into the hall and grabbing my patient a latte? She’s just had a bit of a shock.”

Doctor Sharpe thinks for a moment, then adds:

Doctor Sharpe: “In an insulated cup, please, Leah.”

A voice on the intercom replies in the affirmative, and both Samantha and Doctor Sharpe wait in silence. After a few minutes, Doctor Sharpe’s receptionist steps in, and passes Samantha a cup, before excusing herself again.

Doctor Sharpe: “Thank you, Leah.”

After a few seconds, Samantha takes a sip of her coffee.

Doctor Sharpe: “I know this may well feel a little too big to handle all at once.”

Samantha makes a single short chuckling noise, before once more falling silent.

Doctor Sharpe: “But I want you to bear in mind, this is something that’s entirely under your control. Once you’ve been provided some basic schooling, it should be easy enough to avoid accidentally activating your new power. From there, you will be free to either continue to pursue magic as a vocation, or to simply ignore it completely for as long as you like. This doesn’t need to be anything stressful. Remember that.”

Samantha slowly nods, and takes another sip of her coffee.

Doctor Sharpe: “Is there anything else that you’d like to discuss with me today?”

Samantha shakes her head.

Samantha: “I… I think I’ve had enough knowledge bombs for one day, thanks.”

Doctor Sharpe nods.

Doctor Sharpe: “I’ll organize the tests and have someone call you to arrange a time when you get home. Would you like to have someone see you home? You seem a little unsteady on your feet.”

Samantha nods.

Samantha: “Y-yeah. That… That’d be good. Thanks, doc.”

Doctor Sharpe: “That’s quite alright, Sam. Leah will have someone ready for you.”

Samantha chuckles as she pushes herself upright.

Samantha: “Yeah. Heh. I guess Leah’s awesome like that.”

Doctor Sharpe smiles.

Doctor Sharpe: “She is. Until next time, Sam.”

Samantha exits the room and Doctor Sharpe sighs.

Doctor Sharpe: “Well, that was a bad move. Longest goddamn day.”

Doctor Sharpe takes out her recorder, and resumes recording.

Doctor Sharpe: “Personal notes, patient number 24235, session two. No significant notes to record at the present time. Patient responded with shock to the nature of her manifested abilities. Response is not unusual. Magic is a word that tends to have that effect on people, as does the realization of partially non-human genetic backgrounds. It would have been preferable to present that information to her at a less stressful time, but given that she was likely under the impression that her touch randomly caused things to explode, I thought it best to provide her the full explanation to alleviate those concerns. Attempt may have backfired. Will observe closely to ensure this knowledge does not hamper her recovery in the coming weeks.”

End of recording.

Notes and recommendations of supervisor Pearson regarding case #24235:

No additional notes to record. Will observe further before material conclusions are drawn.

Report Concludes.


Doctor Sharpe:

Natalie sat back in her seat and let out a groan. It had been another long day. The last two weeks had been full of them. Ever since the incursion into New York and the only broadly explainable attacks by the birds, every department had been pressed to the grindstone, delivering press releases, constructing cover stories and, in her case, tending to the traumas of the dozens of victims they’d left behind.

In the back of her head, Natalie started counting the seconds. It would take around two minutes for someone to arrive and escort Samantha back to her home. Natalie waited for exactly two and a half minutes in the blessed quiet of her office, before pushing herself out of her chair and grabbing her empty cup, before stepping towards the door. She needed coffee.

The day wasn’t even done.

“Clocking off early today, Leah,” she murmured as she passed the receptionist’s desk. “If I have any other emergency appointments, can you redirect them for me?”

“Sure thing, love,” she heard the older woman reply from behind her. “You got a hot date planned?”

“Heh,” she chuckled. “I wish.”

She swung the door closed behind her, and moved to the coffee machine. She placed the cup in the slot, punched in her code, and slid the coins into the slot, leaning her forehead against the surface of the machine while it poured, taking the few seconds she could to rest her eyes.

“Hello, Natalie,” came a voice from somewhere to her left. “Ready to go?”

She didn’t reply, holding up a hand blindly towards the speaker, silently telling him to wait. She held that point until the machine had finished making her coffee. Then, she picked up the cup in her free hand, raised it to her lips, and took a long drag.

“Okay,” she muttered, shaking herself. “I’m alive again. Ready when you are, Peter.”

She opened her eyes once more just in time to see Mr Toranaga grin.

“So,” he murmured, turning to stride back down the hallway towards the car park. “The rough days are universal, huh? Good to know.”

“Yeah,” she replied, falling into step behind him. “Those civilians you guys rescued took a pretty bad hit, you know?”

“I’m aware,” Peter replied. “You should have seen them when we first got there. One of the kids they’d picked up was mid-manifestation. Longest night of my life.”

“I heard about that,” Natalie nodded, pausing to take another long drag of her coffee. “Uncontrolled biokinesis, right? How’s he doing?”

“The doctors say they’ve removed the last of the tumors successfully,” came the grunted reply. “He’s been put in isolation while we formulate a training regime. His parents are taking it about as well as can be expected.”

“God,” she let out a humorless chuckle. “Those poor people.” They reached the door to the carpark, Peter stepping forwards to hold it open while she slipped out past him. “We are so lucky this whole thing didn’t make international news.”

“It did,” Peter groaned. “We had to crush the story. The higher ups are calling it the worst secrecy breach in three years. A major event, in a major city, with over a thousand anomalous avian predators released into the streets and four different cell phone recordings of lightning bolts rising out of Central Park; one of which caught a frame or two of something that honestly looks like a flying kid. It’s a clusterfuck.” Peter’s voice was beginning to rise steadily as he vented. “And that’s not even going into all the damage the female did on the bridge before she put one of our goblins in the hospital. Did you know she blew up a truck? She blew up a truck.”

“… Did you say a flying kid?”

“Yeah,” he muttered, raising his hands to his face. “I have a specialist looking into it. Frankly, that’s the biggest worry of all. An unknown party strong enough to be capable of unassisted flight? That’s a walking, breathing secrecy breach.”

Peter left Natalie to stew on that in silence as they made their way to his car and climbed inside. It was an effort, thinking on all the potential implications and risks, not to mention the addition of yet another dreaded layer of complexity. Eventually, she opted to set it aside.

“So,” she asked. “How’s Casper settling in? You’ve had him staying with you for, what, two weeks now?”

“Since the day after the attacks, yeah,” came the reply. “He’s doing okay. Still won’t tell us where he went or who he stayed with. Guess he doesn’t want to get anyone in trouble. Thanks for agreeing to talk to him, by the way.”

Natalie shook her head.

“It’d be better if it wasn’t me, you know,” she muttered. “I mean, his mom’s my supervisor, after all. I’m supposed to be an unbiased party.”

“His mom was your supervisor,” Peter corrected. “I had you reassigned to Pearson. Sorry, but it was probably gonna have to happen anyways, now that you’re in charge of giving therapy to the kid who lives with her son. Besides, he asked for you.”

“He did?”

“Yeah,” Peter replied. “Asked for the same woman who was helping James. Apparently he says good things about you.”

Natalie wasn’t sure how to feel about that. It was the oddest feeling, being told she gave good therapy.

“James won’t be there, will he?” She asked after a moment, reaching for a change of subject. “I’d prefer he not see me in any of his personal spaces, if possible.”

“Yeah,” said Peter. “He said he was going to catch a movie with a friend this evening. Should be out for the next couple of hours.”

“Good. I think that’s probably for the best.”

The two sat in silence for a moment, before Peter spoke again, oddly hesitant.

“Can-… Do you mind if I ask a question?” He asked, his eyes oddly focused on the dashboard as he started up the car.

“Of course,” she replied, one eyebrow raised. “Something wrong?”

“Wrong?” He laughed. “No. Uh. Just… Not sure how to phrase it.” He paused for a second. “So, a couple months ago, I started getting the sense that James might, uh…” he stopped again, seemingly struggling for words.

“… Might what?” Natalie probed, her raised eyebrow climbing further still.

“It’s-” he paused again, then grunted. “It was little stuff, you know? Looking a little too hard at the men on tv… Getting more excited than normal about his friend, Charlie. Small things.”

“Oh!” Natalie realized, instinctively locking her face into a neutral expression. “You think he’s gay?”

“I-” Peter let out a frustrated sigh. “I don’t know. I had the feeling he might be leaning that way, but then the rape happened, and I…” He trailed off, frowning at the road ahead.

“Have you spoken to him about it?”

“Hah!” Peter snorted. “God, no. I have enough trouble talking to the kid about the easy stuff. I wouldn’t even know where to start on that mess.”

“… Would it be a problem if he was gay?” Natalie once more made an effort to keep her tone neutral.

“Of course not,” he replied immediately, his tone a touch defensive. “That’s not the point. It’s just…” He stalled out again, his eyes set determinedly on the road.

“Don’t know how to ask?” She prompted.

Another sigh.

“No,” he grumbled. “It’s-… I’m worried about him is all. I mean, what if he really is gay, you know? His only experience with a man was painful as hell. Wouldn’t that, you know, make it harder for him?”

“Ah,” Natalie nodded, finally understanding. She allowed her face to slip out of its rigorously neutral expression, and gave him a smile. “I see. Well, yeah. I can see why you’re worried about it. I don’t think you need to be, though.”

“You don’t?” He finally allowed himself to glance across at her, his fingers relaxing a little on the steering wheel.

“No,” she murmured. “Your son is still a child, Peter. Whatever sexuality he has, I expect it’s still in the early stages. He might not have even discovered it himself, yet.” Now it was Peter’s turn to raise an eyebrow. “It happens,” she shrugged. “Some of us are late bloomers, after all. Besides, I expect he’s probably doing his best not to think about sex at all right now.” Peter opened his mouth to speak, but she raised a finger to quiet him. “And yes, I expect he probably will have some problems to overcome when it comes to dealing with his sexuality in the future, but you need to realize, those are problems he’ll probably have to deal with regardless of whether he’s straight or gay or whatever. He’s a rape victim. There’s baggage attached to that, no matter what you end up liking. What’s important, and what I’d like you to remember, is that he has a loving family, some good friends, and-” she chuckled. “-A qualified therapist. He’s a strong kid. You can trust him to find his way, alright?”

“… Right,” Peter muttered. “Yeah. You’re right. Thanks.”

“It’s no problem, sir.”

They were silent the rest of the way to the Toranaga house. After a few minutes, Peter put the radio on. Natalie pulled out her phone and began checking her emails, taking the chance to finish her coffee before it grew cold.

The rest of the journey was undergone in silence, neither of the car’s occupants really feeling any need to talk to the other more than they already had. The house was quiet when they got there; almost empty, but for the sandy haired boy gazing quietly at her from his seat halfway up the staircase, his chin tucked up against his knees.

“You the doctor?” He asked, his voice calm.

“Yes,” she replied. “I’m Doctor Sharpe. Or you can call me Natalie. It’s nice to meet you, Casper.”

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Dissonance: 4.5

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Author’s Note: Hey guys! I know this one’s late again, but my explanation for that is that it’s a long chapter, with a bunch of stuff going on behind the scenes. Secondly, along with this chapter, as promised, I am uploading the first two of the playlists of stuff that James and Tasha enjoy. They’ll grow over time, probably, as I find more music I think they’d rock out to. If you guys have any suggestions on hearing them, you can feel free to shoot me your ideas. Here they are: Tasha’s Beatz and James’ Tunez.

James:

The boy was odd. That was the first thing that came to James’ mind upon seeing him. It was hard to pin down; nothing about him was particularly eye-catching in and of itself. Just another teenager, his shaggy brown hair cut perhaps a bit too long, wearing a faded shirt, a leather jacket that looked at least a size too big for him, and a pair of jeans that either badly needed replacing, or had possessed those tears in the knees since their purchase. James probably wouldn’t have looked twice at him if they’d passed one another in the street, but the older boy was still staring at him, standing on the curb across the road, unmoving. The stranger raised his hand in a wave, and James copied it, confused.

“Oi, bud,” Tasha asked from the other end of the line. “You still there? You went quiet.”

“Oh, right,” he muttered. “Sorry. There’s a guy outside being weird.”

“How weird?”

The boy outside smiled, turning his raised hand mid-wave to beckon to him. James raised an eyebrow at that, then shook his head. The older boy scowled.

“Pretty weird. Mind if I call you back?”

“Sure. Lemme know if you need backup.” The line went dead.

The stranger was moving again, glancing from side to side around the deserted street, before looking back at James. Then, he raised his hands to chest height, holding them about a foot apart from one another. Then, for the briefest moment, something appeared between them, like the flickering of flames through water. It was there for just a moment, before it faded from between the other boy’s fingers. James stared.

This boy was magic? Why was he here? How had he found him? Again, the boy beckoned him to come outside. Once more, he shook his head.

This time, the boy outside didn’t scowl. Instead, he grinned, shifted his shoulders briefly in an exaggerated shrug, and began walking forwards, making his way across the street. James watched him, perplexed. Was this someone from the Family? Had someone seen him flying?

James watched as the boy reached the gate that separated his house from the rest of the street, placing a hand on the latch before vaulting it in a single neat jump. Then the boy approached the front door, and glanced back at his window, still grinning. Then, he held out a hand, conjuring more of that odd, slightly off-coloured flame above his palm, and raised his other hand to knock on the door.

James felt the dread sinking into his stomach in an instant. This boy was going to show his parents magic? Without thinking, he brought his hands up at shoulder height, fingers splayed out, and slowly shook his head.

The boy grinned a little wider at that, the flame flickering out in his palm, and once more gestured for James to follow him.

He hesitated for what felt like the longest few seconds of his life at that, before reluctantly pressing his fingers against the window, and sliding it open.

“Hey there,” the stranger murmured as James clambered awkwardly down out of his window, not wanting to show this newcomer his flight unless he had to. “Name’s Caleb. Sup?”

He didn’t answer right away, lowering himself down from the second storey window bracket by his fingers, before dropping lightly to the ground, using his power just a little to soften the fall. Then, he turned towards the other boy, and found that he was angry.

“I don’t care who you are,” he growled. “If you go near my family again, I’ll-”

“Whoa, now,” Caleb chuckled, splaying his hands out casually in front of him. “Easy, tiger. I just wanted to have a talk. No one’s doing anything to anyone’s family. C’mon. Let’s go somewhere a little less likely to get us noticed.” With that, he turned, walked back towards the gate, and once more vaulted easily out into the street, leaving an angrily sputtering James to follow in his wake.

The strange boy guided them in silence through the evening dimmed streets, either not listening to or just flat out ignoring the three or four questions James attempted before he finally gave up, lapsing into a stony quiet as he let the boy guide him.

After a few minutes, they reached a skatepark, only a block or two from James’ house, the last of its occupants just heading off as the two of them arrived. Without a word, Caleb strode up the side of the concrete pit, before stepping over the edge to slide neatly down the curved wall and into the basin below, balanced on the balls of his feet.

“There we go,” Caleb murmured, shooting James a grin. “Now we can have a little bit of privacy.”

“Good,” he muttered, still furious. “Now why were you near my family, what the heck do you want from me, and who sent you here?” He felt his hands balling into fists by his sides, and only half-heartedly tried to keep himself calm.

For his part, the other boy shrugged.

“Like I said,” he chuckled. “I just wanted to talk. As for who we are. I’ve already told you my name. It’s Caleb. Now it’s my turn to ask a question. How are you so powerful, kid? Special training? Some kind of rit-” James didn’t let him finish. He dug into his power, extending his senses into the hands beyond his hands, and used one of them to punch the other boy in the face. The gust of air struck Caleb hard enough to send him staggering, collecting in the back of his jacket and pulling him off his feet like some strange kind of kite. James struck him again, and he heard the sharp crack as the older boy’s head bounced off the curved wall of the pit.

“I don’t care about your questions,” he spat, glaring at the newcomer as hard as he could. “I want to know who sent you, and why you came to my house. Was it the lightning guy? The Family?” He wasn’t sure if it was a smart move to name the Family. He didn’t care. If it was them, he had to know. He’d need make a counter move; get his family somewhere safe. He wasn’t sure what he’d do, but it would be something.

The strange boy gazed up at him from his spot against the wall, and it was with some satisfaction that James noted that, for just a moment, he looked scared. It was only a moment, though. He raised a hand to the back of his head, checking the point where his skull had met the concrete, and let out a low, quiet chuckle when he saw that his hand now bore a trace of blood.

“So,” he murmured, pushing himself upright against the concrete. “That’s how it is, huh?” He let out another quiet snicker, then continued. “Fine. Well, if you’re gonna try and threaten me, I’m gonna make damn sure you’re strong enough to follow through. Tell you what. You beat me now, and I’ll tell you everything you wanna know; but if you can’t, then I’m gonna make you sorry.”

James felt his eyes narrow. This was a challenge. He nodded.

Caleb wasted no time in answering before he launched himself at James, kicking off of the wall for some extra speed. He was fast, very fast, making it nearly halfway towards him before the next wind blast caught him around the chest, catching once more in the back of his jacket as it pulled him back. To James’ surprise, the larger boy didn’t try to fight the attack, simply letting his arms go limp as the jacket pulled at him, shrugging it off and letting the wind throw it out of the skate park and into the street beyond. He paused, recovered his balance, then charged again. James met him with yet another blast, dancing backwards a few steps for distance. Caleb took the blast head on, bracing his arms in front of his face to shield his eyes from the gale. The sheer weight of it forced him backwards a few paces, his feet dragging on the floor.

James prepared another blast, gathering the wind in the fist beyond his fist, before bringing it forwards against the other boy with all the might he dared. This time, Caleb changed tack. The moment James let the strike loose, he threw himself to the side, not quite fast enough. James almost felt it as the outer edge of the thing caught the other boy, buffeting his body through the air. It wasn’t enough. Hit or not, the other boy had avoided the lion’s share of the blow.

Caleb landed on beveled wall of the skate rink, hands and feet splayed apart to catch himself against it. Then, before gravity had a chance to take a hold of him, he pressed off once more, shooting himself at James like a bullet. James flinched back, the other boy missing him by a hair, and turned to face him, another strike charging between his astral fingers.

Caleb landed on the ground some feet away, and pushed himself to his feet. He was grinning.

“Your body clenches up when you’re about to throw a shot,” he murmured amiably. For the first time, James noticed something weird about how he spoke. “It makes it easier to dodge.” What was that accent? English? Canadian?

James pushed the thought aside, and threw another blast, taking the opportunity to once more make some distance from his all too agile foe.

Again, Caleb was moving before the shot even hit him. This time, however, he dodged better. The blast barely even grazed him as he threw himself out of its path. He hit the ground on his feet, then made his way for James at a dead sprint.

James began to ready another strike, but he already knew it wouldn’t be done before the older boy had time to reach him. He tried to dodge, shifting to the right, towards the middle of the pit, but to no avail. Caleb swerved mid-lunge to match his new trajectory, and when he came within a few feet of him, pushed himself into the air in a little hop.

James briefly felt the weight of it as the older boy crashed against his chest, his knees raised as they collided to pin his arms to his sides. Caleb bore him down to the ground and sat atop him, hardly even panting.

“You see?” He asked, laughing in the lighthearted, easy kind of way that should have been reserved for poking fun at friends. “You made your attacks too obvious, kid. You need more than just big old strong attacks, cuz eventually, people are gonna start thinking their way around them.” As he spoke, James watched the boy wipe his arm across his nose. It came away bloody. Then, Caleb gazed down at him merrily, seemingly just waiting for him to respond.

“… Aren’t you gonna make me sorry?” He asked, caught between confusion and the feeling of his own heart thudding away in his chest. “You know, for threatening you?”

“What?” Caleb asked, momentarily surprised as he ran his fingers through his wind-swept hair. “Oh, that,” he laughed. “Eh, maybe later. Wanna take another shot at me first, though? Maybe try something that isn’t just standing there and shooting me?”

James felt his eyebrow begin to raise. What was with this boy? Why was he helping him? Eventually, he decided to push those questions aside. Caleb had said his body went tense when he fired off his shots. Maybe he could…

“Dude, don’t do it when I’m on top of you. I could crush your chest with my knees right now.”

“Oh, come on!” He protested, indignant. “How’d you know? I wasn’t even tensing that time!”

“Nah,” Caleb replied, climbing off of him. “But you went all limp like someone trying really hard not to tense. It’s kind of a dead giveaway, kid.”

“Would you stop calling me that?” James pushed himself to his feet with a scowl, ignoring the hand the other boy offered to help him up. “You’re like, what, four years older than me?”

“Hey, if you want to stop being kid, then maybe you should give me a name.” Caleb grinned, ambling back a ways and crouching into some kind of stance.

“… James.”

“It’s nice to meet you, James,” Caleb grinned. “Now this time, try to come at me like you’ve really got a brain, okay?”

James glowered at the older boy, and they began.

The second time went even worse than the first. This time, instead of heavy strikes, he had opted for something lighter, quicker to charge and aim, like the flicks he’d used in helping Tasha escape. No use. The larger boy had simply barreled through them, arms held up once more to shield his face as he charged at James in a tackle. Without thinking, he’d taken to the air. He’d made it barely a few feet before the hand had caught the back of his hoodie, and he’d felt an arm wrap firmly around his chest.

“Gotta make sure you’re hitting hard enough to stop me, don’t you think?” Caleb asked, the laughter in his voice loud enough to set James’ blood to boil.

The third time, he had cloaked himself in a hurricane, wrapping the wind around himself and urging it to spin faster and faster by the second. It had drawn a wild laugh from his lips as he watched the older boy attempt to strike him, only to be pushed to the side by the gale. It didn’t last. Caleb had cloaked himself in some kind of shimmering veil of blue, before simply striding through the gale towards him.

“Congrats,” he murmured a minute later, a hand resting companionably on James’ shoulder. “You made me use a single spell. And in exchange, all it cost you was any ability to move, dodge, or take offensive action. Real good trade.”

“Shut up,” James muttered, a hand at his chin as he thought. “I’m trying to think, okay?”

“About a way you might be able to beat me?”

“… Shut up.”

Caleb snorted.

“Right. Well, while you think about that, James, I’m gonna take off home. I’ve kinda got places to be this evening.”

“Wait, you’re leaving?” James asked, trying to push away the strange sense of upset that met him at the idea. “But I was just getting close!”

“Sure you were,” Caleb chuckled. “Fine. Tell you what. I’ll come back in a few days. Call it Wednesday. See if you can figure out a way to win by then.”

“… You still haven’t told me who sent you to my place.”

Again, Caleb only chuckled.

“Yeah, I know. And you still haven’t beaten me yet.” He shot James a wink as he stepped towards the wall. “I’ll tell you this for free, though. I’m not with the Family, and I wasn’t gonna do anything to your folks. I just wanted a way to see how tough you were.” With that, he turned, grasped the lip of the skatepark wall with his hands, and vaulted himself upward. “Later, kid. Try and make it harder for me next time, kay?”

“Not a kid!” James shouted after him. He didn’t get a response.

He gazed after the departed boy in silence for a long while. His heart was still hammering like a bass drum inside his chest. He could barely feel the scrapes and scratches where his arms had hit the ground. Why did he feel so much… better?

After a few moments, he shook himself, and hastily made his way back home.


Caleb:

Caleb tried to ignore the shakes that wracked themselves through his fingers as he went to retrieve his jacket. Walking through that wind-wall had been enough to drain him dry. That kid was way too powerful to be worth it. In any other hunt, he’d have called for twenty three, and told her he was out of his depth, but he couldn’t do that now.

It had been a Hail Mary shot, approaching the boy in his home. Too stupid and thoughtless to be worth a damn as a plan, but if the pretty boy’s threat before had shown him anything, it was that he didn’t have time to waste playing it safe. He’d been hoping for some information; had known that they’d likely just leave him bloody. Against all probability, however, it had worked. The kid had either been scared of him potentially attacking his parents, or he was afraid of them finding out he had powers. In the first case, it meant he was stupid. In the second, he’d be easier to isolate. Judging by how new the boy seemed when it came to fighting, and how he never seemed to shift to other spells when his tactics had been questioned, it was beginning to look like the latter.

James was powerful, he was untrained, and he was alone. Caleb tried to wipe away his smile. He’d forgotten what hope felt like.

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